Sunday, May 19, 2019

THE HEIRESS - #974


Just about every child fears turning into their parents, but like owners and their dogs ending up looking alike, some developments are inevitable.

So it is in The Heiress, a drama that at its root is about what a father will pass on to his daughter. Everything would be so much simpler were that to be nothing, but since it’s a rather large sum of money, it makes everything complicated.


Olivia de Havilland stars as Catherine, the heiress in question, the sole child of widower Dr. Austin Sloper (Ralph Richardson, The Fallen Idol [review]). Catherine is shy and plain, having grown up not just sheltered, but stifled by her father’s continually comparing her to his porcelain view of her mother. Sharing the house with the pair is Austin’s sister Lavinia (Miriam Hopkins, Design for Living [review]), herself harboring the ache of a lost love, her own paramour a living memory, the stories she tells Catherine shaping the young woman’s view of marriage and romance.

Catherine is of the age where she should consider her future and the potential for marriage. Lavinia is doing her best to pry to girl out of her shell, insisting she go to social functions and even goading men into asking Catherine to dance. No goading is necessary, however, at one fancy soiree when Morris Townsend (Montgomery Clift, Red River) takes a liking to Catherine and begins to woo her. Within two days, they are engaged--a development that makes the good doctor none too happy. He sees Morris as a man of zero means, who blew threw his own small inheritance traveling in France, and who clearly only seeks his dowdy daughter’s fortune, he couldn’t possibly like her for who she is.


Released in 1949 and based on the novel Washington Square by Henry James, The Heiress is a buttoned-up melodrama, crafted with a meticulous attention to the social mores that would dictate how such romantic entanglements played out. Afraid that Dr. Sloper doesn’t like him, Morris jumps the queue and asks Catherine for her hand first; yet, when the doctor rejects the marriage, Morris beggars off, insisting the patriarch’s approval is necessary for their happiness--though the point of contention being whether Morris cares more for Catherine’s good health or for the fact that she’ll only receive 1/3 of her potential inheritance should Dr. Slope so choose.


We never know, really. Montgomery Clift is at his best here. He’s handsome and charming, but also intensely awkward. He seems sincere, but mercurial, so it’s hard to judge his motivations. William Wyler doesn’t cut away to show Morris sharing any secret confidence. The closest we get are his private times with Lavinia; he gets looser around the older woman, more cavalier. It does give us pause. But then, maybe he’s just more comfortable around her because she isn’t judging him. If he is lying, Lavinia would still prefer Catherine be happy to Morris’ motives being pure.


The crux of Henry James’ story, and the script by Ruth and Augustus Goetz (adapting not just the novel, but their own stage play), is how Catherine views herself versus how others view her. If Morris is to be believed, he sees something in her that others do not; if her father is to be believed, she is severely lacking. Richardson plays Sloper as haughty, impetuous, and cruel, but with enough warmth to suggest he does want better for his daughter. In particular, he wants her to find her own voice, though ironically he takes the brunt of it when she does. Little would he expect that his acidity is something she would also inherit.


For her part, de Havilland is marvelous, delivering a nuanced performance that convincingly takes Catherine from spinster to dame. The script allows her to make gradual changes, but when the full transformation occurs, it’s still the same woman, despite being practically the polar opposite to how the character began. I think the real reason for this is that de Havilland brings enough natural charisma and depth to the role, that it allows us to see what Lavinia and Morris see in Catherine, enough to reject public perception. Catherine is the underdog, and to be rooted for. Thus, it stings to see her clam back up, to become her old man--haughty and cruel. Her rejection of the maid’s compliment is as demeaning as all the times Dr. Slope rebuked her. It’s these character moments that make The Heiress so enticing. Smartly, Wyler keeps the pyrotechnics dialed down, and he and director of photography Leo Tover (The Day the Earth Stood Still) keep the camera steady. All the drama is in the dialogue, and a carefully crafted facial reaction is more telling than an emphatic zoom.


What surprises me the most about The Heiress is how it sticks to its vision. That motivations remain ambiguous is a triumph to itself, but that Wyler was allowed to stick to an ending that conventional Hollywood wisdom would usually have deemed too dark puts The Heiress a cut above most other costume dramas of the time. In fact, the increasing mania of the last man standing in the final scene haunts me still.

