November 3, 2010

Noir-vember: I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (Mervyn LeRoy, 1932)

Noir-vember is a month-long film challenge devised by oldfilmsflicker, who in addition to running one of the best film Tumblrs around, also blogs here. The premise is simple but daunting: watch every one of IMDb's Top-Rated Film Noir Titles, fifty in all. The films I've already covered on the list are #12 White Heat and #11 The Killing, which you can read about here and here.

First things first: I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (#17 on the IMDb list) is not a film noir. Not even close. It is a very good film, an exemplar of the 1930s social problem film, a ripped-from-the-headlines expose of abuses in the United States penal system--but not a film noir.

Based on the memoir of Robert Elliott Burns called I Am a Fugitive from a Georgia Chain Gang, the story recounts the true tale of Burns, a WWI veteran who was coerced into armed robbery by two men he barely knew. Burns was sentenced to 6 to 10 years hard labor in a chain gang for attempting to steal a little over five dollars from a lunch cart. Burns managed to escape from the gang to Chicago where he became a prominent businessman and a pillar of the community until he was exposed by his landlady who blackmailed him into marriage lest she divulge his secret. The governor refused to turn him over to Georgian police but Burns surprised everyone by volunteering to return to serve his prison time on the following conditions: 1) he would serve a reduced sentence of 90 days, 2) it wouldn't be on the chain gang, 2) he would pay the state restitution for legal costs, 4) and after 90 days he would be pardoned and never bothered again. Of course, Georgia reneged on that verbal agreement and jailed Burns for the remainder of his sentence. He escaped--again. He published his memoir while still a fugitive and did not gain his freedom until after the release of the film.

The Warner Bros. feature, helmed by in-house director Mervyn LeRoy, takes a few liberties with the source material but generally remains faithful to Burns' story. The major changes are to make the Burns character (renamed James Allen and played by Scarface star Paul Muni) more the uber-innocent wronged man and less the average Joe. Whereas Burns served without distinction, Allen is a decorated WWI veteran; in one of the film's most poignant scenes, he walks into a pawn shop, down on his luck and wandering the country in search of meaningful work. He asks the shopkeeper if he could use a Belgian Croix de guerre only to be shown a box full of metals pawned by other soldiers. Warner Bros. also adjusts the time period. Burns bummed around the U.S. during the prosperous 1920s, more of a lost soul than a victim of circumstance. Allen is obviously a Depression-era figure. Even his dream occupation of engineer (specifically, a bridge-builder), connotes a WPA-style Depression hero.

The film's greatest asset is Paul Muni, an actor whose legacy is kept alive by this film and another he made the same year, Howard Hawks' Scarface. Muni was primarily a stage actor, having performed with his parents in the Yiddish theater as a child, and found relief from a Hollywood system he found lacking in worthwhile projects by returning to the stage between screen work. Although he only made a handful of pictures, Muni was nominated for Best Actor Academy Awards five times, included for I Am a Fugitive, and won once in 1936 for The Story of Louis Pasteur.

Although handsome, Muni has an Everyman quality. His face is equally suited to a close shave, like during his Horatio Alger scenes in Chicago, or to a haunted look and a few days' dirty growth. We see everything through Allen's eyes, a wise decision that makes the film's early prison scenes fly by. Muni's acting style is heightened but naturalistic in a way that eases occasionally clumsy and overwrought dialogue. LeRoy lays out the basics of the chain gang (tropes familiar to anyone who's seen Cool Hand Luke) with deceptive ease, but never skimping on suspense or brutality, like when Allen is punched by a guard for failing to call out when he wants to wipe the sweat off his brow.

The prisoners are whipped, beaten, harangued, fed slop and worked like mules--all of it shown with unflinching realism. But thanks to LeRoy's deft hand and Muni's compulsively watchable screen presence, the experience is never a chore. I found myself really pulling for Muni to escape, rooting for him like I've seldom rooted for one character before. There are several scenes of tremendous suspense, and a thrilling car chase in the final act that's frankly spectacular for the time period. I Am a Fugitive also features wonderful use of diagetic sound, a near-constant barrage of clanging sledgehammers, prison guards yelling, prisoners singing spirituals to pass the day, and natural ambient noise, whether it's the croaking of frogs and hum of fireflies in the South or the din of streetcars, tinkling of piano keys and laughter from Chicago's bars and brothels. For an early sound film, the work is really impressive and adds a much needed layer of atmosphere and suspense to a time when a lot of films didn't have the means or inclination to include a sophisticated soundscape in their picture.

