Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Spook Town (1944) / Scream of Fear (1961)

Elmer Clifton's 1944 PRC Western Spook Town opens with a foreward informing the viewer that the film is "Dedicated to the law officers of the Old West, who led the fight for law and order in the pioneer days of this country in 1880", and this rough, ragged cheapie is indeed some kind of beautiful poem to the mechanics of dutiful action in the Wild West. Ostensibly framed around a convoluted plot involving the recovery of a strongbox containing funds for the development of an irrigation program, Spook Town is at the same time so vastly stripped down and distilled to the pure essence of movement and gunfight that it often unfolds with the condensed logic of a dream. It is always fascinating to watch a nimble director maneuver within the constraints of the B movie, and while Clifton here doesn't quite subsume his budgetary restrictions into formal creativity (as an Ulmer would), he at least utilizes them as a guiding hand towards clarity and precision. The primary action consists of the passing around and chasing down of the valuable strongbox, but similar to the only other Clifton movie I've seen to date, 1949's The Judge, central action is routinely backgrounded in order to give precedence to effect and reaction, which means Clifton is markedly more interested in the pleasures and urgencies of horseback riding than he is in the destination; more interested in the crackle and somatics of a gunfight than he is in the motivations. These actions take on such ritualized splendor through their momentum and recurrence that the more confused I became at the unfolding plot (the abysmal condition of the audio and video from the copy I watched surely played a large part here), the more I was drawn into the experience. Clifton however is also generous enough to grant an unusual amount of freedom within his spare mise-en-scene, as characters - whether on horse or on feet - often determinedly move in and out of the frame at free will. His modest compositions are also ones of options, with decisions actively being made and carried out within them, and there is something gratifying and pure in such an approach. And then there is also the wonderfully granular voice and presence of Guy Wilkerson, here playing one of the Rangers named Panhandle, who utters the final, telling line of the movie, as the rather large group of survivors ride out of the ghost town together: "For a town where nobody lives, this has sure been a busy place." Nothing more than a troupe of Old West entertainers, moving on to the next performance, even if it's for only themselves.


While I am not quite inclined to agree with the many who feel the situation of modern American horror is in something resembling dire straits (Zombie, Aja, Romero, Reznick, Ti West are among a handful of names who still give me hope), it is nevertheless almost impossible to argue that a sizable bulk of the genre's films being released these days is dominated by and reliant on crude and exploitative techniques that have been slowly mastered over the past few decades. If I have to sit through one more picture where the single-minded goal is to make the audience jump three feet into the air every five minutes with something random flying into the screen accompanied by "The Chord", I think I may pull the hair out of my head.

It is in that frame of mind that dipping back in time and discovering for the first time a film like the remarkable, Hammer Studios produced Scream of Fear (Seth Holt, 1961) provides for such a refreshing experience. Here we have a director who exercises an admirable amount of deliberation and puts complete trust in his images and atmospheres and ideas for effect, and one who takes a wholly organic approach towards startling his audience (the one "jump" moment in the film - and it's a biggie - contains only diegetic noise and involves an object that's been inanimately present in the composition the entire time). The plot concerns Susan Strasberg, a depressed cripple en route to visiting her long estranged father at his opulent French mansion. The film attaches itself to her subjectivity for a large portion of the running time, tracking her paranoia as she slowly becomes entangled in either a titanic psychological breakdown or an elaborate conspiracy to cover up her father's death, who has mysteriously vanished with no clear explanation it seems. Though the majority of the narrative unfolds within the quiet confines of the mansion, Holt is able to pack in a staggering amount of style, through both a bevy of expressive camera movements, as well as the creation of some chiaroscuro compositions that would have made Tourneur proud. The movie tips (most of) its hand with an entire act left to go, and at this point it rather fascinatingly morphs from a psychological horror piece into something resembling a Preminger noir, with everything taking a step back to calmly observe the reconfigured scheme of identification and slippery dynamics as they play themselves out to their natural, fateful ends. Also worth mentioning is that Scream of Fear contains perhaps the single most chilling shot of a dead body underwater this side of The Night of the Hunter. Brilliant film.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Hardly Working (1981) / The Judge (1949)

