Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Movie Review: The Forbidden Photos of a Lady Above Suspicion

Stealing its title from Elio Petri's Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion, Luciano Ercoli's The Forbidden Photos of a Lady Above Suspicion (Le foto proibite di una signora per been) (1970) is a sleazy blend of blackmail, backstabbing, and business corruption, all centering around an entrepreneur in debt and his wife who has been compromised by some pornographic photos. Dripping with sleaze, vice, and style, The Forbidden Photos of a Lady Above Suspicion has just about everything one could want of a vintage giallo thriller. It's written by Enresto Gastaldi, the hardest working man in Italian cinema in the 1970s (Sartana the Gravedigger, Almost Human, Torso, The Grand Duel, Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I have the Key, All the Colors of the Dark, and countless others), and features music by perhaps the greatest film composer of all time, Ennio Morricone.

The movie available on DVD from Blue Underground (a triple bill that also includes The Fifth Cord and The Pyjama Girl Case). Here's the trailer. 

Friday, June 6, 2014

Movie Review: "The Lonely Man" (1957)

The Lonely Man is a great example of the psychological, adult-themed westerns of the 1950s. Overlooked in comparison to the movies of Delmer Daves and Anthony Mann of the same period, this brooding chamber drama is well-deserving of rediscovery and re-appraisal. It explores a classic western theme—the gunfighter who wants to hang-up his guns but can’t because his past won’t leave him alone—but the film is just so artfully done, and the performances so deeply empathetic, that it breathes new life into the standard trope.

Jack Palance is the gunfighter looking to holster his guns and reconnect with his estranged son, played by Anthony Perkins. Perkins hasn’t forgiven his father for being who he is, and how his reputation caused the town to persecute her so much that she committed suicide. With his reputation still following him wherever he goes, Palance and Perkins are unwelcome in any town. When Perkins falls sick on the road, Palance takes him to a ranch belonging to an old flame. Meanwhile, Palance begins losing his eyesight, which proves to be a problem when an old acquaintance tracks him down. Outlaw Neville Brand has been nursing a grudge against Palance. He carries with him the same bullet that Palance once shot him with, and he plans to give the bullet right back to him.

Palance is one of my favorite actors. He’s best known for almost psychotically intense performances, such as the man in black in Shane, a monomaniacal producer in Contempt, the Apache revolutionary in Arrowhead, a nihilistic bomb diffuser in Ten Seconds to Hell, a ex-parson who turned his family into a Quantrill’s Raiders-esque gang in The Desperados, an actors caught in a web of personal and professional crises in The Big Knife, or—you know—Atilla the Hun in Sign of the Pagan. Here, though, Palance gives a very different sort of performance. He’s calm. The most extreme calm I’ve ever seen. Palance catches you off guard with his stillness and soft-spoken delivery of dialog. There’s something deeply sad about him that goes unspoken—not regret so much as acceptance of the harm he’s caused, the life he’s lead, and the things he can’t undo. The Lonely Man stands up there with Palance’s finest and most moving performances, and it shows off his tonal range and emotional depth in ways that other films do not.

Anthony Perkins made this film one year after his Academy Award-nominated performance as the conflicted Quaker in Friendly Persuasion, and it is three years before his brilliant and iconic role of Norman Bates in Psycho. Perkins was great at communicating internal conflict and emotional disturbance. There was something fragile about him—a little neurotic, a little melancholic, a little insecure, a little bit lonely. Here, he shows all the hallmarks of his individual style. There’s adolescent rebellion mixed with Oedipal revenge, but also a clinging need to be close to family, even if it is someone he hates.

