Category Archives: 1950s

The Killers (1956)

*. What was it about noir that made it so popular outside of the U.S.? It had a big influence on the French New Wave, and, as this student film suggests, even in the Soviet Union.
*. Not that this movie was inspired by Robert Siodmak’s 1946 film. I’m not sure if anyone involved had even seen it. But they knew Hemingway’s 1927 story and it had enough of the noir flavour: a hapless hero caught up in a web of crime; laconic tough-guy patter; an overarching sense of doom.
*. I think it’s fair to say that the only reason this film is known today is because part of it (the first and last sections) was co-directed by Andrei Tarkovsky when he was at the State Institute of Cinematography (VGIK). But while it’s very cleanly presented, I don’t see much of the mature Tarkovsky here. It’s a stagey short, but far less effective in its use of space than Siodmak’s version.

*. Instead, what I really like about it are the two killers. At first I thought they seemed overdressed, slightly comic figures, like those threatening characters we get in Beckett or Pinter. But then I had to admit that their American cousins are just as silly. Their talk is just too tough, to the point where it seems unprofessional. If they’re only in town to do a hit, why bother alienating so many people?
*. Then there’s Lee Marvin and Clu Gulager in Don Siegel’s 1964 version. Wearing sunglasses to invade the Home for the Blind. How is that not comic? And they even get tough and threatening with the inmates. What kind of tough guys do that? They’re parody heavies, almost like something out of the annals of Police Squad.
*. I wonder what Tarkovsky, or his co-creators on this project, Marika Beiku and Aleksandr Gordon, were thinking of. Were the killers supposed to be their idea of American gangsters? Or were they KGB commissars? Was there a difference?
*. Of the three adaptations of Hemingway this one sticks closest to the source, not presenting any back story explaining why Ole Andreson turns his face to the wall. Meanwhile Nick Adams decides he has to leave this town. That’s a very American kind of thing to say, but I wonder how it played in Soviet Russia. It’s not like Nick is going to be able to strike out for the frontier. There was a wall to the West, and maybe that’s the Wall that Ole is turned toward, and that Nick is facing too. Which makes a Moscow diner the perfect setting for this latter-day existentialist drama. There’s no escape.


The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957)

*. Richard Matheson’s novel was just titled The Shrinking Man. Hollywood added the “Incredible.”
*. They wanted to add some other stuff too. Most obviously a happy ending where the doctors find a cure and Scott Carey becomes a big person again. But, remarkably, the test audiences went well and they stuck to what Matheson (who had insisted on doing the screenplay) had written. Which, despite its note of spiritual uplift, is pretty darn bleak. Scott is disappearing into solitary nothingness. This may lead to his finally becoming one with the universe but only in the sense that we all do when we dissolve into our irreducible atoms. As Stephen King remarked, he’s just reached the acceptance stage of finding out that his condition is terminal.

*. To be sure, there are significant changes made to the novel. The curse of Scott’s sexual frustration, most notably, is gently elided. Scott and Louise don’t have a kid, so there is no babysitter for him to ogle. And the theme of humiliation — as Scott is progressively infantilized and feminized — barely registers. In the initial stages of his shrinking, when they just think it’s weight loss, Louise teases Scott that he can live a child’s dream world and eat nothing but ice cream and cake, but this is dramatic irony, not mockery. And the scenes in the novel where Scott is beaten up by a gang of kids and molested by a dirty old man are both dropped. There was a fairly large page-to-screen gap in the 1950s.

*. I don’t imagine Matheson was at all bothered by any of these changes. He was a commercial writer and he wanted a hit to get him started in the film biz. For example: in the story Scott’s basement nemesis is a black widow spider. Matheson knew a black widow spider doesn’t spin a web but he wanted that type of spider anyway for thematic reasons, and the black widow has a resonant name. In the movie the spider is changed into the even more improbable tarantula, which also doesn’t spin a web. But so what? Would anyone care? Not a chance.
*. Mostly it’s an effects movie, and I thought these were pretty good considering the time and the fact that this wasn’t a big-budget picture. Some of the process shots look a bit cut-and-paste, and at one point Scott’s body turns transparent, but for the most part it works well. Scott’s playing with the oversize props (pencil, mousetrap, scissors) was a lot of fun. I was a bit upset though that Clarice, the circus midget, wasn’t a midget at all but a beautiful actress given the same treatment as Scott.
*. The one effect that had me wondering was the giant waterdrops falling from the water heater. I assumed these must have been balloons. In fact they were condoms filled with water.

