While the City Sleeps (1956)

While the City Sleeps (1956) movie poster

director Fritz Lang
viewed: 08/27/2018

While the City Sleeps, Fritz Lang’s second to last Hollywood film, feels more nominally noir that fully noir. Not that noir is such a definitive thing itself.

Visually, at least, Lang takes the film into the subway tunnel for a brief chase of the serial killer, in a brief but effective sequence of something much more noir than the rest. From what I’ve read, production costs and studio limitations hampered Lang’s visual style in his last couple of films.

So, yes, there is a serial killer, but the primary focus of the film is a media empire at odds with itself. With the death of the empire’s president and namesake, the heads of the newspaper, the wire service, and the photography branch all vie for the top job under the president’s ne’er-do-well son (Vincent Price, in short and tall dark socks at one point).

The ham-fisted script roils with plot points and way too many convenient twists, but still puts up a good testament to importance of the free press.

Dana Andrews is the one reporter with a nose for the news, but he’s a drunk who’s willing to put his fiancée out as bait for the “Lipstick Killer”.  The convoluted drama is rife with noirish cynicism, but frankly, While the City Sleeps might be my least favorite Fritz Lang film I’ve seen.

Star 80 (1983)

Star 80 (1983) movie poster

director Bob Fosse
viewed: 08/26/2018

Bob Fosse’s Star 80 is the partially fictionalized real life horror story of the life of actress and Playboy Playmate, Dorothy Stratten, played here by Mariel Hemingway. Young, beautiful and naive, Stratten was discovered by her future manager and husband, Paul Snider, at a Dairy Queen in Vancouver. Snider was a sleazy promoter and hustler and pimp, who knew he had found gold in Stratten and quickly got her in the Playboy scene.

Eric Roberts plays Snider with sweaty, sublime sleazeball in a tremendous performance. For all his seedy low-life-ness, Roberts and Fosse also inflect the character with pathos, maybe even verging on the too sympathetic. It certainly gives the portrayal depth.

Snider is the ultimate villain, who quickly finds himself out of his depth in Hollywood. Where he’d hoped to make a big splash, he instead realizes how small-time he is, and more successful Svengalis, Hugh Hefner (played by Cliff Robertson) and Aram Nicholas (in real life Peter Bogdanovich, played here by Roger Rees.)

There are so many villains, and Star 80 envisions (rightly or wrongly) Stratten as only a bit player in her own life due to youth, naivete, and a lack of agency. Though Hefner and Bogdanovich saw more in her and weaned her away from Snider with hopes of opportunity and freedom, their reasons were hardly simple altruism. The film offers a reasonable, if not forceful enough indictment of Hefner and Bogdanovich.

Fosse employs faux documentary style interviews, investing the film with aspects of vérité. He also fills it with a primo period soundtrack (not all “back in the day” music was good.) Being made so close to the event (only 3 years after her death), the styles, bodies, and hair have that natural setting styles, something almost impossible to recreate in retrospective films.

But Snider is a consummate villain, a tiny, miserable man who acted in brutality and selfishness. And Roberts is amazing.

The true life version of the story extends the creepiness of Bogdanovich’s obsession with Stratten and eventually her even younger sister.

Ultimately, Star 80 packs a wallop. It’s a harsh film about a tragic story.

Where the Sidewalk Ends (1950)

Where the Sidewalk Ends (1950) movie poster

director Otto Preminger
viewed: 08/25/2018

Where the Sidewalk Ends was shot on location in New York City, but since most of the events go down at night, director Otto Preminger and cinematographer Joseph LaShelle craft a mise en scène that has all the control of a studio set. There’s a shot where Dana Andrews steps outside and an elevated train in the background comes to a stop. Magical shot.

If I’d seen Where the Sidewalk Ends before having seen Preminger’s more well-appreciated Laura (1944), I might have had a better liking for his direction and noir films. This 1950 film noir, reuniting Laura stars Andrews and Gene Tierney (Wot a babe!), is far grittier and far more noir. Tierney and Andrews are great together, easy to see why they would be paired so often.

I’ll forgo summarizing the plot because I didn’t know what was going to happen and the film’s main twist came as a surprise.

I quite enjoyed it. Solid noir.

The Set-Up (1949)

 

The Set-Up (1949) movie poster

director  Robert Wise
viewed: 08/08/2018

A film noir adapted from a poem. That’s got to be unusual.

The Set-Up, directed by Robert Wise stars Robert Ryan and Audrey Trotter and a slew of top notch character actors.

“Everybody’s a sucker for something.”

Lean, mean and sharply crafted, it’s easy to see why The Set-Up makes so many lists of best films noir. Wise keens in on the fervent bloodlust of boxing’s  bloodsport, the fatalistic nature of the genre and style. And the excellent boxing sequences and cinematography.

Also, I’m a Robert Ryan convert now.

Safe in Hell (1931)

 Safe in Hell (1931) movie poster

director William A. Wellman
viewed: 08/06/2018

“She’s the only white woman on the island.”

Gilda (Dorothy Mackaill), a  prostitute in New Orleans, accidentally kills an old lover who played her dirty. And now she needs to get out quick!’ Enter her seafaring beau, back from long months all over the globe.

“I’ve made my living the only way I could.”

Initially taken aback by this, Gilda’s fiancee still loves her and secrets her away to a small island nation in the Caribbean with no extradition policies. She’ll have to hide out, “Safe in Hell” while he ships out again.

William A. Wellman’s Safe in Hell  bears it’s origins as a play, but it’s also primo pre-code storytelling and characterization: those on the outsides of “polite society” who would not find their lives depicted after the Hays Code kicked in, plus frankness about sex, and in some cases, a very humanitarian outlook.

