Sunday, August 30, 2009

Tea and Larceny in Berkeley

The PFA has announced the lineup for their Tea and Larceny: Classic British Crime Films series. They have pointedly avoided the word "noir" since the Castro is screening its own British Crime Film Series titled Rialto's Best of British Noir from September 11 to 16.

Brighton Rock and It Always Rains on Sunday screen at both the PFA and the Castro so I'll probably save a trip to Berkeley and catch the Castro screening of both films.


Steve Seid's program description takes a swipe at the Castro series which is screening The Third Man or The Fallen Idol.

Here at home, we may have our “mean streets,” as Raymond Chandler called them, but England has its own bleak equivalent, a cobbled stretch paved in battery and betrayal. Tea and Larceny is no parlor game for the well-behaved teetotaler, but a boisterous gathering of gin-soaked malcontents bent on mayhem, malarkey, and murder most foul. Not necessarily noir, each film does set its sights on misdeeds of lurid ambition, corrupted love, or poorly pent pathology. We’ve avoided the usual suspects such as Carol Reed’s The Third Man or The Fallen Idol, instead digging up cold cases like I Met a Murderer, So Evil My Love, The October Man, and the foul-scented No Orchids for Miss Blandish, as well as the recently exhumed Brighton Rock and It Always Rains on Sunday. Beyond the dank country manors and fog-draped alleyways, beyond the prim sitting rooms and cliff-edged highways, lies a scheming sensibility that is England’s own. Though a few films, like Obsession and Night and the City, have ties to the tough mugs of American movies, most give up the goods as only the Brits could do it—it’s all menace hiding behind the manners.


Brighton Rock (1947)
The brilliant author Graham Greene (The Third Man; Our Man in Havana) provides the source novel and screenplay for this Dickensian glimpse into the underbelly of a typical British seaside resort, where sun, sand, and carnivals camouflage another town entirely. In run-down Brighton, the boardwalk is lined with pasty day-trippers and incompetent singing acts, but it’s also patrolled by teenage Napoleon Pinkie Brown (Richard Attenborough). Pinkie is looking to make his mark in any way possible, whether literally, with that knife he’s constantly twirling, or through murder or, even worse, love, by seducing a naïve teenage girl. With a choirboy’s looks and a killer’s cold stare, as alien to his fellow gangsters as he is to “civilians,” Attenborough embodies a psychosis matched only by James Cagney in White Heat. “Brighton Rock shows, as clearly as anything ever did, Greene’s preoccupation with the allure of sin,” writes Terrence Rafferty; “virtue is uninteresting, and moral weakness, grubby and persistent, is the main attraction.”

It Always Rains on Sunday (1947)
“Almost the definitive British postwar film” is how historian William K. Everson described this Ealing Studios noir, shot through with a despairing realism that prefigures the next decade’s kitchen-sink tendencies. It’s another rainy Sunday in London’s East End, its row houses, street markets, and narrow rooms populated by tea sippers and thugs, wide boys and spivs, temperance groups and coppers. Luckless cons work to offload the fruits of a botched raid (roller skates), a band leader aims his lechery towards a naïve young beauty, and, in one particularly cramped home, a fugitive hides in the upstairs bedroom, protected by a housewife who was once his lover. All dreams are dead ends; all trains return to the East End. Director Robert Hamer (Kind Hearts and Coronets; Dead of Night) ably juggles multiple story lines and flashbacks, while a final chase scene through the steam and shadows of a London rail yard adds an Anthony Mann-like noir flourish to its poetic fatalism. Bertrand Tavernier called it “a masterpiece...a brilliantly written choral work.”

The Snorkel (1958)
A debonair and diabolical villain turns a piece of scuba-diving equipment into an unusual instrument of murder in this clever chiller from the Hammer studios. Before the opening credits, we witness Peter van Eyck perpetrate what ought to be a perfect crime, rigging a room in his Italian villa into a death chamber for his wife. Her demise is ruled a suicide, but the killer’s stepdaughter is the suspicious type; while she tries to unravel what really happened to her mother—and to her real father, who also died under dubious circumstances—a menacing relationship develops between sinister stepdad and troublesome teen. Formerly a cinematographer for David Lean and others, director Guy Green brings an inventive eye to the proceedings, which dive to a sardonic denouement.

