Monday, October 26, 2015

Wait Until Dark (1967)

October 26, 1967, release date
Directed by Terence Young
Screenplay by Robert Carrington and Jane-Howard Carrington
Based on a story by Frederick Knott
Music by Henry Mancini
Edited by Gene Milford
Cinematography by Charles Lang
Audrey Hepburn as Susy Hendrix
Alan Arkin as Roat, Harry Roat, Jr., and Harry Roat, Sr.
Richard Crenna as Mike Talman
Efrem Zimbalist, Jr. as Sam Hendrix
Jack Weston as Carlino
Samantha Jones as Lisa
Julie Herrod as Gloria, Susy’s neighbor

Produced by Warner Bros.–Seven Arts

This film was released exactly forty-eight years ago today, and every time I see it, I marvel at the story, the acting, the production, the music score. It’s a neo-noir that shouldn’t be missed.

The opening of Wait Until Dark is unusual and right away poses many questions. The WB logo appears over a red satin background; dissonant music is playing. It turns out that the shot is in extreme close-up because a hand appears and uses a knife to cut the red satin. Then the camera cuts to a medium shot of an older man pulling stuffing out of a doll, and the red satin turns out to be part of the doll’s undergarments. The credits start, and behind the credits we see the setup: Lisa has some heroin in the doll. The old man makes a phone call while watching Lisa outside the window of the apartment she just left. Lisa boards a plane to take the doll and its contents from Montreal to New York City. She spots someone (Roat) in the airport in New York, suspects trouble, and asks a man on her flight (Sam Hendrix) to safeguard the doll. The sequence is very economical and leaves us with questions that can be answered by watching the rest of the film.

Audrey Hepburn and Alan Arkin stand out in a excellent cast. Two details about Wait Until Dark really stick with me: the relationship between Susy Hendrix and her neighbor Gloria, and the way that one of the criminals, Mike Talman, comes to appreciate Susy Hendrix, and she comes to appreciate him.

(This blog post about Wait Until Dark contains spoilers.)

Gloria is a young girl who seems like a misfit. Her father abandoned the family; her mother has gone off for the weekend and left her alone. She and Susy do not get along at the beginning of the film. Susy tells this to her husband Sam, who has some sympathy for Gloria’s predicament. But he is not the target of Gloria’s taunts.

At one point in the film, Gloria gets angry with Susy and throws kitchen items on the floor. She and Susy get into a shouting match, but they resolve the confrontation and apologize to one another. Gloria tells Susy that she didn’t throw anything breakable; she throws only unbreakable things. She explains: It’s something that she learned from her father. There’s nothing about this child, her situation, or her relationship with her blind neighbor that’s romanticized.

Mike Talman insinuates himself into Susy’s life by telling her that he is an old army buddy of Sam, her husband. Susy must depend on Gloria when she realizes that Mike is trying to deceive her and may in fact mean her harm. The following bit of dialogue between Susy and Gloria is revealing about both characters:
• Susy: “Gloria?”
• Gloria: “Yeah?”
• Susy: “How would you like to do something difficult and terribly dangerous?”
• Gloria: “I’d love it.”
When Gloria leaves to meet Sam’s bus (from Asbury Park) at the Port Authority Bus Terminal, she tells Susy: “Gee, I wish something like this would happen every day.” Gloria is young enough not to understand the true danger that Susy faces. But she is happy to help because of the excitement that she perceives in the situation, which would be true of a lot of children her age.

Gloria proves to be a resourceful child. She pretends to be selling Girl Scout cookies to get past Carlino, who is working with Harry Roat and Mike Talman, and who is on the street guarding the front door to Susy Hendix’s apartment building. Gloria manages to convince him that she’s out at night trying to sell cookies and earn points, and then she’s on her way to find Sam Hendrix at the bus terminal.

Mike Talman comes to appreciate Susy. He, Carlino, and Roat are trying to get the doll stuffed with heroin from her, and they have been lying and harassing her to do it. But he tells Carlino that Susy is an impressive woman. Later, he has the following exchange with Susy:
• Talman: “You’re a good, strong lady, Susy Hendix.”
• Susy: “World champion blind lady.”
• Talman: “Oh, yeah. You’re all of that.”

I’ve seen Wait Until Dark several times, and I’m still amazed by the performances and the story. And, of course, by the famous scene toward the end when Susy Hendrix is trapped in her apartment, and Harry Roat . . . . If you haven’t seen it, it really would be unfair to spoil it. I still find the scene powerful, even though I have seen it several times. I imagine this last sequence with Susy Hendrix and Harry Roat is even more powerful in the complete darkness of a 1967 movie theater with a large screen.

