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The Noir Trilogy of Orson Welles

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“It’s a bright, guilty world.” Nowhere is this more apparent than in the distinctive film noirs of Orson Welles. The Stranger (1946), The Lady from Shanghai (1948) and Touch of Evil (1958) represent an explorative trilogy of betrayal, corruption and irrationality.

Welles, the iconoclastic filmmaker, creates disorienting worlds enveloped by foreboding shadows and uncertainty, with the camera occasionally functioning as a voyeuristic observer.  His characters range from emotionally shattered and trapped individuals (Michael O’Hara in The Lady from Shanghai) to men of power and potential greatness (Franz Kindler in The Stranger, Hank Quinlan in Touch of Evil) who sell their souls to cover their tracks.

Though The Stranger and The Lady from Shanghai are stylistically rooted in the 1940s noir tradition, Welles alternately distorts and transcends the genre — culminating in his masterpiece Touch of Evil.  Viewed chronologically, the noirish elements in The Stranger serve as a springboard for the surreal odyssey of The Lady from Shanghai which, in turn, foreshadows the nightmarish Touch of Evil.  What flows between these films is a bleak undercurrent of paranoia and despair.

Many critics, including Welles himself, have labeled The Stranger as his most impersonal and mainstream film.  However, Welles imbues a haunting noir atmosphere into this postwar thriller, which emerges as a telling portrait of small-town America:  Shadow of a Doubt meets Notorious.  Beneath the simplistic surface of the film’s Connecticut community lies, in the words of Allied War Crimes Inspector Wilson (played by Edward G. Robinson), an “obscenity [that] must be destroyed.”  That “obscenity” is Nazi fugitive Franz Kindler (Welles).

In the guise of history professor Charles Rankin, Kindler becomes a dictatorial and isolated character who gradually loses all rationality when he realizes that Wilson has learned his identity — not unlike Quinlan’s psychological unraveling when Vargas discovers the planted evidence in Touch of Evil.  Once exposed, the viewer follows Kindler’s unstoppable descent into madness and guilt.

Edward G. Robinson as Inspector Wilson.

Edward G. Robinson as Inspector Wilson.

A particular noir characteristic is Kindler’s bizarre obsession with clocks, which he calls a “hobby that amounts to a mania.”  The clock motif is integral to Welles’ film noirs because Kindler and Quinlan are doomed individuals whose time has run out.  In The Stranger‘s climactic scene, Kindler is impaled on the sword of the clock tower, then falls to his death — a sordid end that parallels Quinlan’s undignified collapse in the murky canal waters.  The deaths of Kindler and Quinlan are disturbing and lonely acts that Welles depicts with a poetic sense of tragedy.  Welles’ unorthodox villains have an oddly sympathetic quality which add to their irrationality.

Another noirish aspect of The Stranger is the perverse relationship between Kindler and his small-town bride, Mary Longstreet (Loretta Young).  On their wedding night, Kindler is more concerned with taking care of loose ends — such as burying the body of Konrad Meinike (Konstantin Shayne), a former Nazi colleague who the Allied War Crimes Commission set free in the hope of tracking down Kindler.  In a disturbing sequence, Kindler confesses to his wife that he has committed murder.  However, Mary chooses to protect him and keep his admission a secret, despite Kindler’s revealing comment to her:  “Murder can be a chain — one link following another until it circles your neck.” When Wilson confronts Mary with information about her husband’s past in the form of Holocaust footage, she literally runs from the truth and into the dead of night.

Robinson’s performance as Wilson parallels his portrayal of Barton Keyes two years earlier in Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity, which makes his casting predictable. Perhaps The Stranger might have been more intriguing if producer Sam Spiegel allowed Welles to use Agnes Moorehead in the Wilson role — thereby resulting in an offbeat gender reversal.

The most noirish scenes in The Stranger are weighed heavily during the first half-hour.  In the memorable opening sequence, Wilson ominously pursues Meinike through South America as the escaped Nazi nervously reassures himself, “I am traveling for my health.”  The cinematography of Russell Metty (who later collaborated with Welles on Touch of Evil) develops a shadowy, menacing atmosphere that reflects Meinike’s uncertain frame of mind.  Welles and Metty evoke noir stylistics in the unlikeliest of settings, such as a school gymnasium where Meinike knocks out the unrelenting Wilson.

The atmospheric cinematography of Russell Metty.

The atmospheric cinematography of Russell Metty.

In the most chilling and visually accomplished scene, Kindler strangles Meinike in the woods during their “absolution,” an unsettling image underscored by Metty’s fluid, naturalistic photography.  Predating Touch of Evil‘s now-legendary opening shot, the Kindler-Meinike confrontation was filmed in a single four-minute take. Unfortunately, the film has too few of these Wellesian touches.

While The Stranger remains a conventional thriller, The Lady from Shanghai flaunts its cinematic iconoclasm from beginning to end.  Welles defies Hollywood tradition with a nightmarish charade.  Like Touch of Evil, he places the viewer in the middle of an evolving psychological hell.  Since Orson’s Irish sailor is as unconvincing as Rita Hayworth’s femme fatale, The Lady from Shanghai can be viewed as a distorted, fun-house parody of classic noir.  Modern-day critics who bemoan the film’s confused plotting and bizarre motivations never acknowledge its stream-of-consciousness framework established by Welles’ tongue-in-cheek narration as Michael O’Hara.  There is a method to this chaos.

Told from O’Hara’s point of view, the viewer never is sure whether the film is a strange dream or the barroom ramblings of a drunken sailor. The Stranger and Touch of Evil focus on the gradual loss of power and sanity, but The Lady from Shanghai plunges into madness from the introductory moment when O’Hara says, “Some people can smell danger.  Not me.”  Though O’Hara supposedly is a romantic hero, there are no heroes in Wellesian noir — only trapped individuals tainted by evil.  O’Hara is the biggest sucker of them all, thus making him fair game in the hands of the Bannisters and George Grisby.

With its abrupt shifts in tone and locale, The Lady from Shanghai is a noir of never-ending jolts.  Like Touch of Evil, viewers never know exactly where they are, but they have a better idea than O’Hara as they follow his descent into the abyss.  The film’s uncertain landscape is abetted by Welles’ evocative shooting off the Mexican coast and in the San Francisco Bay Area, which lends a bizarre travelogue quality to O’Hara’s disorienting voyage.

Everett Sloane and Rita Hayworth as the pitiful Bannisters.

Everett Sloane and Rita Hayworth as the pitiful Bannisters.

There is an undeniable sensuality in The Lady from Shanghai which cannot be found in Welles’ other film noirs.  Hayworth’s Elsa Bannister is a highly desirable woman.  When Elsa entices O’Hara with an exotic job opportunity (“Would you like to work for me?  I’d like it”), it proves a temptation difficult to resist. However, this obsession goes beyond the character of O’Hara — the shots of Elsa swimming and sunbathing have a voyeuristic quality as Charles Lawton Jr.’s camera hovers provocatively over her body.  The predatory point of view could well be that of Arthur Bannister (Everett Sloane), a powerful attorney who believes that all people can be bought.

Like many noir protagonists, O’Hara is a foolish man willing to do foolish things, thereby leading to some irrational decisions.  Grisby (Glenn Anders) convinces O’Hara to accept $5,000 in exchange for taking the rap in Grisby’s fraudulent murder.  O’Hara agrees to the deal and, of course, Bannister’s creepy associate ends up dead.  Until his unfortunate exit, the eccentric Grisby lends a morbid touch of black humor to the proceedings, especially the manner in which he says “target practice.”

As the prime suspect in Grisby’s murder, O’Hara is “defended” by none other than Arthur Bannister, who offers his client these words of encouragement:  “I want you to live as long as possible before you die, Michael.”  Playing against convention, Welles adds comic punctuation to the courtroom scenes by making the attorneys orate like game-show hosts, having the jury continually sneeze and cough, and casting Erskine Sanford as an ineffectual judge.  Evidently, Welles has a low opinion of the legal system.  Ironically, O’Hara manages to escape before the verdict is read.

The Lady from Shanghai‘s famous “hall of mirrors” shootout parallels The Stranger‘s clock-tower climax.   Like Kindler, the Bannisters’ future is all used up.  Utilizing elements of German expressionism, Welles takes noir tradition and smashes it. After the bullets are fired and the mirrors (or psyches) are shattered, the viewer is left with a certain detachment and ambivalence toward the fate of O’Hara and the pitiful Bannisters.  “One who follows his nature, keeps his original nature in the end,” O’Hara reminds Elsa as she breathes her last.

Elsa Bannister fires away in the "hall of mirrors."

Elsa fires away in the “hall of mirrors.”

Elsa’s act of betrayal towards O’Hara and its outcome have less of an emotional impact than the Mary/Kindler and Menzies/Quinlan relationships.  “I made a lot of mistakes,” the self-pitying Elsa tells O’Hara.  “You can fight, but what good is it?  We can’t win.”  And she dies alone.  There is a cruel irony when the dying Bannister condescendingly tells his wife, “You made a mistake, lover. You should have let me live.  You’re going to need a good lawyer.”  Like Quinlan and Kindler, he dies unrepentant.

What remains is a sordid, corruptible wasteland as O’Hara walks away from the woman of his nightmares.  “Everybody is somebody’s fool,” he surmises.  And in The Lady from Shanghai, it is the fool who survives.

The Stranger and The Lady from Shanghai, for all of their visual bravura, remain wildly uneven works — flawed by studio interference (both films cry out for director’s cuts that never will be seen) and Welles’ eccentric miscasting in the pivotal roles of Kindler and O’Hara.  Yet they serve as stepping stones for his definitive noir statement: Touch of Evil.

Perhaps his most accomplished and assured film since Citizen Kane (1941), Welles paves the road upon which other contemporary noirs will follow.  More than 57 years after its release, Touch of Evil maintains a timeless quality.  Even a director as visually hyperbolic as David Lynch has yet to make a movie as unsettling as this one.

