Tuesday, October 17, 2017

The Man of the Year (Conspiração Filmes, Warner Bros. Brasil, Estúdios Mega, Brasil Telecom, 2003)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last Saturday, October 14 Charles and I screened an interesting Brazilian movie from 2003 called The Man of the Year, which came out through an intriguing outfit called filmmovement.com, which among other things runs a film-of-the-month club in which they send members a new DVD of a foreign-made or American independent movie. This one turned up in a library sale and the blurb on the DVD cover compared the movie to the nihilistic Brazilian masterpiece City of God, but the two films really have little in common except they’re both set in (or around) Rio de Janeiro and deal with crime. Directed by José Henrique Fonseca from a script by Rubem Fonseca (the director’s father) based on a novel called O Matador by Patricia Melo, the film begins as a sort of black comedy and ends up being a surprisingly successful reworking of both classic U.S. gangster films from the early 1930’s (notably Little Caesar) and some of the most recent efforts in the same genre (the later reels of The Man of the Year owe quite a lot to the 1983 quasi-remake of Scarface). The central character is a Brazilian nobody named Máiquel Jorge (Murilo Benecios), who just before the film begins made a bet on a soccer game with a friend named Robinson (Perfeito Fortuna) in which he promised that if his team lost Máiquel would have his black hair dyed blond. (There’s no indication of what Robinson would have had to do if Máiquel’s team had won.) He goes through with it and immediately falls in love — or at least lust — with the hairdresser who does his dye job, Cledir (Cláudia Abreu, the director’s wife and virtually the only person in the cast I’d ever heard of before), and he asks her out on a date. Only before they get together he stops at the bar where both he and Robinson hang out, wanting to meet Robinson and show him he went through with the bet. Robinson isn’t there, but a nasty character named Suel (Wagner Moura) is. Suel takes an instant dislike to Our Hero and calls him a “fag,” and Máiquel calls him outside the bar for a fight. The next day Máiquel grabs a gun and hunts down Suel, shooting and killing him — Fonseca filho shoots the actual murder in a rather odd, gauzy style that at first made me wonder if this was just supposed to be Máiquel’s dream, but no-o-o-o-o, it’s a real story event. 

Máiquel, who’s never done anything even remotely illegal before, is scared shitless that he’ll be arrested for the murder; instead, everyone in the neighborhood comes up to him and congratulates him for eliminating such an awful person as Suel, and to Máiquel’s astonishment even two police officers, instead of apprehending him, shake his hand and congratulate him for ridding the neighborhood of a particularly nasty crook. Máiquel finds that killing Suel has made him a hero among his peers, and he starts a relationship with Cledir that’s somewhat hampered when the late Suel’s 15-year-old girlfriend Erica (Nátalia Lage) turns up on the doorstep of Máiquel’s apartment and insists that now that he’s killed her boyfriend, it’s his moral duty to take her in and give her room and board. Also one of the neighbors brings over a piglet with the intent that Máiquel will keep it for a while, fatten it up and then make a big celebratory meal out of it. Instead Máiquel decides to make it a pet, naming it “Bill” after U.S. President Bill Clinton, who happened to visit Brazil around this time and get himself photographed on Brazilian TV. He has a bit of a problem with Bill’s (the pig) penchant for chewing up his sneakers, but for the most part he has a pretty good life going except when he has to chase out Erica so he and Cledir can have sex. Máiquel’s next problem comes when he gets a toothache and can’t afford a dentist; he finds one named Dr. Carvalho (Jorge Dória) who, having heard of Máiquel’s reputation fro killing Suel, says he’ll treat Máiquel for free — if Máiquel will kill the person Dr. Carvalho believes dishonored his daughter by raping her. (Later we meet the daughter and, predictably, she turns out to be the sort of person who will do it with just about anybody — though Máiquel at least has the good sense to stay out of her clutches.) Máiquel not only commits the murder but takes over the job at a pet store the victim was working before he was killed. Carvalho then invites Máiquel to meet with two of his 1-percenter friends, and the three basically hire Máiquel to knock off anyone they deem too evil, crooked or just plain inconvenient to live. 

Eventually Máiquel and the gang he puts together to accomplish these murders, backed by Carvalho and his friends, form what’s ostensibly an above-ground “private security” company but is really an old-style “protection” racket, and the company is so sensationally successful that the Rio Chamber of Commerce names Máiquel its entrepreneur of the year and a song about him, “O Matador” (obviously comparing him to a bullfighter), becomes a hit. Only if we’ve seen enough gangster movies in the past we know something is going to derail Máiquel from his ill-gotten success, and that something is his wife Cledir, whom he married after he got her pregnant — and he moved in with Cledir and her parents while still keeping his old apartment as a love-nest with Erica. Cledir asked Máiquel if she could keep Bill the pig, and one evening Máiquel returns home to find that Cledir has open-roasted his pet and put an apple in its mouth to serve it. A furious Máiquel attacks Cledir and bashes her head against the wall, accidentally killing her. Then he buries the body in the backyard of one of his confederates. He tries to console himself with Erica, but in the meantime Erica has been converted by a minister running the Brazilian equivalent of a mega-church and spouts Biblical verses all day and talks about entering a convent. (Yeah, right.) Ultimately Máiquel falls when the man whose backyard he’s buried Cledir’s body in gets busted by the police for having two kilos of cocaine in his car. The cops dig up the man’s backyard searching for more drugs, find Cledir’s body, put two and two together and go out to arrest Máiquel — only in the meantime Máiquel has figured out what’s going on and decides to make his escape by simply dyeing his hair back to its natural black shade, thinking that the cops are going to be looking for a blond. The End.

Charles was upset by the ending, not only by a factual glitch (Máiquel handles the black hair dye with bare hands — the dye would turn your skin at least temporarily black as well, which is why all kits for dyeing hair darker contain disposable gloves and any cosmetologist dyeing someone’s hair would use gloves) but also because one expects a story like this to end with the cathartic death of the gangster à la Little Caesar and both Scarfaces. I wondered if I could have thought of a better ending, and my idea would have been to rip off the 1950 film The Gunfighter: Máiquel is killed by a younger, hungrier punk who wants to steal his bad-ass “rep,” and the young man who killed Máiquel would in turn be hailed as a hero and follow a similar story arc until his own demise at the hands of a still younger gangster who wanted to hijack his rep, and so on … Nonetheless, The Man of the Year is a refreshing film, even though it’s a souvenir of a society in which all the conventional moral rules have broken down, lawbreaking (at least some lawbreaking) is celebrated and both the police and the public at large have accepted the idea that it takes some amount of extra-legal violence to protect people against other forms of extra-legal violence. It’s a genuinely amusing black comedy for the first half and a grim Scarface-like (either one) tale of a psycho gangster getting his comeuppance in the second, and it’s got at least one intriguing credit: the music is by Dado Villa-Lobos, whose imdb page identifies him as “guitar player for Legião Urbano, one of the most important Brazilian rock bands,” but does not say whether or not he’s related to the great Brazilian classical composer Heitor Villa-Lobos. I quite enjoyed The Man of the Year and can only wonder how many other oddball gems there are in Film Movement’s catalogs!

Monday, October 16, 2017

Doctor Blake Mysteries: “The Tide of the Past” (December Media, Australian Broadcasting Corporation, ITV, 2014)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2014 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Two nights ago I watched one of KPBS’s reruns of a Doctor Blake Mysteries episode from 2014. They’ve been showing this quite interesting Australian detective series featuring Doctor Lucien Blake (Craig McLachlan), the coroner and medical examiner in the small town of Ballarat in the Australian outback in the late 1950’s (the show is a co-production of December Media, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation and the British commercial network Independent Television, or ITV), who spars with his live-in partner Jane Beazley (Nadine Garner) and his boss with the local police, Chief Superintendent Matthew Lawson (Joel Tobeck). This episode was called “The Ties of the Past” and featured a look into Blake’s ancestry: in previous episodes we weren’t given more of his backstory than the basics — he was born and raised in Ballarat but left to serve as an Army medic during World War II and, even though the show is set over a decade after the war’s end, he’s still suffering from what would now be called post-traumatic stress disorder. (He also drinks a lot, which suggests that the writers may be setting him up for an Inspector Morse-like character arc in which he nearly drinks himself out of his job, then recovers, becomes sober and continues, older, sadder and wiser.) 

In this one we’re introduced to Blake’s mother, Elaine Greenslade (Kestie Morassi), a Ballarat-based artist who’s considered a minor talent but one of sufficient local repute that a numter of her works were acquired by the Ballarat museum — only all but one have been taken off the walls and put into storage. The remaining one is a Modigliani-like portrait of Elaine’s friend Agnes Clasby (Helen Morse), and though Elaine is long since dead when this episode begins (though we see quite a lot of her in flashbacks, including some in which a tow-headed kid who’s obviously supposed to be Blake as a child follows her around the house), Agnes is still alive and recognizable as an older version of the woman in the painting. The intrigue kicks off when a life drawing class begins with the “unveiling” of the model from which the artists are supposed to draw — only the model is dead for real, with considerable blood on her body and evidence that she was strangled by a very fine wire used by potters to take their works off the wheel after they’ve been formed. She’s also been posed in the same position as the Ballarat museum’s most famous painting, Beneath the Arena, which depicts a young Christian girl being taken into the underground rooms under the Colosseum after she’s been sacrificed to the lions. 

Later a museum security guard is bribed to steal a painting from it, only it turns out he took the wrong picture and the real one he was hired to steal was the one by Blake’s mother. It turns out that before she married Blake’s dad she dated an artist named David Davies (I of course couldn’t help but notice that Dave Davies was also the name of Ray Davies’ brother and lead guitarist for the Kinks until the Davies brothers had a spectacular falling-out and the band broke up, much like Noel and Liam Gallagher of Oasis), and the Ballarat museum by coincidence is about to host a traveling exhibition of Davies’ paintings. There’s a red herring in the form of the victim’s hot-tempered boyfriend Geoffrey Ledwith (the darkly handsome Dominic Allburn), who as the Ballarat art school’s pottery teacher would have known how to use the wire that strangled the girl, but in the end the killer turns out to be a local collector who wanted the painting by Dr. Blake’s mom because it was actually painted over a David Davies — Davies had given Elaine the painting when they were still dating, only when they broke up and she married someone else, her new husband was fiercely jealous and arranged to sell the Davies to a local rich guy — only mom was determined not to let the Davies go, so she painted her own picture over it and then said it had “disappeared.” The victim stumbled on the Davies work when she accidentally chipped off a bit of Elaine’s painting and saw that another artwork lay underneath it, and she was killed so she couldn’t reveal this to the museum management or the authorities. This was a chilling little program and a nice bit of British (or at least British Commonwealth) mystery writing, and the revelation of Blake’s family history gave the work power and scope.