Noose (1948)
“We don’t have any gangsters here,” claims a London newspaper editor to his hot-to-trot reporter from Chicago at the beginning of this energetic programmer, a fascinating combination of American noir aesthetics with British slang, style, and location. Yankee fashion hound Linda Medbury (Carole Landis, who died tragically after the film was made) quickly proves her boss wrong, uncovering a ruthless London crime ring led by the fast-talking Bar Gorman and the slick Sugiani, neither of whom will stop at killing women to keep their empire going. Fortunately Linda’s got her British hubby on her side, an ex-commando who’s organized a gang of his own (complete with Chelsea jerseys) to help smash the syndicate. A John Alton–esque sense of light and shadow, as well as director Edmond Greville’s impressive visual flourishes, provide a flair that’s pure Hollywood noir, but the zippy insults, class concerns, and seedy postwar settings are as British as they come.

So Evil My Love (1948)
Ray Milland is both repellent and compelling in this Victorian thriller, directed with bleak panache by Lewis Allen (The Uninvited). Milland plays a charming thief, forger, and all-around blackguard who spots a prime mark in Ann Todd, a missionary’s widow and proprietor of a boarding house where Milland takes up residence. Under the influence of Milland’s advances, the straitlaced Todd abandons her inhibitions, eventually becoming complicit in larceny and blackmail—but her seducer will learn that a woman’s passion, once unleashed, can be difficult for even the most calculating con artist to control. A carefully drawn backdrop of British respectability heightens the drama of Todd’s decline: as so many English mysteries have proven, crime can be all the more thrilling when draped in crinoline.

The October Man (1947)
“I couldn’t have done it...could I?” In a twist on the wrong-man theme, this hybrid of playful murder mystery and psychological melodrama stars John Mills as an innocent man whose own self-doubt makes him a suspect. After a bus accident kills a child in his care and leaves him with a fractured skull and troubled mind, Mills seeks refuge in a small hotel whose very proper residents greet him with a mixture of curiosity and condescension. When an attractive lodger goes out to post a letter and doesn’t return, the neighbors, the police, and Mills himself all begin to wonder whether he might be responsible. Erwin Hillier’s cinematography shrouds the action in an atmosphere of misty, pervasive melancholia, and Mills brings an otherworldly, fretful presence to Eric Ambler’s alternately sardonic and empathetic scenario, which hints at the struggles of men shattered not by accident but by the recent war.

She Played With Fire a.k.a. Fortune Is a Woman (1957)
As we all know from Double Indemnity, insurance and romance can be a dangerous combination; this little-seen mystery by Frank Launder and Sidney Gilliat (Green for Danger) adds to the formula a touch of British Gothic. Sent to investigate a Christmas Eve fire at one of those country manors that always seem to harbor dark secrets, insurance adjuster Jack Hawkins encounters an enigmatic family, including an imposing matriarch and a young wife (Arlene Dahl) with connections to Hawkins’s own past. “We’re all escaping from something, aren’t we,” says Mother; her son sagely advises, “Be careful in this dark corner.” As Hawkins tracks a trail of fraud, forgery, and worse, schemes and suspicions proliferate—as do classic Launder-Gilliat supporting characters—and nightmares overlap with reality and art.

The Long Haul (1957)
Racketeering is the principal cargo in this well-tuned tale about a trucker in trouble. Victor Mature (in a role intended for Marlon Brando) plays Harry Miller, a deactivated G.I. stranded in England with his Liverpudlian wife. Harry signs on as a driver for a lorry combine only to find that mobsters rule the road. Joe Easy (Patrick Allen), the ruthless thug who runs Easy Hauling, plays it fast and loose with his freight, but not as loose as his curvaceous cohort Lynn (Diana Dors, the British Monroe). Once Harry catches sight of her, Dors becomes the soft shoulder on a road to nowhere. Though Hell Drivers (September 6) emphasizes rivalry among the drivers themselves, both of these big wheelers saw the hauling biz as a shiftless world of lowballers and hijackers. Caught up in the momentum, Harry must choose between a pedestrian life with wife and child and the felonious fast lane. The Long Haul offers no rest stop for the wicked.

No Orchids for Miss Blandish (1948)
“It has all the morals of an alley cat and the sweetness of a sewer!” blared a contemporary review of this controversial 1948 noir. No Orchids bubbled forth from the depths of British Poverty Row studio Renown to shock the English nation with its casual brutality (multiple murders in cold blood in the opening reel, another killing involving a grandfatherly innocent bystander) and leering perversion (“I don’t have ta drink ta want you,” opines one ruthless Romeo). The film concerns a hard-partying society dame who falls for her vicious kidnapper, a crime syndicate overlord. Simultaneously revolting and revolutionary, its Z-grade budget, inexpressive cast, and total disregard for bourgeois sensibility make No Orchids play like some unholy alliance of Ed Wood and Georges Bataille, a Poverty Row Grand Guignol. Monthly Film Bulletin declared it “the most sickening exhibition of brutality, perversion, sex and sadism ever to be shown on a cinema screen”—in other words, unmissable.