In their seminal treatise A Panorama of American Film Noir (1941-1953), French critics Raymond Borde and Etienne Chaumeton champion the social realist films of the 1930s as progenitors of noir, but the thing itself. They cite Mervyn LeRoy's work in that decade, especially I Am a Fugitive, as laying the groundwork for unflinching depictions of horrific violence and brutal themes that would later come to define the world of film noir. The social problem films produced chiefly by Warner Bros. in that decade are certainly an influence on later films noir.

I Am a Fugitive has been credited as the first in this cycle of film (for it cannot rightly be called a full-fledged genre) that actually precipitated social change. Warners had a reputation for the down-and-out forgotten man who either turned criminal (The Public Enemy, White Heat) or was falsely hunted as one (I Am a Fugitive) and a commitment to portraying lower and working class existences on the screen. As USC film professor Richard Jewell noted on his audio commentary on the DVD, in the 1930s even Warners' musicals were realistic compared to other studios, especially MGM's "dream factory." Warner Bros. was naturally the perfect studio to tell Robert Elliott Burns' true story of wrongful imprisonment and excessive punishment. In fact at the time of the film's release, Burns was still a fugitive. He was arrested shortly after the release of the film but the governor of his home state of New Jersey refused to extradite him to Georgia to return to the chain gang. Burns was now unimpeachable partly due to the popularity of the film. In 1937, five years after I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, chain gangs were abolished.** However, not everyone was overjoyed with Warners' crusading efforts. The studio was sued by two Georgian prison wardens for alleged slander, even though they had cut the name of the state in Burns' book from their film title and never referred to geography by name in the movie.

**Although they have never been entirely phased out as a form of punishment and gained a resurgence as late as the 1990s.

Although the film attempts to expose a social problem, it wisely doesn't claim to have the answers. I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang ends on an abrupt down note. The film's chilling closing scene, where a hunted and clearly paranoid James Allen confronts his girlfriend one last time, came about as an accident. A light fuse blew during rehearsal and director Mervyn LeRoy thought it was such a haunting and fitting ending, he decided to end the film with a slow fade out instead of the more traditional blackout. The dialogue is decidedly bleak, even for Pre-Code Hollywood, denying the audience a glimmer of happy ending:

ALLEN: No friends, no rest, no peace... Keep moving, that's all that's left for me.
SHE: Can't you tell me where you're going? Do you need any money? How do you live?
ALLEN (in a whisper and already swallowed by the night): I steal!

Muni is then swallowed up the shadows, having become exactly what he was punished for being--a thief. LeRoy and Warner Bros. made the unusual but effective decision to make the film's ending even bleaker than the memoirs. They decided to really say something about social injustice and the need for reform, and it worked. Not only was it a shrew business decision (the film was a huge box office success), it paid off creatively (winning Best Picture from the National Board of Review and was nominated for three Oscars) and socially, shedding light on abuses in the criminal justice system and turning public opinion against such excesses.

November 2, 2010

Noir-vember: The Killing (Stanley Kubrick, 1956)

Noir-vember is a month-long film challenge devised by oldfilmsflicker, who in addition to running one of the best film Tumblrs around, also blogs hereThe premise is simple but daunting: watch every one of IMDb's Top-Rated Film Noir Titles, fifty in all. The first new-to-me film I watched was  #12 White Heat, which you can read about here.

The Killing (#11 on IMDb's list) is a Stanley Kubrick film, so of course it has 25,000+ ratings on IMDb, which, like most of the cinema-based internet, is a hotbed of Kubrick fanboyism. Which isn't to say it's a bad film, just that I should point out this list is skewed by name recognition, be it of actor or director, and the little known films have only a fraction of the votes of the big boys. 

