Readlist

the-tale-of-genji-4– The Tale of Genji (the public domain translation via Project Gutenberg) is unexpectedly engrossing and readable. 

– Alternating between Judith Herrin’s Byzantium and (sigh) Sarah J. Maas’ Throne of Glass

– Watching: the 1957 Noir-Western Man in the Shadow with Orson Welles and Jeff Chandler. (Also starring Leo Gordon as, what else, burly bad guy who beats people up.)

The Tattered Dress (1957) ((repost review))

film-poster-the-tattered-dress-1957-bpabrgThe Tattered Dress is a 1957 noir-slash-courtroom drama. And it’s an excellent little movie.

The opening scenes show a smiling woman in a torn-up dress waltzing home, not particularly concerned about this, but, in a nicely framed sequence (the camera remains outside the house, looking in through the opulent glass doors, without sound), the wind gets taken abruptly out of her sails when her husband grabs a gun. They ride back into town, and her husband coldly shoots down the man who ripped her dress.

Enter Jim Blane, a hotshot trial lawyer from New York (the setting is small-town Nevada). He’s damn good and he knows it. When the Restons (the couple from the opening scenes) wanted the best damn sleazeball criminal lawyer they could get, they went out and got him. But Jim, for better or worse, is isn’t merely a total heel, only mostly one. The next twenty-odd minutes are Blane setting up for the trial, making the acquaintance of the avuncular-but-way-smarter-than-he-looks Sheriff, Nick Hoak, making the much closer acquaintance of Mrs. Reston, and dodging the verbal jabs of his old friend/nemesis, a reporter who Has A Conscience and doesn’t mind tweaking Jim’s a little. (pwahaha, sometimes these old movies are adorable.)

Jim, an attack dog on the stand, interrogates Sheriff Hoak mercilessly, and manages to create enough of a doubt about Hoak’s credibility and the deceased’s character.  He gets the Restons off, and wow, he’s worth every penny they paid him, because that was textbook first degree murder.

Nevertheless, this is when the trouble really starts. See, Nick Hoak wasn’t pleased to be made a fool of on the witness stand. He’s especially not happy to have it done by an out-of-towner whom he made friendly overtures to earlier in the picture. He’s probably also not happy that the murderer of his friend got off scot-free, but mostly, it’s just the dent to his own prestige and power that smarts. A grand jury has subpoenaed Jim for bribing a juror–and with Hoak on the team doing the investigating, it seems incredibly unlikely to turn up any exculpatory evidence. Jim, to put it bluntly, is screwed unless he can (spot the irony) find a really good lawyer to defend him.

Spoiler: You know that old saying about a lawyer who defends himself has a fool for a client?  Yep. Jim’s closing statement (after his aggressive tactics blow up in his face…twice) boils down to a naked plea to the jury: “Yes, I am a slimy criminal defense lawyer. I know it. I’m not proud of it. (Anymore). Also, I’m not guilty of the crime I am accused of, and you guys know it; please don’t put me in jail just because I deserve it on account of my other actions.” Another reviewer pointed out that he probably got off only because everyone in town knew how crooked the Sheriff was already. Nevertheless.

This is a movie driven by its performances: Jim, a mostly-heel who gets the wind knocked out of him and is forced to confront who and what he is, is well-portrayed by the chiseled Jeff Chandler (also see: Sign of the Pagan, Flame of Araby, Female on the Beach, although come to think of it, he’s a heel in all of those. I believe Chandler was somewhat more heroic in his Westerner roles). He’s someone who has enormous gifts, who has worked for them, and takes their rewards for granted–until they get him into trouble and there is no sign of them getting him out.

jeanne-crain-george-tobias-jeff-chandler-the-tattered-dress-1957-bp9pyc

Nick Hoak (Jack Carson), the genial and corrupt ex-football player Sheriff is really good.–he’s exactly the mix of good-ol’-boy playing dumb, geniality, and concealed nastiness to make it clear from the outset that he’s way smarter, way tougher, and way more dangerous than he seems.

