Categories
Mystery/Noir

Act of Violence

Someone once defined the essentials of film noir as “a dame with a past and a guy with no future”. One could add to that another line , which is uttered by Burt Lancaster’s character in The Killers and captures the driving mood of a subset of these marvelous films: “I did something wrong once”. The sin that can’t be erased, the guilt that attaches to it, and the inevitable doom it will ultimately bring has driven many a fine noir, including Act of Violence.

This 1949 film centers on a seemingly happy, All-American, family composed of war veteran and respected citizen Frank Enley (Van Heflin), his loving wife Edith (Janet Leigh), and their adorable toddler. I describe them as the people the movie centers on rather than as the protagonists because one of the many strengths of Robert L. Richards’ crackerjack script is that it’s not clear for some time (and even perhaps after you have watched the whole thing) who the hero of this movie is, or even if it includes a hero at all. At first it seems there’s an obvious villain: a limping, gun-toting, former soldier (Robert Ryan, who could always bring the sinister) who remorselessly pursues Frank Enley for reasons that are mysterious. Frank refuses to disclose the truth to his increasingly terrified wife, even as he begins to disintegrate under the strain.

Fred Zinnemann was yet to be his Oscar-laden self when he directed this film, but his enormous emerging talent is impossible to miss. He draws excellent performances from the cast and revels in a tone of moral ambiguity as he would in many of his later, more famous, movies (e.g., High Noon). He had to be happy with the high talent level of the cast, including Heflin in one of his best roles, and, in a real pleasant surprise, Mary Astor as a shopworn prostitute (It’s amazing how deteriorated she looks only a short time after being on top of the world earlier in the 1940s, but the downslope of her personal life didn’t impair her work here– I half wonder if it helped, she’s outstanding.)

The other major league talent associated with this film is the magnificent cinematographer Robert Surtees. His shots of almost every famous L.A. noir location are gems of this genre that you could enjoy on their own merits with the sound off.

Act of Violence is a must-see for film noir fans, but its appeal is greater than that. It’s an expertly written, shot, directed, and acted movie with powerful emotional impact that anyone who loves a good story well told should appreciate.

Categories
Horror/Suspense Mystery/Noir

Psycho


Part of Alfred Hitchcock’s magnificence as a filmmaker stemmed from his restlessness. He ruled 1950s cinema, delighting both audiences and critics with big budget, suspense-and-romance movies shot in glossy color. The studio heads at Paramount Pictures expected that for the final film he was contracted to shoot for them, he would go back to the well that had made him world-famous and Paramount executives very rich. But the suits misjudged the genius’ desire to keep pushing the envelope rather than repeating himself. Hitch announced that he wanted to make a low-budget, black-and-white horror film based on the exploits of a real-life serial killer. The studio execs wouldn’t touch it, so he got the money together on his own and used the crew from his Alfred Hitchcock Presents television show to shoot the movie. The result was a trendsetting, nerve-shredding masterpiece: 1960’s Psycho.

The story opens with Marion Crane (an achingly vulnerable Janet Leigh) and her lover (John Gavin) discussing how they can never get married because of the financial constraints they face. Enter one of Hitchcock’s most inspired MacGuffins: $40,000 in cash that Marion is entrusted by her boss to deposit in the bank. Impulsively, she steals the money and drives to visit her lover, getting lost on a lonely road in a rainstorm. Fortunately, she finds an empty motel, where she meets Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins, in his signature role). The lonely young man tends the failing motel, while also watching over his emotionally disturbed mother. As shown in one of the movie’s many beautifully scripted and acted scenes (with evocative incidental music), Marion and Norman connect with and at the same unnerve each other:

I was blessed to see Psycho many years ago with no idea of the plot or legend of this film, and for that reason I will reveal no more of the story other than to say that it’s a masterclass in horror and psychological tension, with coruscating performances, direction and camerawork (The staircase sequence with private investigator Arbogast and the subsequent shot of Norman carrying his mother down to the fruit cellar are both technical marvels). The famous score by Bernard Herrmann is one of his best, and amps up the terror almost beyond belief. Credit also must go to screenwriter Joseph Stefano for realizing that Robert Bloch’s novel had to be significantly altered to work as a film, particularly in terms of building out the backstory of Marion Crane and re-conceptualizing the character of Norman Bates.

