By Joe Bendel. In an inspiring example of artistic resiliency, the Sarajevo Symphony Orchestra maintained their public performance schedule throughout the Bosnian War. Of course, getting to and from their concerts was often the most difficult part of the show, particularly for those traveling through “Snipers’ Alley.” The day-to-day life-and-death experience of pedestrians during the Siege of Sarajevo is recreated in Šejla Kamerić’s 1395 Days with Red, which screens this Thursday as part of Disappearing Act V.
Originally conceived in collaboration with Albanian artist Anri Sala, the 1395 Days project resulted in two like-titled films. This is Kamerić’s, which is somewhat longer and features a little art-house star power. Maribel Verdu, the wicked stepmother of Blancanieves, appears as a woman trying to get from point A to point B. She seems to be walking through the peaceful (but still war-scarred) Bosnia of today, but she and those around her act as they did during the Siege. That means they avoid wearing bright colors and run for all their worth at each intersection. Her long walk is accompanied by the Sarajevo Orchestra rehearsing Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6, Pathétique.
Essentially, Kamerić’s 1395 Days (the length of the Siege) is experimental, non-narrative filmmaking, but it represents the most accessible tip of the genre. There is a real point to the film, but it is not didactic or obtuse. Viewers can easily grasp what it has to say about the lingering post-traumatic stress of the Siege as well as the healing power of music. Indeed, the city’s Orchestra and the choice of the stirring but not overplayed Tchaikovsky symphony are quite powerful.
Likewise, Kamerić and cinematographer Patrick Ghiringhelli (ironically shooting with Red digital) create some striking visuals, well capturing the damage that continues to mar Sarajevo. Verdu also gives another silent but potent performance as the woman. We can see her body tense whenever she passes an intimidating looking man on the street, while her eyes speak volumes about the resolve required simply to cross a street during the siege.
However, 1395 might have benefited from a mild injection of narrative, such as establishing where she is coming from. Is it from work? If so, we can double her trek for a full day and then multiple by the 1,395 days, backing out weekends and days the fighting was too intense to leave home, thereby approximating the cumulative terror of the Siege.
1395 demonstrates how much the right music can add to a film. As a result, it is not a bad starter candidate for someone looking to dip a toe into experimental cinema. Nonetheless, 1395 Days without Red is only recommended for those who know they will be receptive to its aesthetic nature. It screens this Thursday (4/11) at Bohemia National Hall on the Upper Eastside. Films also screening during Disappearing Act V enthusiastically recommended for wider audiences specifically include the richly mysterious interconnected German trilogy Dreileben, which will screen the following Thursday (4/18) at the IFC Center, and Wojciech Smarzowski’s gritty and haunting post-war drama Rose (featuring Spies of Warsaw co-star Marcin Dorociński) screening at MoMI the following night (4/19).
LFM GRADE: B-
Posted on April 9th, 2013 at 9:10am.
By Joe Bendel. Perhaps nothing signified the all-encompassing totalitarianism of National Socialism better than the Hitler Youth. Likewise, the Komsomol, or Communist Union of Youth, was emblematic of Soviet oppression. According to independent observers, the names are different, but the Komsomol has risen again in the guise of Nashi, a Kremlin-backed youth group fiercely loyal to the current Russian Prime Minister. Though once a prominent spokesperson for the group, one young woman began to understand the realities of the regime she served. Lise Birk Pedersen documents her fascinating story in Putin’s Kiss, which opens this Friday in New York.
Masha Drokova was an ambitious student who believed the government’s propaganda. She joined Nashi, rocketing up the ranks after she famously kissed the titular Russian strongman on state television. She became a national media figure and dogged foe of Putin’s democratic critics. However, her interest in journalism brought her into contact with independent reporters, like Oleg Khasin.
While remaining committed to Nashi, she found she enjoyed the open and robust debates with her new friends. Unfortunately, this did not bode well for her standing within the Putin Youth. When Khasin is brutally beaten thugs considered by everyone except the most willfully blind Nashi loyalists to be acting at the behest of the Kremlin or its allies, Drokova reaches a crossroads.
Only in her early twenties, Drokova is still at an age when peer pressure has very real consequences. To her credit, she stood by her injured friend, joining those demanding a proper inquiry, at no little risk to her well being. Yet she does not repudiate her time serving Putin’s interests. As real journalists say, this story is still developing. Shrewdly, Pedersen never tries to impose a preset narrative, scrupulously recording the messy ambiguities of Drokova’s circumstances instead. Indeed, that is what makes the film so fascinating. Rather than a neat and tidy epiphany, we watch her reservations and doubts begin to stir.