The third outstanding performance in this movie is by Jeanne Crain, as Diane Blane, Jim’s estranged, long-suffering wife. She won’t stand for her husband sleeping around on her, but she will stand with him to protect his future and their children’s. She’s really an excellent example of what Caroline Furlong designated a Type 3 heroine (click through for discussion on types 1-2 also): one whose power is in her emotional strength, and whose influence on the plot comes indirectly through her influence, rather than directly, through her actions (or action scenes.) Diane keeps Jim’s ego in check, encourages him, and gives him hope and strength when he needs it.–and does it all without sacrificing a shred of her self-respect, or once raising her voice or her hand. (At one point, Jim, hoping he’s going to get lucky, reminds her that they are still legally married. Diane matches his bedroom eyes and murmurs calmly back: “Did that stop you with Charleen Reston?” Burn unit, stat.) And, if that still sounds like faint praise, let me add that the proof might be in the viewing. I ended the movie with a resounding admiration for Diane Blane, because she is one strong, classy lady in a way you don’t often see.

Also playing her part quite well (but with only a few scenes to do it in) is Gail Russell (also see: Wake of the Red Witch), who mostly has to look frightened, and then also to look (spoiler!) murderous. Also of interest: the trampy Mrs. Reston was played by Elaine Stewart, who played Audie Murphy’s good-girl love interest in Night Passage. Okay, maybe not that interesting, but interesting that’s a good little movie, too. It also has Dan Duryea and Jimmy Stewart. Man, we used to have actors, didn’t we…

Rated: Five rigged poker games out of five.

Hardboiled review: Laura – by Vera Caspary (repost)

Laura is a 1942 novel by Vera Caspary, better known for the movie starring the lovely Gene Tierney and the “Ohhh, okay, ooooo, I’m seeing it now. He fiiiine” (direct quote) Dana Andrews, not to mention Cliffton Webb, Judith Anderson, and a pre-horror icon Vincent Price. The movie is a film noir classic, for a very good reason, but the book is pretty darn good too.

Plot: up-and-coming detective Mark McPherson is assigned to the murder of advertising executive Laura Hunt, who has been killed at the door to her apartment…by a shotgun blast to the face. That nails down the means; the opportunity came due to some rather inconsistent behavior on Laura’s part–canceling two dinner arrangements and ostensibly leaving town, only to return to her own home afterwards.

The obvious suspects are the two closest men in her life: the smug and supercilious Waldo Lydecker, her mentor; and the charming but resentful Shelby Carpenter, her fiance. Not on that list but rounding out the cast are her loyal maid Bessie, and an aunt (Judith Anderson fleshed out the role a lot more in the movie.)

As for the motive, there isn’t one. Laura was, McPherson discovers, sincerely valued by her relations, employees, peers, and many friends; owed money to no one but her (already wealthy) aunt, and had, overall, no shadow on what McPherson can’t help but realize was an attractive, vibrant character.

And then Laura turns up, alive–she did go out of that night, on vacation, and hasn’t been back since; had no radio or newspapers, took no phone calls, and didn’t see anybody or receive visitors at her country cottage from the time she left the train station. One hell of a weak alibi–especially when the body is identified as a model from her ad agency–a model who had a completely public and unrequited crush on Shelby Carpenter. And then evidence appears that shows the crush was not, in fact, unrequited.

But if Laura didn’t kill Diane Redferne, who did and why?

Pros:
– Fast, solid story with a hell of a twist (…now spoiled beyond belief, alas),
– Strongly drawn characters
– Evocative mystery
– The initial reason for murder is much clearer in the book than the movie: the sequence of events that pushed (spoiler for a 60+ year old novel) Waldo over the edge the first time is set up nicely. In the film, the murder is just kind of…random.
– There’s quite a bit of snarky humor, especially in Waldo’s portion; but some of the situational humor had me snickering.
– Strong female characters existed before #CurrentYear. Laura manages to be convincingly sweet, kind, and thoughtful, while also being ambitious, clever, hard-working, a self-made woman–who also struggles with jealousy, disappointment, and poor taste in men.

Cons:
– The multiple first-person POV doesn’t work all that well. What makes it worse is that Waldo is a twerp and a third of the novel is from his perspective.
– It’s unfair to add this, but Ms. Caspary couldn’t really write action scenes. Still, there is a nice finality to how Lydecker finally goes down.
– McPherson in the film feels a lot more proactive than the book, not to mention did we mention Dana Andrews was fine? 

