Barry Gifford on Film Noir – A Way with Words

As a writer, Barry Gifford definitely gets around. Born in Chicago in 1946, Gifford’s hefty  output (over 40 titles to date) includes fiction, non-fiction, biographies, poetry, and screenplays. I first became aware of his name as the author of the 1989 novel Wild at Heart, which David Lynch made into one of his very strange (as you’d expect) films the following year. In 1997 Gifford co-wrote the screenplay for Lynch’s even stranger film, Lost Highway.

Gifford also co-wrote a 1997 film called Dance with the Devil, based on his novel 59° and Raining: The Story of Perdita Durango. The cast includes Rosie Perez, Javier Bardem, James Gandolfini, and Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, which is pretty intriguing lineup. As far as I can tell, this film was not released theatrically in this country, only on home video.

So far I haven’t read any of Gifford’s fiction or poetry (though I just remembered that I’d read and liked Jack’s Book: An Oral Biography of Jack Kerouac, a book Gifford did with Lawrence Lee that came out in 1978), but I recently read his incredible Out of the Past: Adventures in Film Noir (University Press of Mississippi, 2001). This is an expanded edition of a collection previously titled The Devil Thumbs a Ride & Other Unforgettable Films, published by Grove Press in 1988. I’m not even sure what you’d call this book. It’s not film criticism in any traditional sense. Gifford covers approximately 120 films (mostly noir, but not exclusively) in short, punchy entries of a page or two each. The pieces are not necessarily descriptive of the films, though sometimes they are. The writing is highly subjective, impressionistic, sarcastic, cynical, sincere, even poetic at times. I love his use of language, which is very alive, often with surprising and unpredictable word choices. He’s loose, idiosyncratic, and as far from stuffy as you’re likely to get. It occurred to me at times that if Charles Bukowski had written film reviews, they might have been something like these.

In an Author’s Note at the end he writes: “Insofar as accuracy is concerned in the following, I guarantee only the veracity of the impression. I wrote these essays as I imagine many of the Cahiers du Cinema reviews of the 1950s were written, on the café or kitchen table at one in the morning. None have been revised for their publication in magazines. This is and was by design, in an effort to retain the freshness of the thought.” Indeed.

Out of the Past Adv in Film Noir-cover

Barry Gifford

Barry Gifford

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Following are quotes from 48 of the films Gifford writes about. I found these particularly vibrant. They definitely got my attention. Reading these can be a kick even if you don’t know the films, but even more so if you do.

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American Friend-poster2The American Friend (Wim Wenders,1977) with Dennis Hopper, Bruno Ganz, Sam Fuller, Nicholas Ray.

“The real dramatic life of this movie is in the undertow, the way Wenders meanders broodingly, using Ganz as his ameneusis, stroking the viewer with images, making all colors seem brown at their core – the world turning to shit.”

The Asphalt Jungle (John Huston, 1950) with Sterling Hayden, Sam Jaffe, Marilyn Monroe, James Whitmore.

Jungle reflects two shades: dark and darker.”

“…the streets are filled with spiders and their webs enfold the earth.”

"Asphalt Jungle" - Spanish

“Asphalt Jungle” – Spanish

Asphalt Jungle-poster

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Autumn Leaves (Robert Aldrich, 1956) with Joan Crawford, Cliff Robertson, Vera Miles.

“She’s giddy, wild with the smell of love and she’s not sure what to do about it.”

The Big Combo (Joseph H. Lewis, 1955) with Cornel Wilde, Richard Conte, Jean Big Combo-poster3Wallace, Lee Van Cleef.

“…the tentacles of light directed at us and slowed down so that the smoke curls and wraps around the darkness like reticulate pythons.”

“…dynamite. When it blows it’s in slow motion again, the white piles of flame and smoke slithering over and around each other, another exquisite maze of deathclouds.”

“Darkness disguises cheap sets… but it takes a visual artist to make the black work, to infect it with just enough light so that anything other than dark seems wrong, uncomfortable, unnatural.”

The Big Heat (Fritz Lang, 1953) with Glenn Ford, Gloria Grahame, Lee Marvin.

Big Heat-Marvin, Grahame, Ford“Grahame’s sharp-angled face is savage enough to begin with, but after she’s burned by the coffee she becomes a kind of she-creature, an untouchable sex bomb.”

“…Gloria Grahame comes out looking like Mary Magdalene, a slender cut above all the other sick fools caught in the bad light.”

The Big Steal (Don Siegel, 1949) with Robert Mitchum, Jane Greer, William Bendix.

“The plot is simple but Siegel makes it lively as hell, with wild cutting during the chase scenes. It’s easy to pick out the sequences shot exclusively in the studio; they’re hokey but topsy-turvy and it’s fun to watch Mitchum and Greer goose each other like Bogart and Bacall. Short, sweet, and not too deep.”

Body Heat (Lawrence Kasden, 1981) with William Hurt, Kathleen Turner, Richard Crenna, Ted Danson, Mickey Rourke.

“Kasdan does a good job there, and he throws in enough rustling palm leaves, clanging wind chimes, and sweaty foreheads to usher in a grand sexual rush.”

Born to Be Bad (Nicholas Ray, 1950) with Joan Fontaine, Zachary Scott, Robert Ryan.

“Krisabel’s got Curtis snowed – he hardly notices that cash kicks off her shoulders like dandruff and that she manages to find a double dozen reasons to avoid making love with him.”

Cape Fear (J. Lee Thompson, 1962) with Robert Mitchum, Gregory Peck, Polly Bergen, Telly Savalas, Martin Balsam.

Cape Fear-still“Mitchum is a giant of evil in this movie; a slithery, completely corrupt, malevolent force.”

“He’s the angel of death-with-pain, put on earth to give men pause. When he describes to Peck how he got back at his ex-wife after he got out of prison, kidnapping her from her new husband and holding her captive in a motel room for days, raping and torturing her, and finally throwing her naked and filled with whiskey onto the road, we hear the Truth; it’s a swift lesson in the validity of Bad.”

Charley Varrick (Don Siegel, 1973) with Walter Matthau, Joe Don Baker.

“The movie is dusty and low-rent, a late 20th-century western with no generous souls.”

Conflict (Curtis Bernhardt, 1945) with Humphrey Bogart, Sidney Greenstreet, Alexis Smith.

“The atmosphere is heavy, ponderous, dark, with lots of rain and misty windows and too much furniture in the rooms.”

“The movie is like good German potato salad, heavy and spicy at the same time.’

Cry Danger (Robert Parrish, 1951) with Dick Powell, Rhonda Fleming, William Conrad.

“Nancy lives in a bric-a-brac heaven, a cozy trailer covered by clinging vines. The setting is claustrophobic, and you can see Rocky squirm thinking about life with this devil-woman.”

Cult of the Cobra (Francis D. Lyon, 1955) with Faith Domergue, Richard Long, David Janssen, Jack Kelly.

