Life and Death in L.A.: September 2011

Monday, September 26, 2011

The Humanity of a 'Mad Dog' in 'High Sierra'

In "High Sierra" (1941), Humphrey Bogart is Roy "Mad Dog" Earle, an ex-con who is full of contradictions. Earle, apparently a hardened criminal, gets sprung from prison, and the first place he wants to go is to a park, where the grass is growing underfoot and he can breathe the fresh air. He may be the only movie gangster of that era who could also be a card-carrying Sierra Club member.

Earle has a soft spot for a crippled girl and a dog, and although we like him better for it, neither of the two will do much to stop his inevitable demise in this film. In fact, his soft spots end up being the Achilles heel that helps bring him down.

The role was a breakout part for Bogart, one that allowed him to display a greater range of subtleties in his character -- albeit portraying another gangster, as he had in a string of movies preceding this one.

Earle is involved in a holdup plot that goes wrong, and then he's on the run. The film's climax comes in the mountains, and includes a high-speed car chase that showcases Raoul Walsh's lean, powerful direction.

Walsh shoots the sheer cliffs and overpowering, vast landscape of the Sierra Nevadas as a desolate spot, where tragedy is just around every hair-pin turn up the steep mountain road.

The press tags Earle with the "Mad Dog" moniker, and this gnaws at him no end. He's not really bad, it's the circumstances of his life and some bum choices that have brought him to this juncture in his life.

The irony is that Earle is ultimately trapped in nature, as he evades the law as best he can among the mountain peaks. He's caught in wide open space that holds him in its grip just as certainly as did prison bars and concrete. And from that, few escape.

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Friday, September 23, 2011

Tabloid Photog Had Eye For Public Drama

"He will take his camera and ride off in search of new evidence that his city, even in her most drunken and disorderly and pathetic moments, is beautiful."

- William McCleery in 'Naked City'

New York shutterbug Arthur Fellig, AKA "Weegee" (June 12, 1899 – Dec. 26, 1968) didn't invent tabloid photography, but he turned it into high art.

Fellig earned his nickname, a phonetic rendering of Ouija, because of his frequent, seemingly prescient arrivals at scenes only minutes after crimes, fires or other emergencies were reported to authorities.

Weegee the photographer was the cigar-chewing saturnine poet of New York's Lower East Side in the 1930s and '40s. He prowled the streets at night, police radio in his car, in search of crime, fires, car crashes and any scene that would throw human nature and its frailties into relief. He also frequently focused his lens on the denizens of the night, whether they be Bowery flop house regulars, burlesque performers or rich folk slumming it amid the blood and beer in the streets.

Armed with a Speed Graphic camera, whose mighty flash bulbs poured stark, unyielding light onto scenes of dead gunmen splayed across sidewalks, grieving families watching their apartment building burn -- with a relative inside that firefighters couldn't get to, or the aftermath of twisted steel and still-warm corpses left in the path of an auto wreck, Weegee created a bold, unflinching view of the terror and joy of the urban condition.

With a darkroom setup in the trunk of his car, the self-taught photographer developed his own pictures on the fly, typed a descriptive blurb about each scene (see photo, left) and delivered the fruits of his labors to the papers in time for the "bulldog" edition.

It was the success of his first photography book, "Naked City" (1945), that made Weegee famous. And as Lee Friedlander noted... "It is one of the great ironies of 'Naked City' that although it established Weegee as an expressive photographer and helped prepare the way for his work to enter and belong in art museums, it produced one of the purest forms of the tabloid as we know it today." Film director Stanley Kubrick admired Weegee’s photographs so much so that he hired him as the stills photographer of "Doctor Strangelove." When Peter Sellers heard Weegee speak he apparently used Weegee’s voice for Dr Strangelove.

Weegee's book inspired "The Naked City," a 1948 crime film directed by Jules Dassin. The movie, shot partly in documentary style, was filmed on location on the streets of New York City. The director sought to capture the drama that Weegee delivered daily in those two-penny tabloids that gripped the city for decades. Dassin got the flavor of the times in his movie, but it's a fool's errand to try to equal the force of those simple black and white photos that served as an inspiration to Dassin, and likely, to other crime film directors, as well. Weegee was an exceedingly tough act to follow.

