Bigger Than Life
The ‘50s weren’t all Bob Hope and Doris Day comedies. Quite a few American films from that decade were honest assessments of the psychic toll taken during an era where postwar consumer culture and an insidious conformism were coming to define the mainstream of American cultural life. This was the era of the Red Scare and the Hollywood blacklist. It was an era of rigid gender roles, Father Knows Best, and suburban sprawl. The angst of this era was beautifully captured in the films of director Nicholas Ray. He gave us Rebel without a Cause, In a Lonely Place, and Bigger Than Life—all iconic treatises on men at war with themselves and the people who love them.
Nicolas Ray knew something about men in crisis. He had a gift for getting inside the heads of men who were alienated from themselves as well as from those around them. Bigger Than Life ranks as probably his darkest examination into the mind of a man falling apart. To add subversion to the proceeding pathos the main character’s drug-fueled anger and paranoia are best understood as violent psychological manifestations of the quintisentially American obsessions with success, strength, and a patriarchal family structure in which both mother and child are rendered subservient to the whims of an angry, domineering, and vengeful father. In other words, Ray is taking on the 1950s themselves and painting a portrait of a deranged society confined by roles that leave no room for humanity.
Born to Kill
Born to Kill is one of the kinkier Noirs out there and it’s slightly ironic considering the director Robert Wise is mostly known for helping to butcher Orson Welles’s The Magnificent Ambersons at RKO’s request and directing The Sound of Music and West Side Story. Wise was not an iconoclast like Welles or Robert Aldrich. He was a director most famous for helming big road show musicals and Born to Kill is the polar opposite of such family friendly fare. It’s a fairly sordid tale of obsession, jealousy, and murder. Lawrence Tierney plays the cold blooded killer at the center of things but he’s no match for Claire Trevor as a steely society dame turned on by his brutish exploits. Tierney plays a thoroughly rotten character who kills for kicks but it’s Trevor’s high class vixen who really makes an impression because while she’s just as mean as Tierney’s numbskull thug she’s also got a brain which makes her involvement in his homicidal hi jinks that much more unsettling.
Tierney plays Sam Wild, a suit-clad psychopath who worms his way into the inner circle of a wealthy family, marrying Trevor’s half sister Georgia (Audrey Long) but maintaining a hot n’ heavy flirtation with Helen (Trevor) all the while. Sam shares a filthy apartment with his friend Marty (the personification of low rent sleaze, Elisha Cook Jr.) before moving into the family mansion. When Helen finds out that Sam is a deranged killer with at least two murders to his credit she finds herself protecting him and intimidating people who might be in a position to finger him as a murderer all stemming from the twisted logic of her own infatuation with him.
Baby Face is the ultimate “Pre-Code” film. The Code was short for “Production Code”—a list of rules written up by pedantic little men working in collusion with the Catholic Church and the reactionary forces of right wing America to strangle out the “vice” in American films. Hollywood all too willingly acquiesced to the Code’s enforcement because the alternative would have been a chaotic mangle of bureaucratic red tape in which state run censorship boards could have conceivably tied up Hollywood product in a mess of legal chaos for any length of time.
The studio moguls would never allow outside organizations to dictate the final cut of their films if they could help it so the alternative was to agree to one official organization that worked with the studios to streamline acts of censorship based on one stupid list of rules that could be referenced for any issue that might strike a nerve with people who had too much time on their hands. Crime could never pay, women could never discuss sex or even pregnancy and never, ever could there be even a hint of homosexuality on screen. This might not be surprising if your exposure to Hollywood films before 1968 is limited to the big celebrated fare—your Wizard of Oz’s and Gone with the Wind’s and such—but there was a brief period before the Code’s enforcement in Hollywood where the age old marketing maxim that “sex sells” was regularly put to the test and was proven to pay in spades.
Stage Door is the rarest kind of film—a film about young women that doesn’t revolve around men. Instead, and perhaps not surprising given what has historically been green lit under the auspices of the term “women’s picture,” the great object of their collective affection is the euphoria of stardom. What these gals really belong to is the third sex—they’re actors. In some cases they are wannabe actors or dreamers and there is an entire New York boarding house full of them. Girls from the sticks and girls with rich fathers, all having come to the big city in pursuit of Broadway glory.