Cult of the Cobra-poster2“…Cobra Princess, played by Faith Domergue, who somehow manages to look reptilian even in female human being drag.”

“Faith Domergue gets to like her life as a hot-blooded woman more than her slimey cobra body; she heats up as a dame and can’t take the schizophrenia of it all and goes out her apartment window one last time.”

Cult of the Cobra” is director Francis D. Lyons great paean to anthropomorphism; sophisticated foolishness that nevertheless conveys a vivid image of psychosexual conflict.”

Dark Passage (Delmer Daves, 1947) with Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, Agnes Moorehead.

“So here we have Agnes Moorehead’s best screen performance. She literally vibrates with evil as the murderess Madge Rapf, an arch slut/bitch unlike any other female villain this side of Judith Anderson in Rebecca.

“…the feline Bacall picks up Bogey on a country road.”

“The scene with the crazy plastic surgeon at two A.M. whose office is down a dark alley is the best of all, full of distended closeups and warped proportions, like faces leaning over a coffin; and we see them as would a corpse. Everyone looks already-dead, half-faded in failing light.”

“…Bacall slithering across the room toward him…”

“…Bogey’s grinning like the Chesire Cat as the warm waves slather the palm-strewn sands, and we fade out to a wonderland where the wounded survive and the wicked don’t.”

Dead Reckoning (John Cromwell, 1947) with Humphrey Bogart, Lisabeth Scott.

“Movies like this depend on nothing so much as mood, on Bogey’s epiphanic expressions, his ability to skate through and around the ham-fisted situations, to make the viewer comfortable through an illusion of competence.”

Dead Reckoning is better than the sum of its parts would seem to yield, which is probably due to the soft sea breeze that blows through it.”

Detour (Edgar G. Ulmer, 1945) with Tom Neal, Ann Savage.Detour-still

“Ulmer’s master was F. W. Murnau (Sunrise, Nosferatu), and those Prussian shadows shriek throughout his work.”

“Tom Neal is perfectly cast as the dumbshit dupe who thinks he knows what he’s doing. Ann Savage… gives a tour de force performance as the tubercular madwoman manipulating Neal to Total Loss.”

“Her head is like a bowling pin with brown hair and heavy eyebrows painted on.”

“She looks like a deranged leopard stalking off to the bedroom with the telephone to call the cops on him.”

“The almost ultraviolet bands of light across Neal’s face in Ulmer’s film are like streaks of evil.”

“Even the daylight in this movie is cloudy.”

The Devil Thumbs a Ride (Felix Feist, 1947) with Lawrence Tierney.

“The hours covered in this film are from midnight to dawn, the period during which reality is suspended, when the rational mind loses control, and everything goes haywire. This is one of the meanest, most boldly deranged exercises in maniacal behavior this side of Ed Gein, minus the dismemberment.”

“…evil doesn’t lurk in his face, it gloats.”Devil Thumbs a Ride-Tierney

“Tierney invests this basically stupid plot with such genuine virulence that Devil must be ranked in the upper echelon of indelibly American noir.”

“There is no daylight in that face.”

D.O.A. (Rudolph Maté, 1949) with Edmund O’Brien, Luther Adler, Neville Brand.

“…this ultra-noir masterpiece, a movie that has everyone in a violent sweat from beginning to end.”

“Maté uses the city streets brilliantly in this, making it all into a maze with O’Brien the fightened, maddened, careening rabbit slamming into the wall with nothing making sense. Sweat, sweat, sweat – this movie has it. All improbable, impossible, with finger-snapping blondes, bop, post-World War Two ‘50s-prosperous American city scenes twisted through the bottom of a glass by an uncompromising Kandinskylike eye.”

Get Carter (Mike Hodges, 1971) with Michael Caine, Ian Hendry, Britt Ekland.

“An underrated, seldom-mentioned noir masterpiece, Mike Hodges’s Get Carter is the shiny suit of British cinema.”

Gilda (Charles Vidor, 1946) with Glenn Ford, Rita Hayworth, George Macready.

“It’s enough just to watch Rita in all her glory descend a winding staircase, to fluff up her hair with one hand and let it fall all over her face while her ears and eyebrows twitch and Macready’s nose goes out of joint.”

Get Carter-posterGilda-poster

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Gun Crazy-poster2Gun Crazy-stillGun Crazy (Joesph H. Lewis, 1949) with John Dall, Peggy Cummins.

“The guy – long, tall John Dall, kind of a horse-faced Gary Cooper – has to wrest the platinum Peggy Cummins away from the carnival owner.”

“The camerawork is wicked, like Peggy’s mind; the eye is unblinking, relentless, raking across everything it sees like a claw. It’s a hard, mean focus, and I suppose that’s Joseph Lewis’s trademark: the screen pulsates like an injured nerve…”

“The climactic scene, shot in heavy white fog, is exquisite, startling because of the visual quiet – we just hear voices and shots. All in all, a remarkable little movie: sexy, violent, stupid, sad, pretty, tense, strange. More than enough.”

High Sierra (Raoul Walsh, 1941) with Humphrey Bogart, Ida Lupino.

“When he gets pinned down on a mountaintop, Marie returns with the dog, who leaps out of her arms and runs to Bogey, who’s then drilled into immortality by the bulls.”

House of Horrors-posterHouse of Horrors (Jean Yarbrough, 1946) with Rondo Hatton.

“A personal favorite of mine, House of Horrors is a fractured exegesis on art, love, and curvature of the spine.”

“His face really was remarkable: a grotesquely beautiful shape that the sculptor in House of Horrors just has to render in clay.”

I Walked with a Zombie (Jacques Tourneur, 1943) with Francis Dee, Tom Conway.

“The light is always hazy, the black not quite black but with an opaqueness that makes you strain to see more clearly. The effect is like looking through a keyhole and being shocked by a cold fingertip on your neck.”

Cat People (Jacques Tourneur, 1942) with Simone Simon, Kent Smith, Tom Conway.

“So much is unexplained in this movie that it works – it’s simple but bizarre and very dark.”

The Leopard Man (Jacques Tourneur, 1943) with Dennis O’Keefe, Margo, Isabel Jewell.

“The Penitente Parade at the end is as weird a procession as anything every filmed. Lewton and Tourneur knew precisely how to make the innocent and obvious seem strange and unknown. Submitting yourself to them is like giving yourself over to a leering hypnotist and his hunchback dwarf assistant…”

Cat People-poster2Leopardman-posterI Walked with a Zombie-poster

 

 

 

 

 

 

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I Want to Live! (Robert Wise, 1958) with Susan Hayward, Simon Oakland, Theodore Bikel.

“All that’s stacked against a woman is in evidence here, and for a chick who’s trying hard to be a stand-up guy it’s especially gut wrenching. Bodies and shadows pass through, the blacks and whites licking at one another like flames, giving out auras of blue, yellow, green, and gray – until she goes down for the count and everything fades to basic black.”

