Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Eye on Movies: Noir City 15: Ten-Day Crime Spree

You’ve got to hand it Eddie Muller: Unlike the rest of us chumps who scrape by on peanuts, he’s figured out what the rest of us will never learn: He’s made crime pay.

And now Eddie’s making off with the goods once again, with the fifteenth annual Film Noir Foundation’s Noir City Film Festival, held at San Francisco’s legendary Castro Theater and hosted by Eddie. The 2017 fest runs Friday January 20 thru January 29.

Though the fence of time and space has kept me from regular attendance, a bump in income allows me to attend a few screenings this year. Eddie and the Foundation have provided another great lineup of gems. This time the theme is the “Big Heist”—the best-laid steals of mice and men gone agley, often fatally.

While I won’t be attending anywhere near all of them, I’ve seen quite a few and can wholeheartedly point to a healthy number of corkers and crowdpleasers in the lot.

The festival opens well enough with the Jules Dassin-directed Criss Cross from 1947, starring Burt Lancaster and Ava Gardner, both ashine with resplendent youth. Like many a noir, it’s about the things a guy will do for love. Lancaster is the love-befuddled sap to Gardner’s femme fatale, who’s attached to that perfectly slimy piece of toast Dan Duryea. You may find the ending a little weak as I did, but the build-up is terrific.

Better yet, the festival tops off its opening night with what some call the best of all heist films, The Asphalt Jungle (1951). From a W.R. Burnett novel, it’s true to its title as there’s not a whiff of nature to be seen anywhere until the unexpectedly moving ending in another of director John Huston’s many masterworks. I also like how it portrays the human violence unfolds in real life—randomly, stupidly.

The first Saturday matinee brings a little treat for fans of the character actors of the 1950s and 1960s in Kansas City Confidential (1953). Directed by Phil Karlson, it’s the story of a poor mug (John Payne) framed by criminal mastermind Preston Foster for a robbery he didn’t commit. Once out of the can, Payne tracks Foster down to a Mexican resort to get his justice.

The film’s best fun comes from the casting and performances by Foster’s gang of hapless miscreants: growling block-headed Neville Brand, sweaty, wall-eyed Jack Elam and, best of all to some, Lee Van Cleef, dispensing a bit with his great reptilian sneer to cheerfully play a self-styled Valentino named Tony Romano with humor, charm and skill. (You can read more about Van Cleef’s work in this film here and in my recent two-part profile of the actor in Filmfax magazine.) No doubt about it, it’s Bad Guy Heaven. Be seeing you there!

Winding up that Saturday afternoon is Violent Saturday, an offbeat thriller from 1955 about a gang of bank robbers (Lee Marvin, of course; Stephen McNally; and J. Carroll Naish) attempting to rob a small-town bank while trying to avoid entanglements with its troubled residents—sort of Peyton Place meets Richard Stark. Directed by a master craftsman, Richard Fleischer (The Narrow Margin) the film’s violence is quite blunt for its era. And Ernest Borgnine as an Amish farmer seems some sort of height in oddball casting.

While some pick The Asphalt Jungle as the best heist film ever, others will nominate Jules Dassin’s Rififi (1955) in that eternal debate. Dassin directed this after his exile from the United States during the Red Scare. French filmmaking benefitted thanks to the bringing of American skill and sensibilities to their genre movies. The heist sequence is the most exquisite ever as it unfolds without a word of dialogue, a perfect example of what Hitchcock called “pure cinema.” This or The Asphalt Jungle? It’s enough to split a guy’s heart in two.

The following Monday, January 23rd, brings The Killing, directed by a young Stanley Kubrick, from a script he cowrote with Jim Thompson (The Grifters). In addition to the terrific cast (Sterling Hayden, Marie Windsor, Elisha Cook, Jr., Timothy Carey, Vince Edwards et al), you can also get an early look at Kubrick’s unique sense of space in widescreen format. Bay Area horse racing fans will also enjoy the scenes of long-gone Bay Meadows racetrack.

Tuesday night, the 24th, brings one of the best comedies in any genre The Ladykillers. (1955, which seems to be a watershed year for the heist genre) Produced by Ealing Studios and directed by Alexander Mackendrick (A Fish Called Wanda), it concerns a band of thieves who rent a hideout in which to plan their next heist. Unfortunately, they fail to account for their exquisitely caring and very nosy landlady. There’s Alec Guinness (with the greatest set of bad teeth ever), Peter Sellers and the underrated Herbert Lom. But all of them crumble before the adorable force of nature that is Katie Johnson. You owe yourself this one.

