The Asphalt Jungle (1950)
John Huston loved losers. While he worked in a range of genres and told all sorts of stories, he seems to have a had a special affection for the people who just couldn’t make it. Desperate prospectors looking to strike it rich. Cowboys trying to live in the past when the world was moving on. Fighters who kept climbing back in the ring after everyone else knew they were finished. Huston kept coming back to these people, following them as they lived their lives in the margins, fascinated by the way they kept hanging on after the world had given up on them.
Huston’s 1950 adaptation of W.R. Burnett’s novel The Asphalt Jungle is a terse and unsentimental look at a handful of thieves who plan a jewelry heist. But this isn’t a movie about criminals. It’s about people. These are guys who are trying to make ends meet, one way or the other. They may live on the wrong side of town, but they’re just trying to get by like anybody else. And as the story unfolds, we see that they’re not so different from the guys on the right side of town.
Huston doesn’t preach. (With one key exception, which I’ll get back to.) He just follows the characters as the heist unfolds, letting us get to know each of these men, allowing us to learn what makes them tick, what their frailties are. The director worked closely with screenwriter Ben Maddow on crafting the script. In his autobiography Huston says he had great respect for W. R. Burnett’s novel, and consulted with the author repeatedly while writing the screenplay.
The story centers on Dix, a tough guy from the rural South. He has fond memories of the farm he grew up on, but he’s filled with anger over the way that life was taken away from him. The jewel heist could be the big score that allows him to get it all back. The plan is set in motion by Doc, a courtly German immigrant who’s just gotten out of prison. Doc is the mastermind, the man with a foolproof scheme for the perfect job. On arriving in town, he immediately connects with an underground intermediary and sets about choosing his team and finding someone to front them the money they need to get started. The backer they find is Emmerich, a well-respected lawyer who’s having cash flow problems, which seem to be tied to his young mistress.
The Asphalt Jungle is filled with character actors you may have seen many times, but you’ve probably never seen them better than in this film. Cobby is your classic simpering gangster tool, but Marc Lawrence makes his weakness seem all too human. James Whitmore and Anthony Caruso are both in fine form playing ordinary guys who are just trying to make living. To them the jewel heist is just a job. Jean Hagen’s performance as Doll is impressive in its directness. She doesn’t hide behind mannerisms or theatrics. She seems totally vulnerable, completely exposed. It’s a moving performance. Veteran Louis Calhern plays Emmerich, the crooked lawyer, with a degree of polish that speaks of his many years of experience on stage and screen. To put it simply, he’s a total pro. But he also lets us see the cracks in the smooth veneer, the brief hesitations where we glimpse his fear, the deep sadness in his weary eyes. In contrast to this seasoned pro, Emmerich’s mistress is played by newcomer Marilyn Monroe in her first significant role. She’s fine, but she doesn’t make much of an impression here. You don’t get a sense of the personality that would make her a star just a few years later.
As Dix, Sterling Hayden is forceful and intimidating. In this film just his presence on the screen creates tension, in large part because of the anger burning inside him. It doesn’t take much to set him off. The threat of violence is always just below the surface. This makes for an interesting contrast with Doc. Sam Jaffe plays the older man as a thoughtful, businesslike planner, who (almost) never acts on impulse. The actors have an excellent rapport, and this makes their friendship believable. In spite of their profession, they’re both men of honor. They both have a code.
Huston respects these men, regardless of their faults. They may live by a different set of rules than you and I, but they do have a set of rules, and Huston doesn’t care which side of the law they’re on. Which is why the Commissioner’s stern speech to the press at the end of the film, where he lectures them on the importance of law enforcement, seems so completely out of place. The scene was so out of character for Huston that I wondered if he’d been pushed to insert it by the studio, possibly to counter the film’s portrayal of a crooked cop. But a look at the pages in the director’s autobiography that deal with The Asphalt Jungle don’t reveal any mention of studio interference. Whatever the reason for this scene, it’s a sharp departure from Huston’s usual perspective, and to my mind it’s the film’s only real flaw.
But in scanning Huston’s autobiography, I found out that he did run up against the censors on another scene. When everything comes unravelled and Emmerich is facing arrest, he decides to end it all. Huston initially had him going to his study, pulling out a gun, and blowing his brains out. But depicting a suicide onscreen was not allowed by Hollywood’s production code, unless the character was mentally ill. In order to appease the censors, Huston tweaked the scene to show Emmerich sitting down at his desk, starting to write a suicide note, tossing it away, starting another note, tossing it away, and then finally just pulling the trigger. This satisfied the censors by indicating that the character was unstable, and they gave it the go ahead. The way the scene plays out is a classic example of Huston’s laconic, hard-nosed approach, and he actually felt the changes made it stronger. We see a tight shot of the desktop as Emmerich makes his first, then his second attempt to leave a suicide note. Then his hand reaches into a drawer, removes a gun, and a second later we hear it go off. This one brief shot is an intimate glimpse of a desperate man’s last moments.
One of the ways Huston avoids sentimentality is by keeping the music to an absolute minimum. Miklós Rózsa’s score is limited to brief cues at the beginning and the end. The film has a spare, stark quality to it. Certainly most of it was shot on sets, but Harold Rosson’s visuals give the impression that the run down diners and cheap hotels are defined by whatever light happens to be in the room. And the people are defined by the rooms they occupy. The art direction, by Randall Duell and Cedric Gibbons, gives every space a distinct character, from the bare walls and wooden chairs of Cobby’s office to the lush comfort of Emmerich’s home.
