September 25, 2009

BETWEEN MIDNIGHT AND DAWN (1950)




“A brutal policeman is a terrible thing. He has too much power, too many chances of taking his viciousness out on helpless people.”



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Optimism and pessimism fight it out Between Midnight and Dawn, an entertaining and well-crafted crime melodrama from 1950. These competing worldviews are embodied in the characters of prowl-car officers Rocky Barnes (Mark Stevens) and Dan “Pappy” Purvis (Edmond O’Brien). After bonding as Marines on Guadalcanal, the pair returned to Los Angeles and continued their partnership as cops. The laid-back and gregarious Rocky came through his war in better shape than Dan, who in typical Edmond O’Brien fashion is bitter, cynical, and brooding. Dan has trouble seeing the world in anything other than black and white — people are either all good or all bad, as he says to Rocky in a telling early exchange, “Wait until you’ve had your fill of the scum. Slugging, knifing, shooting holes in decent people. You’ll toughen up, junior.”

The film opens with an especially noirish sequence where the partners respond to a report of suspicious activity at a warehouse. They discover two young women parked on the lonely street outside the run down building, doing a piss-poor job looking out for their no-good beaus. Rocky and Dan put the bracelets on the girls and head into the warehouse. They corner the suspects inside and short gunfight ensues —  Rocky grazes one of the youths with a shot from his service piece. Back at the station, the delinquents put on a tough act, but one of the girls falls apart, pleading and “blubbering” (per Dan) to be let go. Though Rocky wonders about justice for a wayward teenager, it’s plain that age and gender don’t carry any water with Dan — stone-faced as the hysterical girl is taken into custody, screaming over and over “I don’t want to go to jail!” as she’s dragged away.

The scene does much to establish the competing personalities of the two partners, as well as the noir milieu of Between Midnight and Dawn. Although the dark visual framework of the picture is thoroughly realized by noir stalwart George Diskant (The Narrow Margin, On Dangerous Ground), the narrative is also distinctive. Rocky and Dan live in an uncertain world of deteriorating values in which people are not what they appear to be. Two innocent-looking girls in a parked car are engaged in larceny; shop owners live in fear of all-powerful criminals; children in the street are as prone to violence as hardened felons. Even the most innocent character in the film, love interest Kate Mallory (Gale Storm), initially deceives the pair — though her fib is understandable: as the daughter of an old-guard Irish cop who was gunned down in the line of duty, Kate, who works as a dispatcher, is reluctant to begin a relationship with the infatuated Rocky, who has quietly fallen in love with her sultry voice, which he hears each night through the prowl car’s radio.

Speaking of Gale Storm, she’s a revelation. Every boy’s idea of a high school cheerleader does well in this role, and although she doesn’t sing, she demonstrates more range here than in most of her other pictures. All of the characters in Between Midnight and Dawn are developed to a greater degree than expected, and Storm plays the part of the dead cop’s kid with aplomb. She projects outward confidence and wit carefully blended with the street smarts of one reared in a cop’s house. The movie takes seriously her efforts to steer clear of involvement with Rocky and Dan, and includes a few nice scenes between Gale and her live-in mother (Madge Blake). There’s a fine moment when Mrs. Mallory, having lost her own husband to violence, is able to convince her daughter that beginning a relationship with Rocky is the right thing to do. It might be a bit unusual for a film noir to have such a pronounced romantic angle — as Between Midnight and Dawn does — but it actually works because the romantic tension between Rocky and Kate is so firmly situated in her neurotic, if understandable, fear of death.

And Rocky does indeed die, gunned down by foaming-at-the-mouth gangster Richie Garris (Donald Buka). Every element of the story foreshadows Rocky’s killing, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise. In fact, even in 1950 it was a sturdy movie-land cliché that in a buddy-cop film one of the partners — inevitably the nicer of the two — was doomed. What makes this scenario interesting is rather how Kate and Dan respond to Rocky’s murder. 

Both suffer from a markedly cynical strain of pessimism. Kate’s is rooted in the fear of losing yet another loved one; Dan’s is more complex. He clung to his idealism throughout the war, but lost it when he came home to a world changed from what he believed he had fought for. The wonderfully depressing — and inarguably noirish — notion of this aspect of the story is that unlike the narratives of more mainstream Hollywood productions, Kate and Dan’s dour worldview is ultimately confirmed! She loses her new love just as she lost her father, while Dan loses his partner and best friend to the senseless violence of a world gone mad. After surviving the unimaginable horrors of the Pacific, Rocky is shot in cold blood by a chickenshit gangster looking for revenge.

