The Naked City (1948): One Out of Eight Million Stories

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The Naked City begins inauspiciously enough with a flyover of New York and an introduction by producer Mark Hellinger. It seems like we’ve seen this countless times before. It’s almost like a stock image. And yet in the case of this picture, it was really one of the forerunners of a movement.

Here we have one of the first pictures to give us a sense that this is only one story in a whole patchwork of stories. There’s a loose, stream of consciousness to the proceedings as we meet people and overhear their conversations only momentarily as they go along with their daily lives.

But initially, we are introduced to an entire cross-section of people in the dead of night when most are slumbering peacefully at home. Although the street corners, places of business, and entertainment hubs are still bustling. And of course, in other spaces, we have the murder. The topic of interest in this story.

We are afforded the same opportunity to get a view into the lives of our detectives, the bright-eyed veteran Lt. Daniel Muldoon portrayed by everyone’s favorite brogue-voiced leprechaun Barry Fitzgerald. Don Taylor comes on as the fresh-faced cop and family man taken under his wing. This is the picture that made me take note of his earnest talents as a dashing everyman.

Soon they are looking into the tragic death of a beautiful young model, Jean Dexter. Until it comes out there might be more too it than meets the eye. Also, another man’s body is fished out of the drink. For the time being, they are isolated events.

The Naked City is at its best giving this beat-by-beat rundown of the case as it happened. True, it’s a compromised documentation from director Jules Dasson;  it’s not like we’re watching a docudrama. All the same, it proves a fascinating cultural artifact giving us so many authentic pieces of context. It becomes a matter of parsing through the real footage taken on the streets and then actors going through the paces of a Hollywood storyline.

Not only does Mark Hellinger supply a certain ethos to the picture, he actually remains an important piece of the story, adding his own glib commentary in a one-way conversation with the actors who play a part of the case. A more tragic note is the fact the producer and one-time journalist would die before the picture was even released. But his crucial fingerprints on the narrative cannot be disregarded as the case pushes on.

There is Howard Duff as Frank Niles, a man whose reputation begins to falter with every word that comes out of his mouth and every subsequent question he dodges. Corroborating his facts, it becomes apparent he’s lying again and again to the authorities.

Even his fiance (Dorothy Hart), a model who worked with the deceased woman, is oblivious to many of his dubious activities. But certainly, he cannot be the murderer. He has an alibi. There must be another culprit. Muldoon settles on his old friend, “J.P. McGillicuddy,” a convenient placeholder for the unnamed perpetrator they’re trying to smoke out.

The work of a detective is never done as the dead girl’s parents come to identify the body and bemoan the fact their girl went bad after having such a tough childhood. There’s a pursuit of a fugitive down a fire escape that leads through the streets and reaches a dead end when he’s able to shake them aboard the subway. But they’re getting close to something.

Detective Halloran gets the go head to follow a hunch of his own — a long shot that becomes surprisingly relevant to their case — and the legwork leads to an elusive wrestler named Willie Garzah (Ted de Corsia). However, as has a habit of happening, find one lead and a whole slew of others start falling in your lap. Things start happening.

They involve Niles, who of course, has been up to more than he was comfortable divulging. Also implicated are a doctor and Garzah as well. The others know they have been caught red-handed, but what is a police procedural without one final showdown? The chase for Willie Garzah takes off and finally finds him on a bridge climbing for his life as the police flood the area.

The final outcomes are not altogether unexpected but the fact New York plays such a concrete role in this drama greatens its appeal, and it helped develop a tradition, an affection even, for on-location shooting in The Big Apple.

Fittingly, everything is wrapped with those indelible words that would become immortalized on television forever, “There are eight million stories in New York City. This has been one of them.” It really is a producer’s dream for a serialized television show, but in its day it made a darn good crime movie too.

4/5 Stars

Side Street (1950)

 

SideStreetposterThough director Anthony Mann later made a name for himself with a string of Westerns pairing him with James Stewart, it’s just as easy to enjoy him for some of the diverting crime pictures he helped craft. Everything from Raw Deal (1948) to T-Men (1947), He Walked by Night (1948), and of course this little number.

Another simple pleasure gleaned from Side Street is the second teaming of the two young starlets Farley Granger and Cathy O’Donnell who made such an impression together in Nicholas Ray’s sensitive drama They Drive By Night (1948)

We begin this particular picture with a flyover of New York City and the “Voice of God” narration comes off as another installment of The Naked City (1947) because it too takes to the streets, shot on location in the city of a thousand stories with thousands more waiting to happen.

There’s something engrossing in this style of storytelling which takes interest in several seemingly unextraordinary, unconnected individuals and then over the course of less than an hour and a half slowly ties together all the threads of their lives into one cohesive narrative.

