Life and Death in L.A.: September 2022

Wednesday, September 21, 2022

‘L.A. Confidential’: Wounded Cops Take On the System

From left, Det. Ed Exly (Guy Pearce), Det. Bud White (Russell Crowe) and Det. Jack Vincennes (Kevin Spacey).
From left, Det. Ed Exly (Guy Pearce),
Bud White (Russell Crowe) and Det. Jack Vincennes (Kevin Spacey).

"L.A. Confidential" just had its 25th anniversary and that makes us look anew at the astounding saga of police corruption in the City of Angels, circa 1953. A quarter of a century later the film’s authentic retro look, snappy musical soundtrack and motley selection of characters still make the story hum.

Two of a Kind
Deep wounds make great characters, and two of the film's protagonists, Bud White (Russell Crowe) and Ed Exly (Guy Pearce), are both emotionally scarred, yet polar opposites. 

White is a thug who beats up bad guys when enlisted to do so by his boss, Capt. Dudley Smith (James Cromwell). But he's also a staunch protector of women. Turns out his dad used to beat his mom, so Bud has a soft spot in his heart for battered females, but not for much else.

Exly is a self-consciously ethical cop who wants to follow in his father's rather large footsteps. His dad was a policeman killed in the line of duty, allegedly by a purse snatcher. But given the corruption and lawlessness of the L.A. Police Department in that era, the story of the senior Exly's demise is questionable. Was he bumped off for not turning a blind eye to his fellow officers' malfeasances? In a telling moment Smith tells Exley to get rid of his steel framed glasses, saying he can't think of another man in the department who wears them — another way of warning him to not look too closely at the goings on around the station house. 

Both White and Exly are flawed characters, too. White pummels out-of-town gangsters looking for a foothold in L.A. and looks the other way when unsavory activities take place. Exly is a polished social climber who never misses an opportunity to advance himself. He's more than willing to rat out brutal cops who beat up Mexicans being held in the station jailhouse. But in return for his testimony he demands to be bumped up to lieutenant. He knows that he’ll be hated by the other cops, but that doesn’t matter to him. He’s like the smart nerd in high school who gets tripped and wedgied in the hallways, but takes solace in the fact that he’ll someday be his antagonists’ boss.

Jack the Joker

There’s also Det. Jack Vincennes (Kevin Spacey), the police consultant on “Badge of Honor,” a TV show that is a stand-in “Dragnet.” Police brass removed him from the show as payback for bad behavior and he hopes that solving a nasty murder case will put him back in the department’s good graces. But his freelance investigation takes a high toll on him. A bit of a jokester, a gag he plays on his boss turns out to be a genius bit of black humor that also plays a major role in the plot. 

As Exly and White begin to understand how corrupt the department is, it's their wounds that make them want to rout out the rot of lawlessness that surrounds them. In White's case, he's become involved with a call girl, Lynn Bracken (Kim Basinger), who belongs to a cadre of ladies of the night who have been given plastic surgery to make them resemble movie stars — she looks like Veronica Lake. She's in danger of being chewed up by the corrupt men pulling the strings who routinely use and discard people who have outlived their usefulness. White is intent on protecting her, and to do that he must bring down the big boys.

A Substantial Sacrifice
Exly has been cited for bravery in killing a group of alleged kidnappers and rapists, but he later learns their guilt is questionable and proof exists that they were framed. Then a plot to bump him off goes awry and he’s convinced it’s time to act. By calling out the corrupt forces within the department he will lose the prestige he’s earned and perhaps his lieutenant bars. Despite his political instincts, he’s willing to tear it all down “with a wrecking ball.”

There are a number of plot twists that grab us, all of which lead to an extended shootout in a decrepit abandoned motel on Victory Blvd. It’s the perfect setting for the wrap-up. It’s the place where Dudley Smith takes undesirables and Bud White beats them. The building’s shabbiness reflects the systemic rot that dominates the police department. It’s also a relic of California’s tourism boom. Unlike the sunny picture postcards shown as the opening credits roll, the state’s image as a windswept paradise is a phony public relation gimmick, and like the motel, is rotten on the inside.

The conclusion manages to avoid crime film clichés. Instead, we see the grim choices that one faces when taking on institutionalized corruption. It’s not a clean sweep of bad guys, but a blow to departmental abuse of power — at least in this instance. Of course, there’s a coverup of what actually took place behind the scenes, and that’s to be expected. It’s a story about the L.A. Police Department, after all.

Wednesday, September 14, 2022

Noir Directors and their Eyepatches

An eyepatch can make a director look like a badass and that's a good thing in the famously brutal movie biz. Sure, a lot of them are scary enough without a patch, but put a piece of black fabric over an eye and your game is automatically upped exponentially. 

Cranky, spoiled actors, pushy studio execs and slacker crew members might think twice before tangling with a guy who looks like a buccaneer. The presence of an eyepatch opens the door to wild speculation. "Did he lose it while dueling, or something?"

André de Toth, Samuel Fuller, Nicholas Ray, Raoul Walsh, Fritz Lang and John Ford all sported eyepatches at one time or another. Most were the heavy-drinking he-men types who ruled the set with a heavy dose of intimidation.