By the by, for those of you who would have sworn that Clift’s Morris was about to break into the perennial Elvis Presley hit “Can’t Help Falling in Love” when showing off his piano skills, your ears do not deceive you! It turns out that the 18th-century tune “Plaisir d’amour” would later inspire one of my favorite love songs.


This disc provided by the Criterion Collection for purposes of review.

Saturday, May 18, 2019

DIAMONDS OF THE NIGHT - #969


Jan Němec’s 1964 debut Diamonds of the Night is all things at once. Simple and complicated. Sparse and detailed. Accessible and challenging. Grounded and poetic.

Based on a novel by Arnošt Lustig, Diamonds of the Night is the story of two young men on the run in World War II-era Czechoslovakia. Having escaped from a train hauling them to a Nazi concentration camp, the boys charge through the forest and countryside, avoiding people, looking for food, and occasionally resorting to desperate acts to survive. Told with little dialogue and shot in real locations, there is a harsh realism to the story Němec lays out. These boys are isolated, without hope, never sure if the people they spot along the way are friend or foe.


Yet, we maybe can’t be sure of the young men either. We have our assumptions regarding whom they might be and why they were rounded up, but as Němec plays with time and memory, slicing up his scenes, splicing in random shots that could be past or present, fantasy or reality, we can’t help but build different scenarios. Němec starts to really play tricks on us when the fugitives rob a farmhouse, forcing the farmer’s wife to make them sandwiches. We see them take the food and go, but we also see them attack her, leaving her unconscious on the kitchen floor. Which was it? What really happened? As we get more information later, we even start to doubt why she was initially scared of the intruders.


Taken one way, the lack of exposition in Diamonds of the Night causes us to question why the civilians that the escapees encounter don’t help them, why these common folk give their allegiances to outside invaders, whom history has already judged by the time the film was made; taken another way, we are forced to question ourselves, why we automatically perceive things a certain way, and if our failure to challenge the known is the reason fascism can creep in and ultimately win out.

Either way, it’s a compelling experience, rarely giving the viewers time to catch their breath, and revealing a director with a firm grasp of his own cinematic vocabulary.


Arnošt Lustig was a real-life prisoner of war and much of his writing was based on his experiences. A short documentary included on the Criterion edition of Diamonds of the Night explores how Jan Němec interpreted Lustig’s work for film. Also included is Němec’s 1960 student film, A Loaf of Bread, based on one of Lustig’s stories.


A Loaf of Bread details three prisoners plotting and undertaking a scheme to steal bread to feed them on a planned escape. Though more straightforward than Diamonds of the Night, it displays a similar tight control, reminding me somewhat of the French noir of Jacques Becker or Jean-Pierre Melville for how the attention to small action builds tension. It’s easy to see the promise in the young director that would pay off four years later.


This disc provided by the Criterion Collection for purposes of review.

Sunday, April 14, 2019

COLUMBIA NOIR: MY NAME IS JULIA ROSS/SO DARK THE NIGHT/EXPERIMENT IN TERROR - CRITERION CHANNEL


Film noir has long been a passion of mine, and regular readers of my reviews will know I can be rather pedantic over what qualifies a particular movie as part of the genre. As the years have passed, I’ve watched lots of critics and festivals and marketing men bend the term to fit anything that has some kind of crime element in its narrative, disregarding style, tone, and theme in the process.

So it is with the newly opened Criterion Channel’s special collection of “Columbia Noir,” bringing together an unlucky thirteen from the Columbia studio vaults. Upon first entering the new site, I was particularly excited, because out of that baker’s dozen, I had only seen one: Fritz Lang’s bonafide classic The Big Heat.

Sadly, from my initial sampling, the curation here is lacking in rigor. Picking movies from both sides of the set in terms of chronology, at least to start, I have found the selection to be a mixed bag of solid flicks of varied stripes, but not really film noir.


Take, for instance, My Name is Julia Ross, the earliest release offered, dated 1945. Directed by Joseph H. Lewis, who went on to make the noir perennial Gun Crazy, My Name is Julia Ross is more an amalgamation of early Hitchcock than traditional noir. It’s like a mash-up of The Lady Vanishes [review] and Rebecca [review], a little bit of mystery and a little bit of gothic atmosphere.

