Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Nightfall (1957)

January 23, 1957, release date
Directed by Jacques Tourneur
Screenplay by Stirling Silliphant
Based on the novel Nightfall by David Goodis
Music conducted by Morris Stoloff
Edited by William A. Lyon
Cinematography by Burnett Guffey

Aldo Ray as James Vanning
Brian Keith as John
Anne Bancroft as Marie Gardner
Jocelyn Brando as Laura Fraser
James Gregory as Ben Fraser
Frank Albertson as Dr. Edward Gurston
Rudy Bond as Red

Produced by A Copa Production
Distributed by Columbia Pictures Corporation

It’s hard for me to believe that Nightfall was released more than sixty years ago. The film is dated perhaps by fashion styles and automobile models, but the mood of angst is applicable to any era, including the present. Nightfall is a great story with many of the elements of classic noir: existential angst, uncertainty, the threat of violence, flashbacks, amnesia, fate.

The film opens on a city street in daytime. Viewers learn later that it is Hollywood Boulevard. The camera follows Jim Vanning, with his back to the camera, as he peruses a newsstand. He asks the clerk if there is an Evanston, Illinois, newspaper. There is not. When the newsstand clerk turns on the overhead lights, the man flinches. He’s nervous, maybe even paranoid about something. The switch to nighttime in the city is pretty quick. It disorients the viewers and shows Vanning’s distraction. Is he disoriented and thus not a reliable narrator in this story?

Vanning moves away from the newsstand, and a stranger, Ben Fraser, stops to talk to him. The stranger asks Vanning for a light. They talk about the heat. Jim Vanning tells Fraser that he is a World War II veteran and that he fought in Okinawa. Once Fraser leaves to catch a bus home, Vanning goes to a bar in a restaurant and happens to sit down next to Marie Gardner. She asks him for a $5.00 loan because she doesn’t have her wallet and can’t pay her tab. Because of this chance meeting and the circumstances Gardner finds herself in, without any money, she and Vanning start talking, and he invites her to dinner.

(This blog post about Nightfall contains spoilers.)

The film cuts back to Fraser arriving home to his wife. They talk about Vanning, but they never mention his name. Fraser is an insurance investigator with an interest in a case involving Vanning. His conversation with his wife reveals that Vanning is in trouble, but Fraser has doubts about Vanning’s culpability in past events that still aren’t fully revealed: to the characters and to the viewers.

Fraser needs more time to investigate the details of a bank robbery and a murder, and Vanning’s role in each. Vanning can’t remember the details of his past accurately: He is suffering from amnesia because of the trauma surrounding the events that Fraser is investigating. At the start of the film, Vanning believes that his is partly responsible for the crimes committed by others.

When the film cuts back to Marie and Jim, they are having dinner. They talk about their work: Marie is a model; Jim is a freelance artist. They leave the restaurant after Jim stops to buy cigarettes, and two men (John and Red) in the background watch him. These men stop Vanning and Marie out on the street and call him by a different name: Rayburn. Because of the interactions among all four characters on the street, viewers can infer that Marie is working for John and Red. They tell her to leave and she does. John and Red take Vanning away in a car to a remote industrial site. By now, viewers know that these men, John and Red, are dangerous. But so many questions are left unanswered.

Did Marie Gardner help John and Red by baiting Jim Vanning?
What do John and Red want from Jim? Information? About what?
What is Jim Vanning’s/Rayburn’s real identity?
If Vanning changed his name, why did he do it?

Everyone in this film has questions, and so do viewers. The questions are answered for the characters and the viewers at the same time, as the plot unfolds. In a sense, the film asks viewers to go along with Vanning’s story and trust that they and he will find out what they need to know. The film asks the same of Marie Gardner. After John and Red beat Vanning, Vanning goes to Marie’s apartment demanding an explanation: He thinks Marie might be working with John and Red and that’s how they found him at the restaurant. Marie thinks Vanning is a criminal wanted by the police and that John and Red are officers. She lets Vanning into her apartment only reluctantly, and they learn the truth about one another’s roles in the story so far in subsequent conversation.

Nightfall is based on David Goodis’s novel of the same name, and it alternates between Vanning’s story and Ben Fraser’s part in it, just like the novel does. But the film uses flashbacks when Vanning tells parts of his story. In the novel, Vanning refers to past events in conversation with other characters: Readers are still rooted in the present and hear Vanning’s version of the past. The film takes place in California and in Wyoming; the book takes place in New York City. Fraser is an insurance investigator in the film, but he is a police detective in the novel, and readers learn more about Fraser’s story than viewers do in by watching the film.