*. They got a good performance out of that cat. Cats are notoriously hard to coach, but “Butch” seems to have come through. The scene where Louise is sure Butch has eaten Scott, and then we see Butch coughing as though on a hairball, is wickedly funny, though audiences at the time might have found it upsetting.
*. It’s a great novel, predictably popularized by Hollywood. But they didn’t change as much as I thought they would have, and the ending in particular maintains a kind of bleak dignity. Other movies would make use of the same conceit, shrinking a woman, shrinking the kids, shrinking a submarine, but they wouldn’t have the same weight as this one. Which is why we still remember it, when all the other tiny people have shrunk away to nothing and disappeared.

The Lineup (1958)


*. This is a movie that was based on a television series, which in turn had been based on a radio show. Given the date I think it must have been one of the earliest such migrations.
*. Director Don Siegel had been involved with the TV show (he directed the pilot), but wanted to do something different with this movie. Specifically, he wanted to ditch the police-procedural part of the story and just focus on the trio of gangsters gathering the heroin. The studio, however, insisted on the tie-in to the TV series. Some might disagree, but I think this was wise, as I don’t find the villains here as interesting as many seem to. I don’t think they could have carried the whole movie.
*. It’s sometimes described as a film noir, and it’s even packaged as such in the first of Columbia’s Film Noir Classics sets, but I don’t think the label fits. Most of the key noir elements are missing. I’ll mention three.
*. First, there’s no sense of moral ambiguity. Dancer (Eli Wallach) is described as a pure psychopath, and there’s no reason to doubt he’s just bad all the way through. The only inner conflict he feels is in trying to keep his rage in check. “He pushed me too far!” is a great line — but only for Wallach’s delivery.


*. Second, it’s a day film. I’ve mentioned before how San Francisco has never struck me as a noir town because it’s just so bright and pretty (see my notes on The Sniper and Where Danger Lives). That sense of prettiness is emphasized even more here because all the action takes place during a single cloudless, fogless day (with no night scenes). And it’s not a city of grime or shadows. The settings are almost all very tony and attractive, with the junky driver’s room being the only exception I can think of.
*. Third, there’s no femme fatale. Indeed, there’s only one woman in the cast, and she’s a hostage (and single mom) who doesn’t provide any erotic spark. This lack of women opens the door for the kind of crazy speculations that James Ellroy makes on the commentary track about how many of the characters in the movie are gay. I think he goes further down this road than is warranted based on the evidence, though something is clearly being hinted at in the steam room scene, and the ambiguous relationship between Julian and Dancer, neither of whom seem attracted to women (Julian thinks they “have no place in society”), is up for grabs.


*. These three items aren’t determinative (apparently Eddie Muller and Ellroy consider the great theme of noir to be “we’re fucked,” which is certainly the case here), but in my book they count against considering The Lineup as a film noir. That said, it is a decent crime film.
*. Eli Wallach got star billing in what I think was only his second feature (after Baby Doll). For some reason he reminds me of Joe Pesci here. They have the same air of comic, weaselly menace. Of course given the role of Dancer he basically steals the show, but I think he would have managed that anyway. Eddie Muller: “there’s something scarily attractive about that character, you’re going to see a lot more of it in American movies after this.”
*. Everybody else, even the other crooks, seems ’50s square. I think there’s only one scene where they take their hats off.
*. The locations are fascinating, even if they do give the film a bit of the feel of a tour of SF landmarks after a while.


*. The direction is certainly “proficient” (Ellroy’s word) but also has a lot of nice flourishes. You have to love Dancer shooting the housekeeper being reflected in the mirror. Big style points for that one. Then notice how that scene in the crime lab at the beginning where they discover the heroin in the statuette is all done in one take. That’s pretty impressive as the camera moves around quite a bit and the scene moves through several distinct phases of exposition Then we’re taken to the opera house and a lovely tracking shot following our two detectives through the colossal halls. And even Manny Farber, who didn’t much care for Siegel, admired the Hitchcockian “minor masterpiece” of the Sutro’s Museum sequence.
*. Which brings us to the car chase. Siegel liked car chases (he’d already done at least one very good one in The Big Steal), and here he offers up an excellent mix of back projection (which Muller thought Siegel probably hated, but which he nevertheless handled very well) and dramatic locations (most obviously the Embarcadero Freeway, still under construction). Muller goes so far as to call it “the best car chase done in a movie up to this point,” and he may be right.


