Friday, November 27, 2015

Crime in the Streets (1956)

June 10, 1956, release date
Directed by Don Siegel
Screenplay by Reginald Rose
Based on the television play by Reginald Rose
Music by Franz Waxman
Edited by Richard C. Meyer
Cinematography by Sam Leavitt

James Whitmore as Ben Wagner
John Cassavetes as Frankie Dane
Sal Mineo as Angelo "Baby" Gioia
Virginia Gregg as Mrs. Dane
Malcolm Atterbury as McAllister
Mark Rydell as Lou Macklin
Peter J. Votrian as Richie Dane
Denise Alexander as Maria Gioia
Will Kuluva as Mr. Gioia
Steve Rowland as Glasses

Distributed by Allied Artists

Crime in the Streets is one of the most moving films noir I have ever seen. (Another one is On Dangerous Ground.) It’s a late-period film noir: It was released in 1956 (the classic film noir period is often described as lasting from 1940 to 1958). During the 1950s, several films took up the theme of juvenile delinquency, and Crime in the Streets is one of the most poignant examples.

During the opening sequence, the camera pans over an urban landscape, and one could argue that the city (really any city) is as much a character as one of the people in the film. Most of the rest of the film is shot on a set, but that doesn’t take away from the grittiness or the desperation that so many of the characters feel in this story. The acting and the writing certainly make the setting vivid. The jazz score is also used to accentuate the desperation and the violence. Frankie and his gang members use 1950s hip jazz talk that makes them seem set off from everyone else in their neighborhood.

Crime in the Streets investigates juvenile delinquency, corporal punishment for teenagers, and the reasons why young men turn to violence. Most of these themes are discussed by Ben Wagner, a social worker, with various characters in the film. For example, Mr. Gioia is in favor of corporal punishment; he says that it’s the only thing some teenage boys understand. Ben Wagner says that it makes tough, angry young men tougher and angrier. He would rather try to understand, sympathize, listen, talk. He tries to help Frankie’s mother, Mrs. Dane. She doesn’t know what to do about her son Frankie and admits to Wagner that she’s afraid of Frankie. He’s still living in the apartment but does nothing to contribute to the running of the household, and he won’t look for a job.

(This blog post about Crime in the Streets contains spoilers.)

Frankie is like a powder keg waiting to explode. His plan to kill McAllister is shocking even to most of his fellow gang members. Most of them don’t have the stomach to kill one of their neighbors. But Frankie presses on with his plan, which now includes gang members Lou and Baby. Lou and Baby are nervous, but Frankie is excited about killing someone. He claims that he’s never felt more loose and relaxed. He’s a difficult character to sympathize with, but Ben Wagner refuses to give up on him. One of the most important scenes in the film is when Wagner gives one of his big speeches to Frankie. He can guess what Frankie’s life is like because he was in the same situation: You’re eight years old, and your father walks out one day without kissing you goodbye and you never see him again. Then a baby shows up and your mother tells you you’re big enough to take care of yourself, and you go out to cry for the last time in your life. You’ve got to let someone love you or your nothing.

Ben Wagner’s words don’t seem to have any impact on Frankie. Frankie continues with his plan but with a change: He’ll cut up McAllister instead of killing him. When he’s in the middle of it, his brother Richie intervenes, and the two of them face off in the alley. Frankie threatens Richie with his switchblade. Richie tells him that they’re brothers and that he loves Frankie, and finally Frankie’s shell is pierced. They make peace and Frankie hugs his brother. Ben Wagner is at the end of the alley and grabs Frankie when he tries to run away; instead of getting angry, Frankie follows Wagner to talk to McAllister and the police officer at the end of the street, to accept responsibility for what he has done.

