The ineffable Mr. Cook, Jr., does not spend a whole lot of his brief screen time in this exceptionally engaging RKO B-picture looking so chipper. Rather, up until precisely this point, he has been kicking and screaming and kicking and screaming and insisting "I didn't kill anybody!" and kicking and screaming some more. And then, in a lengthy German-Expressionist-inflected dream sequence, he sneers and snickers at the film's hero, who's about to get the chair for the murder that he himself accused Cook's character of, getting a bit of his own back with some "How YOU doin'?" sarcastic insolence. Cook plays a cabbie who's fingered by stolid but apparently insufficiently attentive hero John McGuire (and the character's a reporter, too; damn sloppy journalists...) and is not-quite-cooling his heels in the death house as McGuire's cutie girlfriend is menaced by the real killer and title character, played by Peter Lorre in one of his most seriously weirdly menacing turns. Proudly showing off his seriously bad teeth, indolently draping his long gray scarf around his neck, lunging for our heroine as if in the slow-motion of a smack-induced trance, his work here is part of why this picture is sometimes referred to as "the first true film noir" (and that is the quoted blurb on the back of the Warner Archive box). An arguable claim, for a lot of fairly obvious reasons we needn't get into here. As enjoyable as this picture is, it is not what you'd call an incredibly inspired piece of work. Which is part of what makes it so enjoyable. There is certainly some brilliance here, but also a lot of expedience, and it's the combination of the two that make this a kind of surreal experience. Because it's a B-picture and it's got to get its work done in like an hour and change, its narrative traffics in a kind of ruthless efficiency (to use the wonderful phrase from the Monty Python "Spanish Inquisition" sketch) that creates, among other effects, breakneck, seemingly arbitrary changes in tone, as when the hero's interior monologue begins, 19 minutes into the action. (Said monologue features the immortal reflection, "Lotta people live in Brooklyn. Why couldn't I?") These shifts give the picture as a whole a peculiarly, and I'd say largely uninitentional, alienated surreal feel. Nothing is weirder, however...and I guess this should be classified as a spoiler...than Cook's transformation at the end. The once surly and manic fellow—not that he didn't have a damn good reason to be—has had his name cleared, and his job as a taxi driver (!) reinstated. Waiting outside the diner where the newlywed hero and heroine have said their goodbyes to the neighborhood, he's genuinely eager to show the man who almost had him executed that he doesn't hold anything even resembling a grudge. Offering the couple a ride, he practically screeches, "This one's...ON THE HOUSE!" The pause there indicates that maybe all is not as well as he would like it to look, and that maybe he's gonna drive them all off of a bridge after they get in. We never do find out.
Cook is somewhat more consistently low-key in his even smaller part in John Flynn's 1973 The Outfit, a particular aspect of which was discussed here. Playing the counterman at a rural diner overseen by Joe Don Baker's character, he expresses very Cook-ish suspicion at the two bogus "hunters" who ooze in looking for his boss. Baker makes quick work of the pair (not in the way you might think, though; one of the ways this is such a refreshing film is the resourcefulness shown by its criminal class—part and parcel, of course, of the Richard Stark "Parker" novels, one of which is the source material for this picture). This post-noir picture features a really exemplary group of glorious classic presences in bit and supporting roles: aside from Cook, there's Jane Greer from Out of the Past, Marie Windsor, who did Cook very wrong in The Killing, Robert Ryan, Timothy Carey (also in The Killing, as you'll recall),Henry frigging Jones, and more, and more still. (And Army Archerd as Ryan's butler!) Despite this near-parade of seemingly referential cameos, one never gets the feeling of being winked at, as one often does in the post-Tarantino age of supporting-role stunt/homage casting; all of these pros act like they belong. Because they do.
In any event, a better-than-solid anti-policier, happily replete with scenes and dialogue snatches very well transplanted from the book, and one or two zingers that the filmmakers appear to have come up with themselves. One favorite in the latter category: "Goddamn you, why'd you have to kill him?" "He owed me money."
It's taken me a while to get to it, but right now I'm enjoying the hell out of Jimmy Breslin's brisk, droll The Good Rat, which is, among other things, a kind of summation of a lifetime of crime reporting. I was particularly tickled by this passage on the sloth of the typical gangster:
These people are not attracted to work even in illegitimate places. Sal Reale had his airline workers' union office just outside Kennedy, and it was all right, except he had to hire people highly recommended by the Gambino family. Sal had a list of employees' credentials. Typical was:
"Harry D's son-in-law—$200G"
"Harry D's wife—$150 G"
Each morning the list ruled the office, particularly when work orders started to fill the in baskets.
"The morning starts with sixty-two people in the office," Sal recalls. "By ten o'clock there were twelve people working. We had a lot of paperwork. You had to fill out insurance forms, various federal formseverything you think of that they could put down on paper. We were left with twelve people to do the work. Where did the others go? Here's a woman who gets up, picks up her purse, an walks past me without even nodding. I call after her, 'Couldn't you give us a hand?' She says, 'I was told I didn't have to do any of this work. I have to get my hair done. I'm Paul Vario's cousin.'"