Rated: Four shotguns out of four.

Watchlist: The 13th Letter & Seven Cities of Gold

So my alphabetical watchlist got derailed somewhere around the time I had a hankering for ninjas. I only just got it back on track (Friendly Persuasion), but in the meanwhile I also watched:

the-13th-letter-md-webThe 13th Letter – 1951. Directed by Otto Premiger (you know, the name you know from lots of better movies such as Fallen AngelLauraWhere the Sidewalk Ends and…River of No Return? Huh) and starring an underwritten Linda Darnell, a bored Charles Boyer, and Michael Rennie’s cheekbones as the hero. It’s about a (very) tall, handsome, young doctor who has set up in a small Canadian town and is starting to settle in, albeit he’s having to dodge quite a lot of forward women in the process. The process is interrupted by a series of poison pen letters accusing him of an affair with Charles Boyer’s wife. This is, of course, nonsense, because Rennie has Linda Darnell throwing herself at him in a negligee. But things get decidedly serious when one of the letters’ receivers commits suicide on being told he has cancer. Everyone is a suspect now–from the incompetent hospital nurse who is Boyer’s spurned ex, to Darnell’s snide younger sister, to Linda herself. And what is the terrible trauma which lurks in our hero’s past…?

The reveal is two-fold, and actually rather more satisfying than expected. It’s even been cunningly foreshadowed by Boyer’s doctor character explaining to another about this weird psychological condition known as folie a deux…

All that said, it’s still a bit underwritten. There’s enough story here for a TV episode, not really for a movie. Linda Darnell has barely anything to do except look alternately sultry and sulky, and there’s nothing whatsoever to make the romance between her and Rennie interesting other than both parties’ good looks. The central mystery is, fittingly, the most intriguing part of the story; but it’s a little hampered by the fact that there are really only two strong suspects and neither of them get any focus. And I think that playing up the unspoken theme–that no matter how meek the woman, she has it in her to be ruthless and merciless in pursuit of what (who) they want–would also have put more of a memorable twist on it.

Rated: 10/13.

Not sure why Anyhony Quinn is shirtless here.

Seven Cities of Gold (1955) – Now, this one has Anthony Quinn, Richard Egan, Michael Rennie, Jeffrey Hunter, and Rita Moreno. Everyone is quite good, despite the fact that Jeffrey Hunter and Rita Moreno are wearing brownface and usually warpaint. Quinn and Egan are the leaders of a Spanish expedition to the interior of Mexico, searching for the titular cities; Rennie is the expedition chaplain, Father Junipero Serra, there to save souls, prevent massacres, admonish greed, and uplift the savages. This one is, I assume, loosely based around the actual events (apparently Junipero Serra is a candidate for sainthood, presumably because someone’s watched this movie).

This movie is a fairly straightforward example of its type: there’s a group of people (represented by their leader, here Anthony Quinn) which is trying to do something or go somewhere, and then there’s a contrarian (Michael Rennie); and then there are the outside circumstances that put pressure on the relationship between the leader and the contrarian. In this case, Priest Quinn wants to get to the city of Cibola and doesn’t mind shooting natives to do it. Priest Rennie finds both his tactics and his ulterior motives–greed–abhorrent and doesn’t mind saying as much. Rennie also has a tendency to wander off after flowers and get lost, so there’s that.

In each case where the men butt heads, though, each side is given the ability to make their case clearly, without any of the histrionic theatrics that would be in evidence today. In fact, the pragmatist usually has the stronger case: Father, we’re going to need space for ammunition. Father, paying off Indians with shiny beads only works if they’re not mad and you have plenty of beads. Father, have you actually baptized anyone yet? At all? And while Rennie usually has sufficient logic on his side to not sound ridiculous, the overarching theme of his character is that he is someone who believes in miracles.

Meanwhile, Richard Egan is making time with Rita Moreno, sister of the Indian chief. Usually, this kind of romance is fine, but Egan is something of a cad who really has no intentions of continuing his flirtation…which leads to an accidental but very damning-looking death, and then all hell breaking loose in fine and predictable fashion.