Huston may be telling the story of a handful of criminals, but really he’s letting us take a look at ourselves. These men may be on the wrong side of the law, but they’re trying to find the same things we’re all looking for. They want to pay off their debts, buy a piece of land, escape to a place where life is easy and the sun is always shining. And they make terrible mistakes, because, like us, they’re blinded by pride, overconfidence, and greed. Huston would probably be the first to admit he was guilty of all three of these sins. Watching the films he made about frail, fallible, foolish people, we may end up thinking about our own lives. All our dashed hopes. All the mistakes we’ve made. All our plans gone wrong.
The movie Detour has long been considered a film noir classic. Reams have been written about director Edgar Ulmer’s amazingly terse, unnervingly intense exploration of alienation and despair on the lonely stretches of the American highway. Ulmer was certainly a gifted filmmaker, and Detour is one of the high points of his career, but it’s odd that in the seventy years since it was made, almost nobody has talked about the novel it was based on.
The novel Detour was published at the end of the thirties, and in many ways seems to be a distillation of the period it was written in, the tail end of the Depression. Like Alex Roth, the luckless musician at the center of the story, author Martin Goldsmith had spent some time hitchhiking, no doubt getting well acquainted with hunger and hardship. The film’s screenplay is also by Goldsmith, and almost everything in it comes directly from the book. It’s an unusually faithful adaptation.
There are some major differences. In turning his slender novel into a surprisingly spare film, Goldsmith cut one of his characters almost entirely. While the book is framed by Alex’s story, starting and ending with him, the chapters he narrates alternate with chapters narrated by his girlfriend, Sue. The two met and fell in love working at a club in New York. Determined to become an actress, Sue left for Hollywood, postponing their marriage indefinitely. Desperately lonely, Alex decided to hitchhike to LA so he could rejoin his girlfriend. The book goes back and forth between the two of them, giving us an intricate portrait of their tangled relationship.
While Alex and Sue are basically decent people, they’re both driven to degrading acts by loneliness and lack of money. Goldsmith lets them explain themselves in their own words, and their stories are a mix of desperate self-deception and brutal honesty. Alex knows he’s basically a bum, but he can’t let go of the idea that some day he’ll become a successful musician. Sue realizes she’s just another star-struck fool scraping by as a waitress, but she keeps telling herself that somehow she’ll break through in Hollywood. They’ve both done things they’re not proud of and spend a good deal of time trying to justify their actions. Bottom line, neither one of them is perfect, and they know it all too well.
In the movie Sue is pretty much gone after the first reel. The screenplay gets her out of the way to focus on the poisonous relationship between Alex and Vera. This makes sense for a commercial feature, but it also makes the movie more conventional. Part of what makes Goldsmith’s book so interesting is the audacity of using a pulp thriller to dig into the maddening contradictions inherent in most relationships. Making Vera the central female figure brings the movie much more in line with the classic pulp framework, a more or less innocent guy dragged down by a scheming femme fatale.
Another interesting aspect of Goldsmith’s adaptation is the fact that he cuts out all of his rants about Hollywood. In the movie, pretty much all we see of Tinseltown is a series of rear projection shots, and the characters only refer to it in passing. In the book, the author spends pages describing his characters’ reactions to film capitol, and gives us a fairly detailed account of what it was like to live in the community at the end of the thirties. Goldsmith was living in Hollywood when he wrote Detour, and it’s clear that he was both horrified and fascinated by the place. His characters have wildly different reactions to what they see there. Alex arrives in Hollywood and likes it right away, describing how clean and sunny everything looks, admiring the people who look so healthy and tanned. But Sue, who works as a waitress because she’s had no luck with the studios, is bitterly angry that she was foolish enough to believe the hype. “I had arrived so thoroughly read-up on the misinformation of the fan magazines that it took me a full week before I realized that the ‘Mecca’ was no more than a jerkwater suburb which publicity had sliced from Los Angeles….”
The movie is just as relentlessly cynical as the book, but in a different way. Born in Vienna at the beginning of the twentieth century, Edgar Ulmer was steeped in the northern European traditions of romanticism and expressionism. Before he started his career as a director, he had worked as a designer in stage and film, assisting Max Reinhardt, Fritz Lang and F. W. Murnau. In making a film out of Detour, he brings a significant shift in emphasis. Goldsmith’s book is rooted in gritty reality, and in their moments of honesty the characters acknowledge that their lives were shaped by the choices they made. In contrast, Ulmer’s movie is about an innocent man whose life is completely derailed by fate. He has no choice. And there is no escape.
