Life and Death in L.A.: 2012

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Just Desserts for a Bad Apple

The Hoodlum (1951)

Director: Max Nosseck
Writer: Sam Neuman
Stars: Lawrence Tierney, Allene Roberts and Marjorie Riordan

See the full movie on YouTube, or rent it on DVD.

Sometimes a rat gets what he deserves – it just takes a while.

“The Hoodlum” begins documentary style with a rundown of anti-hero Vincent Lubeck’s dirty dealings. As a teen, he starts getting busted for petty crimes, and pretty soon he's graduated to the big leagues.

Next is a scene with wooden dialogue in which Lubeck’s mom successfully argues with the parole board to release her wayward boy from lock-up. But mom soon finds she made a big mistake in springing the now-grown golden boy from the slammer.

The movie’s first few minutes might make you want to look for something else to watch. But stay with it. It’s not a goofy morality tale, a la “Reefer Madness.” The movie quickly morphs into a terse, tightly edited story (it’s just an hour and 10 minutes long) of a caring, supportive family getting thoroughly screwed over by their good-for-nothing son.

Lawrence Tierney is great as Vincent, the sociopath who ensures that no good deed goes unpunished. Tierney’s real-life brother, Edward, plays his sibling, Johnny Lubeck. Johnny puts aside his disdain for his paroled brother – Vincent’s criminal shenanigans drove their father to his grave – and tries to help him go straight. But aiding in Vincent’s reform is a losing battle, and Johnny ends up suffering dearly for his efforts.

Vincent, being the shark that he is, displays a genius in finding ways to exploit, humiliate and drive to the brink everyone who shows him trust and kindness. He gets off scot-free for his dirty dealings with his family. But when he masterminds an armored car robbery that goes wrong, his downfall is at hand. The authorities, you see, wear no kid gloves.

This low-budget flick avoids finding redeeming qualities in Vincent, which is one of its greatest strengths. Vincent has no softer side that makes him sympathetic to a broad audience, and any attempt to explain or justify his anti-social behavior would dilute the film's impact.

Vincent's end comes at the town dump -- not at all like the "top of the world" fiery and spectacular end James Cagney's Cody Jarrett meets in "White Heat" a couple of years earlier.

But like Cody, Vincent has little respect for anyone but his mother -- and we don't see much of it until the movie's final act. It's then and only then that we have a glimmer of sympathy for the hoodlum, when it's too late to save him. But then, "The Hoodlum" isn't about redemption. It's about payback, and Vincent receives that in spades.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Shadowy, But Hardly a Dead Ringer for Noir

Lots of vintage films are labeled films noir, yet when you look closely at them they don’t pass the noir litmus test. “Dark City” is one worth watching, but it flunks the exam.

You can spot a noir by it’s ending -- the hero is a victim of circumstances who naively wanders, or is lured, into big trouble and the outcome is, of course, less than positive. He faces a bleak fate -- probably death.

“Dark City” is a crime film, for sure, but the anti-hero at the center of the story, Danny Haley, played by Charlton Heston, isn’t the doomed, tormented soul that every noir leading man must be. In fact, Danny isn’t conflicted about his life’s work, running a bookie joint. But his shop keeps getting raided by the cops despite the payoffs to City Hall. To quote gang boss Johnny Caspar in a more modern gangster classic, “Miller’s Crossing,” “If you can't trust a fix, what can you trust?”

With the bookie business getting too hot, Danny goes after some easy pickings when he sets up a visiting hayseed in a rigged card game and causes the poor sucker to sign over a check for $5,000 that doesn’t belong to him.

The scheme looks foolproof until the cheated out-of-towner, Captain Garvey, played by Dean Jagger, takes his own life. Suddenly, everything unravels.

A young Henry Morgan plays one of Danny’s slightly dim sidekicks, and does the role proud. But the one to watch is Jack Webb. This may have been Webb’s best screen role as the weasely Augie, the annoying punk who is determined to cash the check that the group filched in the card game. Danny is dead set against cashing the check, and that puts his at odds with Augie.

Webb is, of course, better known for his straight and narrow, but ultimately cardboard roles as detectives, cops, and even a Marine Corps drill instructor. He hits his mark as a greasy whack job who is too impatient and intelligence-challenged to save his own life. If the film has a noir anti-hero it’s Webb. But he’s too much of a jerk to root for, so we are left with Heston’s Danny to guide us through this William Dieterle-directed, 1950 thriller.

Heston makes a believable and sympathetic Danny, a guy who could have done more with his life if he hadn’t settled in the rackets. Fran Garland (Lizabeth Scott), a torch singer, carries a torch for Danny, but he pays her little attention. The plot turns when Danny, using a false name, visits Captain Garvey’s widow, Victoria Winant (Viveca Lindfors), and romance begins to blossom. But the short-lived infatuation suddenly turns to ashes when she learns who Danny really is.

Needless to say, revenge is waiting on the doorstep for each member of Danny’s gang who helped take the chump for all he was worth. Toward the end, things look bleak for Danny, but he manages to turn the situation around and redeem himself. The climax presents us with an upbeat ending, which studio execs must have insisted on, but it simply ain’t noir. Too bad – it’s a good film that could have been great.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Crime Erupts Under the Streets of L.A.

Much of "He Walked by Night" is held together with the loose thread of documentary-style film-making. But those parts are no match or the last 20 minutes or so of the film that prowls the lower reaches of the city.

Richard Basehart is the killer who terrorizes L.A. and can't be stopped. Few have ever seen him, and that frustrates the L.A.P.D.

Jack Webb plays a supporting role as a police forensics officer, and it's obvious that this film provided the blueprint for the TV show that would become his shining achievement, "Dragnet."

The movie is an early, primitive police procedural that wants to be a German Neo-Expressionist art film. When the camera moves into the subterranean world of storm drains it's easy to imagine for a while that directors Carol Reed or perhaps Fritz Lang are calling the shots.

What makes it a must see is the wonderful black and white photography as Basehart becomes the human prey of the forces of justice.