In a Lonely Place (Nicholas Ray, 1950) with Humphrey Bogart, Gloria Grahame, Frank Lovejoy.

“Bogey’s problem is that he can be a mean drunk even when he’s not drinking.”

In Cold Blood (Richard Brooks, 1967) with Robert Blake, Scott Wilson, John Forsythe, Jeff Corey.

“The dark quality of remote flatlands haunts the frame, even indoors. What’s outside is real, ominous, waiting; as dramatic and dynamic as a madman in a hockey mask holding a hatchet.”

“The killers are scars on the plain face of the land, scuttling across it like crabs miles from sand, no place to bury themselves, to escape the light. When they’re hanged their perverse energy oozes out of them like pus from a wound. As valid a portrait of the heart of the country as It’s a Wonderful Life.

The Killers (Robert Siodmak, 1946) with Burt Lancaster, Ava Gardner, Edmund O’Brien.

“The Swede offers no resistance: he knows it’s time, life isn’t worth living, and they plug him. But why go down so easily? Why the fatalist? You guessed it: betrayed by a woman. Again. Remember the green scarf with the birds or whatever the hell it had on it? The one she used to wear? Especially if she’s Ava Gardner at her loveliest. Just enough to make you swoon and die. If you’re the Swede, that is.”

The Killing (Stanley Kubrick, 1956) with Sterling Hayden, Marie Windsor, Elisha Cook, Jr., Timothy Carey, Colleen Gray.

“It’s another great Carey performance as he leers and grunts and groans out of his permanent death-mask face.”

“Everyone looks so worried and concerned throughout that their features are marred, twisted, bent, screwed up in the physical as well as psychological sense.”

Kiss Me Deadly (Robert Aldrich, 1955) with Ralph Meeker, Albert Dekker, Paul Stewart, Cloris Leachman.

“This Hammer is kind of an automaton, almost as if he’d been body-snatched and is running on remote control – very remote.”

Kiss of Death (Henry Hathaway, 1947) with Victor Mature, Richard Widmark, Colleen Gray, Brian Donleavy.

Kiss of Death-Tommy Udo3“Mature fills up the screen while Widmark wriggles sideways into the frame, a nasty little reptile.”

Mildred Pierce (Michael Curtiz, 1945) with Joan Crawford, Ann Blythe, Zachary Scott.

“The theme here is greed, like always, except it’s Southern California style. We get beach houses, mansions, drive-ins, swanky yellow convertibles, adultery out the wazoo, and prick-teasing at its middle-brow best.”

Mr. Majestyk (Richard Fleischer, 1974) with Charles Bronson.

“Bronson doesn’t really mind Cristal’s attention but life beyond the melon patch isn’t quite happening for him.”

“If Peckinpah had made it, movie lizards would consider Mr. Majestyk a masterpiece.”

Night Moves (Arthur Penn, 1975) with Gene Hackman, Jennifer Warren, Susan Clark, Melanie Griffith.

“Daylight is just some stage we have to go through to get to the moments of truth.”

Night Moves-posterOn Dangerous Ground (Nicholas Ray, 1952) with Robert Ryan, Ida Lupino, Ward Bond.

“The first half of this movie moves ahead like an express train barely able to stay on the tracks.”

“And the music by Bernard Herrmann, who did so many Hitchcock scores, fractures the pictures, taking them apart and then rewelding them so that the pace hits home like a whirling, bucking bronc, each concussion shattering the previous mood or moment.”

On Dangerous Ground-posterShack Out on 101 (Edward Dein, 1955) with Lee Marvin, Terry Moore, Keenan Wynn, Frank Lovejoy.

“It’s as if William Inge were forced by the government to rewrite some Chekhov play, but set in McCarthy-era America, and he took twenty Valium, washed them down with Old Crow, and dashed it off as the drug grabbed his brain and put him in Palookaville.”

“This movie is a dead-on minimalist portrait of America at its most paranoid. It’s the one to show the history class.”

Straight Time (Ulu Grosbard, 1978) with Dustin Hoffman, Harry Dean Stanton, Gary Busey, Theresa Russell.

“This is a troubling movie; it doesn’t make it all the way and yet it nags, gnaws on the viewer like food that just won’t digest.”

Strange Love of Martha Ivers-posterThe Strange Love of Martha Ivers (Lewis Mileston, 1946) with Barbara Stanwyck, Van Heflin, Kirk Douglas, Lisabeth Scott.

“This movie is filled with darkness, brown soot, pessimism, secrecy, control freaks.”

“Nice story, yes? Nobody is happy in this, not even a little bit.”

“Rain, smoke, dirty minds, and bad ideas make this a classic of the corrupt.”

The Strange One (Jack Garfein, 1957) with Ben Gazzara, George Peppard.

“Jocko’s malevolent leer has everyone weirded out, but they’re powerless to avoid him.”

Strangers on a Train (Alfred Hitchcock, 1951) with Farley Granger, Robert Walker, Leo G. Carroll.

“Nothing’s bolted down in Bruno’s brain; his head is like a trashed pinball machine, with little sparks and bulbs lighting up here and there but in all the wrong places and sequences.”

Sunset Boulevard (Billy Wilder, 1950) with William Holden, Gloria Swanson, Erich von Stroheim, Jack Webb.

“The movie is an arrow straight into the heart of the Hollywood mystique. It’s something beyond aberration, a larger remark which may not be literature but is nevertheless serious and quite profound.”

They Made Me a Criminal (Busby Berkeley,1939) with John Garfield, Claude Rains.

“This is a sentimental sucker punch of a movie.”

Touch of Evil (Orson Welles, 1958) with Charlton Heston, Orson Welles, Janet Leigh, Marlene Dietrich, Akim Tamiroff, Dennis Weaver.

“He uses Akim Tamiroff, who looks like a Turkish Groucho Marx, to set up Vargas’s wife, Susan, as a junkie in order to discredit Vargas. This is an especially fascinating scene, with Mercedes McCambridge playing a lesbian Mexican hoodlum, with the gang of wolf-eyed, leather-jacketed Mex punkers coming down like hyenas on the vulnerable blonde babe.”

The Turning Point (William Dieterle, 1952) with William Holden, Edmund O’Brien, Ed Begley.

“…he’s an amoral monster, willing to torch babies in order to stay on top.”

Where Danger Lives-poster2Where Danger Lives (John Farrow, 1950) with Robert Mitchum, Faith Domergue, Claude Rains.

“She was snakily seductive, though, and her reptilian eyebrows slither and squirm as she coils, strikes and collects Big Bob.”

“Actually, there’s a lot of eyebrow raising in this movie: Domergue, Mitchum and Rains were all experts at one-eyebrow-upmanship, so for a while here it’s kind of an eyebrow Olympics, with the three of them madly manipulating their respective forehead muscles.”

“This is a guy who hasn’t been laid enough because he’s been too busy studying, and when Domergue makes him think she’s giving herself to him when in fact he’s being sucked dry and made stupid by a voracious vampire whore, all we can do is shudder and be wary of love at first bite.”