In addition to strong performances from Palance and Perkins, The Lonely Man offers an excellent ensemble cast that also includes Neville Brand, Elisa Cook Jr., Claude Akins, Lee Van Cleef, and Denver Pyle, stark photography from Paramount’s in-house expert Lionel Lindon (The Manchurian Candidate), and subtle but deft direction from Henry Levin (The Desperados). A forgotten gem that deserves a higher place in the western canon.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Movie Review: "Desert Fury" (1947)

In the 1940s and early 1950s, Paramount released a string of stunning crime films, including This Gun For Hire, Double Indemnity, The Blue Dahlia, The Big Clock, The Asphalt Jungle, and Ace in the Hole. Desert Fury was released in 1947, right in the midst of this extraordinary run of movies. It’s got a cast that seems destined for greatness—Mary Astor, Burt Lancaster, Lizabeth Scott, Wendell Corey, and John Hodiak—and a script by A. I. Bezzerides (Kiss Me Deadly, On Dangerous Ground) and Robert Rossen (writer/director of All the King's Men and The Hustler), based on the novel Desert Town by Ramona Stewart. And the film’s director, Lewis Allen, had previously directed The Unseen with a script co-written by Raymond Chandler. On paper, at least, Desert Fury should be great. Should be—but isn’t. And while the resulting film is certainly no classic, it is certainly eccentric and bizarre enough to warrant cult appeal.

You could call Desert Fury a Technicolor modern-day western-noir-soap opera that is steeped in hardboiled gay camp. It's sort of like if James M. Cain and Douglas Sirk started off to Vegas but instead shacked up in some tumbleweed shithole along the way. Vulgar in its display of colors and emotions, all in all it’s a rather tastelessly directed movie—but that’s exactly what makes the film so irresistible and entrancing.

How’s this for a tangled web of perverse desires? Mary Astor runs a mining town saloon and casino. Her daughter, Lizabeth Scott, has quit school and returned home to live with her mom. At the same time, her mom’s ex-lover, gambler and crook John Hodiak, rolls into town with his loyal partner, Wendell Corey. Scott begins seeing Hodiak, ignorant of her beau’s former relationship with her mother. Meanwhile Scott’s ex-boyfriend, deputy sheriff Burt Lancaster, is trying to prove that Hodiak was responsible for his wife’s death several years ago. Add to this some extremely un-subtle hints of homoerotic bonds between Hodiak and Corey, and even strangely incestuous suggestions between Astor and Scott, and you’ve got all the kinky and corrupt elements of Desert Fury.

If this isn’t “soap noir,” I don’t know what is. It's all a mess of tangled flesh, like some sexual pretzel. It's nauseating keeping track of who's slept with who, who wants to sleep with who, and who wants who to sleep with who.

It’s gaudy and more than a little trashy, but there's not one frame that takes place in reality. It seems to inhabit some realm that is equal parts mythology and melodrama: a Hollywood cocktail of crime, camp, and corn.

But, in the midst of all this excess, a fascinating movie somehow emerges.

The colors are bursting with exaggeration, anticipating John Alton’s garish palette used for Slightly Scarlet nine years later in 1956. Not your usual stark black-and-white cinematography, or fog-shrouded sets.

Mary Astor delivers a complex performance that blends the entrepreneurial ambition and motherly devotion of Mildred Pierce with the devious subterfuge of a femme fatale (an archetype she defined in The Maltese Falcon). Astor deliciously delivers her lines with hardboiled panache: “You look good, baby, nice and fresh and alive—I like to see you dressed up” she says to her daughter. And then, a few scenes later, she can outpour emotion through a monolog like this: “You don't know anything about love … He's no good. Do you have any idea what I went through to bring you up? You think I like living here? You think I like Pat and the judge and drunken miners. After your father died and I found out I had something the matter with my lungs I didn't want to live, but I did, only because of you, because I wanted to give you something I didn't have, and it wasn't Eddie Bendix.”

Lancaster, as always, is terrific, even if the part doesn’t give him much room to show off. This is one year after his brilliant debut as Swede, the doomed boxer-turned-criminal in The Killers, and the same year as his powerful performance as a prisoner burning with rage in Brute Force. His role as the deputy in Desert Fury is pretty one-note and, compared to the rest of the cast, rather vanilla and tame. No sexual hang-ups, no burning desire, just a pretty normal guy looking to bust a crook and marry a pretty girl. But Lancaster has that star charisma—tough, sexy, rugged yet beautiful, appealing to both men and women.

