Thursday, May 31, 2007

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Dialogue I Love

" Mac, wait a minute. Uhmmm-mmm. Excuse me sister, excuse me. Now don't tell me we're going to let these two little angels of mercy go away from here empty handed on Christmas Eve? This joint is the home of fine bourbon and fast women...and we need plenty of religion to keep 'em both in line. So come on, folks, how about it? Get it up now, come on. Ah, come on, a little action here. A little -- What's the matter? Ohhh! Hey! Hey Lord! Can you hear me up there Jesus? You didn't think we'd forget your birthday, did you boy? There you are Jesus -- and if I had any more you'd be welcome to it. Thank you brother. The Bible says never let your left hand know what your right hand is doing. Well, what's your beef, mister? You ashamed of being a Christian? Oh, I see. You think religion is for suckers and easy marks and mollycoddles, huh? You think Jesus was some kind of sissy, eh? Well, let me tell you, Jesus wouldn't be afraid to walk into this joint or any other speakeasy to preach the gospel. Jesus had guts! He wasn't afraid of the whole Roman army. Think that quarterback's hot stuff? Well, let me tell you...Jesus wouldn't have made the best little all-American quarterback in the history of football. Jesus was a real fighter. The best little scrapper pound for pound you ever saw. And love, gentlemen? Love, gentlemen. Jesus had love in both fists. And what is love? Love is the mornin' and the evenin' star. It shines on the cradle of the babe. Hey, ye sinners! Love is the inspiration of poets and philosophers. Love is the voice of music. I'm talking about divine love...not carnal love."

Elmer Gantry - screenplay by Richard Brooks, based on a novel by Sinclair Lewis

Saturday, May 26, 2007

The Marquee

a.k.a. Killer Spy, 1965

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Moments of Distinction

The Film – Scarlet Street, dir Fritz Lang

Christopher Cross (Edward G Robinson) has been conned by Katherine March and her boyfriend Johnny, who have been selling off his artwork under her name. Cross finds out and kills her in a fit of rage, and Johnny emerges as the prime suspect. This is a marvelous montage of testimonies from his trial. We hear from Johnny, from a couple of art experts, from her landlord, from a bartender, from a man who lent Johnny the ice pick which became the murder weapon, from Katherine’s girlfriend, from Cross’ harridan wife, Cross himself, and finally from Johnny again.

“She didn’t paint those pictures! Old Cross isn’t as dumb as he looks. HE painted them!”

“The accused brought me two pictures. He told me Miss March painted them.”

“In my expert opinion, there is no doubt about it. She was a very great artist.”

“She told me she was an artist when she rented the studio. He was with her. I didn’t like him then, and I don’t like him now!”

“Yeah, he was mean when he was drunk. He said he was gonna fix her when he left my place at about 2 AM”

“That’s when I say, you watch out, Johnny – You gonna kill somebody. So he kills her with my ice pick!”

“ I heard her say “Hey, Johnny!” before she hung up. He was there, all right! What I don’t understand is all this talk about her being an artist. I never saw her paint!”

“That was one of her peculiar traits. She never let anyone see her paint. I’ve compared her handwriting with the signature. There’s no question!”

“Mr. Cross paint??? Humph! He only copied her work! He’s a thief! He stole from me, from his employer, and from Katherine March.”

“My wife…I mean my former wife is correct. I really can’t paint. My copies were so bad I had to destroy them.”

“For god’s sake!!! He’s lying!!!!”

I think that this sequence is simply astounding. In the course of a minute or two, we see a pile of circumstantial evidence allow one man to get away with murder, and another, innocent man to go to the electric chair. Note how the camera gradually moves closer to the speaker, culminating with the good and decent Cross covering his tracks, and the frantic Johnny, who was so cool and saucy in the first frame, now pleading for his life. Scarlet Street is unusual for a Hayes Code-era film, in that someone gets away with murder (with a caveat - Cross ends up insane from guilt). I love how this little monologue boils the film down so neatly, and how the stuff that could be damning to Cross is negated.