Ulmer spent most of his career working on low-budget and no-budget productions. At the time he made Detour he was under contract at PRC, possibly the cheapest outfit in Hollywood at the time. Most of PRC’s output was shot in six days and cut in one, an outrageously short schedule for making a feature film. In spite of these extreme limitations, Ulmer charges the movie with powerful imagery, making the visuals more striking and expressive than almost anything the major studios were doing at the time. Whether hitching a ride through the burning desert or brooding over a cup of coffee in a tiny diner, Al Roberts* is travelling through a dark psychological landscape. It often feels like the movie is taking place in his mind. Al is briefly enraged by a jukebox song that reminds him of his girlfriend. When he calms down again, the camera dollys in quickly to a tight close-up and the frame suddenly grows dim except for a small patch of light illuminating his eyes. Ulmer has no qualms about using a blatantly artificial effect to show the character’s emotional state. When Al stands over Vera’s corpse on the hotel bed, we see the room from his perspective, the camera panning slowly over various random objects, bringing them briefly into sharp focus, then allowing them to go hazy. We’re brought into the room with him, we share his feeling of stunned disbelief.
Another major difference in the movie is the way Vera dies. In Goldmsith’s novel, Al is so maddened by anger and fear that he strangles her when she tries to call the cops. It may not have been premeditated, but it’s definitely murder, and while Al is shocked by what he’s done, he doesn’t spend much time mourning. He runs. In the movie Vera’s death is definitely accidental. Having decided to call the cops, she grabs the phone, runs into the hotel bedroom and locks the door behind her. In total panic, Al grabs the cord and pulls with all his might, hoping to rip it out of the phone. Then he breaks down the bedroom door and finds Vera dead, the phone cord wound around her neck. There’s no knowing how this change came about. Did Goldsmith alter the scene on his own? Did Ulmer ask for something different? Was the production code a consideration? Whatever the reasons for the change, it definitely alters our perception of Al’s story. In the first version, he’s a murderer, even if he didn’t consciously choose to kill Vera. In the second version, he’s a helpless victim of forces beyond his control. After Haskell’s sudden death, Al’s chance encounter with Vera, and then her death in a freak accident, there’s no question that fate has taken a hand. He can run but he can’t hide. It’s only a matter of time before the darkness closes in.
Tom Neal has a forlorn charm that’s perfect for Al, an ordinary guy who’s trapped by an extraordinary set of circumstances. He just wants to get by, and at first he thinks everything will be okay if he just plays it cool. As things get worse and the pressure grows, Neal shows us Al’s nerves go from ragged to raw. He goes from ranting and raging to bargaining and begging, desperately trying to claw his way out of the mess he’s in. As Vera, Ann Savage burns a hole in the screen. It’s easy to believe that Al’s afraid of her. She’s a bottomless pit of anger and bitterness, and her intensity is scorching. But unlike the book, the movie gives us brief glimpses of another side of Vera. In her own way, she’s just as lost as Al. Vera’s led a hard life and probably doesn’t have long to live. In the few moments that Savage lets us see flashes of insecurity and desperation, it makes the character more than just another femme fatale. She seems vividly, pathetically human.
In the book, Alex manages to evade the law, but he can’t go home and he can’t go back to his girlfriend. He’s haunted by the memory of Sue, and tormented by the fact that his musical career has ended before it began. Goldsmith leaves Al stuck in limbo, bumming rides from one small town to another, earning a buck whenever he can. Still, he keeps moving forward. Life goes on. Ulmer’s ending is much more bleak. Al may have momentarily slipped free of the hangman’s noose, but he knows it’s only a matter of time before he’s caught. It’s not just bad luck that’s sent him on this detour. A mysterious force has singled him out, and there is no escape. When the highway patrol car pulls up alongside him at the end, he doesn’t struggle or try to run. He meekly steps inside. Because he knows it isn’t the police taking him down.
In the book the character’s name is Alex Roth, but in the movie it’s changed to Al Roberts, no doubt because nice “normal” Anglo names were always preferred for Hollywood heroes.
Secret Agent (1936)
When people talk about Alfred Hitchcock’s career before he came to the US, they generally talk about The 39 Steps and The Lady Vanishes. Those are the two films that get all the attention, and the rest of his work in Britain is pretty much forgotten. But Hitchcock made over twenty features before he came to the US, and these are the movies that laid the groundwork for his whole career. Many of the themes that run through Notorious, North by Northwest, Vertigo and Psycho are already apparent in the films he did in Britain.
Hitchcock’s earliest work in the silents is wildly uneven, but by the time sound came in he seemed to have a pretty good idea of where he was going. It’s also interesting to see him play with the medium and test its boundaries. Blackmail may not be up there with Hitchcock’s best, but in some ways it’s really innovative, and you can already see the director’s grim sense of irony. Sabotage tells the harrowing story of an ordinary woman who’s caught up in an extraordinary situation, an idea that Hitchcock returned to many times in later years.
Secret Agent is one of the most complex and disturbing films the director made in Britain. Based on W. Somerset Maugham, the film tells the story of an inexperienced spy who finds himself getting cold feet when confronted with the ugly realities of his job. It’s one of Hitchcock’s most confident early efforts. He was lucky to have a strong script by Charles Bennett and Ian Hay, providing a fast-paced story and witty dialogue. This is one of the earliest films that exhibited the unique mix of suave sophistication and unnerving anxiety that would serve the director so well throughout his career.