Nina Foch (An American in Paris [review]) stars as the titular Julia, a London career girl excited to gain regular employment as secretary to a rich widower and his mother. Only, as Julia quickly discovers, this gig is not on the up-and-up. The day after she moves into her new quarters, she wakes up at the seaside in an unfamiliar house where everyone refers to her as Mrs. Hughes and treats her like a hothouse flower. What she quickly realizes is that her employers, played by George Macready (Paths of Glory [review]) and May Whitty (coincidentally, Mrs. Foy in The Lady Vanishes), are trying to use her to replace the man’s dead wife, gaslighting Julia in an attempt to cover up the murder.


It’s a good concept, and could be quite captivating in more adept hands, but Lewis and screenwriter Muriel Roy Bolton (The Amazing Mr. X) give the game away too quickly. They never let the audience spend any time in Julia’s shoes, and so there is no suspense. We are privy to the plot she’s been drawn into and never once led to believe she’ll have any trouble getting out of it.

In terms of storytelling, My Name is Julia Ross is equally flat. There is no apparent aesthetic here, no dark shadows or misty moors, nothing to tie the film to any particular cinematic movement. My Name is Julia Ross is a perfunctory B-picture, little more. The screenplay skirts the edges of intriguing issues--the compulsion to kill that drives Julia’s would-be husband, the perception of single women in the city, etc.--but stops short of really giving any of these topics genuine heft.


Lewis followed this film a year later with 1946’s So Dark the Night, a noir tile in search of a matching script. What that moniker finds instead is an Agatha Christie-type whodunit, complete with a genial, yet world-weary detective. In this case, it’s Henri Cassin (Steven Geray, In a Lonely Place [review]), a Parisian police inspector going on holiday. Geray is so likeable and so assured, I thought there must be more adventures of Cassin, that this was part of a series, or at the very least lifted from a pre-existing literary franchise


No such series exists. Cassin was created by a writer named Aubrey Wisberg (Hercules in New York) for the story adapted here. So Dark the Night follows the middle-aged Inspector Cassin on a much needed vacation to the countryside. In the small town, his reputation precedes him, and his presence shakes up the norm. He attracts the attention of Nanette (Micheline Cheirel), the innkeeper’s daughter, and when Nanette turns up dead, her jealous fiancé (Paul Marion) is the obvious first suspect. Only, someone has killed him, too, leaving the normally unflappable Cassin with nothing to go on.

So Dark the Night is an enjoyable little mystery, taking advantage of its rural setting and maintaining an upbeat manner that is antithetical to the usual urban existentialism we associate with noir. Inspector Cassin is a genuine good guy who wants nothing but happiness for his fellow man, and so also far from our expected noir protagonist. In fact, his demeanor should make the mystery’s resolution even more implausible. The climax of So Dark the Night would normally be a textbook example of something you just can’t do in a murder mystery, withholding clues and offering a resolution the audience couldn’t possibly puzzle out on their own, but Lewis--and more significantly, the ever likable Steven Geray--makes it work. Even so, this is more PBS territory than it is noir, more conservative flirting between decent folk than overheated passion amidst desperate degenerates.


On the opposite end of the timeline here is Blake Edwards’ 1962 thriller Experiment in Terror. A stylish psychological potboiler, Experiment in Terror is closer to noir territory, but it’s more indicative of a post-Psycho box office landscape than post-War anxiety.

Lee Remick stars as Kelly, a single woman raising her younger sister all on her own in Twin Peaks, Washington. (Yes, that Twin Peaks.) At the start of the movie, she thinks she is coming home just like every other night, only she is jumped by a man in her garage who knows a little too much about the minutia of her life. He threatens her and her sister if she doesn’t rob the bank where she works and deliver the cash to him. It’s a tense, unsettling scene, made all the more scary by the violent attack Kelly suffers when she tries to call the FBI, believing her assailant to have already gone.