John Hodiak had some good roles, including Alfred Hitchcock's Lifeboat, The Harvey Girls opposite Judy Garland, and Somewhere in the Night in which he played an amnesiac veteran convinced he committed a murder he doesn’t remember. Here, he’s fittingly sleazy and transparent—an homme fatale out to corrupt and destroy.

Wendell Corey gives the most surprising performance of all. Even though this is his first film, and he’s got the smallest of the leading roles, he dominates every shot he’s in. He exudes a quiet sense of danger, an intensity that’s not to be trusted. Best remembered for playing the police detective that saves the day in Rear Window, Corey also delivered an iconic noir performance in The File on Thelma Jordan, in which he played an assistant district attorney pulled into a web of deceit because of Barbara Stanwyck’s wicked ways.

All in all? Desert Fury isn’t great, and maybe not all that good, but it’s definitely one-of-a-kind. Fascinatingly tacky and tawdry.


Monday, June 2, 2014

Lists! Seven Lost Movies I Want To See

The Internet has made it seem like we have access to every movie … almost. 

Sure, Netflix, YouTube, Archive.org, and a bazillion other sites offer us a seemingly unlimited supply of movies. But still, there are a lot of movies one can't see (or order) online, and that's because they're lost. Or just playing a really, really, infuriatingly good game of hide-and-seek. And while more than 90% of silent films are gone, it's not just the pre-talkies that are missing from our screens today, as a number of more recent films are also AWOL. 

Here is a list of seven presumably lost movies that I'd love to see. I say "presumably" because, as sometimes happens, these movies are found in archives, closets, or antique stores.

The Life of General Villa (1914)

Shortly after arriving in Hollywood, 27-year-old Raoul Walsh (the future director of The Big Trail, High Sierra, White Heat, and umpteen other classics) was sent down to Mexico for his second film as a director. The assignment? Ride with Pancho Villa and his army, and film them on the front lines! To make this film a reality, Mutual Film Corporation had to pay Pancho Villa and guarantee him a percentage of the profits. 

Read more about the legend and reality behind The Life of General Villa here at the Smithsonian and Cine Silente Mexicano (in Spanish).

Remodeling Her Husband (1920) 

Remodeling Her Husband is the only film directed by legendary actress Lillian Gish. It was written by Dorothy Parker, and starred Lillian's sister, Dorothy Gish. The story is about a woman who is fed up with her husband's philandering ways, so she leaves him and reinvents herself as a prosperous Wall Street businesswoman. The legacy of women directors in Hollywood was kept hidden for decades, and over the past few years scholars have been resurrecting this incredible legacy. Many of the films, however, are lost, save for a few reviews, posters, and anecdotes found in trade publications, memoirs, and biographies.

The Drag Net (1928) 

In the late 1920s, Josef von Sternberg directed three seminal crime films that survive: Underworld (1927)  The Docks of New York (1928), and Thunderbolt (1929). The Drag Net, also made in 1928, is considered lost. Judging by the quality of his work in this era (Sternberg is among the most visually stylish in the history of cinema), this is a huge loss. The fact that the intertitles were written by Citizen Kane co-writer Herman J. Mankiewicz makes this even more desirable!

Check out how cool this one sounds. What an amazing cast (and such colorful character names).

George Bancroft as Two-Gun Nolan
Evelyn Brent as The Magpie
William Powell as Dapper Frank Trent
Francis McDonald as Sniper Dawson
Leslie Fenton as Shakespeare

“When he becomes convinced that he has accidentally killed his partner, Nolan goes on a bender. Actually, the crime was committed by one of gangster William Powell's henchman. Powell's moll Evelyn Brent takes a liking to Nolan; she tells him the truth, whereupon Nolan pulls himself together and goes after Powell all by himself.” (Description by Hal Erickson, Rovi)

Convention City (1933)

Check out this tagline: "Traveling Salesmen on the Make! Farmers' Daughters on the Jump! Jealous Wives on the Trail! Missing Husbands on the Pan! That's Convention City"

Convention City, if it survived, might just be the most Pre-Code of all Pre-Code films. It "leeringly depicted the sexual shenanigans of Atlantic City conventioneers and their frisky gold-digging hangers-on, with a cast that included Joan Blondell, Adolphe Menjou, and Dick Powell" (according to Film Forum's website).