Most spy movies start with the assumption that the hero is working for the good guys, and so anything he does is justified. Not so in this case. While the producers may have seen the film as pro-British propaganda, Hitchcock undermines that agenda by showing the awful complexities that confront a spy during wartime. There are few espionage movies that allow the hero to kill the wrong man, but that’s exactly what happens here. Our hero, Ashenden, and his associate, the General, believe they’ve found the enemy spy and arrange for him to have a fatal accident. But they’ve guessed wrong, and a kindly middle-aged man is sent to his death. The director makes us feel the pain of this senseless loss by letting us hear the man’s dog wailing uncontrollably after he’s gone.
At this point Ashenden is starting to question the whole enterprise, and Elsa, who’s been posing as his wife, is convinced they need to call it off. The General, meanwhile, is determined to finish the job, and wastes no time grieving over the innocent man’s death. This sets up the tension that underlies the rest of the film. Elsa is adamant that murder is immoral, whatever the reason, and has no intention of continuing. The General, on the other hand, is a hired assassin who’s always ready to ply his trade. And Ashenden is caught between the two, appalled at the General’s callousness, but believing he’s got to do his duty, no matter how difficult it is.
John Gielgud gives a strikingly sharp performance in the title role. At first smart and suave, we see him turn anxious and indecisive when it comes down to actually taking someone’s life. Madeline Carroll is also excellent. She’s not just playing the love interest. Her character starts with the attitude that the spy game is an amusing romp. After the death of an innocent man, she realizes how terrible the consequences can be. As the enemy spy, Robert Young demonstrates what a gifted actor he was, with a deft touch for comedy, but also the ability to project a ruthless cool. It’s a shame he wasted the later part of his career in saccharine TV shows. Peter Lorre was a marvelous actor, but I have to say he’s a little too much for me here. His performance is enjoyable, but it’s too insistently eccentric. I think I’d like him better if he’d taken it down a notch or two.
After the big climax, the film’s final scenes show a quick montage of the Brits winning the war, followed by a shot of Ashenden and Elsa, now reunited as a happy couple. It’s way too pat. This facile wrap-up brushes aside all the nasty aspects of the story we’ve just watched in order to send us away with a happy ending. But Hitchcock has begun his exploration of the awful uncertainties, the disturbing ambiguities that all of us have to deal with in one way or another. As his career continued, this journey would take him into some of the darkest corners of the human soul.
Odds Against Tomorrow (1959)
Many of the earliest American movies were made in New York. While the center of commercial production shifted to Los Angeles in the teens, low-budget producers were still making films on the East Coast during the twenties and thirties. After WWII there was a resurgence of production in New York, and in the fifties independent filmmakers created a style all their own. Instead of Hollywood fantasy, these films embraced gritty reality. Instead of relying solely on studio sets, the directors often shot in the city streets.
Robert Wise was a product of the studio system. Starting out as an editor, he had worked his way up the ladder at RKO and in the forties he became a director. Early films like The Body Snatcher, The Set-Up and The Day the Earth Stood Still had earned him a good deal of attention. At his best, Wise had a taut, straightforward approach that worked especially well in the world of B-movies.
But Odds Against Tomorrow feels totally different from Wise’s studio work. It has a looseness, a freedom that you don’t find in the director’s lean, suspenseful Hollywood thrillers. I think in large part this is because he was working in New York. It may have been the crew, or the locations, or maybe just stepping outside of the Hollywood box, but this movie stands apart from anything he’d done before.
To start with, the tone of Joseph Brun’s photography is different from anything I’ve seen coming out of Hollywood at the time. Brun’s images are rich and complex, but the light is generally diffused, giving us few solid blacks and bright whites, more shades of grey. The film takes place in winter, and the light feels thin and chilly. It’s also interesting to see how much attention is given to things on the periphery, details that don’t advance the story. Working in Hollywood, Wise was known for a direct, no-frills approach. Here the camera lingers on the shadows cast by horses on a merry-go-round, newspapers flying down an empty street, a pool of water rippling in the gutter.
This wouldn’t just be Brun’s doing. I suspect that this willingness to linger on the details is at least in part the work of Dede Allen. Odds Against Tomorrow is one of Allen’s earliest feature credits, but she had been working as an editor for years. Of course, Wise had started his career as an editor, but the rhythms here are definitely a departure from his previous work. My feeling is that this more creative, intuitive approach is probably due to Allen’s involvement. It seems to point toward her later work with Arthur Penn and Sidney Lumet. Instead of moving relentlessly forward, the film allows us to look around and linger on things that don’t advance the plot. The focus is less on the story than it is on mood, atmosphere, character.
The characters are very interesting. Ed Begley is Dave, an ex-cop who got busted and has fallen on hard times. He seems to be a sensitive, caring person, but he’s willing to do some ugly things to get what he wants. Robert Ryan gives a stunning, low-key performance. He has tremendous authority on the screen, and he uses it to pull us inside characters who are deeply flawed and deeply unhappy. Playing Earle, Ryan manages to keep us with him every minute, even though the man is a bitter, violent racist.
Johnny, played by Harry Belafonte, is the most sympathetic of the three, and also the most complicated. At first he appears to be smart, suave and confident, a talented nightclub performer who’s enjoying a certain amount of success. But as we learn more about him, we realize that his life isn’t nearly as sweet as it seems. The failure of his marriage is eating away at him, and his addiction to gambling has put him in a huge financial hole. And race is also an issue for Johnny, though it’s hard to pin his feelings down exactly. When he’s in his own world he seems completely comfortable with his white friends, but when he sees his wife inviting white acquaintances to her apartment, he can’t keep his resentment from boiling over. Belafonte plays the part with a striking mixture of assurance and sensitivity.
