30 DAYS OF FANDOR, DAY 5: FAREWELL, MY LOVELY (1975)

Day 4: FAREWELL, MY LOVELY (Dick Richards, USA, 1975)

It is blatantly obvious that this Raymond Chandler adaptation, a throwback to classic film noir but lensed through the honeyed golden hues of nostalgia, was a rather crass attempt to cash in on the success of Chinatown, and while it’s not at all the genre game-changer that Polanski’s film was, it’s nonetheless very, very good. Robert Mitchum, at this time a grizzled but still-handsome 57 years old, brings an appropriate world-weariness to the iconic character of Philip Marlowe, but for some reason the film insistently sidesteps ever deeply exploring the dynamics of having an older man in the role. As is usually the case when it comes to Chandler the plot is fundamentally incoherent, practically an endless chain of disposable red herrings; the compensating pleasures are instead how the character of Marlowe gives access to the wide variety of SoCal spaces, encountering fascinating characters around every corner. On this count Farewell, My Lovely is a great success, filling every scene with vivid character performances: wizened John Ireland, smartass Harry Dean Stanton, a fresh-faced, pre-fame Sylvester Stallone, a poignant turn by Sylvia Miles that earned her an Oscar nomination, and most particularly Kate Murtagh, whose butch Los Angeles madame ruthlessly lording over a harem of beautiful young women seems straight out of the Hope Emerson playbook. Young Charlotte Rampling plays the requisite femme fatale and the severity of 1940’s glamour suits her angular beauty like a glove; her withering stare is enough to rival any great noir siren but unfortunately there’s not enough to her role to make a deep impression. I’ve long heard the follow-up adaptation of The Big Sleep is an unmitigated disaster, but this stands as a worthy late entry to the canon of classic detective films.

[Watch Farewell, My Lovely on Fandor here.]

farewell my lovely dick richards title card

farewell my lovely dick richards 1975 charlotte rampling

farewell my lovely dick richards 1975 robert mitchum charlotte rampling

farewell my lovely dick richards 1975 robert mitchum sylvester stallone

farewell my lovely dick richards 1975 kate murtagh

farewell my lovely dick richards 1975 robert mitchum sylvia miles

farewell my lovely dick richards 1975 robert mitchum

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detour into terror


detour poster

This was my second viewing of Detour (1945, USA, Ulmer), yet I was still taken by surprise when confronted once again with how truly vicious the film is. It takes a bit too long to get going, and everything feels like endless exposition as if waiting for the moment petulant, ever-scowling Ann Savage saunters into the film, causing what had been Tom Neal’s innocent-man-on-the-lam story to make a final–and fatal–narrative detour. Savage’s exercise in bitter, sadistic emotional manipulation (“Shutup! I don’t like you! I’m not getting sore… but just remember who’s boss around here”) is a performance that still feels unlike anything else that came out of 1940’s cinema, and, for me, the way she goes from peacefully sleeping in the seat of the car to a saucer-eyed, shrieking Gorgon in the span of several seconds is one of the greatest and most terrifying moments in all of noir (and it’s all the more potent when encountered on the big screen).

Ulmer’s tight, endlessly creative direction creates an ever-tightening noose around the viewer’s emotions in the same way that the film’s plot slowly entwines itself around the neck of hapless, lugheaded Neal as he pines for perky (and meagerly talented) Claudia Drake detourinstead of confronting the destructive force of nature he has inadvertently crossed paths with. The overt stylistic flourishes derived wholesale from German Expressionism should come off as familiar and tired clichés, but somehow Ulmer always manages to make it seem like nothing less than an exercise in inspired aesthetic improvisation. In his hands the threadbare aspects of the story, sets, and performances are transformed into assets, and the hackneyed gradually takes on the quality of a surrealistic nightmare state. The film absolutely deserves its reputation as the crown jewel of the Poverty Row B-film cycle, and it is without a doubt one of the great noirs (Digital Project of a 35mm print, which unfortunately had a lot of technical glitches).

his kind of… man?

“Because, as gays, we grew up isolated not only from our heterosexual peers but also from each other, we turned to the mass media for information and ideas about ourselves… we could use the film–especially those not directly offering us images of ourselves–as we chose.” -Richard Dyer, “Introduction to Gays and Film

As a young queer cinephile, I consider myself lucky to live in a time when it is not particularly difficult to find representations of my own experiences and desires depicted within films, television, and other types of media.  Just last night I had the opportunity to attend a screening at San Francisco’s Frameline Film Festival, the oldest LGBT film festival in existence, and beyond the (excellent) films itself, just the fact of taking part in watching a cinematic depiction of gay lives and relationships along with some 1,400 other individuals was itself an incredibly powerful and moving experience.