Suddenly, Venice, Calif., stands in for Vienna. We remember Orson Welles being chased through that city's storm drains in "The Third Man." Oceans are crossed, and the European avante garde finds a safe refuge on the Pacific Coast.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Scene of the Crime (Film) IV: Shock of Recognition

If you live in or visit Hollywood you can find lots of buildings used as film exteriors. You might be familiar with the address, such as 77 Sunset Strip, named after the 1950s-60s TV detective show set in Los Angeles, For the record, the building where they filmed the opening sequence and some exterior scenes was not really number 77, but it was on the Strip. The detective agency was located "between La Cienega Boulevard and Alta Loma Road on the south side of the Strip next door to Dean Martin's real-life lounge, Dino's Lodge.

If you're looking for other film and TV locations, here are a few that will appeal to film noir fans. In "Double Indemnity," Walter Neff, portrayed by Fred MacMurray, the L.A. insurance salesman who gets pulled into a murder plot by femme fatale Barbara Stanwyck, lives in an apartment building, the Kensington, at 1825 N. Kingsley Drive in Hollywood (right). "Double Indemnity" director Billy Wilder instructed the art director to build the set used as Neff's apartment interior to resemble Wilder's quarters in the Chateau Marmont on Sunset Blvd., where the director was living while shooting the movie.

You can see the train station where, in "Double Indemnity" Neff and femme fatale Phyllis Dietrichson pull a switcheroo with the body of her murdered husband, and where
Neff boards a train posing as Phyllis's husband. The station at Glendale (right) was the scene of the crime. Neff jumps off the train as it's pulling away from the station, and he and Phylis dump her husband's cold, dead body by the side of the tracks, making it look like the old guy got killed in an accident. Neff and Phylis plan to ride off together with the husband's insurance money, but complications ensue for the murderous pair.

While in Glendale don't forget to drop in on the "Mildred Pierce" house (right) where Joan Crawford resided in the 1945 film of the same name.  It's at 1147 N. Jackson Street, Glendale. Don't literally drop in, it's a private residence. The impressive palm tree still dominates the front of the house, but it has grown substantially taller than it was in the 1940s.

The first glimpse of these sites can be a little strange. You instantly recognize the place and the buildings, but something's wrong. Then you realize that you've experienced this scene only in black and white, and now for the first time you're seeing it in color.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Punks, Thugs Rule the City in 'Crime Wave'

One of the better rediscovered crime films of the past few years is "Crime Wave." Remember James Ellroy's top 10 favorite crime films, which we discussed here a few posts ago? As you may remember, "Crime Wave" made the list, and for good reason.

It should have come as no surprise when I got ahold of the DVD and put on the commentary track it was none other than Ellroy along with author and crime film aficionado Eddie Muller giving the blow-by-blow at ringside. First off, I admire Ellroy, even when he's a bit overbearing on the commentary track. This is a film that's worth viewing. It's got many scenes of vintage L.A. architecture, circa 1952 when the film was shot, even though it wasn't released until '54. Both Ellroy and Muller are fountains of information, so the commentary track is a must once you've viewed the film without it.

Crime wave was shot during the "Dragnet" days, when Jack Webb engineered a cozy relationship between the film and TV industries and the LAPD. That gave filmmakers access to the inner workings of the force like you couldn't dream of these days. They even film in the old L.A. Police Detective Bureau, which used to be located in City Hall. Also, keep an eye out for the many identifiable L.A. landmarks that turn up, like the original Bob's Big Boy in Burbank.

The films stars Sterling Hayden (above) as no nonsense Detective Lt. Sims. Muller comments, and I have to agree, that Hayden WAS Bud White, the fictional L.A. Police detective in Ellroy's "L.A. Confidential," who was played by Russell Crowe in the screen adaptation of Ellroy's novel. Hayden was the real thing, a "knock your teeth down your throat if you give me any lip" LAPD detective.

Also playing a small supporting role is a young Charles Buchinsky, who became better known later as Charles Bronson.

It's not the greatest story ever told, but check out the camera work and all of those L.A. locations. Director André De Toth filmed this strikingly gorgeous portrait of L.A. that makes you forgive and forget the occasional weakly written scene.

Once again, this is a low-budget Warner Bros. knockoff, that almost starred Humphrey Bogart -- De Toth fought for Hayden -- and was shot in 14 days. This might be the only film I've ever seen that I'm grateful did not have Bogie in the cast. It's perfect the way it is.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Crime in the New Wild West

A lot of people say that "No Country for Old Men" is Joel and Ethan Coen's best film so far. I'd find that a difficult choice to make. But I'll say that "No Country" is one of my favorites.

Javier Bardem has gotten all the kudos for his portrayal of devil incarnate Anton Chigurh -- he won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar. But people talk less about Josh Brolin's turn as Llewelyn Moss, the brush hunter who one strange day on the range find's he's no longer the hunter, but the hunted.

My favorite is Tommy Lee Jones (above, right), whose Sheriff Ed Tom Bell couldn't be more natural and less affected. He's an old-timer who admires the old guy sheriffs. Particularly the ones like him who never carry a gun.

Jones is a native of West Texas, where the story is set, and his performance ranks above all others in that film, and that's no minor compliment. He doesn't seem to act, he merely IS Sheriff Ed Tom Bell.

Brolin is wonderful as Moss, the backwoodsman who stumbles upon the remnants of a drug deal gone bad. The story takes place in 1980, just when the U.S.-Mexico drug war is starting to become exceedingly violent. The movie is also appropriately bloody. In the end the body count is as big as the West Texas sky.

Scenes of graphic carnage are offset with black humor. You can chuckle at a setup that leads to mayhem, then gasp at the blood-letting that follows. As is usual with the Coens, you laugh and then wonder why you just laughed.

The director brothers get high marks on their visual storytelling skills in most of their films, and this one hits a high water mark. They let those big, barren Texas landscapes tell the story. There's just enough information in each scene to move the story along. You have to watch closely to keep up.

Yet this tale couldn't be simpler -- it's a cat and mouse chase that rises way above typical brainless "action" movies. There's real character development setting NCFOM apart from 99 percent of the crap out there.

