30 Days of Noir #7: The Sniper (dir by Edward Dmytryk)


Halfway through the chilling 1952 film, The Sniper, there’s a scene in which a woman is seen standing on the rooftop of a San Francisco apartment building.  She’s nonchalantly hanging laundry.  When she steps to the side, we suddenly see that there’s a man standing on the next rooftop over.  And he’s holding a rifle.

Fortunately, in this case, the man is a policeman.  He’s one of several cops who have been ordered to stand on rooftops with their weapons drawn and to keep an eye on the city below.  There’s a killer on the loose and the city is demanding that the police capture him.  And yet, even with a city that’s caught in the grip of fear and even with heavily armed men watching everything going on in the streets, life goes on.  People go to bars.  People go to work. Couples stroll in the park.  And one woman hangs her laundry to dry on the rooftop of an apartment building.

Suddenly, the policeman spots someone on another rooftop, a man who isn’t supposed to be there.  He’s a young guy, carrying what looks like a rifle.  The police quickly rush to the rooftop where they arrest the young man.  Have they caught the sniper who has been terrorizing San Francisco?

The police think that they have their man but we know that they don’t.  We know that the sniper is a guy named Eddie Miller (Arthur Franz).  Eddie is a delivery man.  He’s handsome but, from the minute we first see him, we can tell that there’s something off about him.  He stumbles through life, keeping his head down and rarely speaking to anyone.  The few times he does attempt to smile, it’s painfully awkward.  He’s someone who is struggling to convince the people of San Francisco that he’s one of them but the more he tries, the more of an outsider he seems to be.  In fact, the only time that we see Eddie truly happy is when he goes to a carnival and comes across a dunk tank.  Over and over again, he throws a baseball and cause the woman inside to be submerged in cold water.

At first, Eddie tries to deal with his bad thoughts by deliberately burning his hand on an electric stove.  When he goes to the emergency room, he asks the attending doctor why he would do something like that but the doctor is soon distracted by another patient.  With his hand bandaged, Eddie goes on a shooting spree, targeting brunette women.

This dark film is fairly evenly divided, between Eddie, the cops that are trying to catch him, and the psychiatrist who tries to explain him.  Not surprisingly, the cops, led by the appropriately named Lt. Kafka (Adolphe Menjou), aren’t particularly interested in what makes the sniper tick.  They just want to get him off the street.  However, Dr. James Kent (Richard Kiley) is convinced that the only way to stop not only this killer but others is to understand what’s going on inside of his mind.  The differences between Kafka and Kent’s approaches are most obvious in a scene in which every registered sex offender in San Francisco is paraded into a squad room full of jeering cops.  While the detectives taunt the offenders that they know, the offender that they don’t know prepares to kill yet again.

The Sniper was directed by Edward Dmytryk, who previously directed the Oscar-nominated (and superficially similar) Crossfire.  This was Dmytryk’s first film after his career was temporarily derailed by his refusal to testify before the House Unamerican Activities Committee.  (He later changed his mind and named names while testifying about his time as a member of the Community Party.)  Interestingly enough, top-billed Adolphe Menjou was one of the leaders of the anti-communist Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals, a prominent supporter of the blacklist that Dmytryk had narrowly escaped.

Filmed in a black-and-white, documentary style, The Sniper is a chilling and disturbing film.  When Eddie stalks through the city at night, the dark shadows that he casts against the walls of empty alleyways and closed storefronts serve to remind us that men like Eddie could be lurking anywhere, unseen and unknown.  During the day scenes, the harshly bright lighting reminds us of just how vulnerable we are.  If the night provides too many places to hide, the day provides too few.  Arthur Franz gives a disturbingly credible performance as Eddie.  While he plays Eddie as being obviously troubled, he also suggests how someone like Eddie has managed to survive without getting exposed.  Menjou is properly cynical as the world weary Kafka while Richard Kiley brings some needed passion and anger to the film’s most talky scenes.  The film ends on a note of melancholy ambiguity, leaving it to us to make up our own mind about how to deal with the Eddie Millers of the world.