*. I wonder if it was that easy to pick up women in 1958, or if audiences at the time found the aquarium scene ridiculous. Forget the fact that Dancer’s a dangerous killer, even if he’d been on the level would he have been able to get such a woman to trust in him so quickly and so completely? Ellroy calls his method “the con of male isolation,” but I’ve never known that to be such a winner.
*. But then the entire plot is ridiculous. Ellroy: “never in the history of crime has something like this gone down, with the multiple kidnappings and murders . . . it’s a specious construction.” You can’t think about it for a second. Eddie Muller mentions how the whole plan would fall apart if Dancer didn’t happen to meet the cleaning lady in the hall of the hotel who tells him where his last mule has gone, and he’s right. But you can’t ask questions like that of a movie like this. It’s not built to make sense. I mean, Dancer doesn’t even have a remotely credible cover story for just walking into the Sanders mansion and getting them to give him their flatware. And the idea of taking the woman and her child hostage so that she can explain to the Man what went wrong is beyond ludicrous.


*. Even aside from the absurdities, the plot seems to me to be a very rough piece of work. What was the point of Raymond Bailey’s character Dressler? Just to introduce us to the mechanics of drug smuggling via unwitting mules? Surely that information could have been presented in a way more integral to the main action, as Dressler is dropped completely after the first third of the film and is never returned to.


*. As with any genre flick you have to appreciate the little perverse twists. Here these would include Julian’s collection of last words, the strange figure of the Man, in a wheelchair no less, and the little girl who winks at Dancer before the nuns take her away. What was that all about?
*. Today there’s more of a formula for this sort of film, but at the time this was a pretty daring piece of work. It’s still great fun, full of memorable if not quite classic moments. I’m surprised it isn’t better known, as it holds up well as entertainment. Looking into it as deeply as I can, I can’t see it as aspiring to be anything more.


Run for the Sun (1956)


*. Chances are you’ve heard this film is based on the Richard Connell story “The Most Dangerous Game,” which had already been made into a classic B-picture in 1932. And if you come to it with that knowledge and expectations, expectations triggered by Connell’s name appearing in the credits, it won’t be long before you’re wondering what’s going on.
*. There is a danger that goes along with re-telling any familiar story. Not so much the need to make it new, but to make it interesting. In the case of Run for the Sun they certainly made it new, but they fell down on the interesting part.
*. As far as what’s new is concerned, I don’t see how Connell got a credit, as there’s almost no connection to his story here at all. Or maybe it was based on some other story by Richard Connell, as the story isn’t named. But I doubt it.
*. Instead of a madman on an island hunting humans we have a couple of Nazis hiding out in the jungles of Mexico. When a reclusive writer named Michael Latimer (Richard Widmark) drops in on them, accompanied by a reporter named Katherine Connors (Jane Greer), the Nazis decide they can’t let them go. Our heroes escape from the magnificent jungle estate, are hunted, and then hop on a plane and fly away.
*. That is not the story of “The Most Dangerous Game.” Browne (Trevor Howard) is not a hunter but an ex-diplomat. He doesn’t have a gruesome trophy room full of human heads. He isn’t even that eccentric a figure. He mostly seems bored with life in the jungle, and is more irritated than anything else by Widmark’s sudden appearance.
*. So if you were expecting a rousing adventure story you’re not going to find it here. We’re half an hour into it before we’re even introduced to Howard. Instead the emphasis is all on the budding romance between Widmark and Greer.
*. I mention the time because it’s indicative of a problem. “The Most Dangerous Game” is a very short story. The 1932 film came in at 63 minutes. A Game of Death was 72 minutes. Bloodlust! was 68 minutes. These films kept things moving. Run for the Sun has much higher production values and a bigger cast, but that’s not necessarily a plus. For material like this such an approach is out of place. It’s a trashy little story and needs to be treated as such.
*. In short, there’s too much set-up, and the eccentric figure of Zaroff is marginalized. This means Widmark and Greer have to carry the picture. But while they’re both capable of this — Widmark is well cast as the damaged, edgy hero (in a role that usually calls for a stiff), and Greer — the woman who built Robert Mitchum’s gallows high in Out of the Past — is easy on the eyes, but they are mostly wasted here in parts that are conventional and dull. Trevor Howard is horribly underused playing Browne as just another burned-out case. Latimer is capable but not all that bright (why does he give himself away to Browne?), and Katie is just dead weight (“It’s no use, leave me, go on!”). She even screams when she sees a lizard, which may have been a nod to Fay Wray. Because, you know, it’s just a lizard.
*. I’d want to note though that Greer suffered for her art, contracting a virus during the location shooting that eventually required her to have a heart operation. We often look down on A-list actors as pampered divas, but most of them are real troopers.
*. It’s a shame they couldn’t find a way to play up a triangle with Browne. In other versions of the story the Zaroff figure expects to take the hero’s woman as a (living) trophy or an addition to his harem, but Browne doesn’t seem interested in Katie at all. I wonder if we’re meant to question his sexuality. There’s mention of his having had a wife in Germany who was killed in a British air raid, but nothing much is made of it. Now he lives with his brother-in-law (Peter van Eyck) and they seem rather like a couple. There are no women around.
*. It’s a movie I’d like to like more, as I admire the stars and it looks good. But the story drags. There’s less action than other versions of the story, and what action there is makes little sense (Latimer’s improvised door-gun is highly improbable, and I don’t see how you can run a man down in a plane taxiing for take-off unless they’re very, very stupid). There’s some nice photography and good-looking locations, but I think it’s finally just too conventional a telling of what is essentially a perverse and transgressive tale.