There are some calling cards of crime pictures including sleazy extortion, a body fished out of the East River, and the police who are working the beats of the case and trying to keep the frenzy of journalists at bay. Paul Kelly and Charles McGraw head up the police procedural angle.

But the man we come to know the best is unassuming postman Joe Norson (Granger), who becomes extra jumpy after unwittingly stealing thousands of dollars when he thought he only swiped a few bucks to buy his wife a mink coat. He’s just a poor, small, unimportant little man in the scheme of things. An “Average Joe” if you pardon the expression. He’s not supposed to be embroiled in such a story. It’s a bigger can of worms than he could ever imagine and there are consequences.

Other people of interest are wealthy businessmen, crooked lawyers, cabbies, bar owners, bank tellers,  journalists, cops on the verge of retirement, nightclub singers, and at least a few ex-cons, all the usual standard bearers.

Joe’s wife is in the latest stages of her pregnancy and shortly her baby is on the way but her husband has made up a fanciful story about a new out-of-town job that’s loaded him with cash. Of course, she has no idea what’s going on and nor does he. He asks a near stranger, the man who runs the local bar to hold the cash for him. He says it’s a nightgown for his wife.

But Joe’s not a criminal. His guilty conscience is too much for him so he goes back to the office to plead with them to let him return the money. Of course, they have as much right to it as he does. What follows is a cat and mouse chase across the city. First, some thugs tail Joe looking for the $30,000. Then, Joe and ex-convict George Garsell look for the bar owner who has all but disappeared and conveniently the money’s gone too.

As the police are also involved, they want both men, believing they are complicit in different murders that have been committed. Joe has just enough time with his wife to explain his predicament. Still, he got himself into this mess and he holds the belief that he is the only one who can make it right.

What follows is a culmination of all the events thus far as all the character arcs begin to bump up against each other. Namely, Joe, a local nightclub singer (Jean Hagen), and the last man that Joe wanted to see, Garsell himself.

Side Street closes out with a lively car chase near The Third Avenue El that predates many of the revered classics from Bullitt (1968) to The French Connection (1971) years later. The full weight of the title’s meaning, subsequently makes itself increasingly clear as squads of police cars look to close in on the criminal’s getaway taxi. Of course, what makes it compelling is the fact that Joe is right in the thick of it all to the very last avenue…with a loaded gun pointed at his head. Thankfully there are no speed bumps in this one.

3.5/5 Stars

 

Lethal Weapon (1987)

Lethal_weapon1Richard Donner (Superman) has an understanding of the balance of grand spectacle and more subtle moments. The opening aerial shot and the tenuous desert rendezvous with a helicopter churning up sand capture our attention. But it’s the little bits of humor and vulnerability that make the showmanship of Lethal Weapon ultimately worth it. There’s a vibrancy that runs through Shane Black’s script in both the action sequences and character-driven moments.

It’s the quintessential buddy cop action film that in many ways defines the ’80s and that’s because it has a different slant. That’s part of the secret to its success. The main man (Danny Glover) is different and it’s not simply because he’s African-American. His family holds an important place in his life and he’s a genuine person — not an action hero. His partner in crime (Mel Gibson) also has his own deal. We meet Riggs in an abandoned trailer with bedhead, smoking and drinking a beer before he’s even awake. The loss of his wife causes him to contemplate suicide and everyone on the force questions his sanity. But when duty calls these two men are thrown together and out of their initial incompatibility comes mutual respect and genuine fun. As an audience, we enjoy watching them together.

What sets Lethal Weapon apart is how the violence is almost a side thought because what really matters are the characters and their relationships. Friends and family are important. Certainly, there are profane moments but they come in moments of extreme provocation. There’s even gratuitous violence at times but there’s consequence to it, more often than not.

Those in trouble are not simply damsels in distress because most everyone is in the same boat. Martin and Roger both are put in danger, captured and tortured. They don’t just dispense retribution. Their lives and families are put on the line too. However, it’s easy to point out the fact that some characters are killed, most notably in the opening moments, and they feel like mere plot points. For such reasons, the film’s certainly not perfect.

Also, its final moments are admittedly out there. It could be a scene out of Mad Max as Mel Gibson battles in the deluge of a spewing fire hydrant nearly to the death. The question is why, can’t they just arrest the culprit? It’s this scene that allows the character of Riggs to get his desired resolution. In fact, both he and Roger Murtaugh earn a bit of satisfaction as they rise up above the tumult. They are a pair of lethal weapons. But what matters most is that after a hard days work they can get together for a mediocre Christmas dinner. That’s true friendship.