Frankly, Drokova is not yet a fully mature adult, which can lead to viewer frustration with her as their POV protagonist. However, it is important to remember this is exactly why Nashi recruited Drokova and those like her. Indeed, Pedersen conveys a frighteningly vivid sense of Nashi’s reach and influence. After watching Kiss, it is impossible to accept claims that the group is a nonpartisan service movement.
Kiss is an important film that shines an international spotlight on Putin’s youthful enforcers. Pedersen rakes a fair amount of muck, while capturing a very personal story with wider political implications. Mostly scary and only occasionally encouraging, it is highly recommended for viewers concerned and interested in the state of the world. It opens this Friday (2/17) in New York at the Cinema Village.
Posted on February 15th, 2012 at 10:35am.
By Jennifer Baldwin. A few weeks ago I watched my new Warner Archive DVD of Madam Satan, a 1930s Pre-Code oddity extravaganza that was Cecil B. DeMille’s first and only musical. It’s famous (infamous?) for the wild costumes, Art Deco sets, bizarre musical numbers, and a spectacular finale that includes a zeppelin crash and the sight of parachuting party-goers landing in trees, Turkish baths, and the lion cage at the Central Park Zoo.
But what I really loved about the movie was that it introduced me to Lillian Roth. I didn’t even realize as I was watching it that the sexy, saucy Trixie was played by Lillian Roth of I’ll Cry Tomorrow fame. I knew that Susan Hayward played a woman named “Lillian Roth” in that 1955 biopic, but since I’d never actually seen it, I knew nothing about the real Roth. She must have been someone famous or else they wouldn’t have made a movie about her, but what exactly she was famous for I had no idea.
Well, now I know. The minute Trixie appears on screen in Madam Satan, the film starts to pop. If you want to know what I mean GO HERE TO SEE.
As the indispensable Self-Styled Siren puts it in her review of the film: “When she flings off her rumpled satin robe and twitches her pelvis to the Low Down number, the vaudeville energy of this rather plump, frowsy jazz baby ignites the entire movie.” AND HOW! I remember thinking that Lillian Roth’s Trixie was a million times sexier and spunkier than Kay Johnson’s “Madam,” the supposed “star” of the film.
So, of course, dutiful obsessive that I am, I started scouring YouTube for videos of Lillian Roth’s performances, just to see what else this sassy dame had to offer. Her voice has got the power and verve of Ethel Merman, but with a warmer tone and a bluesier, sexier bend. And she’s got charisma. Whatever that might be defined as, it shows whenever she’s on screen: she lights it up.
Which makes her brief movie career all the more tragic. This is a woman who should have been a bigger movie star, someone who could have been in the sexy/sassy comedienne ranks with Ginger Rogers and Jean Harlow. While her honest and unflinching autobiography is justly credited with raising public awareness about alcoholism and Alcoholics Anonymous, it’s really too bad that she’s more famous for beating her addiction (and having Susan Hayward portray her) than for her talent.
Madam Satan has kicked off a Pre-Code spurt in my movie watching these days (as I write this, Night Nurse, Ladies They Talk About, Two Seconds, and The Divorcee are on my desk waiting to be devoured), so I’m excited to see that Turner Classic Movies is featuring Pre-Code goddesses Ann Dvorak and Joan Blondell in their Summer Under the Stars tributes on August 9th and August 24th, respectively.
On Ann Dvorak day, Scarface and Three on a Match are must-sees, of course, both two of the defining films of the Pre-Code era. Three on a Match, in fact, is still quite shocking, and Dvorak’s performance as a drug addicted woman is stunning and unshakable. I’m also excited for The Crowd Roars (1932), a Howard Hawks film I’ve never seen before, starring Dvorak and Jimmy Cagney as a fearless race car driver.
By Jennifer Baldwin. I’ve been thinking lately about how art is often more “real” to me than real life. As Truffaut said: “I have always preferred the reflection of life to life itself.” One of the reasons I spend so much time watching movies, in fact, is because after I’ve watched a good movie I feel renewed. Beautiful art has that ability to renew and enliven the spirit. Highbrow, lowbrow, middlebrow – to me it really doesn’t matter as long as I get that kick of delirious pleasure.
An American in Paris gives me that kick. It’s everything that’s great about mid-century American popular culture, fusing elements of high art with low art to create a joyful, exuberant experience. American pop art at its best is confident, playful, eclectic, improvisational, and spontaneous. It has energy and rhythm, a freewheeling delight in its own creativity. An American in Paris, at its heart, is about our relationship to art, about our desire to be renewed and enlivened by it.