Luckily for her, the call got through anyway, and Agent Ripley (Glenn Ford, Gilda [review]) is ready to help out. Believing this is not the first time this crook has pulled such a trick, Ripley attempts to make it his last by stringing the bad guy along, hoping to figure out who he is before he forces Kelly to carry through on his demand or otherwise has to make good on his own threats.


Edwards is, of course, better known for comedies like Breakfast at Tiffany’s [review] and The Party [review], but he proves no slouch in the suspense department. Experiment in Terror is tense and mostly intriguing, only falling short by maybe being a little long. Edwards draws a sharp divide between his good guys and his bad guys, presenting Ford’s Ripley as the last good man standing guard against a demented criminal future--a trope dating back to Chandler’s The Big Sleep [review] and essential to many a noir antihero. There is a certain inevitability to how the world is changing, suggesting that somehow a destructive fate is unavoidable. And yet, Experiment in Terror lacks the cynicism of a good noir. Ripley is a true believer, and Kelly a shining beacon leading the way, suggesting that civilization should win because it’s good, rather than survive in spite of itself.

And, of course, since it’s Blake Edwards, we get a striking Henry Mancini score, showing as much facility for dramatic tension as he normally does with light melody and irresistible rhythm. It’s the sort of thing Orson Welles rejected from the composer in Touch of Evil [review], a decision I’ve never entirely agreed with--so I’ll give that point to Edwards.

Even as I take some away from the Criterion Channel. Of the three films reviewed, I’d only give Experiment in Terror a full recommendation, noir or no. Let’s hope some of the movies in the center of this virtual collection fit the mold a little better.


Monday, April 8, 2019

SIGHTSEERS - CRITERION CHANNEL

The Criterion Channel re-opens today, now independent of any other service (Filmstruck R.I.P.), and offering movies that extend beyond the physical Criterion Collection. In honor of that, here is a reprint of a review I wrote for DVDTalk back in 2013 for one of the films exclusive to the Channel.



I remember joking in high school about organizing an anarchy club, because of course the last thing anarchists should be doing is organizing. I am sure every teen who gets into punk rock and philosophy stumbles upon a similar gag. I bet you Ben Wheatley would find it hilarious.

Wheatley is the British director responsible for Down Terrace and Kill List. His most current offering, Sightseers, makes pretensions of chaos. It's a black comedy about a vacationing couple whose holiday on the road turns into a killing spree. For Chris (Steve Oram) it begins accidentally (perhaps), but once the impulse is indulged, he keeps indulging it, murdering people who offend his delicate sensibilities in some manner. A dead litterbug is equal to a snobby author driving a better camper. Thinking she needs to join in the fun in order to maintain the relationship, Tina (Alice Lowe) starts killing as well. When Chris disapproves of her choices, she escalates rather than backs down. To his mind, she is acting randomly, he is acting righteously.


Except there are no random acts in film, and so when a filmmaker like Wheatley attempts to get around engaging in meaningful subtext when making a violent comedy like Sightseers, the result tends to come off as shallow and adolescent as a "card-carrying-anarchist" punchline. Sightseers actually joins a spate of recent movies, including James Gunn's Super [review] and Bobcat Goldthwaite's God Bless America, that puts misanthropic men on a violent path that begins with them enacting a justifiable retaliation against some supposed offense, only to acquire a taste for blood and keep acting out for increasingly petty reasons. All the while, a woman cheers him on and, quite often, takes it even farther. All these films maybe begin with a thin veneer of satire before devolving into empty action. Is Chris waging a kind of class war when he kills the man with the new model vehicle or the guy who went to private school and wants to order him around like a serf? There is a point where Wheatley and his actors, who are credited with the screenplay, seem as if they'd have us believe as such, but it's not a defense that would hold up in court.

Wheatley and crew are more intent on making the audience cringe, either from gore or uncomfortable laughter, than saying anything about why they are going after such a response. The gore is more effective than the jokes. The audience I was with consistently cringed on cue, but the laughs were few and far between. In essence, Sightseers is 90 empty minutes of two boring, unlikable people doing terrible things to other unlikable people with no repercussion or reflection. The only time Sightseers really worked were the scenes where the relationship between the lovers begins to fall apart. The pair argue over homicide the way other bored couples would argue over bills and what they might have for dinner. Soft Cell's "Tainted Love" plays over Sightseers' title card, and the film would have been better off had Wheatley kept this theme in mind throughout. (Another music cue, a cover of Donovan's "Season of the Witch," takes on vaguely misogynist overtones, after Chris actually accuses Tina of being a witch who has enchanted him and incited him to evil.) Every action should be a love reaction, thus keeping the motives from being confused. This feeling of dangerous romance resurfaces at the end of Sightseers. The last scene goes a little bit of the way to keeping the movie from being a complete waste of time. But only a little bit, and also a little bit too late.