A Movie A Day #234: The Final Days (1989, directed by Richard Pearce)


Since yesterday’s entry in movie a day featured Philip Baker Hall playing Richard Nixon in Secret Honor, I decided to use today’s entry to talk about a movie that featured Lane Smith in the same role.

Based on Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s follow-up to All The President’s Men, The Final Days is about the final months of the Nixon presidency.  The movie begins shortly after the resignations of Nixon aides John Ehrlichman and H.R. Haldeman and follows Nixon (Lane Smith) as he grows increasingly more isolated and reclusive in the White House.  All the familiar moments are here, Nixon ranting against the Kennedys and the establishment, Kennedy talking about his difficult childhood, and, most famously, Nixon asking Henry Kissinger (Theodore Bikel) to pray with him on the night before his resignation.  The Final Days also focuses on the ambitious men who surrounded Nixon during his downfall and who helped to engineer his eventual resignation, especially Al Haig (David Ogden Stiers).

A lot of very good actors have played Richard Nixon.  Anthony Hopkins and Frank Langella both received Oscar nominations for playing him and Philip Baker Hall probably should have.  Rip Torn, John Cusack, Kevin Spacey, Dan Hedaya, and Bob Gunton have all taken a shot at the role.  But, in my opinion, no one has done a better job as the 37th president than Lane Smith, who bore about as close a resemblance to Nixon as anyone could without a prosthetic nose.  Even more than Anthony Hopkins did in Oliver Stone’s Nixon, Lane Smith captured not only Nixon’s insecurity and paranoia but also his provides hints of the great leader that Nixon could have been if not for his own self-destructiveness.

 

Cleaning Out the DVR Pt 9: Film Noir Festival Redux


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Welcome back to the decadently dark world of film noir, where crime, corruption, lust, and murder await. Let’s step out of the light and deep into the shadows with these five fateful tales:

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PITFALL (United Artists 1948, D: Andre DeToth) Dick Powell is an insurance man who feels he’s stuck in a rut, living in safe suburbia with his wife and kid (Jane Wyatt, Jimmy Hunt). Then he meets hot model Lizabeth Scott on a case and falls into a web of lies, deceit, and ultimately murder. Raymond Burr  costars as a creepy PI who has designs on Scott himself. A good cast in a good (not great) drama with a disappointing ending. Fun Fact: The part of Scott’s embezzler boyfriend is played by one Byron Barr, who is not the Byron Barr that later changed his name to Gig Young.  

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THE BRIBE (MGM 1949, D:Robert Z. Leonard) Despite an…

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Shattered Politics #11: The Phenix City Story (dir by Phil Karlson)


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If A Man Called Peter was the epitome of a stereotypical 1950s film, The Phenix City Story is the exact opposite.  Like A Man Called Peter, The Phenix City Story was released in 1955.  And like A Man Called Peter, The Phenix City Story is based on a true story.  However, beyond that, A Man Called Peter and The Phenix City Story might as well have been taking place on different planets.

And, in many ways, they were.  The Phenix City Story not only takes place in Phenix City, Alabama but it was filmed there as well and featured a few actual citizens in the cast.  Not only was The Phenix City Story telling a true story but the story was being told by some of the same people who actually lived through it.  That makes The Phenix City Story brutally realistic, with brutal being the key word.

And, just in case we have any doubt about the film’s authenticity, it actually opens with a 15 minute documentary in which Clete Roberts (who was an actual news reporter) interviews several citizens of the town.  All of them, speaking in thick Alabama accents and nervously eyeing the camera, assure us that what we are about to see is true.  Quite a few of them also tells us that they still live in fear of losing their lives as a result of everything that happened.

What’s amazing is that, once the actual film does get started, it manages to live up to all of that build up.  The Phenix City Story is a shocking film that remains powerful even 60 years after it was initially released.