3.5/5 Stars

Insomnia (2002)

Insomnia2002Poster“You and I share a secret. We know how easy it is to kill somebody.” – Robin Williams as Walter Finch

As I come to understand it, calling Christopher Nolan’s film a remake of the Norwegian thriller of the same name starring Stellan Skarsgaard is not exactly fair. As a director with a singular artistic vision of his own, it’s only fair to say his thriller set in the icy outskirts of an Alaskan fishing village is a re-imagining of the material.

His tale follows a jaded sage of an L.A. cop who comes with his partner on a reassignment, but Dormer (Al Pacino) is also running away from something — something that undoubtedly has major repercussions on not only his life but the case he is about to be met with.

Getting acclimated to Nightmute is no easy task. The town is quiet and the local police are nice enough, including Bill’s old buddy and the overly zealous but industrious rookie Ellie Burr (Hilary Swank). To her, the estimable Will Dormer is a legend, the man you only read about in case files, not actually witness in person. She holds that kind of awe for him, but he just takes it in stride as he and his partner Hap (Martin Donovan) go about their business

Worst of all is the perpetual daylight. It’s something we take for granted, but in this story, the sun never truly sets. It’s always there. There’s no relief and, in a sense, it haunts Dormer. He struggles to sleep, he struggles when he is awake, because he hasn’t been able to sleep, and then the title Insomnia begins to make so much sense. It’s perpetuated to the extent that we begin to feel its effects on us as an audience. The story wears us down, making us into jaded individuals like Dormer (strikingly close to Dormir) and the fact that Al Pacino half-whispers his dialogue with his methodical delivery only aggravates the situation. Our vision is clouded just as much as his.

Set pieces are relatively few, but they are used to great effect. The ones that come to mind are a chase that ensues in the thick Alaskan fog, where the pursuer all too quickly becomes the helpless victim, the paranoia leading to a lapse of judgment. Another equally gripping chase sequence takes place over floating logs and that’s the first time we actually catch a glimpse of  Walter Finch (Robin Williams).

Otherwise, Insomnia is all about the mind games, as fatigue sets in and Dormer must reconcile all he knows and does. Maybe his lapse of judgment was really his innate desire, but the dividing lines are blurring.

Moral ambiguity becomes of great interest because in some ways our main players really are not all that different. Dormer has sidestepped protocol in order for his brand of justice can be enacted — the justice he thinks the people want. And he may be right, but there are consequences for any act and he quickly learns what that means for him.

By the end, we hardly know who is in the right and I think Dormer is as confused as us — or otherwise, he’s just too exhausted by this point to care either way. Robin Williams gives a surprisingly chilling and generally subdued performance. He is our villain in the general sense, but his villain looks suspiciously like a twisted, sick little man. Perhaps a far scarier reality.

Insomnia is the story of Will Dormer and Walter Finch getting twisted up in knots, and in both cases, each man loses a little more of their sanity. It’s in the film’s climactic moments that Ellie must make a choice, and Will implores her to make the right one. She’s the purest, most innocent character in this narrative, and if she falters then there is little hope. But Will succeeds in protecting the last shred of decency that still exists. A small victory, given his circumstances, but a victory nonetheless.

4/5 Stars

Hot Fuzz (2007)

220px-HotFuzzUKposterWhen we go to see the latest action movie are we consciously thinking about what we are ingesting, what the motives of the characters are, or even the film’s title? More often than not the answer is no, because we want to be entertained, like Romans attending gladiator battles. We want thrills above content, without considering what we are being fed. In the line of these types of films are Lethal Weapon, Point Break, and now Britain’s addition Hot Fuzz.

It’s the story of probably, the most industrious, skilled, highly-trained policeman you could imagine. His name is Nick Angel (Simon Pegg) and he’s a butt-kicking, paperwork-completing sergeant, who is making the rest of the force look bad. He has the potential to be a great action hero. Enter in Martin Freeman, Steve Coogan, and Bill Nighy, and they agree to reassign him to the sleepy of village of Sanford, and all his dreams are kaput. Ambition will lead him nowhere in such a town, and it feels more like Mayberry than the locale for a great action flick.

But being as diligent as he is, Angel makes strides even before he starts his first day. Among one of his arrests at the local pub is fellow police officer Danny Butterman (Nick Frost), who also happens to be the son of the police inspector. It’s rather a strange introduction, but of course, the two of them are partners. Nick simply tries to tolerate all those around him, but it proves difficult, and he’s a little taken aback by the geniality of the locals. They all seem to know his name.