Judging by the censor's comments, Convention City would have more than lived up to its reputation: "We must put brassieres on Joan Blondell and make her cover up her breasts because, otherwise, we are going to have these pictures stopped in a lot of places. I believe in showing their forms but, for Lord's sake, don't let those bulbs stick out."

Another potential gem lost to the dust of time.

Face of the Phantom (1960)

Here's a real lost curio for noir fans. Harry Whittington, King of the Paperbacks, himself financed and directed a movie called Face of the Phantom. Not much is known about the movie, what is was about, or what happened to it. As Whittington himself recollected, "I had contracted the movie virus in Hollywood. I returned to Florida, wrote, produced and directed – and could not sell to a distributor – a horror film called Face of the Phantom. For the next eight years I could not produce or sell enough scripts to stay ahead of howling creditors."

Big Daddy (1969) 

With a tagline like this, one can only imagine the sleazy exploitation goodness (or badness, depending on your viewpoint) that this might have been: "He had no virtue ... only vices ... and every woman in the swamp knew it!"

Big Daddy starred Victor Buono (The Strangler and The Mad Butcher) and Joan Blondell. It was directed and written by Carl K. Hittleman who had previously written Jesse James Meets Frankenstein’s Daughter and Billy the Kid vs. Dracula, and directed Kentucky Rifle, The Buckskin Lady, Gun Battle at Monterey, and Sheena: Queen of the Jungle. Considering those credits, this one might not be a masterpiece, but it probably would have been good, schlocky fun.

IMDB summary: "A visitor to the Everglades swamps in Florida encounters and falls in love with an uneducated girl. But he finds competition for her affections from the unlikely and mysterious A. Beauregard Lincoln. He also discovers danger from nature in the form of vicious alligators and from the mystical in the form of a voodoo witch doctor." 

Hangup aka Hang Up aka Super Dude (1974)

Henry Hathaway had one of the most extraordinary careers in Hollywood. Among the classics he directed are The Shepherd of the Hills, The House on 92nd Street, The Dark Corner, Kiss of Death, Call Northside 777, Fourteen Hours, Rawhide, Niagara, Garden of Evil, North to Alaska, The Sons of Katie Elder, Nevada Smith, and True Grit. This was his last film, a Blaxploitation action movie about an undercover cop going after drug dealers. You can read more about the movie here at Temple of Schlock. While the movie is still AWOL, the trailer managed to survive:

Next time you are cleaning your room, check to see if any of these films happen to be hiding under your bed or in your closet collecting dust.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Movie Review: "Terror Street" (1953)

Terror Street (1953) is one of many film noir thrillers made in England during the 1950s that imported Hollywood talent for leading roles. This one stars Dan Duryea, a great character actor whose wiry frame, off-balanced grin, nasally voice, and permanently sweaty hair made him the consummate “bad guy” in movies like Scarlet Street, Criss Cross, Too Late for Tears, and One Way Street. Even in westerns like Silver Lode and Winchester ’73 he was the bad guy. And in a western comedy like Along Came Jones—yup, the bad guy. Occasionally he got to play the good guy in a leading role—Black Angel and The Underworld Story are two examples. But whether good or bad, Duryea had an unmistakable and totally unique charisma. His was an effortless and totally convincing hardboiled attitude. Sarcasm and cynicism dripped off his every word. Unlike Robert Ryan, who was always boiling with intensity, Duryea was always cool, calm, and collected, which made him all the more threatening. Even when he played the good guy, he exuded a resolute composure that meant one thing: this guy means business.

Terror Street—or 36 Hours as it was called in England—was one of those movies that gave Duryea the opportunity to play the hero. Here he’s a US air force pilot who sneaks abroad a plane and goes AWOL to visit his wife in London. When he arrives, he waits in her apartment for her to come home. As soon as she walks in the door, however, someone strikes him on the back of the head and he blacks out. Waking up, he finds his wife dead and the gun in his hands. Now wanted for murder, Duryea must elude the police while piecing together his wife’s mysterious secret life in London that involves customs officers, smugglers, and blackmail.

