October 25, 2009

TOMORROW IS ANOTHER DAY (1951)






“You worked a whole day just to dance a minute at Dreamland?”


“It was worth it.”


stripe

Woody Allen’s most sentimental gesture comes at the end of The Purple Rose of Cairo, when Mia Farrow, kicked around by men and by life, finds joy in the fleeting images of Fred and Ginger dancing across the screen. In that moment, so wonderfully free of dialogue, Allen speaks directly to the audience more poignantly than in all the times he ever tossed witticisms through the fourth wall. For me Tomorrow is Another Day, a film noir light on crime and laden with emotion, recalls that moment at the end of Allen’s film. There has been little written about this astonishing movie, and what there is criticizes the ending as too upbeat and “studio” to be taken seriously. I disagree. Like Mia’s Cecilia I find in movies entertainment and escapism; and like her I live vicariously through the characters, imagining myself in similar situations. That’s my personal attraction to film noir — watching flawed people in trouble try to get out from under, and hoping they’ll make it. There’s something so desperately American in that notion that it stands to reason the best film noirs (and Westerns) were made in that brief period after the war when America quite possibly stood its tallest. If movies can teach us about redemption there’s no better model than the morality plays of film noir.


Tomorrow is Another Day is an intelligent, very well acted film that explores paths to redemption — whether or not change is possible, if people are damned by their pasts, if grace even exists. It’s a movie about two troubled souls who somehow save one another. The first is Bill Lewis (Steve Cochran), who at thirteen shot his father and went to prison. Bill is a unique noir hero — he shot an abusive drunk in order to protect his mother, leaving his soul free of stain but suffering from a severe case of arrested development. Cochran is a surprise — what he lacks in physical expressiveness he makes up for through a deep understanding of character. There’s a moment in the opening scene, when Bill meets with the warden prior to his release, where this comes through loud and clear. Bill is nervous, fidgety — swimming in a cheap prison-issue suit. Though the warden is supportive, Bill’s got eighteen year’s worth of chips on his shoulder. When scolded to make good choices lest he end up back behind bars, Bill responds, “Nobody’ll ever put me in a stinkin’ cage again.”  This is where Cochran shines — although trying to sound tough Bill can’t make eye contact with the older man — and pauses before summoning the guts to add the word “stinkin’.”  Cochran understands that even though his character is now “free,” he remains a kid in a man’s body, mad at the world for punishing a guiltless crime, as terrified of returning to prison as he is of being set free. Bill’s standoffishness springs from his inability to grasp that the older man — an authority or father figure — may actually care for him. Cochran nails it: Bill reenters society with a bitter heart and little more maturity than when incarcerated.


The film convincingly depicts the first moments of freedom for such a man-child. Bill’s age is incalculably significant — in spending his formative years behind bars he missed out on the life experiences that slowly nudge boys into men, including the cataclysmic one in particular that defined his generation. Further, not only has Bill not kissed a girl; he’s never even spoken to one. He missed the vital school-age interactions that we take for granted, instead spending those years with hardened criminals. He’s never driven a car, played an organized sport, or taken a drink. He has no friends, no war record, and nothing in common with fellas his age. We see Bill’s first walk on the streets of his hometown through the eyes of a newshound who shadows him. He’s drawn first to automobiles — he can’t help but lean into a convertible and test the buttons and knobs. Then he notices a woman and does a quick one-eighty, falling into lockstep behind her. Again Cochran’s portrayal rings true. When she pauses to meet a friend Bill thrusts into her personal space, studying her as if she were a sculpture. She makes tracks, and Bill skulks into a hamburger joint, where he does what any kid would do: he orders not one, but three pieces of pie — and his very first beer. The following day, after the reporter digs up the old scandal, Bill sees his picture and life story splashed across the front page and flees for the anonymity of New York City.


In Manhattan we encounter the film’s other main character, peroxide blonde dime-a-dance girl Cay Higgins (Ruth Roman). Although Cay’s job as a taxi dancer at Dreamland is meant to suggest that she’s really a prostitute, I’ve long been fascinated by this precursor to the burlesque club and choose to interpret the scenario at face value. The taxi dance craze swept America between the wars and dance halls sprang up from coast to coast. Patrons bought a ticket for a dime, which entitled them to one dance with the hostess of their choice. The system was mutually beneficial: in keeping a nickel on each ticket, a girl could do well — provided she was pretty and light on her feet. For the customers, the dance halls afforded the chance for social outcasts to buy enough time with a girl to brush up their moves and maybe even feel good about themselves, at least for a ballad or two. As with all things that bring the sexes together it fell prey to vice, and by the early fifties the dance halls were fading. Nevertheless, a few remained in New York, and Tomorrow is Another Day portrays them accurately. Someone like Bill would naturally gravitate to a dance hall, which provided him access to girls he’d be denied if left to his own social skills.