We wouldn’t get such vivid performances if the script didn’t provide such interesting characters. The screenplay was written by Abraham Polonsky and Nelson Gidding, based on the novel by William P. McGivern. As with many of the best heist films, the focus isn’t on the job but on the people. The robbery is a mechanism that allows us to observe the lives of these three men, and to watch how they interact. As the pressure builds, we see each of them slowly starting to crack, we see more of who they really are.
And John Lewis’ music provides a rich, resonant background for all of this. The jazz score is another aspect of the film that ties it to the New York school. There were many soundtracks written in Hollywood that incorporated jazz elements, but in New York the filmmakers often turned to actual jazz musicians. Lewis paints a moody, brooding backdrop for this bleak tale of desperation. He’s not afraid to use dissonance, and his brass arrangements make the tension in the story palpable. For the quieter moments he turns to vibes and guitar, which complement the sombre visuals well.
Wise made a number of excellent films in his long career, and he wasn’t afraid to take chances, to try new things. His openness to different approaches is probably one of the reasons Odds Against Tomorrow is such a striking movie. If he had shot it in Hollywood, it might have been a solid thriller. But I think shooting it in New York made it something more.
The Crimson Kimono (1959)
Nowhere are Fuller’s strengths and weaknesses more evident than in The Crimson Kimono. The film’s main characters are two LAPD detectives, Joe, a Japanese-American and Charles, an Anglo. From a twenty-first century perspective, it may be hard to understand how provocative this was in the fifties. The Crimson Kimono was released less than fifteen years years after WWII, when Japanese-Americans had been rounded up and sent to prison camps, ostensibly because the US government felt they might be a threat to national security. For most filmmakers of the time, it would have been daring enough to introduce a Nisei cop in a crime thriller. But the central conflict in the story actually comes out of the fact that Joe gets involved in a relationship with a white woman. How this film got released by a major studio back in nineteen fifty nine is beyond me.
The turning point for Joe is when he falls in love with Chris. She loves him as well, but he suddenly becomes aware for the first time that as a Japanese man he is seen as an outsider. In reality this is completely absurd. It’s hard enough to believe that any Japanese-American could come of age in mid-century America without having encountered racism, but the idea that Joe would fit right in with the LAPD at that time is laughable. Still, Fuller deserves credit for even talking about this kind of alienation in the fifties. Whether or not we accept the specifics of Joe’s story, the director was trying to make the point that in this “land of opportunity”, there were many people who felt excluded.
Fuller opens the film, as he often did, with a wallop. The opening shots bring us to a burlesque theatre in downtown LA. We see Sugar Torch dancing onstage as the band in the pit belts out a raucous tune. Moments later she’s lying dead on the crowded street outside. Much of the film was shot on location, and we get a good look at Los Angeles in the fifties. But even more important, the film is an amazing document of the Japanese-American community during that era.
Fuller’s camera follows the detectives as they roam through the streets of Little Tokyo. We see Japanese women working in a wig shop. Cooks in a kitchen making rice cakes. A couple of nuns standing in front of the Maryknoll School. To my mind the most remarkable scene shows Joe looking for an older Japanese man who may have information about a witness. He finds Mr. Yoshinaga at the Evergreen Cemetery, where the man is visiting the grave of his son, killed in WWII. Few Americans were aware then (and fewer now) that Japanese-Americans fought with the Allies in Europe. To make sure no one misses the point, Fuller lingers over monuments dedicated to these men. Joe asks Mr. Yoshinaga for help, and the man agrees, but says he must first attend a memorial service for his son. We follow him into a Buddhist temple to witness the ceremony, watching as the priest strikes a gong, taps a wood block, recites a prayer. This scene does nothing to advance the plot, but it opens a window on a world that most Americans have never seen. A world that’s right in our own backyard.
Whatever his faults as a filmmaker, Fuller challenged himself and he challenged his audience. It’s not just that he didn’t support the status quo. He was infuriated by the complacency with which most Americans accepted the bland reassurance that Hollywood dished out during the studio era (and still dishes out today). He tried to show us America in all its diversity, all its contrasts, all its complexity.
Really, he was trying to get us to take a long, hard look at ourselves.
Bande à part [Band of Outsiders] (1964)
Not too long ago I saw Bande à part at the Arclight, Hollywood. I’d already seen the film a couple of times and liked it, but this time I connected with it in a way I hadn’t before. The best word to describe what I felt is euphoria. I was swept up in the whirl of images and sounds, I was completely involved in the performances, I was overwhelmed by the audacity of it all. The movie was totally intoxicating.
I think Godard is one of the most gifted filmmakers ever, but I’ve often had trouble relating to his work. I know I’m not alone. Many critics have written about Godard with a mix of admiration and frustration. Audiences have never flocked to his films, though he does have a small, passionate following. His movies are amazingly inventive and imaginative. But they can also be difficult, didactic, and even dull. I think in part this is because Godard has a complicated relationship with the medium. He’s spent a good part of his career trying to figure out what role film should play, and what role he should play as a filmmaker. While he grew up watching American films, and has spoken of his respect for some Hollywood filmmakers, he’s definitely conflicted about the impact commercial cinema has had on the world. Like many of us, as a young man he fell under the spell of Hollywood’s magic, but as an adult he finds himself horrified by Hollywood’s madness.