I’d just watched Wellman’s Frisco Jenny of the following year, which held some very similar aspects. The lead Gilda is a strong woman, acting in self-reliance, doing what she has to in order to live. True, both Jenny and Gilda end up taking noble stances that ultimately lead them to the gallows, though this tragic ending further empowers their noble motivations rather than acting as pure punishment.

Another great bit of repartee:

“May I ask you senior what are your intentions for the chicken? Honorable I hope?”

Safe in Hell also has a pretty nice jazzy score, and a all too brief singing performance by Nina Mae McKinney  (“The Black Garbo”).

Footlight Parade (1933)

Footlight Parade (1933) movie poster

directors Lloyd Bacon, Busby Berkeley
viewed: 08/02/2018

In Footlight Parade, James Cagney and Joan Blondell head up a picture about Showbiz, one of Hollywood’s popular themes of the Thirties.

Silent pictures are finished!”

But talking pictures aren’t just a fad, as Footlight Parade proves out. Rapid fire everything, as Chester Kent (Cagney) knocks out one dynamite production after another, a musical number producer (oddly enough of the non-cinematic type). This is the Depression, after all, and idea men and money-makers and entertainment still shine the light of hope and prosperity.

The first hour or so is high-paced comedy, as Cagney pumps out production after production, discovering talent left, right, and everywhere (heck, his stenographer gets a make-over and now she’s the female singing lead!) It’s all fun stuff, if not necessarily pure gold.

The last third of the Footlight Parade, Busby Berkeley transforms a good backstage comedy into unparalleled pure cinema in his nigh psychedelic musical numbers comprised of the human figure, fantasy, and genius.  

“By a Waterfall” is spectacle, visions, fantasia. Honestly, if you’ve never seen a Busby Berkeley number and only know him by his cultural references and homages, glimpses in short excerpts or stills, you really owe it to yourself to see this absolute Hollywood magic. There is nothing, truly, like it.

Blonde Crazy (1931)

Blonde Crazy (1931) movie poster

director  Roy Del Ruth
viewed: 08/01/2018

James Cagney is the sliest bellhop and Joan Blondell is his wise and game partner in grift in Roy Del Ruth’s Blonde Crazy.

This pre-code “romantic comedy-drama” is slaphappy and a total hoot. Like a lot of early “talkies”, Blonde Crazy spits patter miles and miles a minute, with deft gags peppering scenes with risqué business.

Cagney and Blondell are a plum pairing, tons of charisma and sparks. It’s unsurprising they shared the screen several times in their early years. Cagney just radiates energy.

These grifters set their sights on higher game in bigger cities, working their scams and earning their dough. Only sometimes the scammers get scammed, and somebody ends up in a jam.

Wanda (1970)

Wanda (1970) movie poster

director Barbara Loden
viewed: 07/31/2018

Wanda is sincerely amazing.  Barbara Loden’s directorial debut, in which she stars (and which she also wrote), is a remarkable film, far more obscure than it deserves to be.

I’d quite recently read about it in Sarah Weinman’s article about the film and its true crime inspiration (The True Crime Story Behind a 1970 Cult Feminist Film Classic). Reading about how much Barbara Loden identified with her beaten-down protagonist and Loden’s own all too brief life, imbues Wanda with further tragedy but also with a prime sense of accomplishment.

The films that came to mind while watching Wanda were interestingly mostly films that came after it: Badlands (1973), A Woman Under the Influence (1974), Killer of Sheep (1978). Only Blast of Silence (1961), which also echoed for me somewhere predates Wanda.

Wanda starts out in rural Pennsylvania, where she borrows some money, allows her kids to be taken by the court and her ex-husband, and flows through bars into lonely places, random men, movie houses (the 1962 Mexican horror film The Brainiac was on the marquee!), she stumbles into a partnership with a sleazy middle aged lowlife who looks a lot like James Ellroy.

“I don’t like friendly people.”

A truly remarkable picture.

Lolita (1962)

Lolita (1962) movie poster

director Stanley Kubrick
viewed: 07/08/2018

The last time I saw Stanley Kubrick’s Lolita was not terribly long after I had read the Vladimir Nabokov novel. Both of these events were around 25 years ago. I’ve considered the novel to be one of the best I’ve read in my life, one I’ve recommended time and again, and something I’ve meant to revisit. I recalled finding Kubrick’s Lolita a bit of a disappointment.

Now, decades later, the novel not so fresh in my mind, re-watching Lolita evoked a much different response.

The black comedy, driven not just by James Mason’s obsession with Sue Lyon’s Lolita, but by Peter Seller’s manic scene-stealing romp as Clare Quilty, is in many ways an argument that cinematic adaptations do their best when they don’t adhere to the source material so avidly. Surely, fans of the novel will be annoyed, but it arguably makes for better cinema.

Like many a Kubrick film, it’s an experience in and of itself. And surprisingly and unsurprisingly, it seems like it would be the perfect companion piece to Dr. Strangelove.

Also, Shelley Winters is fantastic. Shelley Winters is always fantastic but she’s super duper fantastic here.

Dudes (1987)

Dudes (1987) movie poster

director Penelope Spheeris
viewed: 05/23/2018

Jon Cryer makes a cute punk.

Penelope Spheeris’s Dudes is very 1987, a transition between between early and late Eighties. It’s also a then present day revenge Western featuring punks versus thugs (also played in part by punks).

It exists between light-toned comdey and a darker sense of drama, also between pure Indie film and something more commercial.

A decent oddity, fitting well in the center of Spheeris’s oeuvre.