Saturday, December 18, 2021

'Nightmare Alley' 2021: Guillermo Del Toro's Noir Carnival of Horror


I should have known better than to smuggle a chicken burrito into the theater from the taqueria next door to it. Why, you ask? Let’s just say I bit into it at an unappetizing moment in the film. If you saw the original “Nightmare Alley” (1947) with Tyrone Power, or if you know what a carnival geek is, you’ll get the idea. Bummer.

But the good news is that “Nightmare Alley” (2021), the stunningly dark reincarnation of the original, is a black-hearted wonder. Although it’s usually a bad idea to remake a great old film, and the original was just that, director Guillermo del Toro gives it a new and, yes, darker life, closer to the novel on which it is based.
The film opens before the start of World War II — at one point a character remarks that the guy who looks like Charlie Chaplin just invaded Poland. The Depression is at full dudgeon and desperation hangs over the populace like a thick toxic cloud. 

In this dystopic world we encounter the amoral, tormented Stanton Carlisle (Bradley Cooper), whose life is a puzzle from the start. When we meet him, he’s committing a startlingly grim act, and only later do we learn the story behind it. He hightails it out of town and stumbles into a traveling carnival, where he’s offered temporary work, and so he mingles with the denizens of this underground culture in which it doesn’t matter who you are or what you’ve done — lucky for Stan.

He wanders into the residence of fortune teller Zeena the Seer (Toni Collette), who, with Stan, cheats on her mate Pete (David Strathairn), but seems a kind-hearted soul compared with the vipers who populate the traveling carney. 

Detestable carney boss Clem Hoatley (Willem Dafoe) oversees a particularly grotesque carnival attraction, an assortment of glass jars that contain a virtual museum of deformities with remains floating in liquid preservatives. One, in particular, an infant with a protrusion through the forehead, whose mother died in childbirth, reappears on the screen from time to time, darkly implying painful details of Stan’s history. That this is a showpiece for the ogling masses casts a dark view indeed of the populace in the years leading up to the war.

With the worst of the Depression upon them, sideshow freaks are in great demand with a public who wants someone to look down on and feel superior to, Stan is told. We soon meet the most degraded sideshow performer, the geek, a tragically demented man who bites the heads off chickens for the audience’s savage amusement and is kept in a cage like an animal. 

When the geek escapes from captivity, Stan is ordered to help flush him out of the fun house where he’s likely holed up. The place is filled with monsters and other spooky things rendered in wood, cardboard and plaster of paris, a delightfully hellish landscape filled with playful menace. It may also serve as an ominous glimpse into Stan’s future. 

More ominous still, Zeena’s tarot cards predict Stan will face the opportunity to choose between a straight and narrow life and doom. When this comes to pass, we already know which path he’ll choose.
Stan meets Molly Cahill (Rooney Mara), the carney’s electrically charged sideshow performer — she is able to withstand large surges of electrical current that flash across her body like a lightning storm. She’s a sweet girl who manages to stay removed from the sideshow ruffians thanks to the watchful eye of carney strongman Bruno (Ron Perlman), who keeps her out of harm’s way. Unfortunately for her, she comes to believe in Stan, much to Bruno’s dismay, and the two become an item.

Stan has ambitions to go on the road with the mentalist act he swipes from Zeena’s Pete, a good-hearted but weary tippler. Stan wants to go after well-heeled dupes who are ripe for the picking. The other carneys urge Stan to avoid doing a “spook show” — posing as a true mind-reader and spiritualist, which is a line that none of them will cross. But, Stan’s all too ready to hoodwink suckers with fatter wallets than the beaten-down masses who crowd the sideshows, so he and Molly leave the carney behind and eventually make the leap to the upscale nightclub circuit.
It’s not long before he connects with a slippery psychologist, Dr. Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchett), a seductive shape-shifter who, to paraphrase Raymond Chandler, is a blonde to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained-glass window. They begin an affair of sorts, and she offers him the means to cash in on some wealthy dupes. He lands a promising but somewhat dangerous client, troubled millionaire Ezra Grindle (Richard Jenkins).

But, with every silver lining comes a dark cloud, and Stan is eventually in for a precipitous fall — this is noir, after all, and that's a prime convention of the genre.

Speaking of conventions, most traditional noirs were shot cheaply, which meant that color film was verboten. Del Toro wants to release a black and white version of his film. The muted tones of the color print are quietly effective, but it would be thrilling to see it in black in white. Let’s hope that happens.

As remakes go, “Nightmare Alley” more than holds its own with its many outstanding performances, even in the smaller roles, wonderful direction and taut script. What sets it apart from  standard Hollywood do-overs is its refusal to compromise. True to its noir roots, the film is an oddity today, minus an upbeat ending calculated to resonate with the masses, and that’s a good thing. The chilling conclusion is devastating. Be warned, if you’re hoping for even a glimmer of sunshine when emerging from this darkened house of horrors you may need whiskey — but hold the chicken burrito. 


Thursday, June 11, 2020

Sopranos Ending Confirmed: Told Ya So!

“Sopranos” creator David Chase finally set the record straight about Tony Soprano’s fate in the series finale, “Made in America.” 
Not to toot my own horn, but it seems that Life and Death in L.A. had it right all along
Chase let slip a telling comment that confirms my theory, published here in 2012. The final scene of the dramatic series left the audience wondering what happened to New Jersey crime boss Tony Soprano when the screen suddenly went black.
I felt that the unexpected blackout was a subtle way of showing that Tony was dead. Chase had never decisively stated whether or not Tony got whacked. But an interview quoted in the New York Post leaves little doubt. The crime boss who reigned supreme over North Jersey for six seasons that stretched out over eight years had finally met his demise.
The series ran on HBO, garnering more than 20 Emmy Awards and was widely acclaimed as one of the best television dramas of all time. James Gandolfini, who played Tony Soprano, the crime boss who struggled with family matters while running the Jersey mob, died in 2013. The series continues to stream on HBO. 