But on the other hand, I remain endlessly intrigued about times in the not-so-distant past when this type of situation could hardly be imagined, to say nothing about it actually being a reality. One of my favorite things is to sit and gab with two of my “uncles”–a gay couple now in their late 80’s and early 90’s respectively–and listen to their memories of films and stars from the Hollywood studio era, and, most especially, all the juicy gossip that circulated in gay circles (who cares if it was ever true or not?).  It always fascinates me how vibrant many of these stories and perceptions remain for them, and what shape that they take.  For me, these conversations serve as a vivid demonstration of what queer scholars have been writing about for decades–what Dyer describes in the groundbreaking collection of essays he edited Gays and Film as a kind of “queer bricolage.”  Taking the term directly from French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, he defines “bricolage” as “playing around with the elements available to us in such a way as to bend their meanings to our own purposes.”  Through this process “we could pilfer from straight society’s images on the screen such that would help us build up a subculture, or what Jack Babuscio calls a ‘gay sensibility.'”

Even with increased queer visibility and representation in contemporary cinema and culture, this process hasn’t entirely disappeared, but has now largely takes the form of looking back and attempting to decipher and read the queer coding embedded in the films of the past, often wittily recasting these films in our own image.  Christianne over at Krell Labs provided one of my favorite examples of this in her thoughts regarding the last shots of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, stating that she prefers to think that Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell aren’t in fact marrying their rather dull male suitors, but each other.  Posting an image where Monroe and Russell exchange a meaningful glance as visual demonstration, it’s a marvelous re-reading–and queering–of these image(s).

In this spirit, I wish to offer up my own bricolaged interpretation of a classic film I dearly love.  And funny enough, it also stars Jane Russell–the 1951 pseudo-noir His Kind of Woman (John Farrow, USA, 1951).  Russell co-stars with Robert Mitchum, and this is the first of two films in which she was paired with Mitchum, with the second, Joseph von Sternberg’s Macao from the following year the one most usually remembered (despite being overall the lesser film).  I had never heard of His Kind of Woman before when I checked out the DVD from my local library on a whim, and was immediately charmed by it–Russell and Mitchum make one of my very favorite screen pairings (now there’s a man that’s Russell’s equal!), their banter is bright and witty, the mood and black and white photography is appropriately atmospheric, and there’s the’s one amazing, bravura tracking shot through a vintage 1950’s resort lounge that ranks with the best of Ophüls.  People often cite Vincent Price’s comic relief as one of the film’s chief attributes as well, but I can’t say I’m not particularly fond of it myself.

I had also been disappointed with the unexpected tonal shift the film takes in the final third, with the sly detective yarn transforming into a rather serious action film, involving a villainous Raymond Burr.  But upon writing about the film in honor of Jane Russell’s passing last year, what I had found is that memories of the film had taken a weird turn.  While I couldn’t recall any of the plot details, what had stuck with me was the fact that Mitchum had been captured by a group of thugs, stripped of his shirt, brutally tied up in various positions and whipped, and then the rest of the film involving a barechested Mitchum running around a boat with a gun.  In other words, in my memory the last third of His Kind of Woman became something akin to a gay S&M video.  And judging from some of the original promotional material, I might not be the only one:

[It can’t just be me–there is something a bit visually odd about an exclamatory “His Kind of Woman!” seeming to caption an image of a shirtless and supine Mitchum, right?]

For this blogathon I decided to revisit the film to see if my memories held up; I’m not sure if I’m exactly surprised to find it’s ever gayer than I remembered.  So what I present below is a series of images that represents the queerly bricolaged memory version of His Kind of Woman–an aggressively heterosexual title that methinks doth protest a bit too much!

His Kind of… Man? 

Starring:

Jane: “Do you have something to tell me?”

Robert: …

Cut.

Jane: “How about now?”

Robert: …

Cut.

Vincent: “This coat?  Yes, isn’t it fabulous?  By the way, I have some friends you should meet.”

Cut.

Robert: “Err, this isn’t exactly the type of party I had in mind.”

Raymond: “Can’t I at least get a kiss?”

Mitchum: …

Robert: “That’s a big… gun you have.”

“This isn’t exactly what I signed up for.”

Fade out.

Jane: “So did you have a good time last night?

Robert: “You don’t even want to know.”

Swelling music and final fadeout.

THE END.

Make sure to check out Garbo Laughs and Pussy Goes Grrr for all of the other blogathon posts–there’s lots of great stuff to read!

pretending on a precipice

[This film played in the Roxie Theater‘s film noir festival “I Wake Up Dreaming: The French Have a Name for It.”  It played in a triple bill with Detour and Une si jolie petite plage.]

The Pretender (USA, 1947), directed by W. Lee Wilder–Billy’s older brother–is a rather nasty piece of work, as thematically uncomfortable as it is visually ravishing. The film involves a slimy financier (Albert Dekker) who embezzles money from a beautiful heiress (Catherine Craig) who trusts him unquestioningly; as personal financial losses quickly pile up for Dekker’s character he scrambles to cover his tracks with a desperation that becomes closer and closer to outright hysteria.  Along the way he implicates himself in a series of shady underworld dealings and, most insidiously, attempts to marry the unsuspecting Craig for her money.

When a mafia deal goes awry, Dekker finds himself inadvertently caught up in a potentially deadly trap of his own devising, and the film embarks on a perilous balancing act,
negotiating the audience’s desire to have him get his comeuppance for his generally villainous actions with the impulse of wanting him to escape punishment for a crime he didn’t actually commit.  Once again, what distinguishes this Republic production is the gorgeous and complex lighting schemes and visual effects provided by John Alton; the score also heavily features the theramin–apparently among the first to do so–which is used to creepy, nightmarish effect.  Another nifty demonstration of what can be accomplished on a tight budget and a bit (a lot?) of creativity.

week(s) in review – 04/02 – 05/13/12

So as I expected Memories of the Future was forced into a temporary hiatus in consideration of academic priorities, but I turned in my last paper of the semester this evening, and I’m eager to channel my focus towards several exciting projects that have presented themselves, and I’ve jotted down notes on a number of topics I’d like to post on here, starting with my forthcoming contribution to this year’s Film Preservation Blogathon, which kicked off yesterday.

To say nothing of all the films in store for Bay Area cinephiles this summer: the first weekend of the Roxie’s film noir series “I Wake Up Dreaming” was amazing, the Crossroads Festival for experimental film next weekend looks mind-blowing, the Silent Film Festival has announced an impressive lineup, the PFA has several programs this summer I’m eagerly awaiting (Dorsky!  Greenaway!  Czech New Wave!), Frameline will be here in several months, and the list goes on and on…

As usual, first viewing unless otherwise noted.

Theatrical Viewing


The Penal Colony
(Ruiz, Chile, 1970) – PFA, 16mm

A TV Dante: Cantos 9–14 (Ruiz, UK, 1991)  – PFA, 3/4″ Video

The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover (Greenaway, UK, 1989) – Castro Theatre, 35mm

Zabriskie Point (Antonioni, USA, 1970) – Castro Theatre, 35mm

Whores’ Glory (Glawogger, Austria/Germany, 2012) – PFA, 35mm

Workingman’s Death (Glawogger, Austria/Germany, 2005) – PFA, 35mm

Kill Daddy Good Night (Das Vaterspiel) (Glawogger, Germany, 2009) – PFA, Digital Projection

Megacities (Glawogger, Austria, 1998) – PFA, 35mm

The Day He Arrives (Hong, South Korea, 2012) – SFFS Cinema, 35mm

Galaxie (Markopoulos, USA, 1966) – SFMOMA, 16mm

The Big Combo (J. Lewis, USA 1955) – Roxie Theater, 35mm

The Scar (Hollow Triumph) (Sekely,  USA, 1948) – Roxie Theater, 16mm

Knock on Any Door (N. Ray, USA, 1949) – Roxie Theater, 35mm

The Royal Tenenbaums (W. Anderson, USA, 2001) – Castro Theatre, 35mm

Une si jolie petite plage (Such a Pretty Little Beach) (Allégret, France, 1949) – Roxie Theater, Digital Projection

Detour (Ulmer, USA, 1945) – Roxie Theater, Digital Projection from a 35mm print; 2nd viewing

The Pretender (W.L. Wilder, USA, 1947) – Roxie Theater, 16mm

Home Viewing

The Blue Gardenia (Lang, USA, 1953) – Amazon Instant Video

Kiss Me Deadly (Aldrich, USA, 1955) – Projected Blu-ray; 2nd viewing

Making the Boys (Robey, USA, 2011) – Netflix Instant

Paranormal State: Seasons 1, 2, 3, and 5 (2007 – 2010) – Netflix Instant (one of my great guilty pleasures)

In Concert

St Vincent with tUnE-yArDs – Fox Theatre

Upcoming Possibilities

Storm Over Lisbon (Sherman, USA, 1944) and Shadow of Terror (Landers, USA, 1945) – Roxie Theatre, 05/16

Killer’s Kiss (Kubrick, USA, 1955) and Female Jungle (VeSota, USA, 1956) – Roxie Theatre, 05/18

To Have and Have Not (Hawks, USA, 1944) and Sergeant York (Hawks, USA, 1941) – Stanford Theatre, May 18 – 20

As much as the Crossroads Film Festival as possible – Victoria Theatre, 05/18 – 20

the pages of noir: a list for the noir reader

The Pages of Noir: The Novels that Became Film Noir

Big Sleep Vintage Book Cover  In a Lonely Place Vintage Book Cover  Nightmare Alley Vintage Book Cover

After several conversations with a friend about film noir and the various literary texts that helped inspire and then quickly developed a symbiotic relationship with the cinematic style that retrospectively became recognized as noir, I started compiling a list of novels (as well as a few short stories, theatrical plays, and the occasional radio play) that was adapted for the screen by Hollywood during the noir heyday of the 1940’s and 50’s.  It was initially for my own reference, but thought others might be interested as well.

This list, I’m well aware, is far from exhaustive, especially as I have intentionally decided to focus on literary texts that are still potentially available to a reader today (so, a printing within the last 30 years or so).  The vast majority of noirs germinated from some kind of literary antecedent, but many seem to have vanished upon their initial printings, and now the films they inspired often serve as the only continued testament to their existence.  Additionally, in the past decades the renewed interest in both film noir and the hard-boiled detective, urban mystery and pulp genres have led to the publication of a number of anthologies collecting long-unavailable short stories, and those stories are at present very much underrepresented on this list, and will hopefully be added sometime at a future date.