Best of all, Welles is superbly cast. There’s not a trace of “acting” in his complex portrayal of police captain Hank Quinlan, whose voice sounds as though it emerged from the bottom of a sewer.  Welles’ accomplishments as an actor always have been underrated in contrast to his filmmaking achievements, yet Touch of Evil reminds the viewer that he was a vital performer — not the hammy individual seen in The Stranger and The Lady from Shanghai.  With the exception of Falstaff in Chimes at Midnight (1966), Quinlan represents Welles’ most detailed character study.

Welles as corrupt police captain Hank Quinlan.

Welles as corrupt cop Hank Quinlan.

Mostly shot on location in Venice, California, Welles creates a border-town hellhole bathed in darkness and surrounded by a gallery of disturbing characters.  The result is somewhat akin to a carnival freak show.  Strangely enough, viewers are so mesmerized by Welles’ seamless nocturnal vision that the daytime scenes (particularly those at the seedy Mirador Motel) appear somewhat jarring, as though the viewer has stepped out of a windowless, smoke-filled bar into the blinding sun of a midafternoon.

The breathtaking, expansive opening shot (culminating in the time-bomb explosion that kills millionaire Linnekar) establishes the film’s ominous tone, which is solidified once Quinlan arrives at the scene.  A brief exchange between narcotics investigator Mike Vargas (Charlton Heston) and the cynical coroner (Joseph Cotten) provides a telling introduction to Quinlan — not only for Vargas, but for the viewer as well:

Vargas: “I’d like to meet [Quinlan].”

Coroner: “That’s what you think.”

Quinlan is an instinctively brilliant yet corrupt police captain mired in Shakespearean tragedy.  His monstrous, though sympathetic presence dominates the film (even when he is off-screen) and sets in motion a sleazy labyrinth of drugs, perversity, murder and lawlessness.  Touch of Evil proves to be an apt title, since every character (including Vargas) is tainted and corruptible.  There are no innocents in this decaying world.

Mike Vargas (Charlton Heston) gets a nasty surprise.

Mike Vargas (Charlton Heston) gets a nasty surprise.

Of all the Wellesian creations, Quinlan is the epitome of film noir.  Like Charles Foster Kane, he is a dictatorial individual plagued by regret, loneliness, immorality and loss (i.e., his wife’s murder).  For years, Quinlan has been an isolationist (he lives near the border yet refuses to learn Spanish) and a law unto himself; therefore, it is inevitable that Quinlan creates his own downfall in a confused, paranoic state of irrationality — predating Richard Nixon’s Watergate cover-up.  Welles’ distorted camera angles represent Quinlan’s tortured, inebriated frame of mind.  He is a man lost in his own excesses, hence the classic reference by bordello madam Tanya (Marlene Dietrich): “You’re a mess, honey.”

During the first Quinlan/Vargas confrontation, Vargas asks, “Who’s the boss: the cop or the law?”  In Wellesian noir, the law does not triumph — it remains hidden in the shadows. “Even though [Quinlan] doesn’t bring the guilty to justice, he assassinates them in the name of the law,” Welles told Peter Bogdanovich in the 1992 book This Is Orson Welles. “He wants to assume the right to judge, and no one has the right to judge except under the authority of law. . . . But what he stands for is detestable.”

Touch of Evil follows the paralleling descent of Quinlan and Vargas.  They are moral opposites who, by the film’s conclusion, have much in common.

Quinlan was an honest cop who became corrupt through the tragedy of his wife’s strangulation — not unlike Vargas’ loss of control after his wife, Susan (Janet Leigh), was drugged and framed for the murder of Uncle Joe Grandi (Akim Tamiroff).  When Vargas enters Grandi’s bar and says, “I’m no cop now,” it is apparent that he has gone over the edge and lost the rationality to enforce the law.  Quinlan’s obsession for vengeance now has become Vargas’ — in fact, Vargas resorts to Quinlan-style methods to hunt down his nemesis.  Utilizing a bugging device (another Nixonian trait) to record Quinlan’s confession, Vargas has become what he despises and knows it.

Partners in betrayal:  Menzies (Joseph Calleia) and Quinlan.

Partners in betrayal: Menzies (Joseph Calleia) and Quinlan.

When Quinlan loses his power, he rapidly deteriorates.  The descent begins when Vargas accuses Quinlan of planting the sticks of dynamite to frame Sanchez, thereby making Quinlan vulnerable for the first time.  In retaliation, Quinlan forms an unholy alliance with the slimy Grandi (a character of black comedy not unlike Grisby in The Lady from Shanghai) to kidnap and drug Susan — a short-lived partnership that Quinlan’s loyal partner, Pete Menzies (Joseph Calleia), observes with disgust and heartbreak.  When Quinlan strangles Grandi, he succumbs to irrevocable madness.  This leads to the ultimate betrayal as Menzies resolves his moral dilemma by helping Vargas bring down Quinlan, but only after he discovers Quinlan’s cane near the body of Grandi.

“Quinlan is the god of Menzies,” Welles said in a 1958 Cahiers du Cinema interview.  “And, because Menzies worships him, the real theme of the scenario is treason, the terrible impulsion that Menzies has to betray his friend.”

However, Quinlan already has betrayed Menzies’ trust through his manipulative deceit and corruption.  “All these years, you’ve been playing me for a sucker,” Menzies angrily tells Quinlan.  It is ironic yet poetic destiny that Quinlan and Menzies end up killing each other.  For all his “famous intuition,” Quinlan’s disloyalty toward Menzies is the final act that does him in.

Touch of Evil can be considered a summary of the film noir themes Welles examined in The Stranger and The Lady from Shanghai. In his noir trilogy, the guilty are doomed to a violent demise in a world where evil is permitted and justice is distorted.  As for humankind, they are best represented by the philosophical Tanya, who delivers Touch of Evil‘s closing line (“What does it matter what you say about people?”) and walks away into a bleak, uncertain future.  In the end, the viewer remains surrounded by darkness.



Killing Featured

Stanley Kubrick’s “The Killing” (1956) and the Prominence of Domesticated Animals

Stanley Kubrick’s 1956 film noir The Killing is striking for its attention to domesticated animals – horses, dogs and a parrot. The film’s first shot is of horses being led from their paddock, the title is superimposed over footage of horses, and a toy poodle brings about the movie’s denouement. The title itself can be interpreted as referring to the killing of the racehorse Red Lightning since no character mentions “killing” in regards to the heist, none of them make a killing because they all end up dead or back in jail, and the only character who uses the word “kill” is the hood hired to shoot Red Lightning when he’s asking for the details of the job. All the animals are confined; the horses in stables and paddocks before being ridden and led, the dogs cuddled in their owner’s arms, and the parrot in its cage. Kubrick makes comparisons, in shots and dialogue, between the animals’ confinement and the characters being hemmed in by circumstances they can’t surmount.

The Killing Title
Domesticated animals appear in many scenes throughout the film. The movie’s first seven shots are of racehorses being led to a racetrack starting gate, a team of four horses dragging the gate into place, and the racehorses taking off. This same footage of horses is used as an anchor as Kubrick repeatedly returns to the seventh race to show the various characters acting out their separate roles on the day of the heist. A caged parrot is shown in most of the scenes between the mousy George Peatty and his wife, Sherry, a wisecracking siren in a curly pompadour. Like Polly, George is shown more than once behind bars, and in the scene where Sherry pulls the wool over her husband’s eyes, a cloth is draped over the parrot’s cage. The farmer who moonlights as an assassin cradles and caresses a puppy during the entire scene where he and the heist’s mastermind, Johnny, discuss killing the horse to distract the cops during the crime. Finally, a yappy little poodle precipitates the film’s unhappy conclusion. When the poodle jumps out of the arms of its smothering owner at the airport, it runs in front of a baggage cart. The driver swerves to avoid the dog and Johnny’s suitcase tumbles off the cart and bursts open, sending the loot flying away in the wind generated by the airplane engine.

In the film’s first shot horses ridden by jockeys are led out of their paddock. We see a team of harnessed white horses, with blinders blocking their peripheral vision, dragging the starting gate into place, and the racehorses being led toward it, two of them repeatedly throwing their heads back as if to shake off their restraints. Then trainers, rushing, yank and pull the horses up to the gate. Later in the film jockeys whip them to make them run faster. In no scene do we see the horses being fed, groomed, petted or congratulated, or any affection being shown. They are led, confined and manipulated, and they don’t look happy.

The Killing’s characters are similarly led, confined and manipulated. Kubrick draws a visual comparison between horses and people by cutting from the horses lined up behind the gate to the line of cashier windows at the racetrack. (He also makes a visual comparison between horses and people later in the film, when Nikki waits in the parking lot for Red Lightning to approach, by dissolving back and forth between the racing horses and the cheering crowd.) The characters are confined and limited by their relationships and by their low-paying, dead-end jobs. A loan shark who notes that “We all get a little cramped,” nevertheless raises the vig $400 and menaces Stanley, the dirty cop, with veiled threats of what he’ll do if the debt isn’t repaid soon. Fear of the loan shark motivates Stanley to participate in the stick up at the racetrack to get cash immediately. George Peatty, a track cashier, is under the thumb of his wife, Sherry, a manipulative, wisecracking gold digger. Sherry leads him to believe she will love him if only he provides more money for a fancier apartment and more comfortable lifestyle. To avoid the pain of her emotional blackmail, George takes part in the theft. Just as people make horses race for financial gain, the loan shark and Sherry try to use Stanley and George to procure money for them. In another parallel between animals and humans, just as the horses leave the confinement of their stables and paddocks, and run around and around the track, ultimately ending up back where they started in the confinement of their stables, Johnny gets out of jail, engages in a lot of useless activity, and ends up where he started, in the slammer.

The animal most closely identified with a character is Polly, the Peatty’s parrot (presumably that’s her name, since she squawks, “Pretty Polly, pretty Polly). Polly’s cage has a rounded top and is elevated on a pedestal, so the bird is even with George’s head when he is standing. In the first scene in the Peatty’s apartment, Sherry is mocking him, as usual. Sherry thinks George is a boring loser, and tells him as much. To seek refuge from her belittling, George walks over to Polly, a kindred spirit. Just as Polly is confined in a cage, we see George behind bars, twice. The first time is near the film’s beginning, when he is shown, with a grim facial expression, behind the bars of his cashier’s window. The second time he is framed in a medium close up, holding the balusters of the spiral staircase that Johnny is ascending to hold up the racetrack office. George is imprisoned by his love for Sherry; he will do almost anything for her love.

