Archive for the ‘Stuff I wrote for other blogs’ Category
“This damned burg’s getting me. If I don’t get away soon I’ll be going blood-simple like the natives.”
RED HARVEST by Dashiell Hammett
Commit a crime, and the earth is made of glass. Commit a crime, and it seems as if a coat of snow fell on the ground, such as reveals in the woods the track of every partridge and fox and squirrel and mole. You cannot recall the spoken word, you cannot wipe out the foot-track, you cannot draw up the ladder, so as to leave no inlet or clew. Some damning circumstance always transpires. The laws and substances of nature — water, snow, wind, gravitation — become penalties to the thief.
COMPENSATION by Ralph Waldo Emerson
What if there’s a crime and no one’s sure who committed the crime or what the crime is? What if you think you know who committed the crime, but you’re wrong? What if you can’t find your windbreaker anywhere? Also, what if you failed Conversation 101?
The owner of a dingy bar in Texas, Julian Marty (Dan Hedaya) suspects his wife, Abby (Frances McDormand) is cheating. He hires lowlife private detective, Loren Visser (the excellent M. Emmett Walsh) to tail her and confirm his suspicions. Abby may or may not have cheated in the past, but on her way out of town she gets chummy with Ray (John Getz), a bartender in Marty’s saloon. Marty can’t live with the knowledge of his wife’s infidelity so he decides to do something permanent about it and asks Visser to help. He may have hired the wrong guy.
Dark, moody, and atmospheric, BLOOD SIMPLE moves at a steady pace and always moves forward. The plot isn’t complicated. Filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen don’t go off on tangents which allows them to focus on the four main characters and what they think is going on. That’s the point, after all. The audience knows the entire story, but each character sees only his or her part in it. With limited information, they make poor decisions. They’re not crazy or irrational, but miscommunication or lack of any communication at all leads each of the main players to make bad decisions that compound each problem and dig them deeper into trouble. It’s like a high-stakes version of the telephone game, except in BLOOD SIMPLE, that innocent exercise of passing, “Dasher and Dancer are my favorite reindeer.” on as “Ashes cause cancer. Want a beer?” becomes dangerous confusion about a possible murder.
The characters, handicapped by limited access to the whole story, talk to one another, but their conversations muddy rather than clarify and people walk away from each exchange with less information than they started with. Only the audience is privy to the entire thing. This causes tension and a desire to yell at the screen. It also makes it hard to look away.
Shot in Austin, Texas with a small budget that Joel and Ethan Coen collected door-to-door, BLOOD SIMPLE looks and sounds more expensive than it should. Barry Sonnenfeld’s shadow-filled cinematography along with skillful editing by Roderick Jaynes and Don Wiegman lift the film’s quality above the usual mid-eighties thriller. Creative visual effects and a fantastic Carter Burwell score will stick with you, as will the trademark Coen gore. This was the Coen brothers’ first feature film and Burwell’s first film score, but you’d never know it. Their clear vision ties a simple plot, a small cast, and spare sets together to make an inventive neo-noir classic.
The cast, led by Frances McDormand, all excel at restraint. There’s so much left unsaid in every conversation, the script must have consisted largely of stage directions. That said, McDormand, Getz, Walsh, and Hedaya are all wonderful character actors who can say a lot without words. McDormand’s character, Abby, even mentions the lack of chit chat. After she says to Ray that he’s quiet like Marty, she explains, “When he doesn’t say things, they’re usually nasty. When you don’t, they’re usually nice.” That’s sweet and all, but if Ray could just finish a sentence… The dialogue we get is choice. When Visser warns Marty to keep their association to himself, Marty says,” I wasn’t about to tell anyone. This is an illicit romance–we’ve got to trust each other to be discreet. For richer, for poorer.” Visser comes back with,” Don’t say that. Your marriages don’t work out so hot.” The whole film is an exercise in understatement and it’s a subtle, brutal treat.
This piece appeared originally in the Brattle Film Notes.
O, beware, my lord, of jealousy;
It is the green-ey’d monster, which doth mock
The meat it feeds on.”
–Othello by William Shakespeare
In Basil Dearden’s 1962 film All Night Long, the writers shift Shakespeare’s Othello from 16th century Venice to 1960s London. Set in the black and white world of jazz clubs and smoky back rooms, All Night Long has a cool cocktail party vibe and a fantastic score. It also has a vicious plot full of innuendo, plotting, and lies. The writers obviously used Othello as a guide, but they may also have watched All About Eve once or twice.
