Saturday, April 09, 2005

Papal funeral, royal wedding. Where exactly does 'the news' want us to believe history resides, and which century is this?



A Lacanian would have a field day, if one hasn't already, with Hollow Triumph (1948, aka The Scar aka The Man Who Murdered Himself). Paul Henried (who also produced, just a couple years after Casablanca and Now, Voyager) as a sociopathic ex-con who, we learn from his parole board, at one point "practiced psychotherapy" w/o a license. On leaving prison, immediately plans large heist against an illegal casino, run by a gangster with a particularly strong reputation for hunting down those who cross him. In hiding, accidentally discovers that he has a dead ringer (also played by Henreid), who, fortune would have it, is also an analyst. Only difference, doc has a prominent scar on one side of his face. Gets involved w/ doc's secretary (Joan Bennett, always watchable but basically a foil here), who's probably also involved with the doc. On discovering that crook knows something about psychotherapy, quizzes him: "What's scopophilia?" Crook procures photo of doc, scars self, kidnaps-kills-replaces doc, not before realizing to his horror that the photo was printed from a reversed negative; thus, he's a literal mirror image of his victim. Brazens out the plan nonetheless, correctly surmising that everyone around him (patients, and even Bennett) will be too self-absorbed to notice the change. Is forced to reveal self to Bennett, she's horrifed at first but agrees to meet him on the boat to Honolulu -- "tonight," you know the sort of thing. As he's on the way to the boat, notices he's being followed by thugs, thinks they're the henchmen of the gangster he's been hiding from, but no, they want the doc, for his mounting gambling debts. Tries to tell them they've got the wrong guy, points out that the scar's in the wrong place, thugs don't buy it, shoot him at the dock, last shot is of crowds ignoring (i.e. not recognizing) his corpse. Fairly self-conscious piece of film-making, no surprise that an Austro-Hungarian emigre director, Steve Sekely (nee Istvan Szekely), is behind this, along w/ the great smoke-and-mirrors noir cinematographer John Alton. Best scenes: In front of mirror holding doc's photo up to his face, then we go a shot of the bureau and watch his cigarette burn down, scarring the wood, while he works on himself off-screen. And a character bit with a shrimpy garage mechanic who gives a stilted, no-one-would-ever-say-this monologue about wanting to be a ballroom dancer. Oh yeah, good action sequence on the now-defunct Angel's Flight tram in downtown L.A..


Scandal Sheet (1952): Directed in a no-nonsense manner by Phil Karlson, but more interesting for being an adaption of Sam Fuller's first novel The Dark Page, based on his crime-reporter days. (Festival programmer Eddie Muller's introduction pointed out that the book is alluded to in Fuller's The Big Red One.) Visually, a programmer, but a nice noose-tightening plot: Unscrupulous (and sweaty) editor Broderick Crawford kills woman he left but didn't bother to divorce 30 years ago, then allows protege/star reporter (and stunning beauty) John Derek to follow the lurid story, as he (Crawford) will get a bonus from the publisher's if circulation tops 700,000. Gets caught eventually, but not before a number of difficult-to-swallow coincidences involving pawn tickets and Connecticut judges. Greed, disillusionment, w/ crisp, prim Donna Reed as the voice of inegrity; good use of gormless Bowery-bum types.


The Web (1947), more greed, this time on the part of "industrialist" Vincent Price, who's hired "brash young attorney" Edmond O'Brien as a bodyguard -- first night he's on the job, he has to shoot, in self-defence, a former employee who's been "threatening" Price. This is all a set-up, of course; you don't need the details. Price, in fact, kills, has killed, or tries to kill just about every other character in the movie at some juncture. Interesting cast: The employee offed early on is Fritz Leiber, the father of the science fiction author, familiar to me from Humoreseque; William Bendix doesn't play dumb for once as the police inspector; Ella Raines (best-known from Phantom Lady) as (another) secretary/love-interest, doing one of those Lizbeth Scott turns -- a woman involved in some sort of compromised (monetized?) alliance with the villan of the piece, but basically sort of good, maybe. A free agent, you can never tell exactly why this character chooses the man she chooses, but she's not, in the end, a spider-lady -- I suppose Rita Hayworth's Gilda is the most memorable realization of the type.

For a while in the middle, everyone's looking for a character named "Bruno" -- a crooked engraver described as having bottle-thick glasses, and an inferiority complex! At one point, O'Brien goes through the phone book calling Brunos: "Well, do you know a Bruno who might know a Bruno..." Unfortunately, I never got to see my namesake -- turns out he's been dead for five years.