However, when a string of grisly murders takes place successively around town, Angel has what he wants, something to investigate. Again, everyone around him says it’s all been a line of unpleasant accidents. They aren’t willing to face the reality that their sleepy little town might have a murderer on the loose.

As you might expect Angel and Buttermann actually begin to build some rapport despite how different they are. However, Hot Fuzz also has a major twist that frames this entire story in a different light. And although the film does exhibit its share of violence, it also has a wickedly funny streak running through it. At times that means laugh-out-loud antics, courtesy of Nick Frost, or maybe uneasy giggles when someone bites the dust in an outrageous manner.

Edgar Wright’s film is also noticeable for its rapid editing, involving quick cuts, flying transitions, and slicing and dicing. It keeps the story at breakneck speed and yet there is a great pathos built around its characters. We actually begin to care for Nick and Danny, which is often not the case in superficial action flicks. But that’s just it. Hot Fuzz is a satirical homage to all the cop/buddy movies out there and it has its share of action, and yet there’s more to it. In other words, action films are not just skin deep. Hot Fuzz proves that resoundingly. It’s a throwaway title maybe, but not a throwaway film.

4/5 Stars

Zootopia (2016)

ZootopiaDisney has scored again. On almost all accounts Zootopia is grade-A family entertainment. To address the elephant in the room, the film is rather formulaic in its hero’s journey and at times it feels like we are attempting to systematically check off all the necessary moments in the rise, fall, and redemption of our spunky heroine. However, there are moments of wit and grace that begin to slowly grab hold of us an audience. It, in turn, becomes ceaselessly inventive with this metropolis of anthropomorphic animals, whether it is the rhythms of daily life or the social issues present that look strangely familiar.

In truth, it works as a thinly-veiled parable for mankind in our present condition. The lines are not black and white, but predator and prey. True, there are differences and they give way to pernicious spells of racism or more aptly in this context, “specism,” but there is room for understanding and symbiosis, to use an ecological term. We could go back and forth for a long time about the actual mechanisms and minutiae of evolution and whether it makes sense or not, but the bottom line is that humans and animals have a lot in common.

Zootopia playfully makes that blatantly clear, and within all the subtle ribbing, it does have a broader message which is true of all great pieces of family-oriented animation. Movies have the ability to allow us to more fully understand the world we live in and that applies to children as well–in fact, they are even more malleable.

There are various other reviews alluding to Animal Farm, In the Heat of the Night, and Who Framed Roger Rabbit. All are interesting touchstones for this film, but obviously, all comparisons falter at some point. For me, Zootopia has surprisingly interesting social undertones to its drama that try to make sense of these things even for young viewers. That’s no small feat and perhaps even more praiseworthy it delivers it in a delectable story that follows in the footsteps of the best buddy films and police procedurals. It’s all wrapped up in the encapsulating animation of Disney that at points feels overwhelming, but the characters of Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin), Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman), and even the likes of Clawhauser give it winsome charm.

Everything from Sloths at the DMV to a raspy Godfather possum is on point, and the film continues with a stream of gags. However, we are always being drawn back to the journey of Officer Hopps as she tries to prove herself and solve the mystery behind the 14 missing animals. But if this was only her journey it wouldn’t be all that interesting. Thank goodness she has a buddy to cross her will, make her stop and think, and ultimately stand by her when the world isn’t a utopia anymore. I’m not sure what I think about Shakira’s presence in the film, but I’ll let it slide this once.

4/5 Stars

Review: The Silence of the Lambs (1991)

silenceof1The Silence Lamb is a horror film at times, a thriller at others, and most definitely a character study in its entirety. It features two wonderfully different figures in budding young FBI agent-to-be Clarice Starling and incarcerated serial killer Hannibal Lecter played so impeccably by Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins respectively.

It begins as a hunt for a serial killer named Buffalo Bill (Ted Levine), who for some reason kidnaps his victims, kills them, and skins them like some kind of perverse trophy. This in itself makes for an interesting albeit grisly storyline. The race is on to find this man before he murders his latest victim who happens to be the daughter of a prominent senator. Thus, there is an immediate need to get inside his head and figure out what the next logical steps should be. That’s when Agent Jack Crawford (Scott Glenn) of the Behavioral Science Unit calls on Starling to help him out.

The narrative of Silence of the Lambs is twofold because this larger manhunt becomes the backdrop for an arguably far more interesting development. The initial meeting and budding relationship, if we can call it that, between agent Starling and cannibalistic psychopath Dr. Lecter is deliciously intriguing. He just might be the key to unlock this case, but it’s not without peril.

silenceof2As the saying goes, “Quid pro quo.” Lecter is rather intrigued by Starling, so different and far franker than any of the other people who get thrown his direction. So he agrees to help her only asking in return that she open up about herself. It seems like a dangerous proposition with Lecter constantly playing mind games. He’s skilled at probing, dissecting, teasing, and prodding. But Starling willingly goes through his questioning to get help with the case. After all, who better to catch a serial killer than another serial killer?