Many of Godard’s early films were based on Hollywood genre formulas, and movies about criminals seem to have had a special hold on him. Bande à part falls into that category, but rather than just make a crime film, the director ended up making, as he often did, an essay on crime films. He doesn’t want us to just sit back and enjoy the ride, letting ourselves get pulled along by the narrative. As much as he loves Hollywood movies, he also knows you can’t trust Hollywood movies, and that makes him want to question the form, to twist it, to turn it inside-out. Anything to keep himself and us from sliding into complacency.
It’s Godard’s irreverent, anarchic approach to the material that makes the film such a thrilling, dizzying experience. As soon as the credits begin we’re assaulted by raucous music as close-ups of the three leads flash before us. Bande à part is full of abrupt transitions and sudden changes in tone. The restless energy of the three would-be thieves drives the film. The visual style is amazingly alive and vibrant. And the sound is just as important as the images, catching both the din of the city and the intimacy of quiet conversations. Rather than trying to clean up the audio, bringing down the ambient noise, looping the dialogue, Godard lets us hear the world as it is. We hear feet scuffling along the street, music bouncing off the walls, traffic droning in the background. And when we get to the house where Odile lives we’re suddenly surrounded by an unsettling calm. The silence somehow feels strangely sinister.
The film is based on the novel Fools’ Gold by Dolores Hitchens, though apparently Godard took a lot of liberties in adapting it. The story follows Odile, Franz and Arthur, three young people in Paris who are planning to steal some money. Though the trio wants to pull a heist, they seem to have no idea how to proceed, and when it comes to committing the crime they’re hopelessly inept. Arthur takes charge, giving orders and acting tough to impress Odile, but he’s really just as clueless as his friends. Franz goes along, seemingly because he doesn’t have the nerve to challenge Arthur. And Odile is a naïve young girl who just wants to get away from her home and have fun.
One of the main differences between Bande à part and the crime films of the studio era is the way the main characters are portrayed. If we were watching a movie with Humphrey Bogart or James Cagney (later on maybe John Garfield or Robert Ryan), for the most part the star would be tough, confident, assured. As the tension built, as the pressure mounted, we’d get to a point where that confident surface would start to crack, revealing the tough guy’s vulnerable side. Often the heart of the film would lie in the moments where we saw how frail the hero was beneath his hard exterior. That conflict between the tough and the tender was one of the linchpins of Hollywood melodrama. But Godard takes a totally different approach. In Bande à part, it’s obvious from the beginning how vulnerable these three are. It’s clear that Arthur and Franz are doing their best to mask their insecurity by acting cool, and Odile is trying as hard as she can not to let them see how scared she is. These three are not crooks. They’re playing at being crooks. At times we see Arthur and Franz literally acting out scenes from movies.
Bande à part has an ending, but it doesn’t have a resolution. It couldn’t, because Godard doesn’t believe in tying things up neatly. Rather than trying to find order in chaos, Godard lets us experience the world as it is. My sense is that he’s a romantic who feels he should be a realist. His work is formed by the tension between these two perspectives. In his films he seems to be offering us an invitation to explore with him the massive contradictions that make up our lives, the sorrow and the violence, but also the joy and the beauty
How can you turn down an invitation like that?
The Breaking Point (1950)
Anybody who’s a fan of movies from the studio era probably has a soft spot for Howard Hawks’ To Have and Have Not. It’s hard to beat for sheer entertainment, taking full advantage of its charismatic stars and a top-notch supporting cast. It’s also totally superficial. We know from the start that the good guys are going to win and that Bogart is going to walk off with Bacall. It’s a classic example of the way the studios would take a book and transform it into something almost unrecognizable. In the case of Hemingway’s novel To Have and Have Not, Hawks took the premise of a guy on a boat in the Carribean and dumped everything else.
Really, he had to, because the original novel is extremely unusual and brutally cynical. Actually, I think the book is pretty interesting, but its fragmented narrative and strange digressions pretty much defy all the conventions of commercial filmmaking. On top of that, it was wartime, and the studios were determined to keep everything upbeat and positive.
But by nineteen fifty things had changed. There was a strong undercurrent of cynicism running beneath Hollywood’s glamorous surface. People were making films that not only questioned the status quo, but suggested that we were living in a world where the deck was stacked against us. That’s pretty much the thrust of Hemingway’s novel. The book is about those who have money and those who don’t. And the conclusion that the main character reaches by the end is “A man don’t stand a chance.”
According to Eddie Muller, it was John Garfield who suggested doing a remake. Screenwriter Ranald MacDougall was brought on board to do the adaptation. Though he moved the story into the present and changed the location to Long Beach, it’s much closer to both to the letter and the spirit of the book than the Hawks version. Harry Morgan is a fisherman struggling to support his family and hang on to his boat. The story shows how he’s driven to ever more desperate measures to make money, finally agreeing to take part in a robbery.
Garfield’s gripping, lively performance is the heart of the movie. Harry starts out as a fairly easygoing guy who just wants to make a living, but as he feels the screws tighten we can feel him tighten up as well. Garfield had a gift for playing average guys, and did it without sentimentalizing his characters. He doesn’t ask for our sympathy, he just plays the role as honestly as he can.