The Wild One (Laslo Benedek, 1954) with Marlon Brando, Lee Marvin.

“Actually, Brando’s mob are decent fellows compared to the group led by Lee Marvin, who steals the picture right, left, and up the middle.”

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Most, if not all, of the films referenced here should be available for either rental or streaming from Netflix, Amazon, and other points on the compass. - Ted Hicks

 

 

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“A Most Wanted Man” & “Double Indemnity” – Top of the Line

A Most Wanted Man-poster3A Most Wanted Man - Sunday, August 3 at AMC Loews Lincoln Square. I love spy stories in films, TV shows, novels & non-fiction, but I’m sure my most immediate reason to see A Most Wanted Man was to watch Philip Seymour Hoffman in the last full performance we’re going to have from this amazing actor. He’s so good in the film, as he always is, that it made me both sad and angry to realize that this is it. I was somewhat startled looking at a list of his films to see all those titles together and realize what a great body of work he’d created by the time of his death at age 46. A partial listing of these films, titles that jumped out at me, include Boogie Nights (1997), The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999), Magnolia (1999), Almost Famous (2000), Capote (2005), Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead (2007), The Savages (2007), Synecdoche, New York (2008), Doubt (2008), The Master (2012), and A Late Quartet (2012). When I think of his a cappella rendition of  “Slow Boat to China” near the end of The Master, or having a cocaine-fueled meltdown in Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, it makes me crazy to realize we won’t see what he might have done over the next 20 or 30 years.

A Most Wanted Man is the third feature directed by Anton Corbijn and written by Andrew Bovell, based on the John Le Carré novel. Corbijn’s previous features were Control (2007), a profile of Ian Curtis, the lead singer with the band Joy Division who committed suicide at age 23, and The American (2010), with George Clooney as a contract killer in Europe. Corbijn’s controlled, slow-burn approach was a good match for Le Carré. A Most Wanted Man also reminded of what I think is one of the best adaptations of a Le Carré novel, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1965).

As Günther Bachman, the head of a covert intelligence operation in Hamburg, Hoffman is rumpled, short-tempered, possibly alcoholic, and totally focused on getting the job done. Hoffman’s performance isn’t at all flashy; but it is just about perfect. The narrative of A Most Wanted Man is set in motion by Issa Karpov (played by Grigoriy Dobrygin), a recently imprisoned and tortured half-Chechen, half-Russian Muslim who has illegally entered Germany. In a post-9/11 world, Hamburg is especially paranoid about the agenda of anyone who fits Issa’s profile. The German government, the CIA (represented by a cold-eyed Robin Wright with a bit of an echo of her steely Claire Underwood on the House of Cards Neflix series), and Bachman’s own organization are all competing to locate Issa and determine the truth of why he is in Hamburg. The film takes its time. The pace is deliberate, but far from boring (unless you need something blowing up every five or ten minutes to hold your interest).

I thought it might bother me that this was another film in which everyone, regardless of nationality, speaks English. But it didn’t distract me at all. There’s something different about Hoffman’s accent in particular. Whatever it is, it works. In a piece in the New York Times this past July 17, John Le Carré describes his visit to the set of A Most Wanted Man and his impressions of Hoffman, at the end of which he talks about Hoffman’s accent in the film. It’s definitely worth reading.

A Most Wanted Man was shown at the Sundance Film Festival on January 17, 2014. Below is an excerpt from a press conference with Hoffman, cast members Willem Dafoe and Rachel McAdams, and director Anton Corbijn following the screening from. I wish the entire press conference was available, but this is very interesting nonetheless. Seeing Philip Seymour Hoffman in this clip and knowing that he died three weeks later on February 2 is a weird kind of disconnect. What an unnecessary loss.

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Double Indemnity (1944) – Monday, August 3 at Film Forum. Director: Billy Wilder. Co-Writers: Wilder and Raymond Chandler. Film Forum wrapped up its terrific “Femmes Noirs” series with a week’s run of this great film, a key early entry in the “classic” noir cycle (Double Indemnity was scheduled to end on August 7, but has been held over through Thursday, August 14, when the equally great The Killing [Stanley Kubrick - 1956] and Gun Crazy [Joseph H. Lewis - 1949] return for a week’s run through August 21. All three are digital restorations and have never looked better).

Double Indemnity-Neff's doorwayDouble Indemnity set the template for many noirs to follow. Wise-cracking insurance salesman Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) gets involved with Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck), a bored housewife who uses Neff to help kill her husband and collect the insurance money. As Neff says in his confession to claims adjuster Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson), recorded on a Dictaphone in his office as he bleeds out from a gunshot wound, “I killed him for the money, and for a woman. I didn’t get the money… and I didn’t get the woman.” That’s usually how it works out for most noir protagonists.

Here is a clip of the beginning of that confession. This scene begins just a few minutes after the opening credits, so I don’t consider it a spoiler. The rest of the story is told in flashback via Neff’s confession.

The cast is uniformly great. For anyone who grew up seeing Fred MacMurray as the father on the TV series My Three Sons (1960-1972) or in Disney films such as The Absent-Minded Professor (1961) or Son of Flubber (1963), seeing him in something like Double Indemnity can be quite a jolt. He’s perfect, as is Barbara Stanwyck, whose role as the manipulative Phyllis Dietrichson sets the bar for femme fatales, and that’s saying something. Edward G. Robinson is terrific as the brilliant claims adjustor Barton Keyes, shrewd, cynical, and a closet softee, with a “little man” inside who alerts him when something is amiss. His final scene with MacMurray is a punch to the heart.

Everything seemed to come together for this film. Much like Casablanca (1942), there was a happy confluence of director, script, and cast. Based on the novel by James M. Cain, Double Indemnity was the third feature directed by Billy Wilder in this country. His began his career as a screenwriter in Germany in 1929. Like many German directors (Fritz Lang, Robert Siodmak, and others), Wilder got out when the Nazi Party began to come to power. He directed his first feature, Mauvaise Graine (1934), in Paris, before moving to Hollywood, where he had his first hit writing the screenplay for Ernst Lubitch’s Ninotchka (1939). After Double Indemnity, Wilder went on to direct such classics as The Lost Weekend (1945), Sunset Blvd. (1950), and Some Like It Hot (1959). Wilder co-wrote Double Indemnity with novelist Raymond Chandler, whose Philip Marlowe came to personify the picture of a private eye in the public’s mind. Their working relationship was reportedly rocky, but you can’t argue with the result. Chandler went on to write the screenplay for Alfred Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train (1951), though he requested that his name be removed when it turned out that virtually nothing of his work remained in the finished film. Hitchcock readily agreed (his relationship with Chandler was apparently even worse than Chandler’s with Wilder), but Warner Bros. refused because they wanted Chandler’s name on the film.

