Friday, October 27, 2017

Blue Is the Warmest Color (La vie d'Adèle - Chapitres 1 et 2) 2013 France (180 minutes) directed and co-written by Abdellatif Kechiche; adapted from Julie Maroh’s comic book Le Bleu est une couleur chaude.

The theme of Blue Is the Warmest Color is appetite. The film is not about ‘coming of age’, or girlsex, or lesbians, or anything else we have seen in reviews. It is about appetite, feeding. And not just ‘feeding’, but stuffing one’s face: mouths are shot as though independent characters.
Critics pro and con have focused on the provocatively long and frankly pornographic scenes featuring rose-milk moist young female bodies co-luxuriating, sucking, frigging and spanking. These make for a tableau vivant but, like the magician’s white glove, they distract the eye from the sleight of hand, which is a longing to feed.

This film of overlong scenes begins with a father and daughter gorging themselves on spaghetti in front of a television. This is not upscale ‘pasta’, nor Italian-American mobsters slicing garlic with a razor blade to sleep with the squid or octopus in a handmade tomato sauce. The camera watches their mouths slurp forks-full of greasy spaghetti slathered with canned tomato sauce down to the last sucked-in strand. The daughter is Adèle (Adèle Exarchopoulos), the story’s protagonist.
These eating scenes are really sex scenes. There is not the least suggestion that the father (Aurélien Recoing) ever had sex with his daughter or even considered it. What they share is a deep, insatiable sensual appetite in the pits of their stomachs, a longing to feed. The mother (Catherine Salée) seems not have this appetite, but to recognize it—perhaps reflexively: she pours herself more wine. It is notable also that Adèle later makes her father’s spaghetti recipe for her lover’s reception. The feeding mouths make this film subversive in the way Luis Buñuel’s films were subversive.  

Eating meets sex when Adèle and her soon-to-be lover Emma (Léa Seydoux) picnic in a park. Adèle says: ‘I eat everything. I could eat nonstop all day. It’s scary, even when I’m full.’ Everything that is, but shellfish. Emma likes oysters. Adèle says the texture ‘grosses her out’. ‘That’s the best part,’ says Emma. They remind Adèle of ‘big snot balls’. ‘They remind me of something else,’ Emma says smiling. 
The lesbian theme here is like Buñuel’s terrorists bursting into a dining room and machine-gunning prosperous bourgeois dinner guests. Two women have lots of sex. But Adèle’s desire to ‘eat nonstop’, her longing to feed, is the point. ‘Le charme discret’ is the fat greedy hand reaching from under the table in the aftermath of the fusillade to grab one more chicken leg from an abandoned plate.
In any case, this is a fictional story about a young woman, not a documentary about lesbians or the lesbian community. Actually, a shorter, more impressionistic film would have worked better than this extended-scene epic. We found this story to become less convincing with more than one viewing.

The story is straightforward. Adèle is a high school student who lives in a Paris suburb with her working class parents. The sexual curiosity and inexperience of catty teenaged female classmates produces incessant crude chatter and bluster about sex, and Adèle clearly has options. She also is friends with Valentin (Sandor Funtek), an openly gay classmate who seems better grounded than the other kids. 
Adèle’s classmates goad her into dating Thomas (Jérémie Laheurte). The teenaged couple fumble around sexually: the boy knows what he wants, and he gets it; Adèle feels what she needs but gets barely a taste of what her appetite craves. She dumps him. This is the end of Thomas’s world, for a day or two; Adèle embarks deeper into uncharted waters.
On her way to a date with Thomas, Adèle is haunted by a momentary glance she exchanges with a young woman with blue hair. ‘Love at first sight’ is among the topics discussed in her French literature class. Adèle later lets this woman find her in a lesbian bar where Adèle thought she might see her. A relationship blooms between the inexperienced but hungry Adèle and Emma, a lesbian five or six years older. 
Emma, a fourth year painting student at the École des Beaux Arts, has been living two years with Lise (Mona Walravens). With Emma, Adèle at first experiences the explosion of the sensual pleasure she has hungered for in sex. They both do. We see a lot more of this than is necessary to sustain the narrative. Emma leaves Lise and brings Adèle to her home. The second part of the film shows the two women living together pursuing separate careers: Adèle is a primary school teacher, Emma a painter.
But the younger, working class Adèle does not fit in with Emma’s lesbian friends; she is a lovely model, but unsophisticated to Emma’s art friends. Adèle’s sole friend and passion is Emma. She begins to feel less ‘loved’: her appetite is for Emma, not for playing the conventional roles of an artist’s model and wife, much less being a lesbian partner. Adèle feels isolated in a milieu that does not take her seriously or accept her—nor she it. Her point-of-view tells us that she is not a lesbian socially or culturally; likelier yet, she is not a lesbian at all.  