As the film opens, we’re informed that Phenix City, Alabama is home to some of the most dangerous and violent criminals in the state.  From his club, crime boss Rhett Tanner (Edward Andrews) runs a shadowy organization that not only controls Phenix City but the entire state of Alabama as well.  The police ignore his crimes.  The majority of the town’s citizens are too scared to stand up to him.  When a returning veteran of the Korean War, John Patterson (Richard Kiley), tries to stand up to Tanner, the result is even more violence.  A young black girl is kidnapped and murdered, her body tossed on John’s front lawn as a warning.  John’s best friend is killed but Tanner uses his influence to have the death ruled accidental.

Finally, John and a group of other reformers convince John’s father — Albert Patterson (John McIntire) — to run for Attorney General.  Albert runs on a reform platform and exposes both the corruption of Phenix City and how Tanner’s power extends through the rest of the state as well.  When Albert wins the Democratic primary, he’s gunned down in the street and it’s up to John to avenge his death…

To say that The Phenix City Story is intense would be an understatement.  As directed by Phil Karlson, there’s not a single frame of The Phenix City Story that’s not full of menace and danger.  The stark black-and-white cinematography is full of shadows and the camera moves almost frantically from scene to scene, occasionally catching glimpses of dark figures committing acts of violence and cars speeding away from who knows what outage.  It’s a dark film but, ultimately, it’s also a hopeful one.  It suggests that evil will triumph when good men do nothing but that sometimes you can depend on good men — like Albert and John Patterson — to actually step up.

The Phenix City Story shows up on TCM occasionally and you should keep an eye out for it.  It’s one of the best B-movies ever made.

Back to School #3: Blackboard Jungle (dir by Richard Brooks)


You really can’t write about high school films without writing about 1955’s Blackboard Jungle.  While the film is often cited as being the first movie to feature a rock song on its soundtrack (Bill Haley’s Rock Around The Clock is played at the opening and the end of the film), Blackboard Jungle should also be remembered for being one of the first and most influential examples of the dedicated-teacher-in-the-inner-city film genre.

Blackboard Jungle tells the story of Richard Dadier (Glenn Ford), a newly hired teacher at an inner city high school.  As soon as he arrives for his first day at work, he meets his co-workers.  Josh Edwards (Richard Kiley) is another new teacher and is convinced that he can reach the students by talking to them about his valuable collection of jazz records. Mr. Murdock (Louis Calhern) is a burned out old cynic who believes that none of the students at the school have a future.  As Dadier quickly discovers, most of his fellow teachers have more in common with Murdock than with either him or Josh.

At first, Dadier struggles to reach his students, the majority of whom don’t see why they should waste their time in English class.  The head troublemaker, psychotic Artie West (Vic Morrow) sees the new teacher as being a rival and Dadier’s attempts to reach another student, Gregory Miller (Sidney Poitier), are made difficult by the racial animosity that dominates the entire high school.  Soon, Dadier is being targeted by his students and his pregnant wife (Anne Francis) starts to receive anonymous letters that imply that Dadier is having an affair.  It all leads to a violent classroom confrontation in which Dadier’s students are finally forced to pick a side in the battle between the forces of education and the forces of chaos.  (If that sounds melodramatic — well, it is kinda.)

It’s a little bit difficult to judge a film like Blackboard Jungle today.  We have seen so many movies about idealistic young teachers trying to make a difference in the inner city that it’s pretty easy to guess most of what is going to happen here.  In order to appreciate Blackboard Jungle, it’s necessary to understand that the only reason why it occasionally seems predictable is because it’s such an incredibly influential film.  And there are still moments in Blackboard Jungle that can take the viewer by surprise.  The scene in which Ford lists off all of the racial slurs that he doesn’t want to hear is just one example.  It’s hard to imagine that scene appearing in a movie made today.  (If it did, it would probably be played for laughs.)

That said, the performances in the film hold up surprisingly well.  Glenn Ford is a compelling hero and he and Anne Francis make for a likable couple.  Despite being 28 years old and having already played several adult roles, Sidney Poitier is a convincing high school student and, not surprisingly, he makes for a convincing leader.  However, for me, the film was dominated by Vic Morrow.