“What a great party! Nothing can possibly go wrong tonight.”
Rod Hamilton (Richard Attenborough) hosts a party at his London brownstone. It’s a surprise anniversary party for friends Aurelius Rex (Paul Harris) and his wife, Delia Lane (Marti Stevens). The couple and their guests, the best jazz musicians in London, gather to celebrate and listen to each other jam. As the group of friends talk and toast, a note of suspicion drifts into the scene. Johnnie Cousin (Patrick McGoohan), the drummer for Rex’s band, wants to step out on his own. He also has a thing for Rex’s wife, Delia. Tired of playing in someone else’s band, Johnny wants his own group even if sabotaging Rex is the only way to get it.
“I’m going to stare at Rex until he lets me go solo.”
Does this sound familiar? In All About Eve, Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter) wanted the lead role promised to Margot Channing (Bette Davis) in an upcoming play. Eve also wanted Margot’s director boyfriend, Bill (Gary Merrill) for herself. A little backstabbing here and there and Eve almost got everything she wanted. Watching All Night Long, I could almost picture Karen (Celeste Holm) asking Eve if all this heartbreak and treachery was worth it just for a part in a play. Eve answers, “I’d do much more for a part that good.” Eve and Johnnie Cousin would get along great.
“Pardon me. I have to go sharpen my knife.”
The allusions to Othello are more obvious. Johnnie Cousin as Iago plants the seeds of jealousy and mistrust in Rex (Othello) by implying that Delia (Desdemona) is cheating with Cass (Cassio). Instead of Iago planting Desdemona’s handkerchief on Cassio, as in Shakespeare’s play, Johnnie plants Delia’s cigarette case on Cass which enflames Rex’s jealousy and sends him over the edge.
“He never tries to destroy my life at home.”
Slowly and subtly, Johnnie plants a word here, a rumor there, until Rex doubts the loyalty of his road manager, Cass (Keith Mitchell) and even his wife. To add fuel to the fire, Delia and Cass have been meeting secretly while the band tours to rehearse a song they’ll perform at the party as a gift for Rex. Hearing about these clandestine, but innocent meetings along with Johnnie’s other lies convinces Rex that he’s being duped. Rex lashes out and what started as a happy occasion ends in violence.
“Out, damned sp…oh wrong play.”
Basil Dearden directed controversial films in the 1950s and 60s. He started with Sapphire in 1959 which concerns the racially-motivated murder of a young girl. Dearden went on to make the terrific film Victim in 1961. In Victim, Dirk Bogarde plays a successful barrister who stands up to a ring of criminals blackmailing homosexuals. Both films deal frankly with taboo subjects while avoiding stereotypes. The subjects are people with flaws who make mistakes and Dearden treats them fairly. In All Night Long, a few of the musicians smoke pot and there are references to drug rehabilitation and psychotherapy. Most mainstream, non-exploitation films of the early 60s don’t refer to anything like that. Then there’s the obviously controversial mixed marriage and mixed romance in All Night Long. Delia is white and Rex, black. Cass is white and his love, Benny (María Velasco) is black. Aside from the Othello connection, the big deal in this film is that there is no big deal. The romances simply exist. No one calls attention to them. Five years later in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, the subject of mixed marriage is the whole film. Dearden tackled important issues well before most of his colleagues.
“Honey, we’re breaking new ground.”
“Don’t be silly, sweetheart. We’re kissing on the stairs.”
Any discussion of All Night Long must mention Philip Green’s music. It’s glorious. Even if you think Coltrane is how we transport briquets, you’ll probably enjoy this score. Dave Brubeck, John Dankworth, Tubby Hayes, and other renowned jazz musicians play pick-up sets throughout the film. They play themselves and their instruments as both an accompaniment and an accent to the story. During tense scenes, the incessant drum beat takes a toll on the ones being squeezed and the device works. It comes off as natural. I mean, it’s hard to complain about a film that begins with Charles Mingus casually playing bass alone on stage while he waits for the party to start.
Attenborough toasts Mingus. Mingus toasts Attenborough.