By Jennifer Baldwin. When featuring an intriguing star, TCM’s Star of the Month tribute is an overdose of straight-up, hardcore, pure pleasure. For one night each week, the month is turned over to a movie star and we witness, with relentless intensity, every curve and turn and height of the star’s career – until the month ends and we feel indecent over how much we’ve come to know this person.
We don’t really “know” them, of course. We only see their performances. But film is funny in its deceptive intimacy, and saying farewell to the Star of the Month is like saying farewell to a summer camp best friend or a wartime romance: “It was wonderful, darling. I’ll never forget the good times we had. We’ll always have that April on TCM!” The star is in your life, in your living room, for a whole month and then, suddenly, the star gets snatched away. The light goes out.
Of course, some months I’m just not interested in the chosen one. Singing Cowboys in July? Don’t fence me in, baby, I’d rather be out playing beach volleyball at the park. But just this past month of June, Jean Simmons had me glued. I hadn’t realized it until she passed away last year, but Jean Simmons was around a lot in my teenage years. I really identified with her, with the intelligence, strength, and vulnerability she brought to the screen. Young Bess at fifteen; Guys and Dolls at sixteen; Elmer Gantry at seventeen. I must have watched these movies on an endless loop when I was in high school.
When I finally got around to Angel Face in college, it bothered me for weeks. I told friends and family and random people on the street about this movie, about this character — Diane Treymayne — and how I just couldn’t shake her. She creeped me out, and I just couldn’t shake her. She was a murderer, a psychopath, but I just couldn’t let her go. I SYMPATHIZED with her. It was disturbing.
You’re not supposed to sympathize with the Spider Woman. Sure, you can understand her motivations, even get some perverse pleasure out of her power and wicked determination, but you’re not supposed to feel bad for her. But there I was — and here I am — feeling sorry for Simmons’ Diane Treymayne.
And that ending! That last, stomach-shocking scene, throwing all my emotions for a fireball crashing loop. Every time I watch the finale in Angel Face I go, “Oh my God! What the hell?!” Every time. Every single time. And I’ve seen it at least a dozen times.
By Jennifer Baldwin. A funny thing happened on the opening night of the TCM Classic Film Festival: I fell in love with an old movie. That shouldn’t be so funny, really, since I fall in love with old movies all the time. It’s just what I do. It’s my thing. I watch a random old movie on TV one night and next thing you know I’m in love. No, what’s funny about that first night of the TCM film fest is that I fell in love with an old movie I already loved.
An American in Paris may not be regarded as the best musical film of all time (most would say Singing in the Rain), but I’ve always had a soft spot for it in my heart. The Gershwin songs, the wild Technicolor, the audaciousness of that twenty-minute dance finale – it may not have the most riveting storyline in the world (few musicals do, really), but it more than makes up for it in terms of musical and visual pizzazz.
I always end up watching the “I Got Rhythm” and “’S Wonderful” sequences with a huge grin on my face – and then there’s the “Our Love is Here to Stay” number, and the “American in Paris” ballet -and suddenly my heart is aching and I’m all swept up in the passion of the love story. It’s funny, and romantic, and colorful (boy, is it colorful!), and what more is there to ask of a musical? I’d seen the movie many times before, so why was the screening at the TCM festival such a revelation?
It’s an obvious answer, but nevertheless, it came as a shock to me: the movie was a revelation because I was watching it in a theater. Gorgeous Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, to be exact. With a packed house. And all the energy and excitement of the night went crackling and sparkling through the theater as I sat there watching, falling in love. We applauded the credits; we applauded Leslie Caron and Gene Kelly; we applauded after the musical numbers. I’ve watched old movies on a big screen before, in an auditorium, for my film classes. Nobody in those classes ever applauded. Nobody ever cheered. There was no energy or magic.
But that opening night premiere of a new 60th anniversary digital print of An American in Paris was magical. It helped having Leslie Caron on hand to talk about the film and her days at MGM, in a lovely conversation with Robert Osborne before the start of the movie. It was like a mutual love fest: Ms. Caron, coming out to an adoring audience, proclaiming, “This is awesome!” (with a beautiful smile on her face, and a spring in her step), while we gave her a standing ovation. It wasn’t just a movie, it was an event, a communal celebration of classic film.
By Jennifer Baldwin. From my earliest days as an old movie obsessive (circa, age fourteen), I’ve been obsessed with finding out how young people fall in love with old movies.
For my grandma’s generation, the love is easy to explain: These aren’t “old movies,” these are just THE movies, the ones they spent their lives seeing in the theaters.
For my mom’s generation, these old movies weren’t exactly contemporaries, but they weren’t so old and distant either. When my mom was a kid in the 1960s, the old movie stars were still around and the old movies must have still felt familiar, if a bit musty. It’s a lot like my own generation’s relationship to the movies of the 1980s. My Saturdays were filled with a never-ending supply of popular ‘80s movies on cable TV, just as my mom’s youth was filled with Rita Bell and “Bill Kennedy at the Movies.”