It is difficult to appreciate today how challenging it was for Hitchcock to get this film past the censors in 1960, but to give you one example of how strict the prevailing norms were, this is the first American movie to show someone flushing a toilet (Think of the children!). There is of course much more here than that to upset the censors, but Hitch mostly got the sexuality and graphic violence he wanted, thus pre-figuring what the 1960s would later bring in a flood to movie audiences. As ever, the Master was ahead of the curve.

p.s. With the aid of fellow director Barry Levinson, Mel Brooks brilliantly parodied the most famous scene in Psycho in his 1977 film High Anxiety.

p.p.s. The 2012 film Hitchock focuses heavily on the making of this movie. Although it garnered mixed reviews, I thought that Anthony Hopkins and Helen Mirren have rarely been better.

Categories
Action/Adventure Drama Mystery/Noir

Bend of the River and The Naked Spur **Double Feature**

Caftan Woman: The James Stewart Blogathon: Bend of the River (1952)

Nobody can hate like a good man, and maybe that’s why Jimmy Stewart was so magnetic and moving in the hard-bitten Westerns he made with Anthony Mann after World War II. Stewart was a huge star at the outbreak of the war, during which he served with distinction. When the All-American, gee-whiz nice guy every dad hoped his daughter would bring home returned from military service, he was different, the country was different and his films didn’t do great box office. He might easily have appeared on a few TV shows and then drifted into retirement, as did many stars of his generation.

But two magnificent directors saw other qualities in Stewart, including a capacity for rage, bitterness, grief, longing, cynicism and violence. One of them remains famous (Hitchcock), the other, sadly, has mostly been forgotten. His name was Anthony Mann, and you could summarize much of his ouevre worse than saying it was “film noir goes west”.

Their first collaboration, the 1950 movie Winchester ’73, remains famous today because it was a massive hit that revived the then somnolent Western genre. It’s entertaining on any dimension, but for Stewart fans it’s particularly fascinating to see the darkness in his acting. When Stewart’s grief-ridden character (Lin McAdam) mashes Dan Duryea’s face into the bar and painfully twists Duryea’s gun arm, the rage in Stewart’s eyes is frightening; Duryea looks scared that Stewart is really going to hurt him.

The next two Mann-Stewart collaborations are somewhat less known today, which is too bad because they allow Stewart to go deeper into less seemly human emotions. They also both deliver thrilling action scenes. I offer them here as double feature recommendation: 1952’s Bend of the River and 1953’s The Naked Spur.

Western Noir: James Stewart in BEND OF THE RIVER (Universal ...

In Bend of the River, Stewart plays Glyn McLyntock, a former Kansas raider now helping a family of good-hearted pioneers settle in Oregon. They know nothing of his past, but slick gunman Emerson Cole (Arthur Kennedy) who becomes attached to their party, does. Cole too seems to want to go straight, and helps defend the party as they make their perilous journey. The pioneers warn McLyntock that a bad man is always bad, and therefore Cole cannot be trusted, but McLyntock knows that he himself needs redemption just as much as Cole does. Ultimately, the pioneers are betrayed by unscrupulous villains, and Stewart, with his old violent nature returning, must try to settle the score.

As foils, Kennedy and Stewart play off each other effectively, and Rock Hudson also does well as a (ahem) charming dandy from San Francisco (Rock liked to watch his own movies with gay friends and laugh at the subtext — they must have chuckled here when he tells a smitten young woman to go away because he wants to be with the men). The violence is extreme for the early 1950s, with dozens of people being wounded or killed on screen. What is unfortunately not out of place in the early 1950s are some mercifully brief but still off-putting scenes with Stepin Fechit as a stereotypical African-American character. But to close on a positive note, the scenery is gorgeous and everyone seems to know how to handle horses and guns, including during the climactic shootout.

The Naked Spur features another psychologically damaged Stewart character who cannot accept that what is lost is lost forever, no matter how much vengeance you take. With able assistance from Mann and two other noir icons (Ralph Meeker of Kiss Me Deadly and Robert Ryan of The Set-Up), Stewart delivers a cowboy movie with psychic weight. The film’s emotional dynamic is the reverse of Bend of the River. Instead of a once bad man trying to be accepted by good people by showing how good he is now, Stewart plays a once good man telling good people that they should not accept him anymore. That’s what makes Stewart and Janet Leigh’s heartfelt closing scene a knockout.

In addition to being a movie star and director, Clint Eastwood is a student of film history, and I am going to give him the last word on the multi-talented, multi-dimensional Jimmy Stewart: