Thursday, December 25, 2008

Wilhelm Scream

  Like all art forms film has amassed a number of cliches. There are many reasons why certain cliches are used more often than some; oftentimes cliches are used as shortcuts to convey thoughts, emotions, and information more economically, but then their are those cliches that are utilized just for the baggage they carry with them.
  The Wilhelm Scream was first used in 1951 for a Raoul Walsh picture, Distant Drums, which was released on December 25th of that year. What would later be called the Wilhelm Scream was labeled by Warner Bros. sound engineers as "Man being eaten by alligator."
  It was not until several decades later that the sound effect would be known as the Wilhelm Scream. Over the several decades since it was first used in 1951 the Wilhelm Scream has been used in at least 160 movies.
  The main reason why the public has any knowledge of this particular sound effect is due to all the work of sound designer Ben Burtt who managed to find the original recording and first used it in a scene in Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope. Burtt is also responsible for renaming the sound effect from "Man being eaten by alligator" to Wilhelm Scream for a character named Private Wilhelm in the 1953 film, The Charge at Feather River, who emits the scream after being shot by an arrow.
  One question that many feel hasn't been answered is who recorded the Wilhelm Scream. During his research Burtt looked through piles and piles of Warner Bros. documents and believes that it is singer Sheb Wooley, known for the song "Purple People Eater", who most likely recorded the sound effect while he worked as an actor on Distant Drums.
  With all of Ben Burtt's work more and more sound designers are using the Wilhelm Scream in productions that they are working on. It has become an inside joke with sound engineers to incorporate it into films and television shows trying to stump their peers if they can spot its use. Audiences  however may not recognize the sound effect from one movie to another, they most likely could care less, but this sound effect has had quite a career and it would be wrong to ignore its story.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Mighty Joe Young (1949)

  When working in the realm of special effects there is a delicate balance of artistry and spectacle. If the effect is not believable then audiences will complain of the shoddy production values of the feature they are watching, but a film that is all spectacle might easily bore or deaden an audience to what a movie has to offer. A balance between substance and showmanship must be struck. Mighty Joe Young could have easily devolved into cuteness, relying on the audience's appetite for cheap thrills and weakness for animal tricks but none of the cast and crew would let the production sink so low.
  Practically the entire crew from King Kong is back. Merian Cooper provided the story and produced the picture. Ruth Rose, the primary screenwriter for King Kong, is back again to write the screenplay to the story. Willis O'Brien's team is also back with one addition, a very young Ray Harryhausen no older than twenty two and already responsible for a majority of the film's stop motion scenes. And finally Ernest B. Schoedsack is back as director, and unknown to many outside of the production Schoedsack had directed the entire movie practically blind. 
  As for the cast Robert Armstrong returns again as yet another Merian C. Cooper type character, Max O'Hara, who goes to Africa looking for new acts for a club he is opening up in Los Angeles. Whereas in his previous roles for Cooper and Schoedsack, Robert Armstrong had played a character that stomped through uncharted jungles looking for adventure the O'Hara character is more comical and a bit devious.
  While in Africa, O'Hara and his cowboys run into Joseph Young, a very large and irate gorilla. Although towering over every character in the movie Joe is quite childlike and looks to his friend Jill Young, played by Terry Moore, to get him out of trouble. The majority of the story is really about the friendship between Jill and Joe Young. They act like siblings with one another, but it's obvious that Jill plays mother to Joe on more than one occasion. The movie goes out of its way to not label Jill as Joe's owner, but rather show us that each looks at the other as an equal.
  Although the lure of money and attention lures Jill to sign O'Hara's contract to be part of his nightclub show, it is not so easy to condemn her for her actions. She has lived on her father's farm in Africa all her life, and the very first scene where we are introduced to her character she purchases Joe so that she can have a friend to play with. Twelve years later though when O'Hara arrives Joe has grown up and now Jill, an adult woman, is starved for human attention. With the arrival of Gregg, played by Ben Johnson, her attention starts to splinter away from Joe. As she matures her friendship with Joe evolves into that of mother and child while her friendship with Gregg becomes that of man and woman.
  Joe Young is made believable with the help of Ray Harryhausen who creates a character that moves like a gorilla, but emotes like a human. Harryhausen built on Willis O'Brien's work by putting more attention on facial gestures. Joe, unlike Kong, is capable of much more complicated facial gestures. Throughout the film Joe gets angry, drunk, happy, hungry, tired, sad, and this is all expressed through facial expressions.
  As pure entertainment Mighty Joe Young delivers in every way, but underneath the adventure story is a very interesting study of a friendship not between a pet owner and her pet but of a child and her playmate. As Jill and Joe grow older you know that they will always be friends, not because that is what the story tells you, but because you can't imagine either of them apart from the other. Their friendship is what pulls the entire movie together and without that all you have is spectacle.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

The Son of Kong (1933)

  With the popularity of King Kong RKO pictures made the most logical decision of putting quickly into production a sequel, The Son of Kong. They gathered back together Willis O'Brien's special effects team and also promoted King Kong co-director Ernest B. Schoedsack to the director's chair. From the very first scene it is obvious that this is more of a comedy than an action adventure.
  The story starts a month after Kong has ravaged New York City and Carl Denham, played again by Robert Armstrong, has been bombarded by lawsuit after lawsuit. To escape his problems he ships off, but lands right back onto Skull Island where to his surprise he meets Kong Junior.
  Although the movie was obviously made to profit off of all the attention the previous movie had received, the sequel is quite enjoyable in its own right. The movie spends a good chunk of the running time reminding the audience of the terror of Kong, but when we finally get there our expectations have completely been upturned.
  Kong Junior is more of a helpless scared boy than a beast. Denham is not a fame hungry adventurer anymore, but rather in this story a remorseful man looking to make up for his treatment of Kong. He faces obstacle after obstacle, but unlike in the first movie it is the human characters which give him the most trouble; because while King Kong was a movie that featured the beasts of Skull Island the sequel is really about the beast of man.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