Sunday, March 24, 2019

DETOUR - #966

People knock themselves out trying to buck Fate.”


To call a film noir cynical is to be a bit redundant. To call it cynical even for a film noir--well, you know then you have something truly acidic on your hands.

Such is Edgar G. Ulmer’s 1945 sweatbox Detour, the first ever B-movie inducted into the National Film Registry. At a scant 69 minutes, it’s a feverish thriller, its characters always in motion. Even when they are physically stuck in place, their minds are still moving, each player considering the next exit. It’s breathless and exhilarating and a little bit hateful. But you’ll love how hateful.


Tom Neal stars as Al Roberts, a juke joint piano player in love with an actress (Claudia Drake) who has left him stranded in New York to make a go at becoming a star in Hollywood. Fed up with being alone and, let’s face it, both jealous and horny, Roberts starts hitching across the country to see her. In Arizona, his luck seems to turn when he is picked up by Charles Haskell (Edmund MacDonald), a sleaze-ball gambler who is willing to take him all the way to the City of Angels. Ulmer and writer Martin Goldsmith (The Narrow Margin) make no bones about what a dirty guy Haskell is. When Roberts asks him about the fresh scratches on his arms and hands, Haskell tells him they came from a lady hitchhiker who didn’t show her gratitude in the way her benefactor would have liked. “I was tussling with the most dangerous animal in the world, a woman!” he says, before reminding us that any woman who would hitchhike is pretty much asking for it anyway.

Yup. Real nice guy.


That’s life. Whichever way you turn, Fate sticks out a foot to trip you.”

Fate comes up a lot in Detour. It’s a common noir trope: man can’t outrun his past, nor can he change his destiny. Because we have made our past, and we are our own destiny. You know the cliché: wherever you go, there you are.

So when Roberts’ dame runs off chasing her imagined destiny, he must try to alter his trajectory. Likewise, Haskell has lost his fortune on the ponies in Miami, and now he’s looking to shake his own bad luck loose. Yet twists of fate means each will get their comeuppance. First, a random accident causes Haskell to end up dead, and a panicky Roberts leaves him in the middle of the desert and assumes his identity. Second, instant karma means Roberts picks up Vera (Ann Savage), the very woman that left those scars on the dead man. Knowing that Roberts isn’t who he says he is, Vera blackmails him. He’ll take her into L.A., sell the car, and give her the money, or she’ll make sure he’s sent down for the killing, innocence and circumstance be damned.


And he can’t leave her until she’s satisfied. Possibly because she’s a little bit lonely, possibly because she’s just plain mean. Not to mention her plans keep shifting the more opportunities she sees.
When you think about it, hitchhiking is a perfect metaphor for this kind of randomly predestined happenstance. Each pick-up is a roll of the dice. Factor in that like always finds like, and there’s no way these three people aren’t meeting on the road. It makes for too good of a story, and Fate loves a good story.

Vera is right to hold Roberts’ feet to the fire. He’s no innocent victim of circumstance, it doesn’t take much deliberation for him to do the wrong thing. Tom Neal would suffer his own turn of fate some time after Detour and go to jail for six years for the manslaughter of his wife. A sad but fitting noir end for a noir...well, not hero. Nor antihero. If anyone really roots for Roberts, it’s because Vera is so nasty. Tom Neal is all square-jawed nervousness, and competent enough in the role, but he’s eaten alive by Ann Savage, whose motor-mouthed opportunist dominates every scene from the moment Roberts spots her on the side of the road. While he’s no typical hero, she’s also not really our expected femme fatale. For one, she’s far more of an active participant, forcing action rather than needing to manipulate it with her sexuality. When she does try to seduce Roberts, it’s not as confident as one would expect from a Rita Hayworth or an Ava Gardner; in fact, Roberts’ voiceover lays it out from the start, her looks are not that of a movie star. Savage being an atypical starlet allows for Vera to have a surprising vulnerability, one the actress has the chops to exploit. Vera also has a fate she can’t outrun: a case of consumption that will likely kill her.