Monday, October 9, 2017

A Mother’s Revenge, a.k.a. Killer Switch (Indy Media, MarVista Entertainment, Lifetime, 2016)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I watched last night’s “feature,” a 2016 Lifetime movie apparently originally filmed under the title Killer Switch but given the more Lifetime-y title A Mother’s Revenge. The central character is Jennifer Clarke (Jamie Luner), a middle-aged woman who travels to Niagara Falls and Buffalo, New York to watch her daughter, Katey Williams (Audrey Whitby), graduate from college. While there she runs into Katey’s father, Richard Williams (the drop-dead gorgeous Jason Shane Scott, who quite frankly looks young enough we’d more readily believe in him as Katey’s brother than her dad!), with whom she just went through a contentious breakup: he started an affair with an office intern just four years older than Katey, got her pregnant and divorced Jennifer to marry the mom of his baby-to-be. The intrigue starts when she gets to her room at the Lafayette Hotel, opens her suitcase and finds men’s instead of women’s clothing. Realizing that she got the wrong bag, she calls the airport and finds that no unclaimed baggage remains from her flight, so obviously she picked up the wrong suitcase and some guy got hers instead because the bags looked similar. She arranges with the front desk clerk at the hotel to leave the bag with them so the airline can send someone to pick it up and return it to its rightful owner, but in the meantime she gets a darkly threatening phone call from someone telling her to give him back the bag … or else.

“Or else” turns out to be the kidnapping of Katey from her mom’s hotel room and the threats from the kidnapper, Conner (Steven Brand), to kill Katey unless Jennifer returns the bag pronto. Since she no longer has the bag and the airline has already picked it up, she goes to a tourist store and gets a similar-looking one and some pillows with which to stuff it to make it look full, and then is led by Conner on a merry chase through Buffalo in which she’s obliged to go to various locations, including a disused minor-league baseball field, a history museum, an aquarium and finally the Cave of the Winds at Niagara Falls. In each new location she will find a disposable cell phone on which Conner will call her and direct her to the next place in his “game” — a gimmick one imdb.com “Trivia” poster noted was “borrowed” from the merry chase killer Andy Robinson led cop Clint Eastwood on in Dirty Harry. Jennifer is told that Conner will be watching her throughout and will notice if she isn’t carrying the bag — which becomes a problem when she’s held up on the subway by a hunky-looking robber and she has to take him on to get back both the decoy bag and her purse — and she’s also being chased by the police because Conner has killed her ex-husband Richard (who was hunky enough I wondered if he might be part of the criminal plot, though this time writer-director Fred Olen Ray decided to go for the hunky-guy-as-victim cliché instead of the hunky-guy-as-villain cliché) and framed Jennifer for it, though eventually the detectives pursuing her, avuncular African-American Leland Ford (Gerald Webb) and his white partner Joe Jacobs (Richard Lounello), decide she’s telling the truth. They’re able to obtain Conner’s actual suitcase at the airport and search it, while in the meantime Conner has lured Jennifer to their final rendezvous at the Cave of the Winds, which has been closed for “maintenance” and is adorned with a bunch of highly inflammatory signs warning people of the dangers therein.

The climax takes place at the Falls, where Conner is still playing cat-and-mouse with Jennifer over the fate of Katey, who’s right there — when mom demands the immediate release of her daughter before she hands over the suitcase and Conner toys with her, Jennifer heaves the suitcase over the Falls, Conner screams, Katey runs to her mom and the two try to flee, only Conner follows them and is just about to catch them when he collapses from a well-aimed bullet from one of the cops (they both have their guns drawn and it’s unclear which one shot him, though my money was on Ford) and his body goes over the Falls. Later, in the little tag scene to explain what the bad guy was after even though, as St. Alfred Hitchcock (whose shrine Fred Olen Ray obviously worships at) explained, nobody really cares what the bad guys are after — the characters care but the audience doesn’t — it turns out the suitcase contained $50,000 in genuine cash and $50 million in government bonds, of which the top one was real and the other 49 were counterfeit. (Well, at least it’s a less shopworn MacGuffin than drugs, which were what I was expecting it to be.) Though the plot is preposterous on its face and we’re expected to believe that a middle-aged woman can outrun a male crook, successfully take on a subway stick-up artist and grab his knife, and leap over the fence at the ballpark, for the most part A Mother’s Revenge is actually a quite good thriller in the Hitchcock mode, hardly on the level of the real Hitchcock but keeping the audience (this member of it, anyway) interested and delivering the goods — and Jamie Luner turns in an excellent performance in the lead, her face a mask of grim determination as she goes through the weird psycho games the baddie is putting her through to get her daughter back (even though, like a lot of other Lifetime thriller script writers, it doesn’t seem as if Ray ever decided whether Conner should be a businesslike crook only interested in the money or a psycho getting off on putting Jennifer and Katey in peril and making his victims suffer).