I haven’t seen The Sicilian Clan (1969) in years and due to the late hour of the screening (late Wednesday the 25th), I’ll be missing it again. It’s a very good example of the crime thrillers Europeans started turning to as the spaghetti western craze played out its freaky string. This one features Alain Delon, Lino Ventura, and Jean Gabin and was directed by the Turkish-born Henri Verneuil, the director of another nifty Euro-thriller called The Burglars. At their best, these films are as sharp and entertaining as any B-crime picture from the 1940s and 1950s. And there’s Ennio Morricone’s score, one of the best of his huge catalogue. I may not have seen this one in a long time, but I know its music by heart (and good luck at finding the soundtrack).

For crowd-pleaser of the festival, I nominate 1974’s The Taking of Pelham 123, one of the best New York thrillers ever, filmed against the gloriously scuzzy backdrop of 1970s Gotham. It features hangdog Walter Matthau, cold-eyed Robert Shaw, Jerry Stiller and a winsome Martin Balsam in a tale of a violent subway hijacking that comes down with a URI. It’s a perfect blend of laughs and thrills and is pure New York down to its bawdy bones. But hey . . . what d’ya want for twenty-five cents!? Take my word for it: see this with an audience!

Matthau returns yet again on the last Saturday matinee in Charley Varrick (1973), directed by genre legend Don Siegel (Dirty Harry, still a good movie even if you don’t like its politics). It’s a good two-fisted thriller: Matthau’s knockover of a small-town bank lands him in even deeper waters after he finds the bank was owned by the Mob. Good tough stuff as only directors like Siegel could pull off--the kind Hollywood studios cannot make anymore, even if they wanted to.

Immediately following Charley Varrick, comes Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, an offbeat tale of two crooks (Clint Eastwood and Jeff Bridges) and their lives on the lam. It’s one of the films credited with raising Eastwood’s profile among serious filmgoers, as well as Jeff Bridges, who’s also terrific here. The film was directed by Michael Cimino, whose subsequent work (The Deer Hunter and Heaven’s Gate) seems to provide weight to the adage that success can ruin a man.

If you’ve ever wondered about the secret face of Mahatma Ghandi, you may get a real clue with Sexy Beast (2000), featuring the film embodiment of Gandhi himself, Ben Kingsley, the soul of yin and yang. He plays Don Logan, a mob enforcer of rabid ferocity who barks his way into the sunbaked retirement of ex-thief Ray Winstone, dragging, pushing and shoving him into pulling one more heist. Tense, funny, disturbing, seedy and stylish to a fault it, it also features Ian McShane as the big boss, a few years before his triumphant turn as Al Swearengen in Deadwood.

The festival closes with the last film in the distinguished career of Sidney Lumet, Before the Devil Knows Your Dead. It plays like a chamber piece, sort of The Asphalt Jungle meets Long Day’s Journey Into Night, as two brothers (Philip Seymour Hoffman and Ethan Hawke) concoct a harebrained scheme to rob their parents’ jewelry store. A genuine air of pathos and tragedy suffuses the film, making it a fine coda to Lumet’s career. And, of course, any excuse to see the much-missed Mr. Hoffman is a good one.

Copyright 2016 by Thomas Burchfield

Thomas Burchfield’s Butchertown, a ripping, 1920s gangster shoot-‘em-up  novel will appear this Spring 2017. His contemporary Dracula novel Dragon's Ark won the IPPY, NIEA, and Halloween Book Festival awards for horror in 2012. He’s also author of the original screenplays Whackers, The Uglies Now Speaks the Devil, and Dracula: Endless Night (e-book editions only). Published by Ambler House Publishing, all are available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble,  Powell's Books, Scribed, and other retailers. His reviews have appeared in Bright Lights Film Journal, the Strand and he recently published a two-part look at the life and career of the great film villain (and spaghetti western star) Lee Van Cleef in Filmfax. He lives in Northern California with his wife, Elizabeth.

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Eye on Books: Distant Glamour: "Such Mad Fun" by Robin R. Cutler

Such Mad Fun: Ambition and Glamour in Hollywood's Golden Age (View Tree Press, 2016, 28.95 hardcover, 313 pp.) by Robin R. Cutler is a colorful, entertaining and thoughtful life-and-times biography of Cutler’s mother, Jane Hall, drawn mostly from Hall’s private papers. Jane Hall was a working female Hollywood screenwriter during the late 1930s and 1940s. Hall’s story is also the portrait of the limited choices many women in society faced during that era. There’s a fine wash of nostalgia throughout, but, underneath, there runs a strong flavor of frustration: personal, social and political.