As the Mafia "dissolves," Breslin continues, "you inspect if for what it actually was, grammar-school dropouts who kill each other and purport to live by codes from the hills of Sicily that are either unintelligible or ignored."
It lasted longest in film and print, through the false drama of victims' being shot gloriously with machine guns but without the usual exit wounds the size of a soup plate. The great interest in the Mafia was the result of its members being so outrageously disdainful of all rules that just the sight of a mobster caused gleeful whispers. Somebody writing for a living could find it extremely difficult to ignore them
The Mafia became part of public belief because of movie stars who were Jewish. This dark fame began with Paul Muni playing Al Capone. After that came Edward G. Robinson, Tony Curtis, Lee Strasberg, Alan King, and on and on, part of an entire industry of writers, editors, cameramen, directors, gofers, lighting men, sound men, location men, casting agents—all on the job and the payroll because of the Mafia. Finally two great actors, Robert DeNiro and Al Pacino, put a vowel in there.
One could cinephile-nitpick, but the core conceit is sound. What's interesting to my mind is that The Godfather doesn't turn into anything less than a great film even with the knowledge that its core assumptions as they pertain to the reality that inspired it are, as it happens, utter horseshit. And I think Breslin understands that too. And even the mob movie that comes closest to showing "grammar school dropouts who kill each other," Scorsese's Goodfellas, can't quite scrub its characters clean of the movie-star veneer of a certain glamour that they carry. Part of the glamour, of course, is embedded in the wickedness of their actions: the outrageous disdain for the rules that so appeals, in a sense, to some part of all our ids. It's refreshing that Breslin has the good sense to call the popular culture depiction of mobsters out, but not get into much of a lather over it.
Yeesh. First Harvey Pekar goes, and now comes news that Tuli Kupferberg, the writer and poet and anarchist and guiding spirit of The Fugs and so many other vital artistic movements and moments has passed away at age 86. In the picture at left, that's Tuli at right, with Fugs co-founder and all-around polymath Ed Sanders ("a saint and a genius"—Robert Christgau), who still breathes, I'm happy to say. Some of you may remember the bit in Allen Ginsberg's "Howl" that goes "who jumped off the Brooklyn Bridge this actually happened and walked away unknown and forgotten into the ghostly daze of Chinatown soup alleyways & firetrucks, not even one free beer." That was about Tuli. I often think about him, younger then, and the alleyways and firetrucks of a vanished New York, and it always makes me smile to remember that Tuli lived through that and eventually got to forge an existence that was both insane and somewhat, well, celebrated. He can be seen cavorting and declaiming throughout Dusan Makavejev's immortal WR: Mysteries of the Organism, perhaps the only film sufficiently radical and free to contain him, as it were.I met him once, when he appeared on a public-access television show I had some small involvement with in the '80s, Beyond Vaudeville. It was something of a postmodern freak show, and he knew it, and didn't much care; being a professional freak was part of his job, such as it was. This was a guy who kind of redefined the whole "if I can make it there, I'll make it anywhere" ethos, inasmuch as he ever considered it; in a sense, he lived his whole life in the role of the New York that can't be tamed by real estate moguls and hypocritical puritan politics. God rest his soul, and I wish I had bought him a beer. I'm sure many others did, eventually.
A perfunctory peek at the précis and pedigree of Winter's Bone might set off certain alarms for more jaded cinephiles, along the lines of, "Yeah, yeah, won an award at Sundance, takes place and was shot in the Missouri Ozarks, lotta poor people, granola movie for sure." I have to admit, I myself saw one or two reviews/descriptions and went into my default cynical mode, recalling, as I'm apt to do, Nabokov's description/parody of gaunt naturalism with its immortal imagined dialogue "He acts crazy. We all act crazy, I guess. I guess God acts crazy." Well, shame on me, I guess, because the second feature from director Debra Granik (who cowrote the script with her producing partner Anne Rossellini, adapting a novel by Daniel Woodrell) is a superb, genuinely engrossing work from stem to stern. It's a richly detailed and disturbing portrait of a decaying environment and a fantastic, moving character study that proceeds with the deliberate pace of a first-rate thriller. Actually, in a sense it is a first rate thriller, or suspense picture, or mystery story, or what have you. As the film opens, teen Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence) gets word that her absent dad, who's got a court date coming up, put the house that Ree lives in with her zonked-out mom and two younger siblings up for his bond, and that if he doesn't show up for that court date, the house won't be the family's to live in anymore. Ree had been planning to escape the misery of her existence—her surroundings being struggling farms and makeshift crystal meth factories, her dad being a sometime proprietor of the latter, which is whence his legal troubles stem—by up and joining the army, but she puts that plan on hold to try and track down her missing dad and secure something for her family's continued survival.
