Life and Death in L.A.: May 2022

Friday, May 27, 2022

Dressed to Kill: ‘The Outfit’

Mark Rylance as Leonard Burling in 'The Outfit.'

Set in 1956, “The Outfit” (2022) is a smart-looking Chicago-based drama starring Mark Rylance as meek British cutter Leonard Burling, who has dedicated his life to crafting bespoke men’s suits. After a long tenure on London’s Savile Row, he’s set up shop in the midwestern city famous for its red hots, Wrigley Field and St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. 

The story is honeycombed with plots and subplots. This one involves a drop box in the back room of Leonard’s shop, where local mobsters deposit their earnings for pickup. Leonard’s assistant, Mabel (Zoey Deutch), is dating one of the wise guys who use the back room as their personal post office.

Things get sticky when a gang war breaks out between two opposing crime families, and there’s a surreptitiously made tape recording that both gangs and the police would like to get their mitts on. A number of deals and double crosses transpire, blood is spilled, conspiracies are discovered and perpetrators are vanquished.

The film leads us to an unexpected conclusion when yet another undiscovered plot comes to light. By then, we’ve gotten used to the idea that this is a Russian doll with secrets within secrets, so when the payoff comes we’re ready for it.

The story unfolds (lousy pun) in one space, Leonard’s shop, an old timey storefront with a cutting table, bolts of sumptuous fabrics and Leonard’s prize possession, his shears. Confined to the front of the store and the back room, the film’s staging feels a lot like a play. Characters make speeches, and conversations lack the spontaneity and ring of authenticity we expect in crime films. F-bombs sprinkled into the dialog are meant to blemish the gentile atmosphere that is Leonard’s shop, but the rough language rarely adds to the film’s authenticity.

Mark Rylance gives an admirably restrained performance as the English gentleman surrounded by dreamers, oafs and jackals. He brings life to his role, maintaining a serene presence despite the at-times violent drama that plays out over the course of an evening. Supporting players are just that; they exist in support of Rylance’s performance — their roles rarely suggest that there’s a lot going on beneath the surface.

Plot complexities are often explained in dialog rather than demonstrated visually or through action. It turns out that “The Outfit” has more in common with British drawing room murder mysteries than American gangster films. It’s like a good ole fashioned “who-dunnit” dressed in pinstripe suits and fedoras. 

Still, “The Outfit” is an absorbing if not totally convincing drama, and would be perfectly at home on the stage. All of which is fine, so long as you’re expecting a theatrical experience — not “The Sopranos.”

Friday, May 6, 2022

In 'Double Indemnity,' A Stalled Car is a Flash of Genius

Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray, in 'Double Indemnity.'

 As many times as we pore over "Double Indemnity," there are still important bits that may be missed. Sometimes that leads to revelations that change our understanding of the film.

I'm not talking about the Raymond Chandler cameo that went unnoticed for decades — that was a whopper of a find. It's those scenes that we've watched countless times that are entertaining, gripping even. But it's not until the umpteenth viewing that we have an "A-ha!" moment. 

By the way, for those who have yet to see "Double Indemnity," you'd be well advised to do so. In the meantime, let's summarize the story without giving too much away. However, if you're particularly sensitive to spoilers, you might want to stop reading here.

The story goes like this: An ethically wanting, rather shallow man, insurance salesman Walter Neff, falls for a married woman, and she for him. Together, they decide to cash in on a life insurance policy. Neff gets her husband to sign on the dotted line without his knowing what he's putting his John Hancock on.

The femme fatale, Phyllis Dietrichson, and Neff plot to do away with the unsuspecting hubby and leave his body in a lonely spot. After the deed is done, they make their escape. Or, at least they try to. 

It's one of many scenes in which director and co-writer Billy Wilder's flashes of genius take hold. The murderous pair hop into the getaway car, turn the key ... and it won't start.

A look of dread crosses their faces. Neff tries coaxing the engine another time. Finally, it catches. Relief.

