Wednesday, March 02, 2005

Short Cuts: March '05

The Big Combo
d. Joseph H. Lewis, 1955

With relative safety, I'd like to file this one under 'overlooked.' Richard Conte turns in one helluva performance (aren't they all, though?), while Joseph H. Lewis keeps the ideas flowing - a hearing aid cum torture device, a drop-out soundtrack silent execution of a deaf man, twists and turns a'plenty. With these postives come some negative (overlooked he said, masterpiece he did not.) While Conte's turn reaches the heights (OK, the mid-heights) of thespianism, lead-man Cornel Wilde wallows in the depths. Most surprisingly, unlike even the most mediocre of noirs, The Big Combo features entirely quotidian camera-work - boring on the whole, with some interesting light-play here and there (mostly the bedroom scenes.) My favorite bits: the subtle, and not so subtle, homoeroticism between Fante (a young Lee Van Cleef) and Mingo (a young no-name.) How naughty!

Fat City
d. John Huston, 1972

A movie about grasping at last straws - and the inconsequential nature of that act - that also happens to have some boxing in it. Huston's direction, per usual, is austere, echoing both the urban landscape and the hard lives occupied by our two protagonists (Stacy Keach as the older, washed-up Billy Tully and Jeff Bridges as the young buck just entering the game, Ernie Munch.) Tully and Munch are two blips on the conveyor belt of life; one near the end, and the other at the beginning. Their lives are paralleled throughout - Tully used to be the best, the Great White Hope, Ernie is the current incarnation of that (impossible) hope. They share the same manager (former, in the case of Tully) who uses Ernie to spark his own hope - maybe he's found the great fighter he'd always dreamt of finding. Probably not, though. The last shot of the film is boundlessly poetic - Tully and Ernie share a cup of coffee in a medium two shot. They watch an old man serve them coffee at a snail's pace. Tully remarks that he never wants to end up like that, the irony being that he already is. Ernie isn't exempt from this harsh reality; even though he's young, it's made clear that Tully's path is his path. Just like Tully and the old man, he'll end up tired and beaten, just like the rest of us.

The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T
d. Roy Rowland, 1953

Fantastically bizarre in the same way that Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory is fantastically bizarre. Rowland may have directed the film, but this is Dr. Seuss' show. Arbitrary turns abound in the plot, which is quite obviously secondary to the impeccable set design (care also of the kind Doctor.) Not a great film by any means, The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T is nonetheless gallons of fun. The wires show throughout - the sound stagey quality, the terrible acting - but it hardly matters. All senses are overwhelmed by the sheer mania of the thing. Anyone else think that the get-up worn by Dr. T at the end contains prescient echoes of this guy?

In a Lonely Place
d. Nicholas Ray, 1950

This makes three films from 1950 that deal with The Buisness. (For those playing at home, the other two are Sunset Boulevard and All About Eve.) Surprisingly (or not), this, the least heralded of the three, is the greatest - not that the other two are slouches, neither. Humphrey Bogart plays Dixon Steele, a Hollywood screenwriter who takes pride in his work, therefore garnering little success. Gloria Grahame (beautiful, beautiful, beautiful) plays Laurel, Steele's love and muse. At face value alone, In a Lonely Place is a remarkable film. Ray has an eye for detail, supplying congruity between such elements as setting, acting, and story in such a way that the film feels less like a film and more like a self-contained universe placed somewhere between Burbank and Hollywood. Deeper still, the film is one of the most brilliant I have seen. Bogart outshines any other role I've seen him in, playing a dichotomous madman of sorts - a struggling, lonely artist attempting to fit in with the rest of the world. Most remarkable is the script; it is both self-aware and invisible, working to illustrate the importance, and lack of appreciation, of Steele's metier. All the while, the narrative ambles along, providing true, pure tension even when the audience is fully aware of its inevitable conclusion. In a Lonely Place is one of the all-time great combinations of technical excellence and outstanding art.

The Night of the Hunter
d. Charles Laughton, 1955

If a strangely uncomfortable noir with an oddly eerie gospel soundtrack and rather obvious projection shots and special effects, all set against a German Expressionist set design sounds intriguing to you, then The Night of the Hunter is your film. Charles Laughton's first film (and only - he was unfortunately discouraged from trying his hand at it again; seems the public didn't shine to his debut effort) jumps with excitement and spontaneity. Frankly, I haven't much of a clue about what he is actually getting at - certainly religious dogma, probably the pathetic nature of man - but it doesn't really matter. Gorgeous cinematography abounds, particularly with regards to the jagged, piercing light and abundant helicopter shots (illustrating that pathetic smallness of man, I'd say.) The whole thing devolves into a truly bizarre conclusion, seemingly ripped right out of It's a Wonderful Life, or something of that ilk. The charm of this film lies not in its depth, but in the same characteristics it shares with its child stars - dirty and disheveled, but eminently loveable.

Thieves' Highway
d. Jules Dassin, 1949

Rather than a typical noir in the vein of Double Indemnity or Out of the Past (not to imply that those pictures aren't fantastic), Thieves' Highway is a stylistically varied and broader noir, with a wider pallete of characters and themes. No femme fatale, no hard-bitten, terse poeticism - instead, Dassin's film tackles territory familiar to the likes of Steinbeck and Sinclair - the working class. Richard Conte is a son returning home (from the war maybe?) after a long time away. His father - a former produce trucker - has been steered wrong by crooked produce man, Mike Figlia (Lee Cobb), losing his legs in the process. Conte swears revenge and trucks a load of Golden Delicious apples to San Francisco in order to confront Figlia. The apples work as a metaphor - a glorious scene of them tumbling down a hill evokes the futile plight of the terminal working class. Figlia states it almost as eloquently when talking to another produce runner: "You know what you're gonna' be when you grow up," he says, "A truck jockey." The ending (saccharine, improbable) mars the film a bit, but, on the whole, Thieves' Highway is a very good film and one I am surprised I haven't heard mentioned more often.