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Stranger in the House (Really Real Films, Two 4 the Money Media, MarVista Entertainment, Lifetime, 2016)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

My “feature” last night was a 2016 Lifetime movie called Stranger in the House (not to be confused with a theatrical film of that same title made a year earlier), a quirky thriller written by Roslyn Muir and directed by Allan Harmon that essentially took a bundle of old Lifetime clichés and jumbled them up at least a bit. Stranger in the House opens with a series of montage sequences explaining how financier Wayne Griegson (John Novak) was involved in a car accident — he survived but his wife was killed — and shortly after that he and his business partner Finch (Michael Kopsa) were indicted for running a Ponzi scheme. They were acquitted, but the blowback from the charge led to demonstrations in the street against them and also to Griegson being barred from the securities business for life. Then the scene cuts to the palatial mansion Griegson retired to, where his daughter Jade (Emmanuelle Vaughn, top-billed) and son-in-law Marco (Matthew McCaull) live with him and have been taking care of him since his accident. Wayne not only needs a wheelchair, he also has an oxygen tank and mask mounted to it — he doesn’t need to breathe oxygen continually but he gets short of breath at times and he needs a quick hit of pure O2 to get over the crisis and stay alive. 

Jade and Marco (whose last name we never learn for sure — during the movie we see someone doing a Web search on him and typing in “Esp-” but getting no farther than that before director Harmon cuts away) have been married less than a year — he’s a construction worker and wanna-be contractor Jade met and had a whirlwind courtship with and they haven’t had time for a honeymoon since they’ve been too busy taking care of Wayne. So they go online to look for a live-in caregiver, and the woman who answers their ad is Samantha (Jordana Largy). She looks O.K. (indeed, she looks so much like Emmanuelle Vaughn that her shorter, slightly curlier hair is really the only way we can tell them apart) but she’s so twitchy that for the first third of the movie it begins to seem like something Christine Conradt would have written and called, natch, The Perfect Caregiver. Jade and Marco go off on their honeymoon just as we get a shot of Wayne and Samantha looking at each other and looking like they’re about to “get close” — and when Jade and Marco return a month later Wayne and Samantha are married. Later Wayne is found dead under mysterious circumstances, and after that it turns out Samantha got Wayne to alter his will so Samantha gets the house and Wayne’s entire fortune except for one insurance policy she lets Jade keep, along with Jade’s mother’s jewelry. “It’s not worth much — she really had bad taste,” Samantha perkily comments, adding insult to injury. Samantha and Jade get into a number of arguments, after one of which Samantha presents Jade with an eviction notice and Jade responds by throwing a book at her — which Samantha uses as an excuse to file charges against her. This involves the local cop, Detective Luke Harper (Dan Payne, not quite as hot as Matthew McCaull but still quite easy on the eyes), who persuades Jade to go to Samantha’s home and apologize to her. Jade does, and the two have wine together, but Samantha gives a very Donald Trumpian response — “I’ll think about it” — to Jade’s request that she drop the charges against her. 

Jade is especially concerned about being criminally charged because she works as an attorney in partnership with a Black woman named Chantal (Karen Holness), whom we realize if we’ve seen more than about four Lifetime movies will ultimately be murdered because she gets too close to the villain’s secrets — though writer Muir at least varies the formula enough that … Anyway, even before the final confrontation between Samantha and Jade, Muir and Harmon have dropped us a big hint that Marco and Samantha are having an affair — we see them nuzzling in the wine cellar and, after Samantha’s final confrontation with Jade, Marco returns to the house and he and Samantha get it on in one of the quirky soft-core porn scenes that give a lot of otherwise lame Lifetime movies a lot of their appeal. We’re obviously supposed to think that Marco and Samantha are involved in some plot to get hold of the Griegson millions — though if that was their aim why didn’t Marco just knock off Wayne and then Jade and get the fortune for himself? Why did he need Samantha’s involvement? Things get even quirkier when Samantha herself is found stabbed to death in her bathtub — a scene so badly cut in that at first we think it’s just a dream of Jade’s that her husband is killing her stepmom, only we soon learn it’s supposed to be a real story event — and they get crazier when Jade is arrested for Samantha’s murder. Fortunately Detective Harper has such a bad case of the hots for Jade that he decides to keep investigating even though the rest of the town’s police force is convinced that Jade did it, and he and Samantha go out together to the home of the woman with whom Samantha used to live. (A police detective going out on an investigatory call with the prime suspect? C’mon, Ms. Muir!) They find a scrapbook containing newspaper stories on the Ponzi scheme allegedly run by Wayne Griegson (ya remember the Ponzi scheme?) and eventually we get the Big Reveal: Marco and Samantha were both adult children of investors who lost their life savings in the scheme, and they met at a creditors’ meeting and hatched this elaborate revenge plan to kill Wayne and get hold of the fortune that had been ripped off from them and all the other investors. 