I know how my own old-movie odyssey went, all of the influences and the inspirations. I know I owe a lot to the years 1988 to 1992, when it seemed like every summer another movie came out that was set in a 1940s Never Land – whether it was Who Framed Roger Rabbit? or The Rocketeer or A League of Their Own – and each of these new movies whetted my imagination for the old ones.
I know I owe a lot to my grandparents and their love of jazz, and how that love was transferred to me, so that for three solid years I spent my summers at the Elkhart jazz festival and never at a New Kids on the Block concert. Being a fan of swing jazz and Dixieland made it easier to love other old things, like movies.
I know I owe a lot to my grandmother and my mom, who invited me to watch these strange old movies with them, folding laundry on the couch and falling in love with Cary Grant and Clark Gable, thus beginning my own long, intoxicating affair with old Hollywood.
But how do other people of my age and generation get into the old stuff? What are their paths to classic cinema ecstasy?
I have a feeling that no matter our divergent and differing paths, we have one thing in common: Turner Classic Movies.
By Jennifer Baldwin. “About her face there was no distinction whatever. She was what is described as ‘nice-looking,’ rather than pretty; her own appraisal she sometimes gave in the phrase, ‘pass in a crowd.’ But this didn’t quite do her justice. Into her eyes, if she were provoked, or made fun of, or puzzled, there came a squint that was anything but alluring, that betrayed a rather appalling literal-mindedness, or matter-of-factness, or whatever it might be called, but that hinted, nevertheless, at something more than complete vacuity inside. It was the squint, Bert confessed afterwards, that first caught his fancy, and convinced him there was ‘something to her.’” – James M. Cain, Mildred Pierce (1941).
The squint in her eye is Mildred’s defining detail in James M. Cain’s novel, but in Todd Haynes’s (dir. Far From Heaven) beautifully detailed new adaptation, it’s the one detail that’s been left out. Meticulously rendered, obsessively detailed, HBO’s new five-part miniseries Mildred Pierce is a gorgeous and intoxicating recreation of Depression-era southern California. And Kate Winslet throws herself full-throttle into the part of Mildred, a recently divorced housewife and mother who does what she must in order to provide for her children, especially her snobbish, cruel elder daughter, Veda (Morgan Turner, Evan Rachel Wood). Winslet gives a naturalistic performance and her sobs and flashes of anger are neither histrionic nor mechanical, but instead subtle and filled with an inner intensity. She puts as much life into Mildred as she can and you can see Winslet’s skill at work in every frame (and she’s in almost every frame of the show). Unfortunately, seeing is not feeling, and I was left strangely cold by Winslet’s performance, despite being hypnotically sucked in by the luridness of the story and the sumptuousness of the set design.
By Jennifer Baldwin. This is about Film Noir, so here’s a flashback …
I went through a bit of a Glenn Ford/Gloria Grahame/THE BIG HEAT phase several years ago. I became obsessed with the movie and those two actors. I was like a junky, watching the movie over and over, memorizing lines, musing over the themes, showing the famous boiling coffee scene to anyone who would watch.
But eventually, no matter how much I loved THE BIG HEAT, it couldn’t withstand the over-obsession. I needed a new drug. I needed something else to give me that Glenn and Gloria fix.
Then I read about HUMAN DESIRE. It was made after THE BIG HEAT, starring Ford and Grahame, another scalding-hot 1950s noir directed by Fritz Lang. As soon as I found out about it, I had to have it. Only problem: it wasn’t on DVD. You couldn’t buy it in the store. It was as good as gone for someone like me out in the Michigan suburbs, with not a repertoire theater in sight.
I went into the shadows. I spent many a midnight hour searching the internet for a copy of the movie. I was bleary-eyed and half crazed with want. And then I found it. One of those online trading post/auction sites. Eight bucks plus shipping and handling and HUMAN DESIRE could be mine. It was someone’s homemade DVD copy, complete with fuzzy picture and bad sound, but buying it made me feel like I was the protagonist in my own film noir, swapping cash with some anonymous stranger on the black market for a “treasure” that was worn out and almost worthless.
But it was worth everything to me. I watched HUMAN DESIRE and loved it more than I had loved THE BIG HEAT. I don’t know if I loved it so much because it took all that effort to finally get a copy, or if I genuinely loved the movie more, but HUMAN DESIRE became one of my secret movie treasures.