Harry loves his wife, and he works hard to provide for her and the kids. Lucy Morgan loves her husband but she’s slowly getting ground down by the stress of making do with almost nothing. Phyllis Thaxter plays the part with admirable simplicity and sublety. The one character that’s borrowed from the Hawks version is the sexy drifter, who in this case tests Harry’s commitment to his wife. The role was probably created to make the movie more commercial, but Patricia Neal is so good that it’s hard to complain. She’s tough, smooth, cynical, and still vulnerable in a way that makes her seem human.
Those who are mostly familiar with Curtiz’ polished films of the forties might be surprised by the gritty intensity of The Breaking Point. It has the energy and the tension you can find in some of his thirties melodramas, but here the characters are more complex. Curtiz keeps his camera close to the actors, and MacDougall’s script allows them to dig into their roles. We have no trouble believing that they inhabit this world, that their lives are rooted in this small seaside town. Cinematographer Ted McCord is amazingly sensitive to the ways in which light can define a location and the subtle nuances of mood it creates. He makes a working class kitchen and a waterfront bar equally real and vivid. Whether he’s shooting on location or on a soundstage the images have the same attention to texture and the same vibrant immediacy.
At the end of the film Harry has survived a shootout with the robbers, but it looks like he’s going to lose his arm. Delirious, he rambles on about how “a man don’t stand a chance”, but calms down when his wife arrives. She convinces Harry to let the doctor amputate, and she’s with him as they carry him to the ambulance. Not the happiest of endings, but we feel a sense of hope. Then the camera pulls back and we’re left with the final startling image. Harry’s sometime partner Wesley was killed in the shootout. As Harry and his wife, the police and the doctors exit the frame, we’re left with a shot of Wesley’s young son standing by himself on the pier. This image of a child, alone and forgotten, is the film’s most powerful moment. It’s totally unexpected, and the movie is over before we can absorb it, but it lingers in the memory. Hollywood movies generally end with the promise that everything’s going to be all right. The Breaking Point does not, and it’s all the more powerful because of its honesty. It tells us that everything is not going to be all right.
In a Lonely Place (1950)
This is how In a Lonely Place begins. I’m not talking about the film, but the novel written by Dorothy B. Hughes in the late forties. To my mind it’s one of the most radical books of its time. The main character, Dix Steele, is a serial killer, and the focus is on him throughout the entire book. Though Hughes writes in the third person, she takes us inside Dix’s mind so that we can understand this angry, lonely, complicated man.* The title could refer to Los Angeles, the city of the alienated and the displaced, but more importantly it describes this man’s absolute isolation from the world around him. He is desperately lonely and wants to be loved. When he meets Laurel Gray, a young woman who lives in his apartment building, he feels she’s the one who could rescue him. But Dix’s fantasies have no basis in reality. He pursues Laurel, but he’s so disconnected from the world around him that he’s doomed to failure. He’s a lost man.
Nicholas Ray’s film of In a Lonely Place is completely different from the book. Back in 1950, no Hollywood studio would consider making a movie in which the central character was a WWII vet stalking and killing young women. So Ray and his collaborators took a few elements from the book and reworked it into a very different, but still very interesting, story. In the film, Dix Steele is a middle-aged screenwriter who hasn’t had a success in years. He’s intelligent and creative, but he carries an explosive anger within him. When it erupts, which is often, he sometimes lashes out at his closest friends. He can also turn violent. When a young woman he knew slightly is murdered, the police see Dix as the prime suspect.
While the entire cast is solid, the movie really belongs to Bogart. It’s one of his most intense, complex performances. It’s hard to imagine any of his contemporaries going as far with this part. As Dix, Bogart can be arrogant, charming, aggressive, tender, insolent. He freely heaps abuse on his Hollywood colleagues, and at times even turns on his closest friends. But he is also terribly lonely. As in the book, he meets Laurel, a young woman who lives in his building, and he is immediately drawn to her. And as in the book, the relationship is doomed from the start. Laurel loves Dix, but after witnessing his violent outbursts she begins to wonder if he is the killer. What started out as an idyllic romance is quickly poisoned. When the police finally call to say that Dix has been exonerated, it’s too late. Laurel can’t go on with the relationship. It’s over.
Both Bernard Eisenschitz and Patrick McGilligan have suggested that in some ways Dix resembles Nicholas Ray. The director made several films about angry, violent men, including On Dangerous Ground and Bigger than Life. Ray’s characters often come into conflict with the world around them. Sometimes this is because the world is unjust, but often it’s because the characters themselves are deeply troubled. Ray himself had a hard time fitting in. He was intelligent, iconoclastic and impatient with hypocrisy. In a Lonely Place could be seen as an expression of his views on Hollywood. It is certainly one of the most cynical, scathing movies ever made about the movie capitol. And there are elements of the film that have a direct personal connection to Ray’s life. The courtyard apartment where much of the action takes place is a reconstruction of a building the director had lived in. But the most obvious connection is the casting of Gloria Grahame, Ray’s wife, as Laurel.