One of the special features on the DVD, “A Look in the Dark,” offers some insight into the making of the film. In particular, Alan Arkin explains why Wait Until Dark still works so well today: If audiences don’t see every graphic moment on the screen, they have the chance to contribute their own emotions, their own fears, to the movie experience. They have a chance to help create the story. I think that’s just one of several reasons that the film holds up after forty-eight years.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Where the Sidewalk Ends (1950)

June 26, 1950, release date
Directed by Otto Preminger
Screenplay by Ben Hecht
Story by Victor Trivas, Frank P. Rosenberg, and Robert E. Kent
Based on the 1948 novel Night Cry by William L. Stuart
Music by Cyril Mockridge
Edited by Louis Loeffler
Cinematography by Joseph LaShelle

Dana Andrews as Detective Sgt. Mark Dixon
Gene Tierney as Morgan Taylor-Paine
Gary Merrill as Tommy Scalise
Bert Freed as Detective Sgt. Paul Klein (Dixon’s partner)
Tom Tully as Jiggs Taylor, Morgan’s father
Karl Malden as Detective Lt. Thomas
Ruth Donnelly as Martha, owner of Martha’s Café
Craig Stevens as Ken Paine
Robert Simon as Inspector Nicholas Foley
Harry Von Zell as Ted Morrison
Don Appell as Willie Bender
Neville Brand as Steve (Scalise’s henchman)

Distributed by 20th Century Fox

The opening title sequence is great, with chalk-like writing on a sidewalk. Gene Tierney’s and Dana Andrews’s names are shown first, then the movie title. Then two men, seen only via their shoes and their pants legs, walk over the movie title and exit off screen. The camera pans just a bit to the gutter and drain with running water. Only then do the credits start, with Mark Dixon and his partner riding in their police car and listening to the chatter on the police radio. (The police radio is a bit of realism that reminds me of the opening of another film noir: The Asphalt Jungle. The films were released only a month apart.)

Mark Dixon is a man haunted by his past. His father died trying to shoot his way out of prison, and Mark can’t let the memory go. He worries that he is exactly like his father, which only makes him more physical and aggressive in his police work. He accidently kills a murder suspect, which proves to him that he is his father’s son. But the movie’s portrayal of the fight scene leaves no doubt that it was an accident; it’s much more sympathetic to Mark than Mark is to himself.

By the way, the fight scenes in Where the Sidewalk Ends are very realistic. The fight between Dixon and Paine, the man he accidently kills, doesn’t use any stunt doubles. Dana Andrews and the actors give great performances here and in other fight scenes throughout the film. When Paine grabs Dixon by the throat, I could almost feel my own throat squeezed shut!

Why does Dixon tried to hide the accidental murder of Paine when it’s so clearly a matter of self-defense? Maybe he can’t bear the comparisons that will be made between him and his father. Maybe he can’t bear to hear Inspector Foley berate him again for his heavy-handed tactics. Dixon’s decisions, one bad one after another, lead deeper and deeper into a dark world that fate hands to him and he makes worse.

And I rooted for him the whole way! I wanted him to right his wrongs so he could spend time with his love interest, Morgan Taylor. Played by Gene Tierney, Morgan is separated from the dead man and still legally his wife. This fact compounds Mark’s torment: He knows what he has done and he continues to lie about it, both to his fellow officers and to the woman he loves. The rest of the film left me wondering, almost until the very end, whether Mark would live long enough, first of all, and whether he would start to turn his life around.

I did wonder a bit about the title: Where the Sidewalk Ends. Is it a metaphor for what can happen to people when they decide to leave civilization, or law and order, behind? Or when civilization (or law and order) doesn’t consider them worthy of protection anymore? Mark Dixon gives the clearest explanation of the theme and the meaning of the title when he says to Morgan, “Innocent people can get into terrible jams, too. One false move and you’re in over your head.” You end up in a world that has no clear edges and no longer makes sense.

Where the Sidewalk Ends is a great example of a film noir that keeps the suspense building. It gives a wonderful and sympathetic portrayal of a man burdened by his past.

And it certainly helps that Dana Andrews looks noir-perfect in his fedora and overcoat. He and Dick Tracy could have been brothers!