ELISHA COOK JR cashier
George also is blinded, metaphorically, by his attraction to Sherry. In the second scene at the Peatty’s apartment, Sherry is seated at a dressing table, George is standing next to her, and Polly is in her cage behind him, blinded literally because a drape covers her cage. Sherry is trying to fool George and obscure the truth by faking affection she doesn’t feel and lying to him so he’ll tell her more about the plot. She says she eavesdropped outside the apartment where the conspirators were planning the job because she was jealous and suspected he was seeing another girlfriend. Sherry tells him she loves him and will love him “always and always.” (Although Johnny doesn’t lead him on, Marvin also is blinded, by his sexual attraction to the younger man. Even though Johnny is engaged to his childhood sweetheart, Marvin suggests he abandon Fay and travel the world with the older man.)

In the final scene at the apartment, George, who has been shot, stumbles in to find Sherry expecting her lover. Wobbling from his injuries, he holds on to the vertical stand that holds up Polly’s cage for balance. Polly says “Watch it” and “Watch out.” When Sherry refuses to call an ambulance for him and tells him to go out and get a taxi, he realizes, too late, that she has never loved him, and he shoots her. When he succumbs to his wounds and tumbles to his death, he is still holding the bird’s cage, and he takes it down with him. The camera pans from George’s head, his expression frozen in death, partially shadowed by Polly, to the parrot, constrained in her overturned cage and unable to fly, before cutting to an airplane taxiing at the airport.

elilsha cook and parrot
The final domesticated animal given prominence in The Killing is the dog. When Johnny goes to Nikki’s farm to hire him to kill the racehorse Red Lightning, Johnny holds and pets a really cute puppy, covering its ears with his hands, while the assassin tries out the shotgun. Then, they exchange the puppy for the shotgun. The farmer/assassin continues to hold and cuddle his puppy throughout the scene, caressing and rubbing its muzzle, back and ears as the men discuss shooting the horse; a perverse contrast between the affectionate gestures and the murderous words. Johnny makes light of the killing, saying that shooting “a four-legged horse” isn’t even murder.

the-killing dog2
A yipping toy poodle with a bow in its topknot renders poetic justice on the heartless (to horses) Johnny, as it foils the (literally) last man standing at the movie’s end. In his exhaustively researched, and highly readable book, Stanley Kubrick: A Biography, author Vincent LoBrutto reports that before Kubrick became a director, and was a photographer for Look magazine, he shot a photo essay of a champion toy poodle named Masterpiece. Poodles were extremely popular in the 1950s, and Kubrick was obviously familiar with the dogs, and their owners’ practice of giving them undignified, clownish trims, and having them prance around, perform tricks and otherwise behave artificially for human amusement and, in the case of show dogs as with race horses, purses.

The cloying, middle-aged owner of Sebastian, the poodle in The Killing, cradles him near her cheek and smothers him with affection, cooing baby-talk in a phony, Elmer Fudd voice. At the airport to meet her husband, she addresses the unfortunate dog, “We haven’t seen daddy sweetums foe such a wong, wong, time.” She takes Sebastian outside as the plane is arriving, and the dog, agitated by the engine noise, escapes from her arms. As a worker driving a baggage cart turns sharply to avoid the dog, Johnny’s cheap, flimsy, pawn-shop suitcase topples off the top of the heap and bursts, the loot scattering into the wind generated by the airplane’s engine.

Kubrick and the novelist Jim Thompson adapted the screenplay from the novel Clean Break by Lionel White, published in 1955. The novel’s title does not refer to a horse’s broken leg; it is an expression used by Marvin, who despises the other conspirators and wants to make a clean break from them after the heist, and it’s also used by an initial newspaper report that the crooks got away with the loot. Both Kubrick and Thompson were interested in animals. For example, in Thompson’s novel The Getaway, one character is a veterinarian who calls his wife “Pet” and “Lambie,” and philosophizes over the effects of kindness to animals. The screenwriters added the animals to The Killing; Clean Break doesn’t mention dogs or parrots, or horses leaving their paddock or approaching the starting gate. Of course The Killing is a film noir with has a femme fatale, a flawed hero, characters drawn from society’s underbelly, a grim atmosphere and a downbeat ending, but clearly on another level it is about the treatment of animals.

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Edward Dmytryk: A Worthy Reexamination

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He was one of the true pioneers of film noir, a favorite director of Humphrey Bogart’s, the only director among The Hollywood Ten and the man responsible for helming some of Hollywood’s most heralded stars in some of their most offbeat and in some cases, best performances. In spite of all that, Edward Dmytryk has never been included in the pantheon of great directors.

Maybe it’s because he quit making gritty noir masterpieces as soon as he could, or that as an incarcerated member of The Hollywood Ten he recanted and then named names. Perhaps it was because many of the films starring the aforementioned legends received lukewarm responses when first released and have remained in movie viewing limbo ever since. When was the last time cable or Netflix offered Clark Gable in Soldier of Fortune (1955); Bogart in The Left Hand of God (1955), Sean Connery and Brigitte Bardot unlikely paired in the western Shalako (1968); or Richard Burton and a bevy of international beauties in Bluebeard (1972)? Granted, some of these titles are rather cringe-inducing but even the cringe-filled moments are at least entertaining. Whatever the reason for Dmytryk’s absence from perceived greatness, his body of work is certainly worthy of reexamination.

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I was lucky enough to interview him as part of my ongoing research for my book, Lee Marvin: Point Blank a few years before he passed on in 1999. He and his wife, former actress Jean Porter, agreed to meet with me for lunch at the legendary Musso & Frank in Hollywood in September of 1996 and that which did not go in the book can be read below. As the reader will discover in part 1, what transpired were not the bitter rants of a disappointed old man but the fascinating reminisces of a life well lived.

Dwayne Epstein: Does your way of working vary by actor?

Edward Dmytryk: My way of working with an actor, I wasn’t…when I was a cutter on the set throughout the 1930’s, I worked with guys like George Cukor and people like that. They all worked in their own way. You give the actors…Let me put it like this, once a picture starts, they’re my closest collaborators. You see, I worked with good people. I was lucky. That’s how I looked at it. I worked with the best. I had the best people all the way around and I started that early in my career. I could do whatever I wanted to do. In other words, I sometimes would do things that would make the studio very angry. In Europe, I remember they wanted me to come home. So I said finally, “I’m tired of you asking me to come home all the time. Fire me.” I wanted to quit because I was having a terrible time in Europe with the crew, not with the actors. See, in France half of the crew was Communist and half of the crew was non-Communist. Well, to the Communists, I was an ex-communist. The Communists feel there’s nothing worse than an ex-Communist. They’re much more hated because he knows the truth. So they sent me a memo. After I sent them a wire, they sent me a 14-page telegram. I had never seen one like that before. It was apologizing, saying, “No, go right ahead and do what you want to do.” I gave them 2 or 3 opportunities to fire me and then I almost quit. In those days, particularly the studios, they hired a guy and they trusted them. They wouldn’t have let me go because they couldn’t replace me with anybody. It would have cost them a hell of a lot more money and maybe not be as good. With the actors, I worked very freely. I’m in control of the staging and the pace, particularly. Which is very important because actors really don’t understand pace. Particularly if they come from the theater.

DE: Well they can’t in terms of the film because they don’t know how it’s going to be cut.

ED: Yeah, and I cut all my own pictures. See, now as far as I expect of them…I expect Tracy, when he plays a scene, to do things with it that I had wished I had thought to do. To surprise me. That’s the wonderful part about him. … I give him a certain amount of freedom but I don’t let him wander all over. I don’t let him…we change lines all the time but the changing of the lines is under my control. In other words, I wouldn’t do what John Cassavetes did because actors would run on forever if you let them.  I never liked John Cassavetes’ pictures because they were strictly they would run on and on and on. So, if an actor wants to ad-lib I’d say, “You think you can write better than the writer did? If you can, go ahead. If you can’t, don’t mention it anymore.” But I would change it. I’d change scripts like Young Lions as much as 50%. I could have gotten real credit of it. I don’t think I ever made a picture where I didn’t change something. You got to bring a picture to life. All the writers these days write dialogue. There’s nothing there about what to do and how to do it or how a scene starts or how it ends or goes from sequence to another smoothly and continues the flow of the story, that kind of thing. I’ve had cases several times where I’d come in on a set and I’d have a rehearsal with my cast and then I’d call the art director and say, “This won’t do. I can’t shoot this scene here. I got to have another set. Have the writer write another scene,” and walk out to take the day off and rewrite.

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DE: What do you remember most about working with Lee Marvin on Eight Iron Men (1952)?

ED: He and Bonar Colleano had been out on the town the night before while we were making that one. They got along very, very well. They came in an hour late. That’s unforgivable. I gave them hell and I’ve never seen two such penitent guys. They were like kids with their heads down. They kept saying, “I know it’s wrong, I know it’s wrong. We’ll never do it again. Never.” And they never did. I never knew he had a reputation for drinking and I know he did drink but not on the set…Lee was interesting. I had a lot of interesting characters. That’s what I liked about the pictures I was doing, good actors.

5:RAINTREE

DE: Speaking of interesting characters, how did you get along with Montgomery Clift?

ED: Well, yes and no. I got along fine with him. I had a lot of trouble with him on Raintree County (1957) because, well, after his accident he was on drugs and drinking so much he could never work an afternoon. He was in every scene so it took about 160 days on that picture. I thought I’d never use him again. Then when I got back right after that, I was sent what they had, they didn’t have a complete script yet on The Young Lions (1958). I read it and said, “Geez, there’s only one guy to play this part and that’s Monty Clift.” I called him on the phone and had sent him the script. He sent me a telegram a few days later just saying ‘yes.’ On that picture, he never indulged. He did in the evenings but he never missed an hour’s work. I was thinking last night, because I was running a scene for my class the day before yesterday, this one sequence where he brings Hope Lange home, that was the last thing we did. It was done at night, of course. Just before midnight, he started…He was little rough. I called midnight dinner and I said to him, “Monty, I don’t want to have come back tomorrow and do this again.”