Overall, it's sort of a modern day cowboy, crime, action, comedy -- or something like that. Stark as a lone cactus in the desert. And just as dry as the landscape there.

Monday, May 21, 2012

True Crime: Beverly Hills' Dark, Dark Past

Lana Turner home, where Johnny Stompanado got it.
Sunday afternoon is a time for barbecuing and lazing around in the hammock ... for some people. Yesterday, I took a self-directed walking tour of a scary little town called Beverly Hills. In an area of just a handful of blocks there have been some of the most notorious crimes on the books. If you decide to visit on your own, don't be fooled by the neighborhood's sedate appearance.

Johnny and Lana.
Movie industry people and gangsters just naturally go together. Take Lana Turner and mobster Johnny Stompanado (right), an enforcer for L.A. mob boss Mickey Cohen. Johnny and Lana had a tumultuous relationship, until April 4, 1958, when Lana's daughter, Cheryl Crane, stabbed and killed Johnny as he was attacking Lana. Stroll past the scene of the crime, at 730 N. Bedford Drive (above), and you'll see the house that looks much the same as it did on that day in 1958.

Bugsy's last stand.
Then there was Benjamin "Bugsy" Siegel, who has appeared in these dispatches previously. Bugsy, an operative for the Genovese Crime Family, met an untimely demise on the evening of June 20, 1947, as he sat in his girlfriend Virginia Hill's Beverly Hills home, at 810 N. Linden Drive (left). Walk by the front of the house, where the living room is located, and you just might see inside, where Bugsy took some bullets to the head fired by an unknown sniper.

Last but not least is the former home of the Menendez family. Sons Lyle and Erik were convicted of the shotgun murders of their parents, Jose and Mary "Kitty" Menendez. On August 20, 1989, the brothers gunned down both parents in the living room of the home at 722 North Elm Drive (below). They ditched the shotgun on Mulholland Drive and bought tickets to a movie, "License to Kill," as their alibi -- bad movie choice for an alibi.

The police bought their innocent act at first, but when they went on a million dollar Rodeo Drive spending spree soon after the killings, law men took another look. They were later convicted of the twin murders and sentenced to life in prison. They're still there. And so is the house where the murders occurred.
Chez Menendez.

You can also view the home that was the scene of actress Lupe Velez's suicide ( 732 North Rodeo Drive), chronicled by Kenneth Anger in "Hollywood Babylon." However, Anger's version of the suicide was debunked recently by the Huffington Post. And there's the home at 600 Cañon Drive, where Robert Wagner and Natalie Wood lived when Natalie accidentally drowned during a party on the couple's yacht. That's a case the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Dept. recently re-opened.

There are plenty more infamous Beverly Hills sites much like these, and they deserve a visit on another day. After a busy afternoon of hoofing it around to crime scenes it was time time to get out of that bad area.

Coincidentally, it was the afternoon of a solar eclipse. That explains why the sky got dark all of a sudden in the middle of a sunny California day.
Or does it?
Maybe there's something about that neighborhood that makes it seem especially shadowy.

Robert Wagner and Natalie Wood's former residence at 600 Cañon Drive.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Their Mileage May Vary: Thundering Down 'Plunder Road'

I took James Ellroy's advice -- it didn't come directly from him, you understand -- and checked out "Plunder Road," one of his all-time favorite crime films that was included in Monday's post.

It's a great-looking, pared-down gritty drama made in 1957, obviously on a small budget. The cast includes the great Elisha Cook Jr., as well as lesser known actors Gene Raymond, Jeanne Cooper, Wayne Morris, Stafford Repp and Steven Ritch.

"Plunder Road" starts with a train robbery that takes place in a driving rain. There's little dialog for the first 10 minutes or so, and what there is starts out with each robber's thoughts expressed in voice over. It's one of "Plunder Road"'s few unconvincing moments, and fortunately it doesn't go on for long.

The heist itself is carried out just about wordlessly, as any good heist ought to be. Then the gangsters split into three groups, each driving a truck with a third of the loot packed inside. It doesn't take long for things to go wrong, which is inevitable in a heist movie -- if the crooks got away without a hitch there would be no story.

They point their trucks toward California, which is 900 miles away, and split up rather than travel together. The crooks try to blend in with everyday traffic, which works for a while. The great irony is that while the escaping robbers are barreling down the open road toward California -- a trip that for many Americans is the very symbol of freedom -- they're trapped in a claustrophobic journey that is likely to have no good end.

The final twist in the gang's getaway plan -- a way to smuggle the ill-gotten wealth out of the country -- helps lift this film above others in this genre.

Like "Detour" and "DOA," two exquisite, low-budget noir road movies, "Plunder Road" gets a lot of mileage out of a simple but well constructed story. You can stream it on Netflix.

Monday, May 14, 2012

James Ellroy Names His Top 10 Crime Movies

Crime Fiction writer James Ellroy says these are his favorite 10 crime films. His opinion is worth paying attention to because he knows a thing or two about what makes a good crime story.

The first one on his list is based on one of his novels -- not exactly a humble position to take, but "L.A. Confidential" is a very good movie.

I'm not sure why he chose "Godfather II" and not "Godfather I." I've heard many say that they prefer the sequel to the original, but I have to hold Part I in higher esteem.

I haven't seen many of the rest, but that's the point of putting together top 10 lists. You'll perhaps find a good film you might never have seen otherwise. Time to log into Netflix and put some on order.

Here are Ellroy's top 10:

L.A. Confidential (1997)
The Godfather: Part II (1974)
The Prowler (1951)
Crime Wave (1953)
Odds Against Tomorrow (1959)
The Killing (1956)
Plunder Road (1957)
The Lineup (1958)
711 Ocean Drive (1950)
Vertigo (1958).

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Wooden Detectives Somehow Remain Appealing

Against all odds, "Dragnet" lives on.

It's on DVD, of course, and you can stream some of it on Netflix, which is true of a lot of TV shows. Frankly I've always enjoyed the show, no matter how wooden the acting was, regardless of how embarrassingly hokey the story might have been. And, man, it gave new meaning to the words wooden and hokey.