The Krays (1990)
This brutal neo-noir depicts twin brothers who became two of Britain’s most notorious criminals. Hailing from London’s tough East End, the Kray brothers learn early to claw their way up. They take their mother’s advice—“Don’t fight each other; fight them out there”—to extreme lengths, building a London club empire atop a pile of mutilated bodies. As they gain power, the Krays’ idiosyncrasies deepen. Ronald, the more violent of the two, grows increasingly unpredictable and paranoid. Reggie takes a desire to care for his wife to smothering extremes. As played by real-life brothers Gary and Martin Kemp, of British New Romantic pop group Spandau Ballet, the Krays are cool, suave charmers who cling to each other and their beloved mother. The film is particularly attuned to the plight of women in postwar Britain: they must grow up, while men “stay kids all their lives, and they wind up heroes or monsters.” The creepy Krays don’t break this vicious cycle.

The PFA series screens a few a more films (most notably Night and the City with Richard Widmark) but Labor Day Weekend plans will not allow me to see all the films in the series.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Into the Vortex with Barbara Stanwyck & Linda Darnell

I watched parts of three programs at PFA in July & August.

I caught six films from Into the Vortex - Female Voice in Film. Some of the films were particularly entertaining. I especially enjoyed A Letter to Three Wives and No Man of Her Own.

Into the Vortex

The Locket with Robert Mitchum; (1946)
A Letter to Three Wives with Jeanne Crain, Linda Darnell, Ann Sothern & Kirk Douglas; directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz; (1949)
Humoresque starring Joan Crawford & John Garfield; (1947)
Cat People with Simone Simon; directed by Jacques Tourneur; (1942)
I Walked with a Zombie directed by Jacques Tourneur; (1943)
No Man of Her Own starring Barbara Stanwyck; (1950)

I would have liked to have caught a few more films from Secrets Beyond the Door - Treasures from the UCLA Festival of Preservation and Eccentric Cinema - Overlooked Oddities and Ecstasies, 1963-82 but work and a mild case of cinema fatigue limited me to one film from each series.

Secrets Beyond the Door

In the Land of the Head Hunters silent with intertitles; live accompaniment by Judith Rosenberg; (1914)

Eccentric Cinema

Dirty Little Billy with Michael J. Pollard; (1972)


No Man of Her Own was the standout of the group. The plot is a doozy. Stanwyck is pregnant and unwed. While on a cross-country train trip, she meets a couple. The wife is pregnant and they form a quick friendship. Sadly, there is a train crash and a case of mistaken identity. The couple dies in the crash and Stanwyck lapses into a coma. When she awakes, she learns she has been mistakenly identified as the wife of the dead man. The dead women had no family and had never met her in-laws (who just happen to be wealthy). Stanwyck is faced with a difficult choice. She is broke and about to bring a bastard child into the world when that was still a stigma. For her child's sake, she assumes the dead woman's identity.

Things are going well as Stanwyck settles into a routine. She has a healthy baby, welcoming parents-in-laws and a blossoming "friendship" with her "brother-in-law." Then her sleazy baby-daddy comes to town threatens to expose her true identity. He has his eyes on the in-laws money. Stanwyck is initially conflicted but ultimately decides to settle things in classic noir fashion - she decides to kill him.

The final portion of the film deals with the cover-up although there is a "surprise" happy ending that was disappointing. The first 90 minutes of the film were great; Stanwyck delivers a standout performance as the vulnerable woman. We see the pain of rejection, her sense of desperation, her inner conflict in perpetrating the fraud, the growing ease of maintaining the lie and ultimately the discovery of courage when she refuses to allow her scumbag ex to manipulate her anymore.


A Letter to Three Wives was another standout film from the series. Let me start by saying Linda Darnell was stunningly beautiful. The eponymous three sives are manipulated by the unseen Celeste Holm as the film's narrator. Each of the women (Darnell, Jeanne Crain & Ann Sothern) have received a letter from Addie Ross (voice of Holm). Ross informs them that she has left town...with one of their husbands. With impeccable timing, the letter arrives as the three women are boarding a boat to chaperone some underprivileged kids on a day-long trip to a island that can only be accessed by the ferry. So the three women are left to contemplate their strained marriages all day long. That can only mean one thing - flashbacks. Before I forget, the director (Joseph L. Mankiewicz) entertainingly uses a voice synthesizer to voice the women's inner fears. The sound of the boat motor morphs into a synthesized voice, etc.

