The Red House
Public domain film titles can be a great source of discovery for classic film buffs. There are some really weird movies that have made their way into Amoeba's DVD stock from companies such as Alpha Video which specialize in the obscure, the really terrible, and sometimes, a lost gem or two. But the experience of watching, even a good film, from a public domain copy can be pretty iffy. For one, their cover art is generally terrible. Poorly photoshopped images, terrible title fonts: on the whole, they are generally an affront to graphic design and good taste. This is why I had stayed away from The Red House, a not terribly well-known Delmer Daves noir starring Edward G. Robinson, made in 1947. Even when I finally relented, in search of more obscure noir thrills, the public domain copy I found looked and sounded awful. Whatever the filmmakers intended I could not see what it was because the sound and image were of such poor quality it was practically unwatchable.
But then a company I'd never heard of called HD Cinema Classics released a DVD/Blu-Ray combo of The Red House and once seen it was like a completely different film. What, in earlier editions, looked muddy and incoherent was now restored to its eerily gorgeous self. It's a beautiful and dark, dark, dark film and deserves high placement in the noir canon. This is a film that belongs in the same cinematic world of spooky, mysterious enchantment of The Night of the Hunter and Twin Peaks and, though it might be a stretch, The Innocents.Continue Reading
Max Ophuls's reputation as one of the greatest of all film directors seems principally based on the films he did in Europe such as The Earrings of Madame De... (1953) and Lola Montes (1955), about which Andrew Sarris famously proclaimed “the greatest film of all time.” But before he got to those he was a temporary exile in Hollywood along with many of the greatest film directors of the 20th century, all European, all having fled from war-torn Europe. Some thrived in their new exotic environs (Billy Wilder, Fritz Lang), while some never quite regained their former stride (let’s at least think about including Jean Renoir here).
In Hollywood Max Ophuls made some of the most sophisticated thrillers of the late 1940s and yet, because they dealt with American women, were snubbed as "women's pictures" at the time. Both Ophuls's Caught and The Reckless Moment were released in 1949, ending the decade on a high note for nuanced portrayals of women attempting to navigate a darkened moral universe made unavoidable by the post-war era even as the coming Atomic Age onslaught of The Donna Reed Show was about to begin.Continue Reading
Act of Violence
It’s always been puzzling to me why this almost unbearably bleak noir hasn’t made it to the forefront of the pack of truly exemplary films noir in critical circles. If we are to use the canonical criteria for noir of noted local author, former peeping tom, and current all-around creep, James Ellroy, as best summed up by a two-word description, “you’re fucked,” then noirs don’t come much more noir-ish than Act of Violence. We hear a lot about noir embodying the postwar anxieties of the United States. Well, Act of Violence lets those icky feelings boil to the top and builds its plot around a hornet’s nest of postwar guilt, fear and anxiety.
Van Heflin plays Frank Enley, a WW2 veteran living an idyllic life in a small California town. He’s a family man, and a pillar of the community. The film opens with a crowd gathered to cheer him for his latest real estate development and he is described as having proved himself in battle, as well as in business, an all-around great guy. He bounces his little son on his shoulders while listening to his tribute with his wife. But this blissful scene is contrasted with the severe image of Robert Ryan, dressed in a trench coat and fedora in some New York slum, brandishing a gun, and lurching towards a Greyhound bus leaving for California.Continue Reading
Stranger by the Lake
Talking about sex on film and why he felt it didn’t work Orson Welles once said, “Ecstasy isn’t really part of the scene we can do on celluloid.” I wonder what he would have made of Stranger by the Lake, a film that is about almost nothing but sex. Okay, you might say it’s about the search for connection, and the complicated nature of human relationships, and it’s kind of a murder mystery as well but everyone is naked almost the entire time. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many uncircumcised penises (it’s French..) in a movie before. As a thriller, it works well enough. The nudity is distracting to a point but it works in tandem with the languid pacing and serenity of the visuals. This is, in some sense, a nature film.
