Life and Death in L.A.: April 2024

Sunday, April 21, 2024

Pop! Goes the Flashbulb: In Noir, Photographers Did It the Old Fashioned Way, and their Pictures Usually Turned the Town, and Crime Investigations, Upside Down

Howard Duff snaps a candid shot in "Shakedown" (1950).

Contains Spoilers

By Paul Parcellin

Lighting and photographic style play an outsized role in crime dramas of all kinds, including film noir. But then there are the noirs and thrillers that put a camera in front of the camera — or to be more precise, they’re films in which a photographer and his or her pictures play a key role in the story. 

It turns out that the camera can perform a number of roles, as recorder of truth, an instrument of deception and blackmail, a shield against assault or a device that uncovers crime that the naked eye wouldn’t notice. 

Holding a camera and press credentials — real or fake — can help get you into places that normally restrict access, be it a crime scene, lavish party or a war zone — and some are a combination of all three.

Here are some films featuring paparazzo whose pictures shake up the status quo for better or worse:

Martha Vickers, Humphrey Bogart, "The Big Sleep."

The Big Sleep” (1946) 

A camera is a blackmailer's best friends. It can catch a dupe in the act of regrettable deeds and preserve that transgression for ill-gained profit. Private eye Philip Marlowe (Humphrey Bogart) is hired to get elderly Gen. Sternwood’s young daughter Carmen (Martha Vickers) out of just such a pickle. 

A blackmailer catches her on film, drugged up and in a compromising position. 

It’s highly embarrassing for Gen. Sternwood. For Carmen? Meh.

The incriminating pictures are taken with a camera hidden inside an Asian sculpture in the home of shady bookseller Arthur Geiger. In addition to handling volumes of Shakespeare and Spinoza, Geiger also maintains a backroom lending library of smut.  

But his blackmail scheme is just the tip of the iceberg, and the deeper Marlowe dives into this black pool of treachery the greater the number of players he discovers. So sprawling and complex is this mystery that even after hearing the solution you may be a bit confused. I certainly was.

Duff, "Shakedown" — the last shot.

Shakedown” (1950)

News photographer Jack Early (Howard Duff) blows his boss’s mind with his candid shots of crimes in progress. Turns out his uncanny luck of being at the right place when the action unfolds has little to do with good fortune and a lot to do with inside info. Through manipulations and backroom arrangements he snaps pictures that other photographers miss, making him the newsroom star.

His editor sends him on a near impossible mission to photograph a crime boss who won’t allow his picture to be taken, and the camera clicker makes a deal with the kingpin — then double crosses him. 

The film’s wrap-up sees the slimy photographer set up his camera for a spectacular shot, and it turns out to be his last.

Keep an eye out for Hollywood wild man Lawrence Tierney and an uncredited Rock Hudson. 

Cyd Charisse, "Tension."

Tension”  (1949)

It doesn’t take a pro photographer, an FBI agent or a blackmailer to shoot a picture that blows a mystery wide open. Sometimes an ordinary “Jane Q. Public” can handle the job.

Shutter bug Mary Chanler (Cyd Charisse) is romantically attracted to dashing salesman Paul Sothern (Richard Basehart). The problem is that Sothern isn’t who he says he is. He’s milquetoast pharmacy employee Warren Quimby, who’s planning to kill his cheating wife Claire’s (Audrey Totter) boyfriend, Barney Deager (Lloyd Gough).

Quimby assumes the fictional identity of Sothern, hoping to get close enough to Deager to do him in. 

He doesn’t go through with it, and his plan backfires after he drops the “Sothern” guise and goes back to being Quimby. Mary thinks he’s gone missing and gives the police a photo of him she snapped as a lark. Before long, the authorities figure out that Quimby and Sothern are the same person, and things begin to look worse for Quimby when Deager turns up dead.

If nothing else, it’s probably a good idea to remember that, in noir, there is no such thing as a harmless photograph. 

James Stewart, "Rear Window." 

Rear Window” (1954)

Photographs can record information that the untrained eye would not normally see. And strangely enough, the camera can be used as a defensive weapon to obscure an intruder’s vision and stop him in his tracks.

Confined to a wheelchair with a broken leg, photo journalist L. B. "Jeff" Jefferies (James Stewart) wiles away his time watching the goings on visible through his neighbors’ windows. None of it is X-rated, but there’s an undercurrent of voyeuristic impulse on display in this Alfred Hitchcock thriller.