Also, purists will undoubtedly spot many dubious inclusions on this list, ranging from non-American films to films made before or after the historical period recognized as producing pure film noir, and the only defense I can offer is that I chose to embrace the fuzzy, impossible-to-define nature of the term “film noir” and opted to include the occasional precedents and several successors of note that might be of reading interest (without delving into neo-noir, which I felt would quickly take me too far afield).  Tips and suggestions of titles to add, editions and republications I should be aware of, etc. would be very much appreciated.

And most importantly, happy reading!

The Pages of Noir: The List

A Gun for Sale by Graham Greene – This Gun for Hire (1942, Tuttle)

The Asphalt Jungle by W.R. Burnett – The Asphalt Jungle (1950, Houston)

The Big Clock by Kenneth Fearing – The Big Clock (1948, Farrow)

The Big Heat by William P. McGivern – The Big Heat (1953, Lang)

The Big Knife (play) by Clifford Odets – The Big Knife (1955, Aldrich)

The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler – The Big Sleep (1946, Hawks)

Black Alibi by Cornell Woolrich – The Leopard Man (1943, Tourneur)

The Black Angel by Cornell Woolrich – The Black Angel (1946, Neill)

The Black Path of Fear by Cornell Woorich – The Chase (1946, Ripley)

The Blank Wall by Elisabeth Sanxay Holding – The Reckless Moment (1949, Lang) (later adapted into The Deep End (2001, McGehee and Siegel))

Build My Gallows High by Geoffrey Homes – Out of the Past (1947, Tourneur)

Bunny Lake is Missing by Evelyn Piper – Bunny Lake is Missing (1965, Preminger)

La Chienne (Poor Sap or The Bitch) by Georges de La Fouchardière – La Chienne (1931, France, Renoir) and Scarlet Street (1945, Lang)

Christmas Holiday by W. Somerset Maugham – Christmas Holiday (1944, Siodmak)

Clean Break by Lionel White – The Killing (1956, Kubrick)

Criss-Cross by Don Tracy – Criss Cross (1949, Siodmak)

Dark Passage by David Goodis – Dark Passage (1947, Daves)

Deadline at Dawn by Cornell Woolrich – Deadline at Dawn (1946, Clurman)

Detective Story (theatrical play) by Sidney Kingsley – Detective Story (1951, Wyler)

Double Indemnity by James M. Cain – Double Indemnity (1944, Wilder)

The High Window by Raymond Chandler – Time to Kill (Leeds, 1942) and The Brasher Doubloon, (1947, Brahm)

The Fallen Sparrow by Dorothy B. Hughes – The Fallen Sparrow (1943, Wallace)

Farewell, My Lovely by Raymond Chandler – Murder, My Sweet (1944, Dmytryk)

The G-String Murders by Gypsy Rose Lee – Lady of Burlesque (1943, Wellman)

The Glass Key by Dashiell Hammett – The Glass Key (1935, Tuttle) and The Glass Key (1942, Heisler)

I, the Jury by Mickey Spillane – I, the Jury (1953, Essex)

I Wake Up Screaming by Steve Fisher – I Wake Up Screaming (1941, Humberstone)

If I Die Before I Wake by Sherwood King – The Lady from Shanghai (1947, Welles)

In a Lonely Place by Dorothy B. Hughes – In a Lonely Place (1950, Ray)

The Killers and Other Short Stories. by Ernest Hemingway – The Killers (1946, Siodmak)

Kiss Me, Deadly by Mickey Spillane – Kiss Me Deadly (1955, Aldrich)

Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye by Horace McCoy – Kiss Tomorrow Goodybe (1950, Douglas)

Knock on Any Door by Willard Motley – Knock on Any Door (1949, Ray)

The Lady in the Lake by Raymond Chandler – Lady in the Lake (1947, Montgomery)

Laura by Vera Caspary – Laura (1944, Preminger)

Leave Her to Heaven by Ben Ames Williams – Leave Her to Heaven (1945, Stahl)

The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett – The Maltese Falcon (1931, Del Ruth) and Satan Met a Lady (1936, Dieterle) and The Maltese Falcon (1941, Houston)

Mildred Pierce by James M. Cain – Mildred Pierce (1945, Curtiz)

Night and the City by Gerald Kersh – Night and the City (1950, Dassin)

Night Has a Thousand Eyes: a novel of suspense by Cornell Woolrich – Night Has a Thousand Eyes (1948, Farrow)

The Night of The Hunter by Davis Grubb – The Night of the Hunter (1955, Laughton)

Nightmare Alley by William Lindsay Gresham – Nightmare Alley (1947, Goulding)

Phantom Lady by Cornell Woolrich (as William Irish) – Phantom Lady (1944, Siodmak)

The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M. Cain – Ossessione (1943, Italy, Visconti) The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946, Garnett)

Rear Window (originally “It Had to be Murder”) by Cornell Woolrich – The Window (1949, Tetzlaff) and Rear Window (1954, Hitchcock)

Red Harvest by Dashiell Hammett – Roadhouse Nights (1930, Henley)

Ride the Pink Horse by Dorothy B. Hughes – Ride the Pink Horse (1947, Montgomery)

Serenade by James M. Cain – Serenade (1956, Mann)

