Violent Saturday (1955)

“It’s so stupid and pointless to be alive in the morning and dead in the afternoon.”

There’s a lovely contradiction in crafting a De Luxe noir in Cinemascope. It’s visually luscious and still shot on the kind of cheapo budget Richard Fleischer was able to make sing early in his career. This fits its ambitions as a bit of a genre hybrid.

The town of Bradenville is butted up against the mountains with a prominent mining industry. They also happen to represent everything that’s good and decent about an American town in the 1950s. Stephen McNally appears to be one of their ilk, just returned to town on business by bus. He chats up the desk clerk at the hotel and settles into his room.

However, anyone with any familiarity with McNally, knows he must have an angle. True to form, he will shortly be joined by two accomplices as they plan out their robbery of the local bank. The train goes hurtling down the tracks toward town with Lee Marvin and J. Carroll Naish.

It’s a visual cue that feels rather reminiscent of Bad Day at Black Rock, and in some general sense, the comparison is not too far off base. For one, we have the return of both Marvin and Ernest Borgnine. The former is a sickly thug in gray, who doesn’t go anywhere without his inhaler, while still burning with that typical sadism. Borgnine, for his part, has a rather twee role as the patriarch of an Amish family. It’s true the crucial element of the plot revolves around these three criminals convening in the hotel to case the local bank and lay out their plans to break in.

However, there’s also this sprawling, rather unnerving gravitas to the whole scenario. The story introduces a number of key figures throughout the town, and it does a fine job of building out the world from there to make it feel alive and expansive beyond just a handful of main players.

Bespectacled Mr. Reeves at the bank (Tommy Noonan) holds down a reliable job. Like much of the local male population, Nurse Linda Sherman (Virginia Leith) has his heart all aflutter. It doesn’t matter much what she’s doing. Sylvia Sidney is a librarian who has fallen on hard times with the bank threatening her with punitive action.

Victor Mature is a family man who helps run the copper mines alongside the company manager (Richard Egan), who has a troubled marriage. He spends more time with a bottle than with his wife. She in turn can be found on the golf course with a dashing gigolo (Brad Dexter). It seems ridiculously easy for such a patchwork to feel convoluted and yet it rarely loses itself.

Because the pieces always feel attached and deeply entwined in the town’s buried indiscretions. And I’m not just speaking of the clandestine heist. You have the moment when a thief and a peeping tom out walking his dog meet on the street late at night outing one another.

In another scene, the local siren and the equally alluring wife have it out over the man who now lies in sleepy inebriation on the couch of his gorgeous mansion. These mini-conflicts aren’t the point of the movie in so many terms, but they leave an impression adding up to a kind of tableau that’s ripe with all sorts of sordid bits of drama. It’s a world where children get into fights in the streets and small-town love feels tainted.

In one of its most sublime moments it takes a drugstore, that beacon of Middle America you often see represented in pictures like The Best Years of Our Lives and It’s a Wonderful Life. They’re a local watering hole of sorts and in this film, it serves to tie all the movie’s various strands together in one moment of choreographed synthesis.

From thenceforward we see it all unfold. The tension is a bit like watching all the plates spinning and not wanting them to fall while at the same time realizing a bank robbery is about to take place. The moment arrives and it gives off all the alarms. However, there are other moments built into it. Take how one of the bank robbers — the bookish one — hands a feisty kid a piece of candy, and it quiets him down. He performed the same act on a train with a group of Amish. These are the types of touches allowing you to recognize the humanity and something beyond the mere cookie-cutter objectives of a movie script.

It’s a horrible thing to realize lives we’ve come to understand if not totally appreciate are not sacred. They too can be snuffed out like any of us. Nor does it desist with the violence. In its day, it was probably deemed graphic. Whether or not that remains entirely true now, Violent Saturday is another one of the old movies that actually lives up to its name as much as can be expected.

Victor Mature and the meek Amish patriarch played by Borgnine must hold their own against the three bank robbers after being locked away in a barn silo. In a different time and place, they might throw out the key that the bandits needed and then they would go their separate ways. However, the very sinews of the characters whether its their religious sentiments or moral fibers, make it imperative that they stand up against this evil even if it’s not the devil himself and only a group of man overtaken by avarice and human corruption. In some small way, they redeem or at least preserve the American ideal. They are projected as heroes to the awe of the neighborhood kids.

The only perceivable letdown with the picture might be the way it wraps up. In some sense, it gives us more than we need in terms of denouement. In others, it leaves us guessing, but even in this, there’s something apropos about the movie sinking back into this status quo of post-war America. It gives the illusion of everything being patched back together like all those folks in the hospital, but you never know what future threats will present themselves. Until then, some men get to live as heroes and others have to grieve irreplaceable losses. It doesn’t seem fair.