Raymond Chandler & Billy Wilder

Raymond Chandler & Billy Wilder

Another important component of Double Indemnity is Miklos Rozsa’s score. It’s value to the film cannot be over-estimated. The music is heard at its most forceful during the opening credits, creating an inexorable momentum and emotion that drives the story and its characters to what feels like an inevitable conclusion. The theme weaves in and out of the film and never lets go. As Walter and Phyllis repeatedly say to each other to underscore their determination to stick it out together, “Straight down the line.”

I especially like the tag line on the poster below at left: “You can’t kiss away a murder!” That’s a pretty hard-boiled line, befitting the film. I also can’t resist including a couple of great foreign posters for Double Indemnity. This film is available for streaming or rental via Netflix and for streaming or purchase from Amazon. If you haven’t seen it, you should. - Ted Hicks

Double Indemnity-poster4Double Indemnity-French poster

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Film Noir & Everything Else – Too Many Movies

Gremlins at 3D movieToday is my birthday. Ta da! Birthdays can be a time of reflection, so maybe I should reflect on the fact that I’ve only put up one new post so far this month, yet more evidence of my constant struggle with procrastination. If this was an actual job where I had to turn in something every Friday, for example, I’d do it. Might not start until Thursday night, but I’d get it done. I’m the world’s worse boss to myself. It’s too easy to go to another movie, which is ironic, since this blog is ostensibly about movies. Seeing all these movies gets in the way of writing about them.

I just tallied them up, and I’ve seen 225 films since July 31st of last year. Do I get a prize? Plenty to write about, right? Plus I’ve got no end of topics on the back burner that I want to cover, such as the films of Buster Keaton, John Frankenheimer, Ed Wood, Robert Siodmak, Robert Aldrich, Anthony Mann, Robert Wise, Budd Boetticher, Don Siegel, Jacques Tourneur, Jules Dassin, Akira Kurosawa, Yasujiro Ozu, Jean Renoir, and many many others, plus drive-in movie theaters, film noir, and all the great stuff on television these days.

I’m really feeling the need to put up a post today so I can have at least two for July. This is arbitrary, I know, but it’s bothering me. I’ve been seeing a lot of film noir the last few weeks that I’ve wanted to write about, but which has resulted in one false start after another. Probably trying to deal with too many films, instead of just focusing on one or two. Film Noir is my favorite type of film (there’s divided opinion on whether noir is a genre or a style, but I know it when I see it). Film Forum here in NYC has been running a series called “Femmes Noir: Hollywood’s Dangerous Dames,” a new double-feature nearly every day. A week before the Film Forum series started, I saw another great noir, The Set-Up (1949), Robert Wise’s brutal boxing picture with Robert Ryan as a washed up fighter trying for one last score. Here’s what I wrote about it before I got distracted by seeing other noirs like Out of the Past (1947) and Murder, My Sweet (1944).

Set Up-lobby cardThe Set-Up (1949) at the IFC Center on Thursday, July 10th. This is a great boxing movie from one of my favorite directors, Robert Wise. He began his long career in film as an editor for Orson Welles on Citizen Kane (1941) and The Magnificent Ambersons (1942). He then joined the Val Lewton production unit at RKO, where he directed The Curse of the Cat People (1944) and the exceptional The Body Snatcher (1945), which has Boris Karloff in one of the greatest performances of his career. Wise also made The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) one of the best science-fiction films of the 50s, and probably ever.

The Set-Up is as dark as it gets. Robert Ryan plays Stoker Thompson, a basically washed up fighter at 35 on a losing streak who keeps thinking the next match is the one that will turn it all around for him. But a local mobster wants Stoker to take a dive. Stoker’s manager has agreed, but has so little faith in Stoker’s abilities at this point that he doesn’t even bother to tell him, since he’s sure Stoker will lose anyway. You can probably guess how that works out. Ryan, who I think is still underrated, was an iconic presence in many key noir films. His characters frequently carried the threat of violence to a deranged degree, as in Fred Zinneman’s Act of Violence (1948) and Fritz Lang’s Clash by Night (1952), and were often virulently racist, particularly in Edward Dmytryk’s Crossfire (1947) and Odds Against Tomorrow (1959), also directed by Robert Wise. This is ironic given Ryan’s liberal politics and reputation as a kind and decent man.

The boxing scenes in The Set-Up, which take place in a seedy club located on a tattered street in the ironically named Paradise City, are as brutal as anything in Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull. Even though the boxing matches are only four rounds each, Stoker’s fight seems to go on forever. We’re there for every minute of every round. The following clip gives a good sense of how tough these boxing scenes are.

The Set-Up is distinguished by a real-time structure, so we’re in the ring with Stoker for as long as he is. A clock seen in the town square in the first shot shows the time to be 9:05 pm; at the end the same clock shows 10:16 pm. Everything in the film takes place during those 71 minutes.  As far I know, The Set-Up was one of the first films to do this. Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope had done it the previous year, as well as Fred Zinneman’s High Noon in 1952. High Noon, in particular, really emphasizes the passage of time with repeated insert shots of ticking clocks. Of course, this makes sense, since the concept of time is right there in the title. But as Ellar Coltrane’s character says in Richard Linklater’s wonderful new film, Boyhood, “It’s always right now.” So whether a story is told in real time, as in The Set-Up, or is spread out over decades, as in Giant, every moment in any movie is always present tense, “always right now.”

Set Up-still cornered

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So what should I do with the rest of the day? I could always go to another movie. Actually, we’ve got a screening of Life After Beth at 6:00 pm. Don’t know much about it, but it has Aubrey Plaza, Dane DeHaan, John C. Reilly, Molly Shannon, Cheryl Hines, Paul Reiser and Anna Kendrick. Good cast, right? Wait, here’s a synopsis that came with the email invite: Zach is devastated by the unexpected death of his girlfriend, Beth. But when she miraculously comes back to life, Zach takes full advantage of the opportunity to share and experience all the things he regretted not doing with her before. However, the newly returned Beth isn’t quite how he remembered her and, before long, Zach’s whole world takes a turn for the worse. Okay, I get it, it’s a zombie movie, probably for laughs.

But I’ve got three hours before the film, so maybe I should watch Sharknado2, which I DVR’d last night. The setting is New York City, so how can I resist? Sharks in the subways, what could be better? Though I doubt anything in this one can top the scene in the first epic where a guy chainsaws his way out of a shark’s gut after being swallowed whole.

Sharknado2-poster

What a birthday! - Ted Hicks

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Elaine Stritch – No Pants, Bela Lugosi, and Godzilla in a Stalled Elevator

In a review of Woody Allen’s September (1987), People magazine referred to Elaine Stritch in that film as a “…roaring presence, like Godzilla in a stalled elevator…” I like that vivid image, which really captures something about Elaine Stritch. Her death last Thursday on July 17th at age 89 has gotten a tremendous amount of attention, and rightly so. She was a force of nature, especially in her later years with her blunt, in-your-face persona. She liked to cause a ruckus and stir things up. In death Elaine Stritch is still larger than life.