That is, if some other terrible calamity doesn’t claim her first.


Yes, Fate or some mysterious force can put the finger on you or me for no good reason at all.”

Edgar G. Ulmer is infamous for his down and dirty productions. As explained in the supplementary documentary Edgar G. Ulmer: The Man Off-Screen, the Austrian director was exiled to Poverty Row, where he established his own bluntly lyrical style as he jumped from genre to genre, shooting pictures under impossible deadlines and even more impossible budgets. Accounts vary as to whether he wanted to work the cheapies to avoid studio interference or if he was left out of big-budget Hollywood after his own noir-worthy bad decision, marrying the boss’ girl. Ulmer himself was a self-mythologizer.  The filmmakers share audio from the man’s interviews with Peter Bogdanovich, which they then compare to known facts--often finding that Ulmer’s own legend is far more interesting.


Detour is a perfect example of what an industrious artist can do on a shoestring. It was shot primarily on two sets: the apartment that Roberts and Vera share in Los Angeles and the car. At least half the movie is in the car, which itself was set up in a Hollywood studio, the only traveling being done by whatever camera crew shot the footage for Detour’s rear projection. Ulmer manages to keep the feeling of confinement intentional. This pair is forever linked. Even as they cover miles of highway, even if Vera finally relents, they can’t escape each other.

Nor can they escape Fate. The transcendence of Detour from forgettable to classic is down to how unrelenting it is. There is no ray of hope. Not even the girlfriend, who in other noirs might be the earthy blonde who offers some kind of respite from the dark underworld; here, she represents temptation, jealousy, and the unattainable. Not to mention our own knowledge about how old Hollywood operated means we fill in some blanks about what we think is really going on with her out on the West Coast.


For Roberts, the more he tries to dig himself out of this trap, the more he becomes entangled. So it is that the second accidental death in Detour is so grisly--but not entirely unexpected, almost like he’s manifested his murderous desires through sheer will. And so it is that we find Roberts at a point where he’s already surrendered, reliving the tale for what might be the first time or the millionth, depending on who you are and when you are hearing it. His punishment is to be a part of this movie, and our reward is to be able to watch it again and again and again.


This disc provided by the Criterion Collection for purposes of review.

Saturday, March 23, 2019

WANDA - #965


Wanda is one of those rare movies that can be called an “indie legend” and have it essentially be true. More talked about than seen since its 1970 debut, Barbara Loden’s single feature film blazed a trail of inspiration for female directors regardless of its availability. A reputation spread through awe and admiration? Legend! Bonus? Wanda lives up to the reverence.

Loden herself stars as the titular Wanda, a wife and mother who has little desire to be either. At the start of the film, her husband is in the process of divorcing her and taking their kids. That morning Wanda woke up on her sister-in-law’s couch, but once the judge agrees to the conscious uncoupling, all family connections are severed and that crash pad is no longer an option. So begins an aimless journey between different men, different hotel rooms, different handouts. Wanda’s name might as well be “wander,” because that’s what she does. There is never a shortage of men to take advantage of the attractive blonde, and she’s not really choosy either.


Wanda’s storytelling is slow, but deliberate. In some instances, a scene may feel long simply because Wanda is refusing to leave, knowing there is little alternative, her needs driving the edit. Such is the case when she meets Mr. Dennis (Michael Higgins), the man we see her with the longest. She busts into his bar after closing and ignores him when he’s barking at her to leave, and she further sticks around even after it’s clear he doesn’t own the bar but is robbing it, sucking Wanda into his fugitive lifestyle and ultimately enlisting her to take part in his crimes. In fact, he’s the only man who involves her in anything, forcing her to do the one thing she refuses to do--be involved. In a weird way, perhaps this is the closest Wanda gets to love, a man she lets keep her. A man who compels her to serve in the function of a wife, so to speak, and also to cross moral and ethical lines. Is this why she can’t willingly give him up? In the end, we can sense she has become dependent upon him, rather than the urge for freedom that drove her into his orbit.