Friday, September 9, 2011

New 'Straw Dogs' Has Much Bark, Little Bite

Like Neil Labute's failed remake of the British horror classic "The Wickerman," Rod Lurie's attempt to resurrect "Straw Dogs," the 1971 Sam Peckinpah thriller, is a film that might leave you scratching your head in wonder. The wonder is why Lurie thinks the Peckinpah horrific shoot-em-up, originally set in a remote English village needed to be moved to a small Mississippi town. And, indeed, why this cliche-ridden remake was necessary at all.

One tip-off that preview audiences were in for something foul came when searching Rotten Tomatoes. "Straw Dogs" had no reviews just a couple of weeks before its release. That usually means the studio knows its got a monumental stinker on its hands, and keeps the press away.

"Straw Dogs" (2011) isn't quite the train wreck I feared it would be, but it's got some flat acting and holes in its logic you could drive your pickup truck through. The original "Straw Dogs," like the original "Wickerman," commented on the insularity of British small town life. Where the first "Straw Dogs" felt like a journey to a strange place that was very real and very frightening, the retooled version feels like a journey to a familiar, yet meaner land inhabited by the cast of "The Dukes of Hazard."

Moving the story to the deep South allows the filmmaker to trot out every tired hillbilly redneck stereotype imaginable. Although "Straw Dogs" presents a multitude of crime, the film, strictly speaking, is not a crime film. It has more in common with American westerns, particularly those that strive to present a morality tale.

Weighing down the production is lead actor James Marsden, who simply hasn't got the acting chops to play the story's nebbish hero, David Sumner. Those who have seen Dustin Hoffman in the original role know what big shoes Marsden has to fill. Both he and Kate Bosworth, as David's wife, Amy, struggle to create the kind of on-screen chemistry that would make us care about this couple. But to little avail.

The two come off as spoiled and arrogant -- she a TV star, and he a screenwriter working on a script about the siege of Leningrad. That's a clue about what's to come in this movie.

Alexander SkarsgÄrd, as Charlie, the local tough who takes a shine to Amy, is a credible presence, but James Woods, as the wildly inappropriate old-codger Coach, chews the scenery unmercifully, and should have been told to take his performance down several dozen notches on the histrionics meter.

The townsfolk seem friendly, at first, but little by little hostility starts to show toward the pair, as they zip around town in a Jaguar, instead of in a proper pickup truck as the locals do. Before she became a TV star, Amy was a child of this backwater town, and we learn that she has a history here that helps lead to the couple's troubles.

The couple comes to the remote hamlet to live in Amy's family's now empty home, recently after, we assume, her father's passing. The barn's roof is in ruins, and Amy and David hire Charlie and his fetid brood of backwoodsmen who would fit well in certain scenes of "Deliverance," to fix it.

The movie isn't really about much of anything, although heavy-handed references to old forgotten former football heroes and veterans of the war in Afghanistan are tossed around, but what are they supposed to mean?

It's hard to figure why Screen Gems gave this one a green light. Judging from the demographic of the preview audience, I'd say that hardly anyone was even aware that this film is a remake of another, and fewer still have seen the original. Don't studios do remakes of well-known properties so they can save on the promotional ad campaign? The reasoning is that you spend less in advertising if you don't have to explain in your ads what the movie's about.

They missed the boat on this one. Maybe for starters they'll do an ad campaign that will explain why they decided to do this remake. I'm waiting.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Noir Evolves From The Black And White World

After having defined "film noir" as a black and white medium in a recent post, I'd like to point out that I was referring to the classic period of noir. That generally ran from 1941 to 1958, beginning with "The Maltese Falcon" and ending with "Touch of Evil."

But then came the noir revival, probably best exemplified by "Chinatown" (1974), the Technicolor detective story directed by Roman Polanski and starring Jack Nicholson -- possibly Polanski's greatest effort to date.

So how can a noir be shot in Technicolor, and lack atmospheric shadows and darkness that are the hallmark of the genre?

Polanski, masterfully, I think, gave the film a muted, almost faded look, like a picture postcard that sat too long in a sunny drugstore window.

The effect perfectly expresses the hazy, dusty sunlight typical of a Los Angeles summer day.