Shot in documentary format, it's the least lifelike 30 minutes of police drama TV you're ever liable to see.

It's hard to pin down the Dragnet appeal. Others tried to do something similar, but never quite equaled the Dragnet mystique. There was Broderick Crawford in "Highway Patrol," but that didn't grab the mass market/cult following that the Jack Webb-created police drama had, and continues to maintain. Ditto for private detective Peter Gunn, or the 1960s series "77 Sunset Strip" and "The FBI," both with Efrem Zimbalist Jr.

Could it be the terrible lighting that makes it so stupidly appealing? In the 1950s Dragnet was in black and white, and it looked like a noir crime drama. Then the show made a comeback in the 1960s and it looked like a set the Partridge Family could walk onto and not appear out of place. You can always spot a Jack Webb-produced police drama (Dragnet 1967, Adam 12) because every scene is lighted like a sitcom -- bright, no shadows.

Dragnet 1967 worked to erase any trace of doubts about the L.A.P.D. There were no shadowy figures, except for the shady characters and scum that Webb and Harry Morgan always brought to justice.

Residing in the "so bad it's good" category for decades, Dragnet appealed to the portion of its audience who took it at face value, and those who laughed up their sleeves at the clench-teeth, over the top drama of it all.

It was especially good whenever Jack Webb, as Joe Friday, would tell off the punks and ne'er do wells he so loathed. Or, in voice-over how he'd rattle off an unintentionally hilarious roll call of supposed slang names for various illegal drugs -- did anyone ever call LSD "The Hawk"? C'mon, Jack, get real.

My first reaction to Dragnet was that it stinks. But it's so funny and strangely compelling that I kept watching. And I still am. Officers Joe Friday and Bill Gannon are the most reliable, upright citizens you're ever likely to meet in Los Angeles, and that's oddly reassuring.

Somewhere, Jack Webb is having the last laugh.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Sopranos Mystery Solved -- Tony's Fate Now Clear

June 10 marks the fifth anniversary of the controversial "Sopranos" episode, "Made in America," and fans of the show are still grousing about how it ended -- or didn't end.

Tony and family eat onion rings in a New Jersey diner. For once, no one seated at the Soprano family table is driving the action forward -- they're just making small talk as any family would. It's soothing at first, but the scene slowly becomes unsettling. We get a nagging suspicion that an outside force is about to rain terror upon the clan.

The family is waiting for daughter Meadow to show up, and the camera shifts to the street outside. Meadow struggles to parallel park, bumping into the curb time and time again. Tension mounts.

Back inside, a thuggish looking guy in a Members Only jacket hovers around the Soprano table. The camera shifts to Tony's point of view. We expect to see Meadow coming through the door as Tony would see her. We see one more shot from a third-person point of view of Tony looking up, and the scene goes black and deathly silent. Credits roll.

Let the screaming begin.

Many people called it a cheat -- myself included. But after thinking it over I believe I know the answer.

It's obvious that this is a subtle way of showing that Tony got whacked, without actually showing it. There are some good solid pieces of evidence to support this. First, there's the technical stuff about how the all-important scene was set up. Throughout the series the camera seldom shifted to Tony's point of view. This was an exceptional directorial decision that puts us inside of Tony's head. The shift in point of view is a bit unnerving, and signals that a major event is imminent -- we're seeing the last sight that Tony will ever take in.

Another piece of evidence is a scene in an episode earlier of the finale season, "Soprano Home Movies" (#6.13) in which Bobby "Bacala" Baccalieri and Tony discuss what it's like to get whacked."You probably don't even hear it when it happens," says Bobby.

And that's just what happens to Tony. Silence ... and then blackness.

Remember, too, that one of Tony's henchmen whacked rival Phil Leotardo in front of his family -- an organized crime no-no. It makes sense that Leotardo's crew would return the favor and bump Tony in front of his brood.

So there you have it. Tony got whacked in the New Jersey diner before he could finish his onion rings. Case closed. I hate to say it, but there will never be a sequel. Let's just move on, shall we?

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Night of Noir in City of Angels

The Larry Edmunds Bookshop in Hollywood is a cool place to visit, with it's huge assortment of film books, posters and memorabilia. There's a heavy emphasis on vintage cinema throughout the store, so you'll want to stop in sometime and browse the racks.

The shop is going to be the epicenter of film noir cool April 28, when it plays host to authors Alain Silver and James Ursini, who have written some indispensable books on film noir, including their latest, "Film Noir: The Directors." Show up at 5 p.m. on that day and they'll autograph copies of their newest tome.

Then, all you hard-core noir junkies will want to saunter down Hollywood Blvd. to the Egyptian Theater, where a noir double bill will be hitting the screen so hard it might bruise.

1956, Universal, 103 min, USA, Dir: Arnold Laven

This stepson to ON THE WATERFRONT packs a wallop of its own. An upstart district attorney (Richard Egan) tries to crack the New York waterfront’s mob-enforced code of silence and mete out justice for a murdered whistleblower. Jan Sterling is terrific as the victim’s widow, heading a dynamite supporting cast of familiar and fantastic character actors, including Dan Duryea, Charles McGraw, Sam Levene and Walter Matthau. Lawrence Roman’s fact-based script is vigorously directed by Arnold Laven. NOT ON DVD

1957, Warner Bros., 85 min, USA, Dir: Martin Ritt

Another gritty exploration of life on the Manhattan docks that’s also a powerful look at 1950s race relations. Sidney Poitier and John Cassavetes play working-class pals driven apart by ignorance and racism (exemplified by a virulent thug, played brilliantly by Jack Warden). Martin Ritt’s stunning directorial debut, based on Robert Alan Aurthur’s 1955 teleplay “A Man Is Ten Feet Tall.” Not entirely noir, but a smart and suspenseful drama overdue for rediscovery!

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Scorsese Picks 85 You Must See

Martin Scorsese, the director's director, names 85 films that you must see if you want to know anything about cinema. As you might expect, the list is heavy in crime films. But there are westerns, war movies, comedies and romances here, too. Read on, and update your Netflix queue.