Cay came to New York to pursue a ballet career. “I started out on my toes and ended up on my heels” (or back, if you prefer). Now she’s a taxi dancer with a cop boyfriend (pimp) when Bill enters her world. Cay sees him as a yokel and an easy mark, though she finds herself unexpectedly charmed by the naive young man. She accepts his gifts and even agrees to a sightseeing date, afterwards inviting him to her room. There they find detective George Conover, Cay’s beefy beau. In the ensuing fight Conover knocks Bill out before turning on Cay, who shoots him in self-defense. Injured, Conover shambles out in search of a clandestine physician. When Bill awakens, unaware that Conover was shot, he finds Cay leaving for her brother’s place in Jersey, where she intends to hole up. He only learns of the shooting later, via the evening newspaper, and heads south for a confrontation with Cay. It’s in New Jersey that the story takes a crucial turn. Bill confronts Cay with his knowledge of the shooting and asks, “How did it happen?” Cay realizes that he has no memory of the shooting she decides to dupe him into thinking that he pulled the trigger. She also drops the bombshell that Conover has died. This is the moment in the film where Cay becomes something close to a femme fatale. Her character displays the moral ambiguity central to film noir. Always the schemer, she figures that an innocent like Bill will fare better with the cops than she will — and that he’ll beat the rap anyway by claiming self-defense. Bill refuses this idea and shows Cay the recent clipping from his hometown paper, finally exposing his prison record. Realizing that the cops are unlikely to believe either of them, Bill and Cay decide to run. They borrow a car (Cay driving — Bill doesn’t know how.) and head for the state line.


The turning point in the film comes at a rural motor lodge, where the pair check in pretending to be married, though the jaded Cay recognizes that the proprietors couldn’t care less. This is the moment, far from Manhattan, when they have the chance to separate, yet choose not to. Bill departs for a time but returns with a cheap wedding ring. This romantic gesture causes Cay’s tough façade to crumble, and in a heartbeat their antagonistic relationship becomes tender. Bill then discovers that during his time away the blonde has become a brunette. Cay’s physical transformation is the climax of the middle of the film, and is symbolic of the deeper change in her character. The tramp from Dreamland is gone, replaced by a wholesome and demure portrait of fifties womanhood. Though this transition seems fatally abrupt on paper, Roman pulls it off — she makes us believe the old Cay was an illusion, easily discarded when Bill discovers the woman within.



Through marriage Bill experiences sex and intimacy, and he begins to open up. However Cay, fearing that she’ll lose him, remains unable to come clean about Conover’s shooting. The newlyweds’ Joad-ian odyssey ends at a California farm camp, where he finds work in the lettuce fields and she keeps house amidst a community of shanties. They ingratiate themselves with the other workers and begin to live a relatively normal life. It all comes crashing down when Bill’s mug shot and a substantial reward offer appear in a Confidential-style crime rag, and a neighbor in desperate need of cash reluctantly informs on the couple. Sensing their impending doom, Cay summons the courage to tell Bill that it was she who really shot Conover, but he doesn’t believe her. Whereas earlier Cay set Bill up as a fall guy because she thought he’d get off easy, he now thinks she’s trying to take the blame for the same reason — that her recently discovered pregnancy will rate a soft sentence. When the police come knocking Bill, remembering his vow to the warden, prepares an ambush. In one of the most ironic moments in all of film noir Cay grabs Conover’s revolver and shoots Bill with it. The symbolism here is critical — in shooting Conover Cay was selfishly trying to protect herself, but now she shoots Bill in order to save him. As the police take him away, Cay pleads, “I couldn’t let you get into more trouble on account of me.”


Tomorrow is Another Day is a film of mirrored halves, of repeated acts imbued with new meaning — it ends as it began, with an authority figure summoning Bill to his office through the intercom. In that first scene Bill moves from one prison to another — without walls, yes, but a prison just the same. The final time, with Cay, he is truly set free. The scene is the Manhattan DA’s, with Bill and Cay clumsily trying to take the blame for each other. In attempting to sacrifice herself for the man who loves her, Cay is able to overcome the sins of her past, while Bill is able to consummate adulthood by assuming responsibility for the life of another. Here is revealed possibly the most ironic twist in the entire story, but I’ll leave it up in the air. As I wrote earlier, the film ends well. Redemption indeed.