Ross has a hold on all three husbands. She is the compassionate friend to all three men and it's stated or implied that they are all in love with her. Darnell married her husband for his money although she doesn't appreciate being treated like a gold digger. Crain is the country girl that never loses her insecurity among her husband's country club friends. Sothern is the workaholic radio show writer that belittles her schoolteacher husband (Kirk Douglas).

Through the flashbacks, we see the mistakes and bad choices that have dysfuncionalized each wife's marriage. Addie Ross is the classic MacGuffin - she motivates each woman to re-examine their marriage, own up to their culpability in pushing their husbands to Ross and ultimately take action to save their marriage. It's great fun to wonder which husband is leaving with Addie as Mankiewicz serves up clues that suggest all three.

Mankiewicz blends in some wicked humor. My favorite gag is Darnell's ramshackle house down by the railroad tracks. We know it's close to the tracks because when a train goes by it shakes the house and produces a deafening roar. Darnell and her family have lived their so long that when a train drives by they just pause their conversation and hold onto any unsecured objects.

Another amusing scene is the look on Crain's face when she has to wear a horrendous dress to the country club on her first day in town. Having to wear that dress in public drives her to drunkeness.

Jeanne Crain in A Letter to Three Wives

Monday, August 3, 2009

Noir Overload

As I was perusing the Castro Theater's upcoming events, I noticed that they have programmed a series called Best of British Noir. The program is running September 11 to 16 and includes

Brighton Rock (1947)
It Always Rains on Sunday (1947)
The Third Man (1949)
Peeping Tom (1960)
The Fallen Idol (1948)

I can't help but notice that the Castro's Best of British Noir series overlaps with the Roxie Theater's Best of Columbia Noir series. Or at least it used to overlap. Originally scheduled for September 11 to 22, the Roxie has updated their website. It now reads "For 12 days, on dates to be announced soon..."

I guess the Castro scared the Roxie off. I wonder if the Castro planned their program first and the Roxie wasn't aware of it or if the Castro programmed their noir series as a counter to the Roxie's Columbia Noir series.

Either way, it is interesting to see the dynamics between the two theaters.


Over at the 4 Star, they programmed two Korean films in the near future.

Daytime Drinking (2008) opens August 21. This independent film about Korea's drinking customs is comedy about a man's misadventures.

Haeundae has a 2010 release date on imdb. It looks to be an action/disaster film about a tsunami.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, Nazi Zombies and Quentin Tarantino

This afternoon, I saw Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles at the YBCA.

The 1975 Belgian film (French with subtitles) clocked in at an interminable 201 minutes but overall, I'm not complaining. Directed and written by Chantal Akerman and starring Delphine Seyrig, the film was amazingly effective.

The plot is excruciatingly repetitive. A fortysomething widow lives a numbingly structured life - wake up, make coffee, make breakfast for her son, send him to school, run errands, babysit the neighbor's baby, make dinner, prostitute herself, clean up, greet her son upon his return, serve dinner, help him with his homework, listen to the radio and go to sleep. If the routine is not dreary enough, Ms. Dielman adds her own perfunctory charm to her tasks. She's the type of woman that folds every bit of paper neatly (even the waste) and saves every scrap of aluminum foil. Akerman, through the pacing of her film, makes sure the audience feels (and empathizes) the full monotony of Dielman's decidedly existential existence.

Unappreciated by son (whom she dotes on and whores herself for), Jeanne doesn't seem to have much reason for living. The films shows her life in excruciating detail. We see her bread her veal, make her coffee, run her errands and take her post-coital bath...all in real-time. She goes about these tasks with the precision and emotion of a Swiss watch.

The film follow ~48 hours in Dielman's life. Her Tuesday john doesn't affect her much but her Wednesday john arouses or disconcerts her enough that she forgets to comb her hair & put the lid on the jar she keeps her money in. They don't seem like significant events but after 2 hours of seeing Jeanne Dielman close every door, turn off every light, clean every surface, etc. it's a big deal. As for her Thursday john...well I get to him later.