But for all the obituaries and write-ups since her death, I’ll bet that none of them have Elaine Stritch & Bela Lugosi 1947mentioned Strich’s connection to Bela Lugosi. Earlier this year we saw Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me, an excellent documentary directed by Chiemi Karasawa. In it we see in passing a photograph of a young Elaine with Bela Lugosi looming behind her. I wanted to write a blog post about this film and other recent documentaries I’d really liked (Finding Vivian Maier and Particle Fever), though so far I haven’t cranked up the energy to do so. But I was particularly intrigued by the photo of Stritch and Lugosi. Had she been in one of the many stage productions of Dracula with Lugosi? I hoped so, but it turned out not to be the case (though some references give the impression that she actually was in Dracula with Lugosi). The play in question was Three Indelicate Ladies at the Schubert Theater in New Haven, CT (in the interview clip below Stritch says it was at a theater in Westport, CT, so I’m not 100% sure of this). By all accounts that I’ve seen, this was not much of a play. Still, it was Bela Lugosi. In any event, it never made it to Broadway.

Here is a clip of Elaine Stritch on a television show called Theater Talk speaking about working with Lugosi. Her impression of Lugosi’s distinctive way of speaking is pretty good.

Elaine Stritch Shoot Me poster3Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me  played for months here in New York City. I can’t recommend it enough. Through many interviews and archival clips the documentary gives an excellent picture of her career and the persona she developed over the years. The Stritch we see is feisty, irascible, difficult, outspoken, self-deprecating, blunt, hard to handle, difficult to be around, fun to be around, and very very  funny. She may not have the greatest singing voice, but she sells that by the strength how she lays it out. Rob Bowman, her musical director for 14 years, accompianist, friend and caring companion is a steady presence at her side in the film. I assume he also had the patience of a saint.

The filmmakers were granted an unusual amount of access to her life. We see her in situations where she’s sick in her bed or in a hospital, vulnerable and afraid. At the time the film was made (it was completed in 2013 and released in February of this year) Stritch was 87 or 88. In it she talks quite openly about being near the end of her life. She could be sharply funny on the subject of death. In an obituary that appeared on my Earthlink news feed, she’s quoted as saying, “You know where I’m at in age?… I don’t need anything. That’s a little scary — when you know that the last two bras you bought are it. You won’t need any more.” I really like that, “…the last two bras you bought are it.” It’s funny and also quite touching.

Stritch’s professional career lasted nearly 70 years, an amazing run for anyone. Many people today probably know her mainly as Colleen, Jack Donaghy’s mother on Tina Fey’s terrific NBC series 30 Rock from 2009 to 2012. Five of her eight Emmy nominations – and one of her three wins – were for her performances on this show. Her constant sparring with Alec Baldwin was memorable. She was also on an episode of The Simpsons in 2010. One of her obituaries referenced her signature “no pants” style (wearing a loose-fitting white shirt over sheer black tights). I think one of the reasons she could get away with this is that even at age 87 she had a pair of really killer legs.

Elaine Stritch on The SimpsonsElaine Stritch - no pants

 

 

 

Elaine Stritch & Alec Baldwin

 

 

 

1948

1948

Tonight Show - Oct 1975

Tonight Show – Oct 1975

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

With balloon, 1954

With balloon, 1954

In 2013, Stritch moved back to her home state of Michigan after 71 years in New York City and a series of farewell performances at the Carlyle Hotel, where she had lived for many years. She was an entertainer in her bones, a hoofer to the end. She gave it her all. Elaine Stritch was buried in Skokie, Illinois next to her husband, John Bay on Wednesday, July 23rd. She will not soon be forgotten.

Elaine Stritch-photo3****************************************************************************************

The Wikipedia entry on Stritch is particularly valuable as a complete listing of her credits – theatrical, film, television, and cabaret. Her New York Times obituary is also quite good.

Finally, here is a 25 minute interview with Stritch from the New York Times website.

Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me is available for streaming or DVD purchase from Amazon. It is also can be streamed or rented from Netflix. If you haven’t seen it and have read this far, you probably should. - Ted Hicks

Posted in Film, Home Video, Music, TV | 4 Comments

Movie Poster Art – Foreign Versions

Pickup on South Street-posterCARTEL ESPAÑOL - 70x100When searching online for posters and stills for English-language films, I often stumble upon foreign posters for those films. Many of these simply re-purpose the original poster art, but the ones that really get my attention are re-imagined in ways that are often more dynamic and dramatic. Some are almost painterly, with evocative use of color, light and shadow, and often depict characters frozen in action. Some of the posters I’ve included here do reference the originals, especially when someone like Humphrey Bogart, Cary Grant, or Ingrid Bergman star in the film. Here are a few examples of foreign posters for American films, most of which are from the 1940s and 50s. They’re not all graphic reinventions (though some are), but I think it’s interesting to compare them with their Hollywood counterparts.

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Big Heat-posterBig Heat-Italian poster

 

 

 

 

 

 

Big Heat-German poster****************************************************************************************

Scarlet Street-posterScarlet Street-Spanish posterScarlet Street-Italian poster*****************************************************************************************

In a Lonely Place-poster

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In a Lonely Place-Italian poster

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Enforcer-posterEnforcer-French poster

 

 

 

 

 

 

Enforcer-Italian poster******************************************************************************************

Notorious-posterNotorious-French poster

 

 

 

 

 

 

Notorious-French poster2*****************************************************************************************

Long Haul-poster4Long Haul-French posterI’ve not seen this film, and it’s probably not the greatest, but the French poster at right really pops, and the Italian poster below is truly amazing.

 

 

 

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Point Blank-poster2Point Blank-French poster****************************************************************************************

Casablanca-posterCasablanca-Italian poster

 

 

 

 

 

 

Casablanca-French poster3******************************************************************************************

Finally, here are English-language posters from the 1930s that exhibit strengths seen in the best of the foreign posters above; i.e. a strong sense of mood, atmosphere, and drama, as well as excellent design, especially in the choice of fonts. I think this approach was largely abandoned in later years. I’ve not paired these with their foreign versions, but they are just too great not to include here.

Little Caesar-posterLittle Caesar-poster2The poster to the left is particularly beautiful, but what’s interesting is that it showcases Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. rather than Edward G. Robinson.

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Maltese Falcon-1931 posterSatan Met a Lady-1936 posterThese are for the first two versions of The Maltese Falcon, the one at left from 1931 and at right from 1936. Both are greatly inferior to John Huston’s definitive adaptation in 1941.

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Frankenstein-posterInvisible Man-poster

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And what better way to close than with a great Citizen Kane poster I’ve never seen before.