Tomorrow is Another Day (1951)
stripe
Director: Felix Feist
Cinematographer: Robert Burks
Story: Art Cohn
Screenplay: Guy Endore
Starring: Steve Cochran and Ruth Roman
Released by: Warner Brothers Pictures
Running time: 89 minutes

October 7, 2009

THE FEARMAKERS (1958)



Dana Andrews is one of the more iconic actors of the film noir cycle, yet in the grand scheme of things he’s one of the most underappreciated in film history. The image of him standing amidst the hulking carcasses of bombers at the end of The Best Years of Our Lives is so viscerally powerful that the thought of brings tears to my eyes. I’ve always admired him as a “film first” kind of guy, meaning that he never allowed his ego to get in the way of his characters. “Low key” for him wasn’t a vapid Hollywood actor’s false modesty; it was his personal way of exploring character and demonstrating faith in his audience’s ability to empathize. He was a fairly regular Joe who suffered through the ups and downs of life as most people do, though it can be argued that he had more than his share of bad luck. That he struggled mightily with alcohol in the years after his career began to decline isn’t surprising—less was known of alcoholism in those days when the evening cocktail was an intrinsic part of American culture. It didn’t help that in 1935 he buried a young wife, and then in 1964 their child. He worked as he found it in his later years and died without fanfare in the early 1990s. His body of work is extraordinary, and it’s easy to imagine that his screen persona was probably not much different than the man in real life.


Oddly, one of the roles for which I best remember him is as Ted Stryker from 1957’s 
Zero Hour!. In the film, famously lampooned in Airplane!, Andrews plays a neurotic WWII fighter pilot who can’t get past the guilt he feels over the deaths of his squadron members. Years later, Stryker gets his shot at redemption aboard a commercial flight that is bedeviled by food poisoning. (“Don’t order the fish!”) The film depicts Andrews as a shaky, sweat-drenched wreck—he may even be a coward. But by the final fade-out he’s a hero—albeit a reluctant one. You leave thinking that had anyone else been able to fly the plane, Andrews would have kept his ass strapped in row F. Even as the flight crew asks if anyone on board has flight experience, he keeps quiet. It isn’t until his ailing son volunteers that his “pop flew in the war” that Andrews grudgingly acknowledges his personal history. The guy in the control tower is, 
of all people, Sterling Hayden. The hulking actor browbeats Andrews through his ordeal until the plane alights on the tarmac. Even then, Stryker is denied that moment of movie heroic adulation that eighties action film heroes were willing to destroy block after city block to achieve. Instead of a rousing ovation, the distressed passengers seem joyously relieved that a schmuck like Stryker didn’t get them all killed. The film’s treatment of Stryker is lukewarm and ultimately disappointing, yet Andrews brings the role the same level of professionalism and dignity evident that defined his career.

Shortly after 
Zero Hour! Andrews and director Jacques Tourneur made two films together, The Night (Curse) of the Demon—which everyone and his ma has seen—and the obscure The Fearmakers, a communist exposé picture situated in the world of DC lobbyists and public relations firms. Andrews plays Alan Eaton, an old-school PR executive who believes his firm’s primary function is merely to ascertain public opinion—not manipulate it. But Eaton has been a prisoner of war in North Korea for the past few years, relentlessly beaten and tortured. The opening credits roll over top of one of his beatings, and the film’s first real scene takes place on Eaton’s flight back to the States. It’s here that he meets a “fellow traveler,” nuclear physicist Dr. Gregory Jessup, who preaches nuclear disarmament and warns Eaton that PR companies have begun to manipulate public opinion far more often than they reflect it. He cites as an example how the big tobacco companies have begun to employ PR firms to help them explain away medicine’s claims that cigarettes are the cause of “certain malignant ailments.” Jessup just so happens to be looking for a good PR man and asks Eaton for his contact information.

Let’s pause for a second. The close-read of this scene is that Jessup is a communist—the fact that he’s stumping for disarmament is a dead giveaway. This notion has confused some who have commented on this film in recent years, as if the filmmakers are suggesting that anyone with a “no-nukes” bumper sticker must be a Red. These folks fail to grasp that Jessup’s position doesn’t suggest that communists are peace-lovers who despise nuclear power—it’s merely the movie’s way of showing the audience that he’s a clever liar. The film’s actual attitude however, if viewed through the lens of the late 1950s, makes a great deal more common sense. 
Jessup really wants to use Eaton’s PR firm to spread a no-nukes message, so that the communists can speed ahead of the United States in the burgeoning arms race. Remember that nuclear stockpiling was only just beginning in earnest, and that American views about the defense program were by-and-large pro-nuke, and not yet as fatalistic as they would become in subsequent decades. That’s an attitude the Soviets would have liked to change. After all, this was the atomic age. In the minds of many, the Fat Man and Little Boy detonations had saved the lives of thousands and thousands of US servicemen; deeper implications allowed by the passage of time weren’t yet part of the public consciousness.

