2015 in review

So another year is almost done and dusted, always a good opportunity to say thanks to all those who have stopped by and made the blogging experience a pleasure. Here’s to 2016.

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2015 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

The concert hall at the Sydney Opera House holds 2,700 people. This blog was viewed about 42,000 times in 2015. If it were a concert at Sydney Opera House, it would take about 16 sold-out performances for that many people to see it.

Click here to see the complete report.

Backfire

All right. What’s certain? Two things… death and taxes…

There aren’t too many films noir set in and around the holiday season, Christmas Holiday and Lady in the Lake probably being the best known, as it’s clearly more marketable to focus on the upbeat and cheerful rather than the dark or cynical side of life. Backfire (1950) isn’t strictly speaking a seasonal noir but a number of its key events do play out over the festive period. As such, I thought it would be an appropriate choice for what ought to be my last full review piece for this year.

It’s November of 1948, the war’s been over a few years now but the scars haven’t fully healed. In a veterans hospital in California Bob Corey (Gordon MacRae) is still recuperating from his wounds, a serious back injury which has required thirteen operations. Still, he’s on the road to recovery and has hopes of going into the ranching business with his old army pal Steve Connelly (Edmond O’Brien), and also of marrying the nurse, Julie Benson (Virginia Mayo), who’s tended him. The holidays are rapidly approaching and Bob is growing anxious that his buddy hasn’t been around of late. Then, late on Christmas Eve as his medication is just kicking in, he has a visit from an unknown woman, a foreigner whom none of the hospital staff can subsequently recall seeing. As he lies in a narcotic haze, she tells him that Steve is in serious trouble, laid up with a shattered spine and desperately in need of help. What’s a guy to do when he learns his best buddy is in such dire straits? As soon as his discharge comes through in the New Year, he resolves to track down the mystery woman and, by extension, Steve. In the world of noir nothing’s quite that simple though, and he finds himself picked up by a squad car upon leaving the hospital. Ferried to the homicide department, our bewildered hero fears the worst, but instead discovers that Steve is top of the police wanted list for the murder of a prominent gambler. And so begins a twisting quest for the truth which dips in and out of the past, a winding path that’s driven by gambling and jealousy, and has death as its final stop.

The problems faced by returning veterans, particularly the difficulty of establishing one’s place back in civilized society, was a recurring theme (perhaps one of the most prominent in truth) in film noir and was arguably the factor which gave greatest momentum to the post-war boom in that genre. Backfire comes at this on three fronts, focusing on the physical, social and psychological barriers to be overcome. While the latter aspect is the one which acts as the catalyst for the violence and tragedy in the plot, its causes are hinted at rather than fully explored – although it does at least make an effort to acknowledge the matter and avoids going down the road that led to such an unsatisfactory conclusion to The Blue Dahlia a few years before. Speaking of which, I have a hunch the coda of the movie here was tacked on as a softening touch – I hasten to add I have no evidence to suggest this is so beyond a feeling that the fade out preceding it may have been deemed a bit too much of a downer.

Vincent Sherman was one of those studio directors who made mainly professional if not wholly memorable pictures. Generally, I’d say I enjoy his work well enough  – Lone Star was quite disappointing but I think Nora Prentiss, The Garment Jungle, The Unfaithful and The Damned Don’t Cry all have worth. The plot does become pretty complicated as it goes along but Sherman uses the flashbacks intelligently and keeps the pace up. There’s some good use of the Los Angeles locations and Carl Guthrie lights the interiors nicely to create the requisite atmosphere.

The poster art is a little misleading, although understandably so in the wake of White Heat. It gives the impression that Virginia Mayo is playing the kind of vampish femme fatale so beloved of noir. The fact is, however, that she’s cast as that other staple of the form, the Girl Friday who lends support to the hero. She’s fine in this role and I think it’s a pity she didn’t get to feature a bit more. Gordon MacRae is the everyman figure who leads us through the complexities – he was primarily a musical star and seems an odd choice at first for this type of film but actually works out OK as the innocent cast into a world which is clearly alien to him. Edmond O’Brien, on the other hand, was very much at home in film noir and does great work (tough, weary but fundamentally decent) in his flashback scenes. While the presence of a femme fatale  – and that doesn’t have to be a “bad girl”, just one whose sexuality leads men into danger – isn’t always necessary, it never hurts either. Viveca Lindfors fits the bill in Backfire, positively smouldering at times and always convincing as a woman unconsciously capable of tempting men to risk it all for. Dane Clark was always busy as an actor but never seemed to really make it as a star; he was excellent in Borzage’s Moonrise and I thought he did well in a number of crime/noir films he made in Britain. His role here is a vital one and he handled it very capably in my opinion. Notable support is provided by the always reliable Ed Begley and John Dehner pops up in an uncredited bit part.