The Black Castle (1952)


*. 1952. It’s twenty years since the glory days of Universal horror. And this is what things have come to. A collection of cinematic bric-a-brac without any strong, unifying narrative or art to the presentation.
*. The bric-a-brac make us think we’re in a half dozen different movies. First off, there’s the creepy castle, the graveyard, and the howling wolf. Then there’s what may be a premature burial. Has that young man been turned into a zombie? I only wish. Then a set-up lifted wholesale from Dracula: planning the journey on a map, and then a carriage ride that stops at an inn where dropping the wrong names sets off alarm bells. But the count in this case is not a vampire. Instead, he’s someone like Zaroff, the huntsman from The Most Dangerous Game.
*. Toss in some other odds and ends like a moat filled with alligators (a real high point in the film, for me), a villain with an eye patch, some African totems, the black leopard from Cat People (well, at least it looks like the same kitty), a bit of subterfuge borrowed from Romeo and Juliet, and even Boris Karloff, poor Boris Karloff, turning in another tired performance in a generic supporting part. And poor Lon Chaney (Jr.), turning in another tired performance in a generic supporting part, this time as a mute Igor. Or Gargon. Sheesh.
*. Throw it all in a pot, or a black castle, stir, and . . . you have this.
*. If it all sounds like a messy stew, that’s because it is. What’s remarkable is that it’s actually a flashback film, spending most of its length explaining how our heroes ended up about to be buried alive. It just takes forever before we are told what is going on. Which, it turns out, is a revenge plot so bizarre it never could be explained properly anyway.
*. Aside from the alligator room (did I say how much I liked that?), the only other thing that interested me here was the rather casual attitude displayed toward adultery. Count Karl von Bruno is married to Elga, his second wife, after having disposed of his first a la the collector in Browning’s “My Last Duchess” (I assume that’s her corpse stored in the dungeon, for no reason except to be discovered at a bad time). Despite his current marital status, he makes love openly at his castle with Therese, who is presumably the next in line. Meanwhile, Elga takes all of about twenty minutes to fall into the arms of the dashing Burton. Before long they are confessing that their lives meant nothing before they met each other.
*. I can see making the count out to be an adulterous lech, though even so it seems odd that he’d be carrying on with Therese right in front of his wife. Basically he’s telling her she’s being replaced. I guess this helps justify her quickly taking up with Burton, but in 1952 it’s all shockingly a bit like a swap meet.
*. So it’s really just a collection of leftovers from other horror movies, stitched together in a very awkward way. The potential for comedy was there — Richard Greene would have been a terrific comic lead — but that was probably seen as less profitable. Too bad.