The plot might seem routine, but in the hands of veteran pulpster and mystery novelist Steve Fisher (I Wake Up Screaming), the script becomes a well-oiled, fast-moving and expertly timed thriller. The small ensemble cast is excellent, but it is really Duryea’s performance that carries the movie. It’s nice to see him taking a turn as the wrong man (as opposed to the man who does wrong). But regardless of what side of the law he was on, Duryea was just a natural for crime movies.

Friday, May 30, 2014

"Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives: Stories from the Trailblazers of Domestic Suspense" by Sarah Weinman

To say it is long overdue is a criminal understatement — Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives: Stories from the Trailblazers of Domestic Suspense Paperback is simply one of the most significant anthologies of crime fiction, ever. Highlighting a vital lineage of writers who have largely been marginalized, trivialized as “cozy,” or just plain forgotten, editor Sarah Weinman reclaims an important yet neglected arena of noir fiction that she designates as “domestic suspense.” As the name suggests, these stories take place within the confines of the home, and while they don’t use the stereotypical noir setting of smoky bars and foggy back alleys, they lack none of noir’s darker shades. The stories in this anthology are as bleak, grim, and nasty as anything written by these women’s more celebrated male contemporaries — and, in many cases, these stories are all the more disturbing for their recognizably residential settings. Without the generic hallmarks to separate reality from fantasy — tough guys in fedoras, chain-smoking dames, and fast-spewing gats — noir takes on a whole new realm of disturbing possibility, and the writers of Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives pack plenty of nightmares into their pages...

Thursday, May 29, 2014

"The Last Days of Wolf Garnett" by Clifton Adams

The Last Days of Wolf Garnett was originally published in 1970, one year before Clifton Adams died all too young at the age of 52. It was Adams’ second consecutive novel to win the Spur Award for Best Western Novel from the Western Writers of America (the other was 1969’s Tragg’s Choice). It’s a doomy, atmospheric western with a grim, mysterious plot. If you’re looking for a noir western, you couldn’t ask for a much darker—or much better written—tale than this. As its title indicates, the book is preoccupied with death. This concern, however, was not new to Adams’ work; the theme had haunted his books from the very start of his career and, as this Wolf illustrates, continued right up until the end.

“So this, he thought emptily, is the way it ends. After almost a year of fury and grief, his only satisfaction was a grave on a barren hillside, a horror that had once been a man.”

When Frank Gault pulled into the frontier town of New Boston, he was looking for Wolf Garnett, the outlaw who killed his wife. He found the man—but, according to Sheriff Olsen, Garnett was dead and buried. Gault wants proof, but the deeper he digs, and the more people he asks, the more Olsen tries to shut him up. Convinced the sheriff is hiding something, Gault risks life and limb for a revenge that might just be futile. What if, in fact, Wolf Garnett really is dead?

Clifton Adams is among the darkest, most noir-tinged of western writers. His style could be characterized as “eerie bleakness,” a phrase used in the book to describe Gault’s own thoughts. Adams doesn’t write stories of wide-open ranges or little houses on the prairie. For Adams, the range is a desolate purgatory—the western equivalent of the noir gutter. Here, just as in The Desperado and A Noose for the Desperado, his protagonist is homeless, a haunted drifter with nothing to return to and nowhere to go. One of the hallmarks of Adams’ work is his characters’ inner-lives. His people are frequently lost in their own labyrinthine anxieties and obsessions, driven by their self-loathing: “Gault sat beside the dying fire, smoking, trying to keep his mind away from the past.” But this is a futile endeavor—actively distracting yourself only deepens the mark of that which you are trying to forget.

One of Adams’ recurring themes is that death is never easy, never simple, and never neat. His westerns may express an existential worldview—preoccupied with the meaning of their lives, or lack thereof—but they’re also grounded in ugly, gritty detail. His characters are lost in thought, but their feet are firmly planted on the ground, and their fate six feet under. “For almost a year Gault’s thoughts had been concerned exclusively with the subject of death. In his dreams, waking and sleeping, he had killed Wolf Garnett a thousand times. But it had never been like this, with the crunch of bone and rush of blood. In his mind it had always been swift and clean and right.” As in his two Desperado books, the act of killing is a disturbing and character-changing experience. “Two men he had killed in almost as many days. It was not a comfortable knowledge to live with.”