Hardly Working
(Jerry Lewis, 1981) - When Jerry Lewis made Hardly Working (filmed in '79, released in '81) it was his first movie in a decade, and you can sense it in nearly every minute of the running time. Watching it, one often gets the vibe of observing a man returning to his old workplace to do the exact same job later on in life - a little heavier, a little more serious, a little more deliberate. I've often heard the word "pathos" used in discussion of Lewis and his work, but I'd never seen it much myself, not until the early scene here where Lewis sits in silence, tearful and in clown makeup, staring mournfully into the mirror at what might as well be a stranger: call me crazy, but it is one of the saddest, most personal images I've seen in the movies in some time. This sadness continues to coast at a low level throughout - and that's not to say that Hardly Working isn't still as expressive, uncomfortable and funny as any other Lewis I've seen; it is - only to elevate itself again towards the end in the form of a poignantly staged accumulating street procession, as well as in the overly-determined-with-a-hint-of-bitter "happy ending", two elements which called to mind Ford's devastating magnum opus The Sun Shines Bright. And in the two films' depictions of "doddering relics" for whom history has all but drifted by, there are some interesting parallels to be made. For my money though, the most compelling sequence in Hardly Working involves Lewis's first (and only) day of work as a gas station attendant. Having just witnessed his newly hired and utterly incompetent employee single-handedly reduce a mother and child's car to a disheveled mass of wheezing smoke and metal, the uber straight-laced bossman (Britt Leach) begins carelessly knocking over a methodically mounted pyramid of oil cans, while a look of both bemusement and puzzlement dances across his face. It's a disconcerting and mysterious moment, and one that further develops a pet theme for Lewis which occupies much territory in his final two films: the nature and transfer of chaos, portrayed here as an almost free-floating contagion, and then finally in the climax of 1983's masterful Cracking Up as a kind of invisible soul-hopping specter.


The Judge (Elmer Clifton, 1949) - Similar to that of Raoul Walsh, the career of Elmer Clifton included early collaboration with Griffith (with acting roles in both The Birth of a Nation and Intolerance), before branching off independently to rack up a prolific directorial career whose features (some counts put it at over 100) swung freely between various genres. Very little of Clifton's output however is currently available to the public in any capacity, and it seems as though even among more seasoned cinephile circles his main claim to fame is suffering a heart attack in the early stages of filming the 1949 noir Not Wanted, allowing star Ida Lupino to step behind the camera for her first proper (if uncredited) directorial gig.

The Judge
was my first foray into the work of Clifton, and it's a completely oddball and strangely fascinating film, one that initially teases a sobering look at legal ethics before morphing into an EC Comics-like tale of a secretly demented character in good social standing becoming outlandishly consumed with a morbidly grandiose plot. That character is Martin Strang (Milburn Stone), a successful public defender with a dark past and an unhappy marriage, who concocts a twisted scheme to affirm the course of his life after becoming increasingly disillusioned with his job of setting one murderer after another free onto the streets. There are many interesting touches present in The Judge, the most striking perhaps being the completely unorthodox choice of music, a mixture of both haunting gothic choral and eerie solo violin, music which freely hops in and out of the diegesis and even appears to inform the rhythms of Clifton's editing in certain key sequences. There is actually very little camera movement present here at all, and Clifton relies frequently on this rhythmic style of editing - which borders on becoming a musical presence itself at times - often favoring setting up a scene with a long or medium-long static shot, and paying little attention to dialogue delivery while cutting to and creating a circuit of various human reactions and the handling of objects. Clifton also displays a dark, witty sense of humor at times, particularly towards the end with a dream sequence that entails a simple, mundane domestic quarrel, emphasizing the absurdity of the events the main character has painted for himself in his waking life. If The Judge is any indication at all of the measure of artistic freedom and creativity Clifton was able to enjoy throughout his career, then I very much look forward to digging around in his basement further and seeing what other treasures are there to be unearthed.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

I'm a Creep

If David Lynch did in fact - as Jacques Rivette once posited - create the creepiest set in the history of cinema with Dorothy's apartment in Blue Velvet, then he designs the human counterpart in Wild at Heart with Willem Dafoe's Bobby Peru. With the worst face in the history of anything, Peru straddles the line between the more abstract Lynch villains (Bob, Mystery Man) and the corporeal ones (Frank Booth), because he has a human enough name (after a country no less) and a somewhat sketchy bio (he was in the marines), yet he hails from nowhere (or "all over" as he tells Dern), laying claim to no land, and he for all intents and purposes still might as well have materialized out of thin air, or maybe more appropriately a subconscious.