On Location

"Tea, Madam?" - Grace and Hitch on the French Riviera, 1954

Saturday, May 19, 2007

The Friends of Eddie Coyle

The image of organized crime that the movies have left us with is one of affluence. Incubated in the Cagney/Robinson/Raft era, grown to maturity in the Godfather movies, and still going strong today with The Sopranos, mob life means tailored suits, oak furniture, and big cars. There is, however, a great little blue-collar gangster film that co-exists amongst these big shots. That’s Peter Yates’ brilliant The Friends of Eddie Coyle, from 1973. If The Godfather is a Rolls Royce, Eddie Coyle is an old Chevy with a busted taillight.

Robert Mitchum plays the title character, an aging Boston gun dealer. Eddie has been around and seen it all, and when he speaks, it’s from deep, hard-earned experience. Mitchum was in his mid-fifties when he made Eddie Coyle, and his tired, basset hound face was never better used than in this role. It’s his last great performance.

Eddie is a guy who has done a bit of time in his day, and as the film opens, the possibility looms that the might have to again. He served as a driver in a heist up in New Hampshire that went wrong, and he is waiting to go to trial. The possibility of another jail term terrifies Eddie, but not for the reasons we would normally assume. He can’t afford to go away because he needs to provide for his family. He states, “I don’t want my wife to have to go on welfare.” This working class mindset is refreshing – Eddie Coyle is not a tycoon gangster: He’s more like someone who works in a factory or drives a cab.

Go back to the film’s title – The FRIENDS of Eddie Coyle. Three men drift in an out of Eddie’s orbit throughout the film, and they are all connected to his efforts to stay out of jail. There’s the undercover cop that Coyle is trying to cut a deal with (Richard Jordan), a gun dealer that he’s trying to buy from (Steven Keats), and Dillon (the great Peter Boyle), a mysterious bartender who seems to have irons in a lot of fires. Coyle is playing the three men off each other – The gun deal info is going back to the cop, and Dillon is also getting pumped for info. There is another level to all this, as well: Dillon is also talking to the cop, unbeknownst to Coyle. Were you to watch this film with the sound turned off, it would be a tall order to tell the good guys from the bad. I think that’s the way Yates wants it.

The cops’ real target is a gang of bank robbers who pull off a couple of jobs during the film. Their modus operandi is to kidnap the family of a bank official and use this to force the banker to let then into his vaults. The cop is plying Coyle for info on them, and Coyle is trying to help, despite having limited knowledge of the case. There’s a subtle little scene in a supermarket parking lot, where Coyle buys some handguns from the dealer, and accidentally sees something pretty interesting – a cache of machine guns in the guys’ trunk. This is something that Coyle can use with the cop, and sure enough, the gang is all arrested soon afterward. It’s not really clear how the connection has been made but we assume that Coyle’s info has played a part.

This is also the assumption of the robber’s bosses, and they decide to take action against the informer. The man that they hire to do the job is Coyle’s buddy Dillon, and it’s in the aftermath of this encounter that TFOEC really takes wing. Dillon gets off the phone from getting his assignment, turns to Eddie (who is in the bar) and suggests that the two of them have dinner and take in a hockey game.

The guy’s night out is freighted with hidden motives, of course. Dillon buys beers for Coyle to make the hit easier to carry out, but it’s hard not to think that he’s also actually enjoying a last night out with an old friend. As they watch the game, they cheer and yell like any other hockey fan, and there’s no question that the two men have a great affection for one another. When Dillon finally does finish the job, it’s anti-climatic. The film doesn’t linger over it, it just happens and that’s it. It’s just a shitty job that needs to be done.

The world that Eddie and his friends live in isn’t glamorous, or fun, or even very profitable. It’s a world where the lines between friends and enemies are blurred, and both groups freely cross over and back again. Dillon, for instance, is a longtime friend of Eddie’s but is ultimately the one who willingly destroys him. The definition of “friend” is pretty liquid to these people, and this is pointed out in spades at the films’ close, when Dillon reveals a heartbreaking twist to the story. Heartbreaking, but completely consistent for one of the friends of Eddie Coyle.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

On Location

Marlene Dietrich and John Wayne play some chess on the set of Pittsburgh (1942)

The Marquee

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Silver Lode

You probably haven’t heard of Silver Lode. Allan Dwan’s little low-budget Western is little remembered today, but it is one of the best of the “Message Westerns”. It’s no stretch to say that it belongs in the company of films like High Noon and The Ox-Bow Incident. It resembles both of those films on a superficial level, but it was much more bold in delivering it’s lessons.