And for all Emma’s arty posing, she has a conventional heart. The blue rinses out of her hair; she has sown her wild oats and wants to settle down; she draws away from Adèle. Emma finds a pretext to break up, and returns to her relationship with Lise who is raising small children.   
In the end, a bereft Adèle walks out of their lives and then out of the final shot with that deep, insatiable sensual longing in the pit of her stomach.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Atmosphere & Attitude

Bob le Flambeur 1956 France; Rialto Pictures (102 minutes) written, directed and produced by Jean-Pierre Melville.
                The 1956 French heist movie Bob le Flambeur, a mood piece made by a French director who loved American gangster films, captures what even then was likely a Parisian nostalgia for the immediate postwar years.
                Bob le Flambeur occupies the same dreamspace as classics like Casablanca, Pépé le Moko and To Have and Have Not. Few people could inhabit such romantic improbabilities; but these stories’ nostalgia-scented magic has seduced generations of moviegoers into believing they might.
Told in black-and-white, these stories roam the city streets at night peering in the shadows, the neon signs and streetlights their silent witnesses. Writer-director Jean-Pierre Melville’s Bob opens ‘in those moments between night and day, by the dawn’s early light’; the final curtain comes down at roughly the same hour. Most of the gambling happens afterhours in bars, clubs and restaurants with the chairs on the tables.
Yet for all its dark tones this picture is leavened with a wry nonchalance which would evoke a nostalgia for a time when there was honor among thieves. Melville’s characters are not as garrulous as Quentin Tarentino’s ‘Reservoir Dogs’, but similarly quip and banter beyond the confines of the narrative.
‘For anyone who lived in the postwar period, nothing can compare to those days,’ said Daniel Cauchy, one of the film’s co-stars, interviewed in 2002. Cauchy said that he was living on Place Pigalle, where much of the story transpires, during the two years that Melville shot the film. In Cauchy’s view, in the period that followed five years of war and the German occupation of Paris, ‘things in the city were easier, people were light-hearted, and those who had money paid for those who did not’.
In the opening sequence, a narrator—Melville—tells us that Montmartre, the center of the action, is both heaven, with a shot of the Sacré-Cœur basilica which crowns the hill, and hell, showing a tram slowly descending to the bottom and then signage on Place Pigalle, best known for its ‘boldest-nudes-in-the-world’ girlie shows and sex workers.
The heist, conceived after the story is underway, is the straightforward stick-up of a seaside gambling casino in Deauville, Normandy. After accounting for the technical details, the outcome rides on the elements of timing, surprise—and Lady Luck. 
The film’s main characters are: Robert ‘Bob le Flambeur’ Montagné (Roger Duchesne), a charismatic reformed career thief with a gambling problem, his associate Roger (André Garet), his protégé Paulo (Cauchy) and Yvonne (Simone Paris), the proprietress of the Pile ou Face (Heads or Tails) Bar, Bob’s hangout; Lieutenant Ledru (Guy Decomble), a sympathetic police commissioner; young hoods, pimps and prostitutes of Paris’s Quartier Pigalle on the make; and Anne (Isabelle Corey), a teenager ambitious to become a part of this scene.
More than just a gambler, a ‘flambeur’ is a person in thrall to his passion for gambling—a gambling addict.
Bob, a compulsive gambler, is known by his associates ‘to win big, but lose bigger’. We see him drag the loyal Roger to the track with hot tip on a harness race, and then see a smiling Bob collect his winnings at the window. Yet just as quickly he is cleaned out at the card table. 