Ray takes care to capture the feel of LA. Appropriately, the first shot gives us Dix’s point of view as he drives along the streets at night, his anxious eyes reflected in the rearview mirror.** Later in the film, after an angry outburst, we see him driving maniacally along a winding road that looks like Mulholland Drive. The building that Dix and Laurel live in is typical of the courtyard apartments constructed in the twenties and thirties. The settings that create the background for the story may not seem completely “real”, but they do capture the feel of the city. Ray understands architecture, and he understands space. While most of the film was shot on soundstages, the director includes location shots that help to define the city.
Andrew Solt’s screenplay, based on an adaptation by Edmund H. North, is tightly constructed and bristling with tension. Burnett Guffey’s cinematography vividly captures the violent contrasts of the drama. I’m not crazy about George Antheil’s score, which seems intent on dragging this startling, original film back into the realm of Hollywood melodrama.
In many ways the film is much more conventional than the book. But by Hollywood standards, it is very much outside the norm for a commercial feature of the time. Ray and Bogart and their collaborators deserve a lot of credit for making a drama that really delves into a character who is the antithesis of the standard movie protagonist. Dix Steele rages against the world, struggles desperately to hang on to the woman he loves, and in the end still finds himself in a lonely place.
I don’t know of any other book from the period that invites us to share a serial killer’s point of view. I’m not a pulp expert, but the only other novel I can think of from the era that does something similar is Jim Thompson’s The Killer inside Me, published five years after In a Lonely Place.
Could this have been an inspiration for a similar shot at the end of Taxi Driver where we see Travis’ eyes reflected in his rear view mirror? I’ve never heard Scorsese mention it, but it seems likely he was familiar with the film.
Mildred Pierce (1945)
When producer Jerry Wald read Mildred Pierce shortly after it was published in 1941, he knew it could make a good movie. He also knew it would be an uphill battle to turn it into a screenplay that would be acceptable by Production Code standards. Mildred’s divorce, her fling with a charming playboy, her daughter’s sexual escapades were just a few items that would be troubling for censors. And possibly more troubling than all the rest would be the fact that the author, James M. Cain, tells Mildred’s story without moralizing. He does not condemn her. He merely follows Mildred’s progress, presenting a detailed and convincing portrait of a woman fighting for success, while also exploring the reasons for her ambition.
The Production Code demanded that Hollywood films adhere to strictly defined standards of morality. So to satisfy the censors, Wald injected a murder into the story, and reshaped the ending to assure the audience that justice was served. According to Thomas Schatz’s book The Genius of the System, the producer struggled long and hard with the script. In order to achieve the right tone for a “woman’s” picture, he first assigned Catherine Turney to the project. But to get the tension he needed for a thriller, he had Albert Maltz work Turney’s material over. Other writers also took a shot at the script, but Ranald MacDougall received sole credit for his extensive work on the final version.
The film was directed with smooth precision by Michael Curtiz. By this point in his career Curtiz had refined his approach to the point where his films had a fluid, compelling visual style. He often follows the characters with his camera, using long takes and careful lighting to define space and create atmosphere. On Mildred Pierce he was aided by art director Anton Grot, who had worked on many films with the director. Cinematographer Ernest Haller also played an important part, giving the film the gloss the studio demanded, but still doing justice to the story’s grittier aspects.
The movie is also interesting for the way it portrays Los Angeles in the mid-forties. Cain had written the book as the Depression was ending, and his portrait of the city makes vivid the bitterness and despair of those times. Since Curtiz and his collaborators were shooting the movie a few years later, they captured a different Los Angeles. Granted, the studio would certainly not have allowed them to dwell too much on the city’s seamier side, but the war brought the economy roaring back to life and the film reflects the vitality that was in the air. Curtiz gives us a fascinating, if skewed, picture of Los Angeles as WWII was winding down. Customers eat in their cars in the drive-in dining area at Mildred’s restaurant. Sailors whistle at Veda as she sings at a seedy dive on the Santa Monica pier. Monty shows Mildred his house at the beach, revealing an interesting mix of rustic and modern.
Joan Crawford is excellent as Mildred, and the supporting cast is amazing. Jack Carson combines his usual energy with overbearing arrogance to make the lawyer/hustler Wally thoroughly repulsive. Eve Arden’s impeccable sense of timing and inflection make Ida a joy to watch. Zachary Scott is both seductive and appalling as Monte. And just as impressive as all these seasoned pros is the young Ann Blyth, who gives a chilling performance as Veda.
Cain’s novel is unsparing in its depiction of the characters, while the movie tends to smooth away the scarier edges. This wasn’t just the Production Code. A star like Joan Crawford would probably not want to play a character if it meant crossing certain boundaries. Even if they did, the studio would probably not allow them to play a part that might damage their image. In the film Mildred may be weak, may be fearful, but she is never pathetic or awkward as she was in Cain’s book. When Mildred looks for work in the movie, her voiceover narration accompanies a quick montage in which she rises to the challenge. In the book we accompany Mildred as she learns how difficult and humiliating it can be to work for a living. In the movie Mildred shows her anger at Veda with a sharp slap. In the book’s climax, Mildred is so consumed with anger she tries to strangle her own daughter. Most tellingly, in the final scenes of the movie Mildred acknowledges her mistake in divorcing Bert and they walk off together as the music swells. The book ends with the two of them clinging to each other in the depths of despair.