Here’s where I wax rhapsodic about one of my favorite character actors. Patrick McGoohan, most famous for his lead role in the enigmatic science fiction/spy series The Prisoner also starred in Ice Station Zebra and appeared in and directed a few of the best episodes of Columbo. In All Night Long, McGoohan even says his trademark, “Be seeing you.” McGoohan has the best part in All Night Long. His smug, obsequious Johnnie Cousin can’t wait to drop his little rumor bombs and walk away, returning in time to witness the explosions and offer to help. His intricate plan has so many twists, you can see Johnnie’s wheels turning every time another character speaks.
“I’m not plotting against you or anything.”
Johnnie has set the machinations in place, but he needs to think on his feet too. McGoohan looks great in this film. He even learned to play the drums to appear more natural in the part. As for the rest of the cast, Richard Attenborough did lovely work in the 1960s and this part, although small, makes a difference. Attenborough’s kindness highlights McGoohan’s cruelty. Betsy Blair is all restraint as McGoohan’s sweet, long-suffering wife. Paul Harris and Marti Stevens make believable lovers. Warm and honey-voiced, Stevens convinces as the object of desire for her talent as well as herself. Her rendition of All Night Long is lovely and full of emotion.
“Did he call you Number Two?”
All Night Long takes risks. A cast full of jazz stalwarts and solid character actors, a plot written by Shakespeare and updated by Nel King and Paul Jarrico, and a catchy jazz soundtrack make for an unusual and entertaining film.
Dave Brubeck trades fours with Charles Mingus. Nothing to see here.
Note: Paul Jarrico appears in the credits as Peter Achilles. Jarrico was blacklisted by HUAC and wrote under different pseudonyms for years after.
This piece appeared in a slightly different form in Brattle Film Notes, the blog for the Brattle Theatre in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
No man is an island,
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thy friend’s
Or of thine own were:
Any man’s death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind,
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee.
Devotions upon Emergent Occasions, (1624) by John Donne
Frank (James Caan) works alone. He and his partner, Barry (James Belushi) case the joints, research the electronics, have the proper equipment made, and pick up the ice themselves. They’re professional, sharp, and technically adept. They’re also thieves. After each robbery, Frank assesses the worth of the stolen diamonds and negotiates with a fence for a percentage of the street value. It’s a tidy operation. Frank funnels his end into a car dealership, a bar, and other businesses. Frank and Barry keep a low-key profile. Neither is flamboyant, violent, or prone to criminal outbursts. It’s the ideal set-up for a guy who likes control.
All these successful, high-end heists attract the attention of Leo (Robert Prosky), a crime boss with connections. At first, Frank declines Leo’s offer to work for him. Frank likes running the show. Leo’s offer to provide Frank with organized jobs, equipment, and backing proves too tempting though and Frank throws in with the syndicate. The avuncular Leo charms Frank, who lives a solitary life, but longs for something more. Frank’s desire to have a family and join the human race allow him to make moves that will connect him to people. For a man who understands the power that caring about nothing provides, these actions are risky. When Leo’s true nature comes to light, Frank has to decide how to extricate himself from his problems.
“Let’s do it to them before they do it to us.” Oops, wrong show.
The underdog concept has always made entertaining films, but in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s, the lone man fighting the system became a genre. Somewhere along the line, the establishment changed from comforting father figure to micromanaging bureaucrat and often the little guy got stomped on. LONELY ARE THE BRAVE shows Kirk Douglas tilting at windmills he doesn’t understand just because he won’t live the way everyone else does. In BULLITT, Steve McQueen solves crimes his way, even if he has to butt heads with crafty superiors like Robert Vaughn. In the most obvious comparison, CHARLEY VARRICK stars Walter Matthau as “the last of the independents”. He’s a crop duster and amateur bank robber who has to improvise to escape the wrath of the mob. Again, like Gary Cooper’s Will Kane, Jack Nicholson’s R.P. McMurphy, and James Caan’s Frank, Varrick has the odds against him and only his wits on his side. THE CONVERSATION, THE DRIVER, SERPICO, and the futuristic ROLLERBALL pit loners against criminals, police, entrenched corruption, and even John Houseman’s corporation simply because they want to live life on their own terms. Sean Connery even does his best lone wolf as a sheriff on one of Jupiter’s moons in OUTLAND, the HIGH NOON of space movies.