Not only can Dee not count on the kindness of strangers, her own kinfolk can hardly be said to be generous in that department herself. Her wiry, inked, jangly-nerved uncle, known only as "Teardrop," (John Hawkes, superb as ever) at first irritably advises her to mind her own business, and throws a little cash her way. Everywhere she goes, she's advised by people with fewer and fewer teeth, or so it seems, that she ought not be poking around there. Do they know where her dad is? Is he, in fact, dead? Ree not only doesn't take "no" for an answer, she's a first-rate amateur detective: taken to the place where someone's trying to convince her that her dad was killed in a fire at mere days before, she takes one look at the weeds springing from what should be parched ground and makes no bones about telling her guide that he's full of shit. That kind of attitude is going to get this girl in some trouble, to be sure.
It is in fact the way she seems to almost court trouble that makes this character a whole lot more than a rural plaster saint. Playing against her super-model good looks (which have been rhapsodized about in not-unexpected corners), Jennifer Lawrence convinces with every step as she plays Ree as resourceful (and boy, is she ever, the way she teaches her younger sister and brother to not just hunt but to skin and cook...ugh...squirrel), thoroughly ballsy, and almost exasperatingly heedless. (Viewers who know her only from her work on...wait for it...The Bill Engvall Show will be thoroughly surprised. But I do wonder how many people who watch The Bill Engvall Show will even be aware that this film exists.)
As wonderful and unforgettable as the character and the performance are, it's the film's depiction of the region that's truly scarring. Novelist Woodrell also wrote Woe To Live On, the Missouri-set CIvil War novel that formed the basis for Ang Lee's superb Ride With The Devil, and his work is known to be both deeply felt and deeply researched. Granik follows him onto his turf superbly. That economic deprivation is the root of all evil, the evil in this case being crystal meth manufacture, is stated plainly but hardly oversold here; and how this form of crime destroys families, and wears away at traditions and ways of life is put across in varied detailed scenes that seethe with immediacy and authenticity rather than dry didacticism. It's, how do you say, organic, and that quality is one of the things that makes this as far from being a "granola film" as you can imagine. (It's weird, I know, because granola is often organic itself. But you know...) The film opens in "selected markets," as they say, tomorrow, and I'd say it's well worth your time.
Above, a shot taken with a camera off of my Hitachi plasma display, of a particularly arresting image from the Blu-ray iteration of The Criterion Collection's new edition of John Ford's 1939 Stagecoach. I still lack the capability to do direct rips off of Blu-rays, and as much as my ability to do screen shots off of my display has improved (I even got a tripod and everything), it's still not up to what I want, particularly when treating a film such as this. For the rest of this post, I'll be putting up illustrations from the Criterion standard definition version of their new restoration, and a capture from the prior Warner Home Video disc for comparison. In any event, below is the image seen above, as ripped directly on my computer from the Criterion standard-def DVD.
I put up some screen caps from this editionbefore, so I think you understand my overall feeling about this new version of the picture, which is that it's marvelous, that it shows me things about this film that I've never seen, or never so palpably felt, before. In particular I've been struck by how much of its visual style is based and expands upon that of F.W. Murnau, and D.W. Griffith before him. How the picture really was the right one for Welles to study before making Citizen Kane, not just because of the ceilings, for heaven's sake, but because the picture itself is a perfect wedding of film classicism and modernism. You know, stuff like that.
If you have to ask what film, you may be at the wrong blog. This screen cap is ripped directly from the standard-def disc of the new Criterion transfer; both this and the Blu-ray came under my very blessed transom today. I've got too much work at the immediate moment to sit down and study/enjoy the new versions... but there's little else I'd rather be doing at this moment! I'll get to it ASAP, and give you a lengthy report soon thereafter.
My old pal and former colleague Steve Simels finds an amusing example of the Old Grey Lady's...class bias? aesthetic hierarchical thinking? faulty fact checking?...in the New York Times obit for the late film editor Dede Allen. Check it out.
The exceptionally untimely death of Alex Chilton, one of the most dynamic talents of American popular music, period, got me thinking and listening hard. While I'm having trouble digging up my copy of High Priest (a record that was underappreciated and misunderstood in its time, but that I think gives a really thoroughgoing picture of everything Chilton was about), the recent Big Star box set Keep An Eye On The Sky has been a near-constant companion in recent weeks. (Not only is it filled with fantastic music, by the way; its sonics are absolutely magnificent, best I've ever heard the group on CD.) And of course, next time I go to my barber, odds are extremely good that I'll hear The Box Tops' "Cry Like A Baby," as the place's radio is perpetually tuned to WCBS-FM. What an odd career.
Chilton's music hasn't been particularly widely represented in Hollywood motion pictures, but where and when it has been, it's been pertinent, noteworthy. Over at The Auteurs' Notebook today I do a little ruminating on Chilton in the movies, with the help of some generous observations from writer/director Greg Mottola (The Daytrippers, Superbad, Adventureland). You may read the piece here.