Barbara Loden is herself a bit of a tragic figure, her impressive rise cut short. A former model, she became an actress under the tutelage of Elia Kazan, who cast her as Warren Beatty’s sister in Splendor in the Grass [review] and whom she would eventually marry. Loden would die from cancer a decade after Wanda, aged forty-eight, her first film stuck in limbo, her second film adrift in development hell. Likely she never dreamed Wanda would experience a renaissance, much less this far into the next century, but the distance has not diminished the potency of her masterwork. Her vision for Wanda harnesses and upends the usual Hollywood standard for an actress’ worth. Desirability equals box office. Yet, both things are hollow. Desire is fleeting and selfish, and the more Mr. Dennis lets her stick around, the less of Wanda remains. Not that she shows us much to begin with. Loden never writes herself an expository monologue, she never lets Wanda open up about the things that bother her, never exhibits any drive but to refill her wallet and her belly. The closest we get is when the gruff crook interrogates her about the family pictures she carries with her, less interested in her past than he is in her future. It’s like a final quiz before he decides she can stick around, affirmation that she is a naked mannequin for him to dress and to manicure. Only his standards of beauty apply.


None of the men who interact with Wanda are worth a damn. For as calm as she tends to be, they are all nervous and agitated, driven by lust and anger. The closest we get to a good guy is her soon-to-be-ex-husband, who has already replaced her with another blonde, claiming it’s for the betterment of the kids. Maybe it is, we’ll never know. Actually, scratch that, the only good man to lend a hand is the old dude in the beginning who gives her some money. But is it any wonder then that he’s symbolically exiled? Wanda has to trek across a barren landscape to find him all alone amidst rubble and coal.


Not that Loden has made a man-hating polemic here. Wanda’s world is consistently isolated. It’s not until the movie’s final scenes that she does anything communal, and even there, she’s hiding among the numbers, not really one of them. Our glimpse of life outside her bubble is the bank manager who acts to protect his wife and daughters, someone who seemingly does the right things for the right reasons. Is this symbolic of what Wanda has discarded? How does it make sense that she has given up all family ties, yet also can never be alone?

For those who need an object lesson in the male gaze, Wanda serves as a great example of how one can critique said gaze while also effectively dismissing it. Imagine a hypothetical 1990s Hollywood remake starring Sharon Stone, how the camera would likely linger on her naked flesh the morning after every tryst. Loden doesn’t allow for any of that, never hands her camera to her male characters, not even when Mr. Dennis is complaining about her hair and make-up, sizing her up for his own personal tastes. The lens is always sympathetic to Wanda, lingering on her visage, capturing her reaction, her silent depression. It’s about her face, not her body. It’s telling, actually, that none of the men spend any time staring at her when she is in their bed, either. It’s as if they’ve already disregarded her presence.


Though Barbara Loden never made another full-length motion picture, she did make a pair of educational films in 1975. One of them, The Frontier Experience, is included on this Criterion release. Loden stars again, this time as a dutiful wife who journeyed across the American terrain with her husband, only for him to be killed and leaving her to fend for their family on her own. It’s pretty dry, but it’s interesting to see Loden playing a woman who is a total opposite to Wanda: stoic, determined, and dedicated.


Also of note on the disc is I am Wanda, Katja Raganelli’s documentary about Loden, shot just before her death. It features a one-on-one with Loden, as well as footage of her at work teaching acting and at home, including an evening of reading poetry with family and friends, Elia Kazan among them. We are also treated to her career history, from her illustrious Broadway resume through Splendor and on to Wanda. Loden concealed her illness from I am Wanda’s filmmakers, adding more gravity to the serious, thoughtful conversation about her life and art. The centerpiece is a heartfelt, tear-filled confession about her relationship with her mother, and how that has driven her in her choices.


This disc provided by the Criterion Collection for purposes of review.

Saturday, March 16, 2019

IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT - #959


Sometimes I just can’t find my way into a review.