One resident in the unit across the courtyard catches his interest. It’s the apartment that Lars Thorwald (Raymond Burr) shares with his wife, and Jefferies begins to suspect that the burly Thorwald has done away with her.

Pondering this, Jefferies pores over photos of the garden and realizes that the camera has picked up something suspicious. A buried object, perhaps? 

Piece by piece, Jefferies and his lady friend Lisa Fremont (Grace Kelly) collect evidence and turn up the heat on Thorwald. His brooding neighbor finally breaks and comes to Jefferies’ apartment intending to silence him for good. 

But Jefferies’s trusty camera comes in handy when he repeatedly fires the flash attachment to temporarily blind the intruder. Flash bulb after flash bulb, Jefferies clicks away to ward off the attack. But like a soldier running out of ammo, his ploy can only stave off trouble for so long and the outcome could be very bad.

David Hemmings, "Blow-Up."

Blow-Up” (1966)

Here’s another example of a camera capturing the truth and revealing odd details that the eye tends to miss. Sometimes that obscure information can reveal a criminal conspiracy. But no matter how air-tight the photographic evidence may seem, the pursuit of justice can be a futile endeavor. 

Fashion photographer Thomas (David Hemmings) plies his trade in 1960s Swinging London. Occasionally he delves into art photography, a pursuit that unexpectedly plunges him into a sinkhole of doubt and paranoia.  

While shooting landscape photos in a park one day, he photographs a couple lingering there. Upon enlarging and examining the resulting photos he sees a man with a gun and a body hidden among the greenery. He realizes that he’s stumbled onto a crime scene and the lingering couple are likely the victim and a co-conspirator.

Try as he might, he can’t seem to elicit any concern from his peers, all of whom seem to wallow in a haze of pot smoke, aloof and coolly detached from reality. 

When the alleged crime scene photos are stolen, Thomas is left with nothing tangible to persuade authorities to investigate and his efforts hit a brick wall. 

In the park he meets a mime troupe playing a mock game of  tennis with invisible rackets and balls, and he soon becomes wrapped up in watching the faux game. Reality, it seems, is what the majority believe it to be, regardless of any evidence to the contrary.

Joe Pesci, "The Public Eye."

The Public Eye” (1992)

Freelance news photographer Leon "Bernzy" Bernstein (Joe Pesci) roams the streets of 1940s New York in search of gruesome crime scenes and other tabloid  fodder.  He’s a thinly veiled stand-in for shutter-snapper Arthur Fellig, a.k.a. “Weegee,” whose work is still shown in museums and published in fine art catalogues as well as coffee table books. 

Weegee, so called because of his ability to anticipate when and where juicy photo opportunities would crop up, was not above ginning up a crime scene to make more spectacular pictures. Likewise, Bernzy might move a fedora closer to a corpse for dramatic effect at the expense of fidelity to the truth. But that’s because Bernzy, like Weegee, sees a higher truth in his art — and he does see his photographs as art, not mere junk journalism. 

His aesthetic sense, his nose for news as well as his marketing savvy tell him to go for the dramatic gut-punch and leave the detective work to the coppers. He may have smudged a latent fingerprint here or there, but his pictures deliver the sort of blood and guts shots that leap off the page in tabloid bulldog editions.  

Jake Gyllenhaal, "Nightcrawler."

Nightcrawler” (2014)

So far we’ve only talked about still photographers, but an exception can be made for “Nightcrawler,” which shines a harsh light on the TV news biz, more specifically, the sleazy, deceptive practices of freelance videographer Lou Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal), who covers nighttime Los Angeles and distorts the truth to fit what the viewing public wants to see and hear. 

As his career advances, Bloom reveals his utter lack of ethics as he makes a grotesque lunge toward success while trampling the journalistic ideals of even handedness, fair play and above all else, the truth. 

Charles Bronson, "Man with a Camera."

Man with a Camera” (1958-1960)

This TV crime drama features war veteran turned freelance photographer Mike Kovac (Charles Bronson). Kovac usually snaps pictures for insurance companies, the police and average citizens. He’s known for taking dangerous assignments that others turn down and he often acts as a private eye, to boot. 