Nightfall has some great dialogue that exemplifies the confusion and fear for Jim Vanning and Marie Gardner and the role that fate plays in their lives. After Marie reluctantly lets Jim into her apartment, when he still has questions about her role in his abduction by John and Red, he says to her one of my favorite lines in film noir: “Nice place. I’ll try not to bleed over everything.” It captures his cynicism and his fear about her role up to that point. Fate brings Jim Vanning and Marie Gardner together and embroils them in a dangerous situation that neither one of them wants. Fate seems especially cruel to Marie, who is an innocent bystander in Jim’s story. After Jim enters her apartment and they begin talking, she asks the question that many film noir protagonists could ask about their own situation:
Marie: “Why me?”
Jim: “I used to ask myself the same question, ‘Why me?’ Because you were unlucky enough to talk to me tonight.”

I have read David Goodis’s novel and enjoyed it. (I do plan to blog about it, too.) This film adaptation is wonderful, and I can recommend it and the book. The film doesn’t follow the book exactly, which I think makes the film that much better. In fact, this is one of those rare instances when both the book and the film stand on their own merits.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Mildred Pierce (Book [1941], Television Series [2011])

Mildred Pierce, by James M. Cain (novel)
New York, NY: Vintage Books, 1989
Originally published in 1941

List of main characters:
Mildred Pierce
Bert Pierce
Veda Pierce
Moire (Ray) Pierce
Wally Burgan
Lucy Gessler
Ida Corwin
Monty Beragon

Mildred Pierce (television series)
March 27, April 3, April 10, 2011, broadcast dates
Directed by Todd Haynes
Screenplay by Todd Haynes, Jon Raymond
Based on the novel Mildred Pierce by James M. Cain
Theme music by Carter Burwell
Edited by Affonso Gonçalves
Cinematography Edward Lachman

Kate Winslet as Mildred Pierce
Brían F. O’Byrne as Bert Pierce
Melissa Leo as Lucy Gessler
Evan Rachel Wood as Veda Pierce (Dilber Yunus and Sumi Jo as her singing voice)
Morgan Turner as the young Veda Pierce
Quinn McColgan as Ray Pierce
Guy Pearce as Monty Beragon
James LeGros as Wally Burgan
Mare Winningham as Ida Corwin
Hope Davis as Mrs. Forrester

Broadcast by HBO

 Mildred Pierce might not qualify as noir literature for many readers. There’s no murder, not much physical violence; however, there is plenty of betrayal and emotional violence. I am not very fond of categories, and I can see both sides for this particular novel by James M. Cain.

The novel opens in the spring of 1931, almost two years after the start of the Great Depression. The Pierce family—Mildred, her husband Bert, and their daughters Veda and Ray—are struggling to get by. The first chapter gets right down to business: Mildred is fed up with Bert’s infidelity and his unemployment, and she tosses him out of the house. She is now responsible for herself and her daughters. Mildred has too much pride to take a waitressing or a housekeeping position, but given her circumstances, she finally decides to start waitressing. Her pride and Veda’s disdain for menial work, even her mother’s menial work, forces her to take on a restaurant business so that she can hold her head up and keep Veda’s affection. Although this financial struggle starts the novel and the thread about this part of the story proceeds rather quickly, Cain sets up the battle of wills between mother and daughter at a much slower pace.

(This blog post about Mildred Pierce, both the novel and the television series, contains spoilers.)

I don’t think there is much doubt that the 1945 film Mildred Pierce starring Joan Crawford is a noir (click here for my blog post). But what about the novel and the television series is noir? Perhaps the three strongest points are Monty as an homme fatale; the emotional betrayals perpetrated by Veda, Mildred, and Monty; and fate.

Monty, in league with Veda, certainly plays a role in Mildred’s undoing. She hasn’t had such a relationship before and the attraction between her and Monty almost frightens her:
 “. . . For one thing, she [Mildred] had discovered that a large part of his [Monty’s] appeal for her was physical, and this she found disturbing. So far, her sex experiences had been limited, and of a routine, tepid sort, even in the early days with Bert [Pierce]. This hot, wanton excitement that Monty aroused in her seemed somehow shameful; also, she was afraid it might really take possession of her, and interfere with her work, which was becoming her life. For in spite of mishaps, blunders, and catastrophes that sometimes reduced her to bitter tears. The little restaurant continued to prosper. . . .” (page 151)
But at least she recognizes that something powerful is going on. With Veda, it almost seems that it is her choice—or maybe her fate—to miss the ominous signs that Veda barely bothers to hide from her mother.