An Unforeseen Turn

But something unexpected happens, not to Neff and Phyllis, but to us, the audience. We collectively, and perhaps subconsciously, white knuckle it until the motor at last turns over. Then we sigh with relief. Bear in mind that these two perps have just committed as terrible and cold-blooded a murder as one could imagine. Sure, Phyllis's husband was a lout, but did he deserve to die? 

Yet, we hold our breath, hoping against hope, that the engine will start and the two can leave before being discovered. In other words, that short scene crystalizes where we stand — we're slowly and subtly being lured to the dark side. It's a small but important moment.

Wilder revealed in an interview that he shot the scene as it was originally written. The two get into the car and leave. But overnight, he realized that he'd missed an opportunity to ratchet up the tension. So, he reshot that sequence, this time with the uncooperative engine, and it certainly does increase our level of stress as we watch it.

The result is that we worry about Neff and Phyllis's wellbeing; two criminals who kill for money. That's a pretty neat trick. When we fret about their safety, the director has fulfilled his intention, at least in part. Wilder knew that audiences must empathize with, if not admire, the lead actors. That's no mean feat with this pair of degenerates.

So, why does the sequence have this effect? Most of us have felt tension when a car threatens to stall just when we need it most. It's a powerful emotional experience. Powerful enough, it turns out, to make us pull for the other team even if we don't remotely like them.

That Wilder rewrote this scene, squeezing all of the agonizing tension he could out of it, is further proof of his impeccable dramatic instincts.

Of course, by noir's very nature our anti-heros are unlikely to be model citizens. Part of film's allure is that we get to walk a mile in someone else's shoes. Someone who may be quite different from us. Maybe even someone we wouldn't let into our homes.

So our desire to empathize with shady characters for 90 minutes is explainable. But not all anti-heroes are created equal, and few are as alluring as Walter Neff and Phyllis Dietrichson. Billy Wilder created a couple of doozies, and we can't stop watching them.

Sunday, May 1, 2022

Danger Lurks in the Seedy World of Film Noir Carnivals

Tyrone Power, 'Nightmare Alley' (1947)
raveling carnivals are supposed to roll into town and deliver family entertainment — tacky, corny stuff that kids adore: amusements, games of skill, sideshow acts and cotton candy. They bring with them a whiff of nostalgia and remind oldsters of more innocent times. 

But in film noir, carnivals are seldom harmless fun. Peel back the layers and you’ll see that they’re about as wholesome as a floating craps game. 

In noir, carnivals invade small towns like Trojan horses filled with menace. Glittering magnets to humanity from all walks of life, they’re fly-by-night road shows festooned in cheap glitz that serve as shimmering arenas for con artists — Pied Pipers in baggy pants who herd the bumpkins in and make off with their wallets. 

Behind the scenes, they heartlessly exploit their downtrodden workers, promising bed and board in return for what amounts to indentured servitude, or worse. 

 Their atmosphere is intoxicating and disorienting. So, you can be excused for feeling light headed as you wander the carny midway. In noir, these playgrounds for the common folk can induce hallucinatory experiences in the unfortunates who are lured inside. 

What’s more, the surreal, hyper-stimulating atmosphere that permeates carnivals can incite average folks to act on their darker impulses with little thought of the consequences. There, a thrill-seeking public, drunk on adrenaline and hungry for rough action, morphs into a brutal mob. 

Noir carnivals remind us that our sense of security is tenuous — the simple enjoyment of mindless entertainment can be easily punctured when unseen dark forces are at work. At nighttime, the icy glow of light bulbs illuminating the midway throw the darker side of human existence into high relief. 

Carnivals come with an unsavory reputation and offer a near perfect backdrop for the three Ds: deceit, double-crossing and debauchery — cornerstones of film noir. 

If this sounds like your cup of tea, here is a short guide to a handful of film noir’s more notable carnival hellscapes that will help you maneuver through treacherous terrain. 

The primary focus here is feature films made during noir’s classic period, (roughly, the 1940s and ‘50s), and more recent neo noirs. So, cable series, such as HBO’s “Carnivale” (2003), as well as non-noir feature films, such as “Carny” (1980) are not included. 

A word of warning: Spoilers Abound, so you might want to skip over the parts about films you intend to see. 