4/5 Stars

Street Scene (1931): King Vidor and Sylvia Sidney

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Film at its finest is able to use images to leave an indelible impression on an audience. King Vidor’s Street Scene opens with a telling montage. Kids being sprayed by a hose in a street. A slab of ice being carried off by a worker. A man swatting gnats away from his horse. A dog sprawled out on the pavement. There’s more, but we already get the idea: it’s a blisteringly hot day in a New York neighborhood.

The foreknowledge that this is a stage-bound studio street corner makes the “scene” no less engaging. There would be later pictures to channel the same intimacy and sense of a world — some of the Warner Bros. Cagney pictures or Dead End spring to mind. However, here we also get a sense of a myriad of voices — even immigrant stories — and plenty of people chewing the fat all across the city.

While it’s faux reality, it does feel like a wonderful piece of world-building. We get to know the whole row of people for minutes at a time. What Vidor has done is pluck out a moment in time for us to just sit in and relish. People shuffle by in and out of frame, down the sidewalk, poking heads out of second-story windows, or lounging on the front steps.

Beulah Bondi, in her debut (God bless her soul), is one of the first we get to know. When she’s not out walking her dog or bemoaning the weather, she’s gossipin’ about other folks. Namely, Mrs. Marraunt (Estelle Taylor), who is rumored to have a male suitor. She’s married of course. The busybodies love to titter on about this juicy piece of scandal. They fail to recognize how lonely she is with a husband (David Landau) who is totally absent from her life.

Sylvia Sidney doesn’t show up until 20 minutes into the movie although she could be considered the star of the picture. Recently, she’s been accompanying a local boss (Walter Miller) who has the hots for her. It’s possible he can get her out of her humble community. It’s not the nicest place. Her father is the same absent, aloof breadwinner and her mother is constantly agitated and beside herself with nerves. Their home life is hardly stable, and it’s quite public given the close-knit existence with folks window to window in the tenement.

In one of the intermittent visual montages, Vidor captures daily life in the community adding some lovely touches you couldn’t get any other way. With the very focused framework of this individual housing complex, the story builds out from here, layering in the moments on top of one another.

When Sidney asks her Jewish neighbor and childhood friend Sam (William Collier Jr.) how you’re supposed to act in the synagogue — she has a funeral to go to — the very pointed question feels genuine.  She’s hardly interrogating him. Instead, she’s curious and surprised he has no spiritual beliefs.

All his knowledge and truth come out of the many books he consumes. She holds the sentiment “You gotta believe in something to be a little happy.” We hear little more about such matters but the hope might as well color her entire outlook on life even in the midst of tragedy. Their Romeo and Juliet friendship feels like a minor caveat underlying entirely different familial issues.

In one particular scene, Vidor instantly mobilizes what feels like the whole mass of humanity to overwhelm the movie. At its apex, New York comes alive. In fact, a moment must be taken to make a stunning acknowledgment. There’s an uncanny resemblance to Spike Lee’s incisive tour de force Do The Right Thing.

Surely as such a prominent cinephile, Spike Lee has seen the picture or somehow imbibed it. The cursory similarities begin with the heatwave and the cross-section of humanity, and then come down to the same inherent eye for human drama as well as intercultural relationships. Both directors feel fully engaged even immersed in their worlds.

For his part, King Vidor intuitively understands the material coaxing a great deal more depth out of it than what initially meets the eye. Part of what differentiates this picture is its lead. Sidney is the picture of stoic beauty going on bravely in the face of unimaginable tragedy. There’s a strength and assurance present in her being but also a quiet dignity. We watch her actions and responses and each and everyone feels enriched with candor.

It’s the contemporary world distilled into a moment — the street bustling with people of all sorts of backgrounds, beliefs, and fears. The picture is 90 years old, and yet I look at it rather incredulously. Not because of what doesn’t translate, but because so much still resonates within its frames.

There are gossips, lonely people, bullies, and young dreamers trying to figure out what to do with their lives. The world is still made up of all sorts, and when we’re thrown together, we very rarely agree. We have to learn how to live with one another each and every day. Sometimes we fail miserably.

In its closing moments, the world returns to the same shorthand of children playing in the street. Sidney walks off determined to move forward with her life by getting away from the street that has represented her entire existence thus far.

At the same time, it has so many memories attached to it and also instigated the greatest traumas she’s ever had to endure. For such a short, stagy endeavor, Street Scene is deceptively rendered. Vidor somehow makes it chockful of what can only be described as human pathos. From the days of The Crowd, he still gets it and puts it to good use. Sidney does the rest.

Alfred Newman’s theme would take on a life of its own as a motif recurring again and again in numerous of the studio’s movies.  Here it plays almost as ironic counterpoint. A straightforward score would have brimmed with some kind of dramatic crescendo. Newman’s work, which I have heard referred to as Gershwinesque, is far more playful. I would stop short of saying it’s unfitting. More so, it accentuates a different kind of tone altogether.