Hall (1915-1987) authored over a dozen short stories, one novel (serialized in Cosmopolitan) and received writing credits on five films from the late 1930s to 1950s. Among them, the most famous is These Glamour Girls, based on her novel and which featured Lana Turner in her first starring role.

Hall was born in Phoenix, Arizona, in 1915, the daughter of Dick Wick Hall, a noted regional humorist, and Daysie Sutton Hall. Both her parents had died by the time Jane was fifteen, in 1930. She and her brother Dickie were taken in by their wealthy aunt and uncle, Rose and Randolph Hicks.

The Hicks were wealthy Easterners and, judging from Cutler’s colorful, sure-footed telling, it was this milieu, the upper class of the 1930s Depression Era, that formed Jane Hall more than anything. It was the kind of world portrayed in such classics as The Philadelphia Story. Despite all the wealth and privilege, however, a young woman’s options were few, and presented in binary fashion: A woman either married a rich man and had children, or she had a career. The first was easier to obtain than the second and combining the two in any way was not deemed possible.

Jane came of age immersed in the world of debutantes, the high society tradition where young girls from wealthy families, and fresh out of high school, were publicly presented to the world, put on display at elaborate parties, almost like beauty contests. Full of sparkle and wit herself, Jane fit into this colorful milieu that would provide the inspiration for her work as she herself became a “glamour girl.”

But while Jane was cavorting with the “debutante set”, she was also a member of the “smart set.” She inherited her father’s writing talent, publishing articles and stories while she was still a teenager. In 1936, thanks in part to her father’s reputation and her uncle’s connections, she started publishing stories in glossy high-circulation magazines such as Good Housekeeping, The Saturday Evening Post and Cosmopolitan, which, you will be floored to learn, was also a literary magazine. Hall published alongside such lights as Pearl Buck, Paul Gallico and W. Somerset Maugham. As Cutler points out, these “women’s magazines” did much to shape—as they were shaped by—conceptions of women’s place in American society. (Eventually, Hall would even become a Cosmo cover girl.)

Hall’s stories are social comedy-dramas about the dilemmas faced by many upper-class women of that era. She wrote in a buoyant vibrant voice, somewhat reminiscent of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s early Jazz Age stories. The conflicts are handled lightly, yet seem to mask a deep anguish and frustration.

Back then, the major Hollywood studios were vacuuming up writers from all over and trying— “trying” is the operative word here—to turn them into screenwriters. With the help of her film agent, H.N. “Swanie” Swanson, a former film producer (and author of a fine memoir Sprinkled with Ruby Dust), Hall’s flair for humorous frothy dialogue and romantic intrigue, demonstrated in her Cosmopolitan stories, drew the attention of MGM’s producers, who, more than any other studio, made glamour their trademark. They hired Jane Hall to a long-term contract in 1937.

She was given a big salary and an office on the MGM lot right next to another of Swanson’s large roster of clients—F. Scott Fitzgerald. Thanks to similarities in their backgrounds, the two established a good friendship as Hall went to work for some of the biggest producers on the lot, among them Sam Zimbalist and Joe Pasternak.

Fitzgerald, by then, was in the deep twilight of his career (even as he worked on one of his final classics, The Last Tycoon.) Like him and other writers working for Hollywood, Jane Hall labored under the shadow of chronic uncertainty and disdain. Though driven to work constantly, writers almost never wrote an entire script on their own—Fitzgerald included. They were assigned to a script at various points, based on a studio producer’s perception of the individual writer’s strengths. Action writers would take care of the action, romantic writers dealt with the relationships, while humorous writers worked on the funny parts.

All Golden Age screenwriters worked under these constraints, all the while suffering from a general air of contempt from their bosses (“Shmucks with Underwoods,” as one quote, attributed to Jack Warner, goes.) But it could be said that women (who once dominated the screenwriting profession) had it worst of all. With rare exceptions, like Clare Booth Luce’s The Women (directed by George Cukor), their films rarely received the same attention that male-dominated films did. Of the half-dozen writers who worked on the Gone with the Wind script (novel by Margaret Mitchell; final script credited to Sidney Howard), only one was a woman, Barbara Keon.