“Panique” (1946) 
In post-World War II France, a woman is murdered and the eccentric and irascible Monsieur Hire (Michel Simon) is the perfect dupe for a frame-up by the real murderer, Alfred (Paul Bernard). Monsieur Hire, a taciturn and eccentric outsider, raises the local folks’ curiosity and disdain. 

'Panique,' Michel Simon
'Panique,' Michel Simon
His every move is regarded with suspicion. When he requests extra bloody meat from the butcher, eyebrows are raised, and eventually his outrĂ© behavior fans the flames of public trepidation. 

Meanwhile, a carnival is in town, and Monsieur Hire takes a ride on, of all things, the bumper cars — an odd move for one who maintains a rather dignified and aloof distance from his neighbors. Others riding on the amusement cheerfully gang up against him and deliberately crash into his car. 

An undercurrent of anti-Semitism permeates the local populace, and this rather minor but unprovoked attack hints at things to come. Violence is in the air, and we see it in a rowdy crowd of town folk who are thrilled by a sideshow of women wrestlers. 

It’s not long before a frenzied mob at the carnival amasses with the intent of hunting down Monsieur Hire and administering mob justice. Meanwhile, the real killer rides a roller coaster as the police receive proof that Monsieur Hire was not guilty of the murder, and that the culprit and his accomplice have been right under their noses. 

The inspector tells the officer to let the culprits finish their ride on the amusement before arresting them. It’s their last moments of freedom among a community that has also taken part in the awful miscarriage of justice. 

In “Panique,” the carnival hasn’t brought evil to the community, but acts as a gathering place, perhaps even a catalyst, where prejudices and fear of outsiders results in harsh, unjust consequences for an innocent man. 

“Strangers on a Train” (1951) 
In “Strangers on a Train,” tennis star Guy Haines (Farley Granger) wants to divorce his childish, mean and manipulative estranged wife, Miriam (Kasey Rogers). Miriam is hell-bent on milking Guy for all he’s worth. 

'Strangers on a Train'
We find Miriam, a still-married woman, allegedly pregnant with another man’s baby, who is leading a couple of younger guys around by their noses as they frolic at a carnival, where her self-centered antics are at full dudgeon — she’s got the two suckers running in circles trying to please her. 

When a handsome stranger, gazing from afar, catches her the eye, she’s thrilled. Unbeknownst to Miriam, the stranger is Bruno Antony (Robert Walker), a psychopath who by chance met Guy on a train and concocted a silly and terrifying scheme. He tailed Miriam and her two friends to the carnival and is intent on snuffing out her life. 

Earlier on, before crossing paths with Miriam, Bruno encounters a boy dressed in a cowboy outfit who pretends to shoot him with his toy six-shooter. In a comical moment, Bruno pops the boy’s balloon with his cigarette. Maybe Bruno’s intentions are less than sinister, we might wonder. But here, the director, Alfred Hitchcock, uses humor to lighten the mood, and perhaps dash our expectations, before Bruno gets down to his grim business. 

For a while, it’s a cat and mouse game between the two. Bruno hops aboard the carousel with his target and her two friends, as if pursuing her on horseback. The ride ends and the action moves to a dark island in the carnival’s tunnel of love. 

Miriam’s narcissism and vanity make her an easy target for the monstrous Bruno. Under the slightly surreal dazzle of carnival lights, we can picture her believing that in this land of make believe no harm can come to her. 

She and Bruno finally meet at a dark and remote corner where he’s been lying in wait. Miriam expects that a romantic tryst is in store, but in the film’s most horrifying scene, his powerful hands choke the life out of her. We watch the sequence play out in the reflection of her cat’s eyes glasses that have fallen to the ground in the scuffle. 

Word of the hideous crime spreads fast, but not quickly enough to prevent Bruno’s escape, and he flees the scene with impunity, having transformed a tranquil, family-friendly spot into the scene of a cold-blooded murder. 

The film’s dramatic climax takes place later, back at the carnival’s merry-go-round, where Guy and Bruno fight to the death amid of gaggle of terrified children. By a fluke, the carousel speeds up and spins out of control, sending the rotating platform careening off its axis and ending the battle. 