And he lives with style. Everyone in Quartier Pigalle (and at police headquarters at 36, Quai des Orfèvres) knows and respects ‘Monsieur Bob’. He has a duplex apartment on Avenue Junot with a picture window centered on the Sacré-Cœur; he has paintings, art objects and old books. He has a foreign slot machine in a closet and drives a new American convertible. But luck is not a lady with Bob.
Nor is Anne, the teenager he tries to prevent ‘sidewalk Romeos’ from making a ‘pavement princess’, though she wants dearly to be. Bob first notices the tall, well-built woman early one morning on Place Pigalle as she buys chips and then climbs on a motorcycle behind an American sailor. He then meets her in the Pile ou Face after chasing off Marc (Gérard Buhr), a sidewalk Romeo.
The story is that Melville first spotted the same ‘toute jeune fille trés avancée pour son âge’ on the street and picked her up in his car as Bob does in the movie. It turned out that Corey was a model not yet 16 years old. This pretty teenager is not a conventional Hollywood starlet, and had no screen-acting experience, but her sexuality is striking—equally for a film director, a collector of precious objects, a Pigalle wolf, and a moviegoer—and makes her a key piece in this nostalgic dreamspace.
Cauchy said in his 2002 interview that mobsters were drawn to actors and directors, not because they were star-struck, but because the roles the actors played corresponded to the mobsters’ everyday lives. This had the effect of blurring fiction and reality, he said. Cauchy added that in the 1950s, he and other movie people socialized, gambled and went to the track with mobsters, and that these elements worked their way into movies.
Cauchy also noted that Melville may have been the first film director to show people shot falling backward rather than forward.
He said that he had ‘died’ in several gangster movies clutching his stomach and falling forward as he had seen actors like James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart do in American movies. But Melville wanted him just once to ‘throw himself backward’—and used that shot. ‘I think he heard about this from someone who was shot during the war,’ Cauchy said. 
When Bob complains to Ledru that ‘the mob is not what it used to be’, Cauchy said, he is referring to how the war changed the Paris underworld. During the war, half the professional criminals had collaborated with the Germans as associates of the Bonny-Lafont Gang and the French Gestapo; the other half, including the Guerini brothers [the Corsican mob] fought for the Resistance, he said.
French law enforcement under the Nazis blurred the differences between cops and robbers. The Germans retained French locals with questionable backgrounds to enforce the law, and insiders made a killing on the black market though many did not survive the peace. After the war, the Corsicans, which controlled heroin trafficking through Marseilles, constituted what became known in the 1950s and 1960s as the French Connection.
At the casino’s chemin de fer table on the night of the heist, Bob wins big as never before. But Lt. Ledru has been tipped off. Two pairs of low-slung black Traction Citroëns, those of the gang and those of the police, converge on the casino entrance at the appointed hour at daybreak.
Maybe for once Bob will not lose bigger than he wins.
Among several remakes and homages to this film are Oceans 11 (1960 and 2001), Paul Thomas Anderson’s 1996 Hard Eight, and Neil Jordan’s The Good Thief, made in 2003 with Nick Nolte as Bob Montagnet. Jordan’s film, set in Nice, updated the original characters, adopted much of the dialogue and added an intriguing plot wrinkle.
In addition to a high definition digital transfer of the original print, the Criterion Collection DVD released in 2003 includes the above-quoted 2002 interview with Cauchy, who also starred in Melville’s Quand Tu Liras Cette Lettre (1953) and Jacques Becker’s 1954 Touchez pas au Grisbi, among other films.