King Kong (1933)

  The ability to breath life into the inanimate is a power that special effects wizards have strived to achieve since the start of the film industry. Whereas today's wizards create using mostly digital material the technicians of the 1930's just had metal, rubber, and paint to use to create the creatures that populated their movie screens.
  The most important single individual of the King Kong special effects team would be Willis O'Brien who took all his energy and directed it to perfecting the art of stop-motion animation. He began not in films though but as a sculptor; chipping away at marble til the Edison Company called upon him to utilize his skills into making several short dinosaur pictures. Although his characters were crude and made mostly of clay audiences were instantly enthralled by his three dimensional creations and he quickly carved a place for himself in the industry.
  Stop-motion animation's next great innovator would be Marcel Delgado, a sculptor, who split his time between a convenience store that he worked at and art classes at the Otis Arts Institute. While in art school he caught the attention of Willis O'Brien who was dazzled by Delgado's work. O'Brien quickly offered Delgado a job and a salary that was four times as much as he made working at the convenience store, but Delgado refused. Delgado's goal was not to work in the movies, but rather to be an artist. It was only after O'Brien gave him a tour of the studio and showed Delgado the workshop where he could sculpt, create, and experiment that Delgado finally relented and accepted the job.
  What Marcel Delgado brought to the Willis O'Brien special effects team was that he replaced the clay models O'Brien had been using with more intricate life-like models. Delgado accomplished this by first building an intricate metal skeleton of the model which he then wrapped with foam rubber to create the musculature and finally bound it together in a latex skin. Delgado's creations were easier to move while shooting and looked more believable.
  It would be more appropriate to call Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack adventurers rather than movie directors. Merian Cooper spent a good chunk of his life flying in bomber planes and maneuvering through enemy air space, and his movies themselves incorporate planes, aerial shots, or deal with flight in some capacity. Both men first met each other as soldiers right after the first World War and eventually worked for Paramount Pictures as a directing team.
  What Cooper and Schoedsack brought to theaters were movies which blended on-location footage with staged sequences. Cooper craved danger and didn't think it unusual to put himself in the middle of an elephant stampede just so he could capture it on film. Both men took their love of adventure and combined it with the technical innovations that they themselves spurred on with their story ideas and created films that still excite audiences.
  For all of it's spectacle King Kong tells quite a simple story about Carl Denham, played by Robert Armstrong, who is looking for an interesting subject for his next movie, he gathers a crew and an actress, played by Fay Wray, and sets off for adventure. The entire film can be seen as a dissection of Merian Cooper. Denham like Cooper is an adventurer that carries his camera everywhere with him. Both men are willing to put life and limb in danger to capture something never before seen in their cameras. And just like Cooper neither had any patience to deal with women.
  Denham is driven by a singular goal of capturing Kong on film. He achieves his goal at the cost of several lives. Carl Denham is a man who has not quite grown up, he lives for danger and whoever is left standing is stuck with the task of cleaning up his messes. In the film it is not Kong who is the monster, but rather Denham. Kong does his share of damage, but he is motivated by his affection for Ann, Fay Wray's character. His affection for her makes him more human than Denham who thirsts just for something to capture in his movie camera. 
  The story of Kong can also be seen as a story of death. The wild tropical jungle which is inhabited by creatures from prehistory live in peace till the intrusion of human beings. Their very presence undoes the balance. And when Kong is transplanted to New York he must adapt to an urban jungle where man is at the top of the food chain. While the jungle is populated by beasts of all shapes and sizes that can kill a man in all sorts of gruesome ways, it is the city which kills Kong. The antiseptic environment of the urban jungle with it's concrete and steel infrastructure brought on by man's industrial revolution is what does Kong in. The monster in this film is not the furry beast Kong but the world of man which steam rolls through the land till the earth is paved for further civilizing.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Regeneration (1915)

  During film's infancy there were countless individuals that helped to elevate the medium from novelty act to legitimate art form. The techniques and devices that go into making a movie took years to develop. One person, now sidelined for better known film innovators, is Raoul Walsh. Trained as an actor, Walsh made a name for himself on the New York stage. Although his good looks could have led him to a very comfortable life, his path would be to work behind the camera instead of in front of it.