Ace in the Hole: "This Billy Wilder film was so tough and brutal in its cynicism that it died a sudden death at the box office, and they re-released it under the title Big Carnival, which didn’t help. Chuck Tatum is a reporter who’s very modern--he’ll do anything to get the story, to make up the story! He risks not only his reputation, but also the life of this guy who’s trapped in the mine." 1951
All That Heaven Allows: In this Douglas Sirk melodrama, Rock Hudson plays a gardener who falls in love with a society widow played by Jane Wyman. Scandale! 1955
America, America: Drawn directly from director Elia Kazan’s family history, this film offers a passionate, intense view of the challenges faced by Greek immigrants at the end of the 19th century. 1963

An American in Paris: This Vincente Minnelli film, with Gene Kelly, picked up the idea of stopping within a film for a dance from The Red Shoes. 1951
Apocalypse Now: This Francis Ford Coppola masterpiece is from a period when directors like Brian DePalma, John Milius, Paul Schrader, Scorsese and others had great freedom—freedom that they then lost. 1979
Arsenic and Old Lace: Scorsese is a big fan of many Frank Capra movies, and this Cary Grant vehicle is one of several that he’s enjoyed with his family at his office screening room. 1944
The Bad and the Beautiful: Vincente Minnelli directed this film about a cynical Hollywood mogul trying to make a comeback. It stars Kirk Douglas, Lana Turner, Walter Pidgeon and Dick Powell. 1952
The Band Wagon: “It’s my favorite of the Vincente Minnelli musicals. I love the storyline that combines Faust and a musical comedy, and the disaster that results. Tony Hunter, the lead character played by Fred Astaire, is a former vaudeville dancer whose time has passed, and who’s trying to make it on Broadway, which is a very different medium of course. By the time the movie was made, the popularity of the Astaire/Rogers films had waned, raising the question of what are you going to do with Fred Astaire in Technicolor? So, really, Tony Hunter is Fred Astaire--his whole reputation is on the line, and so was Fred Astaire’s.” 1953
Born on the Fourth of July: Produced by Universal Pictures under Tom Pollock and Casey Silver, this Tom Cruise movie (directed by Oliver Stone) was an example of how that studio “wanted to make special pictures,” says Scorsese. 1989
Cape Fear: As he once explained to Stephen Spielberg over dinner in Tribeca, one of Scorsese’s fears about directing a remake of this film was that, “The original was so good. I mean, you’ve got Gregory Peck, Robert Mitchum, Polly Bergen, it’s terrific!” 1962

Cat People: Simone Simon plays a woman who fears that she might turn into a panther and kill. It sounds corny, but the psychological thrills that directors Jacques Tourneur got out of his measly $150,000 budget make this a fascinating movie, with amazing lighting. 1942
Caught: “There are certain styles I had trouble with at first, like some of Max Ophuls’ films. It took me till I was into my thirties to get The Earrings of Madame de…, for example. But I didn’t have trouble with this one, which I saw in a theater and which is kind of based on Howard Hughes [protagonist of The Aviator].” 1949
Citizen Kane: “Orson Welles was a force of nature, who just came in and wiped the slate clean. And Citizen Kane is the greatest risk-taking of all time in film. I don’t think anything had even seen anything quite like it. The photography was also unlike anything we’d seen. The odd coldness of the filmmaker towards the character reflects his own egomania and power, and yet a powerful empathy for all of them—it’s very interesting. It still holds up, and it’s still shocking. It takes storytelling and throws it up in the air.” 1941
The Conversation: Gene Hackman stars in this thrilled directed by Scorsese’s friend, Francis Ford Coppola. It’s a classic example of stuido risk-taking in the early 1970s. 1974
Dial M for Murder: When discussing the creation of Hugo, Scorsese referred to this Hitchcock film as an example of other directors who have tangled with 3-D over the years. In its original release most theaters only showed it in 2-D; now the 3-D version pops up in theaters from time to time.1954

Do The Right Thing: Spike Lee’s film was the kind of risky production that drew Scorsese to Universal Pictures when it was run by Casey Silver and Tom Pollack. “Then Pollock left,” says Scorsese, “and it all changed.” 1989
Duel in the Sun: Scorsese went to see this movie, which some critics called “Lust in the Dust”, when he was 4 years old. Jennifer Jones falls hard for a villainous Gregory Peck in this lush King Vidor picture. A poster of the movie hangs in Scorsese’s offices. 1946
The Four Horseman of the Apocalypse: Rex Ingram made this movie, in which Rudolph Valentino dances the tango. Ingram stopped making films when sound came in. Michael Powell’s father worked for Ingram; living in that milieu gave Michael the cultural knowledge that informed his own movies like The Red Shoes. 1921

Europa ’51: “After making The Flowers of St. Francis, Rossellini asked, what would a modern day saint be like? I think they based it on Simone Weil, and Ingird Bergman played the part. It really takes everything we’re dealing with today, whether it’s revolutions in other countries or people trying to change their lifestyles, and it’s all there in that film. The character tries everything, because she has a tragedy in her family that really changes her, so she tries politics and even working in a factory, and in the end it has a very moving resolution.” [Also known as The Greatest Love] 1952
Faces: “[Director John] Cassavetes went to Hollywood to shoot films like A Child is Waiting and Too Late Blues, and after Too Late Blues he became disenchanted. Those of us in the New York scene, we kept asking, “What’s Cassavetes doing? What’s he up to?” And he was shooting this film in his house in L.A. with his wife Gena Rowlands and his friends. And when Faces showed at the New York Film Festival, it absolutely trumped everything that was shown at the time. Cassavetes is the person who ultimately exemplifies independence in film.” 1968
The Fall of the Roman Empire: One of the last “sandal epics,” this sweeping Anthony Mann picture boasted a stellar cast of Sophia Loren, Anthony Boyd, James Mason, Alec Guinness, Christopher Plummer and Anthony Quayle. And it failed miserably at the box office. 1964
The Flowers of St. Francis: “This Rossellini movie and Europa ’51 are two of the best films about the part of being human that yearns for something beyond the material. Rossellini used real monks for this movie. It’s very simple and beautiful.” 1950
Force of Evil: Another picture that defined the American gangster image, this noir stars John Garfield as the evil older brother whose younger sibling won’t join his numbers-running conglomerate. 1948