A Warner Brothers production, Backfire is available on DVD as part of that studio’s Film Noir Classics Collection Vol. 5. It’s paired up on disc with Deadline at Dawn and looks good throughout. The transfer is mostly clean with very little damage visible and a nice level of detail. There are no extra features offered. Although this isn’t one of the better known films noir it’s a solid movie with some good performances. The script maybe tries to be a tad too clever at times and I did notice one plot hole which irritated me somewhat (I won’t go into it here as I don’t want to get into spoiler territory) but it remains enjoyable overall. A reasonably entertaining thriller then with a tangential connection to the holidays.

City of Bad Men

A lot of you all rode into this town, but you are the only one who saw anything. You noticed the change. The others don’t look past the end of their guns. You saw the handwriting on the wall. They don’t even see the wall because their backs are against it. Their days are over. They don’t know it.

Sometimes I like to open with a quote that in some way sums up the tone, mood or message of a given movie. In this case, those lines above represent more of what I feel the film could have been as opposed to what we actually end up with. City of Bad Men (1953) is a title which left me feeling not entirely satisfied when I first saw it and so I thought I’d give it another go to see if my reaction would be any different this time. The answer is a kind of yes and no: yes in that I enjoyed it all a little more, but I still came away with that nagging sense of having seen an opportunity missed, or at least not fully grasped.

On St Patrick’s Day 1897 in Carson City, Nevada, a fight for the world heavyweight championship (actual footage of the bout can be viewed on YouTube) took place between Bob Fitzsimmons and “Gentleman” Jim Corbett. This event forms the backdrop to and also constitutes a major plot element of the film. Returning from an unsuccessful trip south of the border as soldiers of fortune is a group of weary men led by Brett Stanton (Dale Robertson). With little of worth to show for their time and effort, they are heading for Carson City with the hope of knocking over the bank in what they believe to be a perennially sleepy town. However, the town they ride into has undergone a transformation, partly due to the changing nature of the times but also as a result of the upcoming prize-fight. Yes, civilization and the trappings of the modern age – the motor car and luxuries like the shower – are slowly creeping westward. While his men gaze upon these alien sights with a kind of detached bemusement, Stanton’s calm features mask the fact that the seeds of an opportunistic plan have been sown in his mind. Crowds like this mean money – money which can be made or stolen. Yet Stanton isn’t the only one to entertain such thoughts; other gangs of unscrupulous men, most notably those led by Johnny Ringo (Richard Boone), have been drawn by the prospect of easy pickings. The local lawmen realize the volatility of such a situation and hit on the novel idea of appealing to the mutual suspicion of these various desperadoes and convincing them that the best way to keep the peace (and thus protect their own mercenary interests) is by keeping an eye on each other. Stanton is smart enough to see the advantages of such an arrangement, but he’s also aware of the complications and obstacles ahead of him: the need to come up with a viable plan to pull off a spectacular heist, the latent jealousy of his brother Gar (Lloyd Bridges), and the feelings he still nurses for the girl (Jeanne Crain) left all those years ago.

As I see it, there are four major themes at play in the movie – the noir-tinged heist plot, the classic idea of changing times, the sibling rivalry, and the notion of redemption earned through love. Lots of material to chew over yet only one, the heist aspect, is realized fully and successfully. The fact the script allows this to develop naturally and then the way Harmon Jones directs its execution, cutting between the fight, the collection of the takings and the way the money is subsequently lifted, is a fluid and assured piece of filmmaking. It makes for a fitting climax to the picture, but also highlights the deficiencies in the handling of the other facets. The early scenes give the impression that the “men out of time” part will be of greater importance, but it’s something the film only pays lip service to in reality. Similarly, the tension between Brett and Gar is never fully explored and its resolution feels rushed in the end. As for redemption, which ought to form the centerpiece of a western of this era, I was left feeling that it’s achieved a touch too easily, and the means by which it’s linked to Brett’s reconciliation with his old flame is weakened by its abruptness. I guess what I’m trying to say here is that the film has a strong foundation with a number of rich veins running through it, only few of which are mined and even then not to their full extent.