Friday, December 30, 2016

The Kuleshov effect

Необычайные приключения мистера Веста в стране Большевиков (Neobychainye priklyucheniya mistera Vesta v strane Bol’shevikov— The Extraordinary Adventures of Mister West in the Land of the Bolsheviks) 1924 U.S.S.R. Goskino (78 minutes) directed by Lev Kuleshov; written by Nikolai Aseev and Vsevolod Pudovkin; cinematography and editing by Aleksandr Levitsky.

An American naïf overcomes dire media perceptions and his wife’s fears to visit the new Soviet Union, fortified by high ideals and protected by a faithful cowboy companion in this ‘comedy about a Yankee’s curiosity, and his rewards.’ 
Round-bespectacled Mr. John West (Porfiry Podobed) of Brecksville, president of the YMCA (Young Men’s Christian Association), tells his wife Madge that he plans to visit the Soviet Union. Madge shows him ‘New York magazine’ illustrations that portray ‘Russian Bolshevik types’ as wild-eyed, hairy men in furs wielding hammers and sickles. She implores her husband to take along the faithful Cowboy Jeddie (Boris Barnet) to protect him. Jeddie is a stereotypical fresh-faced American movie cowboy in a checked shirt and a bandanna, with a lasso, six-shot revolver and spurs, a bearskin vest and chaps.  
This silent film by director Lev Kuleshov, the first produced in his famous Film Workshop, reinterprets and employs dynamic conventions pioneered by US film directors such as D.W. Griffith. Kuleshov wanted to parody what he referred to as the ‘maximum movement and primitive heroism’ of the American ‘detective’ film, as well as to lampoon presumed American attitudes toward Soviet Russia. It was the second film to be shot in the newly-organized state-run Goskino Film Studios.

Mr. West also is a ringer for the US silent film star Harold Lloyd. In numerous films, Lloyd played an early twentieth century American Everyman, often saving the day with his own death-defying stunts. Lloyd may be best remembered now for a scene in which he hung from the hands of a large clock over downtown Los Angeles.
In Kuleshov’s view, montage, the process of actually assembling the shots, is what renders the entire power of cinematic effect. In broad outline, Kuleshov wanted in film to replace the stage theatricality popular at the time with a scientific vocabulary of ‘signs’ depicting gestures, emotions and expressions, which could be shot and assembled into narratives which are sequences of changing scenes. He had been involved with early Formalists such as Viktor Shklovskii and Osip Brik, who also had collaborated with him on screenplays.  

An 11-minute madcap chase scene involving automobiles and horse-drawn sleighs, motorcycles, high building fire escapes and rooftops, is a good early showcase of Kuleshov’s theories and the ability of his Film Workshop. Soon after Mr. West and Jeddie arrive in Moscow, a street urchin lights off with Mr. West’s soft leather briefcase. Later, Jeddie, riding on the roof of Mr. West’s car as though it were a stagecoach, jumps off to recover a suitcase that falls off and gets separated from his boss. The chase scene shows Jeddie’s energetic high-speed but ultimately unsuccessful effort to catch up to Mr. West.
Chased by the police, Jeddie ends up crashing into a private institution where he meets Ellie (Valya Lopatina), a young American woman he knows who happens to be living in Moscow. Ellie is able to explain things to the police. But Mr. West ends up in the clutches of a band of ‘counter-revolutionaries,’ a criminal gang led by Count Zhban (Vsevolod Pudovkin), ‘once a fop, now just a small time criminal,’ Countess von Saks (Aleksandra Khokhlova), One Eye (Sergei Komarov) and others.
The ‘counter-revolutionaries’ tell Mr. West that he can be safe only with them. The Bolsheviks tore down Moscow University and the Bolshoi Theater, they say. And the gang exploits the New York magazine images of ‘Bolshevik types’ in a nutty convoluted plot to extort money from him.
A notable detail here is that the action passes numerous times by the former Cathedral of Christ the Savior, which Stalin’s government razed in 1931. (The post-Soviets rebuilt this in the 2000s.) 
In the end, Mr. West is rescued by the Bolshevik police. A senior official in a leather coat gives Mr. West a sightseeing tour of Moscow, showing him that Moscow University and the Bolshoi Theater still stand.
The film culminates in the official pointing out ‘typical Bolsheviks,’ starting with a military parade, panning to men-in-the-streets and concluding, surprisingly, with an image of Leon Trotsky. At the time, Trotsky, hated and soon eclipsed by Stalin, would have been the ailing Lenin’s heir apparent.
Mr. West admits that Americans have the wrong idea about of the Soviet Union. He even radiograms Madge, instructing her to ‘burn those New York magazines, and hang a portrait of Lenin on the wall. Long live the Bolsheviks!’