Forty Guns: Barbara Stanwyck stars in this Sam Fuller Western. She plays a bad-ass cattle rancher with a soft spot for a local lawman. 1957
Germany Year Zero: “Roberto Rossellini always felt he had an obligation to inform. He was the first one to do a story about compassion for the enemy, in this film--it’s always been hard to find, but now there’s a Criterion edition. It’s a very disturbing picture. He was the first one to go there after the war, to say we all have to live together. And he felt cinema was the tool that could do this, that could inform people.” 1948
Gilda: “I saw this when I was 10 or 11, I had some sort of funny reaction to her, I tell you! Me and my friends didn’t know what to do about Rita Hayworth, and we didn’t really understand what George McCready was doing to her. Can you imagine? Gilda at age 11. But that’s what we did. We went to the movies.” 1946

The Godfather: “Gordon Willis did the same dark filming trick on The Godfather as he had done on Klute. And now audiences accepted it, and went along with it, and every director of photography and now every director of photography of the past 40 years owes him the greatest debt, for changing the style completely--until now, of course, with the advent of digital.” 1972
Gun Crazy: A romantic example of film noir, this one features a gun-toting husband and a sharp-shooting wife. 1950
Health: This Altman movie came out at the same time as King of Comedy. They were both flops, and we were both out. The age of the director was over. E.T. was a very big worldwide hit around then, and that changed the whole business of film finance. 1980
Heaven’s Gate: Scorsese was with United Artists in the 70s, with producers he describes as ”understanding and supportive.” Heaven’s Gate, one of the ambitious films UA backed at the time, was a critical and box office bomb, although its reputation has improved over the years. 1980
House of Wax: This was the first 3-D movie produced by a major American studio. It starred Vincent Price as a wax sculptor whose sourcing was, shall we say, unusual. 1953
How Green Was My Valley: “I appreciate the visual poetry of [director John] Ford’s film, like in the famous scene where Maureen O’Hara is married and the wind blows the veil on her head. It’s absolute poetry. No words. It’s all there in the image.” 1941

The Hustler: Scorsese liked the Paul Newman character (Eddie Felson) in this movie so much that when Newman came calling about a possible update of the movie, he agreed to direct The Color of Money. He says the movie’s box office success helped rehabilitate his career after a tough slog. 1961
I Walk Alone: One of several movies that Scorsese says clearly defined the American gangster ideal, this one stars Burt Lancaster and the smoldering Lizabeth Scott. 1948
The Infernal Cakewalk: One of the many George Melies movies that have been restored and can now be seen on DVD. Melies, a French director of silent films, is at the center of the plot of Hugo. 1903
It Happened One Night: “I didn’t think much of this Frank Capra film, until I saw it recently on the big screen. And I discovered it was a masterpiece! The body language of Claudette Colbert and Clark Gable, the way they related--it’s really quite remarkable.” 1934

Jason and the Argonauts: As part of his film education of his daughter, Scorsese screened a bunch of Ray Harryhausen classics, including this one. 1963
Journey to Italy: “After Rossellini married Ingrid Bergman he wiped the slate clean and left Neo-Realism behind. Instead he made these intimate stories that had a great deal to do with a certain intellectual mysticism, a sense of cultural power. In Viaggio [Viaggio in Italia is the Italian title], for example, the English couple played by George Sanders and Ingrid Bergman are traveling in Naples on vacation while marriage is faling apart, but the land around them—the people the museums, and especially their visit to Pompeii, these thousands of years of culture around them—work on them like a modern miracle. The film is basically two people in a car, and that became the entire New Wave. Kids may not have seen this film, but it’s basically in all the independent film of today.” 1954
Julius Caesar: “This is another example of Orson Welles’ risktaking, with Caesar’s crew as out-and-out gangsters.” 1953
Kansas City: “This is one of the great jazz movies ever. If you could hang on with Altman, you were going to go on one of the great rides of your lives.” 1996
Kiss Me Deadly: A great example of the noir genre that so inspired Scorsese. This one stars Ralph Meeker as detective Mike Hammer. 1955

Klute: “There are movies that change the whole way in which films are made, like Klute, where Gordon Willis’s photography on the film is so textured, and, they said, too dark. At first this was alarming to people, because they’re used to a certain way things are done within the studio system. And the studio is selling a product, so they were wary of people thinking that it’s too dark.” 1971
La Terra Trema: This Lucchino Visconti film is one of the founding films of Neo-Realism. 1948
The Lady from Shanghai: “The story goes that Welles had to make a film and he was in this railway station, and there were some paperbacks there and he was talking to Harry Cohn of Columbia and he said look, I’ve got the greatest film it’s called Lady from Shanghai, which was this paperback he saw there. And then he made up this story, taking elements of Moby Dick, where he talks about the sharks, and the whole mirror sequence in that picture is unsurpassed. I don’t know if Lady is a noir, but it’s awkward, and it’s brilliant.” 1947
The Leopard: “Visconti and Rossellini and deSica were the founders of Neo-Realism. Visconti went a different way from Rossellini. He made this movie, which is one of the greatest films ever made.” 1963
Macbeth: “This was the first Welles movie I saw, on television. He shot it in 27 days. The look of it, the Celtic barbarism, the Druid priest, this was all very different from other Macbeth productions I’d seen. The use of superimpositions, the effigies at the beginning of the film—it was more like cinema than theatre. Anything Welles did, given his background in radio, was a big risk. Macbeth is an audacious film, set in Haiti of all places.” 1948
The Magic Box: “There were a number of people who felt that they had invented moving pictures. Robert Donat plays William Friese-Greene, one of those people, who’s obsessed from childhood with movement and color. Donat was a great actor. And this is a beautifully done film.” 1951