Sorry, Wrong Number by Lucille Fletcher – Sorry, Wrong Number (1948, Litvak)

The Spiral Staircase: Some Must Watch by Ethel Lina White – The Spiral Staircase (1945, Siodmak)

Strangers on a Train by Patricia Highsmith – Strangers on a Train (1951, Hitchcock)

Sweet Smell of Success (play) by Clifford Odets – Sweet Smell of Success (1957, Mackendrick)

They Drive by Night by A.I. Bezzerides – They Drive By Night (1940, Walsh)

Thieves Like Us by Edward Anderson – They Live By Night (1949, Ray)

Thieves’ Market by A.I. Bezzerides – Thieves’ Highway (1949, Dassin)

The Woman in the Window (originally Once Off Guard) by J.H. Wallis – The Woman in the Window (1944, Lang)

Woman in the Window Vintage Book Add

Cross-posted at Goodreads

Read So Far:

The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler (review)
The High Window by Raymond Chandler (review)
The Lady in the Lake by Raymond Chandler
The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett
Red Harvest by Dashiell Hammett

support film preservation! (part II)

This post represents my second (and final) contribution to For the Love of Film (Noir): A Film Preservation Blog-a-thon, which is raising money for the preservation of The Sound of Fury (1950).

________

Of the four films that Bogart and Bacall made together, the third, Dark Passage (Delmer Daves, USA, 1947) is generally considered the least of them. And it’s not particularly hard to see why—Bacall’s character never allows her to display any of the spark that made her so magnificent in To Have and Have Not and The Big Sleep, and there’s an inherent weakness with a film that stars Humphrey Bogart but doesn’t show his iconic face for the entire first third of the film. And for a film with a plot so heavily reliant on the psychological motivations of the various characters, it doesn’t help that characters motivations for the most part range from murky to straining credulity to patently absurd.

And yet, Dark Passage is a film that I have a great affection for (and I certainly prefer it to the inexplicably well-liked Key Largo). The main reason is that through its extensive use of location work, it serves as a magnificent showcase for the city of San Francisco. Vertigo, for good reason, is the film that has made San Francisco a pilgrimage spot for all good cinephiles, but Dark Passage serves as the gritty, black-and-white flipside to Hitchcock’s luscious, dream-like rendering of the city. With the exception of Scotty’s trailing of Madeleine that has him driving through the streets of the city, Hitchcock generally has little interest in maintaining any kind of spacial continuity in regards to the depiction of the city, with the various depicted landmarks dreamily disconnected not only from each other but from their context within the city itself (which is why I suspect that most people are often surprised, like I was, to find a place like Mission Dolores shoehorned snugly into a bustling residential area, and not in some forlorn, abandoned city quarter).

I love Dark Passage for its utilization of the San Francisco that citizens of the city—both then and now—are familiar with: the labyrinthine series of staircases threading together Telegraph Hill, the steep sidewalks that fracture into stairs halfway up the hill, cable cars, the the long taxi rides down Market, and, of course, the drive across the Golden Gate Bridge. It also captures one of my personal favorite qualities of living in this city: because of the hills, a turn around even the most nondescript corner can unexpectedly coldcock you with a gorgeous vista view of the city that is quite literally breathtaking. Dark Passage uses this to excellent effect, and many otherwise unexceptional expositional sequences are elevated through the stunning backdrops naturally afforded through the location work.

I rewatched Dark Passage shortly upon moving to the city a year and a half ago, and it was one of the key things that really kicked off my love affair with this city (that and the always-dazzling cinematic and photographic cataloguing of the city by a fellow San Franciscian over at Six Martinis and the Seventh Art—see specifically the San Francisco-related section here). In many ways the film serves as a wonderful time capsule of the city in the immediate post-War period, and it was pleasurably shocking to see how familiar many of these locations already seemed to me.

And considering that film is essentially unique in providing this type of wholly-immersive synchronicity, the preservation of such experiences should be a foremost priority on every cinephile’s mind.  As the screen captures should amply attest, Dark Passage is, fortunately, for the most part a beautifully preserved film.  But without stars on the magnitude of Bogie and Bacall, would this necessarily be the case?  The answer, unfortunately, is a resounding no.  And for that reason I ask you to consider making a donation to For the Love of Film (Noir): A Film Preservation Blogathon. This is the last day of this terrific blogathon, and as such, also your last opportunity to contribute to this most worthy of causes.

Memories of a Movie:

Scenes of the City


Bogart’s character tells the taxi driver a specific address on Sutter Street to get here; one of these days I’m going to go to that location myself and see what’s there now!

Back before this was probably the single most touristy spot in the entire city (how few people there are!).  Owl Drug Co. is now the location of a large Gap, which isn’t nearly as exciting, but I do frequent it fairly regularly.

