Sunday, December 27, 2015

I Wake up Screaming (Book) (1941)

I Wake up Screaming, by Steve Fisher
New York: Dodd, Mead & Company, 1941

List of main characters:
The narrator, nicknamed Peg
Vicky Lynn, murdered actress
Jill Lynn, Vicky’s sister
Lanny Craig, another script writer
Robin Ray, young actor
Hurd Evans, one of the partners promoting Vicky Lynn
Johnny Wismer, agent
Ed Cornell, police detective
Wanda Hale, ex-girlfriend of Hurd Evans and Jill’s roommate after Vicky’s death

I found the book image on a blog at WordPress called FilmFlotsam. (FilmFlotsam focuses more on the film than on the novel.) The image on the front cover of the dust jacket is noir-perfect.

I was lucky enough to find a 1941 edition of I Wake up Screaming in my local library system, although it no longer had the noir-perfect dust jacket. If you can find a first edition, I would definitely recommend it. The title itself (I Wake up Screaming) is one of my favorites.

I have seen only bits and pieces of the film starring Betty Grable and Victor Mature. I do know that the book and film are a little bit different. For one thing, the narrator in the book is never named except for the nickname Peg (for Pegasus) that Jill gives him. The entire plot in the novel is told from his perspective, in first-person narration. In the film, he is Frankie Christopher.

The book takes place in the Los Angeles, California, area and also seems to cover many months, from summer through winter the following year. It references Christmas at the appropriate points in the timeline. The narrator gives what I think of as the almost mandatory “noir protagonist speech,” which in I Wake up Screaming includes a reference to Santa Claus:
. . . You can’t know. You go all your life believing in justice. That right will triumph. Then it’s all pulled out from under. When I was a kid I used to believe in Santa Claus. I think I felt something like this when they told me the truth. (page 167)
I don’t think the film mentions anything about holidays or the seasons, and it takes place in New York City. (Okay, so I Wake up Screaming is on my list of must-see movies!)

(This blog post about the novel I Wake up Screaming contains spoilers.)

The book is told in the first person, from the perspective of a screenwriter who becomes a detective out of necessity. He is hounded by a corrupt police detective, Ed Cornell, who is intent on framing him for a murder he didn’t commit. As the plot progresses, the narrator’s desperation increases. He goes on the run with the murdered actress’s sister Jill, now his girlfriend, and he just misses getting picked up by the police when they arrest Jill.

At this point, which is late into the novel, the screenwriter takes matters into his own hands and starts investigating the clues based on the little he knows. He starts out as a screenwriter, but he’s now a detective trying to avoid a murder trial and jail time, if not worse. It was satisfying to follow him as he does what he can to save himself and his girlfriend Jill from the charges the police detective is intent on bringing against both of them.

You might think that the sexual obsession that runs through the core of I Wake up Screaming would be tame by 2015 standards, but I was a bit surprised by it all the same. While reading the book, my imagination filled in all the details that are not written on the page, and Steve Fisher’s descriptions of what happened to Vicky made me squirm. Fisher made the decision to let the murderer explain what happened, which made that part of the story even creepier.

The narrator himself is something of an anti-hero. In Chapter 1, he takes Vicky out on their first date. They drink zombies, and Vicky offers to cook dinner at her apartment. Once they arrive at her place, he doesn’t waste any time:
                She went into the bedroom then. After a while I followed her. She was standing in front of the mirror putting on lipstick with her little finger. She turned around, and all at once I was kissing her. I don’t know how long we stood there kissing. But she wasn’t just any girl. I knew that she was the one I’d been dreaming about.
                We were very tight. She wore a soft gray dress, I remember that; and my hand started roving. It wasn’t right. I didn’t want her to think I was a cheap heel—that this was everything. She began to cry, and was sort of fighting, and crying.
                Then it was all right.
                Afterward, I stood at the window. . . . (page 7)
So by page 7 of the novel, the narrator has already acted the part of a heel himself. It might be the reason I wondered about his innocence in Vicky’s murder at the beginning of the story.