Now it’s out on DVD, an official release from Columbia Pictures, with pristine picture and remastered sound, and I still think that it’s tops. I think it’s Gloria Grahame’s masterpiece. I think it’s misunderstood. I think Glenn Ford’s character is the real villain and that far from having a “happy” ending, it has one of the bleakest, most cynical endings in all of noir.
The misinterpretation of the film stems from the assumption that Grahame’s character is a traditional “femme fatale” evil woman type. She’s Gloria Grahame, after all, and she wants Glenn Ford to commit murder for her. But I couldn’t just slot her into the femme fatale role that easily. She might have murder in her heart, but it didn’t come there lightly.
By Jennifer Baldwin. Before photography (and then Photoshop) took over the movie poster business, illustrators and artists ruled. Billboards, lobby cards, one sheets — these were the domain of the movie art masters, the geniuses who plastered our imaginations with color and drama and a parade of disembodied heads all in various states of emotion. Nowhere, it seems, were the old movie poster artists more unbridled than in their posters for film noir. Violence and sex are everywhere, and the artwork is always fun. Sometimes the posters are lush and romantic, other times chaotic and carnal. But always interesting, always worth looking at. Whether the movies turn out to be good or bad, the posters always manage to sell them.
In fact, sometimes in the case of the old film noirs, the foreign artwork is better than the American. These foreign posters seem to get to the thematic heart of the stories because the artists weren’t as hampered by the studios to make sure a certain actor was featured or a movie star actress looked glamorous. And because foreign artists often had different sensibilities than their American counterparts, some of the best posters have a distinct strangeness to them that make the artwork even more compelling. These are my Top 6 picks for best film noir movie posters from foreign countries:
#6: Belgian poster for Criss Cross (Dir. Robert Siodmak, 1949)
Bold, violent, unrelenting — the red crisscross that dominates the center of the poster might be a bit crude and obvious for a movie titled “Criss Cross,” but it fits this nihilistic, underrated classic perfectly. With Yvonne De Carlo’s gorgeous face looming enigmatically above it, the “X” threatens to cross out both Duryea and Lancaster, two men who are both on a road to annihilation thanks to their lust for Yvonne’s intoxicating femme. What’s even more disturbing than those crisscrossed streaks of blood, though, is the look of cool, indifferent “who cares” on De Carlo’s face. That “who cares” look, as blood rains down, is the essence of the film noir “dangerous woman.”
#5: Italian poster for T-Men (Dir. Anthony Mann, 1948)
The artwork for this poster is flawless. One of the great things about old movie poster art is the way it tells a story. It’s not just one thing — one face, one situation, one image. These old posters take us into the story of the film, almost like the sequential art of a comic book, where we move from character to character, situation to situation, image to image. This T-Men poster gives us pieces of the story, while leaving us hungry for more. The death of a beautiful woman; a bag full of money; a brutal interrogation; a shootout at the pier; and at the center of it all, a heroic Dennis O’Keefe, trying to stand up for what’s right, but surrounded by crime on all sides. Film noir is a black and white genre, yet an eye-popping poster like this one reveals all of the intense, explosive emotions roiling beneath the silver-dark black and white sheen.
#4: French poster for F.B.I. Girl (Dir. William Berke, 1951)
I’ve never seen F.B.I. Girl. From what I’ve read on the internet, it doesn’t appear to be a very good movie, despite the presence of one of the all-time noir pros, Audrey Totter. But damn, if this poster isn’t the coolest thing ever! Coolness, of course, is one of the attractions of the genre. In fact, some might even argue that film noir isn’t a real genre at all, just a style. And style is about aesthetics, about the “look” of something. In the case of F.B.I. Girl, the movie itself is irrelevant. This poster — the look, the attitude, the style of it — is all we need. There’s a sexiness, a romantic sensibility, to the artwork that seems appropriate for the French. The pinkish red coloring; the playful elegance of the woman in the foreground; the hint of sexual violence between the man and woman in the background — all of it adds up to a retro modern design that is still absolutely fresh. I would kill to have this poster framed and hanging on my wall.
#3: French poster for Notorious (Dir. Alfred Hitchcock, 1946)
Symbolic, highly stylized, and unlike anything that would have been done in America, this is Hitchcock’s Notorious as only the French can render it. There’s the romantic passion of Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman’s love affair, which dominates the poster and hangs over every frame of the film; the wine cellar key that is at the center of Bergman’s espionage and the symbol for her duplicity; and a very stylized version of Claude Rains within the key itself, uniting Bergman’s two acts of deception and betrayal, the betrayal of her husband’s work and his heart. The blue coloring gives the poster a sad romanticism, like the farewell of lovers on a rainy train platform; while the gold works as both the golden hues of warm sunlight (Bergman’s character wants to live in the light) and as the menacing gold of the cellar key. Interestingly, Rains’ face is half gold, half black, perhaps as a symbol for how his character is an evil yet weak man, not so much a villain to be hated but one to be pitied. More than just an advertisement for a movie, this poster works as a compelling piece of art.