The Malloch Building, 1360 Montgomery Street

Okay, I have to share a memory about this specific site, as it is the location one of my favorite cinematic San Francisco moments.  This Art Deco apartment building is justifiably famous, and it serves as the location of swanky (and enormous) apartment that Bacall’s character lives in, and where she subsequently holes up the fugitive Bogart in grand style.  I was on a first date in the North Beach area, and after dinner we spontaneously decided to walk up to Coit Tower.  Suddenly I burst out “there’s the Dark Passage house!” (a reference my date unfortunately did not get)—something I was extremely proud of, because 01) I’m usually not very good at recognizing these type of things, and 02) I still was able to do this even though I was suffering from food poisoning and all of my attention was focused on hiding this fact from my date. :)

I always get a kick out of how she had a portrait of herself (and one of her most famous!) on such prominent display.

And really, it’s an extremely stylishly shot and designed film

Sidney Hickox (cinematography) and Charles H. Clarke (art direction)


To say nothing of the ever-stylish Ms. Bacall herself, of course!

[Screen captures taken by Jesse Ataide.  Feel free to use the images, but please provide a link back!]

support film preservation!

This post represents my contribution to For the Love of Film (Noir): A Film Preservation Blog-a-thon.

________

A Film I Would Not Like to See Restored: Renoir’s The Woman on the Beach

Several weeks ago I had the pleasure of seeing Jean Renoir’s The Woman on the Beach (1947, USA) at Noir City 9, the San Francisco Film Noir Festival held annually at the Castro Theater here in San Francisco. Of the twenty or so films that were programmed, it was the film I had prioritized for reasons that I’m not even exactly sure of (I’ve yet to really warm up to Renoir, truth be told). I didn’t know anything specific about it, though as I told a friend as we waited for the lights to go down, Pauline Kael’s review—where she cites Rivette’s proclamation of the film as a masterpiece before wittily undermining such a claim—had always intrigued me.

The Woman on the Beach is one of those films that can’t get mentioned without a big footnote being attached to it, as it is one of those films where extratextual material and circumstances almost overshadows the film itself. In this case it’s the turgid story of the film’s ill-fated production, which Eddie Muller nicely encapsulated for the audience in his introduction to the film: an initial preview screening of the film was so disastrous that in an attempt to salvage its commercial possibilities, Renoir subsequently re-edited, and then reshot a large portion of the film. The resulting version that was finally released, clocking in at a mere 70 minutes or so, remained disappointing, with Renoir himself eventually conceding that in the revisions the film had “lost its raison d’être” and was “neither flesh nor fish.”1 As it turns out, it was an unhappy note that ended Renoir’s Hollywood career—he never made another film in America.

Under such circumstances, it is perhaps inevitable that that initial, unlucky cut of the film shown at the first preview has swelled over the decades into a near-mythic “should-have-been” story a la Welles’s The Magnificent Ambersons, the type all good cineastes relish hypothesizing about. “If only someone could get ahold of that original version, and really see what Renoir was trying to do…”

But defaced or not, I was intrigued by The Woman on the Beach. I didn’t think it was necessarily a great film, or even a very good one, truth be told. It’s an exceedingly odd film, cumbersome despite its brief running time, and, all-in-all, quite unsympathetic and unlovable (even by noir standards).  But almost immediately I could tell it was one of those films. There’s just no other way to describe it: I was immediately beguiled by this awkward bête noire of a film. Those gaps, those absences caused by an obviously truncated narrative, those silences caused by motivations, backstories and emotions systematically denied to the viewer—they haunted me. And one couldn’t help but wonder: were the answers to the questions I had among what was lost in the ribbons of films Renoir frantically severed from his film?

Much like that hulking shipwreck that serves as such a bizarre setpiece for the film, the plot of The Woman on the Beach feels like a number of damaged fragments of narrative that have inexplicably washed up on the titular beach.  It embodies some sparsely populated, nightmarish crystallization of post-War realities, and feels uneasily perched on the remotest edges of the word.

For this reason, it is a bit uncomfortable attaching the “film noir” label to Renoir’s film, with its complete disavowal of the urban spaces and comforting shadows typically associated with noir. I’m certainly not the first to utilize the adjective “abstracted” to describe the film, which doesn’t just apply to the oblique plot, but in the rendering of empty spaces that after a while begin to feel positively post-apocalyptic. Few and far between are the familiar shadows and darkness of noir with their usual significations menace and dread.  But sometimes too those same shadows provide shelter, obscurity, even comfort (“I like the dark. It’s comforting to me” insists Blanche du Bois in the noir-ly rendered A Streetcar Named Desire), and The Woman on the Beach‘s soft gradient of grays offer no such Expressionistic obfuscation or chance of shadowy escape, instead stranding its characters in an uninterrupted twilight state. There are rainstorms, banks of fogs, and crashing waves, but with the exception of the final climactic scene, remarkably little of the film—not even the romantic rendezvouses—occur at night, and in the few nocturnal scenes there are, the camera cloisters itself in brightly lit interior spaces. Not even in sleep does the night provide solace, for as Robert Ryan finds out in the film’s remarkably surrealistic opening sequence, the night merely casts one into a dusky, oceanic dreamstate.2

Renoir himself alludes to this sort of spacial and thematic abstraction with his comment that “The Woman on the Beach was the sort of avant-garde film which would have found its niche a quarter of a century earlier, between Nosferatu and Caligari”.3 An extremely evocative, but also rather curious description of the film, as The Woman on the Beach did not bring to mind the early European avant-garde (and certainly not the German Expressionist tradition), but instead feels prescient, uncannily anticipating that great flowering of European art film in the subsequent two decades. Specifically, the gritty, underpopulated, eerily abstract emotional and physical spaces brought to mind Antonioni’s 1950’s films, Cronaca di un amore (Story of a Love Affair) most particularly, along with Il grido and the brief beach scene from Le amiche.