Sean on Jupiter
Despite the fact that THIEF leans on often-used themes, its take on the independent man breaks ground with the main character. Frank isn’t a cuddly guy, but he’s sharp and driven and a straight-shooter. As odd as it sounds, he’s honest. As an honest thief, he expects others to be square with him. When they’re not, Frank’s anger is palpable. He doesn’t lose control. Instead, he’s strong and menacing at times. In one of the best parts of the film, Frank is underpaid for a job and demands the rest of his cut. “My money in 24 hours or you will wear your ass for a hat.” James Caan revels in this role.
“Quit calling me Sonny.”
Michael Mann directed, wrote the screenplay, and executive produced THIEF, his first theatrically released film. The slick, stylized look later became a Mann trademark in the MIAMI VICE and CRIME STORY series and in films like MANHUNTER and HEAT. More than a simple action film, THIEF touches on larger themes of the connectedness of society and to what lengths a man will go to remain free. THIEF looks great too. Much of the film takes place at night, but director of photography Donald Thorin makes it work and the action and nearly wordless heist scenes are choreographed meticulously often with the music of Tangerine Dream adding texture.
Not quite a nihilist, Frank believes in nothing but himself and his own abilities. When he gets to that point, he knows no one can touch him. He knows he’s free.
This piece appeared originally in the Brattle Film Notes. Here’s the link. THIEF The Brattle Theatre in Cambridge, Massachusetts shows an odd assortment of classic, cult, independent, and foreign films in its cozy Harvard Square theatre. If you’re ever in the Boston area, you owe it to yourself to drop in for a film. It’s a lovely place.
“I had a dream, which was not all a dream.
The bright sun was extinguish’d, and the stars
Did wander darkling in the eternal space,
Rayless, and pathless, and the icy earth
Swung blind and blackening in the moonless air”
From the poem, “Darkness” by Lord Byron (1-5).
A world war devastates the earth and reduces the people to their basest selves. They loot and riot and kill leaving only nomadic scavengers traveling alone or in packs. Those who thrive on chaos, have a chance. Lord Byron’s poem speaks of darkness. The blinding, incessant sun of Australia’s desert belies a darkness of a different sort that has descended on those left alive after the firestorm. As the narrator says at the beginning of the film, “Only those mobile enough to scavenge, brutal enough to pillage would survive.”
“And they did live by watchfires—and the thrones,
The palaces of crowned kings—the huts,
The habitations of all things which dwell,
Were burnt for beacons; cities were consum’d”
From the poem, “Darkness” (10-13).
In the film, civilization and order fall apart in the aftermath of war. There are no cities. Max (Mel Gibson) drives endlessly through the vast Australian desert searching for food, water, and gasoline. Gas, necessary for the modern Bedouin lifestyle, now holds more value than diamonds or gold. Without it, there’s no relief from the harsh climate. Without fuel, to paraphrase the narrator at the start of the film, they’re nothing. On foot, a man could fall prey to the sun, starvation, or animals, often the two-legged kind.
“the wild birds shriek’d
And, terrified, did flutter on the ground,
And flap their useless wings; the wildest brutes
Came tame and tremulous; and vipers crawl’d
And twin’d themselves among the multitude,
Hissing, but stingless—they were slain for food.”
From the poem, “Darkness” (32-37).
With so many souls living only to find food and fuel, the world, in this case, the Australian bush, becomes a mechanized LORD OF THE FLIES, in which everyone else is Piggy. What keeps THE ROAD WARRIOR from becoming a series of car crashes and bloody melees is the humanity director and co-writer George Miller allows to seep through the twisted wreckage.
THE ROAD WARRIOR has great action sequences which must have kept every Australian stunt man employed for months. The film has convincingly evil villains who deserve their violent ends, but it’s the virtue in many of the other characters that we remember. THE ROAD WARRIOR is not just relentless, pounding action with occasional bon mots. All right, it is relentless, pounding action without many mots at all, bon or otherwise. Miller doesn’t need them. He lets us know the characters using minimal dialogue and screen time. He even allows the bad guys to have some depth before killing them off in spectacular ways. Because we’ve met these people, we’re drawn into their world. Their lives matter to us. In the midst of this chaotic, desolate scenario, we care about a feral child, a quirky pilot in need of dental work, and a fiercely loyal mongrel dog.
“The meagre by the meagre were devour’d,
Even dogs assail’d their masters, all save one,
And he was faithful to a corse, and kept
The birds and beasts and famish’d men at bay”
From the poem, “Darkness” (45-49).