His police liaison is Lt. Donovan (James Flavin) and he seeks counsel from his dad, Anton Kovac (Ludwig Stössel). 

When working undercover, Kovac uses slick devices such as cameras hidden in a radio, cigarette lighter and his necktie — shades of James Bond. Better yet, he’s got car phone and a portable darkroom in the trunk for developing film on the spot, as did Weegee. Some ideas are just too good not to copy.

Monday, April 8, 2024

Kings of the Road: Alienated, Disenchanted Drifters May Think They’re Heading Toward their Destination, but They’re Really on Course to a Tragic End

Ann Savage, Tom Neal, "Detour" (1945).

Contains Spoilers

By Paul Parcellin

Film noir is full of cheap hotel rooms, train stations, roadside diners, filling stations, bus depots — places that transients inhabit while on their way somewhere, or perhaps rambling toward nowhere in particular. 

A compulsive desire to take to the highways is part of the American psyche, frequently rhapsodized in popular culture as the restless energy of a mobile society on the go. 

But in noir, the lone wanderer is often an alienated, disenchanted outcast leading a rootless existence and perhaps just one step ahead of the law. 

The drifter, who remains detached from others either by choice or for fear of capture, can bring trouble to town or land in the quicksand of diabolical schemes lying in wait for him or her. They may not know where they are headed, but their ultimate destination is a meeting with fate and the outcome will be the stuff of Greek tragedy. 

Here are four drifters whose travels lead them to shadowy destinations:

Lana Turner, Hume Cronyn, John Garfield,
"The Postman Always Rings Twice."

The Postman Always Rings Twice” (1946)

Let’s say your wife happens to be Lana Turner. It’s unwise to hire a rugged young drifter to work in your lunch room, especially if yours is a May-December marriage and you haven’t been living in perfect matrimonial bliss. The drifter, Frank Chambers (John Garfield), is a restless spirit who can’t seem to stay in one place for long. He’s hitched a ride to the Twin Oaks, the roadside diner and filling station where a job awaits him. 

The driver dropping him off is the district attorney, who happens to live down the road from the place — turns out the D.A. will have a ringside seat to the unpleasantness that’s about to unspool. Chambers doesn’t realize it, but that fateful ride is the first link in a chain of events that begins his downward spiral. He’s the kind of drifter who seems to have no past and we sense that every step of his life is one more pace toward a tragic end.

Husband and wife Cora (Turner) and Nick Smith (Cecil Kellaway) are an oddly matched pair who own the Twin Oaks, and as soon as Chambers gets an eyeful of the ravishing Cora, he’s hot to dive into an adulterous liaison. Soon, Nick Smith’s life expectancy takes a dramatic dip thanks to the two love birds now locked in a tryst and making dark plans.

Like many a fall guy, Chambers wouldn’t have landed in hot water if many events hadn’t lined up and shepherded him toward his demise. The disloyal pair have numerous opportunities to drop their deadly scheme and split up, but a magnetic force draws them toward homicide. As the title states, “the postman always rings twice” — Chambers and Cora think they’re getting away with a deadly deed, but fate has a way of boomeranging back at you and it’s pointless to resist.

Tom Neal, "Detour."

Detour” (1945)

Hitchhiking is a risky means of getting around, but for an unlucky saloon pianist with mere pennies in his pocket the price seems right. It turns out that Al Roberts (Tom Neal) should have considered the old adage that there’s no such thing as a free lunch. The same applies to transportation. His trip across the Arizona desert proves costly for the lovesick traveler who wants nothing more than a rendezvous with his gal in Los Angeles. 

His journey has its up and downs, and the one time Roberts thinks he’s hit a stroke of good luck it all turns sour. A freak accident claims the life of a man with whom he’s hitched a ride and in a panic Roberts decides to swap identities with him, dump the body and take his car. Things start to look up and he just might make it to the City of Angels after all. Then on a whim he picks up another drifting hitchhiker, Vera (Ann Savage), and the bottom drops out. Vera turns out to be the femme fatale’s femme fatale. She’s dangerous, impulsive, streetwise and perhaps more than a little crazy. She’s wise to the fact that Roberts left a stiff in the desert and she believes it was murder. It wasn’t, but heaps of circumstantial evidence point toward him as the culprit. Vera has got him over a barrel and it’s clear that she’s going to be the one running the show. 