The cast is something of a miracle in that so many of them became showbiz legends later though here their brilliance is already on full display. The cast includes Katharine Hepburn, Ginger Rogers, the almighty Eve Arden, and even Lucille Ball. All are uniformly excellent to the point that one could get whiplash from the wisecracks. And boy do the zingers come fast and furious. The bitchiness is leveled with charm, though, because they’re just kids trying to get along in a city that tends to crush more dreams than it fulfills. The film presents the life of a young actress trying to succeed in New York as one of almost constant rejection with the added complication of having to contend with the advances of lecherous producers. But somehow they soldier on because of that blend of hope and chutzpah essential to the profession. They go on dates, they go out for auditions, and they learn to rely on one another when they’re not busy trading insults.
Kiss Me Deadly
In the world of noir a good mystery is so much more about the journey than the destination. I couldn’t really explain to you what was happening through every scene of Mulholland Dr. or who did what in The Big Sleep but those films are such superb examples of atmosphere as a blueprint for understanding the director’s vision that nothing is lost by not understanding every last scene or plot twist contained within. A first rate noir is more than the sum of its double crosses and knifed backs. In fact without that brilliantly unnerving atmosphere it’s just another run-of-the-mill whodunit. Noir is atmosphere certainly more than it could be called a kind of plot which is why films as conceptually different as Sweet Smell of Success and The Killing are both considered to be part of the noir canon. Kiss Me Deadly is director Robert Aldrich’s adrenaline charged mystery set in a mid-'50s Los Angeles of sun-seared nuclear paranoia. It's a detective story but it’s also about an era of America defined by its paranoia over the possibility of impending nuclear holocaust.
Mike Hammer (played by Ralph Meeker) is a hot shot Private Investigator who makes his living snooping around and catching people with their pants down. He’s the one that the jilted wives of L.A. go to when they want proof that their husbands are cheating. It’s a dirty way to make a living or so he is constantly told but he doesn’t seem to mind. He’s out for his own gain. He likes cocktails, race cars, women, and his unbelievably cool apartment. If he had a code of ethics it probably boils down to “the ends justify the means.” A woman on the run winds up in Mike’s car one night and before too long he is embroiled in a mystery that ensnares gangsters, the FBI, a murderous blonde, and pretty soon the fate of the entire world. Everyone is after what Hammer’s girlfriend terms, “the great whatsit.” When it’s found it takes the fatalism of noir to a whole new realm.Continue Reading
If you know anyone afflicted with a phobia towards classic film this might be a good place to start them. White Heat is one of the darkest, funniest American films ever made with tension as thick as a hangman’s noose. Did you enjoy the film The Dark Knight? Do you remember the opening bank heist scene where the Joker kills off each accomplice as soon as they have served their purpose? Did you like that scene? Of course you did. It’s the best scene of the whole film. Well, White Heat is kind of like the bank heist scene from The Dark Knight. It runs on that kind of gleeful nihilistic energy. It’s more film noir than gangster film, though it is so well performed and well directed that it doesn’t really matter what you call it because it’s in a class by itself.
James Cagney plays Cody Jarrett, a psychotic gang leader who plans and executes heists and seems to kill as much for his own kicks as for necessity. Of all the swaggering maniacs Cagney played, Cody Jarrett is his masterpiece. He’s older and slightly heavier than the lithe gangster characters Cagney played in his youth but Cody Jarrett is much more honestly twisted than anything Cagney had done before. He is the terrifying monster lurking beneath Cagney’s portrayals of charming psychopaths. Cody is a mama’s boy. He has headaches that make him run for his mother’s lap. She knows how to comfort him and how to manipulate him.Continue Reading
One thing you can say with some certainty about Fran Lebowitz is that, above all else, she is fantastic company. She may have stopped writing decades ago and she may be known more now for her photos popping up in pretty much every issue of Vanity Fair at whatever gala Graydon Carter invited her to than for anything else, but her wit is enduring and it has kept her around even as her writing career has mummified into something from another era. She has fallen into a trap common to the aesthete. Her cultural criticism is so sharp that it has rendered her ability to capture it pointless because it will never live up to her own expectations. She won’t write much but she will talk, and talk is what Public Speaking, Martin Scorsese’s documentary about her, has in spades. It is so pleasurable to listen to this woman talk. She sizes up what’s wrong with so many aspects of contemporary American life, whether it’s the cultural homogenization of New York or her mystification over how gay rights has become a battle over an institution she can’t imagine why anyone would insist on joining.
