Tag Archives: Museum of Modern Art

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The Upper Crust (1981): Frank Gorshin Gives the Performance of His Career in a Forgotten Austrian Thriller

Imagine an unassuming policier directed by Rainer Werner Fassbinder and that will give you some idea of the atmosphere of Peter Patzak’s The Upper Crust (Den Tüchtigen gehört die Welt; literally, The Brave Own the World, 1981), an impressive and unjustly forgotten bilingual crime film. Although it appears never to have opened commercially in the United States, The Upper Crust screened in a retrospective of Austrian films at the now-defunct Carnegie Hall Cinema in May 1982, and returned to New York earlier this month as part of the Museum of Modern Art’s “Vienna Unveiled” series.

Very much a product of the post-1968 hangover era, in which thoughts of revolution gave way to dispirited cynicism, The Upper Crust concerns a murky political conspiracy in which a trio of well-connected government officials (Ernst Konarek, Bibiane Zeller, and Fred Schaffer) turn to murder to suppress a potentially ruinous scandal. Although it’s not entirely clear (at least via the English subtitles) what kind of corporate crimes these starched-collar villains are up to, they are also connected to a prostitution ring via their pimp-enforcer Kralicek (Pavel Landovsky). When a small-time con man, Haumer (Lukas Resatarits), learns that Kralicek got his teenaged girl addicted to heroin and turned her out, he puts his unorthodox professional skills to work in a scheme to exact revenge on the whole group. Not wishing to sully their own hands, the trio send away to America for a mob-connected hit man to dispatch Haumer.

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Although it isn’t quite their equal, Patzak’s film more closely resembles the political thrillers of Costa-Gavras or Wim Wenders’s The American Friend than the exuberant, violent Italian poliziotteschi that remain the most-exported Eurocrime genre of the period. Patzak’s palette is all muted browns and grays, and The Upper Crust takes place in an overcast, rain-soaked Vienna of modern metal buildings and post-industrial blandnessa far cry from Johann Strauss’s Austria. The look of the film is of a piece with the central performance by Franz Buchrieser, who plays the police detective assigned to the case with a thick mustache and a shrug. Smarter than his superiors, Major Kottan is also burned-out and all too aware that bureaucracy will derail any meaningful police work, especially as he follows the misdeeds up the chain to the “upper crust.”  Kottan’s portly partner (Walter Davy, a World War II amputee) has only one leg—an inspired visual metaphor for the ineffectuality of the police.

The Upper Crust was a spin-off of an acclaimed Austrian television series, Kottan ermittelt, which depicted police corruption and incompetence with a darkly humorous tone. The main character’s name is itself a gag, a pun on the Jerry Cotton series of films, and in The Upper Crust Buchrieser glares balefully at a couple of suspects who bust out the George Nader jokes. The show is unknown in the United States but sounds a lot like Hill Street Blues, which Kottan predates by five years.

The chief element that distinguishes The Upper Crust from Kottan ermittelt is also the factor that should make the film ripe for an English-friendly home video release: the addition of American locations and actors to the mix. Patzak connected with Bay Area producer Richard Chase’s Baytide Films, in what Variety surmised was “the first true U.S.-Austrian co-production since World War II,” in order to shoot a prologue in some grungy San Francisco locations during the winter of 1980-81. (Primarily a director-producer of television commercials, Chase also worked as a journalist and a Dallas-based restaurateur before his early death at 46, in 1992.) Chase also recommended an American actor to play the villain: Frank Gorshin.

Best remembered as Batman’s The Riddler, Gorshin made most of his living as an impressionist and a nightclub entertainer. His career in front of the camera had sputtered after Batman; there were guest shots on crime shows like Ironside and Charlie’s Angels, but nothing more substantial, and Chase thought of him after reading one of many interviews in which Gorshin complained about the dearth of film roles on offer. The American non-release of The Upper Crust meant that nothing much changed for Gorshin -  while promoting the film’s sole appearance in New York City, Gorshin noted that he was about to get killed off after four months on the daytime soap Edge of Night. It’s a bit of a tragedy, because Gorshin gives a first-rate performance—maybe the best of his life—in The Upper Crust.

The prologue also features two other American actors: Broderick Crawford and stand-up comic Joey Forman, both of whom died not long after the film was made. Forman and Gorshin take Crawford to a sparsely-attended high school basketball game, buy him a couple of beers there, and then kill him during the drive back. They’re all connected to the mob, but Crawford’s character had been talking to the cops. As they leave the body in the passenger seat of a jeep parked under a freeway overpass, Gorshin puts the gun in Crawford’s hand.  Forman jokes that a shot to the back of the head is not a very convincing suicide. Gorshin says that’s the most popular way to do it in Germany, then strains a muscle reaching around behind his neck to demonstrate. “Ow!” he exclaims with a sheepish grin, and . . . cut to the opening credits.

The banal nature of this murder—a high school basketball game?!—sets the tone for Gorshin’s character, Harry Werner, who loves to gamble online at casinodames.com/live-casino.  He’s as at ease in his work as any paper-pusher who’s been working in the same cubicle for twenty years. Patzak shows him assembling his rifle (and adjusting a loose screw on the sight, which later seems to work itself loose every time he uses it; a nice detail), but spends just as much screen time on Harry’s progress in acquiring a rental car. Any macho posturing or moral agonizing would be out of place within this sketch of pragmatic evil. Gorshin gets that; he plays Harry with total nonchalance, his worn face usually devoid of expression but still captivatingly pregnant with uncertain intent. Every hired killer has to be a sociopath, one imagines, but Gorshin lifts the veil for only an occasional flash of menace. Near the end of the film, on the run from the cops and holed up in a lonely woman’s apartment, Harry kidnaps (catnaps?) his hostage’s beloved feline for leverage.  The woman picks up a pan, then hesitates. Gorshin never looks at her; he’s busy stroking the cat.  “What do you think?” Harry coos, addressing the pet. “Is she going to hit me with that pan?” It’s a satisfying irony that Gorshin, who became famous for mimicking a certain type of savagely ferocious actor (Richard Widmark, James Cagney, Kirk Douglas, Burt Lancaster) should understand that he could be even more mesmerizing by channelling the somnolence of Robert Mitchum.

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Gorshin’s only Riddler-esque indulgences in The Upper Crust are an occasional Nicholsonesque grin and the battered fisherman’s hat he keeps pushing down over his eyes. Both attract more attention than Harry might be expected to want, but it’s okay—they remind us that The Upper Crust is first and foremost a star turn. The film’s major flaw is its pulpy, at times nonsensical plotting, and the toughest part to swallow is Harry’s decision to stick around after the job is done—foolish behavior for a experienced lawbreaker. It’s as if Patzak couldn’t bear to let go of Gorshin, even at the expense of his story. Ultimately Harry sticks around until the end, becoming not so much the villain as a twinned, flawed protagonist, equal in stature and screen time to Buchrieser’s Kottan. The Upper Crust is Gorshin’s movie all the way. Every underutilized character actor should have one like it.

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.