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If you’re interested in the films beyond the posters, all of these titles are available on home video. And if you’d like to see more foreign posters for American films, check online. This is only the tip of the iceberg. - Ted Hicks

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“Coherence” – No Exit

Coherence-posterCoherence, an impressive first feature from writer/director James Ward Byrkit, begins with eight long-time friends gathering for a dinner party on the night a comet is passing near the Earth. What follows is a fascinating, maddening mix of The Twilight Zone, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, It Came from Outer Space, The X-Files, the fiction of Philip K. Dick, as well as discussions of quantum decoherence and Schrödinger’s cat. The characters become progressively freaked out and destabilized over the course of a long dark night, and since we never know anymore than they do, it’s like we’re in their shoes. I’ve seen the film twice in two days and I’m still struggling to sort it out, which makes the inside of my head feel like an M. C. Escher drawing wrapped in a Möbius strip. Coherence has stayed with me, and I think it even got into my dreams a couple of nights ago. I love this kind of stuff, especially when it’s done as well as this is. But if you want a story to “make sense” or be resolved by the end, then Coherence is probably not for you. Watching Coherence I was reminded of two films by Shane Carruth, Primer (2004) and Upstream Color (2013). In a post I wrote last year about Upstream ColorI said that both films were “perplexing and demanding, but quite rewarding if you open yourself to them.” This holds true for Coherence as well.

The film opens with a tight over-the-shoulder shot of a woman (we later find out this is Em) driving at night. We don’t see her face, only her right shoulder and a part of her head. The image we see of her goes slightly soft while the dashboard remains in focus. She’s talking on a cell phone to a man, but what he says is unclear, difficult to decipher. She realizes she’s lost the call, then hears a sharp sound and sees with a start that the screen of her phone is now laced with cracks. There’s a struggle for coherence, both visually and aurally, right from the start.

The dinner party is at the home of Mike (Nicholas Brendon) and his wife Lee (Lorene Scafaria), located in the Willow Glen neighborhood of San Jose, California. Their guests are Em (Emily Foxler) and her boyfriend Kevin (Maury Sterling), Hugh (Hugo Armstrong) and his wife Beth (Elizabeth Gracen), and late arrivals Amir (Alex Manugian) and his date Laurie (Lauren Maher). We slowly get a sense of the various connections and tensions between these people.

The performances are excellent throughout, and the actors play it absolutely straight as they deal with panic and paranoia. The increasingly insane situation is all the more disturbing because of the conviction they bring to their roles. It’s nuts, but it feels real.  The cast was unfamiliar to me with the exception of Nicholas Brendon, who played Xander Harris for seven seasons (1997-2003) on Joss Whedon’s great television series, Buffy the Vampire Slayer (a joke in Coherence is that Brendon’s character Mike is an actor who had been on a popular TV series, Roswell – which was a real show, though Brendon was not on it).

Seeds are planted early that provide clues (possibly) to events that follow. At the dinner table the passing comet – “Miller’s Comet” – is mentioned. Em relates that after a comet passed over Finland in 1923, many residents didn’t know who they were, couldn’t find their homes, and that a woman called police to say that the man in her house was not her husband. She claimed she was certain of this because the day before she had killed her real husband, and this guy wasn’t him. Mike jokes that now she can kill him again. It turns out that the screen of everyone’s cell phone is cracked like Em’s, and that no one has cell service, nor is there Internet service. Then the power goes out. They look outside and see the entire neighborhood is dark, except for one house a few blocks down the road.

Events become increasingly strange and disturbing. Has the comet somehow created at least two sets of the same people and houses? As they struggle to make sense of what’s happening, cause and effect become totally scrambled. For these eight people it’s the worst acid trip ever as they try to figure out who are the “visitors,” them or us?

Coherence-still3Coherence is proof that filmmakers don’t need a big budget to do terrific work. The film was reportedly shot in chronological sequence in basically a single location with a cast of eight, one or two cameras and two sound guys. The actors were given limited information about what would happen next, resulting in performances and interactions that feel natural and authentic, almost like we’re watching a documentary. James Ward Byrkit has created a small gem, thought-provoking and challenging. I’m really looking forward to what he does next. - Ted Hicks

Coherence opens in limited release in New York City and Los Angeles this Friday, June 20, with additional theatrical dates to follow. It will also be available for instant streaming and HD downloads beginning August 5, 2014.

 

 

 

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Washroom Attendant to the Stars: My Technicolor Years

Technicolor logoWhen I graduated from the University of Iowa in the summer of 1973 (with an awesome “General Studies” degree), I moved to Minneapolis. Not long after arriving I managed to land a job with a motion picture lab that did work mainly for producers of TV spots and industrial films. I’d taken film studies and production courses at Iowa, but I think that what actually got me this job was having worked in a facility that processed and printed aerial reconnaissance film during the four years I was in the Air Force. Thus began my employment in a series of film labs over the next fifteen years or so, with my nine years at Technicolor being the most interesting by far.

For a long time I’d envisioned a life of making movies, of being involved with them in some way. But this was more of a wish, a fantasy, than anything that seemed remotely possible for an Iowa farm boy. Making short films and taking film studies courses in college fed that fantasy to a degree, but I think I was waiting for something to happen (rather than trying to figure out how to make it happen). Working in a 16mm lab in Minneapolis didn’t exactly fill the bill, but I was working with interesting people, many of whom became friends. And it was film, images on strips of celluloid. This was undeniably the film world (sort of), though I was on the periphery.

I moved to New York City in 1977 for another lab job, but this lab handled 35mm and occasionally made prints of feature films, some of them pornos (Inside Jennifer Wells, anyone?). This felt more like the real movie business, but the job turned out to be a disaster. The only time I’ve ever been fired from a job was this one, which was probably a good thing, since it would have taken me a lot longer to work up the nerve to quit on my own. But I’ve always thought, yeah, it was a terrible job, but it got me to New York, where I’ve been for 37 years.

I got the job with Technicolor a year later. The name itself had UA logostrong recognition value, and I felt that now I had a real connection to the film world. At the previous labs I’d been an expeditor as well as working in customer service. At Technicolor there were four or five expeditors who handled separate accounts. I was assisting a man from the Bronx named Joe Fratangelo, who had the United Artists account. I thought, “Wow! United Artists!” This felt like I was working for Cadillac instead of some place that made go-karts.

Joe Frat was an interesting guy. He really got my attention one day when Al Pacino was in the lab. Joe mentioned casually that years before, he and his wife would babysit Pacino in their home. I guess this is normal stuff and no big deal when you’re just part of it, but I was impressed.

Aside from the kick I got from being able to say I was working on the UA account at Technicolor, what I was really doing was writing up 16mm print orders of UA titles and helping Joe make sure schedules were met. This was before VHS had taken hold, let alone DVDs, so if a television station in Cincinnati was going to run Breakheart Pass, for example, they’d have to order a 16mm print from us. Super-8mm prints of features were also made to show on airlines. This all seems unbelievably bulky and inefficient now, but digital formats were still in the future.

Print elements for films (35mm & 16mm picture negatives and sound tracks) were stored in a vault in cans on racks that looked exactly like those in the photo below. This doesn’t show Technicolor’s vault, but it could have been. The vault at Technicolor is also where I kept my bicycle, which I rode nearly everyday from my from my apartment on West 92nd Street down to the lab at 321 West 44th.