There was one more problem: For all the many hours and countless pages they typed, relatively little of a writer’s work ever reached the screen. And once a script had made it through the obstacle course set up by the studio, one obstacle remained: the Hays Office, the censors running Hollywood’s self-censorship regime, to complicate things endlessly.

While pounding away on numerous screenplays, Hall was also called upon to write magazine puff pieces at the behest of MGM. The most notable of these was one about the production of The Wizard of Oz, published in Good Housekeeping. Of course, being studio-appointed and approved, it tells little of what really happened during the production of that great film.

Somewhat more interesting was Hall’s brief encounter with Oz co-director Victor Fleming and Clark Gable when she briefly found herself on the set of Gone with the Wind. Hall’s article strongly and cleverly hints at the dreary labor underpinning Golden Age tinsel, where some of the greatest writers of the time were regarded as mere working stiffs, alongside all the other craftsman who made Hollywood great.

The story behind the making of Hall’s one major success, These Glamour Girls, provides a clear example of what she had to go through. Originally titled “Such Mad Fun” in its Cosmopolitan serialization, it told the story of Lana Peters, a working girl from Kansas who finds herself on a train to Princeton University where she falls in with a raucous band of socialites her age. Rushing to the glamour like a moth to the candle, she soon discovers that her fabulous new friends are neither all that friendly nor fabulous during a raucous weekend of campus house parties involving an endless tangle of romantic mix-ups, and even, at one point, suicide. But Lana meets right the fellow and all turns out happily. Behind the froth of Such Mad Fun lies a sharply written satire of youthful debauchery and materialism.

Hall, collaborating with male writer Marion Parsonnet, worked tirelessly on the screenplay at the same she was preparing it for Cosmopolitan (essentially simultaneously writing two versions of the same story.) Once the script had been completed to producer specifications, the real nightmare began, brought by the Hays Office, formally known as the Production Code Administration.

The censors bristled like porcupines at Hall’s finished script for These Glamour Girls. The film’s very subject matter—young people on the make in a tale of low morals and debauchery—was enough to keep it locked in the drawer for good. Much of the screenplay depicted many characters in states of heavy inebriation with occasional brushes of sexuality we would find extremely mild today. All of it had to be scoured away, per PCA head Joe Breen. He censored the script right down to what underwear characters wore under their clothes. At no point could the film condone any type of illicit sex. Casual remarks about “gobs” (sailors) and Joan of Arc also caused offense. (Frankly, it’s sometimes amazing that any movies were made in that era under those restrictions.)

But These Glamour Girls did get made, finally, despite all the meddling and watering down. Directed by S. Sylvan Simon, it was released on August 18, 1939, the day after The Wizard of Oz opened. Though reviews were mostly positive, it simply disappeared under the wave of other great pictures from that halcyon year and failed to make much of an impression.

With These Glamour Girls behind her, Hall went on to other projects, but, except for three story lines she wrote, she worked mostly uncredited, as so many writers did. Despite the money and the opportunity to hobnob with some of Hollywood’s best and brightest, discouragement set in.

Hall seems to have finally had to make that choice promoted by the very movies she wrote: that love and relationships were a woman’s true calling, not a career. And considering the way her chosen career was going, marriage may well have seemed the better option. The glamour girl’s days of mad fun came to an end.

Unfortunately, her marriage, to Robert Frye Cutler in 1940, turned out to be a less than stellar match. Though wealthy, Robert Cutler turned out to be an alcoholic subject to bouts of depression and was a bit of a handful. With marriage, the creative fires within Jane Hall were dampened.

It would be too much to say she lived out the rest of her life in misery—at one point, in one of the book’s best chapters, she found an all-too brief joy with a son of the Royal House of Sweden, a brief and tender fairytale encounter she might have written herself. At that point, she becomes less of a distant figure and more of a living breathing human. It’s too bad she never told that story.

Copyright 2016 by Thomas Burchfield
Thomas Burchfield’s Butchertown, a ripping, 1920s gangster shoot-‘em-up novel will appear in 2017. His contemporary Dracula novel Dragon's Ark won the IPPY, NIEA, and Halloween Book Festival awards for horror in 2012. He’s also author of the original screenplays Whackers, The Uglies, Now Speaks the Devil and Dracula: Endless Night (e-book editions only). Published by Ambler House Publishing, all are available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble,  Powell's Books, Scribed, and other retailers. His reviews have appeared in Bright Lights Film Journal, The Strand and he recently published a two-part look at the life and career of the great film villain (and spaghetti western star) Lee Van Cleef in Filmfax. He lives in Northern California with his wife, Elizabeth.