All in all, it would take a miracle for the white men to escape from this situation alive…

The straightforward style and script are an enormous benefit to this movie, which could only have become insufferable if it tried to be cunning and subtle in getting its message across. The other great benefit is that it has a cast who are very good at the straightforward, untheatrical, brisk style of filming. They’re also quite good actors overall, an additional plus.

And that’s basically all there is to say about it.

Rated: 7 church bells out of 9.

Reblog: Happy Birthday to Leigh Brackett!

WORDPRESS YOU PIECE OF EFFING JUNK

Cirsova observes that the Queen of Mars and hard-boiled Babe of Film Noir would have been 106 today and that there are plenty of ways to celebrate, whether by watching one of the many award-winning movies she scripted (HATARI! happens to indeed be an excellent choice, bravo Cirsova; but so is The Big Sleep, or Rio Bravo, or Rio Lobo, or Eldorado), or by reading one of the many memorable books she has written.

Stranger at Home is a possibility, if you want a combination hard-edged melodrama or romance-infused noir; or No Good From a Corpse if you just want straight-up, hard-boiled, smack-talking, straight-shooting, private-detective-starring noir.

Or perhaps, if you are in the mood for a glimpse of another future, where time has worn even the dust of aeons away from the shattered palaces and crumbling walls: there is Shadow Over Mars/The Nemesis From Terra.

Or if you want just plain space opera, the stories of dangerous, laughing women and grim, conquering men, evil geniuses and star traders and space-sickness and stowaways, try Starmen of Llyrdis.

Happy Birthday, Ms. Brackett. Thanks for the stories. You gave us a glimpse of the stars as they should be, not as they are.

Desperate (1947) – Movie Review

Desperate is a 1940s film noir, directed by Anthony Mann, whose filmography contains a rather long list of films much better than this one. And basically, honestly, that’s what I’ve got to say about it. It’s not bad; it’s just one of those movies that is less than the sum of it’s parts.

The plot is simplistic: trucker Steve (played by Steve Brodie) is hired for a job that turns out to be a set-up for a robbery. He resists, resulting in one policeman dead, one gang member arrested for it, and the rest of the gang dead set on making him–or maybe just just his sweet young wife Ann (Audrey Long)–pay for it. They also put in an anonymous tip that Steve was in fact in on the job from the beginning, information which the inept cops latch on to with both hands. Before he can get nabbed, Steve grabs Ann and makes a, wait for it, desperate bid to get her to safety before turning himself in to explain things properly.

The detective (Jason Robards? Huh, I totally don’t recognize him as Cheyenne from Once Upon a Time In the West.) doesn’t believe him for an instant, but he turns Steve loose anyway…as bait. And then things happen more or less as we imagine they will from there.

Pros: The actors are unforcedly likeable and their characters hit the “Guy/Girl Next Door” category in a way that makes them very identifiable. Their chemistry is great, too, and whether it’s Ann attempting to bake a cake or Steve pretending to be the gas man (“When you’ve only been married four months, that’s still cute.”) establishes both them and their relationship, and it really is totally cute. You can totally understand why Steve is not going to let anything happen to his gal, and you can get why she trusts him implicitly even through the lack of any concrete explaination as to what’s going on, exactly. On the other side of things, Raymond Burr is grimly menacing as an old-fashioned “heavy” villain; and then there’s also a wonderfully slimy private detective whose name I didn’t get, who refuses to be pushed around by Burr. They are quite good.

Next, the filming is good. I didn’t notice anything spectacular, possibly because during the last half of the film I was also reading a book, but the picture is crisp, clean, clear, and you can always tell what’s happening from A to B.  So score one for the director, who, I guess, was destined for greater things. Um. Other good things….I dunno, it didn’t have any bad language, fountaining gore, or gratitu gratious gratitous gratuitous sex: it gets all the antisocial behavior, menace, and romance across quite nicely without it.