Lack of depth perception be damned, these directors soldiered on and made classic cinema. Tough, like the characters in their movies, they cut a striking figure — the eyepatch added to the their' mystique and forever after enhanced their legend.

Here are a half dozen noir directors who plied their craft wearing an eyepatch and made it look damned exciting:

Director Raoul Walsh

Word has it that Raoul Walsh lost his right eye when a jackrabbit leaped through his windshield. He was perhaps the first with an eyepatch on the Hollywood scene and may have unintentionally started a trend. His noir and gangster films include "They Drive by Night" (1940), "High Sierra" (1941) which helped bridge the gap between gangster films and noir, "White Heat" (1949), "The Roaring Twenties" (1939), "The Enforcer" (1951) and "The Man I Love" (1946).

André de Toth
de Toth

Hungarian born director André de Toth was monocular and had no depth perception, though he directed one of the first 3D movies, "House of Wax" (1953). He was known for his hard edge pictures and for depicting violence in a realistic manner that Hollywood was still squeamish about in the 1940s. Some of his better known noirs include "Pitfall" (1948), "Guest in the House" (1944), "Dishonored Lady" (1947), "Crime Wave" (1953), "Dark Waters" (1944) and "Hidden Fear" (1957). 

Fritz Lang

No one ever accused Fritz Lang of being a softie. The German born director was known for browbeating and intimidating his casts to get their best performances. His work includes influential noirs "The Big Heat" (1953),  "Scarlet Street" (1945), "Fury" (1936), "You Only Live Once" (1937), "Hangmen Also Die!" (1943), "Ministry of Fear" (1944), "Human Desire" (1954), "Clash by Night" (1952) and German Expressionist masterpiece "M" (1931).

Nicholas Ray

Nicholas Ray not only directed some of the most moving noirs, he was married to noir diva Gloria Grahame. Their marriage didn't end so well. Among Ray's masterpieces are “They Live By Night” (1948), “In A Lonely Place” (1950), “On Dangerous Ground” (1951) and campy western/noir "Johnny Guitar" (1954) as well as "Rebel Without a Cause" (1955).

Samuel Fuller
Firebrand independent director Samuel Fuller started out working in the tabloid press. Dramatic stories and garish headline were his stock in trade, which lent itself nicely to his noir and crime films, including "House of Bamboo" (1955), "Scandal Sheet" (1952), "Pickup on South Street" (1953), "Shockproof" (1949), "The Racket" (1951), "Gambling House" (1950), "The Crimson Kimono" (1959) and "Underworld USA" (1961), among others.

John Ford
John Ford isn't usually thought of as a noir director — his westerns are legendary. But a number of his films fit in neatly with the genre as either pure noir or noir influenced, including "The Informer" (1935), "The Long Voyage Home" and "The Grapes of Wrath" (both 1940), "The Fugitive" (1947) and "Sergeant Rutledge" (1960). And, yes, Ford was a tough customer, too. Just watch filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich try to interview him during a break in shooting.



Thursday, September 8, 2022

Driving a Stake through Swinging London’s Heart

Turner (Mick Jagger), left, keeps watch over
Chas (James Fox) in 'Performance' (1970).

Just another a drug-induced,
decadent, rock ’n’ roll-tinged noir 

Performance” isn’t on many “best neo-noirs” lists — absolutely zero that I could find, honestly. Some might say it shouldn’t be mentioned in the same breath as the 1960s crime films that pay homage to black and white noir classics of the 1940s and ’50s, but allow me to disagree.

The Mick Jagger-co-starring cult film has preoccupations we sometimes find in noir, including the fluidity of, and confusion over, identity. Many a noir anti-hero and heroine develop amnesia or hijack another’s identity, only to learn that posing as the other one can run great risks. In “Performance,” the story is all about a thug’s unexpected search for his identity within the confines of an appropriately shabby mansion in the bohemian part of 1960s London.

The film toggles between a drug-induced hallucinatory tale and a blood-splattered gangster flick. East London mobster Chas (James Fox) elbows his way into the abode of washed-up rock star Turner (Mick Jagger), and it becomes abundantly clear that Chas has crossed the threshold into a world over which he has little understanding and even less control.

Turner (Mick Jagger) in his lair.
First Choice: Brando
Aside from the film’s violence, “Performance” is a good deal more exotic in tone and risqué than other crime films of its era. Donald Cammell, who made his directorial debut with “Performance,” originally conceived it as a film about an American gangster hiding out in London. He intended to cast his pal Marlon Brando as Chas, but plans changed and James Fox took the role. Nicolas Roeg, who later directed British supernatural horror classic “Don’t Look Now” (1973), co-directed “Performance,” taking charge of the look of the film.

Hardly 'Swinging London'
At its first screening, the film gave movie execs the heebie-jeebies — the paean to “swinging London” they were expecting turned out to be a blunt depiction of sex and drugs that was far more edgy and dangerous than anticipated. Its first reviews were not flattering. One commentator disparagingly observed that it’s as if “Performance” was penned by Mickey Spillane trying to write like Harold Pinter. Upon witnessing the eyebrow raising antics depicted in the film, a Warner Brothers executive’s wife allegedly vomited. Richard Schickel of Life magazine said “Performance” is “the most disgusting, the most completely worthless film I have seen since I began reviewing.”