It’s been five days since I watched In the Heat of the Night, and I’ve spent those days skulking past my computer, afraid to make eye contact with the screen, completely at a loss how to begin writing about Norman Jewison’s 1967 cop drama. A landmark of its time, and a template for many well-meaning race-related pictures to come, In the Heat of the Night is a crackling good film. It reminds me of Otto Preminger’s Anatomy of a Murder [review] in how engrossing it is, how easy to watch, how transcendent of its own genre.


But what perspective do I bring? I can acknowledge it’s a classic. I can graze up against the deeper issues of 1960s race relations and compare it to today, particularly the healthy distrust of law enforcement. I can talk about how Jewison avoids the folly of so many by neither making his black cop a saint nor his white cop a pure devil, how they are flawed men hampered by their own pride, and thus there is no real vindication or redemption for either, they just carry on. Surely all of this has already been said, though. Mayhap I am better served just cracking this process open and getting on with it.

Here’s the easy thing to explain: the plot. A man is found dead face down in the streets of Sparta, a small Mississippi town. The victim is a real estate developer from out of state looking to build a factory in the area. It would change the lives of the unemployed poor, but also disrupt the town’s established economy. In short, there are a few rich white folks that would rather not see the system altered.


Coincidentally, Homicide Detective Virgil Tibbs (Sidney Poitier, A Raisin in the Sun [review]) gets stranded in Sparta on a layover waiting for his train to Pennsylvania. At first he is arrested by an overzealous cop (Warren Oates, Two-Lane Blacktop [review]) who finds an unknown African American with a wallet full of cash suspicious, but once his identity is revealed, Tibbs is asked to participate in solving the murder. Newly appointed Police Chief Gillespie (Rod Steiger, Jubal [review]; On the Waterfront) would prefer not to take Tibbs’ help, fearing it will be more trouble than its worth, but once Tibbs takes the case between his teeth, Gillespie has little say. No one does, not even Sparta’s roving packs of violent racists or the brittle eccentric living in the big house on the outskirts of town. Tibbs won’t stop until the true culprit is in jail.


Poitier and Steiger make a great pair. The former is all forward intensity, and the latter reserved agitation. Gillespie is definitely a racist, but he’s also a pragmatist. One could argue he resents Tibbs as being an interloper from the big city as much as he does his being a black man. It’s a trope now, that the bigoted cop’s saving grace is his adherence to the law, but Steiger avoids caricature. He lives in Gillespie’s skin and isn’t afraid of his bad parts. Likewise, Poitier continues to evolve his own screen presence to keep Tibbs human and not a symbol. He’s the smartest man in the room, but too smart for his own good.


Indeed, the knotted personal drama of the small town is its own education for Tibbs. The murder is almost secondary to the struggles and gossip that informs Sparta’s day to day. Haskell Wexler (Medium Cool [review]) shoots the locales with a gritty vibrancy, never dressing up the shots, letting the people occupy the space. Even Oates’ shit-grinning cop and the petulant ingénue he peeps on (Quentin Dean) have the room to be people. Not very likeable people, but then really, how many of us are? The awesome Lee Grant (Shampoo [review]) also gets a pretty good turn as the dead man’s wife, a determined woman whose sense of personal justice cuts through the petty squabbles.


The only performance that moves close to parody is Larry Gates (Invasion of the Body Snatchers) as Endicott, the fat cat who runs Sparta from afar. Endicott is a riff on the mythological Confederate gentlemen, full of privilege and regretting progress. Jewison and writer Stirling Silliphant (The Poseidon Adventure) choose to stage his lone scene in a green house, symbolizing that he is a rare and wilting thing, no longer viable in the open air. This is a cliché we’ve seen before, most notably in Howard Hawks’ The Big Sleep [review]; here it seems an unnecessary and superfluous brush stroke.


The story of In the Heat of the Night remains every bit as challenging and incisive. The mystery is modern, even if some of the more “scandalous” aspects of it have lost their shock value. You might guess the real bad guy early, but you’ll forget you did amidst all the great character moments that follow. Add to this an ultra cool Quincy Jones score, complete with Ray Charles theme song, and you have a crime classic, its aesthetic perfectly bridging the gap from the squeaky clean studio system and the more grimy 1970s--an in between state that renders In the Heat of the Night truly timeless.