Murder by Contract (1958)


*. How much of a cue is the score giving us? The lights come up on a typical noir setting: the hood wearing a wifebeater shaving in front of a mirror in his dour apartment. But Perry Botkin’s plucking of those electric guitar strings recalls the jaunty zither music from The Third Man. Is this a noir comedy?
*. I think it’s very funny, but I can’t be sure how intentional this was. Could it have been meant as a satire?
*. Take the character of Claude, the philosopher-psychopath hit man. He’s always ready with a lecture on what it takes to be a perfect killing machine, and these are delivered with such intensity that it helps to mask his near total incompetence. But at least he has George fooled. And boy is he cool. Look at the quiet scene where he kills the man at the barbershop, the way his own nodding head echoes that of his victim. It’s like they’re both ready to fall asleep.
*. His lectures, in turn, are sheer nonsense. They impress the hell out of George, but then George admits to only having made it to the third grade. Most of what Claude says just boils down to killing being a business. He browbeats both the waiter and the call girl over the need to focus more on the bottom line. And in case we could possibly miss the point, the script keeps hammering us. Contract work is business: “You murder the competition. Instead of price-cutting, throat cutting.” We start to feel as though Claude is just a little too full of himself, even bragging about his supposed lack of empathy: “I wasn’t born this way. I trained myself. I eliminate personal feeling.”
*. But Claude’s best speeches are the ones where he tries to explain why women always make a mess of things. They are unpredictable. You can’t plan for them. Then, contradicting this, both of his first two plans to kill Billie rely on her behaving in entirely predictable ways. The second one, for example, is based on the scientific premise that “The human female is descended from the monkey, and monkeys are about the most curious animal in the world. If anything goes on, it just can’t stand it not to know about it. Same thing with a woman.” Nobody could have written that with a straight face, even in 1958.
*. Shot in just eight days by Irving Lerner, it’s a movie most often praised for its “economy of style” (Martin Scorsese) and “lean, purposeful” approach (Jonathan Rosenbaum). I guess this is fair enough, bu the stylistic sparseness makes an odd, comic juxtaposition with the wild absurdity of Claude’s Wile E. Coyote murder schemes.
*. In the first of these, Claude somehow fixes the power lines going into Billie’s house so that when she turns on her television it will explode. No, really. That’s his genius plan. The guy, George declares, has a brain like Einstein’s! Alas, when Billie switches her TV on with a remote, her life is spared. Drat! Foiled again! Back to the old drawing board . . .
*. His next brilliant plan involves all three hoods working together to trick Billie into coming to her front door. How can they possibly do that? Hm. Well, spend the day training George how to shoot with a bow so that he can fire a flaming arrow into some dry grass near Billie’s house. Then have Marc call up the fire department. You see, when Billie hears the sirens of the fire engines, she will (being a woman descended from the monkey and thus about the most curious animal in the world) open the door and then KABLAMMO! Contract fulfilled! What could possibly go wrong with a plan like that? It’s genius, I tells ya.
*. Unfortunately Billie is not the one who opens the door so somebody else (another curious woman, naturally) ends up getting shot. Grrrrr! If only Claude had actually got that artillery piece that he told George about!
*. Marc and George must be meant as comic relief: bickering villainous lightweights providing a foil for Claude. There’s no way the shot of the three of them lined up together in the convertible taking in the sights of L.A. wasn’t meant to be funny, is there? The score here helps too. I’ve heard it compared to the theme music for The Beverly Hillbillies, which Botkin also composed.
*. Billie Williams is funny too. She reciprocates Claude’s sexism, hating all men because she thinks they’re “sex crazy” (something she tells us apropos of nothing). She also wears a leopard-print dress and carries a teddy bear around when she isn’t watching TV or playing the piano.
*. Finally, the plot is filled with inconsistencies and absurdities. A call girl is introduced who just happens to be in possession of secret inside information from the D.A.’s office that she relays unwittingly to Claude. That’s her whole reason for being in the movie. Marc and George take Claude to a film set to whack him, and George doesn’t even bring a gun. And why does the Chief even give these two idiots the job in the first place, when it’s already been established that neither of them have killed a man before? Finally, after refusing to save his life by fulfilling the contract on Billie, Claude kills Marc and George and then proceeds to try, once again, to kill Billie. Why? I mean, seeing as she’d already testified, why even bother? Was the Chief really going to pay him?
*. I hope all of this lets you know how enjoyable a movie Murder by Contract is. It’s easily one of the silliest, most singular, and bizarre noirs ever made. Was that what they wanted? I think not. But there’s nothing wrong with happy accidents.

Arrière Saison (1950)


*. The title is correctly translated on the Kino Avant-Garde 2 disc as “late autumn.” Looking for more information online I was surprised to find it more generally translated as “backward season,” which is not just incorrect but meaningless. Did Google do this to us?
*. Does the season have any special significance? The most obvious response would be that it refers to the time of life of the two protagonists, the woodcutter and his wife Jeanne, but they look a little young for that. This may, however, be the effect of our own elongated sense of age and we need to think ourselves back to a time when 40 was the old 60.