As played by Morrow, Artie Turner is a truly frightening villain.  In previous films about juvenile delinquency, the emphasis was always put on why the delinquent went bad and usually, the blame was put not on the teenager but instead on the environment around him.  He had bad parents or maybe he listened to too much jazz but, ultimately, he was not lost.  He was merely damaged.  However, Artie Turner has no convenient excuses for his behavior.  His parents go unmentioned.  When he’s exposed to jazz, he responds by breaking all of Mr. Edwards’ records.  Among all of Dadier’s students, Artie is unique in that he cannot be reached.  He’s a force of pure destruction and ultimately, Dadier’s success as a teacher depends less on reaching Artie and more on convincing his other students to reject Artie as a role model.

Blackboard Jungle may be a film that feels very familiar but it’s still one worth watching.

Artie Turner Acting Out

Artie Turner Acting Out

 

Embracing the Melodrama #33: Endless Love (dir by Franco Zefferilli)


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Do anyone remember a movie that came out in February that was called Endless Love? If you do, you’ve got a better memory than I do because, even though I saw it, I really can’t really remember much about it beyond the fact that I was disappointed by it. I know I had high hopes because the trailer was damn sexy but the film itself just turned out to be rather bland and forgettable.

Well, the 2014 version of Endless Love may have been forgettable but the same can not be said of the original 1981 version.

Endless Love tells the sweet story of two teenagers who want to have sex.  Well, actually, it’s debatable how sweet the story is  because the boy is a creepy stalker-type and the girl appears to be suffering from Stockholm Syndrome but director Franco Zefferilli directs the film as if he’s bringing to life the greatest romance of all time.  The entire film is full of lush images and the swelling musical score suggests that we should hope that these two end up together, even as the boy is burning down the girl’s house.

(Believe me, I love elaborate expressions of love and romantic feelings as much as the next girl but I draw the line at burning down my house.)

David (Martin Hewitt) and Jade (Brooke Shields) both live in the suburbs of Chicago.  Jade’s parents are aging hippies.  Her father (Don Murray) may smoke weed with the neighborhood teenagers and play the trumpet at wild parties but he’s still very protective of his daughter.  Her mother (Shirley Knight) is far more permissive and open-minded.  Jade’s brother, Keith (played by a really young and dangerous-looking James Spader), is friends with David and invites him to a party at his house.  David meets Jade and soon, the two of them are obsessed with each other.

However, not everyone is happy about their newfound love.  Jade’s father doesn’t trust David.  Keith soon starts saying stuff like, “Just because you’re fucking my sister, that doesn’t make you a part of the family.”  (And, as rude as that may be, it’s really hot when said by a young and dangerous-looking James Spader.)  Meanwhile, David’s mom (Beatrice Straight) doesn’t want David hanging out with a family that she describes as being “a relic of the 60s.”

Eventually, Jade is spending so much time thinking about David that her grades start to suffer and she finds that she can no longer sleep.  She starts stealing her father’s sleeping pills.  When she’s caught in the act, David is forbidden from seeing her until the end of the school year.  “It’s only 30 days,” Jade’s mom promises him.

Well, that’s 30 days too long for David!

Taking the advice of a young arsonist (played, in his film debut and with a notably squeaky voice, by Tom Cruise), David decides to set Jade’s house on fire.  His original plan is to save Jade and her family and be hailed as a hero.  Instead, the fire ends up raging out of control and the house is destroyed.

Arrested for arson, David spends some time in a mental asylum and is legally forbidden from ever seeing Jade or her family again.  Eventually, David gets out of the asylum and that’s when the movie gets really weird…

Endless Love is a really creepy movie that makes the mistake of equating stalking with true romance.  There’s no other way to put it.  Yet, at the same time, Franco Zefferilli’s images are so vividly romantic and Martin Hewitt and Brooke Shields are both so physically attractive (never mind that neither one of them apparently knew how to act back in 1981) that you can’t help but sometimes get swept up in the film’s silliness.  Add to that, the film has a great soundtrack and you also get a chance to see Tom Cruise act like a total jackass.

Check it out below!