#2: Italian poster for Force of Evil (Dir. Abraham Polonsky, 1948)
This poster just IS noir. One of the few from the era to be almost entirely in black and white, it captures the essential paradox of the genre. The menace of the gun; the threat of violence from a heavy bathed in shadow; the trapped look on the face of illustrated John Garfield — all of the doom and psychological terror of these films, and yet, amidst the crime and despair, there’s a stark beauty to the image. This is the tension at the heart of the noir style: beauty within the darkness. These are dark films, with dark themes. Murder, blackmail, exploitation, cruelty, selfishness, greed. But the artists who create these films, the painters of shadow and light, the directors and cinematographers — they create something beautiful to look at out of stories filled with evil. The illustration for this poster looks like it could be a still photograph from the movie itself. Filled with fear and violence and menace, and gorgeous.
#1: German poster for Double Indemnity (Dir. Billy Wilder, 1944)
This is number one simply because it looks like the face of Barbara Stanwyck is emerging from Hellfire, her seductive wickedness consuming MacMurray and Robinson in an inferno of murder and lies. If that doesn’t sum up Double Indemnity, I don’t know what does. Stanwyck is all heat in this one, a ball of fire of the deadly variety. MacMurray and Robinson, in their monotone hues, look almost like ghosts, like men reduced to mere shadows by the power of Stanwyck’s evilness. The real relationship in the movie is between the two men, of course. When their friendship is destroyed because of Phyllis Dietrichson, it is that destruction that pains us in the end. She is the devil who comes between them, bringing everything to ruin. This illustration, more than any other, captures these themes. And even more than that, it’s just an electrifying visual design. Everything about this poster just makes me want to watch the movie again right now. It gives new life to a movie I’ve seen dozens of times. And that is the mark of great movie poster.
This article is a contribution to the For the Love of Film (Noir) Blogathon, hosted by Ferdy on Films and The Self-Styled Siren. Check out the Facebook page HERE and consider supporting the cause of film preservation with a donation.
Posted on February 14th, 2011 at 11:05am.
By Jennifer Baldwin. Quick, name five Jane Greer movies!
1.) Out of the Past
2.) The Big Steal
Okay, I’ll play:
3.) The Company She Keeps
4.) Man of a Thousand Faces
And, in a small role…
5.) 1973’s The Outfit. More on that last one in a bit.
(Also, her stint on Twin Peaks was nothing to sneeze at and kinda noirish in that weird, Lynchian way.)
She might not have made many memorable movies, but all it took for Jane Greer to become the queen of film noir was one role: Kathie Moffat in Jacques Tourner’s film noir masterpiece, Out of the Past.
Yes, Stanwyck was the ultimate spider woman as Phyllis Dietrichson in Double Indemnity, and made more half-baked films noir than Greer made films total. And yes, Gloria Grahame was the epitome of B-girl badness in films like The Big Heat and Human Desire. And, of course, glamourpusses like Ava Gardner and Rita Hayworth both had signature roles in the dark den of Noir City.
But for me, Greer is the queen of noir because she was every dark dame wrapped into one. She was wicked temptress, misunderstood moll, glamour puss with a kiss of death, and also something even more off-kilter and sinister than her fellow femmes. Out of the Past’s Kathie Moffat might just be more fatal than all of them because she isn’t just evil, she’s vulnerable too and that vulnerability – that quizzical beauty in her face, and pleading in her eyes – make her evil actions all the more horrible. We can tell that Stanwyck’s Phyllis – from the moment her anklet slithers across the screen – is definitely up to no good. We can tell she’s pure evil, even as Stanwyck imbues her with some small measure of humanity at the end. But Greer’s Kathie could have been good and that’s why she’s all the more terrifying. We want her to be good even as she lies, steals, and kills.
It’s the type of performance for which the word “enigma” was invented. The intoxicating allure of Kathie Moffat is summed up when she pleadingly tells Robert Mitchum that she’s not a thief. His response: “Baby, I don’t care.” She could be good, she could be bad, but in the end it doesn’t matter: she’s irresistible. And that is what makes la femme so fatal.
Greer’s teenage bout with Bell’s palsy is part of the mystique. It left half of her face paralyzed and it was only through tireless muscle exercises that she was able to recover movement in her face. But it also left Greer with a permanent, slightly lopsided smile. This lilt in her lips gives her face a certain mystery, as if we’re never quite sure what she’s thinking.