Why do we care? George Miller, along with fellow writers Terry Hayes and Brian Hannant, shows us little glimpses of goodness in his bleak version of the future. He demonstrates this goodness using a musical toy and a child, an expression of horror while witnessing a senseless murder, a dog’s loyalty, and a leader who keeps his word.
Oddly, that decency in the face of tragedy brought to mind another film about desperate people on a road trip from hell. As I watched Mohawk-sporting cretins in assless chaps run amok in the Australian desert, I thought of THE GRAPES OF WRATH. Yes, I mean John Ford’s sweeping chronicle of the Joad family’s trek from their Oklahoma farm to the promised land of California. The film shows a family forced to scrounge for food and a place to live surviving despite constant assaults by evil brutes and cruel circumstance. All through their discouraging journey, Ford allows small rays of light to pierce his dark tale. The nobility of John Carradine’s homespun preacher, Ma Joad’s treatment of starving children in the run down camp, Al’s longing for a girl, and Tom’s dance with Ma as he sings Red River Valley all prove the clan has lost everything but what makes them human.
Miller could have been reading Lord Byron’s poem “Darkness” when he wrote THE ROAD WARRIOR. The poem’s post-apocalyptic tone fits Miller’s vision of a dark future. He could also have been reading Steinbeck or Golding. The point is, despite its reputation as a rollicking action film, THE ROAD WARRIOR is much more. It’s an uplifting tale full of heroes and villains and hope and enough car wrecks to keep a claims adjuster busy for months.
This article appeared originally in The Brattle Film Notes. Brattle Theatre
“Why is life worth living? It’s a very good question. Um…well, there are certain things I guess that make it worthwhile. Uh…like what? Okay…um…For me, uh…ooh…I would say…what? Groucho Marx, to name one thing…uh…um…and Willie Mays…and um…the 2nd movement of the Jupiter Symphony…and um…Louis Armstrong, recording of Potato Head Blues…um…Swedish movies, naturally…Sentimental Education by Flaubert…uh…Marlon Brando, Frank Sinatra…um…those incredible Apples and Pears by Cezanne…uh…the crabs at Sam Wo’s…uh…Tracy’s face…”
Woody Allen in MANHATTAN (1979)
Damiel (Bruno Ganz) spends his days watching, listening. He hears people’s biggest fears and greatest failures. When they are at their lowest, he is at his best. He soothes them without words or caresses, but with kind thoughts and spiritual clarity. Damiel is an angel. Sent to West Berlin to observe the people there, Damiel discovers something about himself. Listening to stories of love and heartbreak isn’t enough. He’s dissatisfied with his voyeuristic role and longs to be human. In his words, “…it would be nice to come home after a long day and feed the cat like Philip Marlowe.” That simple wish becomes fervent desire after Damiel sees Marion (Solveig Dommartin), a lonely and beautiful trapeze artist working at a ramshackle traveling circus. He empathizes with the lovely woman and longs to be with her. Soon, he can think of little else.
See how she leans her cheek upon her hand.
O, that I were a glove upon that hand
That I might touch that cheek!
Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare
Despite the apparent simplicity of the plot, WINGS OF DESIRE touches on issues director Wim Wenders could only guess about in 1987. Issues like isolation, longing, and empathy mean something entirely different today because of the technological advances we’ve made since 1987. In a way, we have the power to be angels or devils as we watch and compliment or insult or simply acknowledge the work or opinions of others. We fly anonymously from one country to another in an instant and hear the thoughts and hopes and prayers of scores of people in the course of a day. Like Damiel, we hear a cacophony of voices in our heads. It’s exhausting.
Perhaps it’s feeling the weight of so many regrets and so much sadness that makes Damiel want to chuck the wings, join the human race, and hear just one voice echoing in his head, his own. Maybe he wants to taste streusel or kiss a baby or pet a dog. The fact that he wants to give up his wings at all based on what he hears speaks volumes about his capacity for hope and his desire to, as he puts it, “for once just to guess instead of always knowing.”
Maybe he’s pushed over the edge by his friend, his compañero, Peter Falk. Falk plays himself, an actor in Berlin to shoot a WWII movie. Falk feels the presence of Damiel and his angel friend, Cassiel (Otto Sander). That’s odd because as a rule, the only ones who see the pair are children. Falk even encourages Damiel to become human when he says, “There’s so many good things.” He describes some simple pleasures. “To smoke and have coffee – and if you do it together, it’s fantastic.”
