30/11/2009

The Lady From Shanghai (1947)


"Once, off the hump of Brazil, I saw the ocean so darkened with blood it was black and the sun fainting away over the lip of the sky. We'd put in at Fortaleza, and a few of us had lines out for a bit of idle fishing. It was me had the first strike. A shark it was. Then there was another, and another shark again, 'til all about, the sea was made of sharks and more sharks still, and no water at all. My shark had torn himself from the hook, and the scent, or maybe the stain it was, and him bleeding his life away drove the rest of them mad. Then the beasts took to eating each other. In their frenzy, they ate at themselves. You could feel the lust of murder like a wind stinging your eyes, and you could smell the death, reeking up out of the sea. I never saw anything worse... until this little picnic tonight. And you know, there wasn't one of them sharks in the whole crazy pack that survived."

Orson Welles as Irish adventurer Michael O'Hara in The Lady From Shanghai. Easily as good a speech as his more famous thoughts on Swiss history and the cuckoo clock from Carol Reed's The Third Man (1949), so long as you can get past the ludicrous blarney accent Orson adopts here, perhaps a sourvenir he picked up during his wild rover days in 1932, when, at 17, he managed to con his way into the company of Dublin's Gate Theatre.

The Lady From Shanghai is one of his most taut and entertaining pictures, an exotic and misanthropic caper shot through with romantic fatalism. Welles made it for Columbia as part of the repayment deal on the $55,000 loan Harry Cohn had given him to bail out his stage musical version of Jules Verne's Around the World In Eighty Days (1946). Cohn, whom Welles would later describe as "a monster", had history with the young prodigy, having become so jealous of his marriage to Columbia's top star, Rita Hayworth, that he had banned her from appearing in Welles's magic show for US troops in 1943. He also knew of Welles's difficult reputation and was nervous about handing him responsibility for a $2.3mn budget, until Hayworth's powers of persuasion became too much for King Cohn to resist. It was a decision he would live to regret. He loathed The Lady From Shanghai so much that he offered a $1,000 reward to anyone who could explain the plot to him. Not even Orson was able to claim it. This eccentric noir was originally titled Take This Woman and then Black Irish and based on Sherwood King's novel If I Die Before I Wake (1938), the rights to which had previously been owned by William Castle, the future horror director, whom Orson befriended and brought in to help with the script and serve as an associate producer.

Welles would later express the opinion to biographer Barbara Leaming that cinema needs to give audiences a "hallucinatory" experience if it is truly to "come alive" and The Lady From Shanghai certainly provides that, not least in the celebrated hall of mirrors finale. Andre Bazin wrote of the film in the September 1958 issue of Cahier Du Cinema:

"The Lady From Shanghai is paradoxically the richest in meaning of Welles's films in proportion to the insignificance of the script [precisely because] the plot no longer interferes with the underlying action, from which the themes blossom out in something closer to their pure states."

By the time of the film's release in 1948, Welles' marriage to Hayworth, his co-star here missing her trademark red locks, had crumbled. As Clinton Heylin noted in his book Despite The System: Orson Welles Versus the Hollywood Studios (2005), Howard Hawks had filmed The Big Sleep that same year specifically to capitalise on the sizzling chemistry between newlyweds Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, "whereas Welles portrayed his own screen goddess... as a lying bitch who deserved to die."

26/11/2009

Odd Man Out (1947)


Here's a strange one. Often it's hard to disagree with the broad critical consensus on a particular film. You might take issue with a few points here and there and some films certainly fall out of fashion but generally it's rare to come across a piece of work that bears so little relation to the reputation it is has acquired. However, I'd say Odd Man Out by Carol Reed is one such due a reassessment. Usually lauded as a masterpiece for Robert Krasker's lush cinematography and the strained performance of James Mason that carries the film, this British noir does have its good points but is also maddeningly ponderous, poorly paced and overlong.