One of the best places to find out what the real Jane Greer was thinking is Eddie Muller’s delicious book, Dark City Dames: The Wicked Women of Film Noir. It compiles Muller’s interviews with Greer, as well as noirish dames Audrey Totter, Marie Windsor, Evelyn Keyes, Ann Savage, and Coleen Gray. If you are a fan of film noir, this book is a must-read. For one thing, we learn that Jane Greer was married to Rudy Vallee (a man twice her age!) when she was in her early twenties, and that he was a fetishistic creep with a bad porn habit who made Greer dye her hair an unflattering raven-black to suit his own predilections.
Greer was pursued by no less than Howard Hughes himself, but she ultimately rejected him and he in turn pretty much stalled her career at RKO just as she was coming off that career-making performance in Out of the Past.
So we can thank Howard Hughes and his wounded, paranoid heart for hampering the career of Jane Greer, queen of noir.
But even though she never made another film noir as brilliant as Out of the Past, she never completely abandoned the dark streets of the crime drama. Enter The Outfit, a 1970s second-wave color noir that has enough cameos of old stars and character actors to make any classic movie fan point and cheer: Robert Ryan, Elisha Cook Jr., Marie Windsor, Timothy Carey, and of course … Jane Greer.
It’s a small part, but she still captivates. In fact, all of the old timers captivate, whether it’s the brief appearance of world weary Marie Windsor, pouring drinks behind a bar; or Elisha Cook, Jr. getting bossed around by the heavies (as usual); or Robert Ryan and Timothy Carey playing poker and planning hits.
The film stars Robert Duvall and Joe Don Baker as two gunmen who go after a powerful crime syndicate for money and revenge. It’s combination heist flick, revenge story, and gritty crime noir. Written and directed by the underrated John Flynn, and based on a story by Donald Westlake, The Outfit is a solid example of the violent second-wave noir of the 1970s. It’s bloodier than an old school noir, and even more amoral. Duvall’s criminal, Earl Macklin, is not a good man. He’s not even a “misunderstood” criminal. He’s a bad guy who kills with ruthless ease. Even his cause – revenge for the murder of his brother – is tainted by the fact that his brother was murdered precisely because he and Duvall robbed a syndicate bank.
Jane Greer plays Alma, the widow of the murdered brother, and for a change of pace she’s not a femme fatale or a dangerous woman. She’s simply a woman beaten down by the despair and death of the criminal world. There’s a certain tiredness to Alma’s character, and to Greer’s performance, that puts the lie to all of that noir cool we usually see in these types of films. Yeah, okay, Duvall and Baker embody charismatic criminal cool as they attempt to take down the Outfit. But that earlier scene with Alma is still hanging around the edges, reminding us that it all ends up tired and empty in the end. And who better to deliver that message than the former Kathie Moffat?
The Outfit is now newly remastered and available on DVD through the Warner Archive Vault Collection.
Speaking of Noir, there’s a fundraising blogathon coming up in February called “For the Love of Film (Noir)” — a sequel to last year’s hugely successful silent film preservation fundraiser, “For the Love of Film,” sponsored by Marilyn Ferdinand of Ferdy on Films and Farran Smith Nehme of Self-Styled Siren. Ferdinand and Nehme are at it again, this time with a blogathon running from February 14 to 21, focusing on film noir and benefiting the Film Noir Foundation.
I’ll be contributing a couple of posts, both here at Libertas and at my own blog, and I would encourage everyone who loves movies and film noir to contribute what they can to the fundraiser. The last time, “For the Love of Film” raised $30,000 for the National Film Preservation Foundation, and that money went towards the preservation of two early short films. Hopefully we can equal or surpass that amount this time. As I’ve written before, film preservation is a naturally conservative cause, so mark your calendars for February 14 and check out “For the Love of Film (Noir).”
Posted on January 27th, 2011 at 10:30am.
By Jennifer Baldwin. Watching old movies has been a spotty pastime for me these last few months. Working full-time as a high school English teacher leaves me with less free time than I’d like to work on my “Classic Cinema Obsession” articles, so that’s why I’ve been pretty much absent from Libertas since Mad Men ended.
But even though I’ve had to cut back on the old movie obsessiveness for the time being, that doesn’t mean that I’ve gone completely cold turkey. Last month I managed to watch the new Criterion DVD of the Japanese cult horror headtrip House, and I’ve also been keeping up with TCM’s ambitious new seven-part documentary series, Moguls and Movie Stars: A History of Hollywood . I also watched The Fighting Sullivans on Veterans Day, and Dragonwyck on Halloween. And in perhaps the happiest moment of my young life, I finally bought my pass for the 2011 Turner Classic Movies Film Festival in Hollywood, California. I wanted to go the TCM Fest last year, but simply couldn’t afford it. This year I’ve got the dough, though, and there ain’t nothing that’s gonna stop me from heading to Hollywood.