There’s a big climax in which Marco decides to kill Jade by feeding her wine spiked with an overdose of sleeping pills, only she manages to keep consciousness long enough to sneak a sniff of Wayne’s old oxygen supply (it’s still there?), which revives her enough that after Marco knocks off Jade’s friend and work partner Chantal — she managed to last longer than most of the African-American Best Friends in Lifetime movies who stumble on the Big Secret; most of them get offed about two-thirds of the way through but she survives until the last reel — and eventually Detective Harper comes, rescues Jade and calls in the coroner to take custody of the bodies. Jade decides to sell the big house Wayne Griegson left her and use that and the rest of his fortune to pay off as much as possible to the investors he defrauded, and she leaves town — though there’s a bittersweet leave-taking between her and Detective Harper, who’s clearly hoping for his own reasons that she’ll come back. Roslyn Muir really does deploy some of the Lifetime clichés in some relatively unexpected way, and director Harmon brings an appealing sense of the Gothic to some of the scenes — even though he and cinematograher Neil Cervin are way too enamored of the past-is-brown look: every interior in the movie, no matter how much (or how little) money the characters living there are supposed to have, is bathed in a warm, autumnal glow. It should also be pointed out that Matthew McCaull and Jordana Largy both pronounce the “t” in the word “often,” though Charles would probably say, “The director told them to say it that way so we’d know they were the villains by the bad English they speak!” Actually we know Matthew McCaull is the villain — or we should — right away by how good-looking he is; it’s one of Lifetime’s more monotonous affectations that really hot-looking guys in Lifetime movies are always up to no good (though the almost-as-handsome Dan Payne as the cop does get to be on the side of good). Stranger in the House isn’t as dementedly silly as some Lifetime movies have been, but it’s not exactly a great thriller either; it’s got too many plot holes and bits of bizarre unbelievability, though in some ways the sheer preposterousness of much of it is rather entertaining in and of itself!

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Key Largo (Warner Bros., 1948)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night’s “feature” was Key Largo, a heavy-breathing melodrama from Warner Bros. in 1948 that in a sense was a last hurrah for their classic style. It was the last film Humphrey Bogart made for Warners as an exclusive contractee (he had just renegotiated his contract to be non-exclusive and indeed would make only two more Warners films in the eight years left in his career, Chain Lightning in 1950 and The Enforcer — another gangster movie — in 1951), the last film director John Huston made for Warners as an exclusive contractee, and the last film Bogart and his real-life (fourth) wife Lauren Bacall made together (though there would be a fifth Bogart-Bacall joint project, a 1955 TV remake of his star-making movie The Petrified Forest with Bogart repeating his role as gangster Duke Mantee, Henry Fonda taking over Leslie Howard’s role as burned-out poet Alan Squier and Bacall in the Bette Davis role of Gabrielle Maple, waitress and would-be artist; and at the time Bogart caught his fatal cancer Columbia was planning to team him and Bacall in a Cold War spy melodrama called Melville Goodwin, U.S.A. which was ultimately filmed with Kirk Douglas and Susan Hayward as Top Secret Affair). It was also the end of the line for Edward G. Robinson’s long line of gangster roles that had begun when he arrived at Warner Bros. in 1930, got cast as a Prohibition-era beer baron in Alice White’s vehicle The Widow from Chicago and then got his star-making part as Enrico Caesar Bandello in the classic Little Caesar. Though Robinson, like Bogart and James Cagney, got to play a number of parts on the right side of the law (notably his blockbuster hit Bullets or Ballots in 1936), he remained most famous for his gangster parts, and here he’s billed second and playing someone with a similar name to his part in Little Caesar — only instead of “Rico” he’s “Rocco” and instead of a kill-crazy hit-man who gets his fellow gangsters as pissed off at him as the cops are, in this one he’s playing a character based on the real-life “Lucky” Luciano. 

Like Luciano, the fictional Rocco once controlled virtually all of America’s organized crime, used his money and power to get his stooges elected to public office so he could control things and operate with impunity, only eventually he was caught and deported from the U.S. as an “undesirable alien” — “like I was a dirty Red or something!,” Robinson exclaims in disgust, a line that (like much of this movie) is rich in ironies given how many people involved in it were part of Hollywood’s progressive communities. Huston, Bogart and Bacall all had liberal reputations (indeed, they and Katharine Hepburn had been the key organizers of Hollywood’s Committee for the First Amendment, organized in an unsuccessful attempt to stop the House Un-American Activities Committee investigations into Communists in Hollywood and the resulting blacklist) and Robinson was even farther Left than they; he got himself called before the committee four times and ended up on the blacklist himself until Right-winger Cecil B. DeMille got him taken off it so he could play Dathan in the 1956 film The Ten Commandments. I first saw Key Largo as part of a long-term festival in San Francisco in 1970-71 of Warner Bros. films sponsored by the Surf Interplayers revival house, and at the time it seemed a bit of a disappointment; I thought of it as the sure-fire commercial hit Huston and Bogart had to offer Jack Warner to be allowed to make their immediately previous film, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Seen now, it’s a film with some weaknesses but overall it’s a marvelous example of the Warners and Huston styles, a capable melding of the conventions of the gangster movie and the film noir — and watching it a day after Whirlpool (even though it was made a year earlier) it gave the air of the professionals pushing the amateurs and wanna-bes out of the way and saying, “Here’s how a film like this should really be done.” The plot deals with an out-of-the-way resort on the Florida Keys, the Largo Hotel, owned by Johnny Temple (Lionel Barrymore, playing the sort of crusty-old-curmudgeon role he’d been specializing in for decades, especially once his chronic arthritis got so bad he ended up needing a wheelchair — his presence here at least partially makes up for his being passed over in favor of the much weaker, but also much cheaper, Charles Waldron as General Sternwood in The Big Sleep). 