  When Walsh started out New York was still the hub of the film industry and he made money by starring in several Westerns for a small production company in New Jersey. Eventually Walsh made the move to California and became an assistant director to D.W. Griffith. Walsh's apprenticeship to Griffith taught him how to utilize film's then untapped potential to tell epic stories about ordinary people. When Griffith's The Birth of a Nation went into production not only did Walsh serve as assistant director, but he also played John Wilkes Booth.
  After the completion of Griffith's film, Raoul Walsh took crew and equipment back to New York and started production on Regeneration. The script was adapted from a play that was itself based on a book, the gangster autobiography of Owen Kildare.
  The film is considered the first feature length gangster movie. Yet the gangsters in the movie are not the flashy well-groomed characters that are now commonplace in articles, movies, and television shows. The gangsters in this film are neighborhood toughs. Their days aren't consumed though by street fights and turf battles, but rather on the relief of boredom. Several scenes within the film consist of characters just drinking beer, enjoying a cigarette, or standing on a street corner. There is nothing about the gangster lifestyle portrayed in this film that a contemporary movie audience would consider as exciting.
  As a student of Griffith's the film cares more about the social circumstances that create the type of desperation that turns boys into crooks. Walsh does not clean up the urban squalor. The muck and grime of the streets is a very tangible reality. Even the casting is authentic; most of the extras were real locals from the Bowery area as well as from Hell's Kitchen. Gangsters in this film come in all shapes, sizes, and defects.
  Another technique that Walsh borrowed from Griffith was the use of cross-cutting. By taking two separate events occurring at the same time and selectively ordering the shots in a specific way a director could invariably break the barrier between time and space, construct their own timeline, and have a more assured control over the pace and rhythm of their film.
  The title of the film speaks to the protagonist of the story, Owen Conway, and his transition from street thug to functional member of society. Walsh establishes at the start of the film that Owen is a victim of tenement living; after his parents die he practically becomes a slave to an old couple. He survives by using his fists and although hardened by the callousness of the streets there is a tiny part of him that believes something better is out there. That thing for Owen comes in the form of Marie Deering, his Mamie Rose. Marie is a social worker and unlike many later women characters in a Walsh film she embodies sincere proper goodness. Her love for Owen is what redeems him at the end.
  Although the film has been relegated as an artifact of the 1910's a careful look at it will surprise many with just how contemporary this story is; and in some ways this film is more daring than the typical gangster stories that we see now. This movie does not look away from the denizens of the street. While many directors may try to create a reality that they believe an audience might find palatable, Raoul Walsh was confident that what was already in front of his camera was all he needed to tell his story. 

Thursday, November 13, 2008

A Slight Case of Murder (1938)

  During his days as a journalist in New York Damon Runyon crafted the myth of Broadway. He spent his days writing articles about the people that populated New York City's night life. He was known for juxtaposing the respectable law-abiding citizen with the mugs, hoodlums, and dolls that trafficked Times Square. When the english language did not have the appropriate word or phrase to capture the feeling of the streets Runyon didn't think twice about inventing them from everyday words. In Runyon's world a roscoe is a gun, a shiv is a knife, and if you were smart you knew to keep your snoot out of a mug's business when he was packing either of them.
  As Runyon became more and more popular he started to turn his attention away from documenting the real-life travails of New York's gamblers, gangsters, and ever-loving louts and put his energy towards creating original work based on characters he knew quite well.
  A Slight Case of Murder started out as a play but with the help of Lloyd Bacon, the director, Edward G. Robinson, the star, and a cast packed with the decade's best character actors a gangster comedy classic was created.
  Edward G. Robinson plays good guy bootlegger Remy Marco; a character who takes several cues from previous tough guy protagonists that Robinson has played. With the repeal of Prohibition Marco decides to go legit and start a brewery so that he can provide the entire country with beer legally. Marco's desire for respectability almost does him in several times during the story though. As in most gangster stories the stench of the streets is a stink that doesn't easily go away.
  The comedy within the movie is rooted in the audience being well aware of the conventions of the gangster story. It is to the entire casts credit that every actor in the story doesn't overdo the comedic elements of the characters they are portraying, because with just one wrong note the entire movie could have collapsed into a dramatic mess. The level of violence in the movie is ramped up due to the fact that the story is about gangsters, but one never feels the anxiety of the violence being enacted on the screen. You don't believe that the victims of violence within the movie are really human. Not to say that the characters are mere caricature's, but that unlike dramatic gangster movies that had to cater to the whims of the Hays Code, making sure to never show a gangster enjoying or getting away with breaking the law, the comedic gangster movie could get away with most things as long as it was for a laugh.
  With this movie an audience can root for the gangster and not feel guilty for siding with the bad guys. The gangsters in the story are neither good or bad; in fact as you watch the movie it is quite easy to even forget that these characters are gangsters. By treating the characters as people first and gangsters second the movie creates a believable reality that still gets plenty of laughs.

Friday, November 7, 2008

San Quentin (1937)

  The clanging of tin cups on bars, a stampede of inmates marching back and forth inside their cells, and the scared glances from armed guards as the threat of a riot looms; these are the cliches of the prison picture. Yet with San Quentin the aim is not just for cheap entertainment, but also prison reform. The director, Lloyd Bacon, takes all these stock ingredients; brutal prison guards, hardened inmates, a progressive warden, and creates a tight action-packed movie.
  Pat O'Brien stars as Steve Jameson the new captain of the yard for San Quentin and he brings military discipline to the harsh environment of the prison. Like all progressive characters from the 1930's he believes in harsh punishment for those who don't toe the line, but is also capable of giving any man a second chance. Opposing him every step of the way is Lieutenant Druggin, played by Barton MacLane, who would rather knock a man down instead of shake his hand. 
  These two men fight each other for control of the prison, and this film concentrates that battle with Humphrey Bogart's character, 'Red' Kennedy, a fresh fish in a pool of hard-edged criminals. The film makes it very clear that 'Red' is a product of reform schools, but with the right type of treatment he has the capacity to clean up his act and make something of himself. Yet bad habits die-hard when 'Red' finds out that the special treatment he's getting from the captain of the yard has something to do with the fact that Jameson is going out with his sister May, played by Ann Sheridan. 'Red' undoes all the progress he's made by letting his anger take hold of him, but like in all Warner Bros. films from that decade redemption is never impossible to attain as long as you are willing to pay the ultimate price.
  With a 70 minute running time their isn't much space for character development, but everybody involved with the film should be proud for turning out a top notch studio picture that neither wastes time, talent, or intensity.