M*A*S*H: “I saw it at a press screening. That was the first football game I ever understood. Altman developed this style that came out of his life and making television movies, it was so unique--and his movies seemed to come out every two weeks.” 1972
A Matter of Life and Death: “This is another beautiful film by Powell and Pressburger, but it was made after World War II, so people said, ‘You can’t use the word ‘Death’ in the title!’ So it got changed to Stairway to Heaven, that’s what it was called in America. Now it’s A Matter of Life and Death again.” 1946
McCabe & Mrs. Miller: “This is an absolute masterpiece. Altman could shoot quickly and get the very best actors.” 1971
The Messiah: “Rossellini’s last film in this third period, the last film he made before he died, is this beautiful TV film on Jesus. He had planned on making more such films, like one on Karl Marx. He thought TV was the way to reach young people, to educate them. But then of course TV changed.” 1975
Midnight Cowboy: One of the great movies released by UA in its glory days, starring Dustin Hoffman and Jon Voight. 1969
Mishima: Scorsese describes this Paul Schrader film about the great Japanese author as a “masterpiece.” 1985
Mr. Deeds Goes to Town: In this Frank Capra movie, one of several that Scorsese has screened for his family, Gary Cooper plays a small-town boy who inherits a fortune--and a bevy of big-city sharpies that he can’t quite contend with. 1936

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington: Jimmy Stewart stars in this Capra movie, one of the all-time greats, which features a dramatic filibuster. 1939
Nashville: “Altman had a point of view that was uniquely American and an artistic vision to go with it. All his early work pointed to this movie.” 1975
Night and the City: “It’s the essential British noir film. Harry Fabien, played by Richard Widmark, is a two-bit hustler running through the London underworld at night, and he always oversteps, particularly with the gangster played by Herbert Lom. From the very beginning you know Fabien’s going to fail, because he’s up against a power he doesn’t understand. 1950
One, Two, Three: A classic Billy Wilder comedy, starring James Cagney as a Coca-Cola exec in West Berlin. The dialogue crackles. 1961
Othello: "It took (Orson Welles) years to finish this. There were tons of quick cuts, and there’s a wonderful sequence where two people are attacked in a Turkish bath, and it works beautifully. They’re wearing towels, and one is dispatched under the boards. It has a strange North African whiteness. It turns out that he was ready to do the sequence, and the costumes didn’t show up. So he said, let’s put it in a Turkish bath. He had the actors there! He had to shoot it!” 1952
Paisa: “This is my all-time favorite of the Rossellini films.” 1946

Peeping Tom: “Michael Powell himself gambled everything on Peeping Tom and lost in such a way that his career was really ended. The film was so shocking to some British critics and the audience because he had some sympathy, sort of, for the the serial killer. And the killer had the audacity to photograph the killing of the women with a motion picture camera, which of course tied in the motion picture camera as an object of voyeurism, implicating all of us watching horror films. He was reviled. One critic said this should be flushed down the toilet. He only got one or two more movies done. He really disappeared. And now in England there are cameras watching everyone all over the street.” 1960
Pickup on South Street: Richard Widmark picks the wrong purse in this classic noir, unwittingly setting off a series of events that come to a violent climax. 1953
The Player: “In the years before this movie, the age of the director who had a free hand came to an end. And yet Altman kept experimenting with different kinds of actor, different approaches to narrative, different equipment, until finally he hit it with this movie, which took him off onto a whole other level.” 1992
The Power and the Glory: “Directed by William K. Howard and written by Preston Sturges, it had a structure that Mankiewicz and Welles used for Citizen Kane.” 1933
Stagecoach: “Welles drew from everywhere. The ceilings and the interiors in John Ford’s classic western inspired him for Citizen Kane.” 1939

Raw Deal: NOT the Arnold Schwarzenegger pic. This one’s a noir directed by Anthony Mann, starring Dennis O’Keefe and Claire Trevor. 1948
The Red Shoes: “There’s something so rich and powerful about the story, and the use of the color, that it deeply affected me when I was nine or ten years old. The archness of the approach, and how serious the ballet dancers were … When they say, “The spotlight toujours on moi,” they mean it! The ballet sequence is almost like the first rock video. It’s almost as if you’re seeing what the dancer sees and hears and feels as she’s moving. It’s like in Raging Bull, where we never went outside the ring for the fighting sequences.” 1948
The Rise of Louis XIV: “In the third part of his career, Rossellini decided to make an encyclopedia, a series of didactic films. This is the first film in that series, and it’s an artistic masterpiece. He shot it in 16mm for TV, and called it anti-dramatic. Yet, I screen it once every couple of years, and when you look at frames of it on the big screen there are shots that just look like paintings. Rossellini couldn’t get away from it, he had an artist’s eye. There’s nothing like the last ten minutes of that film to show the accumulation and the display of power. It’s not done through the sword or the speech, it’s done through the theatre he created around him with his clothes, his food, the way he eats. It’s extraordinary.” 1966
The Roaring Twenties: James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart star in this homage to the gangsters of the 1920s. It was one of the many great films made in 1939 (like Gone with the Wind, The Women, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Goodbye, Mr. Chips, Stagecoach and many many more.) 1939
Rocco and his Brothers: “This Visconti film was also a major influence on filmmakers.” 1960

Rome, Open City: “I saw Italian movies as a 5-year-old, on a 16-inch TV my father bought. We were living in Queens. There were only three stations. One station showed Italian films on Friday night for the Italian-American community, subtitled, and the family would gather to see the films. My grandparents were there—they were the ones who moved over in 1910. So it became a ritual. [Director Roberto] Rossellini had an intellectual approach.” 1945

Secrets of the Soul:
“This was a silent movie whose flashback structure was unlike anything else. Secrets of the Soul looked almost experimental.” 1912
Senso: “An extraordinary film by Visconti, another Neo-Realist masterpiece.”
Shadows: “I saw Shadows at the 8th Street Playhouse [in Manhattan], and when I saw such a direct communication with the human experience, of conflict and love, it was almost as if there was no camera there at all. And I love camera positions! But this was like you were living with the people.” 1959
Shock Corridor: A wild Sam Fuller movie about a journalist who enters an insane asylum to try to break a story. 1963