While Kate’s response to Rocky’s death is ultimately bittersweet, Dan sinks into despair and self-pity. He begins to haunt the nightclub where Garris’ girlfriend Terry Romaine (Gale Robbins) warbles, hoping she’ll lead him to the killer. When nothing pans out Dan braces her directly. He’s so frustrated and enraged that he beats and humiliates the girl even when she denies knowledge of Garris’ whereabouts and claims to have broken off their relationship.

The characterization of the gangster villain in a 1950 noir picture is worth talking about for a moment. In the legendary Warner Bros. pictures of the depression the romanticized gangster-hero was ultimately brought down by the society he exploited — he was an aberration against a fundamentally incorruptible and morally superior social system. When the sleeping giant of that system became aroused against him, he didn’t stand a chance. One of the crucial differences between the postwar film noir and the 30s gangster film is in its portrayal of the system itself, which noir presents as  Kafka-esque in its bureaucracy — uncaring, immoral, and burdened by corruption.

By the 1950s, Hollywood’s treatment of the gangster was also tired, and certainly less romantic. Donald Buka plays Garris as a caricature — a sputtering hood who manhandles his girlfriend and tries to clumsily bribe or bulldoze his way out of every tight spot. His actions are childish and irrational. He represents everything in the world than Dan Purvis hates. Yet within the mid-century film noir construct the power of the system and social justice is diminished. That 30s gangster is reincarnated as a pure sociopath who exists in a system unable to stamp him out. After Garris is convicted of murder, his cronies easily bust him out of prison. He’s then able to exact revenge on Rocky and successfully elude the dragnet, until tripped up by his urge to creep on the girlfriend who no longer wants him. The police finally nab Garris by staking out Terry’s apartment.

It’s in this final set piece that Dan has the chance to avenge his friend and restore some sort of balance to his world, though even in this he’s nearly undone. Although he’s clearly better than Garris with his bare hands or his firearm, fate conspires to muddy the waters of his revenge — and in so doing forever alter the way he sees the world. As Garris attempts to escape the encircled building, he dangles a child from a high window in order to scare the police. Dan sneaks into the building hoping to take the gangster from behind. When he sees that Garris has abandoned the child to hide elsewhere, he tosses a gas bomb into the apartment and climbs through the window. Inside the smoke-filled apartment Garris gets the drop on Dan, but Terry steps into the line of fire and takes the bullets, saving Dan’s life and freeing him to blast away. Garris tumbles down the stairs, leaving a bloody, smeared handprint on the wall, while Dan leaves the building and discovers Kate waiting for him amidst the throng of onlookers.

Dan has a great deal to ponder as he and Kate exit the frame arm in arm: he has to live knowing that he wasn’t her first choice — that his best friend had to die for him to end up with the girl. Far more importantly, he bears the newfound responsibility to redeem himself and to become a better man, granted by a woman he had denigrated and beaten, who stepped in front of him when the bullets went flying.

Between Midnight and Dawn (1950)
Director: Gordon Douglas
Cinematographer: George Diskant
Story: Leo Katcher and Gerald Drayson Adams
Screenplay: Eugene Ling
Starring: Mark Stevens, Edmond O’Brien, and Gale Storm
Released by: Columbia Pictures
Running time: 89 minutes

September 15, 2009

MURDER IS MY BEAT (1955)




If we were going to debate the film noir credibility of Edgar G. Ulmer’s 1955 picture Murder is My Beat, the argument would hinge upon whether or not Barbara Payton’s character, Eden Lane, is a proper femme fatale. If you read up on the picture, that subject seems to be the jazz. Payton’s Lane gets mixed up with some shady underworld types trying to work a blackmail scheme, and next thing she knows the cops are eyeballing her for a murder. By the time all is said and done and we learn she’s innocent, Detective Ray Patrick (Paul Langton) has already pissed his career down the drain in order to keep her out of Tehachapi. From one point of view it’s easy to say Murder is My Beat misses as a film noir because Eden Lane turns out to be a good girl — that’s an easy, uncomplicated position to take (and believe me, plenty have taken it). I’m not so sure though. One of the significant characteristics of noir is a milieu that is all at once complicated, uncertain, chaotic, and morally ambiguous. With this in mind is it not then enough to consider Beat a film noir simply because Detective Patrick gives up everything for a girl he thinks might be guilty? Whether Eden Lane is pure evil or merely pure turns out to be irrelevant — her power isn’t moral, it’s entirely sexual. Patrick doesn’t trip over his own feet to help her because she’s innocent — he just wants to score. That in the final equation she turns out to be innocent is, for him, nothing more than dumb luck — considering the fate of film noir protagonists who made similar choices, Patrick gets off lucky.