Just one more thing…
Wim Wenders’ bleak vision of life without contact, surprise, or change is made real by the grays of Henri Alekan’s cinematography interspersed with stark WWII footage and by the hangdog expressions of most of the people Damiel and Cassiel encounter. In fact, the only people who appear to enjoy themselves are children and Marion’s circus-performer friends. Later, color explodes onto the screen, WIZARD OF OZ-like. Music plays a big part in WINGS OF DESIRE as well. Early in the film, the music is spare. We hear strings and short bursts of an angelic choir. As the film progresses, we’re treated to a song by Crime & the City Solution and nightclub performances by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds.
Nick Cave and Cassiel.
Now I’ll wax poetic about Bruno Ganz. I watched WINGS OF DESIRE in German with English subtitles so I know I missed some nuances of language, but I didn’t miss a single emotion because Ganz communicates so well with his eyes. I could feel his yearning to touch Marion; to be a part of her life. I could feel his childlike glee as he sat with the little ones and watched the circus. I could feel how much he wanted to feed Philip Marlowe’s cat. Otto Sander as Cassiel was all restraint and pent up emotions and the entire cast was full of faces. They weren’t shined up for filming. They were expressive and real.
In many ways, Damiel’s need to be human rings a bell. Like Damiel, we long for simple things; a crisp fall day, a good meal, a friend’s smile. Instead we get a close-up picture of a leaf on Instagram, a website full of recipes, and a former classmate’s wedding photo on facebook. Are we angels? Hardly. We do a lot more observing than joining in though so maybe making a list of things that make life worth living isn’t a bad idea. I’ll start. Hugging my daughter, scratching my dog’s head, eating a Macoun apple, singing a song, picking up rocks at the beach, drawing a picture…all do it for me. I smiled just making the list.
This piece appears in slightly different form on the Brattle Theatre’s blog. Here’s the link. BRATTLE
If gruff, anti-social private eye Philip Marlowe had come of age a few decades later, he’d have been Lew Harper. Sarcastic, flippant, and completely unconcerned with others’ opinions of him, Harper might have responded as Humphrey Bogart’s Marlowe did when Lauren Bacall complained about his manners in the 1946 film THE BIG SLEEP. “I don’t mind if you don’t like my manners. I don’t like them myself. I grieve over them on long winter evenings.” Paul Newman’s Harper could get away with that.
THE BIG SLEEP comparisons don’t end with the protagonists. In HARPER, the private detective meets his invalid client, Mrs. Sampson under the hot lights of Sampson’s tanning room. In THE BIG SLEEP, Marlowe (Bogart) meets his wheelchair-bound client, General Sternwood, in a stiflingly hot greenhouse. Both films feature wealthy, rudderless people getting conned out of their money by pros. Both films feature glittering facades and gritty interiors. Both films show people succumbing to their baser instincts. This often ends poorly. In THE BIG SLEEP, gamblers and pornographers pull the strings. In HARPER, smugglers and religious charlatans have their hands out. Both Philip Marlowe and Lew Harper meander through labyrinthine plots to find people who may or may not want to be found. Both men use logic and horse sense to cut through the tangled web the bad guys keep weaving. Both men get roughed up a bit and both men do a little conning themselves. The most entertaining scenes in both films involve the detectives’ assuming different identities to get information. Bogart in THE BIG SLEEP pretends he’s a snotty book collector and Newman in HARPER feigns a Texas accent and an attraction to the vulgar, alcoholic Shelley Winters. Both actors manage to lighten up scripts filled with death and debauchery by using their natural charms.
THE BIG SLEEP was based on the great Raymond Chandler’s 1939 novel and adapted for the screen by William Faulkner, Leigh Brackett, and Jules Furthman. The screenwriters managed to capture the dry wit and world weary attitude Chandler gave Marlowe in his novel. Marlowe’s a smartass with a brain. He’ll bend the rules, but he won’t break them. He’s true to his word and loyal to his friends. He knows the ropes. The good guys trust him and the bad guys can’t figure him out. Paul Newman’s Harper has the same sarcastic quality with a difference. The 1950s saw the beginning of the rebel as hero character and Newman plays the role as that kind of loner. In the 1970s, Bob Rafelson and Arthur Penn would use Jack Nicholson and Gene Hackman as their loner/rebels.