For a moment it feels like the entire planet has broken free of its orbit. The carousel, a children’s amusement, is transformed into a terrifying instrument of death — Mr. Hitchcock’s mischievous dark humor is at work here. He assures us that we’ll never again look at a seemingly innocent carousel quite the same way. 

“Nightmare Alley” (2021) 
The two "Nightmare Alley" films (1947 and 2021) are the gold standard of carnival noir. Both present horrifying views of carnival life in the depths of the Great Depression, however the more recent film will be the focus here. 

'Nightmare Alley' (2021)
Into this milieu strides Stanton Carlisle (Bradley Cooper), a man with a sordid past. He’s looking for a place to hide out and he finds work at the traveling carnival, where the despicable owner, Clem (Willem Defoe), maintains an extensive display of deformed humans' remains floating in glass jars of preservative. 

Equally vile is his practice of seeking out alcoholics and drug addicts and feeding them opium-laced moonshine. The broken men are reduced to a sub-human existence in which they bite the heads off of live chickens for the savage delight of carnival gawkers, who, Clem theorizes, need someone to look down upon. 

Stan, having stolen the secrets to another performer's mind reading act, eventually leaves the carnival and sets out on the road with Molly Cahill (Rooney Mara), the carny’s electrically charged sideshow performer — she is able to withstand large surges of electrical current that flash across her body like chain lightning. 

The pair make good as nightclub performers and phony spiritual mediums, conducting seances for well-heeled suckers. But their hocus-pocus act summonsing the spirit world eventually falls apart, and for Stanton, there’s nowhere else to go but back to the carnival, which is under different management. 

The new carnival owner offers Stan a place to stay, but he must start at the bottom, and Stan knows all too well what that means. He will be the geek, subsisting on opium-laced booze, and biting the heads off of chickens for the savage delight of sideshow audiences. He has at last descended into hell. 

“Ride the Pink Horse” (1947) 
Angry, vengeful Lucky Gagin (Robert Montgomery) arrives in a small New Mexico town during its annual fiesta with the intent of blackmailing mobster Frank Hugo (Fred Clark). 

'Ride the Pink Horse'
Gagin is disoriented and can’t settle in, until he meets Native American teenager Pila (Wanda Hendrix), and Pancho (Thomas Gomez), who operates a tio vivo (carousel). Gagin insults and ignores Pila, who inexplicably hovers near him like a guardian angel. 

The hotels are stuffed with crass, rich Americans who have come to experience the fiesta. Unable to book a room, Gagin accepts Pancho’s invitation to stay at his place. The accommodations are more rustic than Gagin anticipates, but still quite drunk from a night at the cantina, he crashes for the night beside the tio vivo, which becomes the central motif in the second part of the film. 

Its wooden horses travel in a circular motion like racetrack thoroughbreds, but never get anywhere — perhaps a metaphor for Gagin’s inner conflicts. He dreams of a better life, with money and status symbols, and the pink horse seems to represent his aspirations, but alas, his wishes prove futile. 

The tio vivo also serves as a refuge for Gagin when Pancho and Pila hide him in on the spinning amusement as gangsters pursue him. 

The flying horses of the tio vivo are a connection to more innocent times. The children who ride on the tio vivo are unspoiled by greed and the pursuit of status symbols, and we can imagine a time when Gagin was less enthralled with material gain. 

Conversely, Pancho’s belief that money is not an essential ingredient for a happy life — quite the opposite of Gagin’s view — begin to rub off on Gagin. The would-be blackmailer’s initial disdain for Native American and Mexican American cultures fades as he realizes that, unlike the crass, brutal gangsters who are like him, Pila and Pancho are the ones who have cared for and helped him. 

At the film's start, Gagin is an empty, weak man who berates Pila, telling her to fix her hair and clothes so that she’ll look “human.” But it’s the teenaged Pila who rescues him from peril, and through this experience Gagin is a bit humbled. He develops a touch of social grace and better manners — in other words, he’s becoming more human. 