When called upon to do so, Dale Robertson was good at conveying cold intensity but that wasn’t really a requirement in this role. He displays the necessary toughness to hold the whip hand over his own bunch of ne’er do wells and to keep his rivals in check. Essentially though, the part of Brett Stanton is all about calmness, a kind of melancholy thoughtfulness. His air of regret and his flexible morality tie in with, and feel like an extension of sorts of, the type of disillusioned veterans so common in film noir, bewildered by and isolated from the new world they find themselves confronted with. For me, Robertson’s quietness and restraint is one of the major strengths of the picture. Ranged against that is the restlessness and impatience of Lloyd Bridges and, more significantly, the rattlesnake charm of Richard Boone. If anything, Boone is underused in the movie, lighting up the screen every time he appears while leaving you disappointed he’s not there more. Which brings us to Jeanne Crain – her character is a vital one through the effect she has on Robertson, but the script doesn’t treat her well. She’s placed in a conflicted position that’s loaded with dramatic possibilities yet her character arc isn’t wholly convincing and the resolution, which forms the core the film’s resolution in itself, is just a little too convenient for my liking. In support, we have Carole Mathews, Rodolfo Acosta, James Best, Leo Gordon, John Doucette and, in blink and you’ll miss them parts, Frank Ferguson and Percy Helton.

City of Bad Men is a 20th Century Fox production and was released on DVD in Spain some years ago by Impulso, licensing the title from Fox. That disc offers a passable transfer which is clearly unrestored. There are a number of instances of print damage and the colors tend to look faded throughout. Having said that, it’s perfectly watchable – there was subsequently a US release by Fox itself, but I have no idea how that transfer compares. The Spanish DVD offers the original English soundtrack along with a Spanish dub and optional Spanish subtitles. Of the Harmon Jones westerns I’ve seen, I’d say this is probably the least of them. I’d certainly rank it below his other two with Robertson, The Silver Whip and A Day of Fury. All told, there are some positive points and the film remains briskly enjoyable. Nevertheless, I can’t shake that feeling that it had more to offer than it ultimately delivered. In the final analysis, a medium effort.

Two Weeks in Another Town

Introspection can be both self-indulgent and revealing, turning the gaze inward in search of some truth that seems elusive in the outside world can bring rewards, perhaps most notably for those whose business it is to present a facade for public consumption. It shouldn’t be all that surprising then that Hollywood, where dreams and illusion are daily spun from the dancing lights of the projector, periodically turns the cameras around to focus on itself. There’s something almost perverse about the industry’s need to pick away at its own glamorous veneer, as though it were prodding us in the ribs and daring us to confront the artifice at its heart. Two Weeks in Another Town (1962) was Vincente Minnelli’s second bite at the hand which fed him, following the previous decade’s The Bad and the Beautiful.

Jack Andrus (Kirk Douglas) is a movie star, one of that glittering breed idolized and worshiped by so many. Although it’s perhaps more accurate to say the Jack Andrus we see at the beginning was a movie star, a subdued figure strolling ineffectually round the grounds of the psychiatric clinic where he’s staying. The scar on his face, a memento of the events that led him to his current abode, has healed. However, it’s as nothing compared to the raw wounds he still carries around inside. His doctor says he feels Andrus is fit to leave, not necessarily cured but able to leave all the same. And there’s a hint of hope for the future too, a cable from his old director asking him to fly out to Rome for a small part in his latest production. But we’re talking about the movies here, where nothing and nobody can be taken at face value, and the truth is that Andrus is essentially washed up. The director, Maurice Kruger (Edward G Robinson), doesn’t really have any intention of using him on screen. Basically, it’s a ploy, partly as a kind of sop for Kruger’s guilt over his involvement in Andrus’ breakdown. If our star has hit bottom, then the once great director is headed in the same direction, although his decline is slightly more graceful and a little less dramatic. The picture represents something of a last bid for glory for Kruger, and it’s in danger of being derailed by the ruthlessness of his hard-headed Cinecittà producer. Standing between him and the prospect of failure and humiliation is Andrus, the man he first built up and then destroyed. So what does he do? He tosses this one-time star a few crumbs from his table, hoping that the hunger of a starving man will prove his salvation. To Andrus, the vital but seemingly demeaning task of supervising the post-production dubbing is like a slap in the face initially. Still, the lure of the movie business, and maybe more importantly, the chance to prove himself capable of doing anything of worth again is strong. And then there’s the figure of Carlotta (Cyd Charisse), the woman he tried to love and lost his mind over. She flits in and out of proceedings, simultaneously taunting Andrus with reminders of what he’s lost and holding out the promise of new adventures ahead. What it all boils down to is a two-week sojourn in a town where he may either drown in the heady atmosphere or, if he can see through the showbiz smokescreen, have the chance to regain the mastery of his soul once again.

