Thursday, August 17, 2017

Murder, My Sweet

Murder, My Sweet (Edward Dmytryk, 1944) A neat trick, this. Although the third Raymond Chandler adaptation to make it to the screen—the first being The Falcon Takes Over (taken from the same source novel as this—Farewell, My Lovely) co-opted as a story-line in the George Sanders "Falcon" movie series, and the second, Time To Kill (based on "The High Window") featuring Lloyd Nolan's popular Michael Shayne character, Murder, My Sweet is the first to feature Raymond Chandler's slumming angel, Philip Marlowe* The main departure is the title: Chandler's choice, "Farewell, My Lovely," was ditched after a preview screening because those first viewers were expecting more of a musical, as the movie starred Dick Powell, who was a mainstay of that genre and not the first person people would think of as a slightly soft-boiled detective. The name was changed to something suggesting more violence than tap-dancing...and probably to protect the innocent.**

Dmytryk and writer John Paxton do a fair job of keeping the first-person narration intact (the set-up is that Marlowe is being grilled by the usual suspicious police and he's giving his side of how things went down), and keeping a steady pace that's surprisingly fast. And although they didn't use Chandler's exact phraseology, they do a nicely watered down, tightened-up version of it for cinema audiences for whom thinking too much of the cleverness of a metaphor as it passes by their cerebellum might slow down a film's momentum. Call it "Chandler Lite." Although a lot of it is quite good, if less surly. One of my favorites is when someone says they don't like Marlowe's manners: "Yeah, I've gotten complaints, but they keep getting worse."
Powell can't get too far from his roots—he does a fancy two-step
in the "mausoleum" of a foyer.
It works, especially for the speed of this film. For the role of Marlowe, especially the first one, Dmytryck and the studio made an odd choice in Dick Powell, an A-lister in musicals. But, he's very effective. He's got a lived-in face, like a hound's, not a matinee idol's, slightly doughey (as is his body-type, depite being told he's "in good shape"—that's Marlowe to a wife-beater "T."), and you believe that Powell would be a reflexive weisenheimer—something about the "hoofer" background. The light comedy background makes the sarcasm go down very well.

And Dmytryck has the noir feeling down, being as he was one of the architects of the style. Begin your movie in transition so the audience has a lot of questions it has to answer, go heavy on the atmosphere and always exit the scene with a sardonic quip. You already know you're in the hands of a master with the sequence that introduces "Moose" Malloy (Mike Mazurki) who just suddenly appears as a menacing reflection in the window that only appears in the reflection of a nearby flashing neon light. It's as disconcerting...well, as disconcerting "as a tarantula on an angel food cake", thank you very much! Dmytryck also has fun dancing around the brim of the Hayes Code in the two knock-out sequences of Marlowe being knocked out—always a hallmark of Marlowe stories and fans of inky pools of blackness, Long Goodbyes and Big Sleeps (or "Big Lebowski's," if you'd rather, later).

Indispensible in the mix is a high concentration of sass which is provided by that queen of the formClaire Trevor, whose performance as an evil step-monster is almost too much of a good thing. Murder, My Sweet would have been a rich enough story without her. Her presence and its tilting of the sexual equation slams this one deep onto the classic shelf. Powell would play Marlowe again on television, but this initial outing made him definitive...until Bogart came along.

But, for the record...Chandler always said that Powell was his favorite version of Marlowe.








* The Big Sleep with Bogart as Marlowe was made the same year, but not released until two years later.

** They finally got around to using the title in the 1975 Dick Richards remake that starred Robert Mitchum, who would have been too pretty for Marlowe in his youth, but had aged into a wrinkled world-weariness that worked. When he was approached by producer Elliott Kastner and financier Sir Lew Grade to play the part—after their first choice, Richard Burton (??!!), had turned it down—Mitchum says that he said: "Why don't you just re-release Murder, My Sweet with Dick Powell and we can all go to the beach?"