Lebowitz can be brutal in her criticism but she isn’t cruel. Perhaps this is owed to how self deprecating she is. She occupies a place on a very small stage of public intellectuals in America —the ones who might actually get booked for a spot on Letterman. But I don’t think she has much in common with people like Christopher Hitchens or Camille Paglia. She doesn’t go for the jugular like they do. This is not to say that she can’t be provocative. One of the most interesting things she has to say is that the first generation of gay men whom we lost to AIDS was superior to the gay men who survived them because it was the ones who died who were "getting laid" and living life to the fullest. It’s an odd but poignant eulogy.Continue Reading
One of the most beautifully directed and most gorgeously shot films of the 1930s is this stirring account of an Irishman in Dublin in 1922 who betrays his friend and country by turning informer for the British. Gypo Nolan is a big dumb giant of a man with few options in life. Acting as an agent for the Irish Rebellion he refuses to execute one of the members of the British Occupation and is cut off from the network that sustains the Rebels during hopeless economic times. With a girlfriend named Mary whom he finds reduced to walking the street hoping to keep from starving to death, he takes the only opportunity he is offered—that of informing on his friend Frankie who is wanted by the British. Though Gypo originally plans to use the money he makes from double crossing his friend to take Mary to America he instead throws it around on booze and buying fish and chips for a huge crowd of his fellow Irishmen who cheer him on as a hero. When he is exposed as the one who double crossed Frankie he fingers an innocent man as the true culprit before getting shot by members of the Rebellion for his betrayal.
One of the unusual things about The Informer is the way in which Ford turns the tragic story of Gypo Nolan informing on his friend into an allegory for the betrayal of Christ by Judas, but also making Gypo a kind of Christ figure at the same time. The symbolism is anything but subtle. First the film starts with a Biblical passage about Judas betraying Christ, while the scene of Gypo buying fish and chips for a crowd of revelers is clearly inspired by the story of Jesus and the fishes and loaves. By the time Gypo stumbles into the town church bleeding from a gunshot wound, he raises his arms aloft in a Christ pose in front of a statue of Christ on the cross (in case we weren’t getting the picture—we have multiple examples of a very heavy handed kind of symbolism at work). And yet the film works because of the arresting performances, exquisite cinematography, and, while the symbolism is overbearing at times, Ford’s conflation of Judas and Christ into one character, albeit uneven, is undeniably affecting.Continue Reading
Prodigal Sons tells the too-strange-to-be-fiction story of a family from Montana with some really fascinating problems. Daughter Kimberly used to be a man named Paul who was the star quarterback of his high school football team. Paul was popular and dated girls but he never felt comfortable in his skin. He moved away to San Francisco and, in the process of figuring out his gender identity, he decided to undergo gender reassignment surgery. Paul became Kimberly and decades beyond her former life she is, in many ways, a completely different person.
Now living in New York, working in media, and in a long-term lesbian relationship Kimberly decides to go back to Montana for her high school reunion. She makes a documentary about her trip and the reaction of her former schoolmates to her new identity. She will also reunite with her estranged brother, Marc, who was in the same graduating class. Marc has an interesting story in his own right, though the fascinating details don’t emerge until midway through the film. Marc is Kimberly’s adopted brother and though he is essentially a good person he is also a very troubled man with a violent temper and Kimberly is nervous about what it will be like to see him.Continue Reading
Beyond the Sea
Kevin Spacey is a weird case. He used to be so cool, so mysterious. Everyone had a theory about him. Though he had been kicking around the fringes of the film and television industry for years it wasn’t until his succession of three brilliant roles —as Verbal Kint in The Usual Suspects (1995), John Doe in Se7en (1995), and Jack Vincennes in L.A. Confidential (1997)—that he seemed to arrive as a fully formed movie star. Any one of those show stealing roles would have made any actor famous but to claim all three and make each performance so memorably iconic is a tribute to Spacey’s versatility as a performer and to his incredible knack for knowing how to sustain an audience’s interest without giving too much away.
But fame, though he clearly sought it, began to intrude on his privacy. His coy question dodging as to whether he was gay or not seemed par for the course ten years ago when closeted celebrities insisted they weren’t closeted while refusing to just say they were gay (think Rosie O’Donnell and Ricky Martin). But Spacey, whose golden years are well past him at this point, insisted again only recently that he shouldn’t have to disclose his sexual orientation—an act of self-censorship no heterosexual would ever dream of having to play along with. Would anyone really care one way or the other at this point? It reminds me of the Onion article about the “Area Man Who Thinks He’s Still in The Closet.”Continue Reading