Bogart plays Frank McCloud, an Army major who served in the Italian campaign in World War II with Temple’s son George, who died in combat. Bacall plays George’s widow, Nora Temple, who’s still living at Key Largo with her former father-in-law. Frank has come to the Largo Hotel to hang out with Johnny Temple and share with him information about his dead son, but when he arrives he finds the place is closed to the public and has been taken over by a gang of thugs: Richard “Curly” Hoff (Thomas Gomez), Edward “Toots” Bass (Henry Lewis), Angel Garcia (Dan Seymour, who earned his place in film trivia by being the only actor to appear both in Casablanca and the Marx Brothers’ spoof of it, A Night in Casablanca) and Ralph Feeney (William Haade). They’re alternately serving and being terrorized by a mysterious “Johnny Brown” who’s staying in Room 11 of the Largo Hotel, whom we first meet puffing away on a cigar and sitting in a bathtub with a fan blowing air at him to attempt to cool him off in the hot, sticky Florida heat. He is, of course, Johnny Rocco (Edward G. Robinson), gangster who’s sneaked back into Florida from his redoubt in Cuba to deliver a mysterious small carrying box containing a “shipment” of something he’s supposed to sell to another crook, Ziggy (Marc Lawrence), before he returns. Key Largo is also being threatened by an incoming hurricane, and the captain of the boat that brought Rocco and crew to Key Largo sneaks away and takes the boat because leaving it in the bay off the key would mean risking its destruction in the hurricane. The basic issue of the plot casts Frank McCloud as a typical Bogart character, disgusted and cynical — he’s upset that the end of the war didn’t bring about the perfect world the politicians who got us into it told him and his fellow servicemembers he would, and as in so many of Bogart’s films starting with Casablanca the question is how long will it take for him to regain his former idealism and go after Rocco, and what’s going to trigger him to do so. (At one point, when Nora is trying to reawaken his idealism by referencing his past as a freedom fighter in World War II, I felt like joking that he’d say, “No, I wasn’t the freedom fighter. That was that other guy, the one who left Casablanca with my girlfriend and left me alone with Claude Rains.”) Like The Petrified Forest, Key Largo was based on a stage play (Paul Muni and Uta Hagen were the original stars) by a “name” writer (Robert Sherwood in The Petrified Forest and Maxwell Anderson here) who was attempting to use a gangster story as a frame on which to hang a lot of metaphors and philosophical musings about the human condition, and James Agee called out Anderson and the screenwriters, Huston and Richard Brooks, on it when the film was new: “I rather doubt anyhow whether gangsters can be made to represent all that [Huston] wants them to — practically everything that is fundamentally wrong with post-war America; so the picture is weak in the way it was obviously intended to be strongest.” 

Nonetheless, what’s wrong (or dubious) about Key Largo pales by comparison with what’s right about it: the leads — including a key character I haven’t mentioned above, Claire Trevor as Rocco’s alcoholic girlfriend and ex-singer Gaye Dawn, whom he sadistically makes sing her old nightclub feature, “Moanin’ Low,” in front of all the other principals as his price for letting her have a drink (he then reneges but Frank gets her the drink, risking Rocco’s wrath, and it’s partly Rocco’s treatment of her and partly the death of two Native American petty crooks, and a police officer who was looking for them, at the hands of Rocco’s gang that propels Frank into action against the gang — are absolutely perfectly cast and totally right for their roles. The camera is kept in almost constant motion (though the fact that virtually all the movie, except for a few establishing shots from a second unit in Florida and a final action scene at sea — stuck for an ending, Huston went for help to director Howard Hawks, who suggested he include the climactic shoot-out at sea with which Ernest Hemingway had ended his novel To Have and Have Not but Hawks hadn’t used in his film version with Bogart and Bacall three years earlier — takes place in two rooms at the Largo Hotel and thereby betrays the piece’s stage origins) and Huston and his cinematographer, Karl Freund (veteran of the German Expressionist classics of the 1920’s and Universal’s horror films in the 1930’s) went out of their way to find oblique camera angles — which pissed off Jack Warner because those took more time to set up and light than the standard angles and resulted in the film going over schedule and budget. Key Largo is also filled with “in” references; when Frank recalls his wartime service with George, the battle he describes is at San Pietro, Italy — which Huston filmed for an Army war documentary during World War II — and when Frank agrees to take Rocco and his gang back to Cuba (fully intending to shoot and kill them all once they’re underway), the boat they use is named Santana, also the name of Bogart’s real boat (though the real Santana was a sail yacht and the one in the movie is a powered fishing boat). 