Monday, November 3, 2008

G Men (1935)

  William Keighley shines a light on the FBI with G Men, and by film's end he not only makes popular a colloquial nickname for the bureau's agents but also charts the mythology for the fledgling agency. The movie can be categorized more specifically as government propaganda then it can as gangster movie now, but nonetheless this movie grabs hold of the audience's eyes and ears from the very first scene and doesn't let go till the end credits.
  Not counting the prologue, tacked on more than a decade after the film's premiere on J. Edgar Hoover's orders, the film opens with 'Brick' Davis, played by James Cagney, looking directly at the camera and expounding on the merits of truth, justice, and "keeping on the level." Of course this type of attitude hasn't left him with many viable clients.
  'Brick' Davis came from the slums and thanks to a less-than reputable benefactor he gets a law degree on gratis. This conflict between where Davis came from and where he wants to go is present throughout every scene in the movie. His benefactor, McKay, is a Prohibition era racketeer and is painted, most likely for the censor's benefit, as an apologetic gangster. With the repeal of Prohibition he can't keep up with the less-than savory rackets that are popping up, making him a powerless figurehead in his own organization.
  The relationship Davis and McKay have with one another is quite complicated. Each man is governed by a different set of rules; McKay rules by exploiting personal vices while 'Brick' believes in the power of the law. The only tangible connection they have with each other is geography; both men grew up in the same slums and had to suffer through the same type of obstacles. McKay looks at Davis as a possible do-over, an opportunity for him to help somebody from his neighborhood achieve success without having to corrupt themselves to attain it; for McKay helping Davis is basically a form of penance for all the laws he's broken.
  When the film shifts its focus to the FBI we are treated to the science of crime fighting; criminal investigation has been elevated from a job reliant on snitches and stool pigeons to an exact science where microscopic evidence can lead to arrests. During his training Davis finds a mentor in Jeff McCord, played by Robert Armstrong. Although both men don't think much of each other when they first meet, Davis gains McCord's respect after successfully taking down a few of the FBI's Most Wanted through a combination of street smarts and familiarity with the use of a gun and his fists.
  The gangsters that Davis and McCord have to collar are amalgamations of real life people during the Great Depression, like John Dillinger and Machine Gun Kelly, and were familiar to most audience members when this movie first came out. As characters these gangsters are mostly one-dimensional, merely story devices used to illustrate just how ineffectual local law enforcement was in stopping these bandits until the FBI finally stepped in as the nation's protector.
  A sub-plot develops parallel to the main story where Cagney's character falls head over heels for McCord's sister, Kay. The scenes with Cagney and Margaret Lindsay, who plays Kay, are a great break from all the gun play and this secondary story intersects quite neatly with the main story in the third act.
  Keighley traces the FBI's baptism by fire with a re-enactment of two key events during the bureau's war on crime in the 1930's, the Kansas City Massacre and the shootout at the Little Bohemia Lodge with John Dillinger's gang. In real life these events were considered embarrassing disasters for the FBI, but within the movie they are used as justification for the arming of the bureau's agents and also for their use of a shoot first talk later strategy when dealing with so-called public enemies. The film may offer a simplistic and exaggerated account of how the FBI came to be born, but due to the film's success with the public the gangster movie had to now make room for the valiant cop protagonist.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Scarface (1932)

  In the reality that is Howard Hawks' Scarface the world is yours, but at a price. X marks death. There were gangster movies before this film's release and plenty afterwards, but no other gangster movie could get away with such comic violence masked as social problem picture. Every spray from a Tommy gun elicits a laugh not just from the hoods who are doing the shooting, but also from the audience who relishes watching every bloody death.

  All gangster movies are, in some capacity, skewed American dream stories. The gangsters are usually immigrants and thus not part of the status quo society. The goal of the immigrant gangster is to assimilate and to do this they have to acquire all the status symbol accoutrement's that the rich and powerful have deemed as mandatory for all those successful to have.

  Of course the rub is that the very club they want to enter has closed their doors to them. Paul Muni plays Tony Camonte as a high-energy go-getter who is completely ignorant of how repugnant his actions are. His entire body is expressive and with just a raise of an eyebrow or tap from his cigar tells whoever is watching that this is a man of action.

  For his second in command, Camonte has Guino Rinaldo, played by George Raft, who menacingly flips a coin, letting the coin toss decide whether he should listen to his angels or the devils that are neatly tucked into his gun holster.

  Both Camonte and Rinaldo share the same goal, to takeover the city. To do this they spark a gang war and in doing so kill just as many civilians as they do rival gangsters. Camonte is so desperate to be accepted by his adopted country that he tries to change the way he speaks, the way he dresses, and even takes up with a blonde, Poppy, who represents the type of respectability he craves but can never really have.

  Poppy, played by Karen Morley, is repulsed at first by how Camonte physically looks and also by his uncouth behavior yet as the story moves along and Tony bludgeons his way to the top she becomes more and more attracted to him. She is, in a way, a stand-in for the audience who were equally disgusted by the stories of gangland violence that newspapers would peddle around on a daily basis, but the idea of somebody bucking the system and getting away with it, even if only for a short while, is a very attractive story.

  The other woman in Tony's life is his sister, Francesca 'Cesca' Camonte, played by Ann Dvorak. Tony's feelings for Cesca have been interpreted by many as incestuous, but it may be less lascivious than that. Whereas Poppy is the "civilized" society that Tony wants to belong to Cesca represents his roots, where he came from and ultimately where he feels safest. Cesca, like Tony, is hyper sexual and quite expressive with her body. He pushes away any man that shows interest in her not because he wants to have her sexually, but to keep her from being tainted or, even worse, diluted by a society that does not look so kindly on those that act differently.