DE: How did Montgomery Clift get along with the rest of the cast on Raintree County?

ED: Very well. Monty was a guy who liked everybody…. We started in New Orleans but then we filmed it in Natchez, all up and down the south. … I don’t remember Monty drinking with anybody, actually. I didn’t follow him at night. He drank. He took dope actually, first thing in the morning.

DE: He was in a lot of pain at that time, wasn’t he?

ED: Yeah, because he had his jaw broken in three places and it was wired up. The wires were out by the time we went back to work. Nevertheless, he felt a lot of pain. I think that was his excuse but I think he was drinking all of his life as far as I know. One of the things I did before the picture, because I had never worked with ever before, I didn’t know him, I got in touch with the people. What’s his name, with the Irish name?

DE: Kevin McCarthy?

ED: McCarthy was a very good friend of his. McCarthy said, “He’s a tough guy to be a friend to because he drinks so much. You just get disgusted with him. There comes a time when you have to say good bye.” So, I was warned. Strangely enough, at the beginning you don’t want to hear about this.

DE: I know it was a difficult movie to make, and the divergent cast and the accident and all, but in the scenes that Lee Marvin and Montgomery Clift had together, the characters were adversarial, I’m thinking specifically about the foot race. See, Marvin is much more physically imposing than Clift is.

ED: If it were an honest race, he could have beat Monty.

DE: When you watch it you see Marvin do the miraculous task of making Clift look like he beat him. How did he do that? Were there any little things you talked about before the shooting of it?

ED: No, he just knew that Monty had to beat him and he kept it so. As a matter of fact, for a little while, he was maybe a little bit ahead. He had a much longer stride than Monty did and he made it look like as though he was working hard. He could have slowed up his stride a little bit.

DE: In high school Lee Marvin was a track star.

ED: That I didn’t know.

Jean Porter: (Laughs) Now you find out.

DE: Do you recall when you first met him?

ED: No. But I can tell you that I would do with Lee is what I would do with all actors. People ask me about working with actors. When I first started teaching about 15 years ago at USC., one of the professors there was a professor of film but had never been on a set in his life. One of those academicians. He said, “Eddie, how do you get an actor to read a line the way you want it?’ I said, “I don’t.” He said, “What do you mean by that?” I said, “Do you think I’m going to tell Spencer Tracy how to read lines? That’s his business. That’s his art.” I’m a third-rate actor. If I told him, “This is the way to read a line,” he’d be giving a third rate performance. I never tell a good actor how to do lines, nor does any really good director that I know of.

DE: On The Caine Mutiny (1954), many of the actors are on record as saying Bogart was one of their heroes. How did they get along with Bogart on the set?

ED: Fine. I never had any trouble with anybody. Only one actor in my life I ever had any trouble with who’s name I won’t mention…We had a large cast in that picture with a very good cast right down the line. We got along like brothers and sisters. I never had any trouble. You mentioned Raintree County. Elizabeth, the only time Elizabeth was not on time is when she missed the plane for New Orleans. On the set she was always on time, she was always cooperative.

DE: Was she very protective of Montgomery Clift?

ED: They were very close. She helped him of course but he was a very, very good friend of his. Which was important. He would help her with her acting. He’d go through the script with her whenever we had rehearsals and he’d help here and there. She got a nomination for that picture, as you probably know.

DE: I’ve never been on a film set but I read that there’s a lot of hurry up and wait. What kind of things is done between set-ups?

ED: Play cards.

DE: What was the game of choice?

ED: We played poker. We played odd games. We played this one thing that sometimes I’d join them in. We played Chinese poker. It’s an interesting game.

DE: Was there a difference in rehearsal than what we would see on film?

ED: Not really. Sometimes there is. You see to me, rehearsal is where you make the thing. By the time you’re ready to photograph it, you’re just registering it, that’s all. There’s only one actor I knew who really wanted to go all out in rehearsal. You don’t encourage them to go all out because one of the things they have to do is to pace themselves. That’s another thing. When you do a scene finally, you have to be spontaneous. One of the things you don’t want to do is work too hard. That’s why I don’t mind changing lines to make it fit or for character’s purposes or anything of that sort. Take a line that’s literally in the script and make it a natural kind of thing that I guy in the street would say. I did it gradually. Sometimes I didn’t use the script but I did it rarely. You know, we’d be rehearsing and I’d say [to the actor], “Gee, you know that’s great. You did something great there. Do it again.” He’d say, “What did I do?” “Well, you took this trash here and you moved it over here.” He’d say, “Did I?” I’d say, “Sure you did. Don’t you remember?” Of course he didn’t do it. It was something I wanted him to do.

DE: That’s an interesting way to do it.

ED: Oh sure. You give them all the credit. The more credit you give them, the better they do for you, for Christ’s sake. Of course. You don’t say, “I’m the king. I’m in charge.” The auteur theory is the worst damned thing that was ever thought of.

DE: I’m in complete agreement because film is too collaborative.

ED: There’s that but you also limit yourself. I advice all my students, don’t make storyboards. A storyboard is a plot. You got it down there and once you got it down there you say, “That’s the way we’re going to do it.” Then there’s no more creativity after you’re on the set. I say, “You got to keep changing. You got to keep thinking about possible change.” You don’t necessarily change but possible changes occur right up to the time you shoot it.

Next Time: “Edward Dmytryk: A Worthy Examination” (Part 2)!


Bigamist Featured

DVD Review: “The Bigamist” (1953)

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Seeing how much the movie industry and the media outlets covering it love to pay lipservice to women in film, it’s a mystery why they actually give so little coverage to pioneering female filmmakers, particularly Ida Lupino. Lupino was Hollywood’s first female producer-director, and she even co-wrote some of her films as well. (Director Dorothy Arzner preceded Lupino, but Arzner wasn’t a producer.) And, more to the point, Lupino was a damn good filmmaker whose work in movies and television has stood the test of time very well. And now, one of her best films The Bigamist (1953) has been remastered by Film Chest and is being released on DVD.

Outside of a 2010 Museum of Modern Art retrospective, Lupino’s achievements behind the camera have largely been ignored in favor of her work as an actress, particularly her performances at Warner Bros. in the 1940s as tough, hard-boiled dames in melodramas like They Drive by Night, High Sierra, The Hard Way, and The Man I Love. (Occasionally, Warners cast her in more conventional ingénue roles in films such as The Sea Wolf, Out of the Fog, and Deep Valley, her last for the studio.) “The poor man’s Bette Davis” was Lupino’s own self-depreciating description of her standing at Warners. (Her first film for the studio, They Drive by Night, was a semi-remake of Bordertown, with Lupino in the role that Davis played in the original.)

When her contract at Warners ran out in the late 40s, rather than renewing it, Lupino decided to try freelancing, like so many other actors did at a time when the “studio system” first began to unravel. Lupino had spent a great deal of her time at Warners on “suspension,” the studio’s notorious punishment for “rebellious” actors, something she had in common with Davis, James Cagney, and Olivia de Havilland. (It was de Havilland who successfully sued Warners over the practice, with the Supreme Court of California ruling it to be illegal, the first nail in the coffin of the aforementioned studio system. The US Supreme Court’s anti-trust ruling forcing the studios to divest themselves of their theater chains and the growing popularity of television were the next two major setbacks to the studios.) It was during these “suspension” periods that Lupino first became interested in the behind-the-scenes aspects of filmmaking, hanging out with directors and writers and learning the tricks of the trade from them. She was also motivated by wanting to have total control over her film work.

As a result, in addition to acting in other studios’ movies, Lupino and her second husband Collier Young formed an independent production company called The Filmakers, after first producing Not Wanted (1949), in which Lupino made her directorial debut unintentionally. Elmer Clifton, the director contracted for Not Wanted (about an out-of-wedlock pregnancy) suffered a heart attack before filming began and Lupino took over (uncredited). Lupino’s subsequent directorial efforts for the Filmakers included Never Fear, Outrage (dealing with rape, another feminist-oriented subject that was considered taboo by the Production Code), and Hard, Fast and Beautiful. In 1953, Lupino made her two most notable directing efforts, The Hitch-Hiker (her only out-and-out film noir) and The Bigamist. At this point in her career, Lupino amended her self-description to “the poor man’s Don Siegel.” (A filmmaker who could work wonders on meager budgets, Siegel directed The Filmakers’ 1954 production of Private Hell 36.) After The Bigamist, Lupino’s directing career continued mainly on television, with the exception of the last theatrical film (and only comedy) she ever directed The Trouble with Angels in 1966. (Much of Lupino’s work for the small screen also revealed a flair for the macabre, particularly in the episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Thriller, and The Twilight Zone that she directed.)

As the title makes obvious, The Bigamist dealt with another taboo subject. Originally, as was the case with Not Wanted, Lupino was not supposed to direct The Bigamist; she was only going to act in the film, which was co-produced (with Robert Eggenweiler) and co-written (with Larry Marcus) by Lupino’s then ex-husband Young. (Soon after the divorce, both Lupino and Young had remarried, she to Howard Duff and he to Joan Fontaine.) That game plan changed when Jane Greer, who was set to play the other female lead, dropped out. Fontaine offered to take Greer’s place, but only if Lupino would direct The Bigamist as well. Lupino never wanted to direct herself, but she agreed in order to get the film underway. Which is how the two Mrs. Youngs ending up playing the two wives of the title character Harry Graham (Edmond O’Brien, previously the lead in The Hitch-Hiker), a San Francisco-based small business owner who doubles as his own traveling salesman.

We first meet Harry and Wife #1, Eve (Fontaine), when they’re being interviewed by kindly child welfare official Mr. Jordan (Edmund Gwenn) as part of their adoption application. (Eve is unable to have a child.) For the most part, the interview goes well… until Harry betrays a momentary discomfort at signing the required form that gives Jordan permission to investigate their backgrounds to determine their suitability as adoptive parents, a hesitation that does not go unnoticed by Jordan. After the Grahams leave, Jordan expresses his doubts for the record in the Dictaphone recording of his notes: “From a preliminary interview, in my opinion, they would make fit parents, but something bothers me about Mr. Graham. He seemed impatient during the interview, a chip-on-the-shoulder sort of attitude. He… he behaved rather strangely when signing the… the permission to investigate form. Perhaps it is my imagination. I’ll report further when I visit the Grahams’ home for the customary inspection next week.”