Cons: The word that keeps leaping to mind is shoddy. This movie isn’t well-constructed; it’s not tightly-written, and even its most intense sequences lack impact because of it. Part of it is in the timing of events–the script switches from the frenzy of a getaway from immediate danger to a fairly peculiar time-skip, and then tries to turn the peril on again. It doesn’t work, because the other part of the equation is the villain isn’t very strong. Burr does his best, but he comes across as a) hobbled by the script, b) pointless. While he does have the proper instincts of a villain (“me shoot!”), he’s continually being advised not to, held back, or outright stopped by coincidental twists of the plot. Now, plot twists are fine…but not when they override an established character and force them into a different set of actions than they would ordinarily take. Radek has an established mode of action (“me shoot”): and yet he keeps being forced to run/hide/not shoot, not because anyone else is any cleverer than he is, but because the script demands it.

Radek’s motivation shifts from “trying to save baby brother from the Chair” by framing Steve, to “avenge baby brother” by killing Steve…but when he gets the opportunity, launches into an elaborate dance that includes feeding Steve a last meal and waiting until the stroke of midnight to shoot him. It’s dumb.

So between the jerky, inconsistent pacing, and the dumb, consistently hamstrung villain, this movie isn’t particularly good, interesting, scary, or intense. The lead couple is very cute, though, and worthy of a better movie.

Rated: Me, I’d only recommend it if you are….

….desperate.

Riders, do you have any good movies?

The Far Country is very good.”
“Who is in it?”
“Jimmy Stewart.”
“….”
“MOM IS THERE ANY ACTOR YOU DO LIKE? SERIOUSLY WHO DO YOU EVEN LIKE?”
“John Wayne. I like John Wayne. Do you have anything with him? What else do you have?”
“How about Vera Cruz?
“Who is in it?”
“Gary Cooper.”
“…he just like Jimmy Stewart, you know.”
“…mom…”
“He don’t look like no cowboy! Even when he got them clothes on.”
“How about The Law and Jake Wade?”
“What is it about?”
“It’s about this guy who used to be an outlaw and now he’s a marshal and his old friend who is an outlaw is very upset about it and also about the twenty thousand dollars that went missing along with him when he ran off.”
“And then what happens?”
“So he takes him and his girlfriend hostage and they go out to get the money and there’s injuns.”
“Who takes the hostage?”
“Mom, who takes people hostage? Does a good guy take people hostage?”
“Oh, okay. Who is in it?”
“Robert Taylor and–”
“He is in the same class as Jimmy Stewart, you know.”
“….mommmm…”
“What else do you have?”
Captain Blood.”
“I know who is in that. Errol Flynn. He looks like Jimmy Stewart.”
“….”
“Do you have something that’s not a Western?”
“Okay, how about Where The Sidewalk Ends. It has Dana Andrews and Gene Tierney….mom, okay, look, name three actors you actually like. JUST SAY IT PLEASE?”
“John Wayne. But I do not want to watch a John Wayne movie. They are too scary. Kirk Douglas. I like Kirk Douglas. Do you have any movie with him in it?”
“….”
“What?”
“I don’t like Kirk Douglas.”

Fallen Angel – Film Noir Repost (quik)Review

s-l1000I’ll get the  review part out of the way first: this is a nice, taut, snappy little movie with excellent actors, chiaroscuro, good direction, and so forth. I wonder if it’s a genre effect that noir actors tended to be good in Westerns: Dana Andrews was in the extremely good Canyon Passage and in Where the Sidewalk Ends. Linda Darnell was in the slightly too dedicated to its concept The Dakota Incident (3 stars). Bruce Cabot was in just about everything.  My point? Uh, I guess that being good in either of the best film genres from the best 20-year time period in Hollywood’s extremely tarnished history, then you’re good. Or something like that.

What’s it about?