Border Incident (1949), I can't do justice to briefly. This was Anthony Mann's first film after T-Men, and it's similarly structured -- establishing voice-overs, focus on the efforts of an undersung govt. agencies (here, both the U.S. and Mexican immigration authorities), plot driven by an undercover mission. For 70 pesos, nasty types take braceros too impatient to wait for legal work permits across the border, where they're underpaid by U.S. farmers, plus they're dropped into a canyon full of quicksand on the way back. (All this is framed in the movie as a terrible exception to the legal, fair, non-exploitative practices followed by the great majority of employers of immigrant labor.) I saw this about 13 hours ago, and I'm already fuzzy on just how the plot operates: Mexican cop Ricardo Montalban (solid, but strangely emotionless) poses as a bracero (he's almost given away by his "soft hands"), working in tandem with a U.S. agent, also undercover, who sells stolen official work permits to farmer/middleman-for-the-whole-scheme Howard da Silva (best performance in the movie). But then I get lost; in any case, there's no moral ambiguity to speak of, so on that count, it's more a plain action film than a noir. But, it's exciting and visually energetic -- after a couple of characters-in-rooms flicks like the two just above, you really notice what a high proportion of Mann's shots are inventively (even showily) framed. Alton's behind the lens again, so there are some impressive deep-focus effects -- big faces in the foreground while much smaller silhouetted figures scramble on the foothills in the background. Opening aerial shots of tidy farmland, moving to busier compositions when we get closer enough to see workers in the fields, contrast with the bulk of the film and the chaos (even sublimity) of brush and jagged rocks at ground level.

The film's ideology is transparently liberal-democratic (voice-overs that state outright that our safety and economic security depends on institutional vigilance hardly deserve the name 'ideology') , but interesting to pause over for a moment. The smugglers are stereotyped, of course (torilla shop as front for human traffic, though the head man seems to be a German expat), the braceros are 'simple folk,' and Montalban is just 'noble.' But, it's notable that the voice-overs frame the problem as one of human suffering, with the illegal workers understood as exploited rather than blameworthy -- nothing in here about 'taking away jobs' that I could discern. And, the 'boss' (Da Silva) very much gets it in the end, esp. when his henchmen force him, once things have gone wrong, to take care of the dirty work of leading he latest group of victims in the "Canyon of Death." You can see the character's sudden confusion at having to face these individuals as something other than economic units. But, of course, he gets it only because he's a dishonest capitalist. Earlier, Montalban half-way beings to 'organize' the workers he's among, explaining how little they're earning and how much is being taken out for food and so on. One guy tumbles, gets up to leave the farm: "I go where what is paid is right!" Montalban sits him down -- "No, we are here outside the law, so the law cannot protect us." (Cf. final shot of U.S. and Mexican flags flying in tandem.) That is, the depiction of injustices (even real ones) by the lights of the system assumes the justice of the system itself to be unquestionable. (I thought I could find the passage of Cohen's History, Labour, and Freedom that I'm paraphrasing, but no.)

Not exactly Phil Ochs, but not 'Minutemen' at the AZ border either. (I hope d. boon can appreciate the irony.)


Side Street (1950). More Mann, but less distinctive in being (1) clearly modeled on Dassin's The Naked City two years earlier -- NY location shooting, picking-one-story-out-of-2,000,000 narrative framing conceit, even a glamourous mystery woman drowned in the East River with attendant newsman chaos at her apartment -- and (2) an attempt to reteam Farley Granger and Cathy O'Donnell from They Live By Night. Innocent kid steals someone else's blackmail money in moment of weakness so wife won't have to have their child in a charity ward, ends up w/ most of NY's Finest hounding him (wrongly) for murder. By the final chase scene, the buildings are more interesting than the people. Granger gives good restless/anxious/in-over-his-head, w/ proto-Method technique; O'Donnell is a clearly limited performer, reminds me of a shriller Julie Harris. Not to be unkind, but I'm not surprised her career petered out after about a decade. (Though her imdb bio gives a different explanation.) Excellent nightclub singer turn 3/4 of the way in by the undersung Jean Hagen, not long before Singin' In The Rain typed her forever. Not much else to say about this one, except that the screenwriter seems to have been especially concerned with making sure we see Granger paying for various things (cabs, drinks, info from a tough funeral director's kid).


3 more tonight.

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