Film can neg storageAt that time there were at least seven other labs in the city. Most of them are now long gone. DuArt Film Lab, where I worked briefly after Technicolor, is still here, but stopped processing film entirely in late 2010. This is ironic, since DuArt’s motto — displayed on t-shirts and shopping bags, and I think even on the side of their building — was “Shoot Film.” Before digital all major features were shot on 35mm, and until the late 80s all feature dailies were printed on film.

Joe Violante

Joe Violante

Maybe my end of it was the equivalent of working in a sausage factory, but across the hall from us was the dailies department office, which was run by Otto Paoloni and Joe Violante (aka “Joey V”). Any feature film that used Technicolor to process and print its 35mm footage went through this department. The printed footage, called “dailies,” would be shown to filmmakers in a small theater down the hall.

Otto and Joey V were great guys who befriended me and didn’t seem to mind all the time I spent hanging out in their office (which I did a lot of, despite Otto’s penchant for noxious-smelling cigars). I would have killed to be doing the work they were doing, and wanted to find out as much about it as I could. One of the biggest unofficial perks for me was that Otto and Joey V would let me read shooting scripts for features that were going through the lab. Another was being able to watch dailies before the filmmakers saw them. This was on the third floor where the processing and printing machines were, as well as negative cutting and assembly. There was a room with four or five high-speed projectors where Joey and Otto would view dailies fresh out of processing and printing to make sure there weren’t any technical problems. An older woman named Olga operated one of the projectors. She would often put her hand over the lens if there was any nudity in the footage, which was frustrating to the guys who had clustered in the doorway to watch. Everyone on the floor always seemed to know when such footage was about to be projected.

John Huston

John Huston

Sydney Pollack

Sydney Pollack

Having access to all of this was like having an inside track on at least part of the filmmaking process. This felt especially true when I’d catch sight of directors and actors who came in to screen dailies in the little theater down the hall. When John Huston was directing Annie (1982) I followed him out to the elevators and told him how much I loved his films. He thanked me with that voice of his and stuck out his hand for me to shake. Or when I spoke with Sidney Pollack, who was directing Tootsie (1982) while he waited outside the dailies theater. I asked him how he liked the New Balance 990 running shoes he was wearing, hoping he’d think I was one of the guys instead of a nervous movie buff. The truth of it is that I was constantly amazed to be around these people and this world. I felt less intimidated approaching them in the lab than I would have on the street. It seemed somehow more legitimate.

Angel Heart-posterI’d be reading shooting scripts usually months before the finished films would be released (obviously the idea of “spoilers” didn’t bother me too much). Except for the time I finished reading the script for Alan Parker’s Angel Heart (1987) just seconds before the lights went down at a screening of that film. This had a disorienting effect, as though there was the movie on one screen and the pages of the script on a screen right beside it. I don’t recommend this approach. Angel Heart wasn’t any good, but this didn’t help.

But it was always interesting and instructive to compare the shooting scripts with what ended up on the screen. This was especially true with Milos Forman’s Ragtime (1981). The screenplay by Michael Weller was one of the best I’d ever read. Besides being an excellent adaptation of the novel by E.L. Doctorow, it was a real pleasure to read just for itself. So it was quite a surprise when I finally saw Ragtime in a theater and discovered that every scene in the film was better than in the script. Milos Forman obviously made the difference. It takes a great director to improve on an already great script.

Milos Forman (R) directing Elizabeth McGovern in "Ragtime"

Milos Forman (R) directing Elizabeth McGovern in “Ragtime”

Otto lived in New Jersey and Joey on Staten Island, so they would usually give me invitations they’d received for evening screenings rather than come back to the city after having already gone home, especially since they’d been in the lab since 5:30 or 6:00 that morning to see dailies from the night before. I loved seeing films before they were released; it made me feel like I was ahead of the curve in some way that probably doesn’t really matter all that much. But there it was.

Diane Keaton & Warren Beatty - "Reds"

Diane Keaton & Warren Beatty – “Reds”

They’d also pass on invites to the wrap parties that would take place shortly after a featurehad finished shooting. The wrap party for Warren Beatty’s Reds (1981) was different. It was was held a month or two after the film had been released in theaters. So it wasn’t really a “wrap” party, but it was definitely a party, and promised to be fairly elaborate. It was being held in a theater with a band (Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes, if you remember them), dancing, food, and a large area in the lobby space with an open bar. I saw a bearded Robert De Niro standing alone at the bar, totally unobtrusive. Usually at these wrap parties it was mostly just the crew that would attend, but this one was clearly a bigger deal. Diane Keaton was there, along with Maureen Stapleton, and the great film editor Dede Allen, to name a few. But something very interesting happened when Warren Beatty showed up. It seemed to me that everyone, without being obvious about it, was totally aware that he was there. It was like the center of gravity in the room had shifted.

For a hard core film buff like myself, seeing actors and directors on a regular basis was more than a little surreal. Sometimes very surreal. Like the time I rode up in the elevator at the lab with Meryl Streep and another person. As were getting off the elevator I suddenly realized this other person was Robert De Niro. They were shooting Falling in Love (1984) at the time. It was weird, but off-screen you hardly noticed him. Or the time Paul Newman appeared in the doorway to our office and asked if he could use the phone at the desk next to mine. His call was mundane stuff, like anyone would make – dinner arrangements, something like that. When he got up to leave I pulled out my usual “I really like your work” line (and meant it). He thanked me and I added, “Especially Buffalo Bill and the Indians.” A beat after he’d left the office he stuck his head back around, gave me a thumbs up and said, “You’re in a minority.” If you’re impressed by stuff like this, which I obviously am, you remember it.

Paul Newman, Sidney Lumet, Lindsay Crouse (left to right), shooting "The Verdict" 1982

Paul Newman, Sidney Lumet, Lindsay Crouse (left to right), shooting “The Verdict” 1982

I realize I still haven’t explained the “Washroom Attendant to the Stars” part of the title for this post. The men’s restroom was just around the corner from our office. The restroom was locked and the key hanging from a hook on the wall near my desk. Anytime someone wanted to use the men’s room, they got the key from me. This was pretty straightforward, but sometimes it got a little more interactive. Liza Minnelli was in the small theater down the hall, probably watching dailies from Arthur (1981). I was startled when she burst into our office and said she needed a restroom. I told her the ladies room was further down the hall near the elevators. She said she didn’t have time and wanted to use the men’s room, which was closer. So what the hell, I went into the restroom and verified that it was empty, then stood guard outside for Liza Minnelli. Anyway, I used to joke about writing something with “Washroom Attendant to the Stars” as the title, and now I’ve done it. - Ted Hicks

(I’ve probably exceeded any acceptable quota for shameless name-dropping in this post, but I hope it’s been interesting.)

 

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