Wednesday, April 29, 2020

'The Silent Partner' : A Bank Job 1970s Noir Style

Elliot Gould is Miles Cullen, a Toronto bank teller whose chief companions in life are the tropical fish he keeps in an aquarium in his cramped apartment. To his female co-workers, Miles is a teddy bear nerd with as much sex appeal as one of his guppies.
One day, he notices something sinister is afoot in the shopping mall where his bank is located. Something is churning inside him, and it doesn't take long for the premonition he's ruminating over to bubble to the surface.
He fusses over his chess board — the first clue that this drama will be a tactical battle of wits. Frustrated in his dreams of winning the love of a beautiful woman, Julie (Suzannah York), he takes an uncharacteristic step that could free him from his mundane life or lead to ruin  — pocketing a healthy chunk of the bank's funds before a hold-up man can clear out the cash drawer.
As ineffectual as he is with the opposite sex, Miles proves himself a surprisingly skilled criminal mastermind. Hanging in the balance of this high stakes game is the possibility of starting life anew, although it becomes clear he has not considered all of the consequences of his criminal act.
Once the deed is done a number of snags come up, the chief one being the reappearance of Reikle (Christopher Plummer), a sadistic criminal who in practically every way is the diametric opposite of Miles. Further complicating the matter is Elaine (CĂ©line Lomez), a femme fatale with murkey allegiances — as femmes fatale would.
In a couple of plot twists Miles comes close to losing the purloined fortune he hopes will serve as an early retirement fund. In addition to keeping his hands on the cash he must come up with a strategy of ridding himself of his major nemesis, Reikle, who has made Miles his unwilling silent partner.
The screenplay, written by Curtis Hanson, who co-wrote and directed "L.A. Confidential," displays a lean framework typical of film noir. The pieces fit together nicely and its scenes crackle with understated authenticity. If one weakness must be singled out it is that "The Silent Partner" lacks the noir genre's fatalistic outlook — the ending buttons up neatly, and just misses greatness. See it anyway, because, unlike Julie's withering summation of Miles early in the film, its total is greater than the sum of its parts.

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Notorious Los Angeles Crime ... and Where to Find It

The Colt revolver found near Lana Clarkson’s body at the Alhambra crime scene.

Who doesn't like to reminisce now and then? Especially when it comes to heinous crimes committed in the City of Los Angeles. Like any large metropolitan region, Los Angeles has its share of dark moments. Crime in the City of Angels has been the stuff we've watched in thousands movies and TV shows, seen depicted on screen in such lurid detail, that the link between the city and the crimes that are perpetrated here stays burned into our collective memory long after the blood stains have been mopped up and the corpses removed to the morgue.
Some may blame the year-round sunshine and dry desert air for driving the good people of the city to distraction. Raymond Chandler said that the dusty, unforgiving winds can bring about madness and tragedy:
“There was a desert wind blowing that night. It was one of those hot dry Santa Anas that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands' necks. Anything can happen. You can even get a full glass of beer at a cocktail lounge.” 
― Raymond Chandler, Red Wind: A Collection of Short Stories 

If you'd like to review a bit of the city's past, try this handy guide, 'The Locations of L.A,'s Most Memorable Crimes by Neighborhood."

Monday, November 27, 2017

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

Detective Mark MacPherson is mesmerized by the portrait  of Laura Hunt. 

Noir anti-heroes often come from the wrong side of the tracks, and then struggle to shake off the dust from the old neighborhood. Lured by the trappings of the filthy rich – jewels, swell apartments, gorgeous babes, they cross the line into a saturnine world of deceit, plunder and sometimes murder, all in an ill-advised effort to reinvent themselves. And 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 sometimes the keystone of the noir drama’s plot. Portraits of women frequently turn up, sometimes echoing a character's desire to isolate and possess the sitter. Other times an artwork seems to hang over a room, casting judgment on those who behold it. 

In Otto Preminger’s 1944 noir “Laura,” Dana Andrews as police Det. Lt. Mark McPherson, falls in love with the eponymous murder victim Laura Hunt, whose portrait hangs over her living room mantelpiece. His frequent visits to the scene of the crime, the dead girl’s apartment, are part of his investigation, so he says. But while there, he compulsively sifts through her possessions, listens to her favorite recordings of romantic music and moons over the 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. It also helps set the stage for a dramatic plot twist that comes halfway through the film. Under Laura's spell, MacPherson is suddenly snapped awake from his reverie as the story takes an unexpected turn. 

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 “Laura,” a portrait of a deceased woman plays an outsized 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 — the piercing eyes of justice looking down on Anne, judging her and ready to pass sentence.

Joan Bennett, Edward G. Robinson,  
'The Woman in the Window.'

In Fritz Lang’s “The Woman in the Window,” Edward G. Robinson is Prof. Richard Wanley, 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 woman in the painting suddenly appears on the sidewalk next to him, the story takes an almost magical turn. 

The heralded professor eventually lands in the middle of a spiraling set of circumstances that threaten to envelop him like quicksand. For Wanley, the woman of his dreams, who seems to materialize out of the painting, is a siren lying in wait, ready to take possession of him.

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.