*. Their age means something. In the first place, this is a film about routine. Jeanne and her husband have settled into a routine that has him coming home for lunch and then again for dinner. Their lives are arranged around mealtimes. They could probably set their clocks by their stomachs, but it looks like they don’t even need clocks any more.
*. You could smile (I did) at the Frenchman not even taking off his beret to eat his lunch of stew with a baguette and a glass of wine, but for me this was less a nod to a stereotype than an affirmation of the value of routine. It’s not just the same dull round that the stir-crazy dog does in its pen but something that orders and gives some meaning to what would otherwise be meaningless lives.
*. Has the routine become something automatic? Yes. Note how Jeanne actually leaves a pot cooking on the stove when she leaves. She isn’t being careless or deliberately leaving a mess though. Instead, she’s being conscientious. It’s a sign that while she’s bored with her life, she still cares about her husband.
*. Things are not happy on the home front. There are no kids, and if we take it that the late-autumn age of the couple means something then it’s unlikely there are going to be any.
*. That poor dog. I felt worse for it than I did for Jeanne. The obvious parallel between them (she is trapped behind glass, it is stuck behind chicken wire) leads one to think the worst of her situation.
*. Didn’t they have chainsaws in 1950? Actually . . . it’s complicated. But portable, one-man chainsaws didn’t come into mass production until after WW2, so it’s not surprising that everyone is still using axes here.


*. The title cards announce this as a “poetic essay.” Was French Impressionism the nearest film ever came to poetry? And if so, why? What was the zeitgeist?
*. The title cards also tell us that this will be a short film without dialogue because words would add nothing. Which is true, since no one in the film speaks. Routine means they don’t have to. The woodcutters know their jobs. Jeanne and her husband don’t exchange even the briefest of pleasantries. He says nothing to her when he comes home, and nothing when he leaves.
*. Their silence leaves everything open to interpretation. Are they tired of each other? No longer communicating? After she leaves, does spend his feeling on the unimportant wood? Or does he take for granted that she’ll return (because she’s done this before)? He does leave the key for her in the flowerpot.


*. Dimitri Kirsanoff had done Ménilmontant almost a quarter-century earlier. I don’t think this film is an advance, but it does show an artist who stuck to his aesthetic guns.
*. It’s a difficult film to interpret, in part because I think the way we look at it today is probably different than how it would have been viewed or was meant to be viewed at the time. Does Jeanne’s return make her a failed feminist, unequal to Ibsen’s Nora? Or is she affirming something about her marriage? Today, of course, we come to these questions with different feelings. As Pearl Jam put it, in a song about domestic violence, “She feeds him. That’s why she’ll be back again.”


The Strange Door (1951)


*. You know when you see the name Charles Laughton in the credits that the movie is at least going to be worth watching. Not that all his films were good, but he was always good in them.
*. He’s terrific here, hamming it up as the sly, soft-spoken Sire de Maletroit, affecting a nervous hand and punctuating his lines with all kinds of pregnant beats. It’s a great performance, but Laughton so rarely delivered anything less.
*. The story is loosely, very loosely, based on a Robert Louis Stevenson short: “The Sire de Maletroit’s Door.” The film has little in common with its source. All that happens in the Stevenson story is that Denis is captured by de Maletroit and made to marry Blanche, who has compromised herself by carrying on an affair, thus bringing the Maletroit name into disrepute. After a (chaste) night spent commiserating together, Blanche and Denis fall in love and are happily married the next morning. There is no back story involving Blanche’s mother and her father is long dead.
*. There’s also no character of Voltan, the dim but honest jailor played by Boris Karloff in the movie. It’s not much of a part and one suspects they were just trying to come up with something to get Karloff in the picture (it would reunite him with Laughton for the first time since 1932’s The Old Dark House).


*. I wonder what film was the first to use that “walls-are-getting-closer” trap. Something from the silent era no doubt. It’s probably best known today from the scene in the Death Star’s garbage compactor in Star Wars.
*. It’s a good-looking production, but aside from Laughton’s character there isn’t much to care about. Luckily, he’s given lots of chances to shine. Given how little there was to work with in Stevenson’s story the script tosses him a treasury of juicy lines. I think my favourite is when Denis reproaches him for killing Count Grassin (another character not in the source story), saying that he could have saved himself an unprovoked murder. De Maletroit responds: “‘Unprovoked?’ Well, I won’t dispute that point, but it did upset me.” That’s gold!
*. 1951 seems late for a film like this, and it doesn’t show up on many radars today. But it is worth hunting down, and if you’re like me you’ll want to come back to it every now and then just to savour Laughton doing his inimitable thing.