A telling description, during Veda’s Hollywood Bowl performance, of how Mildred sees her daughter Veda occurs near the end of the novel.
. . . There came a tap on her shoulder, and Mr. Pierce [Bert’s father, Mildred’s father–in-law] was handing her a pair of opera glasses. Eagerly she took them, adjusted them, leveled them at Veda. But after a few moments she put them down. Up close, she could see the wan, stagey look that Veda turned on the audience, and the sharp, cold look that she constantly shot as Mr. Treviso [Veda’s teacher, and conductor for the evening], particularly when there was a break, and she was waiting to come in. It shattered illusion for Mildred. She preferred to remain at a distance, to enjoy this child as she seemed, rather than as she was. (page 277)
In other words, Mildred has learned nothing from her experience interacting with her daughter or from other people who see Veda more clearly and objectively. She’s not willing to examine her relationship with Veda very closely or in detail (through opera glasses, so to speak) because the reality is unsettling, as well it should be. Treviso, Veda’s music tutor, holds no illusions about Veda and tells Mildred that Veda is indeed very talented, but on a personal level she is nothing more than a poisonous snake. Mildred ignores his warnings.

Veda’s emotional violence has been ongoing; her capacity to hurt her mother is revealed at its most brutal when Mildred discovers that her daughter is sleeping with her second husband and Veda’s stepfather, Monty.
 “. . . Yet this athlete [Veda Pierce] crumpled like a jellyfish before a panting, dumpy little thing in a black dress [Mildred Pierce, Veda’s mother], a hat over one ear, and a string of beads that broke and went bouncing all over the room. Somewhere, as if from a distance, Mildred could hear Monty, yelling at her, and feel him, dragging at her to pull her away. She could feel Veda scratching at her eyes, at her face, and taste blood trickling into her mouth. Nothing stopped her. She clutched for the throat of the naked girl beneath her, and squeezed hard. She wrenched the other hand free of Monty, and clutched with that too, and squeezed with both hands. She could see Veda’s face getting red, getting purple. She could see Veda’s tongue popping out, her slaty blue eyes losing expression. She squeezed harder.” (pages 291–292 )
Mildred loses control and attacks Veda—but not Monty. Could Mildred be changing finally, after such an egregious betrayal? Even at this late point in the novel, readers are kept guessing, and that’s a plus.

I read Mildred Pierce because of the 1945 movie starring Joan Crawford (which I saw first and more than once) and the 2011 HBO miniseries starring Kate Winslet. I saw both before I read the novel, and while reading it, I found myself picturing the HBO series. It’s not because I prefer the HBO series to the 1945 film version. But the HBO series follows the novel so closely that it was easy to picture the actors and “hear” the dialogue as spoken in the more recent adaptation. Before I saw the television series, I didn’t believe that Kate Winslet, as much as I admire her acting, would be able to match the intensity of Joan Crawford’s performance. Maybe this belief became a self-fulfilling prophecy because my opinion didn’t change after I saw the series.

I do prefer the 1945 film version of Mildred Pierce. It doesn’t follow the novel all that closely. It opens with a murder, which is not part of the novel at all. But the rewrite adds to the film’s edge and gives the subsequent plot more suspense. Joan Crawford gives Mildred more backbone, in spite of her need for her daughter Veda’s affection. I also prefer Cain’s novel to the HBO adaptation, which took several hours to tell the story.

You might be thinking by now that I didn’t enjoy the HBO version of Mildred Pierce, and nothing could be further from the truth. If I didn’t have the 1945 film version and Cain’s novel to compare it to, I would be writing even more enthusiastically about it. I especially like the character of Bert Pierce in the television series, which I think is one of the features of the television adaptation that is an improvement over the 1945 film.

I suppose, however, that comparisons between the film version and the television series, and especially between these adaptations and the novel, are unfair. All I know is that I can recommend all three, and all three still have the ability to shock after more than seventy years.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

The Killers (1946)

August 30, 1946, release date
Directed by Robert Siodmak
Screenplay by Anthony Veiller, John Huston
Based on a 1927 short story “The Killers,” by Ernest Hemingway, in Scribners Magazine
Music by Miklós Rózsa
Edited by Arthur Hilton
Cinematography by Woody Bredell

Burt Lancaster as Pete Lund/Ole “Swede” Andreson
Ava Gardner as Kitty Collins
Edmond O’Brien as Jim Reardon
Albert Dekker as “Big Jim” Colfax
Sam Levene as Lt. Sam Lubinsky
Vince Barnett as Charleston, the Swede’s prison cellmate
Virginia Christine as Lilly Harmon Lubinsky, the Swede’s former girlfriend, now Sam Lubinsky’s wife
Charles D. Brown as Packy Robinson, the Swede’s boxing manager

Jack Lambert as “Dum Dum” Clarke
Donald Mac Bride as R. S. Kenyon, Reardon’s boss
Charles McGraw as Al
William Conrad as Max
Phil Brown as Nick Adams
Jeff Corey as “Blinky” Franklin
Harry Hayden as George
Bill Walker as Sam
Queenie Smith as Mary Ellen Daugherty (also known as Queenie)
Beatrice Roberts as nurse
John Miljan as Jake the rake
Vera Lewis as Ma Hirsch

Produced by Mark Hellinger Productions
Distributed by Universal Pictures

The Killers opens with two men driving at night; the camera is perched in the backseat so viewers see the road and the signs, one of which lets them know they are entering Brentwood, New Jersey, The music is dark and ominous, with bass notes and horns. The killers are the first characters to appear on-screen. After driving into Brentwood, they walk to the Tri-State Gas Station and then cross the street to Henry’s Diner, where they harass the owner, a customer, and the cook. They are in town to find the Swede and kill him, and they don’t bother to hide this fact. The Swede attempted once to double-cross Colfax, the leader of a payroll heist, and to steal Colfax’s girlfriend Kitty. Colfax isn’t going to let the Swede get away with trying to cheat him.