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

The Naked Truth

Hypocrites 1915 U.S. Hobart Bosworth Productions (50 minutes); written, directed and produced by Lois Weber; cinematography by Dal Clawson and George W. Hill; distributed by Paramount Pictures (Kino International). 
A politician gives a stump speech over a sign that announces ‘My Platform Is Honesty.’ The Naked Truth—an unselfconsciously nude woman—appears on his platform holding a mirror, unseen to all but the film audience. The image in Truth’s oval mirror fills the screen: the same politician appears at a table taking payoffs from a uniformed policeman and a series of shady-looking people. The crowd jumps up shaking its fists and pointing at the politician.

This vignette is one among many nice touches in this absorbing century-old silent film, a social commentary written, directed and produced by Lois Weber in 1914 at almost the same time that her peer D.W. Griffiths was making The Birth of a Nation.

Weber’s visually inventive and entertaining allegory compares modern and medieval times, using the same cast to play modern roles that correspond to their medieval personas; Truth (Margaret Edwards) scampers disinterestedly across time unseen by all, usually in a double-exposed image.
The director signals her intent by following the film’s title with a formal portrait of herself inscribed ‘Sincerely yours, Lois Weber,’ and then a line from Robert Browning’s narrative poem The Ring and the Book: ‘What does the world, told a truth, but lie the more.’ (Later she gets to John Milton.)

A small number of the principle actors are introduced serially, shown in medieval and then modern costume while seated on an elevated throne. But they are identified only by their medieval titles: Gabriel the Ascetic (Courtenay Foote), The Woman in White (Myrtle Stedman), The Abbot (Herbert Standing) and The Queen (Adele Farrington).

The action begins with a large pair of ornamental harp-shaped gates—The Gates of Truth—opening into a grove. Truth gambols from the outside in, and the gates sweep shut behind her.
A minister in church gives a passionate sermon on ‘Hypocrisy.’ The minister—Gabriel the Ascetic—is a gaunt young man of woeful countenance. Weber’s montage of faces, gestures and stylish women’s hats is beautifully composed. Many of the prosperous-looking middle-aged congregation are yawning and rolling their eyes, winking, checking their watches. Three senior vestrymen grumble together, and boys in the choir are looking at a newspaper. The minister also has admirers: the Woman in White and another heartsick woman (Vera Lewis); others appear to pay attention.
After the sermon, the Abbot (a senior vestryman) and his wife approach the minister, and the title reads: ‘Great sermon this morning.’ Afterward, directly outside the church in top hats, the senior vestryman catches up with three grumbling middle-aged congregants and the title says: ‘Ask for his resignation but keep my name out of it.’

Inside the church, the minister remonstrates with the newspaper-reading choir boy. The broadsheet headline reads: ‘Why the Truth Has Startled Wicked Paris,’ with a half-page reproduction of a painting showing a naked woman holding aloft a shining mirror before a fleeing modern crowd—the French painter Adophe Faugeron’s 1914 La Verité. 
Settling in a chair near the altar with the newspaper and a soulful look, the minister sinks into a reverie. And then he rises from the chair, transformed into Gabriel the Ascetic, a figure in monkish robes, to lead his congregation up a steep hill to Truth. The admiring women and several congregants try to follow but all ultimately fail.