3.5/5 Stars

Merrily We Go to Hell (1932): Directed by Dorothy Arzner

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Bubbly is flowing and the gaiety abounds. Alcohol is not an evil, just a tonic to loosen morals, tongues, and dour countenances. When Joan Prentice encounters Jerry Corbett for the first time at a party, she’s immediately taken with him. He’s a few drinks in and has let the merriment overtake him. It comes off charming if a bit dopey.

Merrily We Go to Hell feels like a provocative title, and it’s true this alcohol-drenched drama is a predecessor to the likes of The Lost Weekend and Days of Wine and Roses.

Sylvia Sidney is about as winsomely sweet as she ever was and ever could be playing a socialite at a party. Frederic March has momentary glimpses of warmth and allure, though it’s hardly his finest hour on the screen. However, it is a testament to how phenomenal his career was at points, and even a picture like this seems to suggest how often he is an underappreciated star of Classic Holldywood.

There’s also a third far more surprising presence in the movie filling what might be considered a minor bit part. Cary Grant is all there, but it’s a bit like seeing John Wayne in Baby Face or James Stewart in Wife vs. Secretary. We’re there but not quite there when it comes to their career trajectory. He still needed to meet Mae West and then Leo McCarey to really get the wheels rolling, thus entering the stratosphere of quintessential screwball suavity.

As it settles in, Dorothy Arzner’s picture is all for hitting the journalistic beats contemporary to the day and age. It’s a perfect arena for modern, capitalistic America. An arena of vocation, class, and in this case, alcohol. One easily recalls Platinum Blonde though March, despite all his able acting prowess somehow cannot muster the same fitting charisma Robert Williams managed as a newshound. The former performer lent almost a screwball sensibility to Frank Capra’s picture.

It’s the same kind of affable charm that made Jack Lemmon so effective even as he dipped into similar depths of hell in Days of Wine and Roses. But back to Platinum Blonde. It’s hard not to see the earlier movie’s imprint being reworked within this material (even unconsciously) with less handsome results. Because some of the same dynamics are present. We have a lead infatuated by a platinum blonde (Adrienne Allen) and then opposite him is the endearing “other girl” we know full well will actually win out his heart. At least, in theory.

And if that isn’t enough, both newsmen dabble in playwriting, suggesting the menial pavement-pounding, all for the sake of making a buck, giving way to a higher calling of art and patronage. It handily reflects rungs in the social ladder to mirror contemporary society, as the film’s of the Depression-era all have a habit of doing. Obviously, they can’t help it. This is their world.

However, in Merrily We Go To Hell, playwriting holds a more substantial role aside from being a narrative device for the sake of parallelism. It brings Jerry Corbett the highs and lows of such a career while throwing him back together with his former flame, the glamorous thespian Claire Hempstead. The scenario feels rudimentary and mediocre going through these typical dramatic progressions.

Before it becomes complicated, the film is a basic love story of the lowly working stiff smitten with the heiress, although not for money’s sake. As it predictably dips into drunken stupors, strained relations, and infidelity, the film actually loses some ground. Corbett rounds up his chums, partakes of some merriment, and resigns himself to the platinum blonde rival. In an act of preservation more than rebellion, his wife deflects by digging up her own beau (hence Cary Grant) in an attempt to be equally “modern.”

What resonates most fundamentally are some of the more curious shot selections by Arzner. She certainly manipulates the camera and the images in such a way we are aware of them as an audience, whether through early forms of product placement or a curious rear-view of two men sauntering through a mansion. It feels sporadically alive with invention and a very particular vision, even as it spirals toward an unimaginative soap opera denouement. The accompanying  Pre-Code elements are there, but the picture doesn’t entirely douse itself and drown in the melodrama.

This proves to be a key because any such digression could have been its final death. Instead, the sense of restraint and understatement proves a far more powerful tool of storytelling. It subtly undermines stock Pre-Code sordidness for something nominally more intriguing. This nor the actors, totally save the movie, but they keep it from completely sinking. More people are finally starting to talk about Arzner, and Merry We Go to Hell feels like a worthy touchstone in her career.

3/5 Stars

Sabotage (1936)

Sabotage1936.jpgSabotage: Willful destruction of buildings or machinery with the object of alarming a group of persons or inspiring public uneasiness.

It’s not exactly a titillating introduction but since this is precisely where this 1930s Hitchcock thriller commences so will I.

Again, Hitch is collaborating with Charles Bennet and of course Alma Reville (his wife) core members of his team by this point. I do find it funny that it came from a novel called The Secret Agent, the name of one of Hitchcock’s earlier entries, only to be changed to Sabotage. But it only goes to show how throwaway some of these titles were because they are hardly reflective of the genuine satisfaction in partaking in what is trying to be accomplished.