The plot is a simple heist gone wrong. Sterling Hayden plays Johnny Clay, a con man fresh out of jail itching to execute the One Last Score that'll get him out of the game for good so he can settle down with his gal (Coleen Gray). Clay sets about gathering the guys for the job: a couple of inside men like the racetrack bartender (Joe Sawyer) and bookie (Elisha Cook, Jr.) and a couple of outside talent including a crooked cop (Ted de Corsia), an ex-wrestler (Kola Kwariani) and a twitchy marksman (Timothy Carey).  So Clay and the gang set out to steal $2 million from the Lansdowne race track, an audacious sum ten times the budget of The Killing. But, of course, nothing goes exactly as planned. 

The Killing is a satisfying genre picture with all the gritty fatalism you'd expect from a hard-boiled heist picture. I tend to view film noir through the prism of genre studies, which has its pitfalls but I find to be generally the most helpful in trying to analyze what elements of a given film can be called noir. Below, I've listed some of these elements and if they're evident in The Killing.

Film Noir Checklist
  • Femme fatale: Yes! Sherry Peatty (played with icy seduction by Mary Windsor) is the classic conniving blonde. Married to ineffectual George (Cook, Jr.), she manipulates him into telling her the details of the heist and then convinces her lover Val (Vince Edwards) to stick up the gang after they've done all the work. Despite her machinations, Sherry Peatty is a sympathetic character, much to the credit of Ms. Windsor. She's a woman who married a man below her station, possibly for love, but certainly with an expectation of a certain kind of lifestyle. She hasn't gotten it. They live in a small apartment, bare furniture, no excess--and no children. In the world of film noir, everyone gets a bum deal, but it's often the women who suffer the most grievous hardships. Sherry Peatty did all she could to get ahead in life; unfortunately, it cost hers.
  • Doomed male protagonist: In spades. Johnny, played by Sterling Hayden with his trademark gruff resignation, is a man careening towards a singular goal (reunion with his gal is a distant second), with no time to consider the ramifications of failure. Clay's methodical single-mindedness is clearly his downfall. (Incidentally, has there ever been an actor of Hayden's size with such a lack of energy? He seems always to be dragged everywhere unwillingly; every line of Clay's dialogue is delivered with a bitter aftertaste.) Although Johnny is the protagonist, George Peatty gives him a run for his money in the sad sack category. Cook, Jr. made a career of playing weak men in the hard men world of noir (see below), but Peatty has to be one of the most pathetic creatures to ever grace the screen. The first time the camera captures Cook's big, anxious eyes you know he and his crew are doomed to failure.
  • Homosocial/homosexual: Like most heist films, The Killing is high on homosocial bonding. Johnny Clay's girlfriend is incidental at best and forgettable at worst. Sherry Peatty is a man-killer--castration personified--the preferred gender role for women in most films noir. Due to the Production Code, overt references to homosexuality were strictly forbidden, but that didn't stop films noir from subtle implication. In one scene, Johnny checks in on Marvin Unger (Jay C. Flippen), an older member of the gang and a recovering alcoholic, before departing on the day of the heist. Both men are full of repressed energy; Clay is anxious to set the wheels in motion for a robbery and Marvin because he wants to thank Clay for including him. Marvin starts out tentatively, telling Clay he always thought of him as a son. Then, a shock: Marvin asks Johnny to go away with him. They could live in Marvin's ranch. You don't want to get tied up in a marriage commitment, do ya, Johnny? It's clear Clay knows exactly what's being asked but Hayden's face remains stony. Not wanting to offend the old man, Johnny politely overlooks the proposition. See ya at the track, Marvin.
  • Psycho-sexual deviancy: Besides the above mentioned Freudian castration (typical femme fatale stuff) and the moment of homosexuality, there is no emphasis on "deviant" behavior as a catalyst for criminal behavior. Clay and his gang are desperate men looking for a way out of their meek and flavorless existences. Why do they do it? No reason, and every reason.
  • Familiar faces: One of my favorite character actors, Elisha Cook Jr., has an impressive film noir resume (The Maltese Falcon, Phantom Lady, The Big Sleep) in addition to The Killing. A small man with a haunted, faraway look, Cook proved the perfect archetypal cuckold to the wily femme fatale.