The Sniper (1952)


*. Eddie Muller, providing the DVD commentary for The Sniper, nicely summarizes two of its main claims to fame. It’s “really one of the very first serial killer movies and it’s interesting to note that it was a very empathetic and sympathetic portrayal of the subject.”
*. While I’m at, I’ll give its other source of special interest, which is the location photography in San Francisco.
*. I’ve mentioned before (in my notes on Where Danger Lives) that I don’t think of San Francisco as a noir town. Muller, who wrote a book on noir and grew up there, would probably have a different opinion. My feeling, however, is that The Sniper isn’t really a noir picture. This has less to do with its subject matter or the way that it’s shot as it does with its message. It’s an idealistic movie, with little of the engrained cynicism of noir. The scene in the mayor’s office is really the only flash of cynicism, and it’s presented in a judgmental, negative light.
*. That idealism is sincere, but I think it works against the movie. In 1952 a serial killer was still seen as a social problem, making The Sniper into a message picture. It was produced by Stanley Kramer (who specialized in this sort of thing), and the husband-and-wife screenwriting team of Edward and Edna Anhalt. The Anhalts had just won a screenplay Oscar for Panic in the Streets and would be nominated for this film, but I think their script here is deeply flawed.


*. Some of its flaws are excusable. At the time this was quite a daring film, but they couldn’t have a sex killer enjoying killing people and we’re finally left in the dark as to Eddie’s motivations for declaring war on “womankind.” Muller can’t figure out the “incredible leap” that the homicide chief makes in even determining that these are sex crimes. But of course they couldn’t say or show much more than they did. I assume Eddie is lustful but impotent in some way, but beyond demonstrating how inept he is at picking up girls that’s as far as things could go.
*. The rest of the screenplay is quite stiff. The psychiatrist (Richard Kiley) is a righteous blowhard, and Muller says he “might as well be wearing a sign saying ‘I am the conscience of the screenwriters and the producers’ around his neck.”
*. The psychiatrist as hero, however, was big in the 1950s. He’d show up again in movies like The Three Faces of Eve and Suddenly Last Summer. I think this is a profession that has fallen off its pedestal in our own time. Today a psychiatrist is more likely to be presented as an irresponsible pill pusher.
*. For all their research, however, I also had problems with the big speech the Anhalts give the psychiatrist in the mayor’s office. In the first place, he says the “legal definition of insanity” goes back to “an old English law, a law passed when they were still burning witches.” The laws he is referring to are known as the M’Naghten rules, which arose from a British case of 1843. They were not still burning witches in 1843.
*. Then there is the matter of Albert Fish. Apparently the Anhalts were inspired to write the screenplay based on their research into the crimes of Fish, but Fish was a totally depraved old man whose crimes (including cannibalism) had almost nothing in common with those of Eddie Miller in this film. Furthermore, the psychiatrist says that a judge of the supreme court held that Fish “undoubtedly killed at least fifteen” victims: “He was executed for one but sixteen were dead.” I don’t know where this information is coming from. Fish is known to have had three victims, and is suspected in the deaths of a half-dozen more. Yet Muller on the commentary piles on, saying that the psychiatrist is “soft-pedalling” Fish’s crimes because “there are stories that his victims numbered in the hundreds.”
*. In all of this Muller has to admit that director Dmytryk “couldn’t find a way around the pedantic nature of the screenplay.” In particular, the police-procedural stuff (the police chief lecturing his team, the meeting with the mayor at his office, the speech by the psychiatrist during the same) is deadly dull.
*. There are a few great sequences in here — Eddie burning his hand on the stove, going crazy at the amusement park, and shooting the man on the tower — but these all involve the killer. The rest of the movie drags.


*. And it’s the script that’s at fault. Nothing the police do is of much use. When they show up at the murder scene in the park we’re given a background chorus of voice meant to show us how upset the public is getting at the fact that the killer hasn’t been caught. The voices say: “Why don’t you do something, earn your money!” “Ah, they’re always there after it happens.” “Getting so you can’t even go to a park on a Sunday.” “Some police force!” This sounds every bit as tired and generic typing it as it does listening to it in the film.
*. How cute is it that the owner of Alpine Cleaners & Dyers is a guy named Mr. Alpine?
*. How cute is it that the lead detective, played by Adolphe Menjou, is Lieutenant Frank Kafka? Though note that in one scene he is clearly addressed as Tom Kafka. I wonder if they changed it during shooting at some point — figuring Kafka was bad enough without calling him Frank too — and then didn’t fix the continuity error.
*. There are a some things to like. The scenes I listed earlier stand out as memorable. The use of the San Francisco locations to emphasize the city’s verticality is also very effective, with numerous shots of people going up and down steps and countless overhead shots as Eddie looks down on his prey (later reversed as the police adopt the sniper positions on rooftops to hunt him).