Roberts, a mostly innocent dupe, falls victim to the culture of rootlessness he finds in random encounters on the road. His fellow travelers are detached from society and their motives can be dark. To him, this lonesome road of strangers is a territory with which he is unfamiliar and ill-prepared to navigate. Once he stood on the side of the road with his thumb out his fate was sealed. There’s no exit ramp off of this highway.

Sure, he makes hare brained decisions along the way and has the worst luck imaginable in traveling companions, but he can’t be blamed much for that. 

Or can he? 

We see the story in flashback and Roberts is the voiceover narrator. Possibly, he’s an unreliable narrator and may be more responsible for his destiny than he’s willing to fess up to, but we’ll never know. 

Broken and near his journey’s end, he observes, “Whichever way you turn, fate sticks out a foot to trip you.” That’s a pretty good summary of his journey on this road.

Teresa Wright, Joseph Cotten, "Shadow of a Doubt."

Shadow of a Doubt” (1943)

When Uncle Charley (Joseph Cotten) comes to visit the folks take out the good china and lay down the welcome mat. Too bad they have no idea who they’re letting into their household. Uncle Charley, also known to authorities as the Merry Widow Killer, murders lonely women and steals their money and valuables. If Uncle Charley shows up at your door, it’s best to turn off the lights and duck behind the davenport. He’s one of director Alfred Hitchcock’s favorite story devices — a ticking time bomb.

His charm and sophisticated manner are a smokescreen that hide his true psychopathic nature. He’s got his sister and her family believing that he’s a wealthy businessman, but the truth is he’s been laying low in a cheap rooming house in the bad part of town. 

A couple of detectives have tracked him down and he decides the time is right to skip town and visit his sibling’s clan in California. His admiring niece, Charlotte "Charlie" Newton (Teresa Wright) is initially delighted by his arrival, she being a bored teenager who is hungry for a diversion from dull small town life. As if by premonition, she decides to invite her uncle to come and stay with the family, but Uncle Charley is already on his way. Initially, she’s full of admiration for the man, but once moved in Uncle Charley’s mystique begins to evaporate. As the brutal facts of her deranged uncle’s true nature come to light, Charlie, as her family calls her, decides to protect her kindly, sensitive mother, Emma (Patricia Collinge), from learning of her brother’s criminal pursuits. 

She’s determined to make her murderous relative leave quietly without tipping off the rest of the family. But he won’t go, and things get worse when Uncle Charlie learns that young Charlie is aware of his dirty deeds and decides he must silence her. Needless to say, young Charlie really has her hands full.

William Talman, Edmond O'Brien, Frank Lovejoy, "The Hitch-Hiker."

The Hitch-Hiker” (1953)

If you’re motoring to the lake, stream or ocean for a few days of fishing, here’s a piece of advice: don’t stop for the stranger who’s flagging down a ride. That stranded nomad standing by the side of the road might be a psychopath who leaves a trail of corpses in his path.

Take for example “The Hitch-Hiker,” which is based on the true story of the 1950 killing spree of Billy Cook — he murdered six people, including a family of five. 

In the film, hitchhiker Emmett Myers (William Talman) takes Roy Collins (Edmund O'Brien) and Gilbert Bowen (Frank Lovejoy) hostage and forces them at gunpoint to drive across the desert toward Mexico. Myers is the most fearsome of drifters because, unlike other murderous gadabouts, he kills for no reason other than to eliminate witnesses and satisfy his bloodlust. He also takes great pleasure in tormenting his captives with the constant threat of death.

Aside from its riveting story and fine performances, “The HItch-Hiker” in notable for being directed by a woman. Ida Lupino, who also directed “High Sierra” (1941) and “While the City Sleeps” (1956), helmed this film in an era when few woman got to sit in the director’s chair. What’s also exceptional is the high production quality she managed to craft on a budget of less than $160,000. 

Among the realistic touches baked into the film, Lupino gives Myers one specific physical characteristic taken from Cook — a genetic deformity that made it impossible for him to close his right eye, making Myers all the more terrifying.

Hauntingly enough, what comes to mind after viewing “The Hitch-Hiker” is the old Prestone Antifreeze jingle, which urged, “Never pick up a stranger … ” That’s wisdom we can all live with.