Jack is not appearing in this film.
HARPER, based on Ross Macdonald’s novel THE MOVING TARGET was adapted for the screen by prolific writer William Goldman. In the transition from book to film, Lew Archer became Lew Harper. One reason for the switch is the change in leading man. Originally set to star Frank Sinatra in the title role, HARPER reportedly got a new name because of new star Paul Newman’s success with H films. THE HUSTLER (1961) and HUD (1963) helped establish Newman as a star who could act and HARPER and 1967’s HOMBRE reinforced the idea. Newman requested the change and the producers obliged.
“Today’s film is brought to you by the letter H.”
THE BIG SLEEP and HARPER have casts filled with veteran character actors who can handle the witty scripts and fast pace provided by both Howard Hawks (HIS GIRL FRIDAY, RIO BRAVO) and Jack Smight (AIRPORT, DAMNATION ALLEY) respectively. Martha Vickers, Dorothy Malone, Bob Steele, Regis Toomey, and Elisha Cook, Jr. add depth to THE BIG SLEEP. Julie Harris, Arthur Hill, Janet Leigh, Strother Martin, Robert Wagner, and Shelley Winters contribute their considerable strength to each scene in HARPER. There are even connections between the characters in each film. Martha Vickers’ boozy flirt becomes Pamela Tiffin’s spoiled tease. John Ridgely’s gambling boss becomes Robert Webber’s smuggling impresario. One can even make the comparison between Elisha Cook, Jr.’s stand-up guy and Robert Wagner’s handsome fly boy.
One of the things I like best about HARPER is its timelessness. With a slight change in music and wardrobe, HARPER could ride a TARDIS to the 1970s or even back to the 1940s. Written in the tradition of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, HARPER puts a modern spin on the notions of tough dames, wise-cracking shamuses, and slimy con-men. With his role in HARPER, Paul Newman joins the ranks of Dick Powell, Robert Montgomery, and Humphrey Bogart, all of whom played Philip Marlowe, by the way. The 1970s would see a resurgence of jaded private eyes with Robert Altman’s THE LONG GOODBYE (1973) and Dick Richards’ FAREWELL, MY LOVELY (1975) and give Elliott Gould and Robert Mitchum each a turn as the iconic Marlowe.
HARPER did well at the box office, cementing Paul Newman’s star status and allowing him to take his pick of the best films offered him. The next year Newman would eat fifty eggs. In 1969, he’d pair up with Robert Redford in BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID, launching them both into superstardom. The success of HARPER also paved the way for a second Lew Harper outing in 1975 with Stuart Rosenberg’s THE DROWNING POOL, also starring Newman’s wife Joanne Woodward. HARPER is an entertaining and well-made film that succeeds in bringing fedoras (well, mental ones) and double scotches to sunny California. Through HARPER and its subsequent incarnations, the legacy of THE BIG SLEEP lives on.
A slightly different version of this piece appears in the Brattle Film Notes blog. The Brattle Theatre is a wonderful independent theatre in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Here’s a link to the piece. Brattle Film Notes
British horror films of the 1960s and 1970s have a certain macabre look to them. The lighting is dim and Gothic architecture and misty moors abound. The films also look similar because they often cast a veritable repertory company of actors. Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, Michael Gough, Barbara Steele, Ingrid Pitt, Patrick Magee, and American actors like Vincent Price, Burgess Meredith, and Jack Palance often appeared in low-budget films made by Hammer or Amicus Productions.
In Britain during that era, Hammer Productions was the largest and best known of the horror houses. Hammer Productions kept the legends of Frankenstein, Dracula, and the Mummy going long after Universal Studios had forgotten them. Hammer’s horror films often starred Lee and Cushing and that alone induced people to buy tickets. At the same time Hammer was running Van Helsing ragged, Amicus Productions was also making horror films. Though Amicus made full-length films like THE DEADLY BEES and THE SKULL, portmanteau horror movies like TALES FROM THE CRYPT gained that studio the most attention.
Competing with Hammer and Amicus and sharing office space at Hammer House in London, Tigon British Film Productions made fewer films, but often used the same actors, sets, and props as the other studios. That means you can see Lee and Cushing in Hammer’s SATANIC RITES OF DRACULA, Amicus’ VAULT OF HORROR, or Tigon’s THE CREEPING FLESH. Often directors like Freddie Francis, Peter Sasdy, Terence Fisher, and Roy Ward Baker shuttled back and forth between studios as well. All three studios showed a little gore and a little skin and all three were popular with audiences.