*. I also found it interesting how much development the script puts into the antagonism between the sexes. Though I wasn’t sure what the point of it all was. I mean things like the women coming out of the theatre and complaining about men, the doctor bandaging Eddie’s hand while telling him about the proper division of labour in a household (stoves are “strictly a woman’s business” so they can “do all the cooking”) and how they get you “coming and going,” the people arguing outside of Darr’s apartment (women can’t trust men any more, men can’t trust women), the landlady telling Eddie that she thinks mothers should teach boys to cook just as well as girls, the guys working at the cleaners complaining about their wives, and satirically suggesting they could provide a few names of “dames” the sniper could kill.
*. Is this meant to show that Eddie is only a more extreme representation of the eternal conflict between men and women? Does that make him more sympathetic, or less?
*. I like how Muller points out that twenty years later “Dirty” Harry Callahan would be hunting down another crazy sniper terrorizing the streets of San Francisco, and showing far less concern for the killer’s mental health. Does anything date like a message picture? I do feel sorry for Eddie at the end, but those tears look so fake.


The Mechanics of Love (1955)


*. A typical complaint about porn films is that they are too mechanical. The physical act of intercourse resembles nothing so much as the movement of a lubricated piston or simple plumbing operation. The figures can be arranged in different positions (there are even books on this), but in the end it’s pretty basic stuff. Imagination can only take you so far.
*. The Mechanics of Love isn’t porn because its purpose isn’t arousal. Our first shot of the “girl” lying naked in bed makes her look like a corpse, not a ripe fruit. The boy undressing to join her appears to be tired from a long day at work. Surely what follows will be mechanical.
*. And then the film changes language as a pillar rises and a pot is brought to boil. This is the second act in a love story with a three-part structure: beginning (disrobing), middle (coitus, leading up to orgasm), and end (relaxing). The middle part, the mechanics of sex, is written in symbols. Some of these (the pillar, the pot, a swing, a drill boring into a piece of wood) are obvious, while others are left mysterious (a drawer opens to reveal a roll of tape, a pair of scissors, and some pencils).
*. This finding of visual metaphors for sex would be sent up in later movies like Deep Throat, and taken to absurd lengths in The Naked Gun 2 1/2: The Smell of Fear where a scene of passionate coupling turns into a montage of flowers opening, the raising of an obelisk, missiles launching, a train entering a tunnel, a man being fired from a cannon, torpedoes being shot from a submarine, oil derricks pumping, and a basketball player throwing down a slam dunk while fireworks burst above him. But the association of the organic with the mechanical has always invited laughter, and indeed some have even seen it as the foundation of most jokes.
*. The Mechanics of Love announces itself as a “film poem” by Willard Maas and Ben Moore, not so much (I think) for its use of the spoken word — the lines delivered (mechanically) by the girl and the boy — as for the stream of images set to zither music that plays like a wind chime in a growing storm. It’s the oldest, most familiar story in the world (boy meets girl), and the only point seems to be to defamiliarize the mechanics of it by translating them into a different form.
*. It’s sometimes asked why porn actors aren’t charged with prostitution, since they’re clearly being paid for sex. The legalities of the debate aside, sex on film might not be sex just as a picture of a pipe isn’t a pipe. It’s a representation of a pipe. Laundry and a table of fruit isn’t sex, but it’s a representation of sex because it’s what we see or what we think of when we’re having sex, or because it’s a visual rhyme for the act.
*. A film is mechanical too. It’s a machine in the sense that William Carlos Williams referred to a poem as a machine made of words. And better yet, it’s made with machines, like cameras and editing boards.
*. So boy meets girl. They look tired and unenthusiastic. They both talk, but not so much to each other. They recite lines. They go through the motions. They are imagining being something else, being someone else, doing something else, doing someone else. After it’s over they lie in bed. He’s asleep, or pretending to be asleep. She’s perhaps wondering what it all meant.