“Ace in the Hole” (1951) — also known as “The Big Carnival” 
A man is trapped in a cave-in at the site of a former Native American settlement and a rescue operation is in progress. 

'Ace in the Hole'
Spectators gather, and some are eager to step in and make a quick buck. That includes disreputable tabloid newshound Chuck Tatum (Kirk Douglas), who not only covers the story for his paper, but uses his influence to prolong the rescue operation so that he can continue to exploit this tragedy for all it’s worth. 

The story catches fire with the public, and droves of sightseers arrive on the scene. A carnival with a Ferris wheel soon follows, demonstrating that exploitation can infect the most sobering of events.

The trapped man, Leo Minosa (Richard Benedict), whose life hangs by a thread, does his best to keep his sanity as the rescue operation drags on. Meanwhile, the spectators are all too ready to hunker down with popcorn and cotton candy and watch a tragedy unfold. 

Unlike other noir carnivals, this one doesn’t deliver unsavoriness to an innocent public, but instead arrives to entertain gawkers and thrill seekers who are drawn to the scene of a tragic event like iron filings to a magnet. The carnival is merely an outward expression of the spectators' callousness.

Carnival barkers exploit the tragedy for all it’s worth, and the audience stays riveted to the grotesque spectacle as it develops. The unsavoriness of the carnival atmosphere reflects the exploitive, opportunistic wrangling of Tatum, who uses the cave-in rescue for his yellow journalistic purposes. Images of families frolicking while a human life is at stake is particularly unsettling. 

“Ace in the Hole” is a meditation on the public’s unquenchable thirst for tragic exhibitions, and disregard for the cost in human lives that results from those calamities. 

As the story reaches it inevitable heartbreaking end, spectators turn and leave, the media circus rolls up its tent, and with no more profit to be had, the carnival barkers move on to greener pastures. 

“Lady from Shanghai” (1948) 
Irish sailor Michael O'Hara (Orson Welles) gets mixed up with Elsa "Rosalie" Bannister (Rita Hayworth) and her older husband, Arthur (Everett Sloane), who begins to suspect that Michael and his wife are having an affair. 

'Lady From Shanghai'
Michael is a man of humble means — Arthur is a wealthy and arrogant attorney. He hires Michael to pilot his yacht, and before long, tension mounts as the trio embarks on a cruise. 

When one of Arthur’s associates is shot and killed, suspicion falls on Michael. He’s tried for a murder he didn’t commit, and at the trial, he gulps down a bottle of pills to create a diversion and escapes from the courtroom. 

He flees to nearby Chinatown and ducks into an auditorium where a theatrical production is in progress. He begins to feel groggy, but when the police enter he runs again, this time to a carnival. He enters a surrealistic funhouse that seems to reflect his perceptions altered by his adrenaline-fueled escape and the drugs coursing through his system. 

At last he comes upon a carnival’s house or mirrors, where Elsa has followed him. Arthur appears, and a shootout between the husband and wife ensues. The mind-bending multiple reflections of Elsa and Arthur, which seem to stretch into infinity, are shattered as they exchange gunfire, leaving a roomful of shattered glass and a couple of corpses. 

Like the the Bannisters' illusions and deceit, the house of mirrors is an apt location to draw the curtain on their tortured marriage. Finally, their lies and machinations are smashed into tiny pieces, and Michael walks away, free, at least for now. 

“Gun Crazy” (1950) 
There’s nothing quite like firearms to bring people together — or drive them apart. 

'Gun Crazy'
So, it’s no wonder that Laurie Starr (Peggy Cummins) and Bart Tare (John Dall) should meet cute at a sharpshooting sideshow. Laurie fires hot lead at targets for the audience’s enjoyment and her handiness with a Colt makes Bart light up — he’s a sharpshooter in his own wright, and there’s an immediate attraction between the two. 

The smitten Bart hops onstage to challenge the young Annie Oakley wannabe to a contest — there’s palpable magnetism between them and also a struggle for the upper hand. As the contest heat up, the shooting match looks a lot like foreplay. Bart wins and conquers the resistant Laurie, and it’s not long before they pair up and go on robbery and murder spree — as young lovers in noir do. 