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From this point, The Bigamist follows a traditional “three-act” structure of storytelling. Act One is in the form of a miniature mystery in which Jordan acts as a sleuth determined to unearth Harry’s secret, even to the extent of trailing him to Los Angeles, where he conducts most of his out-of-town business. Eventually, Jordan stumbles onto the fact that, rather than staying in a hotel, Graham owns a home in the LA suburbs. Turning up on Harry’s doorstep one night, Jordan discovers what the audience already knows, thanks to the film’s title and advertising, that there’s a second Mrs. Graham. Not only that, but Harry and Wife #2, Phyllis (Lupino), have an infant son as well.

Act Two is a lengthy flashback that takes up about half the movie as Harry tells Jordan the story of how he came to have two households. It seems that Harry and Phyllis “met cute” (to use the old screenwriters’ term) when, out of sheer boredom, Harry took an LA  bus tour of the stars’ homes and struck up a conversation with Phyllis, a waitress in a Chinese restaurant. They had a one-night stand that resulted in Phyllis’ pregnancy. Too weak-willed to divorce Eve (who’s also his business partner), but wanting to do the right thing by Phyllis, Harry proposed marriage to Phyllis and started the family that Eve couldn’t give him.

The sequences dealing with Harry and Phyllis’ brief fling and her subsequent pregnancy are a prime example of the absurdities imposed by the then-weakened but still enforced Code. Thanks to the Code’s infantile restrictions, there’s no hint of Harry and Phyllis enjoying a night of intimacy, nor is the word “pregnant” ever uttered in the scene where Harry learns that Phyllis is carrying his child, which is couched in the most evasively suggested terms possible. The Code was also responsible for the abrupt, unsatisfying resolution of the film’s third act, which conformed to the demand that all lawbreakers must face legal retribution.

The Bigamist’s script, Lupino’s direction, Leith Stevens’s music score, and George Diskant’s black-and-white cinematography waver between domestic drama and noir (particularly in the first two acts) before settling on the former. (Although the seedy restaurant Phyllis works in and the scarred, scowling face of its owner seemingly promise that noir will be the film’s dominant mood.) Despite the somberness of the subject matter and the sober approach taken to the material, the script does indulge in some playful Hollywood in-jokes. There are not one but two references to Gwenn’s most famous role, his Oscar-winning performance as Kris Kringle in Miracle on 34th Street. Eve tells Harry that she thinks Jordan “looks like Santa Claus.” And during the bus tour, the driver/guide points out Gwenn’s home, referring to the actor as “the little man who is Santa Claus to the whole world.” The homes of Lupino’s former Warners colleagues Barbara Stanwyck and Jane Wyman are also name-checked in this scene.

As she always did, Lupino got excellent performances from her cast, including herself.  She and Fontaine both contribute subtle, understated acting turns as the two Mrs. Grahams. Gwenn gives a charming, low-key performance as a dedicated public servant who is torn between duty and pity when confronting Harry about his deceit. O’Brien manages to make Harry an ultimately sympathetic (and rather pathetic) character, while still imbuing him with the sweaty neuroticism that was typical of his roles in the late 40s and early 50s.

Although Film Chest’s press release says that this version of The Bigamist was “restored from original 35mm materials,” the state of those materials obviously were not as well preserved as Film Chest’s previous remastered film release Hollow Triumph. For most of the film, the visual quality of Film Chest’s The Bigamist DVD is sharp and crisp, but noticeable scratching appears periodically and there is a little jumpiness in the opening credits. Still, the overall quality of this version of The Bigamist is light years ahead of Alpha Video’s earlier DVD version with its murky print and muddy soundtrack.

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Savant Blu-ray Review: “The Killers” (1964)

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Here’s a real achievement, a new Blu-ray that makes a feature film look far better than it ever has before, even on a big screen. Eleven years ago the Criterion Collection released an impressive double bill of both film adaptations of Ernest Hemingway’s The Killers. The very brief short story was successfully expanded to feature length in 1946, with the use of Citizen Kane- like flashbacks to a highly romantic, fateful story of crime and betrayal. The Robert Siodmak movie made stars of Burt Lancaster and Ava Gardner. I’ve seen the 1964 remake several times, but Arrow Films’ new disc is so much of an improvement that I feel I’ve seen it for the first time.

As a general rule classic films noir resist remake efforts: much of what works about them is endemic to the time they were made. Restage 1945′s Detour in the present, and Al Roberts’ self-pitying pessimism wouldn’t work for a minute. But noir veteran Don Siegel had been a central figure in the evolution of ’50s noir, in pictures like Private Hell 36 (1954), Baby Face Nelson (1957) and The Lineup (1958). The romanticism of noir was breaking down in Siegel’s films, as the level of cynicism and violence steadily climbed.

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Gene L. Coon’s progressive screenplay for Siegel’s The Killers remake flips the original storyline like a pancake. The ’46 version followed an insurance investigator obsessed with finding out why the target of paid killers didn’t make an effort to save himself. Siegel’s version has no reassuring cops tracking down the truth, and instead gives the investigating duties to a pair of chatty Pulp Fiction- like hit men, in search of a big payday that will allow them to retire. Siegel develops the hit man ethos more than any other director: Robert Keith and Eli Wallach in his The Lineup may be the real original protagonist hit men, with quirky personalities.

As opposed to classic noir, The Killers takes place almost completely in broad daylight. Brutal hit men Charlie Strom (Lee Marvin) and Lee (Clu Gulager) track down their contract target Johnny North (John Cassavetes) to a school for the blind, where he teaches an auto shop class. To their surprise, North passively accepts his fate. Charlie is intrigued by this fact. He and Lee crisscross the country to ferret out North’s backstory, both to quench Charlie’s curiosity and to profit from whatever crime their victim was a part of. As it turns out, North was a promising race car driver until a debilitating accident that may have been caused by the distraction of his flashy new girlfriend, Sheila Farr (Angie Dickinson). Starting with the testimony of mechanic Earl Sylvester (Claude Akins), Charlie and Lee learn about North’s involvement in an armored car robbery, for Sheila and her new boyfriend, crook Jack Browning (Ronald Reagan). If the hit men can find Sheila and Jack, the loot can’t be far away.

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The Killers rewrites the rules for screen crime. Almost as if the production code no longer existed, “nice” characters are nowhere to be seen, and the cops are mostly absent as well. The obsessed Charlie and the wisecracking health nut Lee are our protagonists. They terrorize innocent people for information, just like Hemingway’s original Al and Max but with an essential difference of of expedience. In the hepped-up, speed-obsessed sixties, Charlie and Lee have no time to mess around. Rudely cornering their prey, they immediately go for the hard sell, whether it means hanging a woman out of a high window, or driving a helpless blind lady into hysterics. They carry their pistols in a valise, as if they were businessmen paying a sales call.

Making the film seem even more modern, Charlie and Lee already display the “look” that dominates hit man characters to this day. They woudn’t be caught dead without the heavy dark glasses that make them look ominous, almost faceless. Director Don Siegel nails a prime visual that’s become an icon: when Charlie points his gun to take a shot, a wide-angle lens frames his oversized silencer in huge close-up. Charlie’s on the trigger but the gun is given equal graphic emphasis.

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Johnny North’s role as an existential loser is basically the same as in the ’46 version. John Cassavetes received a big career boost when he played a twisted juvenlie delinquent back in Don Siegel’s excellent Crime in the Streets (1956) (which incidentally also seems to have influenced the gang action in the play and movie West Side Story). Here Cassavetes is the cocky driver of a Cobra race car. His stomping ground is the former Riverside International Raceway, which had already seen screen time in the violent car race action scenes in 1959′s On the Beach. One of the hottest actresses of her time, Angie Dickinson is the new brand of amoral thrill-seeker. She’s attracted to Johnny when he’s a winner and quickly abandons him when he’s injured. There’s no longer any romantic mystique with this femme fatale, as she immediately goes where the money is. Cassavetes’ North is already defeated when he agrees to drive a vehicle in Jack Browning’s robbery scheme. This part of the movie seems lifted intact from Richard Quine’s 1954 noir Drive a Crooked Road. Just like Mickey Rooney in the earlier picture, North is hired because he can cover a mile or so of twisting country road in less than a minute. Sheila tempts North with a promise of a mutual getaway when the job’s done… a sucker play if there ever was one.

It’s quite a surprise to see Ronald Reagan playing a humorless crook in the picture, his final feature film before becoming Governor of California. Perhaps the man most hated by U.C.L.A. students in 1970-71, Reagan sent in an army of cops to teach a lesson to demonstrators against the invasion of Cambodia. The amazing thing about Reagan’s performance in The Killers is that he has the same permanent scowl on his face that he showed in newsreels when he promised to deal out punishment to Berkeley and U.C.L.A.. A one-dimensional heavy with no redeeming qualities, Reagan is as rigid as a washboard. But his Jack Browning has a jaw-dropping moment of violence when he slaps Angie Dickinson across a room. It’s a classic piece of film, just on content alone: Burt Bacharach’s woman recoils backward, hair flying, and our cool liberal Cassavetes, Machine Gun McCain himself, decks Reagan with a retaliatory right cross. This utterly priceless scene got standing ovations at UCLA; why doesn’t it show up in Oscar montages, I ask you?

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Lee Marvin nails the buttoned-down shark patter that Charlie lays on his victims, defining the star persona he’d nurture for the next two decades. Clu Gulager affects a giggling hipster cruel streak. He primps like Ed ‘Kookie’ Byrnes of TV’s 77 Sunset Strip a behavior that hasn’t aged well. Gulager comes off as the weak sister to Marvin’s cold menace, sort of a hit man’s Sancho Panza. Angie Dickinson, the modern man’s woman of choice from China Gate (1957) and Ocean’s Eleven (1960), has an essential toughness that would later make her a perfect mobster’s foil when she reunited with Marvin in 1967′s Point Blank. John Cassavetes contributes his reliable intensity. At this time he was concentrating on his directing career, and reportedly acting to gather production money.