They touch on the death of Starling’s father, a town Marshall, and her horror in seeing the slaughter of newborn lambs. In return, he tells her that all the information she needs is in the case files. But antagonistic Dr. Chilton is more a hindrance than a help to Starling’s case, and she must figure out the rest on her own.

Going through the files she finally makes some headway in her search for Buffalo Bill, but an FBI tactical unit already has sights on his location. Then there’s a surprising about-face in the case, not to mention that Lecter escapes his cell, kills his guards and is on the lam. Starling is not in danger from him, but he is looking to have an old friend for dinner instead.

Ultimately the plucky young agent comes through big in her case and in the academy. The film ends on a high note for her, but with it comes a titillating call from Dr. Lecter. He pays his respects for her recent graduation then goes off after his newest victim. Such a conscientious killer to offer up his congratulations like that.

How does one go about playing a man so evil and yet intricately interesting on so many levels? Hopkins said himself that he copied a friend who never blinked because it always makes people on edge. He likened his voice to an amalgamation of Katharine Hepburn and Truman Capote if that even makes sense. Finally, he saw parallels to another famed movie villain, the computer HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey.  Both so intelligent, so unfeeling and ultimately so deadly. What might put Lecter a trifle above HAL are his chilling unflinching facial expressions that are sure to send shivers down the spine of any normal person. A face like that just doesn’t leave you.

4.5/5 Stars

Review: The French Connection (1971)

frenchcon5There is a pervading gritty realism to William Friedkin’s French Connection that undoubtedly took some cues from the French New Wave and the Neorealist movements. Hand-held cameras are taken to the streets of New York and to the train terminals. There is literally trash piling up in the gutters, old dilapidated bathroom stalls, and worn out facades all over the city. It’s urban, depressed, and a place of crime. In many ways this film is like Bullitt for New York, in fact, Steve McQueen was even offered the lead.

However, this time around our main cop is Popeye Doyle (played by Gene Hackman) and his partner Cloudy Russo (Roy Scheider). Both play a key role, but Popeye (the man with the hat) is of the greater interest. He’s a wise guy, belligerent, barking, loud-mouthed hot head, often driven by obsession in his job. He also happens to be an undercover cop in the narcotics division. He’s used to getting dirty and using the rough stuff when necessary. After all, it’s a jungle out there and there’s no room for pushovers.

From the get-go, we come to understand that this story has a French Connection, in Marseilles to be exact, and we know who is involved (Fernando Rey). We just cannot quite pick out all the details. Simultaneously, on a hunch, Doyle and Russo start running surveillance on a guy they happen upon in a club. Things don’t quite add up since he runs a deli called Sal and Angie’s by day and lives it up at night. An undercover informant also tips Popeye off to a big shipment of heroin that’s coming in.

frenchcon9Sal Boca has to be into something and so a game of tailing begins on the streets after he and his French contacts are spotted together. Frog 1 named Charnier (Rey) has Popeye on his tail only to shake him adeptly. That’s only the beginning, however, after a sniper comes after Popeye and yet another chase ensues. The fugitive boards a train and Doyle commandeers a car to follow close behind. Thus, was born one of the greatest car chases of all time and it doesn’t even involve two cars. After the adrenaline of that moment has worn off Doyle and Russo are on another stakeout and this time impound a car belonging to frog # 2 Henri Devereaux. Popeye has a gut feeling that the vehicle’s dirty and they literally tear it apart end to end, with little luck. But he’s a force of nature and very little will get in the way of his obstinate drive.

frenchcon11When the drop finally takes place everything goes off smoothly enough, but there’s a roadblock, and Popeye is waiting for them with a playful wave. He’s got them now. The final roundup leads him into an old warehouse as the hunt continues, but The French Connection finishes open-ended. Sal was gunned down, the meeting was busted, but not everyone was caught, and Charnier seems to have vanished into thin air. To top it off, Doyle shoots the wrong man and without flinching continues his obsessive hunt.

Friedkin’s film was partially based on true events from the 1960s and the two men the story was patterned after actually are featured as the boys’ superior Walt Simonson (Eddie Egan) and federal agent Bill Mulderig (Bill Hickman), who has a longstanding dislike for Doyle. Their presence in the production of this film helps to lend to the realism and nuances that the film is able to take on. The score isn’t all that noticeable, but it’s a tense arrangement that adds some underlining anxiety to some scenes. Stakeouts get more interesting than you would ever give them credit for. Really on the simplest level, this film is about one man’s hunt, his obsessive chase, which at times no longer seems about justice at all, but personal vindication.