A title reads: ‘Truth is ever elusive.’ And she steals from a hollow tree, frolicking through the wood just ahead of Gabriel. When he catches up to her, he says: ‘Since my people will not come to you, come to my people.’ They leave the grove together through The Gates of Truth she was shown entering when the story opened.

The medieval heart of the drama brings to mind the roughly contemporaneous illustrations of Howard and Katherine Pyle. The gaunt Gabriel is a monk working in secret on a sculpture. His Abbot, formerly the senior vestryman, is shown regaling the other monks eating and drinking at the monastic board. When Gabriel finishes his sculpture, the Abbot allows him to present it ‘to the people.’
The screen title on the big day says: ‘The people gathered as on a fête day.’ This gathering is another gem of early cinematic montage. The Abbot himself unveils Gabriel’s sculpture. A lethal pandemonium breaks out because ‘People are shocked by the nakedness of truth.’
No one can see the ‘nude truth,’ the thing simply unadorned; it is only when that figure, veiled, is stripped bare as The Naked Truth that people get incensed (and still do not actually see her). 
The half-dozen vignettes which follow are set in the turn-of-the-century US. Truth, led by Gabriel, holds up her mirror to politics and other human activities and institutions. In ‘Society,’ a well-heeled crowd is making merry in a sumptuous drawing room. The women are bare-armed and show lots of shoulder. Gabriel enters and invites an attractive sophisticate on a couch to see Truth with her mirror.
‘Truth is welcome if clothed in our ideas’ the sophisticate replies, handing Gabriel a diaphanous shawl. Gabriel tries to cover the woman with the shawl of her own ‘ideas,’ and then he leaves with Truth. The woman departs with a male friend, trailing the shawl. (We mention this detail because the sophisticate is Jane Darwell, who later played Ma Joad in The Grapes of Wrath.)
In the end, ‘ever elusive’ Truth scampers back to her grove—and Gabriel’s vision has a surprise ending.

Monday, February 17, 2014

The Big Combo

The Big Combo 1955 U.S. Allied Artists (84 minutes) directed by Joseph H. Lewis, written by Philip Yordan, cinematography by John Alton, lighting by Harry Sundby, music by David Raksin, Robert S. Eisen, editor.

This is a cockamamie cock-and-bull crime story with lots of improbable moving parts, shot in infinite shades of gray in that film noir homeland that was mid-century midtown Manhattan.

The opening credits roll against Manhattan’s neon and motor vehicle headlights seen from the window of a low-flying airplane after dark. At a big boxing event, a young woman flees the arena, chased by two men through the ill-lit, empty and cavernous innards of the structure. At a police station, a dour cop is dead-set on bringing an all but untouchable mob boss to justice.
The cock is the preening mob boss Mr. Brown (Richard Conte). Brown, a former prison guard, has ‘worked his way up’ through the organization known to police as ‘The Combination’—the ‘Big Combo’ of the title. Brown heads Bolemac Corporation, the mob’s legitimate front, which operates out of its Bolemac Hotel. He took over Bolemac from a certain Grazzi, who ‘returned to Sicily.’

The bull is Lieutenant Leonard Diamond (Cornel Wilde) of the New York Police Department’s 93rd Precinct. Diamond is an uncompromising gumshoe bent on bringing down the ruthless and slippery Brown. His ‘sworn duty is to push too hard.’
The cock’s current hen is Susan Lowell (Jean Wallace). Lowell is an upper crust, classically-trained musician in her twenties whom the story line characterizes as drawn to Brown’s animal magnetism while slumming in the clubs in defiance of her parents—Grace Kelly’s bad sister. In an early scene in a restaurant Lowell spots a middle-aged family acquaintance who asks if she still plays the piano.

‘The only thing I play now, Mr. Audubon, is stud poker,’ Lowell replies, shortly before she passes out from too many pills. Mae West would have banked that line.
Brown’s gang includes Joe McClure (Brian Donlevy), his former superior in the Grazzi organization, a middle-aged man with a hearing aid. Brown also has a pair of gunzels, Fante (Lee Van Cleef) and Mingo (Earl Holliman).

