Saturday Night at the Movies in the Caribbean
Saturday night was the night to go to the movies when I was in my upper teens. My parents and every decent person we knew avoided the Center Theatre on Saturday nights. This was when the place was taken over by “street scum” and “gutter rats”. And that’s why we liked Saturday nights best of all. You saw all kinds of things and got lots of laughs that you could talk about all week until the next Saturday night came along.
Now by this time I was working as a waiter and later bartender at a night club and was making about fifty dollars a week. An incredible amount for a boy of seventeen in the mid fifties. My parents of course made me put away more than half every week for my education. But the rest of it was mine to spend as I pleased and sometimes I lied about what I was making so I often had more than they knew about.
The routine was, you started getting ready about five o’clock in the afternoon for the eight o’clock show that night. All the guys were going to be dressed up sharp and you wanted to be the sharpest of all.
You got to the theatre about an hour before just to make sure you got a ticket before they sold out because they always did. Then you spent the rest of the time just hanging out in front of the theatre talking and making sure that everyone, especially the girls, saw how sharply you were dressed. In some months before there had been a newsreel showing Louis Armstrong, whom they were calling “The Ambassador of Jazz” playing his trumpet all over the world. The thing that caught our eye was the fact that he carried a knotted handkerchief which he held between his fingers while he played. And when he stopped or took a rest he would smile with that wide satchel mouth of his and wipe his forehead. But he didn’t really wipe it he patted it slowly and stylishly. We thought it the coolest of the cool things anyone could do. So we all began to carry a long white handkerchief and all throughout any conversation we had we would periodically stop to grin and wipe our necks and face in the Armstrong style. It used to make my father crazy. He would ask me why I was doing that nonsense and I would tell him because it was cool. He would just shake his head and walk away convinced that he had sired a retarded son I suppose. But I didn’t care. My friends and I knew it was cool so that was enough for me.
Inside the theatre was divided into three sections. This wasn’t a formal designation; it was just how things had evolved. The section down front close to the screen was called “The Pit”. This was where the lowest of the low went to sit, eat candy, throw the wrappers at each other and call out to friends across the way, make noise, fart and smell up the place. These were the Neanderthals and the cave men from the country side who weren’t sophisticated like we were and only came into town on Saturday night.
The last two rows of the orchestra was where the so called “decent people” sat if they were foolish enough to go to The Center Theatre on a Saturday night. Often they couldn’t help it if the theater was playing a movie they wanted to see because this was the only time to catch it.
Then there was the stadium where people like myself sat. Guys who had a little money from hotel or restaurant work, who were also educated enough to read the fan magazines like Modern Screen and Photoplay and knew something about the private lives of the stars. Guys who knew how to dress sharp and carried their handkerchiefs Louis Armstrong style. Guys who knew how to impress the women by calling them “Baby”… “Sugar Pie”…”Angel”…and “Doll”. In other words weren’t yokels like those people in “The Pit.”
The movie started at eight and we were let in at seven thirty in order to see and be seen. And there were a parade of characters everyone waited for. There was Carmen Jones named for the movie of course. She was a pretty black girl about twenty five, handsomely proportioned in all the right places. She would wear the tightest red dress she could find, put a flower in her hair like Dorothy Dandridge did in the film and bright red lipstick on her mouth. When she entered she would mount the stadium steps one at a time in slow motion and guys would call out: “Hey there Carmen”…”Talk to me Mama”…”Give me a smile, Baby”…or “Shake it but don’t break it, Angel”. Others would rise and tip their hats hoping that perhaps she would give them a smile or some form of public acknowledgement. But Carmen, whose real name was Andrea Hendricks, would take it all in stride and if she felt in the mood would give you a smile or a whispered hello. If she did it would mark you as special and you could boast about that for the rest of the week.
Another was Mister Valence. Valence was what we called a “He/She” or anti-man. Today of course we would call him “Gay”. Valence was a flamboyant character who didn’t care who knew what he was. In fact he advertised it in the way he talked, dressed, waved his hands and threw his head around. He could also roll his eyes as good as Bette Davis or Joan Crawford. Everyone appreciated his style and when he came in would call out “Howdy Miss Valence” to which he would reply “How are you darling?
Someone else would call out “You looking pretty tonight Baby.” And he would answer: “Beauty for most is only skin deep but mine goes right to my soul.” My father said “A man like that should be whipped and locked up. He’s making a mockery of things and that’s nothing to laugh at”. So I couldn’t laugh at his antics when my father was around which is why I had to go to the movies on Saturday nights.
Another character who always showed up on Saturday nights was “Captain Ahab”, named after the Gregory Peck character in Moby Dick. He had a beard and the same kind of way of tilting his head as Peck did in the film. When he came in we would call out “Where’s the whale, Captain?” And he would usually point and say “Thar she blows!” But if he was in a bad mood for one reason or another response would be: “Under your mother’s dress, look there and you’ll find it.” So you had to be careful when you called out to Captain Ahab because if he slammed you like that you were the laughing stock for the week. We also had The Durango Kid, Red Ryder and our version of Hopalong Cassidy. When these guys made their entrances in full western regalia about two minutes to eight we would applaud them, then tell each other what idiots we really thought they were for dressing up like that and wait for the lights to dim. When they did we would settle down into our seats and the wonderful world of the movies would begin.