Gault is a “Searcher,” in the tradition of Alan LeMay’s novel (now better remembered as the John Ford film). “Lord, Gault thought wearily, I feel like I’ve been traveling half a lifetime. Without sleep or rest. Sometimes he almost forgot why he was doing it.” The search both gives meaning to Gault’s life, but also drains the life from him. It’s a self-destructive path that seemingly offers no happy ending. Like so many of noir’s denizens, whether in the west or in the gutter, Gault is as cursed as Sisyphus, caught in an endless circle of punishment.

Gault admits towards the end of the book, “I’m a different man already.” It’s an ambiguous statement, because with the self-knowledge gained throughout the story, Gault—like many of Adams’ characters—don’t like what they’ve learned about life, or what their experiences have revealed about themselves. “There was a wild man locked up inside him. And rivers of bile. They would not let him rest or work or do any of the quietly productive things that ordinary men did.”

The Last Days of Wolf Garnett, if it isn’t clear enough already, is not a happy book. It’s a hard-hitting story of hard-lived lives, dripping with melancholy, regret, and rage—but rendered through Adams’ lyrical prose, it somehow becomes a thing of beauty.

It’s just a downright outstanding novel from a great writer who deserves to be better known.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

"Dancing With Dead Men" by James Reasoner

In Dancing With Dead Men (2013), James Reasoner redefines the mythological western gunslinger in starkly human terms. 

Logan Handley, Reasoner’s protagonist, is no fast-draw he-man; instead, like John Bernard Books in The Shootist, he’s an all-too mortal being whose toughness is matched only by his fragility. Whereas Books is dying of cancer, Handley’s ailment is “infantile paralysis,” the result of a bullet wound suffered during a courageous act that stopped a robbery and prevented a public massacre. Having regained only partial movement, Handley heads to a hot springs facility in Arkansas where he hopes to recover fully. Robbed of his money en route during a train holdup, Handley arrives in Arkansas nearly broke, and he takes work sweeping a barbershop by day and tending bar by night. Bad luck seemingly follows Handley, as the bank is held-up just as he is depositing his money. This time, however, he fights back. Handley’s new-found fame lands him a job as security for a lumber magnate caught in a violent dispute over territory—but it also brings back his past, as well as an old enemy with a score to settle.

One of the major themes of the western genre is “the death of the west.” For Reasoner, however, the theme is more than just an historic inevitability: Dancing With Dead Men investigates what happens after the blaze of glory, after the ride-off into the sunset, and after the bullets stop flying. Handley’s curse is to live with the injuries suffered in the opening showdown. His “infantile paralysis” is cruelly ironic—not only is he debilitated by an illness that typically afflicts only children, but he is humbled by the confrontation of his own vulnerability and physical limitation.

Dancing With Dead Men's plotting is perfectly timed—alternating between the action-mystery of the timber feud and the more personal story of Handley's recovery—and Reasoner's prose has never been finer. Lines like this remind of the bleak poetry of Clifton Adams: 

“The cold was gone and so were the hands holding him, along with everything else except the night's blackness. It closed in around him. Logan didn't mind at all. He welcomed the oblivion.” 

Reasoner’s prose also extends in the opposite direction, showing a flair for pure pulp action that rivals Spillane. 

“Logan aimed the Walker at the surviving guerrilla's face. Even though it didn't seem possible they could, the man's eyes bulged out even more as he opened his mouth to beg for his life. Logan pressed the trigger first, and the man's head exploded like a pumpkin dropped from a hayloft.”

But more than just masterfully crafted action, plot, and style, it is Reasoner’s characters that stick with you. Memorable and compelling, they’re each imbued with a touch of the human condition and Reasoner’s graceful empathy. With a writing career four decades long—and still going strong—Reasoner has more than earned his reputation as one of the western’s finest scribes.


Dancing With Dead Men is available as a paperback or as an ebook.
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