Beach scene from Antonioni’s Le Amiche (1955)

As per usual when a film catches my interest, I spent a good chunk of time dutifully researching The Woman on the Beach. An offhand reference Jonathan Rosenbaum makes on Glenn Kenny’s review of the film’s R2 DVD release over at MUBI subsequently led me to Janet Bergstrom’s utterly fascinating article “Oneiric Cinema: The Woman on the Beach,” written in 1999.4 Tracing the film’s production history in minute detail, through Bergstrom’s meticulous research in the RKO archives a fascinating counternarrative to Renoir’s stated opinions—which have long since established themselves as the authoritative position to take in regards to the film—quickly begins to emerge. Bergstrom poses a rather startling thesis: that The Woman on the Beach “benefited from [Renoir’s] tendency towards abstraction, but the fact that it did so (or, to be accurate, that it ended up doing so), represents an interesting paradox”.5

Bergstrom devotes a great deal of space reconstructing the film’s development, starting before Renoir was even attached to the project and details the entire filmmaking process until the final cut of the film finally emerged. She recounts with painstaking detail a great deal more information than I can provide here, and needless to say, I highly recommend anybody interested to give it a read. But in reading about the film’s chaotic history, it became increasingly clear to me, as it did to Bergstrom, that there’s a very good chance The Woman on the Beach turned out to be a better film than it would have been if that infamous Santa Barbara preview had never occurred.

One of the points that intrigued me most was how many rewrites the script of the film underwent, both before the first camera started rolling until the reshooting commenced months later. Drastic rewrites. Some of the narrative trajectories that the film’s early script drafts included:

  • Tod had been able to see for months (his blindness was caused by hysteria)
  • Both Peggy and Tod’s doctor were aware of this fact
  • Peggy was having an affair with this doctor
  • Peggy was planning on stealing Tod’s paintings to run away with the doctor
  • At the insistence of the Production Code, the adultery would be suitably punished: Tod brutally attacks his wife and his doctor. Bergstrom quotes these grisly descriptions from a draft of the script: “the doctor’s crumpled body in a corner, Peggy’s battered body near a wall”6

Renoir almost immediately cut out the the robbery subplot, the entire character of the doctor and necessarily toned down the adultery, but the story still went through a number of significant revisions, both “to satisfy the studio and the Production Code Administration” as well as “to try and make the story more cohesive.”7 The central role of Robert Ryan’s hunky but psychologically disturbed Coast Guard was built up, at the expense of the colorful character of the artist, played by Charles Bickford.

But perhaps more crucially, the motivations for sullenly sexy Joan Bennett’s Peggy was in constant flux. Post-preview, one of the film’s central scenes—the showdown between Ryan and Bickford on the rowboat during the storm—was completely altered: what was initially intended to be a suicide scene shifts to its more murderous intentions in the final cut. Renoir also considered utilizing extensive flashbacks to Peggy and Tod’s colorful life in New York City to flesh out both characters. Even during the reshooting Renoir was still trying to decide if Peggy was supposed to be a heartless virago or a misunderstood–and thus more sympathetic–woman.  The result of all this indecision?  One of the most ambiguous femme fatales I’ve ever encountered.

I summarize these unwieldy developments in such detail to merely illustrate how the film Renoir at various points wanted to make is remarkably unlike the film that it ended up being and we know today. Particularly interesting to me was Bergstrom’s comment that “Renoir’s script for the ‘preview version’ was full of secondary characters who filled out the story, helping to convey a specific milieu that was very far from the abstraction we see in the release print of The Woman on the Beach.8

In other words, almost everything that I was most drawn to about the film was not part of the original version.

And really, this makes sense. I’m embarrassed to admit that I haven’t seen the many of Renoir’s films beyond the canonical, but one thing I immediately noticed was how far removed Woman on the Beach‘s lonesome threesome (or foursome, if one wishes to include the underdeveloped fiancée) is so utterly unlike the complex, highly nuanced interactions between an extensive cast of characters that are so celebrated in films like La règle du jeu and La grande illusione. While I associate Renoir’s characters with talk, talk, and more talk, in Woman on the Beach they stay stubbornly silent. And as a direct result of this, all of the things that I was most intrigued about in Renoir’s film are also all of the elements—the silences, the narrative ellipses, the static figures suspended in vast spaces, the relentless opacity—that I don’t associate with Renoir at all, but rather a number of my favorite directors and films: Antonioni, Marienbad, Vampyr, Duras, Denis, Wong.