“Ok, so I was just watching this kind of funny movie last night. I mean, weird funny, not humorous. So there’s this guy drifts into town one night, and he has precisely one dollar in his pocket. This is like, in 1945, 1950s.”
“Is it black and white?”
“It is chiaroscuro. It’s noir. It’s classic.”
“Oh, so it’s black and white.”
“–Also the version I got had Greek subtitles ‘cuz I got it off Youtube. So, anyway, he goes into the diner to get a cup of coffee and he meets this waitress girl who is really hot stuff. She’s got basically every guy in town lusting after her and she knows it.
“So the guy falls for her really hard, and he goes up to her and says, ‘let’s get it on.’
“And she says, ‘Not unless you put a ring on it.'”
“Oh, so she’s smart!”
“Mostly she’s just mercenary. But she is also kind of smart. So he says, ‘ITS A DEAL.’
“She says, ‘Dude, you have exactly .95 cents in your pockets now, it’s not gonna happen.’
“And then he says, ‘You just wait here.’ So he comes up with a cunning plan. To get the money to marry her, he’s going to go seduce and marry this other girl, who is rich, steal all her money, and get divorced, and then marry the first girl.”
What?”
“Yeah…and that’s when you realize why this guy has got one dollar in his pocket to begin with. So, he marries the other girl, but she’s a really nice girl, and he skips out on the wedding night to go check on the first girl,”
“He ain’t going to be divorcing her, she’s going to be divorcing him.”
“–No, she really likes him, and she knows he’s not good, but she thinks he’s a good person underneath and maybe he’ll change.”
“No. No, that is not a good idea! What is she thinking!”
“She thinking she LUUUUVES him.”
“Ugh.”
“So he comes back late that night and that morning, you know, when he wakes up in his wife’s house, the police come by to tell them that the other girl has been murdered.”
“Yeah….and?”
“And he thinks he’s going to be the main suspect.”
“But he isn’t? Then who is?”
“Gotta watch it to find out.”

One thing I really also liked about the film was the portrayal of the women. Despite that the entire story revolves around Man Wants Woman, Woman Wants Man, no one comes across as entirely either a sap or a pushover.

Stella might agree to not see anyone but Eric–but it’s because she’s decided he’s a good candidate to back, not because she’s cowed by him.

June might not answer back when Stanton (in the wrongly accused caught-in-a-rat-trap way of a badly frustrated man) snarls at her, but her calm comes from a reserve of inner strength that he is forced to recognize, and comes to respect.

One thing I didn’t like was the slightly abrupt last third of the movie. After Stella’s murder, it’s barely half an hour to resolving the love triangle, solving the mystery, with about a twenty-second denouement that, although quite sweet, is still only about twenty seconds long. Still.

‘s a good movie.

Rated: 9.5/10

Storm Fear – 1955 – Not Actually A Review

A family–whose marital relationships are already strained, given wife Liz’s beauty, hired hand Hank’s obvious crush on her, husband Fred’s illness…and personal failures…and –hits real trouble when eighty thousand dollars and three hoodlums on the lam show up. And one of said bums is the kid Davey’s Uncle Charlie…and a potential strong contender for Davey’s actual father.
And then they get snowed in, and the fun begins.

Now me, I’d have called the cops to begin with.

– Who plays a harmonica at breakfast? That’s cause for murder if ever there was.
– Liz protesting to Hank that she’s a good mother, how dare he! is a pretty affecting scene (and then Charlie facepalms when Fred walks in.)
– Don’t come between a despairing author and his fireplace. That way lies madness.
– The ditzy moll actually being kind of a nice girl (or at least just wanting to) makes her role ultimately pretty tragic. The kid has a pretty good role and does well in the job. Cornel Wilde does pretty well and makes himself sympathetic as much as is possible for a bank robber on the run manipulating an eleven year old into guiding him across the mountains. Dan Duryea, on the other hand, is embittered, a failure at every level of his being, gets pushed into the background, and never given a chance to redeem himself.
– Charlie reminding Liz that he used to–and apparently still can–whistle have her come running is a low blow. Apparently Cornel Wilde and Jean Wallace were real-life husband and wife. She’s very pretty but spends the entire movie hanging on to a stony-faced but raw-edged emotionalism which is fine for a while but then starts to grate.
– While it starts out pretty strong with the psychodrama, the film starts to lose steam at the halfway mark; everything that could be said has been, and no apparent change has occured, so….
– ….And the final emotional resolution–a new family unit forming with the man Davey has already had a paternal relationship with–is kind of unsatisfying, given that poor Hank is barely in the picture any more than Duryea is.

Rated: The best brother is a pile of money.