Tigon cast its actors for 1968’s THE CRIMSON CULT or CURSE OF THE CRIMSON ALTAR from the Hammer/Amicus horror repertory company. Most of the actors had worked together in earlier films. THE CRIMSON CULT leads Christopher Lee and Michael Gough appeared in films together including HORROR OF DRACULA for Hammer in 1958 and DR. TERROR’S HOUSE OF HORROR for Amicus in 1965. Lee and Boris Karloff starred in CORRIDORS OF BLOOD for MGM in 1958. Familiarity breeds comfort. The fact that these seasoned actors had already worked together allowed them to converse naturally on camera. The best scenes in the film feature the leads sharing a drink and a few barbs before a fire.
“An then the Prime Minister said, Chris…he calls me Chris.”
After his brother goes missing, Robert Manning (Mark Eden), antiques dealer and bon vivant, travels to Craxted Lodge in fictional Greymarsh to find him. The lodge’s owner, Morley (Christopher Lee) and his niece, Eve (Virginia Wetherell) invite Manning to stay at the lodge while he searches for his brother. There he meets friendly torture-device expert, Professor Marsh (Boris Karloff) and crabby Elder (Michael Gough). Naturally, Manning’s arrival coincides with the annual bacchanal commemorating the burning of an infamous witch in the village. Manning gets on well with Morley and even better with Eve. Wink wink nudge nudge. He has fun while he’s awake, but at night Manning has hallucinogenic nightmares involving ritual sacrifice and document-signing. In his dreams, Lavinia Morley (Barbara Steele), an ancient witch sporting green makeup and horns, and her animal mask wearing cohorts try to force Manning to sign an ancient agreement. In his dreams, he fears signing the contract will mean losing his soul.
“You sure you don’t want that TrueCoat?”
Later Manning stumbles upon secret passageways and an altar room, both of which figure prominently in Hammer films and his frightening dreams. With all the talk of contract signing, I couldn’t help thinking of other films in which the characters are coerced to ‘just sign here’. Manning’s dreams remind me of a psychedelic version of GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS, but with less coffee and more blood rituals.
“Pentagrams are for closers.”
The interplay between Morley, Marsh, and Manning is my favorite part of the film. The screenplay by Mervyn Haisman and Henry Lincoln has enough witty banter for actors like Lee and Karloff to have fun with. As usual, Lee plays an erudite aristocrat who tells only enough to make you suspect him of something. The looks and asides between him and Karloff are priceless. What about Marsh? Is he the crazed occultist invading Manning’s dreams? He does have a mysterious air and a weird hobby.
Manning and Eve have real chemistry too and their mature love affair is a far cry from most of the American films released in 1968. Vernon Sewell directed THE CRIMSON CULT and it looks as if he had a blast. The party scene, the witch-burning festival, and even the costumes suggest the film-makers were enjoying themselves. Still, a few questions remain. Will Manning find his wayward brother? Will he be able to resist the beautifully verdant, but evil Lavinia Morley? Will Manning stop chugging Professor Marsh’s fifty-year-old cognac like a teenager at a keg party? And finally, who will win the mellifluous voice contest, Karloff or Lee?
THE CRIMSON CULT bears only a slight resemblance to H.P. Lovecraft’s story, THE DREAMS IN THE WITCH HOUSE. In that, a college student who studies math and folklore begins to have dreams of witches and child sacrifice while living in an accursed house in Lovecraft’s fictional Arkham, Massachusetts. The hero also dreams of traveling to other dimensions and meeting intelligent shapes. The filmmakers decided to stick with the more corporeal aspects of the story.
“He’s too old for that hood.”
THE CRIMSON CULT’s distance from Miskatonic University matters less than the presence of Christopher Lee, Boris Karloff in one of his last roles, Barbara Steele with horns, and a weird party featuring guests drinking champagne off a woman’s body years before Salma Hayek did it in that Mexican vampire bar. Despite the absence of Cthulhu or even Yog-Sothoth, THE CRIMSON CULT has enough secret doorways, plot twists, and Christopher Lee to make it fun to watch.
A slightly different version of this piece appeared earlier in the Brattle Film Notes blog. Here’s a link. Brattle Theatre