From Woodstock to Altamont

Warner Brothers panicked and shelved the film for a couple of years. Of course, the swinging London era of mods and rockers was hopelessly passe by then and a darker, more decadent atmosphere had taken hold. The counter culture's touchstone event, Woodstock, took place in August of 1969. But so did the Manson Family murders, and four weeks later the Stones organized a free concert at Altamont Speedway in California that saw four fatalities, including the murder of an audience member by Hell's Angels security personnel. “Performance” was already in the can by the time all of these events occurred, and if the film was not exactly prescient, it was at least an indicator of the period of hipster despair and dissolution that was to follow. Of course, Mick and the Stones had earlier recorded and released a hit song, “Sympathy for the Devil” in 1968, an ode to the prince of darkness, himself, so the band’s nod to the demonic was already in plain sight and should have come as no surprise. 

As for the fictional Turner, we meet him when he’s experiencing career lag, but his prospects are about to be changed by an unlikely alliance as he and the psychotic Chas cross paths. 

Johnny Shannon as
crime boss Harry Flowers
Flowers the Mobster
It turns out, the brutal mobster routinely squeezes pound notes out of the locals who are unfortunate enough to be caught in crime kingpin Harry Flowers’s (Johnny Shannon) grip. Chas pours acid over one target’s spotless Rolls Royce, smashes things and brutalizes others. He’s a domestic terrorist serving a brutal criminal regime that seems to operate with impunity.

Chas eventually falls out of favor with his boss and barely escapes a gangster home invasion with his life. He’s desperately in search of a safe haven, and when he overhears a conversation about a recently vacated basement room he lands on Turner’s doorstep.  

Creative Atmosphere
At first he’s not well received but he browbeats the eccentric rocker, claiming he needs to live in a creative atmosphere — he’s a juggler, he maintains. Reluctantly, the singer and his live-in female companions, Pherber (Anita Pallenberg) and Lucy (Michèle Breton), who are the other two-thirds of the singer’s live-in ménage-a-trois, take in the rogue gangster. Turner realizes that Chas possesses something he lacks — a gangster persona, which is an essential element for a rock ‘n’ roll star, you see.

Identities become fluid
in 'Performance.'
The creative atmosphere — and later, some psychedelic mushrooms — have an effect on Chas. He dyes his hair the color of a bucket of rusty nails, trying to blend in to his new outré sanctuary, and in hopes of evading the gangsters he’s trying to dodge. It’s not a particularly effective disguise, but it’s the first sign of a transformation — and he is one sorely in need of a behavioral transformation.

Fun with Psychedelic Fungus
Earlier in the film we see him having a sadomasochistic encounter with a woman, which fits in with his brutal manner. But after Pherber encourages him to release his psychological demons by exploring the female side of his personality, Chas, fully blitzed on ’shrooms, has a psychological breakthrough as he hallucinates Turner as his crime boss performing the song “Memo from Turner.” It’s classic a moment as neo-noir takes a surreal turn, melding noir with 1960s gender-bending drug culture. 

A gangsters' painting party.
Godard Connection
Perhaps the film of that era most similar to the chemically induced psychedelia of “Performance” is “Point Blank” (1967), with Lee Marvin as a gangster trying to collect money he is owed. “Point Blank” delves into the hallucinatory, but its surrealistic elements are the product of a dying man’s feverish nightmare rather than hallucinations of the drug-induced variety. It does, however, share a raw, jump-cut induced nervous energy with “Performance,” both of which are kindred spirits with the French New Wave of the 1960s. We see that when an apartment where Chas is doing his dirty work is sprayed and splashed in blood-red paint. The scene is reminiscent of Jean Luc Godard’s color-drenched anarchic “Pierrot le Fou” (1965) — perhaps not so coincidentally, Godard directed a documentary, “The Rolling Stones: Sympathy for the Devil” (1968), the same year that “Performance” was shot. 

Confusion, double meanings
When “Performance” finally wraps up, we see a thorough blending of identities among the inhabitants of Turner’s decadent pad.  The film’s denouement confused the movie executives at its jaw-dropping debut, and, no doubt, many others continue to walk away wondering if they’re missing something. Like “Point Blank,” whose ending is open to interpretation, “Performance” uses noir tropes but also upends them with its elusive, not readily explainable, ending.

Mergers, Acquisitions
Turner has apparently merged with Chas, but exactly how did this transformation come about? Don’t strain yourself looking for answers. “Performance” is a mind-bending, occasionally incoherent experience, and you’re welcome to put whatever spin on it you’d like. If you’re curious about that era, this is one film that provides a bracing if somewhat unsettling journey into the past. It may appeal to the nostalgically inclined, those who missed out on the scene entirely, and of course, the ones who were there but, for the life of them, can’t seem to remember any of it — you all know who you are.