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Hondo

Hondo (John Farrow/John Ford, 1953) Out on the prairie, it's a tough life for Angie Lowe (Geraldine Page in her film debut), but evidently not a lonely one...or a quiet one. First, Hondo Lane (John Wayne) lopes in, horseless and all too full of advice. Then Apache Chief Vittorio (Michael Pate) stops by, befriends her son (he likes the way he draws down his next-in-command), and makes him part of the tribe...and gives her a lot of advice.

Already you start thinking that Hondo and his player on the other side have a lot in common. They test each other, and when the other doesn't give the answer they want to hear, well, that just means you can trust 'em to speak the truth. Hondo's part Native, speaks the patois,* and in a past life lived among them. He also knows that the U.S. Government made a treaty with the Apache that Ulysses S. Grant has already broken. "The Apache don't have a word for 'lie,'" he says, with a curled lip, so he knows they're going to attack the settlements. That doesn't mean he has to like it, and it doesn't mean he's going to betray either side doing it.


There's a lot of Yojimbo in Hondo for the adults and a bunch of Shane for the kids—that is, if Alan Ladd had killed Van Heflin. Truth to tell Hondo Lane is a cross between Ladd's Angel and Jack Palance's Devil. Hondo's only attachment is to his dog Sam and he won't feed Sam, knowing the animal will fend for itself. "He's independent. It's a good way to be." That doesn't mean he won't shoot a man for threatening Sam, and then kick the dog for getting in the guy's way in the first place. He's described as a "mean ornery son-of-anything-you-wanna-call-him." They were oblique back in the days of the West, they didn't use the word "conflicted."

Hondo was financed by Wayne's Batjac Productions,** made on the cheap in Mexico by director John Farrow (father of Mia, and director of The Big Clock and Ride, Vaquero!) and, for the climactic action sequences, by John Ford (which is readily apparent—they look like sequences from Stagecoach). It was also shot in 3-D, with a minimum of arrow-in-your-face shots (except by Farrow in a not-too-convincing knife fight, but Ford goes to town making sure his stunt riders fall right in front of the camera, kicking dust into the lenses). It would be interesting to see it in that format, but Hondo has been monocular since its first road-house presentations.*** But never say "never:" a restored 3-D version of Hondo had its American premiere at the Samuel Goldwyn Theater in Hollywood. Give it a look-see.
"...man oughta do what he thinks is best"




* The language in Hondo is a bit more colorful than in most westerns—it's not afraid to lose its audience with a colloquialism. For instance, you don't holster a pistol, you "leather" it.

** The original cast was supposed to be Glenn Ford and Katherine Hepburn, but Ford had a bad experience working with Farrow that he didn't want to repeat, and Hepburn didn't like Wayne's right-wing activities at the time. By the time of Rooster Cogburn she had changed her mind.


*** And I've been reminded that "Hondo" was shown nationwide in 3-D..on television...in 1991.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

The Wages of Fear

The Wages of Fear  (Henri-Georges Clouzot, 1952) Some movies are so good they defy time, place and stay universally fresh, seemingly like they were made yesterday. Clouzot's The Wages of Fear is that kind of movie, and I would call it the best film of 2007 if it was released today instead of 1952. It tells the story of four vagrants (played by Yves Montand, Charles Vanel, Folco Lulli, and Peter Van Eyck) scratching out a living in a remote South American village existing in the shadow (and under the thumb) of an American oil company. One of their distant oil rigs goes up in flames, and these four are hired to drive two trucks of nitro-glycerin over unforgiving roads to the inferno to snuff it out. Why take on this task? The answer is simple: $2,000 per man--enough money for each to fly out and make a new life. Why these particular four? They're not union workers, for one thing, and should they die—and the odds are fifty/fifty (hence the two trucks)—they have no families who might sue or require compensation for their loss.