  • Urban milieu: Yes, San Francisco. And interiors--grungy apartments, depressing boarding houses for single men that reek of desperation, a racetrack shot like a prison--convey a gritty and unflattering view of city life.

  • Hard-boiled pedigree: The Killing is a fairly standard heist film but what sets it apart is the dialogue. Kubrick adapted the screenplay from the novel "Clean Break" by Lionel White but brought in pulp author Jim Thompson to punch up the dialogue. Thompson, whose own work has been adapted numerous times into such films as The Getaway, The Grifters and recently The Killer Inside Me, brings a much needed stylistic gut punch to the material. The scenes between George and Sherry Peatty--verbal barbs of unparalleled venom--are, for me, the highlight of the picture.
  • Non-linear narrative: Quentin Tarantino cribbed much of The Killing for his debut feature Reservoir Dogs, including the non-linear sequencing. Kubick starts things pretty much at the beginning but as the heist begins to take shape, gives each character his own vignette of their specific job. We see the bartender at home caring for his sick wife, then traveling to the track. We see the crooked cop calling in a phony broken radio to HQ to set up an alibi. We see the marksmen pull into the parking lot, setting up his rifle to pick off the race horse at the exact moment the gang needs panic to set in at the park. We see the burly ex-wrestler meet Johnny at a chess club, come on board, go to the track, clue the bartender in on his presence and then incite a giant bar fight which allows Johnny Clay to slip into the track offices undetected. These narrative threads help reinforce the intricacies of the robbery itself; as planned, it's executed by only one man (Johnny), with no trace of any involvement by any of the inside or outside players.
  • Voice over narration: Kubrick was forced to include an omniscent narrator to guide a 1956 audience through the then-complicated non-linear storytelling technique. Usually, film noir voice over is subjective, the protagonist telling us his own story, typically regretfully. Here though, the V.O. functions more as the "Voice of God," albeit one who more often then not gets the details wrong.
  • Gangsters vs. coppers: The Killing focuses solely on a gang of robbers and no law enforcement arrives until the very end. They're nameless, faceless men of the law, uninterested in Clay's story and uninteresting to us, the viewers.
  • Heist: This is a pure heist picture.
  • Low key lighting: Oh, you bet. This shot of Vince Edwards and Mary Windsor as lovers scheming to rip off the gang could have come from a film noir textbook. The circular, open shade lamp is a staple of film noir decor. It's both a practical choice and an aesthetic one. The lamp provides an idea in-scene light source and a foreground object around which to stage a two-shot, especially one in which two characters are scheming or behaving otherwise unsavorily (as they always are).
  • Criss-cross: Almost every major character is caught in the crosshairs at some point in the film. First three stills: Kubrick shoots the race track like a prison, the teller's box standing in for cell bars, the high windows casting slanted shadows on the men who dream of escaping its confines but never truly do. Last still: Vince Edwards' Val is marked for execution, framed in the doorway and shot from a low angle.

November 1, 2010

Noir-vember: White Heat (Raoul Walsh, 1949)

Noir-vember is a month-long film challenge devised by oldfilmsflicker, who in addition to running one of the best film Tumblrs around, also blogs here. The premise is simple but daunting: watch every one of IMDb's Top-Rated Film Noir Titles, fifty in all. Luckily for me, I've seen several of these films already and won't be covering them during the month.
Here I've listed what I have seen versus what I haven't. Pretty much split down the middle. It's a shame because many of the top noirs are some of my favorite films (The Killers, Gun Crazy, Sunset Boulevard, Night of the Hunter), but if I have time at the end of the month, I'll write up something about my favorites because those are terrific, terrific films. Furthermore, there are many great films noir that aren't even on this list, the most grievous error probably being the lack of Kiss Me Deadly, Robert Aldrich's blistering nuclear hysteria parable wrapped in a private detective film. But I digress. 

Because of Netflix availability and my own fickle whims, films will appear generally out of order of the IMDb list. 

The first film up is #12, White Heat (Raoul Walsh, 1949).

