19 May 2010

The Hangover

This is the new standard for excellence in Hollywood. This type of film reflects, as in a Fun House mirror, the early 21st century American character: adolescent, and craving bread-and-circuses. In the 1940s and 1950s, Hollywood's highest art was found in Film Noir--dark, gritty tales of the newly post-Christian soul. Now, sixty-to-seventy years later, and fully and unashamedly carnal, we have Film Cirque, the circus films which revel in American arrested development and the nearly single-minded pursuit of the basest pleasures.

There is no denying the great humor of The Hangover, a tale of a Las Vegas bachelor party that strays far from the usual track of liquor and titty bars, and ends up in a roofies-fueled comic nightmare of (among other weirdness) auto-dental-extraction and insta-parenthood. This is a jester's The Lost Weekend, in which the delirium tremens of four juvenile American males result not from withdrawal, but from the tasers of the clown police. This is the 21st century America in which the terminally sophomoric male can have both his madonna and his whore in a single female soul (played here by a remarkably well-preserved Heather Graham).

That the hero of this American folly should be an obese child molestor is entirely fitting. There is room under the Big Circus Tent of American Uncritical Hedonism for every debauchee. It is a testimony to the cleverness of the script that the audience laughs good-naturedly at the pervert antics of the pedophile character Alan, including his infant masturbation simulacrum. American dysfunction is presented as essentially harmless, the aberrant characters have a joie de vivre which immunizes them against their own stupidity.

The Hangover is well-written, well-directed, well-edited, well-acted and fast-paced freak show comedy. It's a cotton candy movie, the only kind Hollywood still excels at. It dazzles with its demented action, the audience laughs easily at its kOOky characters (you know you have a movie chock full o' kOOks when Mike Tyson, playing himself, seems the epitome of reason)--and when it's over? No thought has been provoked. But there's no point in criticizing The Hangover for its limitations. It's a movie from and about severely limited people, and it must be applauded for its lunatick honesty. This is America, in the Looking Glass.

12 May 2010

Born To Kill

A bizarre story (that often defies logic) of two bitter white trash souls, desperately seeking entry into *polite society.* Storied Hollywood thug Lawrence Tierney plays not-so-subtly named Sam Wild, an astonishingly arrogant, insanely jealous and paranoid prototype metrosexual killer (think Patrick Bateman's roughneck grandpa) who enters a twisted love/hate relationship with Helen Brent, a life-long charity case tired of living off the scraps of her wealthy foster sister.

There's no point in hashing out the plot, other than to say Sam Wild will murder you even if just your shadow gets in his way, and his homicidal charm really gets Helen wet between her legs. Helen's almost as cold-blooded as Wild, as she tells one character who threatens to turn over to the police incriminating information about Wild:

I'm just warning you. Perhaps you don't realize - it's painful being killed. A piece of metal sliding into your body, finding its way into your heart. Or a bullet tearing through your skin, crashing into a bone. It takes a while to die, too. Sometimes a long while.

Sam and Helen are like two roaches feeding off each others dead souls, and their sick relationship ends in chalk outlines. Ignore the two-bit Grand Guignol plot and enjoy this weird little flick for the demented characters, which include not only Sam and Helen, but a couple of noteworthy nuts among the supporting players. Elisha Cook Jr., plays Marty, Sam's faithful (but unexplained) man servant. There's definitely something queer about the relationship between Sam and Marty. Marty follows Sam everywhere, always trying to calm down his hot-tempered big buddy--why? Dunno--other than it's certainly queer. Anyway, Little Elisha delivers this classic line, shortly after one of Sam's impromptu murders:

You can't just go around killing people whenever the notion strikes you. It's not feasible.

Esther Howard
plays Mrs. Kraft, the buttinsky friend of one of Sam's murder victims. Howard is real riot as the bug-eyed, loud-mouthed slovenly gadfly who tries to put Sam behind bars, in between her numerous beer drinking marathons.

Enjoyed on its freak show terms, Born To Kill is an amusingly twisted little tale that still packs a heavy punch sixty-three years after it first crawled out of the cinema sewer.

10 May 2010

The Hitch-Hiker

This is one of the great little treasures of Film Noir, over-looked on all the *Best* and *Greatest* lists, but it's surely the finest portrait of a serial killer from its era. Unusual for the time, the film generally avoids moralizing and artificial judgments, and one could almost label the story of Emmett Myers, a hitch-hiking drifter who kills the unfortunate good Samaritans who stop to offer him a ride, a primitive docu-drama.