I Wake up Screaming also mentions class and class consciousness in a roundabout way. For example, in Chapter 10, before the narrator and Jill Lynn start a relationship and go on the run, the narrator runs into Jill on a movie lot. She’s now working as a movie extra, and she wonders why he hasn’t come to visit her. The narrator says that he will, but she doesn’t believe him:
                “Honey, I’ll come up tomorrow. No, tonight. What are you doing tonight?”
                “Don’t do me any favors, Peg! Or is this charity clinic night?"
                “But I’d really like—”
                “You’re much too kind, darling. Really! If you came to see me some nasty little columnist would write ‘What star did a burn when what scenarist let her cool her heels in the bar at Dave Chasen’s last night?’ You’re far too generous with us extras, dear. Have you no class consciousness?” (pages 98–99, emphasis added)

In Chapter 11, Wanda Hale, Jill Lynn’s roommate after Vicky Lynn’s death, gives another perspective on working movie extras:
                “Something ought to be done about extras,” Wanda said. “They’ve made it a racket. One guy said we were just like migrant field workers. But if they give us a job they come around and take away half of the pay envelope. There are men that make a living that way.” . . .
                “Some sweet day a John Steinbeck will come and tell about it,” said Wanda. “He’ll tell about it because it’ll make him money. But he’ll tell. The way guys are beaten up because they don’t want to give their dough to racketeers. How girls have to sleep with fat slobs to get work. How girls get pregnant and climb the hills and jump off the Hollywoodland sign.” (pages 107–108 and 108–109)
This comparison of movie extras to migrant field workers made me wonder if Steve Fisher felt the same way about screenwriters (he was one himself) and if he published anything that addressed this issue more directly. An online search didn’t yield any results, but I still wonder. I don’t doubt that Fisher was aware of the 1930s unionization movement in the United States and in the entertainment industry, and the animators’ working conditions at Walt Disney Studios prior to their strike in 1941.

Class and class consciousness aren’t the main points of the novel, however. It is, first and foremost, a good murder mystery. The plot of I Wake up Screaming had me wondering about the murderer’s identity until the end. The writing was clever, and the reader never knows more than the narrator does. That’s quite an accomplishment for the author.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

It's a Wonderful Life (Part I) (1946)

December 20, 1946, release date
Directed by Frank Capra
Screenplay by Frances Goodrich, Albert Hackett, Frank Capra
Based on the story “The Greatest Gift” by Philip Van Doren Stern
Music by Dimitri Tiomkin
Edited by William Hornbeck
Cinematography by Joseph Walker, Joseph Biroc

James Stewart as George Bailey
Donna Reed as Mary Hatch Bailey
Henry Travers as Angel Clarency Odbody
Lionel Barrymore as Henry F. Potter
Thomas Mitchell as Uncle Billy Bailey
Beulah Bondi as Ma Bailey
Frank Faylen as Ernie Bishop, the cab driver
Ward Bond as Bert, the cop
Gloria Grahame as Violet Bick
H. B. Warner as Mr. Gower, druggist
Frank Albertson as Sam Wainwright
Todd Karns as Harry Bailey
Samuel S. Hinds as Peter (Pop) Bailey, George’s father
Lillian Randolph as Annie, the Baileys’ maid
Virginia Patton as Ruth Dakin Bailey, Harry’s wife
Mary Treen as Cousin Tilly, Building and Loan employee
Charles Williams as Cousin Eustace, Building and Loan employee
Sarah Edwards as Mrs. Hatch, Mary’s mother
Harold Landon as Marty Hatch
William Edmunds as Mr. Giuseppe Martini
Argentina Brunetti as Mrs. Martini
Sheldon Leonard as Nick, Martini’s bartender
Bobby Anderson as Little George Bailey
Jean Gale as Little Mary Hatch
Jeanine Ann Roose as Little Violet Bick
George Nokes as Little Harry Bailey
Frank Hagney as Potter’s mute aide
Charles Lane as Potter’s rent collector
Karolyn Grimes as Zuzu Bailey
Larry Simms as Pete Bailey
Carol Coomes as Janie Bailey
Jimmy Hawkins as Tommy Bailey

Produced by Liberty Films
Distributed by RKO Radio Pictures

Why would anyone think of It’s a Wonderful Life as a film noir? That’s the question I asked myself when I first listened to Shannon Clute’s and Richard Edwards’s podcast about the film at Out of the Past: Investigating Film Noir. (You can listen to Clute’s and Edwards’s podcast about the noir elements in It’s a Wonderful Life by going to the right-hand column of this blog, clicking on the link for Out of the Past: Investigating Film Noir, scrolling down to Episode 13, and clicking on the link provided there.)