Raoul Walsh was a wonderful journeyman director who, like his compatriots William Wellman and Howard Hawks, filmed just about every genre during Hollywood's Golden Age and helped defined the American style of movie-making. White Heat is arguably his greatest film, but it isn't, in my estimation, particularly noir-ish. What White Heat is, is a tried and true, genuine gritty gangster picture that lands somewhere between that genre's heyday in the 1930s and the rise of the no-nonsense police procedural that would captivate the country's attention in the 1950s through film and television shows like "Dragnet"

Academics and critics have been arguing about what constitutes a noir since two French guys decided there was such a thing as film noir (a claim some people still doubt). Believe me, consensus is few and far between when it comes to this genre that some claim isn't even a genre. The only thing I know for sure about film noir is that every film nerd loves it. Like dogs love bones, fat kids love cake, etc. It's cinephiliac catnip. Dark shadows, amoral characters, perverted psychology, Freudian symbols, post-WWII anxiety, gangsters, private dicks, femme fatales and some of the most gorgeously expressionistic black and white cinematography this side of Weimar Germany--what's not to love?

So, far be it from me to deem White Heat not "noir" enough, although I'm here to do just that, in what I hope will be a case study that justifies such a claim (though given the shaky history of defining film noir, even as I'm confident in my evidence, I'm equally wary to do so). 

The first claim against White Heat's noir status is Jimmy Cagney, the greatest gangster to ever grace the screen (sorry, Bogie). The film marked Cagney's return to his "home studio" of Warner Bros. after a foray into creating star vehicles with his own production company. After two successful pictures and a flop, Warners offered to distribute Cagney Production's pictures if he'd return "home" and restore to the studio some badly needed clout. And boy, did they have just the property to put Jimmy back on top. White Heat's Cody Jarrett is every bit the kind fast-talking, brutal spitfire of a gangster Cagney defined in Warner's pictures like The Public Enemy (William Wellman, 1931) and Angels With Dirty Faces (Michael Curtiz, 1938). Warner's publicity blared, "Pick up the pieces, folks! Jimmy's back in action again!"

Studio publicity provides all kinds of clues about what kind of film White Heat is and how the filmmakers capitalized on Cagney's star persona as the ultimate tough guy. In this poster, Cageney's posed in his famous pistol-whipping stance, but the placement above Virginia Mayo's credit and the smaller vingiette of Mayo (playing Cagney's vulgar wife) recalls the infamous grapefruit scene in The Public Enemy

The differences between Cagney's Cody Jarrett and Tom Powers of The Public Enemy or Rocky Sullivan in Angels With Dirty Faces are twofold: 1) the shift from gangsters of socio-economic circumstance to an emphasis on irredeemably bad psychopaths with psychological perversions, and 2) an increase in the violence and cruelty allowable on screen. Both changes are due to changes in social and filmic conventions. In the '30s, even pre-Code films were vulnerable to censorship (local, as opposed to the nationally unified censorship of the Hays Code). Warner Bros. gained a reputation of social realist gangster pictures which they were allowed to get away with because the bad guy always came from economically depressed circumstances and got it in the end, ostensibly serving as a positive deterrent for miscreant youth contemplating a life of crime. Of course, this didn't work at all because all anyone can remember of these picture is Cagney and Bogart being total badasses--who cares if they died. 

With every passing year, the Production Code seemed to lessen its vice grip on film censorship. Especially after the horrors of WWII, restrictions on the depictions of violence relaxed. But bad guys still had to be punished; White Heat features one of the most memorial demises in film history. Heck, you're probably quoting the line right now in your head. (If not, see here.) But we know next to nothing about Cody Jarrett; we're left to infer his character's history from Cagney's. Like other Cagney gangsters, Jarrett has a mother fixation. The story is loosely based on the exploits of Ma Barker, a woman who in real life was something of an imbecile, but in popular culture has achieved a Lady Macbeth-like level of conniving criminal genius. But Oedipal fixations are nothing new to the gangster picture; Cagney had them in The Public Enemy too. But whereas Tom Powers' main tragedy was economic, Jarrett's is a sickness in the blood. His father died in a mental hospital and he seems to have inherited his madness (and, erm, love for his mother/wife). Freudian fascination is nothing new to American cinema but increased alarmingly after in the postwar era, consequently becoming one of the chief thematic elements of film noir.