The inciting incident of the entire film involves the power grid going out all across the city. Some people assume it’s a freak event but those embroiled in national security and connected with Scotland Yard know there are far more ominous intentions. There are men looking to undermine the nation through systematic acts of sabotage and ultimately terrorism.

From our perspective, these were obvious harbingers of impending world war. In that climate, they were probably quite close to home. This film occupies itself with a single individual as he’s tailed by a government agent with his adopted family (Sylvia Sidney and Desmond Tester) acting as his convenient alibis because he’s been nothing but good to them.

One telling statement comes from the little boy when he’s talking aloud excitedly about gangsters and the like.  Because gangsters look quite ordinary, just like you and me and it’s an offhand comment but he doesn’t know how right he is. This is another textbook Hitchcock scenario because this is by no means a mystery. We know from the opening shot who the perpetrator is. But Hitchcock uses that modicum amount of knowledge to grab hold of his audience.

Similarly, he uses the tried and true example he mentioned in his dialogue with Truffaut. Having two individuals talking before a bomb blows up isn’t inherently suspenseful but if you show your cards early you’ve instantly ratcheted up the tension. He does that here immaculately aboard a double-decker bus.

Although even then it would be hard to favor Sabotage over some of his other works even those that are part of his thriller Sextet. It’s really a fairly minor addition and though Sylvia Sidney is as candid as ever she’s hardly meant for a Hitchcock film. Oskar Homolka and John Loder aren’t bad per se but they’re hardly as compelling as a Peter Lorre or Robert Donat.

Though the terrorists might look slightly different and their motives are more political than any other, there’s this uneasy sense that there is very little that is new under the sun. It’s telling that Bennet’s screenplay was loosely adapted from a Joseph Conrad story which was itself focused on sabotage in the late 19th century perpetuating this idea that certain stories are truly timeless.

Reading Walt Disney’s name in the opening credits might be a pleasant surprise for some and as might be expected, since this story does take place partially in a cinema, they show a cartoon short, seeming to be a harbinger for Sullivan’s Travels (1941) except in this story the main character gets shot with an arrow — very much a Hitchcockesque spin on animated cartoons if there ever was one. There can be humor but it’s always underlined by a sizable dose of dread.

3.5/5 Stars

 

You Only Live Once (1937)

youonlylive1There are two types of lover-on-the-run narratives. There’s the Bonnie and Clyde/Gun Crazy extravaganza full of shoot-outs and bloodshed. Then you have the more sensitive approach of a film like They Drive By Night. You Only Live Once fits this second category thanks to two bolstering performances by Henry Fonda and Sylvia Sydney. Fonda is forever known for his plain, naturalistic delivery full of humanity. He has that quality as 3-time loser Eddie Taylor certainly, but he also injects the role with a somewhat uncharacteristic rage. In many ways, he has a right to be angry at a world that so easily writes him off and is so quick to pronounce guilt. There is very little attempt to rehabilitate the reprobate and Taylor is an indictment of that.

youonlylive2Secretary Jo Graham (Sylvia Sydney) is positively beaming the day they are releasing her boyfriend Taylor because he is finally getting the second chance he deserves. A glorious marriage follows soon after until reality breaks into the lovers’ paradise. Few people aside from Father Dolan and a few forward thinkers are willing to give Taylor grace. He is prematurely fired from his job and has no way to make the payments on the house that his wife has been sprucing up for him. Adding insult to injury, a brazen bank robbery is committed which he is wrongly accused of. It’s back to the clink and then the electric chair.

Jo is beside herself and Taylor is angered at the way the law deals with him. This justice is the most unjust imaginable, and he is about to pay the price. But Jo desperately gets him help and he tries to make a break for it.

youonlylive4That’s what makes a wire proclaiming his innocence all the more ironic because he will have none of it. He takes a man’s life and now his acquittal goes down the drain as quickly as he got it since he has a murder to his name. Eddie and Jo go off on the road together, looting banks and surviving the best they can with their newborn son. This is not two joyriding youngsters trying to get rich without an honest day’s work. Fritz Lang develops a more complex story with people who tried to live by the rules and found they were dealt an unfair hand.

As one of Lang’s earliest works in America, you can see some remnants of German Expressionism exported here with foggy clouds of mist engulfing the screen at times. His tale also has an interesting ambiguity suggesting that crime is not always black and white. Perhaps it has less to say about the moral degenerates or corrupt individuals in our society and more about the faulty structures that our justice system often get built around. It’s mind-boggling to think that this film came soon after the Depression meaning the bitter taste of those years was still fresh in peoples’ mouths. Nevertheless, this film is an interesting crime-filled character study.

4/5 Stars