For the “shootin’ iron” obsessed pair, life grows dull when firearms aren't part of the picture. With no wars to fight, no frontier territory to claim and defend, a young couple must set out and create their own adventures. 

In “Gun Crazy,” the carnival backdrop provides a tawdry environment for this ill-fated couple to find each other, flirt and embark on the off-center life to which they were destined. 

Who knows how many felonious partnerships may have sprouted in the apparently innocent environment of a carnival sideshow? Of course, when gunfire is a catalyst for romance, the smitten couple walk a path of near certain doom. 

“Man in the Dark” (1953) 
Unlucky Steve (Edmond O'Brien), a convicted felon, is released from prison after undergoing an experimental procedure that erases from his brain all criminal impulses — the side effect being permanent memory loss. 

'Man in the Dark'
Using beautiful blonde Peg (Audrey Totter) as bait, Steve's old cronies — Lefty (Ted de Corsia), Arnie (Horace McMahon) and Cookie (Nick Dennis) — kidnap the amnesiac ex-con and try to jog his memory to learn where he hid the stolen loot before he went to the pen. 

He manages to get away from the bad guys, and later dreams of visiting a carnival. In his apartment, he finds a slip of paper with a number scrawled on it, but the number doesn’t correspond to a post office box. 

On a whim, he and Peg go to the carnival that he saw in his dream. Pursued by the police and his criminal buddies, Steve hops on an amusement ride with the cops hot on his heels and firing shots in his direction.

In a revealing bit of montage, the scene cuts to an animatronic figure of a hefty lady guffawing, seeming to mock the fleeing fugitive. The crowded carnival, with it glimmering lights and the strange laughing puppet mirror Steve’s disoriented state of mind. He’s trying to make sense out of disjointed snippets of things he can remember while chaos and the threat of death surround him. 

The action comes to a head on the roller coaster, with Steve hopping off and fighting to the death atop the tracks. All the while he's been trying to spark his memory in hopes of finding the dough. 

He realizes that the scrap of paper is a parcel check room ticket, and  at last he strikes pay dirt. His mental confusion dissipates and he must choose whether or not to hand over the money to the authorities. 

With the prospect of starting anew, he returns the loot, hoping for a better life ahead. For Steve, the carnival is a test of his wits and brawn, a crime scene, and finally, a place of redemption — a rare phenomenon in noir. 

“They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?” (1969) 
I know what you’re going to say: “They Shoot Horses ... ” is a film about a dance marathon, not a carnival. True, but both share similar themes of exploitation of the desperately impoverished who are abused for cheap entertainment. 

'They Shoot Horses, Don't They?'
The public can feast on the dancers’ humiliation as they limp through the physically and psychologically punishing spectacle, hoping to win a cash prize. Most exit the contest after profound physical breakdowns. 

Much like carnival freaks, the dancers’ pain is on display, and it’s a distraction for Depression-era gawkers who can take comfort in knowing that others are much worse off than are they. 

It’s a game in which only one couple goes home with the cash. Among the hopeful vying for the big payout are Gloria Beatty (Jane Fonda) and Robert Syverton (Michael Sarrazin), who team up and withstand the tortuous demands of a contest that drags on for days. 

Somewhere along the way, the marathon barker, Rocky Gravo (Gig Young), tells the dancing couple that if they’re willing to marry before the audience of dance hall gawkers, a rich woman will pay them a bonus. Gloria refuses, and later they learn that the contest isn’t what it seems. 

Expenses deducted from any prize money they might win will leave them with virtually nothing. It’s the kind of raw deal that is typical of film noir. No matter what you do, or how hard you try to avoid the penitentiary or the gallows, fate will push you in the wrong direction. 

“They Shoot Horses” ends in tragedy, made all the more grotesque by the air of merriment surrounding the self-destructive pair. Callous spectators, unsympathetic to others’ pain, watch with passive amusement as lives disintegrate before their eyes — not unlike the Roman Coliseum. 

As a pair of victims collapse, the audience turns to view the next ugly spectacle that catches their eye. Regardless of the human wreckage it leaves in its wake, the show must go on.