Saturday, August 16, 2008

Killer Hippo, Dorothy Receives Electroshock Therapy and Jayne Mansfield is Sexually Frustrated!

On August 7, I went to PFA to see Eddie Muller introduce two David Goodis films.

Nightfall with Aldo Ray and Anne Bancroft; (1957)
The Burglar with Dan Duryea and Jayne Mansfield; (1957)

I am familiar with man-about-town Muller. He founded and continues to host the annual Noir City Film Festival every January. He gave a guest lecture at a SF Jazz class I took a few years ago called Jazz in Film Noir. He has collaborated with Russell Blackwood from Thrillpeddlers on a Grand Guignol style play. He writes a monthly book review on mystery novels for SF Chronicle. So it wasn’t surprising to see him pop up at PFA to introduce two late period noir films.

In many of noir films, the plot stretches belief and Nightfall was definitely in that category. Ray plays an innocent man on the run. He is surprisingly sanguine about the circumstances that have ruined his life. A year ago, Ray (he goes by several names so I'll just call him Ray) and his friend Doc go camping/hunting in the woods. What is strange about that is that Ray is having an affair with Doc’s wife and is racked with guilt. (#1 Why would someone go on a hunting trip with the guy he is cuckolding?) Ray’s character is portrayed as a decent guy put in an impossible situation. He is not really that decent since he is having an affair with his friend's wife, picks up women in a bar and is rather adept with his fists. While sitting at the campfire, Doc and Ray see a car drive off the road. They go to render medical assistance and meet Brian Keith (John) and Rudy Bond (Red). As is often the case, the villains have more interesting characters. John is a coldly, logical guy that would just as soon avoid violence if possible but doesn’t have any qualms about using it when necessary. Red is simply a sadistic sociopath. I think Ray and Keith are playing similar characters reacting differently under difficult circumstances.

John & Red have robbed a bank of 300something thousand dollars. Now that Doc and Ray have seen them, they have to be killed. Red shoots Doc in the back with Ray’s hunting rifle. Ray needs to shoot himself to make it appear as a murder/suicide. He refuses and a gunfight ensues. Red nicks Ray in the head and leaves him for dead. He picks up the satchel of money and drives off. Unfortunately, he took the wrong satchel. They take Doc’s black bag full of whatever doctors kept in those bags when they used to make house calls. (#2 Can you fit $300,000 in one of those black bags? #3 After killing two men, wouldn’t bank robbers check the bag? Doc had just administered first aid to John so they saw the black bag he was using and must have noticed it looked similar to the one they were carrying.)

When Ray awakes, he grabs the bag to administer first aid to Doc. That’s when he notices there is cash in the bag. He takes the money and runs. After all, it is his only chance. He could play dead and wait for the robbers to come back to switch bags but circumstantial evidence is against him. He is having an affair with Doc’s wife. Doc was shot with Ray’s hunting rifle. With the money bag gone, there is no evidence to indicate the robbers were there. Ray does what any reasonable person in film noir does. Rather than going to the police, he goes into hiding. He runs through the woods and across a river. Exhausted, he heads for a shack in the middle of a snow covered field to take shelter. Somewhere during the trek, he loses the bag of money. (#4 How could he lose the bag?)

Another noir trait is to tell the story out of linear sequence. As the film opens, we see Ray in a big city, one year after the aforementioned events. He is being shadowed by James Gregory, an investigator working for the insurance company that covered the bank loss from the robbery. He thinks Ray stole the money but has some nagging doubts.

Ray meets Anne Bancroft at a bar in an entertaining sequence. Ray approaches the bar like a hungry wolf by asking the bartender if “she is available” pointing towards the empty seat with women’s gloves or a scarf. The bartender says she is alone if that’s what he means. He takes the stool next to her and orders vodka. Bancroft returns to her seat and after a few minutes of banter, asks Ray for $5 to pay her bar tab. Ray gives her $5 but when the bartender returns, Bancroft orders another drink and magnanimously offers to buy Ray another vodka. Ray justifiably thinks Bancroft is a prostitute and treats her as such. Bancroft finds some self-respect and throws a drink in his face. Then they have dinner and agree to spend the night together.

As they leave the bar, Ray & Bancroft run into John & Red who have been watching them from the bar. They tell Bancroft to scram and she complies. It’s unclear if Bancroft is a plant which Ray assumes she is. I’m not sure why the director makes the situation ambiguous. Later, it seems clear that she was not but maybe it was just a false twist in the plot. The three men get in a car and drive away – John spouting voice of reason pleas to hand over the money, Red cackling from the driver’s seat and Ray claiming not to have the money.

I don’t want to devolve into straight plot summary so it is suffice to say that Ray extricates himself from his situation, meets up with Bancroft and the two fall in love. There is a hilarious scene where Ray shows up bloodied and bruised at Bancroft’s door. Ray knows the money bag is somewhere up by that shack and he and Bancroft go to retrieve it. (#5 Why go to the area during the winter when there is snow again? Why not go in the spring or summer when the snow has melted?).

In the end, Red kills John and hops into a snow plow. After some fisticuffs with Ray, Red meets his demise at the rotating blades of the slow moving snow plow.

Muller repeatedly compared this film to Out of the Past with Robert Mitchum and Kirk Douglas. I haven’t seen that film but my feeling is Nightfall is a very nicely made B movie noir. Keith, Bond and Bancroft deliver great performances. Ray plays the character with a strange sense of acceptance of his bad luck. Rather than being frustrated or angry, Ray is tired of running and depressed but persistently works towards his goal of recovering the money and clearing his name. He only breaks down towards the end when Gregory informs him of his identity. I can’t see Mitchum showing that kind of weakness. So once again, I have to say that PFA uncovers another hidden gem for me.