While I still think Two Weeks in Another Town is a very good film, it could potentially have been a great one. Charles Schnee wrote the script from a novel by Irwin Shaw, and the score was provided by the great David Raksin. With Milton Krasner shooting Minnelli’s beautiful nighttime setups just about all the ingredients were in place for a stone cold classic. But then, and ironically mirrored by the plot itself, came the interference from the studio. In his autobiography (The Ragman’s Son, Pan Books 1989,  pp 342-344), Douglas claims the movie was recut and edited when Joseph Vogel became the new head of MGM, stripping out some of the racier and more dramatically satisfying elements. I think that much can be seen in the somewhat sketchy development of a few of the characters. What we’re left with is the core of the story, of a man desperately seeking personal and spiritual redemption and the peace that comes with it. In addition, there’s the unmistakable stamp of Minnelli, the careful framing of whose shots create the kind of tableaux that approach visual poetry on occasion. It would be remiss of me not to mention his masterful use of color – the whole film is drenched in the deep, saturated hues which often characterize his work. Perhaps he falls short of achieving the dramatic and visual intensity of his sublime Some Came Running, but there are moments when he gets within striking distance at least.

Kirk Douglas was making his third appearance in a Minnelli production and he’s well cast in a role that calls for the type of mood swings which range from ebullience through manic intensity by way of brooding melancholy.  While the focal point of the story is on Andrus’ journey of self rediscovery, and the necessary laying to rest of old phantoms along the way, there’s room too for some interesting observations and musings on the nature of the actor, that wearer of masks. A wistful, early morning conversation with a besotted Daliah Lavi sees Douglas reflecting on the contradictory nature of the actor, the retreat from reality and submergence of the self in the character of others which actually runs counter to the overwhelming desire to better understand one’s own sense of being. Ultimately, it’s the reconciliation of these seemingly incompatible urges which lies at the heart of his character’s motivation.

Robinson’s aging director is also notable, both in itself and as a commentary on the corrosiveness of the movie-making business. The essential insecurity of the man is demonstrated though the need to reaffirm himself through his notorious affairs with leading ladies  – which has had such an adverse effect on his relationship with his wife, an exceptionally acidic Claire Trevor – and also his desperation to prove once again his worth as an artist. It’s his fear of losing control, both personally and creatively, which drives him and finally twists his soul towards bitterness and distrust. The person who links (and divides) Douglas and Robinson is Carlotta as played by Cyd Charisse. Apparently a good deal of her part ended up on the cutting room floor, which is a shame as she is very good based on what we do see of her. Whether it was intentional or not from the outset, she comes across as a blend of the enigmatic and the alluring, leaving a trail of emotional devastation in her wake while attempting to seduce her former lover back onto the same self-destructive path. The contrast comes in the form of Daliah Lavi’s Roman ingenue (demurely clad in simple and pure white throughout as opposed to the arch and lurid costumes of Charisse) whose understated charm and innocence helps restore Andrus’ perspective. I was less impressed by George Hamilton’s troubled young star, never feeling all that convinced by the struggle he’s supposed to be waging against his personal demons. In support, there are small parts (virtual cameos in truth) for George Macready and James Gregory.

Two Weeks in Another Town is available on DVD as part of the Warner Archive in the US and there’s also an Italian release available. I have that Italian disc and it presents the film in the correct anamorphic scope ratio. The transfer is good, clean one with no notable instances of damage. Colors are generally well reproduced, something very important in a film such as this, and the image is pleasing overall. The disc offers the original English soundtrack and an Italian dub, and there are no subtitle options of any kind. As for extras, there’s the theatrical trailer and some galleries. Frankly, I like this movie, but films about films always interest me anyway, and I feel it’s a great pity that parts of it were excised at the behest of the studio boss at the time. Nevertheless, the movie that we have available to view, in spite of its imperfections, is never less than fascinating for the peek behind the facade of filmmaking it affords us and also the central story of a man battling to come to terms with himself and the choices he’s made in life. I recommend it.

Kirk Douglas reaches the grand age of 99 today and I thought I’d take the opportunity to post this piece on that occasion to draw attention not only to this great actor’s birthday but also to just one of the countless strong performances he’s delivered over a long career.

The Crooked Way in HD

I really like The Crooked Way, a frequently overlooked film noir, and wrote about it here back at the beginning of the year. The new Blu-ray (also available on DVD) has just been reviewed by DVD Beaver so I thought I’d take the opportunity to remind people of this classy little movie which may, hopefully, enjoy a higher profile with this new release.