The film opens on an ominous note, as a tough looking bunch rides into the town of Silver Lode. Led by the snarling, abrupt McCarty (Dan Duryea) they are looking for a man named Dan Ballard (John Payne), and discover him in the middle of his wedding to the richest girl in town, Rose Evans (Lizabeth Scott). The film then proceeds to turn the tables on us. McCarty, it turns out, is a U S Marshall, there to arrest Ballard for murder.

It’s very easy to miss this little sleight of hand, but ultimately, that’s what Silver Lode is about – changing perceptions. The townspeople at first rally to Ballard’s defense, but soon, some of them start to back-peddle. Ballard, after all, has only lived amongst them for two years. How well do they really know him? The Marshall’s story has Ballard shooting McCarty’s brother in the back and stealing $20,000 from him. The town’s banker observes that Ballard deposited $20,000 shortly after moving there. The whispers increase.

When Silver Lode was released in 1954, the United States was still in the throes of the McCarthy/ HUAC era. Fred Zinneman had already broached the subject in High Noon in 1952. High Noon was a veiled attack on the Red scare, but it could have also been watched as a more or less standard Western. Silver Lode was much more up front with its message. Take the villain of this film, the bullying, supposed lawman, who has little regard for legal process. It’s no accident that his name is McCarty.

Accused of murder, Ballard has only one hope – exposing McCarty as a fraud. To do this he has to send a telegram to a faraway town to check on McCarty’s story. In the meantime, the phony Marshall stirs up the feeling of the townspeople against Ballard. There is absolutely no hard evidence against Ballard, just the word of McCarty, and the movie makes the subtle point that McCarty’s being in a position of authority enables him to orchestrate the townspeople into conclusions that they should be questioning. Much as a Senator might be able to do.

The only people who support Ballard are two good women – His wife to be, and a prostitute named Dolly (Whom Ballard was once involved with). It’s in the passages with the women that Silver Lode is weakest. Dolly is the prototypical sharp-tongued whore with a heart of gold, and Scott doesn’t get to do much other than look stricken.

As Ballard struggles to save his life, he ends up with the whole town ready to shoot him on sight, and the final passages of SL feature some rousing action and gunplay. The climax features a shoot-out between Ballard and McCarty in a church bell tower, with the whole town looking on. The showdown is resolved in a fashion which might make some throw up their hands and go “Oh, Come ON!!!” but look closely at the bell that is central to the films finale. It looks an awful lot like the Liberty Bell, and as such, it gives Silver Lode a fitting little coda. The false accuser is destroyed by one of the great symbols of America.

Saturday, May 05, 2007

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

On Location

Henry Fonda and Audrey Hepburn grab some sit-down time. War and Peace, 1956

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

And Also Starring...

Before there was a Bruce Dern, there was Dan Duryea. The leering snakes that Dern played in the 60’s and 70’s owe a great debt to the roles played by Duryea in the 40’s and 50’s.

Duryea was one of the main reasons that the cold, sneering psychopath came into the film lexicon, and it was his good fortune that his rise coincided with the rise of Film Noir. His debut was in the The Little Foxes in 1941, and he very quickly settled into the parts that he would ultimately become famous for. He was a heavy in his second outing, the Howard Hawks/Gary Cooper/Barbara Stanwyck comedy Ball of Fire, and then played a nasty reporter in Pride of the Yankees.

His most notable work, however was during the heart of the Noir era. There are three landmark films with Fritz Lang – Scarlet Street, The Woman in the Window, and Ministry of Fear, and the great Robert Siodmak noir Criss Cross. This last one gets my vote as my favorite Duryea role.

Other notable Duryea roles – Winchester ’73, Black Angel, and The Great Flamarion.