Written (and based on the real-life spree killer Billy Cook) and directed by Ida Lupino (fifty-seven years before all the hoopla over the *female director* Kathryn Hurt Locker Bigelow), the story is remarkably free of the cliches of the day. And there's barely a wasted shot in the crisp seventy minute telling of the tale of two Average American Joes on a get-away-from-it-all fishing trip who make the unwise decision to pick up the Hitch-Hiker, Emmet Myers. Myers forces the two buddies to take him through Mexico, making it crystal clear he'll kill them when they are no longer of service.

William Talman plays the Hitch-Hiker and gives us one of the most memorable *bad guys* in screen history. With his greasy hair, bum eye and filthily stained teeth, Talman's Emmett Myers could have been Henry Lee Lucas' father.

Even more ugly than his mug is Myers' text book sociopath's profile: alienated, lacking empathy, drowning in self-pity. Talman's Myers delivers the serial killer's sermon for the ages, as he tells his two hostages:

You guys are soft. You know what makes you that way? You're up to your neck in IOU's. You're suckers! You're scared to get out on your own. You've always had it good, so you're soft. Well, not me! Nobody ever gave me anything, so I don't owe nobody! My folks were tough. When I was born, they took one look at this puss of mine and told me to get lost.

Ida Lupino must also be commended for the film's almost anti-climatic ending, as she cleverly tweaks Hollywood for its tendency toward the *big shoot-out* finale. There's a shoot-out tease, here, but no typical Hollywood tidy *satisfactory* ending with the bad guy lying in a pool of his own blood. A movie decades ahead of its time, it remains psychologically valid in the 21st century.

07 May 2010

Criss Cross

Here’s another Burt Lancaster/Robert Siodmak picture that some think is one of the All-Time Film Noir Greats (like The Killers)—but in reality, it’s pretty mediocre (like The Killers).

Lancaster plays Steve Thompson, a zero with only one thing on his mind: his ex-wife Anna (played without much sizzle by Yvonne *Lily Munster* De Carlo), who is now married to gangster Slim Dundee. Desperate to win back Anna, Thompson, an armored car driver, cooks up a scheme to double-cross Slim in a robbery—but, of course, *things go horribly wrong.*

Really, about the only thing that holds interest in this hum-drum love triangle is spotting all the bit players who went on to better things, such as Tony Curtis and Alan Napier (Alfred the butler on the Batman TV series).

The great Noir villain Dan Duryea plays Slim Dundee, who is supposed to be the bad guy here (in one scene Lily Munster shows Lancaster the bruises Slim has left on her), but Lancaster and De Carlo are such dullards, I imagine most viewers, like me, end up sympathizing with Slim, who actually has some personality, and see the movie’s supposed tragic ending as a happy ending, instead.

Again, as in The Killers, Lancaster’s character is pretty hollow. Indeed, the only memorable thing about Steve Thompson is the ridiculous coat he sports through most of the film. I mean, look at that thing! How can you take anybody seriously who goes around in a goofball get-up like that?

06 May 2010

Scarlet Street

With all its confused gender and identity swapping, this may be Hollywood's first transsexual picture. Scarlet Street tells the story of pathetic Chris Cross, a fifty-year-old virgin, who, despite being married for five years, has never seen a woman naked. To escape his crushing loneliness (and perhaps to save on rent, as well), Cross married his ball-cutting landlady, and ended up as her domestic servant. The frog-faced star of David, Edward G. Robinson, plays Cross, and appears in much of the film in a flowery apron, doing the cooking and cleaning. He's clearly the woman in his masochistic marriage, dominated and bullied by his butch wife. Cross' only pleasure comes from painting, but he's so beaten down, he doesn't think his pictures are worth showing.

In a fluke encounter, Cross meets Kitty, an attractive young woman whose beauty only goes skin deep--but that's enough to blind the hapless old eunuch. Kitty is a real alley cat, and she just about devours the mouse-of-a man Cross in a series of increasingly high-stakes cons.

Kitty is involved in an S&M relationship of her own with pimpish boyfriend Johnny. The more Johnny beats Kitty, the more she loves him. In fact, Kitty is a lazy tramp (there's a nice scene of her spitting grape seeds around her filthy apartment, dirty dishes piled high in the kitchen sink), and really only gets the energy required to fleece Cross from the motivational beatings Johnny gives her.