It’s a Wonderful Life is presented as a film about a man’s desperation at Christmastime. But I’ve always thought it was such a dark film with its central theme of suicide. Released on December 20, 1946, almost exactly 69 years ago, it’s still watched today, mostly during the Christmas season. According to the DVD special feature “A Personal Remembrance,” hosted by Frank Capra, Jr., however, the film was considered too depressing for the holiday season when it was first released.

But is it film noir?

Clute and Edwards maintain that It’s a Wonderful Life addresses the central philosophical (and film noir) question: Is life worth living? It’s an existential dilemma, as presented in Albert Camus’s The Myth of Sisyphus.

I have to agree with them here. Such philosophical underpinnings were the hallmark of postwar films noir. Jimmy Stewart convinces me every time that George Bailey had it with his life in Bedford Falls. The despair he feels on the bridge and even before arriving there is a great bit of acting from Stewart: It’s convincing and believable.

From Clute and Edwards: Capra’s war experience during World War II making film documentaries, the Why We Fight series, influenced the making of It’s a Wonderful Life. This is Capra’s first film after making these war documentaries, and documentary realism played a role in Capra’s approach to this film. Jimmy Stewart is also back from his recent war experience, which he can draw on to depict a character suffering through an existential crisis.

Edwards: The critical sequence that qualifies this as a film noir is the sequence when George Bailey sees what his life would be like if he had never been born. But the film is actually bleak for most of its duration.

Clute: The noir segment actually starts sooner: when George Bailey realizes that Uncle Billy has lost the bank deposit. He is despairing before he gets to the bridge and he treats his wife, children, and Uncle Billy pretty badly.

Again, I agree, but I would go a step further: after years of covering for Uncle Billy, I thought George deserved to feel a little put out. Maybe he didn’t have to rough up his uncle, but it creates more noir in this film.

More points from Clute and Edwards:
• Pottersville: a noir city, with pool halls, strip clubs, bars, dance halls, and pawnshops.
• Gloria Grahame is a noir star in the making. She is vicious in the sequence about George never having been born. She’s a femme fatale, although in a limited role.
• Some details in It’s a Wonderful Life are similar to Meet John Doe and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. But before World War II, Capra’s films show the power of the people. After World War II, Capra’s themes revolve around the family, not the community. The family is rebuilt in response to trauma.

But even more than these points from Clute and Edwards makes It’s a Wonderful Life a dark story. So many of the details discussed in the film involve tragic periods in American history, not just in George Bailey’s life. For example, the druggist (Gower) drinks himself into a stupor after receiving a telegram from the president of Hammerton College explaining that his son Robert died of influenza. It’s 1919, and I’m sure audiences in the 1940s put two and two together: Robert Gower may have escaped the trench warfare of World War I but not the flu epidemic in 1918 and 1919, which struck down mostly young adults. (You can learn more about the flu epidemic via an online search.) As a result of his grief, Gower mistakenly adds poison to the capsules that are meant for a young child suffering from diphtheria (a childhood disease Americans in the 1940s also would have known all too well). When George points this out to Gower, Gower boxes him about the ears.

World War II features prominently in the film, and I bet the clips about the war are taken from Capra’s documentary work. The details added to the film about the war experiences of various characters in It’s a Wonderful Life would also have been familiar to 1940s audiences. For instance, Potter runs the draft board in Bedford Falls, and we learn that he assigns 1-A to most of the Selective Service registrants (a 1-A designation meant the recruit was available for unrestricted military service). George Bailey carries a 4-F card because of the hearing loss in his ear (4-F meant the registrant was not acceptable for military service). I had to research this information about conscription designations, but movie audiences in 1946 would have known these details.