The Burglar is nominally about a jewelry heist but it is really about one man trying to live by his own code of honor and his conflicted feelings about his “sister.” I put sister in quotations marks because they are not related by blood. If Jayne Mansfield was my sister, I might think about incest too but that is not the case here. Duryea has assumed the big brother role as a promise to her late father and repeatedly rebuffs Mansfield’s advances with ever increasing difficulty. Maybe I’m parsing words but Duryea did not promise to be chaste with Mansfield so marrying her would have fulfilled his promise. Anyway, this promise causes all kinds of inner conflict in Duryea. Ratcheting up the stress levels are the need to fence a high profile stolen necklace and conflict among Duryea’s gang.

I enjoyed this film quite a bit. Muller shared some tidbits. Goodis and director Paul Wendkos were from Philadelphia where the film was shot. Mansfield was from nearby Bryn Mawr. The film was what would now be called an “independent” film.
Shot in 1955, the film was not released until 1957 to take advantage of Mansfield’s growing popularity. The film was unable to find a distributor initially.

This film is built around Duryea’s hangdog face. Not quite likeable, Duryea creates a sympathetic figure. Mansfield’s beauty is hard to conceal although her baby doll voice grew irritating. I thought she filled out a pair of jeans nicely in one scene. Designers cut women’s jeans differently now. Martha Vickers (looking a lot like Marilyn Monroe), has a memorable role as a man-eater with a sob story cum scam artist.

Muller didn’t mention it but John Facenda played a major role at the beginning of the film. I found out that Facenda was from Philadelphia but to most people he is known as the voice of NFL films.


On Friday, August 8 (the night of the Olympic Games Opening Ceremonies), I saw two thirds of a triple feature organized by Jesse Hawthorne Ficks’ Midnite for Maniacs. I saw:

Return to Oz with Fairuza Balk and Tippi Hedren; (1985)
Meet the Feebles directed by Peter Jackson; (1989)

Before seeing Return to Oz, I was aware that L. Frank Baum wrote several Oz books of which The Wizard of Oz (1939) was only one. I also knew that the books became increasing bizarre but I was not prepared for Return to Oz in any sense of the word. First, the film (produced by Disney) seemed very cheaply made. The costumes and special effects were particularly amateurish. Though made in 1985, it seemed to be a cheap 1970’s film to me. Putting aside that the 1939 film was more impressive than the 1985 “sequel,” I wasn’t prepared for the fairly dark nature of the film. Dorothy receives electroshock treatment from a shady doctor and head nurse. When she arrives in Oz, she is met but some strange people called Wheelers that seemed like the retarded cousins of the S&M biker gang in Mad Max 2. There is another scene involving decapitated heads. Most bizarre was Jack Pumpkinhead who reminds me of a horror movie villain from the 80’s. Jack is basically a jack-o-lantern with tree branches for hands and legs. I found him to be menacing. More disturbing was his desire to refer to Dorothy as his “mother.” Think of a Jack In the Box commercial with pedophillic overtones.

Also, what made The Wizard of Oz great were the songs (which the organist played before the movie). Return to Oz was not a musical so there was no break in the action. The Wicked Witch of the West (Margaret Hamilton) and the Flying Monkeys were quite frightening, particularly to children. By balancing the action with songs, the original film broadens its appeal and provides a nice rhythm. Return to Oz just goes from one bizarre episode to another.

Judy Garland was 18 years old when she made The Wizard of Oz and I think she looked older. Fairuza Balk was 13 when she made Return to Oz and she looked younger. I think she was too young for the role.

I can’t say I didn’t like Return to Oz. It seems to me like a near miss. There was a lot of potential that wasn’t quite achieved. I like Fairuza Balk. She has a unique face and a film presence that is ever present. My favorite role by her was in the delightfully bad The Craft where she plays the lead witch. Like Road House with Patrick Swayze, I’ve seen The Craft on television many times and it is a guilty pleasure. Balk also played a racist in American History X as Edward Norton’s girlfriend and Marlon Brando’s feline daughter in the hilariously dreadful The Island of Dr. Moreau.

I had dinner and got my car during the second film – Bettlejuice with Michael Keaton, Geena Davis and Winona Ryder. The midnight film was Meet the Feebles by New Zealand director Peter Jackson (Lord of the Ring trilogy). Meet the Feebles can best be described as The Muppets on Crack. There was a strange children’s show I watched called New Zoo Review that reminded me of this film. The Muppets television show and Avenue Q stage show are of the same lineage.

Meet the Feebles is completely populated by puppets – anthropomorphic animals such as an elephant, hippo, walrus, hedgehog, poodle, bulldog, fly, worm, etc. The film revolves around a theater that produces a weekly television variety show called Meet the Feebles. On the day of the show, we follow the soap opera that is backstage life at Meet the Feebles. To say the characters are dysfunctional is an understatement. Some of the backstage antics include making porn movies (with a cow with pierced udders), selling drugs, a panty sniffing aardvark and a paternity suit filed by a chicken against an elephant. There was also some animal spoofing gay theater stereotypes that sings about sodomy. In the end, the hippo goes on a Columbine style rampage with a machine gun.

This film was trumpeted by Ficks as the VCR “holy grail” during his college years. I can understand how this film has achieved cult status. Maybe I’m too old to enjoy it but I found the film to be boring and once you get past the puppets acting in decidedly adult ways, it wasn’t that funny.

The David Goodis double feature and Midnight for Maniacs films were well attended. I was surprised how many people came out at midnight for Meet the Feebles.

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