In the same year The Fearmakers was in theaters, the Ford Motor Company was fervently developing a nuclear-powered concept car, complete with onboard reactor. The excess of the buildup was still in the offing, and the “bomb” remained an essentially American concept. When The Fearmakers debuted the Soviets had possessed nuclear capability for only eight years, and lagged behind in the associated technology. Even by 1964, the US held in reserve 7,000 warheads to only 500 for the Soviets. The truly frightening concept of remote delivery hadn’t yet taken hold either, though in October of ‘57 the Russians would deploy Sputnik via the first functional ICBM, changing attitudes forever. With all of this in mind, Jessup’s pitch to Eaton is a logical ploy: let’s get a respected American PR man to sway public opinion in the direction of disarmament, while in the meantime we secretly catch up to the US in the arms race. Of course communists would want to sow the seeds of disarmament in America—and Andrew’s Eaton is perfect for the job: he’s naïve, rattled, and has possibly even been programmed to be sympathetic by his North Korean / Chinese captors.

It also seems to be a plot contrivance of the first order that Jessup would happen to be on the same plane as Eaton in the first place, but we later learn he’s a plant. As it turns out, Eaton’s former business partner died under mysterious circumstances just after exercising his power of attorney and selling the their PR firm to a third man, Jim McGinnis (Dick Foran), an unscrupulous, greedy chap. McGinnis in it for the money and doesn’t care much who he works for or what political agenda he asked to spin. The film’s depictions of the PR racket falls well short of its clever take on the DC attitudes that find their locus in the vicinity of Connecticut Avenue and K Street. (Take my word for it, I paid my dues there in my early twenties. The only thing I remember with any fondness is the “L Street Chicken” sandwich at Jonathan’s Gourmet Deli.) Despite the fact that Eaton and Baker is one of the most respected agencies inside the Beltway, nobody seems to actually work there. McGinnis’ only employees are right hand man Barney Bond (played like a weasel in coke bottle glasses by crooner Mel Tormé) and secretary Ms. Dennis (amateurish Marilee Earle). The empty office is likely a product of the movie’s low budget, but it requires Tormé and Earle to pull their weight, and both fall short. Earle in particular is far, far out of her depth.

Eaton of course knows none of this—he expects to return to the company that he built from the ground up and resume his old life. Instead he gets hit by a ton of bricks: not only is his former partner long dead and gone, despite seeing that his name is still on the door, he’s shocked to discover that the business has been sold out from under him. (McGinnis kept the name for the strength of its reputation) McGinnis recognizes that Eaton still has some juice, so he offers him the chance to “write his own ticket” if only he can secure the account of a senator whose business was lost when McGinnis took over. Eaton agrees, but when he meets with the senator and a reporter friend, they give him the dope on who McGinnis really fronts for.


Horrified, Eaton becomes an impromptu double agent and works to bring McGinnis to justice. Why? Because his name is still on the letterhead, and in his mind that makes him responsible for whatever the company has become in his absence. And although Eaton endured hell in Korea he’s still compelled somehow to do the right thing. Yet not surprisingly, he decides that as soon as he can untangle this mess he’s getting out of the DC rat race and heading for an easier life in California. Eaton has no desire to return his company to its former level of respectability—he knows a lost cause when he sees it. The Fearmakers wraps up with a series of conventional movie run-ins with colorful communist agents in various guises, and all’s well that ends well. The end titles find Eaton and Ms. Dennis necking at the feet of Abraham Lincoln.

As much as 
The Fearmakers can be praised for being conceptually ahead of its time, its fails to understand that not all criminal enterprise is violent. The movie is about how politicians and the power-hungry conspire to corrupt the truth, yet the notion must have been deemed too obtuse for 1950s audiences, because in the end the filmmakers reduce the crooks to mere thugs with fists and guns.Though, more importantly, it could be that those 1958 audiences were still clinging to a make-believe world where a lone good man could trumpet down the walls of Jericho. My god, how the world has changed. 



The Fearmakers (1958)
Director: Jacques Tourneur
Cinematographer: Sam Leavitt
Screenplay: Chris Appley and Elliot West, based on the novel by Darwin Teilhet.
Starring: Dana Andrews, Dick Foran, Mel Tormé.
Released by: United Artists
Running time: 85 minutes

8/17