The sap Cross, who has been a loyal and faithful bank employee for twenty-five years, and a punching bag husband and *solid citizen,* begins what might seem a moral slide, as he steals from his wife and then the bank in order to get the cash necessary to support his Kitty addiction. But then money quickly starts flowing in when, in a rather far-fetched plot twist, Johnny accidentally launches Cross' art career. Cross' paintings are discovered and take the art world by storm, but at Johnny's violent urging, Kitty takes credit as the artist, which leads one art critic to marvel at the *masculinity* of her work. The colossal patsy Cross goes along with the scheme, stupidly thinking his pictures are only valued when they are believed to be the work of a woman.

Robinson's skillful performance, though, subtly suggests Cross has always been other than he appears, and that he just needed the scent of Kitty's kitty to give him the courage of his flawed convictions.

Indeed, when the mercilessly suckered Cross finally wises up and realizes what a dope Kitty has made of him, that she loves the repellent Johnny and considers Cross to be a literally laughable ugly old wimp, all of Cross' tangle of repressed conflicts and desires explode, and he assaults Kitty in a predictable act of psycho-sexual revenge (one can only imagine the sticky mess in his pants after he has had his violent way with Kitty. . .and the film would have played much better had the masochistic Kitty stayed true to character, and welcomed Cross' ultimate S&M finale).

Scarlet Street is not-quite a great movie. The plot requires a too-high degree of credulity, the early scenes are played a little too light, and there is an over-long and tediously moralizing post-script. Most damaging, however, is Joan Bennett's performance as Kitty. She tries hard, but lacks the charisma necessary to light up what could have been a great femme fatale role. She's dull, not seductive, and it makes Robinson's blind infatuation hard to believe.

03 May 2010

The Seventh Victim

The film opens and closes with a quote from a John Donne sonnet:

I runne to death, and death meets me as fast,
And all my pleasures are like yesterday.

So you know it's not going to be Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, but even if the film were released today, I think it would still be considered unusually somber.

The story starts with nice girl Mary being forced to quit her cloistered private all-girls school to go to New York City to look for her missing older sister, Jacqueline. And let me tell you, Jacqueline is one weird chick, and I assume she must have seemed especially weird to The Seventh Victim's 1943 audience. Weary and restless, with her pale skin and jet black hair, finding nothing in life to hold her, Jacqueline would fit right in with our contemporary angsty goth girls.

Had there ever been a more morbidly depressed character to appear on the screen? Jacqueline would have given pause to Bud Cort's Harold. When Mary discovers Jacqueline has rented a room she never uses, but for which she faithfully pays the rent every month, she convinces the landlord to let her in. I figured Mary would enter the room, poke around and find a clue in a book or a picture or something--the typical mystery stuff. Given my own surprise, I wonder what the '43 audience's reaction was when the door opened to reveal a room empty except for a chair and a hangman's noose dangling over it?

It turns out Jacqueline has told several people of her death wish, but nobody seems to have really understood her. For example, Mary (played by Kim Hunter, who would later earn fame as Stella in A Streetcar Named Desire) learns Jacqueline has married the lawyer Gregory Ward, whom she quickly abandoned. Ward has been looking for Jacqueline, also, and when Mary tells him about the room with the chair and the noose, Ward (played by Hugh *Ward Cleaver* Beaumont, and foreshadowing his relentless Leave It To Beaver optimism) downplays the macabre implications by saying:

Your sister had a feeling about life, that it wasn't worth living unless one could end it. I helped her get the room. . .No, that room made her happy, in some strange way.

As goody-goody Mary and the square Ward spend time together looking for Jacqueline, they discover in each other the bourgeois charms that suit their conventional 1943 souls--they *fall in love,* and become a bit less diligent in their hunt for Jacqueline. A bohemian poet who'd been on the fringe of Jacqueline's social circle assumes the lead role in the search, and he persuades a cynical psychiatrist who is treating Jacqueline to reveal what he knows. Through this ultra-sophisticate shrink, Mary learns her terminally bored sister has joined a gang of Greenwich Village Satanists!

But Jacqueline has broken the Satanists' code of silence by revealing the group's existence. The previous six cult members who did the same have all died--will Jacqueline become the seventh victim?

Billed as a horror movie, The Seventh Victim is more goth trippy than scary. Lean (it runs only 71 minutes) and elegantly moody, this is a beautifully eerie melodrama, with several hauntingly visionary moments (the suicide room with chair and noose, a creepy subway ride, a better-than-Psycho shower scene, the slow-burn showdown between Jacqueline and the devil worshippers, and that rarest of all movie moments: a pitch-perfect ending, which contrasts death-loving Jacqueline with a death-fearing woman who lives down the hall from the suicide room). This is first-rate gloom-and-doom.