‘First is first, and second is nobody,’ Brown lectures his henchmen, belittling McClure, who once owned the hotel, shouting in McClure’s hearing aid for emphasis. (Brown subsequently uses the device to torture Diamond; and then later he turns it off to soften a blow out of a kind of ‘consideration.’)
Brown speaks self-consciously, as though looking in a mirror, often with his back to his interlocutor. He likes the serrated cut of his wit and the sound of his own voice. At outset he looks into the camera, for instance, speaking what he wishes to convey to Diamond as though through a third person.

At the 93rd Precinct police station, Captain Peterson (Robert Middleton) takes Diamond to task over the $18,600 Diamond has spent in six months of investigating Brown—some of which out of his own pocket (in 2014 dollars this would be roughly $161,750). This investigation has included trips to Las Vegas and Cuba at Diamond’s own expense—and on the $96.50 a week that Brown keeps taunting Diamond he makes as a policeman.

Diamond insists to his captain that he is only a treasurer away from nailing Brown. Peterson suspects that Diamond has a thing for the moll and, reminding Diamond that there are ‘17,000 laws on the books to be enforced,’ tells his lieutenant to get his priorities straight.

And the bull does have a thing for the ‘wayward girl.’ Across a table from Lowell in a nightclub, Diamond tries to convince her help him get evidence on Brown to convict him:

‘Do you think this is mink, Miss Lowell? Do you think these are the skins of little animals sewn together for your pleasure? You're mistaken. These are skins of human beings, Miss Lowell, the skins of people who have been beaten, sold, robbed, doped and murdered by Mr. Brown,’ Diamond tells her.

At the same time, Diamond has an on-off relationship with Rita (Helene Stanton), a burlesque queen. A sign near the strip club where Diamond goes to see Rita reads in large letters: ‘Easy terms.’
“Hoodlum, detective: a woman doesn't care how a guy makes a living, just how he makes love,” Rita says.

The plot convolutes as Diamond inevitably winds closer his quarry. The memorable denouement takes place in the Casablancan fog of a small airfield hangar at night, and likewise portends to be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

The unsung stars of this picture are John Alton’s cinematography and Harry Sundby’s lighting. The film’s gray tones are remarkable. If possible, one should see this picture projected on a big screen in a movie theater.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Mystery Street

Mystery Street 1950 U.S. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (93 minutes) directed by John Sturges; screenplay by Sydney Boehm and Richard Brooks; story by Leonard Spielgass; Ferris Webster, editor; John Alton, cinematographer.

This is a beautifully shot, ensemble B picture: a scientific police procedural shot in Boston with a ‘minority’ star, a diverse and interesting group of women actors, a dark sense of ribald humor, and lots of kitschy visual details.
The story gets off to a pulp splash: a voluptuous blonde with great legs appears in a black negligee at the top of a dark Victorian stair and descends pulling on a light-colored silk robe to answer a communal hall telephone ringing on the first floor.

The blonde is Vivian Heldon (Jan Sterling). She is a hostess in a Boston nightclub. We hear Heldon say she is ‘in a jam.’ The ‘jam’ turns out to be that she is pregnant. The father is James Joshua Harkley (Edmon Ryan), a ‘respectable’ married Hyannis yacht builder with teenage daughters. Heldon arranges on the telephone to meet Harkley later that evening at the club where she works, a kitsch little boite called ‘The Grass Skirt.’