Set amongst the rubble and labyrinthine cobbled terraces of an unnamed Northern Irish city (unnamed, but still Belfast), Reed's camera swoops low over the battered rooftops and eventually settles on a figure perched in a first floor window. This is Johnny McQueen (Mason), an IRA gunman escaped from prison and plotting a major heist. Physically weakened by his six months in hiding, Johnny's fitness for the task is the subject of some doubt amongst the other members of his gang. Sure enough, the raid is bungled when Johnny brawls with and kills a security guard, taking a bullet himself during the scuffle. Wounded, he falls out of the getaway car and is left lying in the road with police sirens blaring close by. His accomplices bicker over whether or not to go back for him but eventually decide against it, agreeing to resume the search later. A wanted fugitive, Johnny spends a long dark night of the soul wandering the streets, bleeding and delirious, trying to evade capture. If only his sweetheart, Kathleen Sullivan (Kathleen Ryan), can get to him first...



I went into Odd Man Out expecting a pacy, brooding crime thriller from the director of The Third Man (1949). And for the first 45 minutes or so, that's exactly what you get. But as soon as the snow starts to fall, the film becomes a drawn-out, dreamlike picaresque in which one oddball character after another is introduced to no particular end. Two nurses, a kindly cab driver, a panicky bartender, a crazed artist and a bowler hatted tramp (Cyril Cusack, more Beckett than Chaplin) all come into contact with the fallen idol and variously dither, argue and scheme about what to do with him. None come anywhere near a resolution. Only the redoubtable Kathleen proactively attempts to carve out an escape route for Johnny and her game of cat-and-mouse with a suspicious detective is the film's only real source of suspense.


There are interesting episodes. A police chase across flimsy scaffolding in the rain involving fellow hood Dennis (Robert Beatty) is much more like it and when the end finally does come for Johnny, corned at the docks in Kathleen's arms, it's almost too abrupt to savour. Krasker also pulls off some inventive hallucination effects, as when Johnny starts to see faces in a bubbling puddle of beer, though even these smack of gimmickry. Ultimately, too many characters serve no purpose, too many scenes overrun. Why, for instance, have Kathleen rendez-vous with a sailor to arrange an 11 o'clock passage for Johnny aboard his ship, only to then have her go back again later and ask for an hour's extension when she can't find him? Why not just make it midnight in the first place and keep the tension up and the narrative rolling to a deadline? Odd Man Out raises several such questions and exposes the vital part Graham Greene's source story obviously played in bringing structural discipline to The Third Man. Even the all-action heist is laboured and implausible here.


Only blind goodwill towards Reed and his star could lead normally miserly reviewers to hail a film so flawed and paunchy. Mason, an actor so urbane as to make Cary Grant look like a dishevelled deadbeat, does well with a part that asks audiences to side with a terrorist (though the film is otherwise at pains to avoid the politics of its setting). By the close, our long exposure to Johnny's agony means he starts to resemble a kind of rogue martyr, St. Sebastian backed up against the railings. The man's dignity is something else. Which is a great deal more than can be said for the hammy Robert Newton (a popular Long John Silver in his day) whose turn as the bohemian drunk obsessed with committing Johnny's fading inner light to canvas is as overblown as it is surplus to the story. And what's the crack with that surly doctor he pals around with? Most vexing.

23/11/2009

While The City Sleeps (1956)


First up, here's a beauty. I've just qualified as a journalist but so far haven't had much luck breaking through at a time when the newspaper industry is in turmoil and jobs are scarce. Fritz Lang's noir thriller While The City Sleeps recalls happier days for the career newsman and is one of the most underrated movies about the subject there is.

Lang had made his name in the silent era with Dr Mabuse, The Gambler (1922), the expressionistic sci-fi dystopia Metropolis (1927) and later M (1931), the great granddaddy of serial killer flicks starring Peter Lorre. But in 1934 he was forced to leave his native Germany when Joseph Goebbels himself allegedly invited him to take the helm at the U.F.A. studio and churn out Nazi propaganda. Lang politely declined, turned on his heel and fled. Via Paris he found sanctuary in Hollywood and quickly re-established himself as a major player, making bleak but explosive urban crime dramas like Scarlet Street (1945) and The Big Heat (1953). While The City Sleeps stands as his last real celluloid hurrah. Here he is on set with stars Ida Lupino and Dana Andrews sporting an eyepatch, a then must-have fashion accessory for directors also favoured by the likes of John Ford, Raoul Walsh, Nicholas Ray and André de Toth.