Bobby is compared by others to a natural disaster, obese porn stars laugh at him as he walks by, and in a room with a puddle of fly-covered puke on the floor, Bobby is still the least attractive option. In short, he just doesn't fucking belong anywhere. "He has a way" Pruitt Taylor Vince's anonymous cowboy hat-donning trailer patron puts it, and that's the understatement of the century. And what separates Peru from Frank Booth - probably the only Lynchian creation that can give him a run for his money - is that Booth still, you know, had friends, and even if they were only cavemen and weirdos who sang into lights, they still moved him, and there was always a communal aspect with Frank, a sense that he would actually feel it were he not surrounded by these people. And so while, at one point during Blue Velvet, Frank drives down the road doing well over 100 completely wasted out of his mind, he at least has it in him to eventually put the brakes on. Bobby Peru, on the other hand, drives the gas tank off the edge of the cliff the first possible moment he can, taking everyone with him into hell and laughing his twisted ass off the entire time.

Sunday, September 11, 2011


...but I'd give the world to be where I used to be

The above image, which brought me a great chill recently, is from Raoul Walsh's The Roaring Twenties (1939). Ten minutes later in the same film, in some anonymous dive, Gladys George's character gives a quiet, touching performance of In a Shanty in Old Shanty Town. Slowly circling the place, she momentarily pauses by the weary, ragged, fallen shell of James Cagney, gently taking his hand into hers and giving it a hopeful squeeze, as if to say hang in there, keep your head up, things will get better.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Five from a Favorite - Murder, Obliquely (Alfonso Cuarón, 1993)


Fallen Angels was a short-lived noir anthology series that aired on the Showtime network in the early 90's. Tapping an impressive array of talent both in-front of and behind the camera, the series as a whole was rather uneven, its primary shortcomings stemming from its knack for overly-convoluted screenplays, as well as the hiring of celebrity directors (among them Tom Cruise and Tom Hanks) who far too often struggled delineating the complex crime plots, and who favored a rather uncreative and on-the-nose approach toward the genre's signature visual and atmospheric qualities.

There were however a couple of utter triumphs buried within this curious series, and my favorite among them is probably Alfonso Cuarón's haunting episode Murder, Obliquely, based on a Cornell Woolrich short story and starring Laura Dern and Alan Rickman. The story takes place in the 1940's, and centers around Dern's character Betty, a timid, attractive and single store clerk whose main hobby is socializing with her married friends and wallowing in her own self-mythologizing sense of elusive love. A perpetual fifth wheel, Betty seems bound to the idea of sitting in a quiet corner like a ghost and watching passion play out in front of her, until one night at a small gathering she meets and obsessively falls for the brooding, wealthy Dwight (Rickman), an equally wounded romantic with a dark streak in a troubled marriage. The idea of love for Betty is portrayed as an illness with no cure - she even wishes for an "antibiotic for love" at one point - and her disembodied, foreboding narration throughout lends a tragic weight to her increasingly slavish infatuation.

Impressively directed by Cuarón and shot by cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (The Tree of Life), the immensely striking visuals (borderline miraculous by the television standards of the time) are rich in their attention to lighting, color, composition, and the smokey textures of the period. Dern as always makes the most of an interesting role turning in a subtly intense performance, and Rickman is operating in a particularly intriguing mode, blurring the lines between the romantic lead and devious villain-types he was so often flip flopping between in the late-80s & early-90s period. Murder, Obliquely clocks in at only 27 minutes, but it is a carefully crafted mini-masterpiece of stylish, fatalistic romance that warrants rediscovery.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Walsh & Wind

One thing White Heat tells us: that Walsh would have made a damn fine Val Lewton picture. Specifically in the scene where Virginia Mayo and Steve Cochran are holed up in a big empty house, having just received the news of Cagney's prison escape. Mayo stands poised against the wall and fidgety, eyes darting and ears tuned in anxiously to every harsh, tiny house sound. Thorny editing creates an ambiance of paranoia, sinister radio music hums at a low level, and all of a sudden we are in the middle of a monster movie ("It ain't just like waitin' for some human being who wants to kill you...Cody ain't human!") Mayo retreats to her room, only to bolt up out of bed with terror-filled eyes and make a doomed break for a car parked in the barn, her jaunt through the shadowy, tempestuous yard playing as a mini-version of the famous stroll through the reeds in I Walked With a Zombie. Walsh insists on wind in both audio and visual terms all throughout White Heat, and it is almost always bound to the volatility of Cagney's iconic sociopath Cody Jarrett. Cagney is in fact most menacing in this masterful sequence of suggestive horror, where he's largely absent and yet still very much present, abstracted into wisps of pure mania whipping through the trees.