The film takes place at a cruising spot near a lake in France. Men come to sunbathe nude, and to go into the woods nearby to have anonymous sex. It’s a world unto itself with its own peculiar rules and set of codes. Real life doesn’t seem to intrude but that’s an illusion because the dangers of the real world are ominously close. Franck (Pierre Deladonchamps) is a regular who is more drawn to this spot than he wants to admit. He likes disappearing into the woods. He strips, he swims, he sunbathes, he cruises, and the scenes have an unobtrusive medium-shot matter-of-fact-ness about them. They look like anthropologists doing fieldwork on gay subcultures could have shot them.Continue Reading
Usually when movie lovers talk about legendary lost works in which auteur directors had their films taken from them and butchered by the American studios that produced them, they’re referring to “holy grails” of cinema such as Erich von Stroheim’s Greed (1924) or Orson Welles’s The Magnificent Ambersons (1942). But I recently stumbled across an account of another supposed lost classic, Swing Shift—Jonathan Demme’s tribute to America’s “Greatest Generation” of World War II and the women on the home front who found a new sense of self and independence by working for the war effort in the factories.
I actually really love the movie Swing Shift as it is but I hadn’t seen it in years. I remember my mom taking her mother to see it and letting me tag along. My grandma was part of that generation of women who did what they could for the war effort, whether it meant volunteering at the local USO or planting a Victory Garden in their backyards. By 1984, when the movie was released, that generation was elderly while I was only six. Seeing the movie as a kid, I think I just really loved the sentimental look at the U.S. during the 1940s. Taking place in Southern California, in Santa Monica, between the attack on Pearl Harbor and VJ Day, the film has a melancholic feel, with the sky looking perpetually overcast and the music usually something slow and beautiful, such as one of Jo Stafford’s torch songs. And though I don't remember if Glenn Miller's "Moonlight Serenade" is on the soundtrack it really should be.Continue Reading
A lot of directors who worked with Joan Crawford probably thought they had tapped into whatever unique strain of neurosis made her “La Joan” in order to get the best performance out of her in their films. She had always played a version of herself throughout her career, whether as a jazz crazy flapper in her silent films, a shop girl looking to marry up in her 1930s films, and in the double-crossed dame roles she took on in the hardboiled noirs of the 1940s. By the fifties, the Joker-esque lipstick started to appear, looking all the more frightening in Technicolor, and her eyebrows reached new levels of ferocity. I think of this as her middle-aged gender bending period. It seems to me that a lot of middle-aged American women start to look kind of androgynous after awhile out of what I always assumed was a weary resignation to having to keep up the scopophilic charade but Joan’s particular version of androgyny seemed more trenchant than that. It was kind of accidentally subversive. Or what the hell do I know? She may have been totally onboard as a proto-transgender performance artist. Maybe she was the first Ziggy Stardust and we weren’t hip enough to catch on. Well, whatever was going on no director found the resolute queerness of Joan’s 1950s persona quite like Nicholas Ray did with his weird western Johnny Guitar.
Joan had plenty of experience playing ball busters and vamps, but she had never played a character quite like Vienna, the saloon owner whom everyone in town seems to want gone. Vienna wears high-waisted black pants and boots, a bolo tie, and a holstered gun. She employs a staff of men who seem weary of having such a powerful female boss. All day they spin the roulette wheel in her club, even though there are no gamblers, and they serve drinks at her bar even though there are no drinkers. A former flame of Vienna’s named Johnny Guitar (played by Sterling Hayden) is ostensibly hired to strum some tunes for her clientele. But there's never anyone there, except for the nefarious bank-robbing gang that hangs out at Vienna’s including members with names like The Dancin’ Kid and a guy named Turkey. So yes we have Vienna, Johnny Guitar, the Dancin’ Kid, and Turkey--just for starters.Continue Reading
The Night of the Hunter
Whoa, Daddy if you haven’t seen The Night of the Hunter you really need to. It is probably, along with Vertigo and Citizen Kane, one of the pinnacles of 20th Century American cinema. It manages the rare trick of being funny and scary, stylized and naturalistic. Visually it harkens back to D.W. Griffith’s silent films and to German expressionism, with its constant, shadowy sense of menace, giving this film’s depiction of an American past a sinister daydream quality. It’s the first and only film British actor Charles Laughton ever directed. James Agee, one of the most important writers of Depression era America, adapted the screenplay, and Stanley Cortez, a poet with a lens (he did the incredible cinematography for Orson Welles’s The Magnificent Ambersons) was cinematographer.