I was weeping during the scene in the alley between Frankie and his brother Richie. Crime in the Streets is a film noir, filled with all the grittiness and desperation of life in an urban slum, but it’s almost impossible not to be moved by this powerful scene of redemption. The ending may be simplistic; such big problems cannot be solved with one scene in a movie. But it’s not an easy scene, and it happens as Ben Wagner predicted it would: with one boy at a time. And redemption does not come from Ben Wagner or another adult in Frankie’s life, a source that one might expect. Instead, redemption comes from Richie, who is only a young child, not even a teenager yet. And in Frankie’s world, it makes complete sense.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

La demoiselle d'honneur / The Bridesmaid (2004)

September 7, 2004 (Venice Film Festival), July 28, 2006 (United States), release dates
Directed by Claude Chabrol
Screenplay by Claude Chabrol and Pierre Leccia
Based on The Bridesmaid by Ruth Rendell
Music by Matthieu Chabrol
Edited by Monique Fardoulis
Cinematography by Eduardo Serra
Benoît Magimel as Philippe Tardieu
Laura Smet as Stéphanie Bellange (Senta)
Aurore Clément as Christine
Bernard Le Coq as Gérard Courtois
Suzanne Flon as Madame Crespin
Solène Bouton as Sophie Tardieu
Anna Mihalcea as Patricia Tardieu
Thomas Chabrol as Lieutenant José Laval

Produced by Aliceléo, Canal Diffusion, France 2 Cinéma, Integral Film
Distributed by First Run Features

 La demoiselle d’honneur is definitely a neo-noir: The mood is unsettling from the start and gets more so until the final scene, when the credits are rolling over the shot of that bust named Flora.

The opening sequence is shot from a moving vehicle. The film looks bleached out; the scenes are sometimes distorted by the glass of the window. The credits start to roll, and by the time they’re done, color is restored. The vehicle stops in front of a house where a reporter is giving a news story about a missing young woman. It’s a television news story: The camera pans back to a television screen that Philippe and his sisters are watching. It’s a great opening for a film with an unbalanced female lead, and it’s almost the opposite of what happens to Philippe: Everything seems clear to him at the start, but then he’s in deep and everything is muddled.

(This blog post about La demoiselle d’honneur contains spoilers.)

The light and shadow typical of film noir and neo-noir are not dominant features in La demoiselle d’honneur, but the music and the filming create an uneasy mood that never quits. Senta may have some really odd, even dangerous ideas, but she doesn’t seem to be aware that she’s doing harm to others. Philippe falls in love with Senta and starts a relationship with her, and then realizes that he is in over his head as he gets to know her better. But he has the viewer’s sympathy: The story is told from his point of view, and it’s easy to see how he gets more and more enmeshed in Senta’s unstable world. The use of first-person point-of-view filming later in the film, when Philippe is searching for Senta after realizing what she has done, emphasizes Philippe’s predicament and the viewer’s identification with him.

Senta is a modern, more ambiguous femme fatale: She seduces Philippe, and it’s her idea that they plunge right away into a romantic and sexual relationship. But she doesn’t seem to be quite aware of her power over Philippe, and she is very unsure sometimes of his love for her. Philippe is drawn to her, at least at first, because she reminds him of the bust (which has a name—Flora) that his father gave to his mother. Philippe may seem like the odd one (and he is odd) because of his attachment to Flora, but that bust called Flora is the least of his problems as the movie and his relationship with Senta progresses.

What I love about La demoiselle d’honneur is the way the plot and the filming bring the viewer right into Philippe’s story. He’s strange. He’s involved with an unbalanced young woman who makes me want to warn him that he should run while he can still get out. But Philippe exercising good sense wouldn’t make a neo-noir, for one thing. Another is that the viewer is involved in the story and starts to identify with poor Philippe. That’s quite an accomplishment considering everything he goes through after meeting Senta and the warning signs that he either doesn’t see or chooses to ignore.