4.5/5 Stars

Call Northside 777 (1948)

callnorth1It’s not really noir and it’s hardly a procedural. After all, it’s not from the point of view of the cops, but an intrepid investigative journalist who is looking to clear a man’s name after 12 years. Henry Hathaway’s film has the feel of a docudrama much in the same vein as it’s post-war contemporaries T-Men and The Naked City.

It’s methodical. It goes through the paces. Setting up the story by first going back to the prohibition era in 1932. That was the year that the unassuming Frank Wiecek (Richard Conte) was sentenced to a 99-year sentence thanks to some eyewitness testimony.

Years later the story catches the attention of a newspaper thanks to an odd ad in a paper offering a $5,000 reward for answers. The editor of the Chicago Times (Lee J Cobb) thinks there’s a story behind it and that sends his ace bloodhound P.J. McNeal (James Stewart) out to dig around for answers. Others have sympathy for Wiecek, but McNeal comes into the story as a skeptic. He’s just looking for an angle, a way to spin it to get a good story. But after testimony, lie detector tests, and bits and pieces of information he begins to change his tune.

However, the puzzle pieces just aren’t fitting together completely and he even begins searching around the Polish sector for the key witness Wanda Skutnik, but the state attorney’s office is putting pressure on him. In the end, it ends up being technology, in the form of blowing up a picture, that is able to set Wiecek free and it’s all thanks to McNeal.

Obviously, the main reason to watch this film is Stewart because this film feels strangely different than anything else he ever did. After the war, he was done with the idealism of Jefferson Smith and later on he would devote himself to westerns and thrillers steeped in psychology. Call Northside 777 is a rather straightforward film, about cold hard facts, and the truth. Almost like an episode of Dragnet with Stewart’s reporter standing in for Joe Friday. His dynamic with Helen Walker feels genuine and real so it’s a shame that his home life did not play more of a role. Richard Conte also does a good job at exuding innocence (very different from his role in The Big Combo). Aside from an understated role from Cobb, we also have E.G. Marshall, and we even see Thelma Ritter for a brief moment.

3.5/5 Stars

The Crimson Kimono: An Analysis of Noir Realism and Race (2015)

crimsonk1What makes Film-Noir intriguing is not simply the crime aspect but the fact that they are films with worldviews that are often weighed down by cynicism. Film-Noir depicts the harsh realities of human nature that few other films would ever dare to acknowledge onscreen. People are broken at their core; continually led to their own devices whether it’s greed or their own personal insecurities. These films give us a fascinating microscope by which to examine all the pain and prejudices that abound within the human condition.  Samuel Fuller’s The Crimson Kimono (1959) shares some of these qualities, acting as a realistic procedural that employs cinematography and setting to say something about the world we live in. Furthermore, it has a remarkable stance on race relations, specifically for Japanese-Americans, that was ahead of its time and has hardly ever been matched.

Through an analysis of The Crimson Kimono it becomes obvious that it is a striking film in the noir tradition, blessed with an urban realism that brings 1950s Los Angeles to life for us. As Samuel Fuller himself points out, “The thing that is most noir about Crimson Kimono…is how [he] shot it.” He was “in Little Tokyo and lots of other actual locations downtown, with cameras hiding in trucks, shooting at night with fast film because [he] could not put out lights” and as a result, the film has “a hard, gritty realistic look” (Film Noir Reader 3). When the action heads to the streets and hooker Sugar Torch is fleeing from an unseen assailant, it definitely has the gritty, atmospheric realism that Fuller was alluding to. This is a real place where we could be. These will be the same streets that Joe and Charlie will soon be hitting on their beat. Ironically, when Fuller shot the scene live he noted that he didn’t really “get much dramatic reaction.” Despite the fact that “An almost naked, six-foot-tall blonde is running for her life down the street,” nobody seemed to care and nobody looked (Film Noir Reader 3). That is the world of Los Angeles, full of indifferent masses that could care less whether something looks real or is real. It makes no difference to them because it fails to affect their existence. It is a dismal worldview, very representative of noir, but the odd thing is that Charlie and Joe are not like this at first. They are heroic, honest individuals with the duty of weighing through this noir world as part of their vocation. Thus, they oblige out of necessity and only then does it get to them. Even so, there is an argument that it is not the world, but their personal hang-ups that tear them apart.