It's a neat little corporate trap, with freedom as the prize, and that doesn't cover the obstacles that Nature (and uncaring road-workers!) have along the way. All these desperate times call for desperate measures and the efforts taken can be undone in the blink of an eye, or a flash of fire. For the four, the journey strips them down to their real selves, all pretense and masks disappear in the face of impossible challenges that must be overcome, with the looming threat of annihlation riding behind them. The wages of fear may be death, but The Wages of Fear is a bleak metaphor for life itself.

All of this is played out over a blasted landscape, the results of the presence of Big Oil, and the journey feels like going back through time as well as space, through the spare white jail-bars of a denuded forest, back to the primordial ooze and finally ending up in Hell. By the end one can't help wonder if the fate of Nature and the nature of Fate are intertwined. Except for one fairly amateurish performance this is a near-perfect movie.


Sunday, August 13, 2017

Don't Make a Scene: Woman of the Year

The Story: This may be my favorite "drunk scene" in all of movies.

That it is from the first pairing of Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy (Woman of the Year) is significant. That it is actually the first scene they shot together in production is historic. Right from the get-go, they were perfect together,*
although their acting styles were oil and water: she liked rehearsal and preparation before the cameras rolled; he liked spontaneity and to "get it right" on the first take. She memorized: he improvised. But, she raised his game and she began to trust "the moment." Together, they had a film-chemistry that had nothing to do with photo-chemicals.

In contrast to last week's scene, they don't "play drunk"—not in a vaudevillian sense. Instead, each in their own way, plays trying to NOT appear drunk: Tracy withdraws, goes still, lest he betray any sign; Hepburn remains loquacious, but has enough presence to call it quits. And then director Stevens conspires, bringing the camera in closer, almost imperceptibly, until the medium two-shot is close-up and intimate, enough to betray any wrinkle of the brow or mouth, any hesitancy, any sign of attraction. We are correspondents in this scene of correspondents, part of the conspiracy, part of the witnessing, too uncomfortably close to be voyeurs, almost participants.


The Set-Up: Opposites attract, but when it does, it can cause some disruption. The New York Chronicle is experiencing such a commotion when foreign affairs correspondent Tess Gallagher (Hepburn) writes a column dismissing baseball and one of the paper's sports writers Sam Craig (Tracy) fires back in his column. Their editor demands a meeting of conciliation, which goes surprisingly smoothly. The two have a spark between them—he invites her to the press-box at a ball game (violating the "men only" rule) and she invites him to her apartment...for a party, as it turns out, where he can't speak any of the languages. Even as they're getting closer, they seem to be moving apart, so Sam invites her to the local bar that is the watering hole for the community of sports-writer's—"Pinky's" named after the slightly punch-drunk fighter who owns it (William Bendix).


Action!


TESS: Well, we're alone. Talk.
TESS: You do have something to talk about...
SAM: Yeah, yeah. You. You. I'd like to know what you like and don't like...and how you feel about being you.
TESS: I feel very good about it. Always have. I like knowing more about what goes on...
TESS: ...than most people.
SAM: ...And telling them.
TESS: Yeah, and telling them.
SAM: Thanks, Joe.
SAM: Lot of drink in these.
TESS: Oh, I don't know.

SAM: Well, I just mean if you're not used to them.
TESS: Oh, don't worry about me.
TESS: As a diplomat's daughter, I've had to match drinks with a lot of people.
TESS: ...From remittance men to international spies. And I may say I've never wound up under the table.
SAM: Reminds me of my year at college. We used to bet on drinking.
SAM: Make a contest out of it. Kid stuff.
TESS: Imagine.
TESS: Silly.