A kind of 1950's ancestor to David Fincher's excellent Zodiac (2007), While The City Sleeps revolves around a fictional New York tabloid, The Sentinel, whose owner Amos Kyne (Robert Warwick) has just passed away from a heart attack. The old man's empire falls into the hands of his son and heir Walter Kyne Jr (Vincent Price), a dull playboy with an oedipal complex the size of a watermelon. Junior instigates a competition among The Sentinel's staff to find a new executive director, challenging his inherited hacks to catch the "Lipstick Killer"*, a brutal strangler responsible for a spate of dead women piling up across the city. Early front-runners include the paper's editor John Day Griffith (Thomas Mitchell), photographer Harry Kritzer (James Craig) and wire service chief Mark Loving (George Sanders). Top reporter and TV anchor Edward Mobley (Andrews, channeling Edward R. Murrow) claims to have no interest in the power struggle and oneupmanship that ensues until he receives a tip-off from a detective friend investigating the slayings. Mobley finally enters the fray, taunting the "Momma's boy" killer during a live broadcast and using his secretary girlfriend Nancy Liggett (Sally Forrest) as bait...


This is a hard world where ruthless reporters gladly put the lives of others at risk to secure a story and in which the line between the apparent good guys and the killer is decidedly blurry. One of the most interesting aspects of the film is Lang's bold decision to reveal the murderer's identity early on, a move regarded by many contemporary reviewers as a mistake but which allowed him to shrug off the trappings and clichés of whodunnit mysteries and focus on the motivations of his journalist protagonists. John Barrymore Jr is excellent as the nervy drug store delivery clerk with an overbearing mother and a taste for suffocation and the character seems a clear influence on later sexually-confused movie psychopaths like Norman Bates and Buffalo Bill. A classy cast of great character actors do the rest and are clearly having a ball stabbing each other in the back. There's something of Charles Foster Kane (and indeed Rupert Murdoch) about the dying Kyne Senior with his grand news corporation while the film's grimey subway chase, as the rat is driven underground, echoes the Vienna sewers sequence in Carol Reed's The Third Man (1949), although While The City Sleeps has deservedly spawned imitators of its own. New York Times reviewer A.H. Weiler damned the picture with faint praise on 17th May 1956 when he said, "While The City Sleeps is likely to keep the customers awake". Trust me, it's a whole lot better than that.

*Presumably no relation to octogenarian mass murderer William Heirens, behind bars since 1946 and thus the US's longest-serving prisoner, who answered to the same nickname.

22/11/2009

Introduction

Good evening ladies and gentlemen and welcome to Faded Video, a new blog about vintage cinema from the first half of the twentieth century, from the silent era to the Hollywood Golden Age and beyond.

My name is Joe and a love of black-and-white movies was instilled in me from an early age by my father, to whom this site is affectionately dedicated. He first introduced me to things like The Big Sleep (1946) and Strangers On A Train (1951), which blew a young mind and introduced me to a world I've never wanted to leave.

I worked hard to expand my knowledge of film history as I grew older by seeing as many old masters as possible. My Dad and I were regulars at the BFI Southbank in London and I scoured the TV listings every Saturday morning, mapping out which films to watch and tape. I soon amassed a formidable collection of battered VHS cassettes, stacks and stacks of videos occupying valuable bookshelf space and containing some of the finest cinema of the early century, a sticky label lovingly plastered along the spine of each to indicate the title. I immersed myself in this treasure trove and found unlikely role models for a child of the nineties in the likes of Cary Grant, Groucho Marx and Vincent Price. But, alas and inevitably, as the years went by, my tapes found themselves replaced by DVDs and hard-drive recording and eventually lay forgotten, gathering dust. Obsolete, outmoded, unwieldy blocks with the labels peeling loose. Faded, smeared, smudged and torn. Life moves on. They gradually disappeared - shoved into boxes, heaved up into cupboards or the attic. The whole collection dispersed and lost, seemingly doomed to suffer the ignominy of ending their days as landfill. Just recently though I've dug them all out, blown the cobwebs off the VCR and begun watching again. I don't know what I'm looking for.

Stay tuned and please do not attempt to adjust your sets...