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Mulholland Dr. (2001)

May 16, 2001 (Cannes), October 12, 2001, release date
Directed by David Lynch
Screenplay by David Lynch
Music by Angelo Badalamenti
Edited by Mary Sweeney
Cinematography by Peter Deming

Naomi Watts as Betty Elms, Diane Selwyn
Jeanne Bates as Irene
Dan Birnbaum as Irene’s companion
Robert Forster as Detective McKnight
Brent Briscoe as Detective Domgaard
Maya Bond as Aunt Ruth
Bonnie Aarons as the bum behind Winkie’s
Laura Elena Harring as Rita, Camilla Rhodes
Melissa George as Camilla Rhodes
Justin Theroux as Adam Kesher
Billy Ray Cyrus as the pool cleaner
Monty Montgomery/Lafayette Montgomery as the cowboy
Dan Hedaya and Angelo Badalementi as the Castigliani brothers
Michael J. Anderson as Mr. Roque
Joseph Kearney as Roque’s manservant
Ann Miller as Coco (the landlady and Adam’s mother)
Chad Everett as Jimmy Katz

Produced by Les Films Alain Sarde, Asymmetrical Productions, Babbo Inc. Canal+, The Picture Factory
Distributed by Universal Pictures

 Mulholland Dr. was released fourteen years ago this month. It still has the power to confound viewers. The director, David Lynch, has never offered any explanations about the film, which makes it more intriguing. I’ve seen it twice, and maybe two viewings are necessary for a film like this one that seems to offer viewers a look into a person’s mind at the moment of death. The mood of the film means everything, as was true of Winter’s Bone. David Lynch and Debra Granik created a noir mood for their respective films and stayed true to it and the story in each one.

(This blog post about Mulholland Dr. includes spoilers.)

Most of the film that takes place between the time that Betty’s head hits the pillow in the bedroom of her shoddy apartment and the time that she pulls out the gun from the bedside table takes place in the past. The film opens with a jitterbug sequence, with several dancers cut out to show more dancers and then more dancers again. Betty Elms, standing with an older man and a woman, is beaming. The next shot is a switch to a first-person point of view, with the camera moving into a bedroom with a bed, pink sheets, and a yellow or greenish-yellow blanket. Labored breathing is heard on the soundtrack as the camera moves into an extreme close-up on the pink pillowcase and then fades to black. That would be the moment when Betty’s head lands on the pillow.

Then everything is told from Betty’s point of view, but the way that she imagines recent past events in her life. The slow-tracking camera moves are first-person point-of-view shots from Betty’s point of view, but they seem to stop and linger before switching to the next shot. She seems to approach each set of events, then stop to re-imagine them with her revisionist memory. And as the movie progresses, it turns out that Betty has embellished some events with her own wishful thinking.

For instance, when she first meets Rita, her love interest, she is solicitous about her head wound and her loss of memory, which Rita sustained during a car accident. She wants to take care of Rita and help her regain her memory. The two of them eventually fall in love, and their relationship seems perfect, but slowly the truth intrudes. Betty may be trying to put a much more positive tone on her time in Hollywood, but the plot slowly reveals her self-deceptions.

In the final sequence, Betty is sitting in her shabby living room in a chenille bathrobe. She looks like she hasn’t slept in days. Incessant knocking on her front door distracts her, but she starts to hallucinate. Tiny versions of the older man and woman, who stood with Betty in the opening sequence of the film, are trying to crawl under her front door and they succeed. They become life-size and chase her, and she runs screaming to the bedroom, where she falls on the bed.

At this point, Mulholland Dr. is back in the present, back at the moment at the beginning of the film where Betty’s head hits the pillow. Everything between the first camera shot moving into Betty’s bedroom at the beginning of the film and this moment near the end of the film when she runs screaming into her bedroom is what makes up the plot: Betty’s musings on the most recent events in her life while she was in Hollywood. The very last scene brings the plot back to the club Silencio that Betty and Rita visited one night and where all the acts were prerecorded, where everything gave the illusion of happening in the present. The shot then switches to the lone spectator (an illusion of a woman because it’s a man dressed as a woman?) in the box at the club, who whispers the word silencio.

The word silencio means “silence” in Spanish, but it seemed to mean the moment of death in Mulholland Dr. The entire film seems to be the ultimate illusion: that everything that the audience sees and tries to put into a coherent narrative form is simply a representation of Betty’s musings at the moment of death. In this interpretation, the film succeeds beautifully. It does have a loose narrative structure because the character’s final musings involve the recent past and nothing more. But it has some fantastic moments that don’t seem quite so fantastic if the basic premise of the film is that almost everything the viewer sees exists solely in Betty’s mind.