Additionally, it may not have been commercially viable to shoot a black and white "Chinatown." Who would have put up the $6 million to make a film that wasn't in color, even in the freewheeling early '70s?

Give due appreciation to cinematographers John A. Alonzo and the uncredited Stanley Cortez, too. They adapted Los Angeles's hazy, smoggy atmosphere to a new generation of in-color noir, and the genre's entire look was reborn because of it.

While the black and white films of the classic noir period suggest a universe that has broken free of its orbit and plunged into eternal darkness, "Chinatown"'s hazy, sun-scorched look implies a world where nothing is clear, even in broad daylight.

In "Chinatown," you see, meanings are always elusive and often misunderstood, and nothing is what it appears to be.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Gangsters And Grifters: Know Your Favorite Betes Noire

I've seen lots of stories online these days about film noir, and that may mean that there's an uptick in noir interest among movie fans.

The question is: What exactly is a film noir, and how do you know if the movie you're watching is one?

Here are a few of my own guidelines to ponder. If the film you're watching ...

  • Was shot sometime between 1941 and 1958
  • Is in black and white
  • Features a hero who has a dark past, or gets involved in shady dealings
  • Makes ample use of shadows, and has an overall dark tone, both thematically and in cinematic terms
  • Has scenes in a roadhouse where the hero drinks black coffee and chain smokes unfiltered cigarettes
  • The hero merely says "Rye," and the bartender pours him whiskey, neat
  • A blond "femme fatale" lures the hero into a scheme that results in a battle to the death
  • There's a fair amount of gun play, and someone inevitably ends up dead.
  • Characters often speak in fragmented sentences, and trade wisecracks
  • Stars Humphrey Bogart, Robert Mitchum, Richard Widmark, Barbara Stanwyck and the like

  • ... then, you might be watching a film noir.

    Films noir shouldn't be confused with gangster films, which are a slightly different genre that uses organized crime as its focal point.

    In a noir, the hero may have dealings with organized crime, but is essentially a lone wolf. Gangster films tend to focus on the dark side of the American dream. Gangsters essentially share many of the same values of home, family and prosperity, as do honest citizens. But their means of achieving their goals are what leads to their defeat.

    Typically, gangsters build a crime empire the way an entrepreneur would set up a legitimate business. They rise to the top because they are more efficient, and more ruthless, than their competitors.

    Their downfall inevitably comes when they stray from their Horatio Alger-like roots. It's usually pride before the fall. In the end their empire collapses, and the head gangster dies along with it.

    In noir, the hero isn't an entrepreneur. He's an alienated loner, sometimes in an existential crisis and desperate to break whatever shackles are holding him down. Sometimes he's living a more or less balanced life, and is unaware of the dissatisfaction gnawing within him.

    When he meets the femme fatale, everything changes. As a couple, their credo is, "Let's be bad together." There's something about the chemistry between the two that leads to crimes each wouldn't have committed alone.

    Needless to say, it often doesn't turn out well for the hero. But then again, you wouldn't expect it to.

    Sunday, September 4, 2011

    I Was A Punching Bag For The Mob

    This may not constitute a trend, but I've noted a similarity between Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul), at right, the hapless meth dealer in "Breaking Bad," and Georgie (Frank Santorelli), below, the put-upon bartender at the Badda-Bing strip club in "The Sopranos."

    Both characters regularly take vicious beatings as a consequence of their employment, and that's something to ponder this Labor Day weekend.

    Jessie has most recently had his face rearranged by drug enforcement agent Hank Schrader (Dean Norris) and regularly gets beaten stupid by every hood on the block.

    Meanwhile, his partner in crime and former high school chemistry teacher Walt White (Bryan Cranston) goes unscathed.

    Bartender Georgie, however, suffers mostly at the hands of his employer, mob boss Tony Soprano and occasionally others in the gang when the mood strikes.

    Tony has beaten Georgie with an ice bucket, a telephone receiver and a singing novelty fish, while Ralph "Ralphie" Cifaretto, (Joe Pantoliano) nearly took out Georgie's eye with a chain and padlock he swung like a mace.

    Let's all stand and offer a round of muted golf-applause in honor of these two fine gentlemen who regularly take one for the team.