Make no mistake Murder is My Beat is a second-rate picture. Were it not for the presence of an interesting, much talked about director and an infamous leading lady the film would simply vanish into the haze — there’d be very little of substance left to make film aficionados seek it out. Paul Langton’s presence doesn’t help. If ever there were a guy less suited to take the lead in a feature film it’s him. Despite a long career as a character actor on a million different forgotten television dramas, Murder is My Beat represents one of Langton’s only starring roles, and he doesn’t make good. A tedious actor with a dead face and zero charisma, Langton comes off like a sack of potatoes in a JC Penney suit — the best thing about him is his haircut. Harold Wellman’s cinematography is equally unimaginative, though he at least could blame the film’s miserable budget. In Wellman’s defense many of the second unit shots are pretty good, in particular the naturally lit exteriors. There are some strong shots of period LA, including the ubiquitous City Hall building. There’s little to say on behalf of the interiors though — all shot with a single harsh light source against washed out, over-exposed backgrounds. Nevertheless, Murder is My Beat is a noir picture in spite of its lack of distinctive visual style.


So much has been made of Edgar G. Ulmer’s career, and rightfully so. While Murder is My Beat can’t be held up alongside Ruthless, Detour, or even The Strange Woman, it does offer some explanation of what made him a precious commodity on Poverty Row. Take for instance the train scene, in which Detective Patrick finally gives himself over to keeping Lane out of jail. The entire scene is played out on a single set, with the would-be lovers sitting opposite each other as a rear-projection landscape dances by through the window. The two spend the scene in conversation, but Ulmer uses a clever trick to keep things on the cheap: instead of showing the actors talking, he just as often shows them listening. He most likely shot the scene with two cameras — one for each actor, filming the speaker and the listener at the same time. In the finished movie the scene plays out in an unexpected way: we often see the listener while only hearing the speaker — we see Patrick’s passive face while hearing Lane’s spoken dialogue. The technique allowed Ulmer to correct himself in the cutting room and save quite a lot of time and money. If he didn’t like something about the actor’s expression or delivery, he’d just cut to the other person listening. If necessary he could even change the script and record different dialogue after shooting the scene.



Much has been written about how exploitative and cruel the Hollywood studio system was in its heyday, particularly concerning starlets. Actresses such as Barbara Payton, Gail Russell, and Frances Farmer are whipped out and dusted off as sad illustrations of beautiful and talented young women devoured by an insatiable machine. While it is true that show business is unkind to those who can’t cope with criticism and rejection (among other things), it’s also fair to say that self-destructive people tend to self-destruct regardless of their circumstances — it just makes for better gossip when it happens in Malibu. Yet the Barbara Payton story is certainly a sad one (if not quite on par with Russell’s). Payton turned to alcohol, drugs, and even prostitution after (or, if you like, because) her Hollywood star had fallen. Russell was a depressive who suffered from stage fright and abused substances in order to get up for her roles. Her star peaked all too soon. Murder is My Beat was Payton’s final grasp at the screen. She never had much of a career, and was known primarily for an ill-conceived and violent marriage with A-lister Franchot Tone. By the time she made this picture her M.O. was a shallow riff on Marilyn Monroe. With put-on breathiness in her voice and a puffy face she’s a shadow of the girl who starred opposite Cagney in Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye just five years before. It’s clear that she’s working hard, but more telling that Ulmer regularly goes in tighter on the wooden Langton.


In the final analysis Murder is My Beat is one of those movies that is more interesting for the academic questions it poses and for the personalities involved than for anything that happens on-screen. It has its moments — like a grisly murder victim who goes face-first into a fireplace and a picture-snatcher in a dress more outrageously sexual than anything you’ve ever seen in an Eisenhower-era motion picture, but those lurid highlights arrive too early and too close together to carry the picture or capture the imagination for long.

Murder is My Beat (1955)
Director: Edgar Ulmer
Cinematographer: Harold Wellman
Screenplay: Aubrey Wisberg
Starring: Paul Langton and Barbara Payton
Released by: Allied Artists
Running time: 77 minutes

September 5, 2009

THE DELINQUENTS (1957)





Filmed on the cheap in his hometown of Kansas City, Robert Altman’s first full-length feature is Eisenhower-era drive-in fare on the perils drinking, dancing, and “going steady.” The film features a cast of unknowns (and amateurs) balanced with professionals in key parts. The most notable acting presence in The Delinquents is that of Tom Laughlin, Billy Jack of seventies drive-in fame, in his first starring role. Also worth mentioning is Rosemary Howard, who plays Laughlin’s star-crossed girlfriend. I single her out not for her terrible performance (it would be her first and last), but for her uncanny resemblance to later Altman heroines — most notably Shelly Duvall.