Cassavetes even obtained a brief bit part for his Faces star Seymour Cassell. Familiar actor Norman Fell has a smallish supporting roll. Helping to get The Killers off to a shocking start is the wonderful actress Virginia Christine. In the 1946 original she played a charming cop’s wife. Here she has a brief but strong role as a blind woman manhandled and threatened by Lee Marvin. For viewers old enough to remember, Christine’s television fame as the “Folger’s coffee lady” greatly enhances the scene’s impact.

Don Siegel bounced around for most of the 1960s, trying to stay active in big-screen work but often collecting a paycheck for TV jobs. Initially produced as a TV movie, The Killers ended up being something of a stumbling block for the director. Not long after it was completed John F. Kennedy was assassinated, and the film’s nihilistic violence — which includes a pair of sniper killings from atop a tall building — was deemed far too brutal for television. It was instead released directly to theaters in July of ’64. When film critics of the 1970s discovered genre studies, the JFK connection helped The Killers become a standout title in articles and books seeking a conncection between the movies and the accelerating violence in modern life. Lee Marvin and his gun graced the cover of English fine art critic Lawrence Alloway’s rambling essay-book Violent America: The Movies, 1946-1964. Anyone concerned about screen violence in 1964 was surely in for a rude shock when pictures like Bonnie & Clyde came along a couple of years later.

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Don Siegel and Gene L. Coon’s conclusion makes a strong statement about the culture in general. A main character gets what he wants yet ends up drained of blood on a neat green lawn in suburbia, defeated by the everyday, square consumer life he held in contempt. Several other pictures convey this notion of dissatisfaction with the value system, such as Burt Kennedy’s The Money Trap. But Siegel’s final shot gives us the iconic image to remember.


Arrow Academy’s Region B Blu-ray of The Killers is a huge improvement over Criterion’s 2003 DVD. At the time, the best Universal could provide was a grainy flat transfer of the film. The Killers always looked like a fairly ratty TV production until now. Arrow’s grain-free image is as sharp as a tack and colors are bright and accurate; clearly Universal did a bang-up remastering job. The Blu-ray has both television and cinema aspect ratio versions of the movie, which in this case is a terrific choice. Although planned for TV, the picture was composed for theatrical widescreen use, as TV movies (and some series, re-edited) of the time were commonly distributed theatrically in Europe.

The wide screen version is the way to go, as the images look beautiful when framed to exclude extraneous ceilings and floors. Although it’s surely an illusion, the image even looks a bit wider. The cropping also helps minimize the impact of some cost-cutting in the production, which was done on a TV budget. Rear projection driving scenes look less awkward, for one example. Some painted backdrops are also on the weak side, especially the incredibly fake view from Jack Browning’s office window. It somehow seems appropriate, though, to see Ronald Reagan staring blankly at such a phony backdrop.

Arrow’s extras include a couple of presentations by authors with books to sell. Marc Eliot’s coverage of Reagan’s involvement is welcome, as the man did have longevity as an actor. Dwayne Epstein’s remarks on his subject, Lee Marvin, go awry from the start with the unsupported assertion that Marvin was the catalyst for screen violence in the ’60s. The fine actor was more successful during these years in comic roles, for which he was rewarded with an acting Oscar.

The best piece on the disc is a 1984 interview with Don Siegel by a French TV crew. Siegel is marvelously candid about his work and the business. We’re intrigued to hear a couple of remarks that his acolyte Sam Peckinpah would adopt as his own, namely the statement that film directors are whores that work where they’re told (or kicked). We immediately like Mr. Siegel — he’s not the kind of self-promoter that considers himself the star of his movies. Luckily, Siegel’s other pupil Clint Eastwood was more generous, and 1971′s Dirty Harry returmed him to the top rank of directors for a few years.

The disc extras also contain a thorough still gallery. My check disc did not include Arrow’s illustrated insert booklet, which is said to contain an essay by Mike Sutton, interview excerpts with Siegel and contemporary reviews. Final product discs also come with a choice of reversible package artwork.

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson



The Killers

Blu-ray

Arrow Academy (UK)

1964 / Color / 1:78 widescreen and 1:37 flat full frame / Street Date February 24, 2014 / £ 15.09

Starring Lee Marvin, Angie Dickinson, John Cassavetes, Clu Gulager,
Claude Akins, Norman Fell, Ronald Reagan

Cinematography Richard L. Rawlings

Art directors Frank Arrigo, George Chan

Editor Richard Belding

Original Music Johnny Williams, Henry Mancini, Don Raye

Written by Gene L. Coon from the short story by Ernest Hemingway

Produced and Directed by Donald Siegel

Packaging: Keep case

Reviewed: March 8, 2014

 

Man in the Dark featured

DVD Savant Interview: Greg Kintz of The 3-D Film Archive

The Twilight Time limited edition video label has just released its first 3-D Blu-ray, which just happens to be the first 3-D film released by a major studio right at the beginning of the big 3-Dimension craze that began with 1952′s Bwana Devil. The film is Man in the Dark (1953), a fast-paced mystery noir in which crook Edmond O’Brien undergoes a brain operation to ‘remove’ his criminal tendencies. As tends to happen in gimmicky sci-fi noirs (or Sci-fi pix of any kind), things go wrong. The crook wakes up minus any memory whatsoever of his past identity or criminal history — which makes him an easy target for his old gang. Noir icons Audrey Totter and Ted de Corsia respectively romance O’Brien and beat him senseless, in an effort to find out where he’s hid $130,000 in ill-gotten loot. But the secret only reveals itself through O’Brien’s weird dreams.

I asked Bob Furmanek, President of the authoritative 3D Film Archive if his website would be covering this 3-D Blu-ray release. In answer, the 3D Film Archive’s Technical Director Greg Kintz offered to answer my less-than-expert questions. I’ve worked in pre-digital special effects and was a projectionist for Douglas Trumbull’s experimental Showscan format back in the late 1970s, but my exposure to 3-D isn’t that extensive. Here’s how Greg responded to my questions, and then followed up with some better questions of his own.

Glenn Erickson: Hello Greg. The liner notes on Twilight Time’s 3-D disc of Man in the Dark stress that unlike Warners’ House of Wax and Dial M for Murder, Columbia’s 3-D film was shot very quickly (just eleven days) with a custom rig engineered in its own camera department. I hear that 3-D at this time could be problematical, and that some of these rigs were difficult to work with. Were these cameramen really sharp, or lucky, or do 3-D experts like yourself see a few flaws showing through?

Greg Kintz: The cameramen were extremely sharp. Most studios at that time had their own camera departments, which fostered originality and furthered pride in their work. Bob Furmanek has a number of correspondences from original 3-D shoots, and it is clear they cared about doing quality 3-D productions, despite what some of the recent press has tried to portray. With that said, unlike today’s digital 3-D gear where a tech can instantly check the stereoscopic alignment and/or make relatively quick adjustments in post-production, the 1950s 3-D was of course completely analog with no 100% guarantee that everything being shot was all aligned properly until it was screened later. Due to these factors, issues occasionally could and did occur. Some misalignments occasionally made it to final release prints. 3-D corrections were often done in post-production, but this required another generation loss and more time-consuming optical realignment.

Glenn: On the much-ballyhooed roller coaster scenes, the actors are just photographed in front of a 2-D rear projection, which would seem a real cheat. Comments?

Greg: For decades, this has been the biggest gripe folks have had with Man in the Dark. On one hand, in the context of the entire feature the roller coaster “POV” sequence is a relatively short part of the movie. I first saw this movie in 3-D some ten years ago knowing about the rear screen projection in advance, and ended up not being bothered at all by the timesaving technique. With that said, was it a missed opportunity? Oh, absolutely. It was interesting recently watching Man in the Dark with my wife who had been studying the 3-D Blu-ray artwork before seeing this for the first time. Afterwards she commented, “If the (original & new) artwork heavily plugs a roller coaster and 3-D, shouldn’t the roller coaster segment actually be in 3-D?” I couldn’t help but chuckle. But again… everyone’s tastes vary, and I still very much enjoy the overall story and shooting style. And in the end, they only had 11 days to shoot, so something had to give, and I guess it was the POV roller coaster segment.

Glenn: I thought that the early trick 3-D shot in the brain operation scene was very well-judged, but one or two of the later stick-things-at-the-camera shots look like they were shot with long lenses — is the 3-D funky in these scenes?

Greg: With the different resurgences of 3-D movies over roughly the last 100 years, there have been varying degrees of just how far one can shove something out of the stereo window — and to what degree audiences in general can handle those off-screen effects, from a 3-D eyestrain standpoint. Today’s movies are by far the most conservative in this aspect. Those of the 1980s typically were the most aggressive. The 1950s “Golden Age” 3-D titles for the most part were a balance between those two time periods and (IMHO) struck the best balance of the two. With that said, there are just a few thankfully very brief shots in Man in the Dark where if you look at the screen in 3-D, but with your glasses off, your eyes are being call upon to do some tough viewing.

As you noted, the opening brain operation was well judged, as well as most of the other off-screen effects. I think this was also one of the most aggressive 3-D movies of the 1950s in that respect. It was Columbia’s first 3-D title, so they were learning, and suppose they felt they had an obligation to “deliver the goods” so to speak, and present a good share of off-screen effects.

Glenn: I would think that the most ‘aggressive’ Columbia 3-D picture of the decade had to be a Three Stooges short subject — everything got stabbed into our eyes in 1953′s Spooks! Did you see any particular issues with Sony’s 3-D Blu-ray of Man in the Dark?