  Although the picture was made to be an indictment of gangsterism it is difficult not to root for Tony as he is surrounded by cops who are all too anxious to storm his home and drag his body out on the street to parade around for those "proper" Americans who were quite threatened by the immigrant menace. Tony Camonte is labeled as the shame of the nation in this picture, but he became that way because of a system that rejected him. The American dream is an engine that is fueled by many immigrants that come into the country wanting a better life. Tony Camonte took what he wanted, he did it the illegal way, but his actions were no worse than the public's whose apathy for the downtrodden poor helped to create the gangsters that they vilified.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Each Dawn I Die (1939)

The idea of the reporter as a purveyor of truth in a world populated with blind sheep was a popular image during the Great Depression. They unearthed the buried crimes of the rich and powerful, and created a podium for the disenfranchised to speak freely. Each Dawn I Die takes the reporter out of the newsroom and puts him smack in the middle of a news story.
James Cagney plays Frank Ross a zealous reporter who uncovers a graft scandal at the start of the movie and, to shut him up, gets framed for vehicular manslaughter. Ross believes in the justice system, and can't picture a country that would send innocent men into the bowels of Rocky Point Penitentiary. All throughout the picture he rails against corruption while never condemning the flawed system that put him in a jail cell. Even when the very system he is defending beats him down on a daily basis Ross stands firm in his belief that he will get out. Audiences in the 1930's went to see this movie not for its social message though, but rather for the simple fact that it teamed up two stars, James Cagney and George Raft. Both were New Yorkers who went to the West Coast and made careers out of playing tough guy roles, and it must have been exciting to be a moviegoer then watching these two physically and verbally spar with each other on the big screen.
Inside the penitentiary, the story becomes a study of the male relationship, specifically between Ross and Raft's gangster character, Stacey. The bond between these two men is what keeps this movie from going stale. Ross and Stacey deal with prison life on their own terms yet one has to admire the fact that neither allows the inhuman treatment they get to devolve them into the animals that many of the inmates have become.    
Ross is a newcomer to the penal system while Stacey is a product of it. Throughout most of the story Ross is quite passive even as he witnesses the guards abuse and brutalize the inmates. Audience's soon realize, just as Ross does, that the rules of the outside world have no meaning in prison. On the other hand, Stacey holds a lot of power inside the prison, but is completely distrustful of everybody and is caught off guard by Ross' friendship. Stacey finds in Ross "a square guy", and gives up his freedom to help his friend.    
It's no surprise that in this prison movie the most flawed performance was Jane Bryan who plays Joyce Conover, Ross' girlfriend. She has very little to do but beg everybody around her to help Cagney's character. By the end of the movie we miss Raft's character more and really could care less of Ross and Joyce's reunion.    
William Keighley was primarily known as an action director during his tenure at Warner Bros. but he always managed to direct the audience's attention towards social problems. This movie illustrated how the power of the political machine can manipulate people to lock up good citizens and that the penal system can just as easily create crooks as well as they can rehabilitate them.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Bullets or Ballots (1936)

  The failure of law and the stifling bureaucracy of justice is the overriding theme in Bullets or Ballots, a 1930's gangster movie that was a definite product of the Depression. Whereas in previous gangster movies an audience would follow a gangster's rise and fall in this movie we look at the war on crime from the point of view of the dutiful cop. This is a story of corruption; something that the Warner Bros. social picture excelled at telling.
  At the start of the movie we are treated to a newsreel where we, the audience, are informed of how the gangster's reach permeates throughout every aspect of daily life. Yet these are not the gangster's of the Prohibition era. The clean-cut businessman has replaced the gun-toting cigar-chomping gangster. To fight their battles they use wiretaps and lawyers as well as their fists, gangsterism had transformed into big business.
  With the Depression hitting the country hard banks were the enemy and in this movie capitalism was the root of all societal problems. The entire system was put on trial in this movie and the rich, respectable politicians and community leaders were guilty of profiting off of vice and the blood and sweat of hard-working Americans.
  Edward G. Robinson plays Johnny Blake, a cop who believes that to battle crime you need to use your fists to beat crooks into submission. The thin divide between cop and crook does not exist in this movie. Blake is comfortable talking with his boss, McLaren, as he is hanging out with mob boss Al Kruger. He may slap around the ten-cent thugs that he encounters on the street, but for Blake there is a real respect that he feels for Kruger.
  That cannot be said about Kruger's right-hand man, Nick Fenner. Humphrey Bogart imbues Fenner with the cold detachment that all gangsters share but also adds a layer of seething anger and a feeling of entitlement. Fenner can't adapt to the new corporate business-like structure of the gang. When he sees a threat his first thought is to shoot, and not to negotiate. Johnny Blake's conversion from cop to crook doesn't fool Fenner, and although he is looked down upon as just another petty thug, one has to give him credit for being smart enough to not be so easily fooled.

  In between the scenes with Blake and his dealings with Kruger's gang we are treated to the nightclub world with Joan Blondell who plays Lee Morgan, a sort-of love interest for Blake if he wasn't so engrossed in his work. Her character is really just a spectator in all the action. Blondell's character is frustratingly always one step behind the audience when figuring out the story, but it is refreshing to see a female character in a gangster movie that is neither moll nor doll. Frank McHugh also has a small part in the movie as McCloskey, an employee of Lee Morgan's. His comic antics are hilarious and are such a change of pace from the rest of the story that it seems his character is from a different movie.
  The director, William Keighley, took a routine gangster picture and built a movie about how the law had been replaced by a lot of talk and that action was needed to scrub away the filth of corruption. He accomplished this not with explicit violence or spectacle, but through a narrative economy developed a story where audience's were not just entertained but also constantly questioning, as they watched the movie, who were the good guys and who were the bad guys.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

The Sweet Smell of Success (1957)