TESS: Lots of uh...people make the uh...error...of...grouping Pareto and Spengler together...
TESS: .uh..because they both feel that democracy is through, whereas actually...
TESS: ...Spengler is the philosophical basis for Fascism.
TESS: Or, uh... No, he's not. Pareto is. While Spengler...
TESS: Well, actually, they both are. Uh, uh. That is, at least, basically.
TESS: Well, it's about the same thing.
SAM: Were you...were you there at the end? In Madrid, I mean.
TESS: After I came back,

TESS: I wrote a series of articles...
TESS: ...which finally blossomed into a regular column. And I've lived happily ever after.
SAM: Did you live happily ever before?
TESS: H-How do you mean?
SAM: Well, I wanna know the story,
SAM: ...you know, behind the story.(clears throat)
SAM: The girl without a country and how she grew up.
TESS: She grew up by remote control. I've read Uncle Tom in the Argentine and...
SAM: The "Argenteen".
TESS: Mm-hmm. "Argenteen".
TESS: And I read Huckleberry Finn going down the Yangtze.
SAM: Did it seem like the Mississippi?
TESS: I've never seen the Mississippi.
TESS: So then I grew older, and I went to school in Switzerland...
and in Leipzig and the Sorbonne,
TESS: and then I became quite busy...
TESS: ...and my father decided to come home. So I decided to come home with him.
SAM: That isn't when you came home.
TESS: Hmm?
SAM: That isn't when you came home. I was there the day you came home. It was in the ballpark.
TESS: Hm. 
TESS: That was fun.
SAM: Yeah. Fun being with the people instead of telling them, wasn't it?
TESS: I had a kind of an idea that it had something to do with being ...with you.
SAM: With me? Really? Why?
TESS:  Look, Sam...
SAM: I'm looking.
TESS: What do you see?
SAM: Right now?
TESS: Right now.
SAM: A little gal I ran into at the ballpark, name of Tessie.
SAM: I know you by the freckles on your nose.
TESS: You're the first to mention those since I was 12.
SAM: You mind?
TESS: Mm-mm.
SAM: Trouble is, you can't see them most of the time.
TESS: Maybe you bring them out.
SAM: Look, Tess...
TESS: I'm looking...Sam.
TESS: Maybe you better take me home.
SAM: Do you feel you'd like some air?
'PINKIE' PETERS: We're coming up for the 14th round, see.

'PINKIE': I come out bobbing and weaving. I'm as fresh as a daisy.

'PINKIE': I'm giving it to him with lefts and a hard right and...
SAM: This is good.
TESS: This is better.
SAM: Tess. Something I've gotta get off my chest.
TESS: I'm too heavy.
SAM: No.
TESS: Then what?
SAM: I love you.

TESS: You do?
SAM: Positive.
TESS: That is nice.

TESS: Even when I'm sober?
SAM: Even when you're brilliant.
CABBIE: This is it.
SAM: You're telling me.


Woman of the Year

Words by Garson Kanin, Michael Kanin, Ring Lardner, Jr. and John Lee Mahin

Pictures by Joseph Ruttenberg and George Stevens

Woman of the Year is available on DVD and Blu-Ray from The Criterion Collection.




* There is a "story:" When Tracy and Hepburn met for the first time (I've heard it was in Joseph Mankiewicz' office or the M-G-M commissary), she said "I may be too tall for you, Mr. Tracy" and either Mankiewicz or Tracy saying "Don't worry, honey. (He'll/I'll) cut you down to size." Well, maybe. It sounds too good/too opportune to be true. And given how the film's last act was re-shot precisely to do that—cut Hepburn down to size in the film—is merely reflective of the wishful thinking of men wanting to prove themselves better than strong women. Or "uppity" women, I suppose you could call it, if you REALLY want to show your prejudice. The reason given for the humiliating last part of the film (which Hepburn called "the worst shit I've ever seen") was that the film didn't "test" well in previews with its original ending of the two compromising—he learning foreign languages and she ghosting a sports column in his absence to compromise in their marriage: Stevens was concerned that "housewives" might not feel good about themselves unless Hepburn's character Tess Gallagher got "her comeuppance" (that's the word that was used—"comeuppance"—as if she needed to be punished for something). I would be very surprised if Stevens ever cared one fig about the feelings of housewives in the audience. But, reportedly Stevens and Hepburn were "an item" before the filming of Woman of the Year, and very quickly, Hepburn and Tracy fell in love during production. "Comeuppance." Hmm. "Fury and the man scorned..." sounds more logical.