Monday, November 27, 2017

When Works of Art Bewitch, Haunt ... and Judge

Detective Mark MacPherson is mesmerized by the portrait  of Laura Hunt. 
Noir antiheroes typically come from the wrong side of the tracks and struggle to shake off the dust from the old neighborhood by pursuing the trappings of the filthy rich – jewels, swell apartments, gorgeous babes.
It usually ends badly.
One plaything of the well-heeled seen surprisingly often in film noir is the painted portrait, a symbol of power and wealth, and often the keystone of the noir drama’s plot. Portraits of women turn up often on the screen, and the artworks inject a range of economic, emotional and psychological conditions into the story.
In some films, a portrait represents a desire to isolate and possess the sitter. Other times a painting can seem to hang over a room and cast suspicion on those who behold it. Here are a few examples:
In Otto Preminger’s 1944 noir “Laura,” Dana Andrews as police Detective Lt. Mark McPherson, falls in love with the eponymous murder victim Laura Hunt, whose portrait hangs over her living room mantelpiece. He claims his frequent visits to the scene of the crime, the dead girl’s apartment, are part of his investigation. But while at the crime scene he compulsively sifts through her possessions, listens to her favorite recordings of romantic music and moons over her portrait. All the while Waldo Lydecker, a poison-tongued gossip columnist played by Clifton Webb, chides the detective about “falling in love with a corpse.”
But the alluring portrait of the murdered woman has an unmistakable attraction for MacPherson, and the artwork is as much a character in the story as any of the living cast members.
In another Preminger noir, “Whirlpool,” Anne Sutton, played by Jean Tierney, a psychiatrist’s wife, suffers from kleptomania and is hypnotized to treat her condition. Those around her consider her grasp of reality shaky at best.  Echoing the plot of “Laura,” a portrait of a deceased woman plays a role in the film. Anne is blamed for the woman’s death, and the portrait, again, hung over the living room mantelpiece, seems to haunt the victim’s former residence. Instead of symbolizing desire, the painting is like the eyes of justice looking down on Anne, judging her and ready to pass sentence.
Joan Bennett and Edward G. Robinson in 'The Woman in the Window.'
In Fritz Lang’s “The Woman in the Window,” Edward G. Robinson, as Professor Richard Wanley, is a beloved university educator who lectures his students about ethical principles. One night, he finds himself in a quandary that throws his life into turmoil and causes him to question his own principles of right and wrong.
His burgeoning problems begin after he spies a painting of a beautiful woman on display is a gallery’s front window. When the subject of the painting suddenly appears on the sidewalk next to him, the story takes a turn. The heralded professor eventually lands in the middle of a spiraling set of circumstances that threaten to pull him down like quicksand. For Wanley, meeting the woman of your dreams, who almost seems to materialize out of the painting, can have dire consequences.
Make no mistake about it, these films are not commenting on the state of contemporary painting. The ones used in these movies are certainly not great works of art. The portrait of Laura Hunt was actually a varnished photograph of actress Jean Tierney, who played the ill-fated title character. It's more accurate to simply view them as movie props that helped tell a story. And that in itself is a pretty solid artistic statement.

Saturday, July 29, 2017

A Simple Plot is the Backdrop for Murder

Ben Gazzara, Timothy Carey, Robert Phillips, Seymour Cassel and Morgan Woodward.
Sometimes, your favorite films play tricks on you. You carry around a memory of the plot, atmosphere and pacing, but later you find that your recollection was all wrong.
That happened to me recently when I saw John Cassavete's 1976 film,"The Killing of a Chinese Bookie."
It was the first time I'd watched it in a number of years, and I'd remembered it as a densely plotted crime thriller, full of atmosphere and peppered throughout with odd, interesting characters.
I got the parts about the characters and atmosphere right, but the plot was not as dense as I thought. It was about as simple as a storyline can be.
Cosmo Vittelli (Ben Gazzara), runs a sleazy cabaret on Sunset. He loses big money gambling and agrees to kill a mob figure to pay off his debt. He carries out the hit, and is double-crossed by the gangsters who put him up to the crime.
Mr. Sophistication (Meade Roberts)
The story's main attraction is Cosmo, who is an oddity in the sleaze trade. He writes and directs the low-brow skits staged at the club, and he firmly believes in their artistic quality. His dedication to his work is taken to ridiculous extremes. Even when he's running for his life, he can't help but phone in to the club to check on the performers and give them directions.
As an inveterate gambler, he risks all and commits murder to save himself, but also to keep his little theater troupe active. You might say that Cosmo is a stand-in for independent film producers, a la Cassavetes. It takes a gambler with unconquerable dedication to his craft to make films like his. We can only hope that his struggle never involved a contract killing.