Though the basic material isn’t anywhere nearly as profound as its makers clearly hoped and intended it would be (Agee, a friend of Huston’s, claimed in his contemporaneous review that “some of the points Huston most wanted to make were cut out of the picture after he finished it”), Key Largo is a solid Hollywood thriller, expertly directed and showcasing its stars effectively, and ending up in an action climax directed well enough that Huston can make us believe in one of Hollywood’s sillier clichés: the lone attacker who goes after the dastardly gang of crooks and, despite being hopelessly outnumbered, nonetheless manages to prevail through sheer star power as well as cunning and guile. One story about its making is that Claire Trevor wanted a voice double for the scene in which he would sing her old cabaret song to the other principals; Huston not only refused but insisted that she sing the song “live” on set instead of pre-recording it and he sprung the scene on her without giving her time to prepare — thereby getting the tense, nervous performance he wanted. (He also deserves kudos for not having Trevor look like the usual slatternly Hollywood portrait of an alcoholic woman: she’s decently dressed, her hair is well coiffed, and only her overall twitchiness and desperation when she demands booze gives it away that she’s an alcoholic.) Visually, Key Largo is everything I was hoping for and didn’t get from Whirlpool; though the hurricane is disappointingly (and unrealistically) short and more could have been made of it, Freund’s lighting and oblique angles and Huston’s high-tension direction create a noir atmosphere even in a story that is a bit too black-and-white (with good-good heroes — despite Bogart’s stock-in-trade moments of disillusionment and doubt — and bad-bad villains) to work as truly great film noir. But overall it’s a crackling-tough thriller of the kind they really don’t make anymore, and there’s one moment in the movie that unwittingly rang all too true today: when Frank is sounding off on how nobody cares about people like Rocco anymore and he’s able to maintain such an air of respectability “he might even get elected President,” of course I couldn’t help bitterly, laconically joking, “He did.”

Monday, October 2, 2017

Whirlpool (20th Century-Fox, 1949)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I looked last night for something from my backlog of recordings from TCM back when I could still make recordings and found an intriguing item called Whirlpool, a 20th Century-Fox film gris (my term for movies that attempt film noir and don’t quite make it) that reunited director Otto Preminger and star Gene Tierney from Laura (though most of Laura was actually directed by Rouben Mamoulian, whose “touch” shows in that film’s intense visual richness, characteristic of Mamoulian’s work and uncharacteristic of Preminger’s) in a wild tale which Charles recalled having read about in books on hypnosis as one of the most flagrantly inaccurate fictional portrayals of it. The plot casts Tierney as Ann Sutton, wife of psychiatrist Dr. William Sutton (Richard Conte, outrageously miscast in a role that cried out for Gregory Peck), who in the opening scene is caught shoplifting a $300 (in 1949 dollars!) piece of jewelry from a store to which she and her affluent husband have a charge account. She’s apprehended in the parking lot by a store security guard and placed under citizen’s arrest, but she’s bailed out — so to speak — by the mysterious David Korvo (José Ferrer), an astrologer, psychic and master hypnotist who uses his powers to latch on to independently wealthy women and suck them dry financially. We later learn that Ann Sutton is independently wealthy but has never been allowed to live a rich-and-famous (or even rich-and-not-so-famous) lifestyle, first because when he was alive her dad wouldn’t allow her to spend any money on luxury items for herself; then when he died he continued his control over her finances by locking up his entire fortune in trusts; and when she married Dr. Sutton he insisted that they live on his money (he didn’t have any to speak of then, though later he became successful and they did) and not touch hers. Supposedly she became a kleptomaniac because as a child the only way she could have anything nice was to steal it, and while she’d stopped stealing after her dad died Dr. Sutton’s demand that they live only on his money reawakened her kleptomania. David Korvo uses his “hold” on Ann to insist that she start dating him — thinking he’s blackmailing her, she writes him a check for $5,000 but he tears it up — and through his hypnotic powers he’s able to get her to sleep (something she’s been previously unable to do) and worms his way into her consciousness until he manages to get her to enter the house of one of his previous con victims, Theresa Randolph (Barbara O’Neil, afflicted by hair stylist Marie Walter with a weird grey streak in her hair that makes her look like the Bride of Frankenstein), whom he’s just killed, so he can set her up for his crime.

Just then Korvo has a medical emergency — his gall bladder goes haywire and he needs an operation to have it removed — and he figures being near death in a hospital bed will give him an unimpeachable alibi for Randolph’s murder. Only he really intends to hypnotize himself to be able to walk out of his hospital bed, leave the hospital and go to Randolph’s house, where Dr. Sutton (ya remember Dr. Sutton?) has persuaded the police detective in charge of investigating the Randolph murder, Lt. James Colton (Charles Bickford), to let him take Ann in hopes that something there will jog her memory and she’ll be able to identify the real killer. There’s also another MacGuffin: large transcription records Dr. Sutton made of his therapy sessions with Randolph, who was one of his patients and who told him all about her run-ins and brief affair with Korvo — only the records were stolen from his office by Ann under Korvo’s hypnotic control. Korvo beats the good guys to the Randolph home and plays the records while waiting for them, and when they arrive he pulls a gun on Ann and tells her he won’t shoot her if she lets him get away — but eventually his medical injuries catch up with him and, after picturesquely dropping blood all over the Randolph floor and letting loose with a wild shot that misses all the other humans in the room but destroys the Randolph record, he dies. The End. Whirlpool started life as a novel by Guy Endore and got turned into a film script by Ben Hecht and Andrew Solt — both writers with far better credits than this one — though because Hecht was not only financially supporting the Jewish guerrillas in Israel in the late 1940’s who were fighting not only the Palestinian Arabs but the British who were still in overall control of Palestine as a protectorate, he was soliciting contributions for this dubious cause from every other Jew in Hollywood and making public statements like it gladdened his heart every time a British solder in Palestine was killed, the British Board of Film Censors refused to let this film be released in the U.K. unless Hecht’s name was taken off it, so on the British prints he was billed as “Lester Barstow.”