Some Came Running: This Vincent Minnelli melodrama is definitely not a musical. It’s a tough story about an alcoholic Army vet returning home. It stars Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, and Shirley MacLaine. 1958
Stromboli: “This too was a very important film of Rossellini’s second period. Very beautiful.” [During the shooting of Stromboli, the star, Ingrid Bergman, who was married to an American dentist, got pregnant with Rossellini’s child. She divorced the dentist, and became persona non grata in America]. 1950
Sullivan’s Travels: “Billy Wilder told me, you’re only as good as your last picture. Sullivan, played by Joel McRae, is in the studio system, under that kind of pressure. He makes comedies, but one day he decides he really wants to make ‘Oh, Brother, Where Art Thou?’ He puts it all on the line to learn about the poor. The resolution of the movie is very moving.” 1941
Sweet Smell of Success: Like Ace in the Hole, this classic noir is about an unethical journalist who will stop at nothing to get his way. Burt Lancaster plays the journalist. 1957
Tales of Hoffman: “This was a great risk for Powell and Pressburger. In fact, they lost it on that. He had in mind a composed film like a piece of music, and played the music back on set during the shooting, so the actors moved in a certain way.” 1951

The Third Man: “Carroll Reed made one of those films where everything came together. It made me see, with Kane, that there was another way of interpreting stories, and another approach to the visual frame of the classical films…all those low shots, and the cuts.” 1949
T-Men: Another Anthony Mann noir with great cinematography, this one’s about Department of Treasury men breaking up a counterfeiting ring. 1947
Touch of Evil: “Welles’ radio career with the Mercury Theater made him a master of the soundtrack. Just listen to this movie--you can close your eyes and imagine everything that is happening. (Young people should listen to the radio soundtrack of War of the Worlds, which was so effective that people got in their cars and started to drive away, because they really believed that Martians were attacking.)
The Trial: “This is another film that gave us a new way of looking at films. You’re very aware of the camera, like when Anthony Perkins came running down this corridor of wooden slats and light cutting the image, blades and shafts of light, talk about paranoia!” 1962
Two Weeks in Another Town: The Vincente Minnelli movie stars Cyd Charisse, Kirk Douglas, and Edward G. Robinson. It’s a classic 1960s melodrama. 1962
Correction: Raw Deal was amended to reflect its release date of 1948.
Orson Welles directed the stage version of Julius Caesar; Joseph Mankiewicz directed the film.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Sunny Place For Shady People: 'Noir' TV

So Frank Darabont will be the guy who delivers an "L.A. Noir" pilot to TNT. It's going to be an interesting experiment to see if a period crime drama makes it on a channel whose bread and butter is police procedurals ("The Closer") modern police dramas ("Southland") and a law comedy ("Franklin & Bash").

"L.A. Noir," will rub elbows, stylistically, at least, with another period crime drama, HBO's "Boardwalk Empire."

Darabont has directed stylish period features ("The Green Mile," "The Shawshank Redemption"), and he was famously canned from AMC's zombie series, "The Walking Dead."

"L.A. Noir" will be based on John Buntin’s book "L.A. Noir: The Struggle for the Soul of America’s Most Seductive City."

"L.A. Noir" follows the true story of the street war waged by Los Angeles Police Department under Chief William Parker and the L.A. organized crime world led by Mickey Cohen. It will be set in the 1940s and ’50s, the post-World War II era, and be a backdrop where Hollywood stars and studio heads rose to fame and ran amok while a massively corrupt police force and criminals jockeyed for control of West Coast’s most prominent city.

With "Gangster Squad," a feature film in the works that will also cover the Mickey Cohen era of crime, there seems to be a sizable uptick in interest about the City of Angels' sordid past. Stay tuned.

Monday, January 9, 2012

High School Noir: Crime is an Extracurricular Activity

Brendan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) makes a secret phone call in 'Brick' (2005).

t's remarkable how well life at a typical suburban high school can resemble the plot of a classic film noir. That's the conceit behind "Brick," the 2005 Rian Johnson feature he wrote and directed. 

High school outsider Brendan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) searches for his missing girlfriend, Emily (Emilie de Ravin), and delves into the sordid teenage underworld of suburban California drug traffickers, rich spoiled brats and hoodlums hardened far beyond their years. 

The leader of the local gang of toughs, The Pin (Lukas Haas), balances his life of crime and life at home with mother — she serves juice to her son's visitors who arrive for a gang sit-down. 

The film's dialog is a patois of 1930s and '40s crime movie jargon, updated with some modern-day hipster-speak. It's at first a little difficult to accept a bunch of high schoolers talking like Mike Hammer, but the odd juxtaposition of youths and vintage wise-guy talk starts to sound natural after a while. 

Actually, it might be an oversimplification likening "Brick"to Spillane novels. The movie's dialog is more like the poetic flights that Clifford Odets put in the mouths of characters in 1957's "Sweet Smell of Success." Those words and sentences have little to do with the way people really talk, but they're positively musical once your ear becomes accustomed to the film's idiosyncrasies.

The thrill of "Brick" is its absolute adherence to the conventions of film noir. In a meeting between Brendan and Assistant Vice Principal Trueman (Richard Roundtree), snappy, clipped dialog and dramatic understatement rule the day. Brendan gets called on the carpet for cutting class, and the exchange between student and administrator is classic noir-speak. It's like Bogart facing off with a crusty D.A. who insists that the private eye come across with information. And, of course, Bogie gives him defiant, wise-guy answers. 

Brendan fills the role of the classic noir protagonist. He's looking for answers in a world where it seems no one else is even aware of the questions. Relationships here are fraught with betrayal, and it takes a monumental effort on our hero's part to at last cut through the ever-present subterfuge and discover the truth. 

We're with him the whole way. And even if the structure and dialog seem familiar, "Brick" does the incredible job of breathing new life into a film style that predates the cast and director's parents.