I also began writing for a new film website called Fandor, an amazing new site that allows subscribers to watch a wide variety of classic, foreign, and indie films directly on their computers. No downloads, everything is streamed on the site. And first-time subscribers get a one-month free trial, which is a great incentive to join.
Along with the films, Fandor also provides written commentary and informative essays about the films and filmmakers, including articles by yours truly. My first article for Fandor was on Tarkovsky’s haunting dream film The Mirror, while my second article was on the Josef Von Sternberg/Marlene Dietrich classic, The Blue Angel. I’m also a participant in Fandor’s syndication program, which allows me to embed their films directly on my own personal blog, Dereliction Row. You can watch any of the films anytime you want if you’re a subscriber, or you can watch an individual film for a small rental fee. I’d encourage anyone who is interested in great cinema to check out Fandor.
So even though I have been overly busy with my day job as a teacher, I haven’t completely neglected my passion for classic films. And that’s what this “Classic Movie Journal” is all about. It’s my way to keep writing about old movies for Libertas, but in a more informal, less time intensive manner. Consider these my unvarnished, rambling, and passionate musings on all things old movies. Emphasis on the unvarnished and rambling, please.
So what’s rattling round in my brain this week? Well, as I mentioned above, I have been watching the new TCM documentary series about the history of Hollywood, and I have to admit, I’m a little disappointed. Normally I fall down at the feet of everything TCM does, but this time I’m not feeling it.
I don’t know if my expectations were too high, but the series has not lived up to them. I just finished watching episode four, “Brother Can You Spare a Dream,” which focused on the years 1929 to 1941, and I’ve found that the show doesn’t seem able to get to the essence of its topic each week. This week’s episode was all about Hollywood during the Depression, and how sound technology revolutionized the industry – and yet it never really delved into the cultural impact of the Talkies or the way the movies affected Depression audiences. It gave a little lip service to these topics, but I never felt the grand sweep, the overall impact that the movies had during these years. Through four episodes so far, there’s been nothing epic about this series.
Part of the problem is that the show is divided in its attentions right from the start. It’s “Moguls and Movie Stars,” so the focus must be split between the businessmen and the artists. This is a pretty standard approach as far as an appraisal of Hollywood history goes, but the writing of the show has been muddled because of it. It keeps jumping back and forth between the machinations of the moguls and the rise and fall of various stars, but there’s no “through line” that connects everything to something larger. I was expecting a sort of myth-building history of America, as told through the history of Hollywood (something along the lines of Ken Burns’ Baseball documentary). Instead, it’s just a very rote, very surface documentary that breezes through its topic like a Cliffs Notes version of history.
Maybe each episode isn’t long enough? Maybe it was a mistake to break down each episode by decade? I know I would have liked more than an hour to cover the tumultuous and groundbreaking 1920s. I’m not sure how to fix the problem, but I’ve found that each episode is highly disposable and I haven’t learned anything I didn’t already know from my Film Studies 101 class. What’s even more annoying is that I was expecting these earlier episodes to be the strongest of the series, since they would be dealing with the earliest years of Hollywood in which I know very little in comparison to the more popular decades of the ‘30s, ’40, and ‘50s.
In last week’s episode, Shirley Temple was given about three minutes of screen time at most. Fred Astaire got maybe a minute. The few clips that we got were brief and usually did not include much dialogue. I mean, this is the 1930s, when dialogue was everything – and snappy, quintessentially American dialogue was the great innovation of the age. Instead, everything was pretty much thrown at the viewer in a helter skelter manner, the only guiding framework being chronology. This series needs more clever montages and filmmaking chops. As it is, it’s kinda boring.
Maybe I’m being too hard. The series is certainly professionally produced and the interviews with the relatives and descendants of the moguls at least provide some new, unique perspectives. Occasionally the documentary will delve into some little known area, such as the career of female director Alice Guy, or the pioneering work of African American filmmaker Oscar Micheaux. But overall, it’s familiar stuff. And it’s not even presented in a thrilling or heart-swelling way. If a documentary like this can’t even get a classic movie obsessed gal like me to swoon, then there’s something wrong. A series like this should get me all psyched up to go watch the movies that get mentioned in each episode. Instead, I find myself relieved when the episodes are over and not really in the mood to watch any of the movies discussed.
Maybe the final three episodes will surprise me. I haven’t watched the newest one that just aired on November 29, so there’s still time for redemption. As it stands now, though, this series has been a disappointment. Normally I worship at the altar of TCM, but not this time.
Posted on December 2nd, 2010 at 10:10am.