44 Days of Paranoia #23: Pickup On South Street (dir by Samuel Fuller)


For today’s entry in the 44 Days of Paranoia, let’s take a look at Sam Fuller’s 1953 film noir, Pickup on South Street.

Pickup On South Street opens with Candy (Jean Peters) on a subway.  In her purse, she’s carrying an envelope that’s been given to her by her boyfriend, the rather shady Joey (Richard Kiley).  Candy is delivering the envelope to friends of Joey.  What Candy doesn’t know is that Joey and his friends are communists and that the envelope contains top secret micro-film.  She also doesn’t know that she’s being followed by both the FBI and Skip Martin (Richard Widmark), a professional pickpocket.

Skip picks Candy’s purse and, without realizing it, steals the microfilm that everyone wants.  With the help of professional informant Moe (Thelma Ritter, a great character actress who gives a great performance here), both Candy and the police track down Skip and try to get him to return the microfilm.  Skip, however, has figured out what he’s stolen and announces that he’ll give the microfilm to whichever group is the first to pay him $25,000.  When the FBI make the mistake of trying to appeal to his patriotism, Skip merely smirks and asks, “Are you waving the flag at me?”

In his introduction to Sam Fuller’s autobiography A Third Face: My Tale of Writing, Fighting, and Filmmaking, Martin Scorsese writes, “(I)f you don’t like the films of Sam Fuller, then you just don’t like cinema.”  Now, I really can’t say whether that’s true or not because, while I love cinema, I’ve only seen three of the films that Sam Fuller directed over the course of his long career: The Naked Kiss, Shock Corridor, and now Pickup On South Street.  However, I can say that I loved all three of those films.  The Naked Kiss I loved because I happen to love old films that expose the secrets of small town America.  As Arleigh can tell you, I fell in love with Shock Corridor the minute that the film’s hero said, “NYMPHOS!”  As for Pickup On South Street, I love it because it’s truly a great film and one of the best B-movie ever made.

And make no mistake about it — Pickup On South Street is a B-movie, a melodramatic, wonderfully sordid, and terrifically entertaining B-movie.  It’s a thriller that both embraces and subverts the conventions of the genre and, as a result, it tells a story that manages to be both over-the-top and subtle at the same time.  By focusing on those on the margins of society, the Skips and the Moes of the world, Fuller also forces us to confront just how little the ideology of a government means to those of us who live on the margins of society.

This is certainly made clear by Thelma Ritter’s poignant performance as Moe, one of the weary inhabitants of the margins who has been reduced to just hoping that she’ll have enough money when she dies to be buried in a decent plot.  One watches Pickup on South Street and realizes that, regardless of which side ultimately end up with the microfilm, people like Moe are still most likely going to end up getting buried in an pauper’s grave.

Watching Pickup On South Street, it’s easy to see why Martin Scorsese had such high praise for Fuller.  Fuller’s camera literally never stops moving, nervously darting through the urban landscape and occasionally zooming in for a close-up of either a desperate face or Richard Widmark’s smirk.  And make no doubt about it — Richard Widmark’s charming but infuriating smirk tells you everything that you need to know about both the character Skip McCoy and Pickup On South Street as a film.  It’s a smirk that lets us know that both the character and the film are a lot more intelligent than they initially let on.

Pickup on South Street is a film that every lover of cinema must see.  And, after you’ve seen it, why not get a copy of Fuller’s autobiography?  It’s an interesting read.

Other Entries In The 44 Days of Paranoia 

  1. Clonus
  2. Executive Action
  3. Winter Kills
  4. Interview With The Assassin
  5. The Trial of Lee Harvey Oswald
  6. JFK
  7. Beyond The Doors
  8. Three Days of the Condor
  9. They Saved Hitler’s Brain
  10. The Intruder
  11. Police, Adjective
  12. Burn After Reading
  13. Quiz Show
  14. Flying Blind
  15. God Told Me To
  16. Wag the Dog
  17. Cheaters
  18. Scream and Scream Again
  19. Capricorn One
  20. Seven Days In May
  21. Broken City
  22. Suddenly