Their investigation leads them to “Little Tokyo,” which becomes an integral locale within the context of the film and Fuller uses it effectively. For instance, in one scene Joe walks the streets with a Mr. Yoshinaga after meeting him at a cemetery. It’s a highly mundane moment and yet Fuller still manages to make it interesting. It is also less austere than the earlier scene of Sugar’s murder since banners are flying and locals are milling about the storefronts. That’s why it becomes an interesting setting for a chase sequence, taking the everyday environment and turning it into a point of drama. It reinforces the fact that Fuller seems to be more interested in the realism of common incidences compared to high drama. It’s almost as if he’s a journalist again trying to get a juicy feature story. It’s ordinary, real and it meets people where they are at.

One of the most significant moments occurs later on during the kendo match where Joe and Charlie are supposed to face off as part of the Nisei Week Festival. It’s a big deal and flyers are plastered all over the town so people will turn out for the event. Within the context of the film, it matters on several levels. The fact that Charlie is Joe’s equal suggests that martial arts are not just stereotypically Asian, but they can be universal. Perhaps most importantly their bout reveals the descent of Joe into utter resentment because he disregards all the traditions of Kendo and begins to go after his friend with a vengeance. It’s the turning point that Charlie cannot forgive Joe for and for good reason. The sequence plays out as quick cuts between masked faces, swords, dancing feet, and exuberant onlookers. Practically before we know what has happened Joe begins beating Charlie over the head and lays him out. It is such a rapid about-face that is underlined by Joe’s own insecurities, which we will get to delve into later.

The culmination of the film occurs during the festivities, with music, dancing, banners, lanterns, and girls in kimonos. It seems fitting that Fuller’s entire story leads us to this point at such a public place full of your usual bystanders. It’s theatrical while still maintaining a sense of the real world. Here again, we have a third chase scene except this time Fuller does something especially interesting with the music. During the pursuit there is a symphony of conflicting tunes going on between the bands: “One plays classic music, one plays Japanese music, one plays hot music, and so on. Whenever [Fuller] cut from the killer to the pursuer, the music changed. That gave [him] the discordant and chaotic note” that was desired (The Director’s Event). It seems like such a simple detail and yet it truly is clever in conception, because it adds another layer of realism to the scene while simultaneously utilizing diegetic sound for dramatic effect. It could be implied that the music also reflects Joe and Charlie’s own feelings of confusion and friction, which injured their friendship and Charlie’s ego. It’s ultimately Joe who has to parse through all the noise and commotion ultimately finding the truth. It’s no small coincidence that once again we find ourselves on the urban streets at night just like when Sugar Torch was gunned down. Fuller parallels that earlier scene and yet so much has changed. This time around there is a hint of hope, but a sour taste is still left in the mouth. It suggests that you cannot fully escape the darkness and anxieties that seem to engulf us because this world can never truly have a perfect ending.

Fuller’s film crimsonk2has murder attempts, gunshots, fist fights, etc. However, he knows how to simplify scenes getting only the necessary elements out of them. When Sugar Torch crumples to the ground we hear the shot and that’s all we need. When an attempt is taken on Chris’s life we see the gun pointed ominously and again we hear the shot but that’s all. There’s a cut to a new scene and Fuller gives us all the details we need to know.  In a sense, it’s about an economy of images that allow this film to be short, at only 78 minutes, and still, pack a punch. It definitely was out of necessity that Fuller did many of these things which would have saved time and money, but it also undoubtedly caused him to come up with creative solutions. The Crimson Kimono like many of Fuller’s films is hardly sleek or polished and that is part of the allure. It is the opposite of typical Hollywood and it fits film-noir so beautifully. It has the same harshness as one of Fuller’s other works Pickup on South Street (1953). What it lacks in a femme fatale or Cold War sentiment, The Crimson Kimono makes up for in how it tackles romance and the job of a policeman with a subtle touch. For this reason, it may be less of a film-noir than Pickup and perhaps a lesser film, but there is still power in its story and the racial lines that it willfully challenged. It also seems necessary to acknowledge a bit of Samuel Fuller’s background, because it further influenced his filmmaking. He came from a Jewish family in New York and dropped out of school to write for a newspaper along with penning pulp fiction novels. He served during WWII and when he came back he began a storied career as a writer and director of frequently subversive “B pictures.” His versatility is especially remarkable, cycling through all types of films from westerns, to crime films to war dramas, elevating them above “B” quality. Part of the reason is that he never gave into conventions and his genuine depictions of race in films like The Steel Helmet (1951), Run the Arrow (1957) and The Crimson Kimono were ahead of their time.