From the very first scene, The Sweet Smell of Success locks you into the exact date and location where the story inhabits, New York in the later part of the 1950's. This was a tough, dirty and un-gentrified New York. You are automatically thrown into the clogged streets to fend for yourself. This is a New York where men wore hats and women were dames. Everybody around you seemed to move with a dancer's strut and with just the turn of a phrase could cut you into pieces. 
The director, Alexander Mackendrick, channels the manic energy of The Big Apple and serves up a bitter dish of smoky bars, cigarette girls, and unscrupulous bottom feeders.The story revolves primarily around Sidney Falco, a hungry press agent, and J.J. Hunsecker, the columnist who can make or break careers. They are two desperate individuals; Sidney is desperate to get to where J.J. is, while Hunsecker is desperate to keep the power he already has. You have to give Tony Curtis and Burt Lancaster a lot of credit for being brave enough to play such unlikable roles, especially when their careers were built around their pretty-boy facades.
J.J. needs Sidney to pry his sister, Susie, away from the arms of Steve Dallas, a jazz guitarist. If this movie has any flaws it would have to be these characters. They aren't fully developed, and for a jazz guitarist Steve Dallas seems too white bread. Susie and Steve are mere plot devices, and I didn't much care for their story.
The real meat within the movie is the dynamic between Falco and Hunsecker. It has been written that there relationship has homoerotic overtones, but I disagree. Both men are attracted to power, but they are too narcissistic to ever really have any sincere feelings for any person. They are victims of their own greed and have become such good manipulators that they have started to believe the very lies that they tell people.
This movie is about the power of media. How a small number of people have a monopoly on how we get our information, and how people who relish power more than they care about the truth filter that information. This movie shines a light on the tarnished beauty of New York. Many come to this city looking for validation, but very few achieve their goals. We may not live in that New York anymore, but at least movie fans can sit back and enjoy the great on-location shots by James Wong Howe, Elmer Bernstein's rhythmic score, and the arsenic-laced dialogue.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Wilder's Tips For Writers

  • The audience is fickle.

  • Grab'em by the throat and never let'em go.

  • Develop a clean line of action for your leading character.

  • Know where you're going.

  • The more subtle and elegant you are in hiding your plot points, the better you are as a writer.

  • If you have a problem with the third act, the real problem is in the first act.

  • A tip from Lubitsch: Let the audience add up two plus two. They'll love you forever.

  • In doing voice-overs, be careful not to describe what the audience already sees. Add to what they are seeing.

  • The third act must build, build, build in tempo and action until the last event, and then-

  • -that's it. Don't hang around.

  • (Wilder's Tips For Writers taken directly from the book Conversations with Wilder by Cameron Crowe.)