Heldon lives in a rooming house on Beacon Hill owned by the prurient and parsimonious Miss Smerrling (Elsa Lanchester). The other boarder, Jacqueline ‘Jackie’ Elcott (Betsy Blair), is a waitress. Jackie is a ‘good girl’ but by no means a goody-goody. In a later scene, she pops a clip out of an Army .45 caliber pistol like a pro. ‘I used to go with an MP,’ she said brightly. ‘What I learned about guns… and the Marines.’
Later in the evening, Heldon sits bored and impatient at a table in The Grass Skirt, stood up by her man and filling an ashtray. A lamp on the table has a ceramic figure of a bare breasted ‘native’ dancer. This kitsch figure has a cheesy ‘grass skirt’ made to undulate suggestively around its waist; it does its herky-jerky rumba to the beat of Cole Porter’s ‘You’d Be So Easy to Love’ playing in the background.

And then opportunity bursts in. A newcomer at the bar who has had too much to drink parked his ‘yellow Ford’ illegally on the curb outside the club. This is Henry Shanway (Marshall Thompson), drowning his sorrows because his wife is in the hospital after having lost their first child.
‘That’s the story of my life,’ the young man admits to the barkeep. ‘I’m always where I shouldn't be. I’m also not where I ought to be. Ever since Adam, man’s been crying, “Where am I?”’

Heldon ‘picks up’ Shanway in short order, commandeers him to his car, and drives to the cape to have it out face to face with Harkley.

Shanway is passed out while Heldon tracks down and finally arranges to meet Harkley. She literally ‘turns heads’—three in campy unison—when she goes into a diner to call Harkley. When Shanway wakes up and realizes that she has driven to the cape, Heldon leaves him standing in the road and rushes off to what will be her fatal last meeting.
The saturnine Harkley has panicked. When they finally meet, the worried 24-year-old who shows the world her edge and attitude looks up unguardedly at her experienced older lover. The muzzle of a handgun springs into view. Harkley shoots Heldon, then ‘makes out’ with her limp body to hide his act when a young couple happens by; he buries her, and then gets rid of the yellow Ford in a sinkhole. The stranded Shanway gets back to Boston and reports his car stolen from the hospital parking lot where it should have been.

The police procedural begins six months later when an ornithologist (Walter Burke) comes across the shapely ankle and foot of a skeleton sticking out of a dune. Now it is the authorities’ turn to work out the backstory the audience has just seen.
Lieutenant Peter Moralas [sic] (Ricardo Montalban), a detective in Barnstable, a town near Hyannis in the southern cape where skeleton turned up, gets the case. Moralas’ regular beat evidently is in a ‘Portuguese section.’ This ‘cold case’ is his first murder investigation. Moralas and his partner, Detective Tim Sharkey (Walter Maher), turn for help to Professor McAdoo (Bruce Bennett), a forensic pathologist at Harvard Medical School’s Department of Legal Medicine.

Moralas does the shoe-leather police work as McAdoo provides clues from the forensic evidence. Modern science conquers the macabre when Moralas and McAdoo succeed in identifying the newspaper headlines’ ‘skeleton girl’ by matching a photo image of the victim’s skull superimposed on a series of photographs of missing women.
Heldon’s last known address takes Moralas back to where we first saw her. Moralas meets Miss Smerrling and Jackie and he finds ‘a little black book’ filled with names among Heldon’s personal effects.

Smerrling self-consciously hides ‘personal things’ from Moralas’ view as she moves around her apartment, but she is framed in a mirror ringed with pictures of flexing male body builders’ oiled torsos clipped from magazines. 
The trail also leads Moralas to the clueless Henry Shanway and his upright wife Grace (Sally Forrest, Montalban’s co-star). Grace, probably aware of her husband’s weakness but convinced of his innocence, keeps the tough, distrustful police lieutenant pounding pavement.

Smerrling steers the narrative into a diverting subplot after she beats Moralas to Harkley and tries to put the squeeze on him—a classic film noir gambit. This subplot also puts the handgun that killed Heldon back into play as a wildcard.

The film’s exterior scenes were shot on Beacon Hill in Boston, in Hyannis, at Harvard Yard and the Square, and at the university medical school in Roxbury. The melodramatic film noir denouement unfolds at Boston’s Trinity Station and across the adjacent rail yard. Incidentally, the director John Sturges is not related to Preston Sturges.