Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Target #63: The Naked City (1948, Jules Dassin)

Directed by: Jules Dassin
Written by: Malvin Wald (story & screenplay), Albert Maltz (screenplay)
Starring: Barry Fitzgerald, Howard Duff, Dorothy Hart, Don Taylor, Frank Conroy, Ted de Corsia, House Jameson

Italian neorealism, which reached its zenith with Vittorio De Sica's Bicycle Thieves (1948), was distinguished from other cinematic styles through its use of non-professional actors, loosely-plotted and realistic story lines, and unstylised on-location photography. Jules Dassin's The Naked City (1948) is a fair Hollywood attempt at blending the styles of neorealism and film noir, both of which were at the time only beginning to receive due recognition. At first glance, the two movements appear to sit at opposite ends of the stylistic and ideological spectrum: film noir typically concerns the fate of ordinary men trapped in exceptional circumstances, whereas Italian neorealism presents its characters' struggles as decidedly unremarkable, representative of the societal norm. Where these two particular films converge is in emphasising the invisibility of drama in real-life. De Sica's bicycle-seeking protagonists, dejected and beaten, disappear amid the crowds of workers. In his desperate flight from the authorities, Dassin's Willie Garzah (Ted de Corsia) carves a disruptive path through the crowds of New Yorkers, but the city schedule is interrupted only briefly.

Underpinning The Naked City is producer Mark Hellinger's narration, which serves as both a prop and a vice. Absolutely essential is the final sign-off, which remarks "there are eight million stories in the Naked City. This has been one of them." Coming only moments after a murderer falls to his death from the Williamsburg Bridge, this narration assures us, as critic Luc Sante writes in his Criterion Collection essay, "that what we briefly experienced as a cosmic struggle up above the earth was really just another statistic." In a city of eight million people, such high-drama attains only passing significance: workers file past the apartment building where a young model was brutally murdered; children play jump-rope outside the office window of a detective embroiled in a homicide case; a street-sweeper cleans up yesterday's discarded newspaper, its headline "DEXTER MURDER SOLVED!" having since given way to more pertinent news. However, Hellinger's narration, which chimes in at regular intervals, can also be intrusive, and I disliked the cheerful, cloying manner in which it interacted with the characters, as in a contemporary newsreel.

Despite revolving around a police procedural that has many of the classic dramatic ingredients – most memorably a suave jewel thief and pathological liar (Howard Duff) – it is only when detectives Muldoon (Barry Fitzgerald) and Halloran (Don Taylor) take to the streets that The Naked City really springs to life. Dassin filmed most of his exteriors out in the gritty urban walkways, often without the knowledge of bystanders, and the resultant atmosphere is fundamental to his storytelling style. New York simply seems so real, bustling with the minor details of activity – children playing in the streets, salesmen pushing their carts – that are impossible to duplicate on a studio backlot. However, rather than serving merely as a documentary portraiture of city life, as in Vertov's The Man with a Movie Camera (1929), the film's authentic environment instead functions to solidify the immediacy of the underlying drama. While Dassin's ability to juggle these disparate elements at times appears strained, he would perfect his method for what is, for my money, the director's masterpiece: Night and the City (1950).

Currently my #6 film of 1948:
1) The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (John Huston)
2) Ladri di biciclette {The Bicycle Thief} (Vittorio De Sica)
3) Rope (Alfred Hitchcock)
4) Oliver Twist (David Lean)
5) The Red Shoes (Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger)
6) The Naked City (Jules Dassin) *
7) Macbeth (Orson Welles)
8) Key Largo (John Huston) *
9) Letter from an Unknown Woman (Max Ophüls)
10) Secret Beyond the Door… (Fritz Lang) *


Sunday, July 12, 2009

Target #62: The Thief (1952, Russell Rouse)

Directed by: Russell Rouse

Written by: Russell Rouse (writer), Clarence Greene (writer)

WARNING: Plot and/or ending details may follow!!!

The Thief (1952) sets itself apart from other Cold War-era thrillers – and, indeed, from most American films released after 1930 – because it unfolds entirely without dialogue. Directed by Russell Rouse, the film uses its deliberate silence, not merely as an unusual gimmick, but as a legitimate storytelling device, to internalise the guilt, fear and frustration of its protagonist. In most films, characters get worries off their chests simply by talking to others – but to whom can Allan Fields talk? Not to his fellow Communist spies, who must never be seen in his company, and whose convictions he doesn't necessarily share. Certainly not to friends or family, whose way-of-life he is betraying to the enemy. Lonely and segregated, Fields (Ray Milland) simply goes about his painful duties, his inner torment consistently repressed behind a strained pretense of nonchalance. Only when he inadvertently murders a young FBI agent does his anguish spill forth into physical and verbal form, in a pitiful outpouring of grief and emotion.