James Cagney's career criminal Cody Jarrett and Edmond O'Brien's undercover cop 
in the prison yard in White Heat

However, the "dark psychological underpinnings," as USC film critic and historian Drew Casper calls them in the DVD commentary, are not the exclusive providence of film noir. Most critics can agree that the deciding factor in noir or not-noir is the visual style. White Heat features exactly one sequence that resembles the dense and cross-hatched chiaroscuro that marks the best work of the genre. This sequence takes place inside a prison. Jarrett has confessed to a lesser crime to take the heat off the murders that occurred during the film's opening scene--a train robbery. There, an undercover Treasury man played by Edmond O'Brien befriends Jarrett and ingratiates himself into his inner circle. The pair, along with other men, plan a brazen jail break. 

A jail is naturally oppressive and claustrophobic by its very architecture: guard towers provide vantage points for canted angles, surveillance and paranoia are inscribed in the balance of power between inmates and guards, the opportunity for angular dissection of the frame is everywhere--bars, gates and bisecting lines galore!

However, I would argue that Walsh does not linger on stylistic flourishes and his camera remains steady for the most part, resisting expressionistic camera moves and odd angles. Walsh is a director focused on action and the jail break sequence has all the punch and brio as any classic gangster picture. The picture is linear and neatly divided into segments. It's bookended by two heists, one successful and one not. Jarrett and the gang move from rural scenes (where they're in hiding), to jail, to the urban chemical plant for the final showdown.

But unlike classic gangster pictures, White Heat spends an inordinate amount of time as a police procedural, chronicling in exacting detail the methods of the T-Men tasked to bringing down Jarrett. The procedural plodding of the T-Men scenes juxtaposed with Cagney's signature staccato energy lends the picture its thematic tension. One the one hand, O'Brien and his partner (played by John Archer), are typically faceless, plain vanilla bureaucrats. They wear suits, speak in definitive, no-nonsense declaratives: singular crime fighters committed to bringing down the bad guys by the book. Visually, the film takes a docu-realist approach to telling the story of investigation, documentation and apprehension of criminals. 

One the other hand, it's clear the film imbues the Treasury Department with a measure of cool tech cred that tries to make up for its otherwise boring agents. Walsh fills his picture with a host of insert shots that detail the (at the time) cutting-edge devices employed against Jarrett. The gangsters, on the other hand, are totally old school. Jarrett uses his gun and his mitts. His strategy cribs a page from the Trojan's, with an oil truck acting like a horse, to gain entry into the chemical plant. The cops, however, deploy multiple squad cars rigged with radar to triangulate the truck's position. They communicate with each other via gigantic short wave radios, technology clearly indebted to postwar military technology. 

Ultimately, though, both cops and robbers have to duke it out in an old fashioned fire fight. Jarrett, our twisted hero, is the last man standing until he isn't. Importantly, Cagney's "Made it, Ma! Top of the world!" isn't the final line of the film. That honor goes to the T-Men Archer and O'Brien: 

Philip Evans: Cody Jarrett... 
Hank Fallon: He finally got to the top of the world... and it blew right up in his face. 

Thus marked the nail in the coffin in the classic gangster cycle. White Heat is a gangster picture with noir elements, although its prison scenes pale in comparison to Jules Dassin's masterful prison noir Brute Force (1947), number 46 on IMDb's list. Walsh is a consummate action director and having worked with Cagney previously, got one of the actor's best performances. The film is an interesting case study--closing out the war-ravaged '40s and on the brink of a new era where law enforcement takes precedence over the glamorization of criminality--in changing values in the gangster film. Other films noir, if they feature a cop at all, focus on a rogue agent (more in the vein of the private detective) against organized crime. White Heat presents the case of an individual, Cody Jarrett, the last hold-out of a dying breed of loner gangster, against the encroaching technology of a mass organized governmental force. The film is something of an elegy for the classic '30s gangster who simply cannot function in light of postwar cultural and criminal development.