Greg: In the era of 1080p/3-D, and with most studio content being culled from the best archival elements possible, it’s quite easy to be spoiled. On the other hand, it is also easier to rightfully expect more things to be handled correctly. Overall, Sony did a great job. It is clear they have done some basic vertical realignment and further convergence to the original stereoscopic photography, which for the most part has helped. But like the recent 3-D HD restoration of The Mad Magician, Sony leaves any left/right size differential issues untouched, which still causes alignment issues and eyestrain. If you see vertical misalignment in the Man in the Dark, most of the time it is a L/R sizing issue that could have been corrected. Please don’t get me wrong — if you are a fan of noir and any type of 3-D fan, this is still a must- own and very enjoyable 3-D presentation. Could it have been better? Sure. Personally I think the best compliment that the 3D Film Archive has received was when we were grilling Warner Bros. on different alterations we had found in the House of Wax 3-D Blu-ray. WB’s head of restoration Ned Price actually thanked us for the critiques and said he prefers his team be kept on their toes. That’s a great mindset.

Glenn: Didn’t most Golden Age 3-D movies have an intermission card, due to the required 35mm dual projection reel change?

Greg: Yes! Man in the Dark was no exception and also had its own unique intermission card to be shown just before the required mid-show reel change. Sony has opted not to include the original card in this case. It’s possible it was not included in the original camera negative version, if that is the sole element they culled from.

Glenn: I’ve noticed some 3-D movies have brief sections where the image goes flat .. as in 2-D. Why is that?

Greg: The answer is a mix. Sometimes there were problems in the original photography. Even in the original release, these very brief segments or shots were instead shown as 2-D, or were slightly pushed behind the stereo window for a fake 3-D effect. Hondo and Revenge of the Creature are some of the best examples of when camera malfunctions required brief flat segments in the final 3-D release.

Greg: Other cases can involve the loss of original elements on one side, but not the other. In the case of the Man in the Dark 3-D Blu-ray, I’ve seen both scenarios. There was one 2-D ‘flat’ shot that lasted roughly 40 seconds, but I am 99% sure it was 3-D on previous elements. I would pull some older elements to check if I only had more time. That shot is thankfully brief, and the few other very brief 2-D ‘single’ shots were that way in the original presentation.

The 3-D Film Archive’s own comparison images of the left- and right- eye frames during Man in the Dark’s most squeamish 3-D effect. The reverse shot of villain Ted de Corsia’s lit cigar approaching Edmond O’Brien’s eye packs even more of a jolt.
Glenn: Overall, would the 3-D Film Archive recommend this title, and are you guys planning an “in-Depth” review of this release?

Greg: Quite frankly, we at the 3D Film Archive would have loved to have done a full review on this title, but at the moment we simply have our hands full. If all goes as planned, we should have three or more vintage 3-D Blu-ray titles out in 2014. I’d say more, but will leave announcements like that to 3D Film Archive President Bob Furmanek and the distributors.

As for an overall verdict on Man in the Dark, we would absolutely recommend this title. The 3-D Blu-ray format has been in place for a while now, and it is a shame that so far this is only the fourth Golden Age title released. For a feature that was originally a rush job, Man in the Dark has a certain charm and certainly plenty of dynamic 3-D moments. To see this title in a high quality 1080p 3-D format even five years ago would have required some very expensive gear. Jump to present day and Twilight Time has delivered the goods. How can one say no?

Glenn: They might say no, but 3-D devotees need to be reminded that the Twilight Time disc is a collector’s pressing limited to 3,00O units. So if you want to keep up with classic-era “Third Dimension” attractions, it’s probably not wise to wait too long. Thanks Greg, especially for coming through on such short notice — I didn’t see anybody discussing the realities of 3-D filming out in the trenches of low-budget Hollywood of the 1950s.


Twilight Time’s
Man in the Dark 3-D Blu-ray
is available through Screen Archives Entertainment.
Interview date: January 20, 2014

Late Show Featured

The Best Movies You’ve Never Heard Of: “The Late Show” (1977)

 “The Best Movies You’ve Never Heard Of” is a series of articles devoted to little-known movies of exceptional quality that dedicated film buffs may be aware of, but have somehow fallen through the cracks of the general public’s awareness.

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In the late 1960s and early 70s, “film noir” was a term known only to dedicated classic cinema aficionados, and urban-based movie mysteries involving cynical, hard-boiled private detectives were considered relics of the past. (Two attempts to revive Raymond Chandler’s iconic detective hero Philip Marlowe, Marlowe, Paul Bogart’s 1969 film adaptation of The Little Sister, and Robert Altman’s 1973 adaptation of The Long Goodbye, both failed dismally at the box office.)  But after Roman Polanski’s Chinatown proved to be a major financial winner for Paramount Pictures in the summer of 1974, private eye mysteries enjoyed a brief resurgence in movies (Dick Richards’ 1975 adaptation of Chandler’s Farewell, My Lovely) and on television (City of Angels, The Rockford Files). “Film noir” was suddenly ‘in.”

Among the most interesting off-shoots of this subsequent revival were a trio of films released by Warner Brothers (none of which came anywhere close to repeating Chinatown’s business): Arthur Penn’s Night Moves (1975), which, like Altman’s The Long Goodbye, was a total deconstruction of the genre; Stuart Rosenberg’s The Drowning Pool (1975), a belated sequel to Harper (Jack Smight’s 1966 adaptation of Ross MacDonald’s The Moving Target); and, best of all, The Late Show (1977), written and directed by Robert Benton, best known at the time for co-writing the screenplays of Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde (1967) and Peter Bogdanovich’s What’s Up, Doc? (1972). (The Late Show was Benton’s first solo script.) But to imply that The Late Show was a kind of knock-off of Chinatown would be grossly unfair to a unique, one-of-a-kind film that lived up to its advertising tagline, “The nicest, warmest, funniest, and most touching movie you’ll ever see about blackmail, mystery, and murder.”

Although set contemporarily in the dreary, colorless Los Angeles of 1977, memories of the 1940s haunt The Late Show (a mood immeasurably enhanced by Ken Wannberg’s subtle, melancholy jazz score). Make no mistake, however; this is no nostalgia piece pining for lost times. The film’s main character, ex-gumshoe Ira Wells (beautifully played by Art Carney), has no desire to live in the past. With his bad leg and hearing aid, Wells simply wants to live out his final years in peaceful retirement, with perhaps an occasional day at the race track for diversion. (Benton based Wells on his own father, who preferred downing one glass of Alka-Seltzer after another rather than having his perforated ulcer operated on a second time.)

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It’s worth noting that Robert Altman, who produced The Late Show and assigned Benton to direct it after buying his script, saw it as a kind of sequel to his own The Long Goodbye, complete with that film’s salt-and-pepper team of homicide detectives Dayton and Green (John S. Davis and Jerry Jones, respectively) putting in a reappearance (before winding up on the cutting room floor). In fact, Wells’ standard attire is identical to that worn by Elliott Gould’s Marlowe in the earlier film: black suit and tie with a white shirt. (In an interview connected with the release of The Late Show, Altman joked that he was going to keep remaking The Long Goodbye until he got it right.)

Fresh off of his Best Actor Oscar-winning turn in Paul Mazursky’s Harry and Tonto (1974), Carney gave an even better performance playing a role unlike any he’d ever done previously. Before his Oscar win, Carney was, of course, best known for playing the role of Ed Norton on Jackie Gleason’s seminal TV sitcom The Honeymooners. But, although he was a prestigiously versatile actor who felt equally at home doing comedy and drama, Carney had never been cast as a tough guy (or even a former tough guy) before. As Carney himself put it, “I’ve got the hearing problem… I’ve got the bum leg. I’ve got the paunch, the middle-age spread. I mean, I really brought my paunch to the part. I’ve got cataracts. And for the perforated ulcer, I’ve got my hiatal hernia… I mean, the character was well defined before we got started. I told Benton, ‘You’ve got the right guy.’” [1] (The way that Ira’s physical infirmaries make him particularly vulnerable is one of the film’s main sources of suspense.)

The other star of The Late Show was another brilliant, unique talent, Lily Tomlin, who had received a Best Supporting Actress nomination for Altman’s Nashville (1975). Tomlin played Margo Sperling, a former Hollywood actress wannabe, burned-out “flower child,” and free-spirited kook already becoming a crazy cat lady. Margo barely makes ends meet by freelancing as a clothes designer and a manager for performing artists of dubious talent (sort of a hippie version of Woody Allen’s Broadway Danny Rose), in addition to periodically peddling some reefer. (“This grass was so great, I can’t tell you. There was so much resins in it, it made your lips stick together.”) As Margo, Tomlin gave arguably her finest film performance ever. (Both Carney and Tomlin should’ve won Oscars for The Late Show.)

Initially, there was some friction between Carney and Tomlin, due mainly to Altman and Benton allowing Tomlin free rein to ad-lib her way through scenes. According to fellow cast mate John Considine, “Art had a lot of trouble with Lily, because of her improvising.” Carney was an actor of the old school who believed in following a script to the letter and had problems in the past with actors who didn’t, most notably Gleason and Walter Matthau (his co-star in the original Broadway production of Neil Simon’s The Odd Couple). Carney was eventually won over by Tomlin’s professionalism and Benton’s encouragement to improvise along with her.

The Late Show opens with a sepia-toned image of the 1940s version of Warner Brothers’ “shield” logo. Instead of Max Steiner’s familiar musical fanfare, however, we hear a nightclub audience applauding and a piano begins playing the first few notes of the movie’s theme song, a sultry torch number called “What Was,” composed by Wannberg with lyrics by Stephen Lerner, and sung by Bev Kelly.

But when the first shot fades in, the setting isn’t a nightclub; it’s Ira’s modest rented room (the song continues in the background). We see a typewriter on Ira’s desk (a piece of paper in the typewriter shows the first words of a manuscript: “NAKED GIRLS AND MACHINE GUNS, Memoirs of a real private detective by Ira Wells”) and, beside it, a framed photo of actress Martha Vickers (best known for her role as Carmen Sternwood in Howard Hawks’ 1946 adaptation of Chandler’s The Big Sleep). The camera then wanders around the room, taking in, among other things, old photos taped to a mirror (cleverly utilizing actual photos of Carney and Howard Duff in younger days) while the credits are superimposed over the shot. By the time the credits and the song are over, the camera settles behind Ira, sitting before his desk. Then a cut to a medium shot shows Ira perusing a newspaper, pencil in hand (obviously picking out his bets for his next visit to the track), while an old movie depicting a World War I dogfight blares on a portable black-and-white television set behind him.