Despite a slow first half, in which Fields' typical espionage duties are introduced via a lot of silent waiting, The Thief picks up substantially once the American authorities catch wind of his crimes. Rouse cultivates some truly thumping suspense sequences, including a magnificent stairway pursuit up the then-tallest building in the world, the Empire State. This breathless flight from the 88th floor observatory to the 102nd floor, and beyond, serves as a convenient allegory for Fields' Communist involvement. As an FBI agent rushes in pursuit, Milland's character tries repeatedly to escape through service doors on each floor, only to find them locked each time. Throughout the film, despite wishing to abandon his treasonous practices, Fields consistently finds his path to freedom blocked, his only option to continue what he's been doing, further implicating himself with each staircase he ascends. When inevitably cornered high above New York City, ironically defenseless at the pinnacle of human achievement, Fields desperately lashes out at his aggressor, and does the unthinkable.
In spite of my reservations that only a low-budget film could get away with such an anachronistic style, The Thief does, in fact, boast excellent production values. Sam Leavitt's cinematography is graceful but with an edge of documentary-realism. I particularly enjoyed the lurid confusion of Fields' nervous breakdown (perhaps a nod to Wilder's The Lost Weekend (1945)), with an increasingly-claustrophobic Milland filmed from above like an insignificant pawn, as specks of blood appear to permeate the walls. Despite his Oscar, Ray Milland is one of his generation's most underrated leading men, and he handles an exceedingly difficult role with poise and empathy: just watch Fields' pang of guilt every time he glances at the Capitol Dome, a symbol of American nationalism. Despite its sympathetic portrayal of a Commie spy, the film is nevertheless patriotic, as it must have been at this time. Indeed, Fields' ultimate decision to confess everything to the FBI comes not with the realisation that he is a bad person, but the realisation that he is a bad American.

Currently my #8 film of 1952:
1) Singin’ in the Rain (Stanley Donen, Gene Kelly)
2) Limelight (Charles Chaplin)
3) Umberto D. (Vittorio De Sica)
4) On Dangerous Ground (Nicholas Ray, Ida Lupino) *
5) The Bad and the Beautiful (Vincente Minnelli)
6) High Noon (Fred Zinnemann)
7) Macao (Josef von Sternberg, Nicholas Ray) *
8) The Thief (Russell Rouse) *


Monday, July 6, 2009

Target #61: The Killers (1946, Robert Siodmak)

Directed by: Robert Siodmak

Written by: Ernest Hemingway (short story), Anthony Veiller (screenplay), Richard Brooks, John Huston (uncredited)
Starring: Burt Lancaster, Ava Gardner, Edmond O'Brien, Albert Dekker, Sam Levene, Vince Barnett, Charles McGraw, William Conrad, Virginia Christine, Charles D. Brown, Jack Lambert, Donald MacBride

Some intrepid critics have categorised Citizen Kane (1941) as an early example of film noir, owing largely to its influential cinematography and flashback narrative structure. As though consciously in support of this assertion, Robert Siodmak's The Killers (1946) – expanded from a 1927 short story by Ernest Hermingway – plays out precisely like a noirish retelling of Welles' film. After enigmatic ex-boxer Swede Andersen (Burt Lancaster) is gunned down by hired assassins in a small American town, insurance investigator Jim Reardon (Edmond O'Brien) decides to piece together the man's past using fragmented testimony from those who once knew him. In doing so, he hopes to uncover the meaning behind the dead man's final words, "I did something wrong once." The life that Reardon discovers is one tinged with tragedy, regret and betrayal, revealing details of an audacious factory heist, a treacherous dame, and a double-cross to end all double-crosses. An archetypal noir, The Killers caps an excellent year for Siodmak, who also released the Freudian psycho-thriller The Dark Mirror (1946).
The Killers opens with a superbly-thrilling prologue that sees two hired thugs (William Conrad and B-noir stalwart Charles McGraw) harass the patrons at a small-town diner on their way to assassinate boxer- turned-gangster Swede Andersen. The characters' quickfire exchange of dialogue resembles something that Quentin Tarantino or the Coen brothers would have written decades later, only better, because screenwriter Anthony Veiller (with Richard Brooks and John Huston) reproduces the conversation from Hemingway's short story almost verbatim. After Andersen is unresistingly gunned down in his bed, the screenplay then expands upon the foundations laid down by the source material, using flashbacks to fill in the empty spaces at which Hemingway had only hinted. Veiller, whose work before WWII was dominated by romantic dramas, comedies and light mysteries like The Ex-Mrs. Bradford (1936), appears to have been hardened by his work on Frank Capra's Why We Fight propaganda series, and the dark, cynical post-War tone he brings to Swede's tragic story is an ideal representation of the noir spirit. Burt Lancaster shows promise in his screen debut, though the film's narrative structure does keep the audience distant from his character, an issue that Welles somehow avoided in Citizen Kane. As the resident femme fatale, Ava Gardner never quite inspires the collective hatred garnered by Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity (1944) or Jane Greer in Out of the Past (1947), but perhaps that speaks to her charms – that, despite her betrayal, we're still unwilling to treat her with due contempt. Good-guy Edmond O'Brien cheerfully and voyeuristically experiences the wretched life of a gangster through the intermediary flashback device – he ends the film with a cocky grin, like an audience-member emerging from a screening of the latest gangster thriller. Throughout this review, I've been making frequent allusions to Citizen Kane, but there's a very important difference between the two main characters: Charles Foster Kane had all the money in the world and got nothing out of it. Swede Andersen wasn't even that lucky; he didn't even get the money.

Currently my #4 film of 1946:
1) It’s A Wonderful Life (Frank Capra)
2) The Big Sleep (Howard Hawks) *
3) Duel in the Sun (King Vidor)
4) The Killers (Robert Siodmak) *
5) Notorious (Alfred Hitchcock) *
6) The Locket (John Brahm) *
7) Crack-Up (Irving Reis) *
8) The Dark Mirror (Robert Siodmak) *
9) The Blue Dahlia (George Marshall) *
10) Dragonwyck (Joseph L. Mankiewicz)