(This blog post about The Killers contains spoilers.)

The only customer in the diner, Nick Adams, happens to be the Swede’s friend and coworker. Once the killers realize that the Swede isn’t coming into the diner to eat, they leave, and Nick runs to the Swede’s boarding house to warn him about the men looking for him.
Nick: “Swede, I was over at Henry’s. A couple of guys came and tied up me and the cook. They shoved us in the kitchen. They said they were going to shoot you when you came in for supper. Well, George thought I ought to come over and tell you.”
Swede: “There’s nothing I can do about it.”
Nick: “I can tell you what they look like.”
Swede: “I don’t want to know what they’re like. Thanks for coming.”
Nick: “Don’t you want me to go and see the police?”
Swede: “No. That wouldn’t do any good.”
Nick: “Isn’t there something I can do?”
Swede: “There ain’t anything to do.”
Nick: “Couldn’t you get out of town?”
Swede: “No. I’m through with all that running around.”
Nick: “Why do they wanna kill you?”
Swede: “I did something wrong . . . once. Thanks for coming.”
Nick: “Yeah. It’s all right.”

Some think of the Swede as the character caught in an existential dilemma in The Killers. They point to this conversation as evidence of his resignation to his fate, and there’s no doubt that he doesn’t put up any resistance. When the killers find him, they complete the job they were hired to do and take off. But for me, the Swede is just reacting to his circumstances. He has done something wrong in the past, but he never takes responsibility for the crimes that he has committed. He simply acquiesces to death at the hands of the killers, who aren’t on a path that cannot be changed because fate has put them on it; they’re simply doing the job they have been hired to do. In existentialist thought, the universe is indifferent to humankind, neither benevolent nor hostile. The Swede’s universe is decidedly hostile to him, and he simply tires of running away from it.

The character in The Killers who seems closest to being caught in an existential dilemma in the film is Jim Reardon, the insurance company investigator played by Edmond O’Brien. He’s the one who plods through each day in the insurance company bureaucracy and the one who does his job for small rewards (getting a paycheck and saving the company policyholders from a fraction-of-a-cent increase in their premiums). He accepts the responsibility of the choices he has made: He chose his job, and so he fulfills the requirements of his job as best he can. For Jim Reardon, the universe of the film is indifferent to the fact that he is involved in a Sisyphean task of returning each day to do his job. Yes, he is ultimately a success because of his perseverance: He solves the puzzle of the Swede’s crime and of his murder. But solving the puzzle isn’t the most important thing; what’s important is the process, and Reardon never gives up on the process. The near-meaninglessness of his bureaucratic job is summed up in the final conversation between him and his boss, R. S. Kenyon.
R. S. Kenyon: “Owing to your [Reardon’s] splendid efforts, the basic rate at the Atlantic Casualty Company, as of 1947, will probably drop one-tenth of a cent. Congratulations, Mr. Reardon.”
Jim Reardon: “I’d rather have a night’s sleep.”

Kitty Collins is the quintessential femme fatale. She lures the Swede into a hopeless romantic affair, and she double-crosses him and the others involved in the payroll heist. But Kitty doesn’t remain loyal to either the Swede or Colfax. When Colfax has been shot by Dum Dum Clarke and is dying on the staircase in the house that he shares with Kitty, Kitty wants only to save herself:
Kitty: “Jim! Jim! Tell them I didn’t do anything. Jim, listen to me. You can save me. Jim, do hear me? Tell them I didn’t know those gunmen were coming. Say, ‘Kitty is innocent. I swear, Kitty is innocent.’ Say it, Jim. Say it. It’ll save me if you do.”
Lieutenant Sam Lubinsky: “Don’t ask a dying man to lie his soul into hell.”
But that’s exactly what Kitty wants if it means avoiding conviction and a prison term.

I really enjoyed the double crosses and the twists and turns of the plot. The Killers kept me guessing until the very end when I saw it the first time. But to gain a better understanding of the Swede’s despair, Jim Reardon’s bureaucratic progression through his investigation, and the lengths to which Kitty will go to save herself, it’s worth seeing The Killers a second time.