I was excited to watch The Delinquents because I wanted to see if I could pin down the “Altman” in it. It’s very curious to look at a film like this knowing that the director (of whom I’m admittedly a little ambivalent) would go on to craft films that couldn’t be philosophically situated further from this one. Would there be any satire? Maybe some tongue-in-cheek? Alas, I was disappointed because the only recognizable characteristic of Altman present here is his promise as a storyteller. Unlike similar independent cheapies, Altman’s story and screenplay are thoughtfully constructed, with the resulting product being surprisingly cohesive and resolved — while remaining bound to conventional narrative construction. While it’s telling to applaud a film for simply making sense from start to finish, that simple accomplishment wasn’t often achieved in the teenage exploitation films of the day. The Delinquents is a ‘teenpix’ genre movie — understandably conventional and derivative, done in earnest, with many of the directorial decisions obviously dictated by such external concerns as budget, location, and talent. That’s not to imply that the film is diminished by the lack of Altman’s mature signature, or that Altman’s later work is betrayed by such a beginning — a mainstream “exploitation” film with conservative underpinnings.

The story features a Romeo and Juliet angle — except instead of doomed young Italians we have a pair so WASPy and all-American that one can practically see the Popsicle sticks shoved up their backsides. Scotty White is a Wally Cleaver-type who is all busted up because cute Janice Wilson’s father won’t let them go steady — she’s only sixteen. Although Scotty is a clean-cut boy from a good family Janice has begun to openly fantasize about someday getting married and starting a family. Both youngsters assure Janice’s parents that their relationship is completely above board and that they haven’t “done anything” yet, but Mr. Wilson nonetheless forbids the two from seeing one another. In a fit of angst, Scotty heads for the drive-in all by himself, where instead of watching the picture he sits behind the wheel with his head in his hands.

As fate would have it, he pulls in beside a gang of kids from the wrong side of Maple. Behind the wheel sits Bill Charters (Peter Miller) with his pal Eddy (Richard Bakalyan) and their bunch of cronies. While Bill’s blonde hair and spot in driver’s seat mark him as the leader of the gang, Eddy is clearly the riff-raff. His pompadour is a smidge more oily and unkempt than the others, and the phallic switchblade that completes his get-up never stays in his pants for long. Bill’s smooth confidence and sense of entitlement makes everyone feel safe and special while Eddy’s frayed and manic presence makes running with this crowd coolly dangerous.

While this bunch appears to have eaten just as many Wonder Bread sandwiches as Scotty, they are bent on drinking, necking, and paying no more attention to the movie than he is. In films like The Delinquents the bad kids can’t sit still for long — they need to have “fun.” The stage is set when Eddy notices some teens in another car parked a few rows away he and Bill recently “beefed” with. Eddy slinks behind their car and pops their back tire before hotfooting it to Bill’s convertible with a crowd giving chase. As he rounds the corner Eddy gets the inspired notion to throw open the door to Scotty’s sedan and crawl through, making it appear as if our boy was the vandal. Scotty is consequently yanked from his car and walloped before Bill, Eddy, and pals make the scene for an all-out rumble. Despite being shell-shocked Scotty comports himself well, which impresses Bill and leads to a quick friendship between the two. Realizing his error, a threatened Eddy begins to mull over the ramifications of this new friendship.

When Bill hears about Scotty’s girl trouble, he offers to pick Janice up for a sham date and deliver her to Scotty. Feeling indebted, Scotty agrees to bring Janice a wild party of Bill’s at an abandoned house. After only a few minutes a shocked Janice begs to leave — the other teens are shaking and shimmying a la Baby and Johnny, and crude Eddy is making her out to be a square — they don’t even have Coca-Cola at this party. She races for the door with Scotty in tow. Shortly afterwards the police crash in, leaving Bill and Eddy thinking Scotty ratted them out.

The next day they waylay Scotty and force him to drink whiskey. Their plan is to get him stinking drunk and then drive him somewhere to be cut up and dumped. At a service station Eddy gets the idea to crack the till while the attendant is busy fueling the car. Things go wrong and Eddy brains the guy with the gasoline nozzle while Scotty staggers away in the confusion. Having let him escape the gang decides to grab Janice to ensure Scotty stays mum on the heist. When Scotty learns of Janice’s abduction he runs wild — and the resulting confrontations are really entertaining. Scotty and Eddy mix it up on the front lawn of Scotty’s house, with Scotty choking out the greaser in a scene that looks a lot like the famous Mel Gibson / Gary Busey pissing contest outside Danny Glover’s place. Scotty finds Bill just before the police do, and its Bill that jerks a knife as they duke it out in a cramped kitchen. Scotty’s one-two outlasts Bill’s switchblade in a surprisingly bloody climax. The picture closes on the steps of the police station, with parents arriving to escort their children home as a narrator cautions against not only the “disease” of delinquency, but also any disobedience to civil and spiritual authority.


The Delinquents (1957)
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Writer / Director: Robert Altman
Cinematographer: Charles Paddock
Starring: Tom Laughlin, Rosemary Howard, and Peter Miller.
Released by: Imperial Productions
Running time: 72 minutes