Poor Uncle Billy wouldn’t have kept his sanity (his job, his family) without his nephew George. George Bailey often covered for Uncle Billy’s mistakes and forgetfulness. He overlooks his uncle’s drinking in the office when there is a run on the Building and Loan. When Uncle Billy has lost the bank deposit (the one that Potter finds and keeps), George doesn’t want to hear him say, “I can’t think any more, George. I can’t think any more. It hurts.” He manhandles Uncle Billy a bit, but he is still willing to take responsibility, just like he always has. He threatens Uncle Billy about letting him go to jail, but that’s not the story George tells Potter when he asks for a loan, and he doesn’t divulge Uncle Billy’s mistakes to the bank examiner. But the audience knows that Uncle Billy has always needed to be taken care of.

The plot of It’s a Wonderful Life includes some traumatic and heartbreaking details. The story alone has many noir elements. But other details of the film also give it some noir characteristics: flashbacks, unusual narration, dark and innovative cinematography. I’ll cover those characteristics in another blog post—after the Christmas season.

Monday, December 7, 2015

Devil in a Blue Dress (1995)

September 16, 1995 (Toronto Film Festival), September 28, 1995 (United States) release date
Directed by Carl Franklin
Screenplay by Carl Franklin
Based on the novel Devil in a Blue Dress by Walter Moseley
Music by Elmer Bernstein
Edited by Carole Kravetz
Cinematography by Tak Fujimoto
Denzel Washington as Ezekiel "Easy" Rawlins
Tom Sizemore as DeWitt Albright
Jennifer Beals as Daphne Monet
Don Cheadle as Mouse Alexander
Maury Chaykin as Matthew Terell
Terry Kinney as Todd Carter
Mel Winkler as Joppy
Albert Hall as Degan Odell
Lisa Nicole Carson as Coretta James
Jernard Burks as Dupree Brouchard
David Wolos-Fonteno as Junior Fornay
John Roselius as Detective Mason, LAPD
Beau Starr as Detective Jack Mille, LAPD
Steven Randazzo as Benny Giacomo
Scott Lincoln as Richard McGee
L. Scott Caldwell as Hattie May Parsons
Barry Shabaka Henley as the would-be tree cutter

Distributed by TriStar Pictures

The cinematography in Devil in a Blue Dress (released a little over twenty years ago) made an impression on me, and so I want to focus on it for my discussion of the film in this blog post. It’s certainly not the only factor that added to my enjoyment of the film, nor is it the only factor that makes Devil in a Blue Dress a neo-noir, but I believe the cinematography is worth a close look.

The film opens with a painting by Works Progress Administration (WPA) artist Archibald Motley called Bronzeville at Night (see above), which depicts a Chicago street scene. In the commentary provided on the DVD of the film, the director Carl Franklin discusses why he chose this opening and that he thought the painting could easily stand in for Los Angeles. (T-Bone Walker is singing “Westside Baby” on the soundtrack, which emphasizes the mood created in the opening.) The camera pans the painting as the credits roll, then zooms out to show the entire painting, lingering on it for a few seconds to set the mood and the time period for the film to come.

It is summer 1948 in Los Angeles, and the painting, the music, and the cinematography bring the time and the setting to life. Even though the film is shot in color, it’s easy to see why it is called neo-noir: Many of the shots are reminiscent of film noir techniques. In fact, Franklin points out many references to film noir during his commentary on the DVD, and it is well worth the time to listen to his directorial choices for this film.

The following still shows how effective the cinematography is at conveying the postwar period.

This shot occurs at a point in the film when Easy and his friends Mouse and Joppy are looking for Daphne Monet. Even though I can see a little bit of blue, it’s easy to forget that the film is shot in color. It looks like a film noir from the postwar period shot in black and white.

The following shot shows Easy and Mouse standing over someone they have been looking for at a pivotal point in the film. The car is faintly blue, and the ground has brown earth tones, but it’s another great example of lighting that makes me forget I’m watching a modern film and not period postwar film noir.

And did I mention that Devil in a Blue Dress is a great movie? I am still thinking about it, and that’s always a plus. The title is intriguing because it led me to expect a femme fatal par excellence, but instead I saw a much more complicated female character, which added yet another layer to a wonderful film.