    Tuesday, October 21, 2008

    In the Dark Alley Way: Film Noir's Sordid Past

    Society in the early half of the twentieth century was at a transition, revolutions were occurring all over the world and society began to change with the times. The archetypal twentieth century hero is the film noir hero this character is the antithesis of gallantry, a product of society, the hero mirrors everything we want to do and at the same time we are aghast at exactly what they are capable of doing. The new modern climate of urban landscapes meant that there needed to be something to represent exactly the new human condition, the new voice of the underdog who had lived through wars, were isolated in a city of millions, and barely just surviving. A wide array of actors have portrayed basically the same film noir character, a glaringly flawed and weak person yet very human in our eyes. One cannot talk about any character without mentioning relationships, and the most important relationship any film noir character has is the femme fatale, a seducer and executioner all wrapped into one sexy dress. It can be said that the only present day legacy of film noir is stylized violence, yet that's not true film noir has reinvented and burst out of its cocoon into a filmmaking method, and even though it does trade in style for substance, at times, it allows us to glimpse into our subconscious and pretend to be someone we're not.
    Before the birthplace of the urban metropolis in the early part of the twentieth century people's view of the world was quite optimistic overall. The world wars going on in Europe and Asia, the widespread Depression, which engulfed the world, and the mass exodus of people out of the farmland and into the city all contributed to a general consensus by the public that the world didn't always offer a glass is half full scenario. The paranoia every person felt permeated through the literature, politics, and art of the day. Early film noir can be seen in the detective stories of people like Dashiell Hammett and the popular dime store pulp narratives of the time. When these stories were translated into film audiences were transported into realistic worlds populated by very realistic people. These films were true slices of life, barely ever ending in happy endings. And upon seeing these films Europeans added on to the new genre, introducing common noir ideals of violence and fishes out of water.
    Film noir is a genre of many ideas, which shares its history with almost every new artistic medium of the twentieth century. James Naremore, an author and writer of such books as The Films of Vincente Minelli and various magazines, comments that the very American genre of film noir was technically born in France by those influenced by Hollywood and the surrealistic and existential movements of the day ("American" 4). Naremore notes that early noirs that laid the groundwork for what is termed film noir were very much in the vain of early french cinema and French new wave consisting of "a group of "poetic realist" melodramas set in an urban criminal milieu and featuring doomed protagonists who wore fedoras and behaved with sangfroid under pressure" ("American" 5).
    The new auteurs like John Huston, who wrote the "Maltese Falcon", and Raymond Chandler, author of "The Big Sleep", two quintessential early film noirs, rewrote the classical narrative of the day and threw off the shackles of "sentimental humanism." Instead these films dealt with the criminal as the protagonist which made the films very "convoluted, harsh, and misogynistic" with puppets and puppeteers being present throughout the story (Naremore "American" 5).
    Early noir's attempts to create this harsh realism of daily life was a breath of fresh air, being that they as Naremore says, were "curious, non-conformist, and as noir as one could desire" ("American" 7). Yet this characteristic of film noir was soon exploited by Hollywood and what was thought to be a fresh "zero-degree style" became as formulaic as every other genre (Naremore "American" 12). Film noir fulfilled in the public mind a visual playground where their isolation and stifled individuality could freely roam realistic worlds. Naremore notes that it "exerted a strong appeal to anyone who was wary of collective politics and inclined to treat social issues in terms of personal ethics" ("American" 13).
    The public's response to noir varied depending on the climate of the era. Rebecca Stankowski of Purdue University Calumet has commented that during surges of American patriotism film noir wasn't a box office draw due to its anti-American portrayal of the nation. Yet no censorship board could hold back film noir for long and once a social injustice was brought to the attention of the public filmmakers rushed to put their spin on it (Stankowski 8). From its beginning as a crime movie to its creative takeover by Hollywood resulting in countless "B" movies to the present, film noir has secured a seat as a respectable genre.
    Every genre to keep relevant with the times, has had to evolve and change with the culture. They were products of society and never the other way around. Lisa Hordness at the University at the Netherlands lists many social factors that contributed to noir's evolution. Starting in the earliest part of the century with the Depression to the World Wars and then the subsequent decades afterwards there were a myriad of changes and life for all Americans seemed to be changing for the better. Yet there were those uneasy with all the optimism, fearing that it was lulling society into a conformist state valuing materials instead of ideals (2). Everything in film noir symbolized some aspect of society. Be it how characters dressed, acted, or the decisions they make all revealed a unique fact about life in that era (Hordness 9-12). As Hordness says, the film noir story had a "dark world view" and a protagonist who had a constant "confrontation with nihilism." The ideals people once had were shattered and film noir made sure to capitalize on that. "Earlier the Americans had been free individuals and masters of their own destiny, but in postwar America people became tied up by an economic and political system out of their control. Fortune seemed to control the field" (13).
    Film noir wasn't relegated to one period of time though; its style was set in stone but the themes it dealt with encompassed any generation of the twentieth century. Christopher Sharrett, a writer for USA Today magazine makes the point that as censorship began to lighten sex and sexuality in general began to be toyed with in films, film noir was at the forefront of this. Another aspect of true noir is "paranoia and perversity" which during film noirs beginnings were "unaddressed pathology in American life" (2).
    Film noir's popularity in Hollywood and with the public Lloyd Shearer, a columnist for the New York Times Magazine, explains is because audiences craved the type of stories film noir produced and psychologist explain the publics love for the genre the same way they explain the love for any film genre, it was a way to escape our troubles and become someone even more troubled than us, it was "cathartic for pent-up emotions" (2). A sinister reason for our love for film noir is because we commit the act of transference as we watch, instead of the main character killing someone we are in fact the ones killing somebody, most often the person who agitates us the most in our lives (Shearer 1-2).
    The new noir is quite different from its predecessor, as J.P. Telotte, a regular columnist at Film Quarterly, states the new noir is much more engaging, "It is a film that begins with a mystery and almost literally invites its viewers to play at guessing that mystery" (10-11). Yet with all its changes stories and plots have remained as constant in film noir as the escalation of violence and sexuality in the genre itself. The most common film noir story is the caper narrative, films like "Reservoir Dogs", "Usual Suspects", and "Pulp Fiction" all feature fringe characters plotting a crime which always goes horribly wrong. One can see this type of story in film noir as early as Billy Wilder's film "Double Indemnity" (Tolette 2-9). All these technical points have contributed in making film noir half of what it is, but there is another half, the story aspect, which deals exclusively with what exactly is presented to the audience in the theater.
    One of the most common plot elements is the focus on a particular kind of hero. In almost no other genre is a protagonist more universally known as the film noir character. Yet the film noir character doesn't fit the conventional definition of a protagonist. They are usually never in control of the situation or the decisions they make, and constantly manipulated by everyone around them. The protagonist, a person who is most often living on the wrong side of the tracks, neither wants or gets sympathy, but we the audience root for them because they represent our less than nobler side. Although the film noir "hero" couldn't be farther from a chivalrous knight, they do follow a strict code. This code if tested leads the protagonist to do whatever must be done to uphold it, in a meaningless world that is all the hero has. Sacrifice is something which the protagonist must do to balance out whatever wrong has been done, but in the end the hero is usually worse off than he was before and the audience is left wondering just like in any real tragic situation "What just happened?"
    Due to the influence of existential philosophy in film noir the genre's protagonist always had a loner attitude and alienation was a topic constantly covered by film noir. According to Stankowski these characters were in effect portraying the average citizen who believed there was no future due to wars and the constant threat of world annihilation. This increase in danger abroad was portrayed as danger within, man against man in a metropolis which became symbolic of the earth which had many different countries just as cities had just as many different types of residents (7-9).
    In most circles it is pretty much agreed that the quintessential film noir hero is Sam Spade. As John Blaser at the University of California at Berkeley writes as an example, Sam Spade in "The Maltese Falcon" when in the search for the falcon is not driven by a righteous motive to stop the bad guys or help the girl. He is driven by his loyalty to his partner, killed in the beginning of the movie. Although later detectives would show a bit of compassion the true film noir detective had none for anybody. The protagonist in these movies were doers, they had no patience to comb a crime scene for the tiniest piece of evidence. They relied on underworld connections and their fists to get them answers. In the end of all these films no protagonists were ever left with a smile on their face. Justice is not always served and the protagonist was worse off than when we first met him ("Outer" 2-5).
    The hero in film noir is never rewarded for their good deed because a moral compass would be a liability in their field. And in fact the hero was almost always an accessory to the crime making vanquishing the enemy that much harder ("Film" 6). An example to this is in Chinatown as Jim Shepard of the New York Times states; all those against the main character, J.J. Gittes seem "omnipotent, malevolent and impregnable" (2). And just like the Maltese Falcon the protagonist calls in the police to arrest his client, but he has been tricked and his client gets killed by those very forces he allied with earlier, a perfect ending to a perfect film noir (2). The new crop of noir heroes Sharon Cobb, a writer for Creative Screenwriting magazine, states all have basically the same characteristics. Neo noir films represent man's subconscious fears, primal urges, and deep seeded nightmares. Tension is created not by committing violence but by the anticipation of violence. And there are no good guys or bad guys just a gray line, which all characters inhabit. The protagonist never does anything heroic in the end; there is always an ulterior motive and most of the time they are just trying not to get caught. Alienation and isolation is quite evident in the main characters. The protagonist, usually male, is under the constant influence of a woman and because of this he will ultimately be used and abused by her because of his association with her. Layers and layers of subplots and characters confuse the audience by the many directions the film takes within the story yet that is the type of tension which creates the most drama when characters and audiences alike think they've figured out what will happen next and they are sorely mistaken. Due to the subject matter and at times explicit content of neo noir these films are R rated (Cobb 35-37). A film noir character though just like any real person was a product of his environment and societies lack of interest in those fringe groups helped make those people possible.
    The protagonist in isolation seeks out or is found by someone who "understands" them, and the union of the two soon spawns countless troubles for the protagonist and almost a wish from the protagonist to still have the comfort of anonymity. The relationship that most exemplifies this is between the protagonist and the femme fatale. The femme fatale is the modern day damsel in distress who inevitably uses and abuses the protagonist. She is a seducer leading the protagonist to their ultimate demise.
    Women in film noir were mostly viewed as one-dimensional dishonest people yet they did fill other roles. Blaser argues that two most common ones are the "rejuvenating redeemer" and "The deadly seductress" each on the opposite ends of the spectrum. The redeemer encompasses all that society holds pure and true, "more of an ideal than an attainable reality" whereas the seductress is everything society holds taboo ("No" 6). Naremore expands by showing that another explanation of this is that the "good girl represents nature" and the "bad girl represents culture", meaning that all women are all pure and honest yet as times progress and society changes they're corrupted by the very things which runs society, wealth and power. They transformed into predators, femme fatales as they're known in film noir, and instead of claws they used their sexuality to artificially attract men to their death like lovely sirens. To understand this evolution one must examine earlier roles that women played, and that was as supporting characters, wives or mothers "submitting to the male hero." As a price for their new freedoms female characters were portrayed as every bit criminal as the average criminal, since she defied societies views on what was the traditional family and women's place in that society at that time, at the end she must be locked up or destroyed ("Straight" 7).
    As the new millennium began to dawn a new femme fatale emerged though, Laura Schiff a columnist for Creative screenwriting writes that although women's portrayal as femme fatales has not really changed one important aspect has changed. Femme fatales were no longer crucified at the end of the film, they got away with the crime or if they didn't, audiences were at least rooting for her too (Schiff 28-30). Femme fatales in any film noir is as important as the protagonist, if nothing more but for the reason that she embodies complete and utter freedom from society.
    Film noir was thought to be dead by the time the 1960's approached, people were tired of dark dreary backgrounds and helpless heroes, yet they did love the intrigue, violence, and sexual innuendo which were the core of all great film noirs. Yet with every new crop of neo noirs the violence and sexual content had to escalate, the public craved more and more, which unfortunately gave film noir the unfavorable reputation as being a genre which offers nothing but cheap thrills. They aren't though, if anything film noir's are psychological satires about what happens to characters overlooked by society and manipulated by people they thought they could trust. The shocking images are just there to remind people that we live in a, sometimes, cruel world.