There’s a knock on Ira’s door and, outside, Ira’s elderly landlady Mrs. Schmidt (Ruth Nelson, a founder of the Group Theatre) announces that he has a late-night visitor. Ira opens the door to reveal Mrs. Schmidt and his ex-partner, Harry Regan (Duff). Harry’s disheveled appearance automatically leads Ira to think he’s drunk (“They’re gonna have to put a night shift on Jack Daniel’s just to keep up with you.”), but when Harry opens his mouth to speak, the only thing that comes out is blood. Interrupting Mrs. Schmidt’s screams with an urgent plea to call for police and an ambulance, Ira leads Harry to his bed and sets him down. Prying away the raincoat that Harry’s clutching over his belly, it becomes immediately apparent by the bloodstain spreading across Harry’s shirt that he’s dying from a gunshot wound.

Harry: “It’s not as bad as the time in San Diego… Ira, got a deal for us…”

Ira: “Harry, who did it?”

Harry: “It’s chance for us to make a lotta dough…”

Ira: “Harry, you’re dyin’. Who did it? How did it happen?”

Harry: “Don’t worry, Ira. I’m cuttin’ you in. Fair deal. Just don’t try to throw a scare inta me. I won’t work. I’ll lay it all out for you. Just get me to a hospital…”

Ira: “God damn you, Harry! Lettin’ someone just walk up to you and drill you like that, point blank. Nobody can palm a .45. Jesus Christ! You never had the brains God gave a common dog!” (sadly) “Sorry you’re goin’ off, pal. You were real good company. The best.”

Harry: (starts to respond, then breaths his last)

Ira: “The very best.” (sighs)

The day of Harry’s funeral, Ira bids farewell to the mourners, then starts to head out of the cemetery. He’s stopped by an old acquaintance, Charlie Hatter (Bill Macy), an oily promoter, talent agent, and part-time bartender who’s the epitome of a bottom-feeding weasel. He introduces Ira to Margo. She wants to hire Ira to find her cat, Winston, who’s been kidnapped by a thug named Brian to whom she owes $500. (“So pay him!” Ira says exasperatedly.) When Margo gets bent out of shape by Ira’s indifference and offers him all of $25 for the job, Ira keeps his temper in check, tells Charlie that he appreciates his presence at Harry’s funeral, and that he should teach his friend “to show a little respect for her elders.” Then he stalks off to head for the track, with Margo waving a photo of Winston at him and wailing sorrowfully, “This little kitty’s just a little honey bun! Give this little cat a break!”

Later that day, Ira confronts Charlie at the shoeshine stand in the seedy building his office is in. “How long has it been since I’ve last seen you, Charlie? Close to a year, isn’t it?” Ira asks, “Somebody puts the freeze on Harry Regan, next thing I know, you show up at Harry’s funeral with some dolly, a song-and-dance about a stolen cat, and all that hot comedy.” Charlie tells Ira that Harry was the first shamus Margo hired to find her cat.

Next stop: Margo’s apartment in La Paloma. “Harry Regan was a pal of mine, close to twenty-four years. Whoever it was that killed him’s gonna be goddam sorry,” Ira declares. (Ira’s quest to find his partner’s killer deliberately echoes Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon. The Late Show’s overtones of that uber-private eye saga don’t stop there.) Margo reveals that the catnapper’s full name is Brian Hemphill (“He’s this guy,” Margo says, “He’s really sort of a tuna.”), and that she used to “shlep” hot merchandise for Brian and his “partner” and wound up “borrowing” the last payment for said property. Ira sizes Margo up on the spot.

“Back in the 40s, this town was crawlin’ with dollies like you, good-lookin’ cokeheads, tryin’ their damndest to act tough as hell. I’ve got news for you: They did it better back then. This town doesn’t change. They just push the names around. Same dames, screwin’ up their lives, just the same way.”

Ira tells Margo that, the next time Brian calls, he wants her “to set up a meet,” and leaves it at that.

The “meet” goes disastrously. Charlie and Margo show up at Mrs. Schmidt’s house with bad news: Margo told Brian over the phone that Ira was “gunning for him,” and Brian is now on his way over, armed and dangerous. (“Brain’s not very evolved,” Margo explains, “In fact, he’s rather de-evolved.”) Ira immediately breaks out his old revolver and loads it. But, as Brian approaches the house, he’s confronted by another man, who shoots and kills him and takes off in a car. Ira goes outside to pursue the killer. He aims his gun at the fleeing car while turning down his hearing aid (a wonderful image). One of his shots punctures a rear tire, and the car crashes and bursts into flames, but the murderer still manages to escape on foot.

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While awaiting the arrival of the police, Ira demands Charlie to hand over “whatever you took off the stiff.” (“Jesus, kid, you always were the best,” Charlie says admiringly, then adds to Margo, “Didn’t I say he was the best?”) The “whatever” turns out to be a small leather folder containing rare stamps. Ira immediately puts two and two together.

Ira: “The Whiting job.”

Margo: “What? Who?”

Ira: “About ten days ago, somewhere out in the valley.”

Margo: “Whiting? Who is that?”

Ira: “That Whiting had a stamp collection worth almost fifty grand.”

Margo: “Who is that? Who’s Whiting?”

Ira: “There’s a murder one tied to it, right?”

Margo: “Okay, don’t tell me. What do I care?”

Ira: (patiently, as if explaining to a child) “Two guys broke into a house out in the valley. They tied up Whiting and his wife and started to lift the stamps. Then something must’ve gone wrong because they beat up Whiting and killed his wife.”

Margo: “Oh, how disgusting! I don’t want to hear any more.”

After Ira threatens to turn him over to the cops, Charlie comes clean: While looking for Margo’s cat, Harry stumbled onto info about Brian and his partner pulling the Whiting robbery, and he and Charlie planned to turn them in and split the fifteen thousand dollar reward the insurance company was offering for the stamps. Obviously, someone involved with the crime found out what Harry was up to, so exit Harry.

From there, the trail leads Ira to Ronnie Birdwell (Eugene Roche), a slimy, porcine wheeler-dealer in stolen merchandise and black market goods whose descriptions of the hot products he fences sound like he memorized them from the Sears catalogue, and Birdwell’s sadistic but fastidious strong arm goon Lamar (John Considine). (In his Trailers From Hell commentary on The Late Show, screenwriter Josh Olson describes Lamar as “a gunsel in every sense of the word; look it up.”) Birdwell also has a faithless, promiscuous wife, Laura (Joanna Cassidy), who is obviously this film noir’s obligatory femme fatale.

As Ira’s investigation progresses, the dead bodies continue to pile up, (one corpse is discovered inside a refrigerator), and the intrigues and double-crosses he uncovers multiply. (On a positive note, Winston is recovered, alive and unharmed, but Margo is convinced that he’s been traumatized by his temporary stay with murderers.) All the while, the initial animosity between Ira and Margo develops into a genuine friendship based on their mutual admiration for each other’s ingenuity. They bond even closer after successfully eluding a couple of thugs who were pursuing them in a high-speed car chase.

Margo: “Ira, I feel so high. Just so incredibly high, I can’t even tell you. I feel like I’ve dropped acid, I mean, have you ever dropped acid?”

Ira: “Well, not in the last ten minutes.”

Margo: “You know, I get this feeling, I mean, do you know, can you see anything about me that’s different, I mean, like my expression, can you see a different kind of expression on my face?”

Ira: (deadpan) “You look higher.”

Margo: “I look high? Do I, right now? Well, I am high. I’m telling you, I am high.”

On a roll, Margo proposes getting herself a private investigator’s license so that she and Ira can go into business together.

Margo: “I feel like The Thin Man.”

Ira: “Who?”

Margo: “You know, Phyllis Kirk and Peter Lawford.” [2]

It seems that the apartment next to Margo’s is vacant, so she thinks that they can make it the office for their new detective agency. But, ever the loner, Ira shoots the idea down, and, in the film’s most poignant moment, Margo tries to hide her disappointment while struggling to keep from breaking down.

For the climactic scene, all of the suspects wind up in Margo’s apartment. (In the movie’s most stylish visual touch, the camera does a 360° turn around the apartment, starting with the open front door while the building’s ancient elevator is heard beginning its ascent, panning past the faces of those gathered there as they await Ira and Mrs. Birdwell’s arrival, and coming full circle with the elevator noise ceasing and Ira and Laura walking in through the door.) Per mystery movie tradition, Ira details all of the evidence and explains who did what to who, resulting in the guilty parties either ending up behind bars or joining Harry in the cemetery.

As for what happens to Ira and Margo afterwards, that question would’ve been answered in Benton’s proposed sequel (to be titled, of course, The Late Late Show), in which Ira moved into the vacant apartment next to Margo’s and they opened that detective agency she dreamt of. Certainly, the uniformly positive reviews The Late Show received (with raves from Pauline Kael, Roger Ebert, and Vincent Canby, among others) would seem to have justified continuing Ira and Margo’s adventures. But, unfortunately, Warner Bros. only half-heartedly promoted the film, and The Late Show quickly faded into undeserved obscurity. (According to Olson, there were only two other people in the theater when he saw in on its opening Friday night in Philadelphia.)

In 2004, Warner Home Video issued a bare bones single-disc DVD release of The Late Show, the only extras being the theatrical trailer and a brief 1977 television clip of Tomlin plugging the movie on Dinah Shore’s afternoon talk show Dinah! while surrounded by that day’s other guests, the Doobie Brothers. (The only real value of this clip is to serve as a reminder of how dead on the money the satirical series SCTV was when it skewered TV talk show banalities.) In reviews of the DVD, there have been some complaints of the print looking “grainy” and the colors being rather faded, but having seen The Late Show about half a dozen times in the theater during its first release, I can assure you that the movie has always looked like that. (In fact, graininess and muted colors were practically among Altman’s trademarks in his own films, so it’s safe to assume that these aspects of the film were deliberate.)



 

[1] Michael Seth Starr, Art Carney (Applause Theatre & Cinema Books: 2002)

[2] A reference to The Thin Man television series that ran for two seasons on NBC, starting in the fall of 1957, and later went into syndication. Margo was, after all, a child of the 50s.