Whirlpool is the sort of frustrating movie whose basic plot could have been a weird and compelling thriller if the writers hadn’t piled on one unbelievable situation on top of another, and if Preminger had been able to bring any sense of atmosphere to the direction. Instead he and cinematographer Arthur C. Miller (who’d shown in his credits for more creative directors that he could do atmospherics) shoot virtually the whole movie in even grey tonalities; it’s not until the final reel, starting with Korvo’s escape from the hospital, that Whirlpool even looks like a film noir. About the only thing it has going for it is José Ferrer’s superbly oily performance as the villain — in this kind of story the villains are usually more interesting than the heroes, and that’s true here even more than usual — and even Ferrer looks flummoxed in the later stages by what the writers are trying to make us believe his character would do. (The contortions he goes into as he’s trying to hypnotize himself into being able to walk out of the hospital and drive to the Randolph house without pain make him look like he’s about to turn into Mr. Hyde — and arguably Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde might have been a good role for Ferrer.) Whirlpool is another Otto Preminger loser — the script required visual atmospherics and dramatic subtlety, never directorial tasks Preminger was good at (his best films, Anatomy of a Murder and Advise and Consent, worked largely because their stories didn’t need visual atmosphere) — and though Gene Tierney was one of the few actors who actually liked working for the tyrannical Preminger (they made four films together), the cruelest irony of Whirlpool was that it cast Tierney as a mental patient six years before she became one for real and spent years in therapy, burning through the entire fortune she’d accumulated as a Hollywood star, from which she was bailed out only by marrying a Texas oil multimillionaire and never having to work again.

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Doctor Blake Mysteries: “Mortal Coil” (December Media, Australian Broadcasting Corporation, ITV, 2014)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

About the only thing I got to watch on TV last night — Lifetime was doing an interminable documentary mini-series on the murder of Laci Peterson by her estranged husband Scott (and the ominous decision to charge him with two murders because Laci was pregnant when she was killed — as an ardent pro-choicer I have a problem with anything that hints that a fetus is a separate being that has an actionable right to “life”) — was a Doctor Blake Mysteries series episode called “Mortal Coil.” It begins at a funeral during which the pallbearers are having unexpected trouble with the sheer weight of the coffin — and when they drop it on its way to the grave they find out why: it contains two dead bodies, the one they were supposed to be burying and that of Sid Bartel (Bruce Gleeson), an old handyman in the village of Ballarat, Australia where The Doctor Blake Mysteries are set (Doctor Lucien Blake himself, played by Craig McLachlan, being a young man who grew up in Ballarat, went off to serve as a military medic in World War II, then elected to return and resettle in Ballarat in the late 1950’s). Of course this raises the obvious mystery-type questions: how did Sid’s body get into that coffin, how did Sid die and, most important, was it foul play and therefore something the police should work on finding out and prosecuting? Later the police and Doctor Blake encounter another double-occupied coffin in which the unauthorized occupant turns out to be Martin Callow (Andrew S. Gilbert), owner of the mortuary from which the bodies were supposed to be buried. Doctor Blake, despite the opposition of the local police (who at one point tell him to wait in the police station while they check out the latest lead he’s given them — which, of course, he doesn’t), stakes out the funeral home and finds Martin’s widow Lydia (Esther Stephens) has been having an affair with the mortuary’s delivery driver, which of course leads Blake to suspect that she and the driver conspired to knock off her husband so they could be together. 

But Dr. Blake finally pins the murders on Harold Morris (Dennis Coard), a nasty guy we’ve hated from the moment he was introduced and started bullying everyone, who along with his two sons were once enforcers for an Australian labor union whose job it was to beat up and intimidate scabs. Morris threatens Dr. Blake himself but Blake gets the gun away from him, and just when (in the best-written scene of Stuart Page’s script) Morris has taunted Blake with the idea that Blake doesn’t have the nerve to shoot him, especially since as a doctor he’s pledged to save lives instead of taking them, Blake shoots him — not in the chest but in the knee to incapacitate him so he can be arrested and held in the local hospital by the police. The police finally get the evidence they need to convict Morris when his son Steven (Dan Hamill) turns state’s evidence and confesses his own role in the crimes — the other son having disappeared earlier and possibly, Page’s script hints, himself having been “offed” by his father when he wanted to turn them all in. The motive for the killings, as nearly as I could figure it out, was that Martin Callow had been involved in Australia’s labor wars on the management side and that Harold Morris had a vendetta against him and was determined to kill him — and that poor Sid Bartel, a handyman who still transported himself in a horse-drawn vehicle (itself inspiring some murderous rage among local drivers who found his 2-mile-an-hour cart blocking the way of their cars on the road), was just in the wrong place at the wrong time: he witnessed Harold shooting Martin and therefore Harold shot him too. I have no idea if the history of organized labor in Australia was anywhere nearly as violent as this episode makes it sounds, and despite my opposition to terrorism in the service of any cause I still have a rather clammy feeling about a story in which union activists are the villains, but this was a quite good Doctor Blake episode in a show I’ve come to like for its understated British-style approach to murder (the only on-screen scenes of violence we see are Dr. Blake’s incapacitation of the villain and a few flashbacks representing Blake’s speculations on how the murders might have occurred) and the cleverness of the writing, even though in a few episodes (though not this one) the cleverness has got a bit too clever for its own good.