Most of the film consists of Seyrig on screen by herself. She has nothing to react to except inanimate objects (including the men in her life). Mostly dealing with cooking utensils and cleaning supplies, the dialog is not much more illuminating. Her son is sullen and her clients are taciturn and businesslike. The most emotional character is the baby that she watches who cries loudly at her every touch.

In this context, what Seyring accomplishes is rather amazing. Through the expression of her face (or lack thereof), we watch her descend from quiet desperation to giving full voice to her frustrations. What an expression it is too!

Back to the Thursday john. After a full day of making small "mistakes" or changes to her daily routine, Dielman gets a triple whammy. First, the baby is extra loud at her touch and nothing she can do will soothe the baby. Next, her sister in Canada sends her a present she has been eagerly anticipating for a few days. It turns out to be a rather dowdy pink nightgown. Finally, Mr. Thursday gives her an orgasm. That scene deserves more recognition because it was brilliant. Shot from above, we see Jeanne and her trick in the missionary position from the waist up. I thought the man was unconscious or sleeping but apparently he was only using his lower body. I think most women would be bored or offended by his rather unenthusiastic pelvic ministrations but Jeanne's reaction is to have an impressive orgasm.

That rapture truly awakened something in her life. Open to interpretation, I hypothesize it brought full awareness of the desolation of her life. Also, I suppose the fact that so little was needed to provide so much pleasure must have been saddening. If you are starving but someone give you one grain of rice and it produces so much pleasure, you must be aware of how wretched your life has become.

Anyway, that orgasm gives Jeanne the impetus to vent her frustrations. Namely, by plunging a pair of scissors into the man's neck. Not surprising given the quiet oppression of her life; I think the fact that she failed to wash the man's blood off her hands was more peculiar. The film ends with her sitting alone in silence at the dinner table. That would be interchangeable with many other scenes in the film except she has blood on her hands and blouse and now her eyes are downward and despondent whereas before they were strightforward and vapid.

I'm curious as to how her son would have responded upon arriving home but this film isn't about shock and histrionics. It's about internalized misery and emptiness of the soul.

Classified as a "feminist" masterpiece, I can certainly understand the gender specific expectations that could have resulted in Dielman becoming who she became. However, I'm not sure if Jeanne Dielman was the results of societal pressures and her own character flaws. There is a scene where Dielman and her son discuss women having sex with ugly men. Dielman recounts how she married the boy's father. When he was successful, her family urged her to marry him. They characterized him as handsome and likely to make her happy. She refused. After the war, when his business failed, her family reversed their opinion; they thought him ugly and likely to bring her misery. She married him at that point. So clearly, Dielman was a rebel in her youth. Whatever rebellious nature she had was fully domesticated as a result of time, death and familial responsibilities. Like wild horses, if you break them too hard, you destroy the spirit of the animal. That might have been what ultimately destroyed Jeanne Dielman.


I've seen four other films that I haven't cataloged.

The Hangover; (2009) - Official Website
Dead Snow; Norwegian with English subtitles; (2009) - Official Website
Reservoir Dogs directed by Quentin Tarantino; (1992)
Pulp Fiction directed by Quentin Tarantino; (1994)

I've never viewed Reservoir Dogs on the big screen. I don't think much is lost by seeing it on DVD. The film had such a low budget and plot driven that it is perfectly suitable for DVDs. I was good the film again. It was several years since I last saw it. Michael Madsen has aged alot in the past 17 years; Harvey Keitel hasn't. I also thought it was Steve Buscemi that was talking about talking about Madonna's Like a Virgin but it was Tarantino. Also, they kept talking about the heist being a five man job but there were six guys in black suits; Tarantino and another (I can't remember his color) were killed during the robbery attempt.

I saw Pulp Fiction in the theater (twice) when it was originally released. The soundtrack and few scenes benefited from the big screen. I particularly liked the scene where Travolta shot up and a close-up of his syringe was shown. Also, the scene where Vega (Travolta) accidentally shot Marvin in the face and brain matter is splattered onto Jules (Samuel L. Jackson) jheri curls; the details of the brain matter was more evident on the movie screen.

Dead Snow was a disappointing film about Nazi zombies. It sounds good and there are few memorable scenes but these zombies are after hidden treasure. What the hell? What kind of zombie is motivated by anything other than the taste human flesh? Best scene - self-amputation (the arm) followed by self-cauterizing the stump. Of course, the zombies next bite him on the penis but he can't bring himself amputate that.


YTD through August 2, I've seen 221 films at an average cost of $7.04/film.