From the interview with Claude Chabrol on the DVD, it seems that Philippe makes his decision at the end of the film and there’s no turning back for him. But I wonder about that final scene. Philippe lies about killing someone for Senta; he agrees to fudge his work estimates so that his boss won’t have to pay more taxes; he never tells his mother what he is doing or where he goes after he starts seeing Senta. I wonder, in spite of the interview with Chabrol on the DVD, if maybe Philippe is still lying when Senta asks if he’ll ever leave her.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Desperate (1947)

May 17, 1947, release date
Directed by Anthony Mann
Screenplay by Harry Essex
Story by Dorothy Atlas and Anthony Mann
Music by Paul Sawtell
Cinematography by George E. Diskant

Steve Brodie as Steve Randall
Audrey Long as Anne Randall (Steve’s wife)
Raymond Burr as Walt Radak
Douglas Fowley as Pete Lavitch, a private eye
William Challee as Reynolds
Jason Robards Sr. as Detective Lieutenant Louie Ferrari
Freddie Steele as Shorty Abbott
Lee Frederick as Joe Daly
Paul E. Burns as Uncle Jan
Ilka Grüning as Aunt Klara

RKO Radio Pictures

Desperate is a great film noir with a great title. And it’s definitely a postwar film: Wartime and postwar references are common in the film because 1947 audiences would have been familiar with both. Steve Randall and his brother-in-law are both World War II veterans, and his sister-in-law (Anne’s sister) makes a comment about having to tell her husband that she was pregnant by V-mail (according to Wikipedia, a hybrid mail process used during World War II in America as the primary method for corresponding with soldiers stationed abroad).

The opening credits were a bit of a surprise, with the almost cartoonish shadows cast on a sidewalk and a wall. But the opening music, and indeed the rest of the movie, is anything but cartoonish. Steve Brodie is great in the role of Steve Randall. He falls into a trap set up by Walt Radak, someone he knew when they were children. He has no interest in the heist that Radak is planning; in his effort to get away during the heist, Walt’s brother Al is hurt and a police officer is shot. The officer subsequently dies, and Al is the only one of the Radak gang who is in custody to take the rap.

(This blog post about Desperate contains spoilers.)

Walt Radak is ready to avenge his brother, and he orders Steve (after a beating by Radak’s henchmen) to turn himself in as the guilty party in the officer’s murder. The sounds Steve makes during the beating he receives at Walt Radak’s are terrifying, even though (or maybe because) the beating takes place mostly off-screen. Steve Brodie’s acting, in combination with the lighting and the off-screen action, make the character’s pain believable. The beating is even more frightening because the beginning of the movie shows Steve at home, happy with his wife as they celebrate being married for four months; the viewer is now invested in Steve’s and Anne’s story. The makeup is effective, too: Steve really looks bloody and swollen. These threats to Steve and to his wife Anne convince Steve to go on the run.

When Walt Radak finally catches up to Steve after several months, he and his accomplice hide out in Steve’s apartment, surprise him, and hold him hostage. Radak wants to kill Steve at midnight, the same time that his brother Al will be executed. While Walt and his accomplice wait to kill Steve, the tension mounts: with the ticking clock, then the echoing sound it makes; with the close-ups, then the choker close-ups. And then the tension breaks with the knock at the door from a neighbor.

Walt doesn’t want any more interruptions from any more neighbors, so he and his accomplice take Steve outside, but the police are waiting. Detective Lieutenant Ferrari is injured slightly in the ensuing mélée, and Walt retreats into the apartment building. Steve takes Ferrari’s gun and pursues Walt. The shot of the staircase, the dark lighting, the shadows where Steve and Walt hide to avoid being shot: All are great details.

The shots of different neighbors peeking into the hallway to see what’s going on add some comic relief as Steve hunts for Walt. After Walt’s body falls all the flights down between the banisters, all of the neighbors in the apartment building finally come out into the hallway (don’t shoot anyone in an apartment building if you don’t want any witnesses!). I especially liked the police officer who tells them, “The excitement’s over. Let’s clear the hallway down here”—except Walt’s dead body is still on the first-floor landing!

Desperate is a very satisfying movie on many levels. Anne Randall goes on the run with her husband in spite of being pregnant, and she has the baby before the movie is over. There’s a Czech wedding with a minister at Aunt Klara’s and Uncle Jan’s farm. The film is filled with tension, and it has one of the most evil crime bosses (Raymond Burr as Walt Radak) in all of film noir, but justice and even a little bit of humor still prevail.