After reading Bergstrom’s article, suddenly the film was vibrating with endlessly resonating echoes. The narrative gaps, silences and ellipses seemed no longer puzzling as much as brimming with possibilities, richly embedded with traces of countless other possible narrative variations and the distinct possibility that the narrative trajectory might spiral in countless other directions at any given moment. Quite unexpectedly Renoir’s film reminded me, of all things, 2046, a film that because of a similarly tumultuous production history I almost expect with every rewatch to have somehow rearranged its evocative, fragmented pieces into beautiful new permutations and variations since my last viewing. This in itself distances The Woman on the Beach from the film noir tradition in yet another way. Expressionistic fatalism is nowhere to be seen—one merely needs to compare Renoir’s film to another Joan Bennet from just a few years before, Lang’s Scarlet Street, for an idea of the exhilarating Open-ness9 of The Woman on the Beach.

Exhilarating, but in many senses, unintentional. I must wholeheartedly agree with Bergstrom’s final assessment that “paradoxically, The Woman on the Beach (the release version) benefitted from all this interference… [it] became more and more abstract and all the things that could not be shown for reasons of censorship were cut and confusing character motivations left from the original novel or the innumerable, tediously similar variants of the script were removed.”10 While the final cut of The Woman on the Beach is no masterpiece, from all indications it’s a much more intriguing film that it was going to be (and/or originally was in the preview version).

That said, would I welcome the sudden unearthing of a print of the preview version in some vault or archive? Of course—I’m as curious as anyone else. And also not without serious misgivings, considering what would likely occur in such a situation: a celebratory, much trumpeted re-release of the restored “Original Director’s Cut” on the festival circuit, perhaps even a full-blown theatrical rerelease compliments of Rialto or the like, and then, at long last, a R1 DVD release. But the original release version—the version Jacques Rivette unapologetically declared a masterpiece and everyone else has spent the last decades trying to get some kind of a handle one—would quickly disappear from sight and memory, at best resurfacing as a DVD extra for the now-definitive “original version” (that is, if we were lucky enough for a company like Criterion, NoShame or VCI to get the rights to release it). And for reasons I hope I’ve managed to make clear at this point, I think this would be an entirely regrettable situation.

Of course, this isn’t exactly the type of restoration that is motivating this blog-a-thon, which is more concerned that we get to see these types of films at all, and even better if it’s on beautiful prints like I got an opportunity to see at Film Noir 9. Because that’s the type of restoration—with its emphasis on preservation and availability—I wholeheartedly support, and as such I ask you to join me in donating to For the Love of Film (Noir): The Film Preservation Blog-a-thon.

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Notes:

1Via Raymond Durgnat, Jean Renoir, 1976. Page 261.

2Apologies for an overtly academic aside: after writing the first draft of this post, I happened to reread the description of the different schools of montage in Deleuze’s Cinema 1: The Movement-Image, and was a bit startled at how neatly the description of the French and German schools lined up with my analysis: Deleuze characterizes pre-War French cinema, embodied by Renoir, with the gray caused by movement, as opposed to the black and white stratification of of Expressionist German cinema, exemplified in Lang and Murnau.

3Jean Renoir, My Life and My Films, 1974. Pages 246-7.

4Originally published in Film History, Vol. 11, No. 1, “Film Technology” pp. 114-125. Unfortunately, this article does not currently seem available online, but only through JSTOR and other academic outlets. Let me know if you’re interested in it.

5Bergstrom, 115.

6Bergstrom, 118.

7Ibid.

8Ibid, 120.

9Invoking, hazily, both Eco and Deleuze

10Bergstrom, 121.

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Memories of a Movie:


[Screen captures taken by Jesse Ataide.  Feel free to use the images, but please provide a link back!]

presenting ms. kenyon

So for a while I thought that Daisy Kenyon (Otto Preminger, USA, 1947) was just kinda dull, but upon reaching the halfway mark I began to become more and more impressed with what I started vaguely perceiving as a rather sophisticated dissection of romantic politics—this is the rare kind of film that genuinely seems to have an adult audience in mind in regards to the narrative elements it opts to focus on and explicate. There’s something that struck me as almost proto-Antonionian in the ways its central romantic triangle (Joan Crawford, Dana Andrews and Henry Fonda) thrash about emotionally under elegant and seemingly placid surfaces. The film is ostensibly concerned with that evergreen “woman’s picture” dilemma—hard-fought independence or domestic security?—which is complicated by a subtle but haunting realization that this narrative is less about the titular character deciding which man will give her true love than a depiction of three people desperately trying to pull themselves out of deadened emotional states—and fully willing to sacrifice each other to do so. It seems universally accepted that Crawford was to old for this role and fans have waged elaborate apologias to justify her casting, but I thought she was genuinely well suited for the role of Daisy—sure, a luscious ingénue-type would have helped explain what is now the inexplicable sexual attraction of the two male leads, but it would have completely altered the underlying dynamic of the film, which seems less to me about mere sex or even love than finding a way to avoid the ache of loneliness and stasis and ennui. Anyway, since its recent release on DVD—which I believe makes it widely available for the first time—internet critics have desperately fallen all over themselves hailing this as a forgotten masterpiece of classic Hollywood melodrama, but I can’t help but feel it might be undergoing the canonization process for the wrong reasons, though I’m admittedly unable to articulate what those reasons exactly are. Still, whatever the underlying motivations, this is certainly a weird and weirdly admirable film, well deserving of the reevaluation it has seemed to have recently sparked.