    Works Cited

    Blaser, John. "Film Noir and the Hard-Boiled Detective Hero." No Place for a Woman: The Family in Film Noir and Other Essays. University of California at Berkeley Movie Resource Center 9 April 2003.

    Blaser, John. "No Place for a Woman: The Family in Film Noir." No Place for a Woman: The Family in Film Noir and Other Essays. University of California at Berkeley Movie Resource Center 9 April 2003.

    Blaser, John. "The Outer Limits of Film Noir." No Place for a Woman: The Family in Film Noir and Other Essays. University of California at Berkeley Movie Resource Center 9 April 2003.

    Cobb, Sharon Y. "Writing the new noir film." Creative Screenwriting September/October 2000:35-37.

    Hordness, Lise. "Does Film Noir mirror the culture of Contemporary America?" From Revolution to Reconstruction. Department of Humanities Computing 9 April 2003.

    Naremore, James. "American Film Noir: The history of an idea." Film Quarterly 49.2 (Winter 1995):12.

    Naremore, James. "Straight down the line: making and remaking Double Indemnity." Film Comment 32.1 (Jan-Feb 1996):22.

    Schiff, Laura. "Today's Femmes Fatales' Postmodern Make-over." Creative Screenwriting September/October 2000:26-30.

    Sharrett, Christopher. "The endurance of Film Noir." USA Today July 1998:79.

    Shearer, Lloyd. "Crime pays on the screen." New York Times Magazine August 5, 1945 pg. 22-24.

    Shepard, Jim. "Jolting Noir with a Shot of Nihilism." The New York Times February 7, 1999, Sunday pg. 24.

    Stankowski, Rebecca House. "Night of the Soul: American Film Noir." Studies in Popular Culture 9.1 (1986):61-83.

    Telotte, J.P. "Fatal capers; strategy and enigma in film noir." Journal of Popular Film and Television 23.4 (Winter 1996):163.

    Telotte, J.P. "Rounding up the Usual Suspects." Film Quarterly (Summer 1998):1-12.