crimsonk3The Crimson Kimono is an extraordinary film historically because it depicts something that we very rarely see, especially for 1959. The late, great actor James Shigeta portrayed the straight-laced policeman and former Korean War hero named Joe Kojaku. He’s a sympathetic figure and hardly a caricature. His best friend is the Caucasian Charlie Bancroft (Glenn Corbett), who is on the LAPD with Joe and a war buddy. They are inseparable and they share a flat. Above all, the most amazing thing is that Joe gets the girl over his friend! That might be a small victory, but I have seen a lot of films to know that the Asian guy never gets the girl, especially if she is Caucasian. Sam Fuller subverts the norm and it is a major statement on interracial romance in an age when many would have scoffed at it. However, Fuller also takes immense care to look at both sides of the equation, and he allows both men the benefit of the doubt. Joe must figure out his own identity even acknowledging, “I was born here. I’m American but what am I? Japanese, Japanese American, Nisei? What label do I live under?” The question is not an easy one and it is one that he struggles with over the course of the entire film, navigating his feelings towards Charlie and then the beautiful artist Chris (Victoria Shaw).

The-crimson-kimono-1959_posterRegrettably, posters for this film were highly shallow and sensational reflecting the age with taglines like “Yes, this is a beautiful American girl in the arms of a Japanese boy!” or “What was his strange appeal for American girls?” It places this character in the typical category of an exotic lover. He’s not a real man, only an enticing mysterious foreigner with strange appeal. Likewise, the title Crimson Kimono itself brings to mind oriental exoticism involving strange dress and foreign culture. This could have just as easily been a dated film of yellowface and Asian stereotypes, but it’s superfluous to judge this film by its posters and title alone. When you actually watch Fuller’s work these are not the focal points at all. As Fuller later said himself, “The whole idea of [his] picture is that both men are good cops and good citizens. The girl just happens to fall in love with the Nisei. They’ve got chemistry” (A Third Face). Chris likes Joe because he is a genuine hero, not because the other man is not. Joe is sweet and shares a love of art (piano and painting) like her. She could care less that he’s Asian just like Charlie could care less. Those are the kind of people they are.

Fuller’s depiction goes both ways, however, because while he never sells Kojaku short, he also suggests that Joe might be part of the problem. Fuller notes that he “was trying to make an unconventional triangular love story, laced with reverse racism, a kind of narrow-mindedness that is just as deplorable as outright bigotry. [He] wanted to show that whites aren’t the only ones susceptible to racist thoughts” (A Third Face). This ends up happening with Joe since he gets so caught up in prejudice, his own prejudice, that it wrecks his relationships with his friend. Charlie is not angry because Joe, an Asian, stole his girl. Charlie is understandably irritated because his best friend took the girl who he really liked without telling Charlie his true feelings. Joe makes the mistake of attributing this to a question of race, but Charlie, like Fuller, is not that shallow. His reaction is purely a human reaction that develops in any romance when two men who are equals go after one girl and only one can come out on top. It hurts no matter what race, color or creed they are. That’s just the reality and that’s the lesson that Joe does not understand at first. He seems to care too much about the race question and potentially even his identity. It ultimately damages his relationship with Charlie and we cannot know for sure if it will ever be repaired, even if we would like them to patch things up. Thus, Fuller combats racism from both angles, including minorities who might take on the role of a victim too quickly. Because the reality is, issues of race almost always get blown way out of proportion with both sides being hypersensitive. Fuller seems to have the right handle on the situation, not stooping to unwarranted stereotypes and not heaping all the blame on the majority. Sometimes everybody is at fault at least a little bit. That’s simply how life is and that’s how it gets depicted in The Crimson Kimono, with a sensitive, albeit, realistic touch. Furthermore, one could argue that it is a typical noir ending because although Joe still gets the girl it came at a steep cost.

crimsonk4The Crimson Kimono is riveting from the beginning because it is such a groundbreaking and rare piece of film history. It presented on film something that we never see or very rarely see: a relationship between an Asian man and Caucasian woman. In the hands of Samuel Fuller, this unique but still mundane tale is kept thoroughly engaging. He infused his screenplay with visuals of Los Angeles and realism that makes his characters all the more believable. His camera is able to take the everyday and make it dramatic while we continue to invest in these people. It seems fitting to end the discussion with a quote from the man himself. He affirmed that “One film never really gives me complete satisfaction. Nor should it. All creative people must learn how to deal with the imperfect and the incomplete. There is no end in art. Every accomplishment is the dawn of the next challenge.” That’s what makes the films of Samuel Fuller meaningful. No one film can ever have everything. The Crimson Kimono does not have every answer on race and it certainly does not have every convention of film-noir. It’s imperfect, but it is a jumping off point for future endeavors and dialogue.