For all the top tier tinsel town talent, though, this is Robert Mitchum’s show and he dominates the film with a kinky intensity, a murderous, almost supernatural creepiness. There’s a reason Siouxsie Sioux cited Mitchum’s psychotic preacher character as a key reference point for what she wanted to explore with the Banshees’ music. He’s pure evil but he’s such a wild card, a character as much dark myth as flesh and blood, that he is utterly spellbinding on screen.Continue Reading
The Crying Game
In his introduction to the published screenplay of Chinatown, Robert Towne wonders if there’s anything left to do with noir. He wonders if the aesthetics and thematics and poetics of noir are simply outdated in the information age, where a sense of mystery is harder to come by. Sensibly, he shrugs off this worry and points to The Crying Game as an example of how noir can still say new things to us as a modern audience. The thing I admire so much about the film, though, is that it manages to be both a deeply personal love story as well as a morality play about modern day political crime in Britain. It’s an IRA story with terrorism, assassinations, and a queer love story at its center. Somehow it all makes complete sense.
The first third of the film is told in flashback. Fergus, played by Stephen Rea, is an IRA operative who feels immense guilt for having had a role in the death of a hapless British soldier, Jody, played by an overbearing and overacting Forest Whitaker. Whitaker’s character gets to know Fergus after he’s nabbed and before the inevitable happens, Jody makes Fergus promise to check in on his girlfriend, a London hairdresser named Dil, after he is gone. The story goes from IRA thriller to blue neon Brit noir when Fergus goes to London, haunted by the tragic fate of Jody. He looks in on Dil as promised and quickly becomes infatuated with her. Dil is a cool London chick and a transgendered woman (with a penis) though Fergus has no idea. Fergus isn’t saying who he really is and Dil isn’t saying who she really is. Once nature takes its course and Fergus discovers the truth about Dil he doesn’t handle it very well. But because of the fact that he actually has a conscience, and his genuine confusion over his feelings towards Dil, he doesn’t ever really leave her. The IRA is never truly going to let him go, though, and his loyalty to them becomes a liability for someone in the throes of a curious new relationship.Continue Reading
Like all great cities no one film best sums up Los Angeles. The city is too fractured, the personal narratives of its citizenry too outlandishly varied, for any one film to seize on everything. But if you want a sense of what the city can do to a person – a starry-eyed, beautiful, blonde, female person with dreams of Hollywood – this is probably the most artful and poignant one you could find. On one level it’s a mysterious love story involving a sparkling ingenue from “Deep River, Ontario” (I have no idea if such a place exists) and a gorgeous brunette with a head injury who doesn’t know who she is or how she got to the ingenue’s apartment (technically her aunt’s apartment). They meet awkwardly but soon become each other’s trusted confidante. The possibilities of a new romance and the thrill of being in the most magical slash sinister city on Earth, new to them both (since one is an amnesiac), set us up for a strange, hypnotic love story. But this is David Lynch’s movie and things get really dark really quickly.
A film director (played by Justin Theroux) with a wife who cheats on him (with Billy Ray Cyrus, in fact) has his Hollywood career ruined in a day by nefarious forces he doesn’t understand. Betty (Naomi Watts) and Rita’s (Laura Harring) relationship, at first so full of the giddy, dangerous thrill of a new romance, turns into something obsessive and horrifying as the characters mutate into different people, or different versions of the same people. The ingenue becomes a frightening, jaded shell of who she was. The mysterious brunette becomes a cold, calculating, and manipulative trophy wife (at least I think that’s what happens).Continue Reading
The Seventh Victim
The best Val Lewton movie not directed by Jacques Tourneur, The Seventh Victim is an almost perfect summation of the famed producer’s themes of loneliness, alienation, urban paranoia, and romantic fatalism, just without some of the visual poetry that Tourneur brought to his own Lewton films (Cat People, I Walked With A Zombie). But it’s pretty haunting all the same. The plot is so sinister. A naive but determined teenage girl named Mary (a plain Jane named Kim Hunter) leaves her upstate boarding school to look for her missing older sister, Jacqueline (played by Lewton regular, Jean Brooks) in New York. Once in New York Mary acts as a Nancy Drew sort of detective, piecing together the clues of her sister’s disappearance before arriving at the conclusion that her sister is under the control of a group of Greenwich Village devil worshipers.
Mary’s only guardian is her older sister Jacqueline, a New York sophisticate with a sort of Egyptian art deco haircut who owns her own perfume company. Mary traces her previous whereabouts, discovering that before her disappearance Jacqueline mysteriously deeded her company to some of her co-workers. Various friends and lovers of Jacqueline, equally concerned about her, help Mary in her quest but nothing seems to quell the overarching feeling of doom hanging over the character of Jacqueline. She’s a different take on the Laura Palmer mystery, a beguiling woman no one could save.Continue Reading