Now I need to tell you about Mister Rhumbay. Rhumbay lived in a section called “The Point” or just plain “Point” as most locals referred to it. Point was a swamp area where only the poorest of the poor lived. It wasn’t only a ghetto it was a disgrace and a tragedy. It doesn’t exist anymore. A year after I left the island the whole area was razed by the government, the swamp was filled in and an attractive low cost housing project took its place. But in those days The Point was a world unto itself. As kids in high school we would often walk through there because they said Point Girls were easy and wore less clothes. This wasn’t necessarily true but we believed it right into adulthood.
Rhumbay came out of The Point and had more muscles than any human had a right to have. He had so many muscles that we used to say that he had strong man muscles in his eyeballs. He wasn’t tall but he was strapping and his skin was black. Not brown or dark but black, jet black. Word had it that Rhumbay hadn’t worn a shirt in fifteen or maybe twenty years. That’s the reason they said why his skin was so black. Rhumbay was so strong and visually fearsome that when he was drunk and disorderly the police wouldn’t try to arrest him. They were afraid that he would break some part on one of them or pick them up and throw them in a tree or something. So they would just let him do what he was doing until he got tired and fell asleep.
Rhumbay never went to any school as far as anyone knew. I have no idea if he could read or write. Rhumbay was a caveman and everyone knows that cavemen have no need for education, so that was that. What he did for a living was also something of a mystery. Occasionally he farmed some property he had up in the hills. Other times he worked for the West India Company unloading and packing freight. I’d also seen him posing for tourists who would take his picture and give him money. Beyond that I don’t know what else he did.
Rhumbay loved movies and Saturday night was his night. He would sit in The Pit and talk all through the picture in a loud voice and no one ever told him to shut up or keep it down.
One night after the movie was over we heard that there was some excitement on Pier 6 which was not too far away. So we all went to see. It was close to midnight and there were lots of flashing lights and police cars and Hospital ambulance vans and stuff. And a great crowd of people were there. Word was that a man had fallen off the pier and drowned. At the time there was a whole lot of dredging going on because they were getting ready to make a waterfront out of the area. There were signs all around warning people not to go out on those piers because the boards were rotten and the due to all the dredging the bottom was deep and sticky. Still people went out there for one reason or another.
The big Coast Guard boat was there with people talking over loudspeakers telling everyone to keep clear while the rescue mission was in operation. The sea looked as black as ink and a strange mood hung over the crowd. The cloud of death was in the air and everyone was strangely quiet waiting for them to find the body. The search went on for what seemed like hours although it was probably only fifteen minutes to a half hour. The search appeared to be futile. The night was too dark, the sea was too black. Rhumbay came on the scene pushing his way through the crowd.
“Wha going on?” he asked.
“A man drown down dey.” He was told.
“Who? What man?”
“A man name Georgie, Georgie Lanclos.”
“But that a mi friend.” Rhumbay said. “That a mi fucking friend.” And with that he went to the edge of the pier and dived in before anyone could stop him. He was gone so long that people thought that he too had drowned in that black murky water. Then he came up took a deep breath and went under again. This time when he surfaced he had Georgie’s body with him. Georgie was dead; there was no question about that. But no one could believe Rhumbay had done such a feat. Dived into hell without fear or hesitation and came out victorious with his dead friends’ body in his arms.
I have seen many courageous things done in movies but I have never seen anything to match what Rhumbay did that night. And after that people stopped calling him a caveman or even “Rhumbay”. After that he became “Mister Rhumbay” man of distinction, and deservedly so.
For a moviegoer, sometimes unfamiliar names become familiar. During the credits of the Andre De Toth directed Hidden Fear, the name John Hawkins struck a bell but I ignored it. I didn’t think about the name until I started Budd Boetticher’s The Killer is Loose and there it was again in the opening credits.
The very first time I saw the name was months ago: another De Toth picture, Crime Wave. The link the between the three movies isn’t only a name; it’s a consistency in craft, in the tiny character details that elevate these three crime pictures above most others.
John Hawkins, of whom I can find little about, was a writer and producer. He produced Bonanza and other than the movies, wrote for such television shows as The Fugitive and The 87th Precinct series. Alongside his name is his brother’s: Ward Hawkins. They each collaborated on Crime Wave and The Killer is Loose. From what I can gather, both of these films where based on stories by the brothers (they were frequently published in the Saturday Evening Post).
Both films had a screenwriter other than the Hawkins (Harold Medford for The Killer is Loose and three writers for Crime Wave). Although sometimes it’s hard to pick out the parties responsible for the exceptional qualities in good work (perhaps it was the director with an idea on set, or the actor), the name Hawkins keeps repeating itself at the beginning and end of good crime pictures.
The Killer is Loose is an odd cop story. The lead, played by Joseph Cotten, accidentaly shoots the wife of a bank robber played by Wendell Correy. He’s no ordinary bank robber, and no ordinary killer as the poster suggests. He’s timid, introverted; in the army we learn that he was constantly made fun of. Still, he involves himself in crime and the punishment is not his own but his wife’s.
The outcome of the innocent murder: Cotten made a mistake and Correy goes to jail. But before he goes, he swears to take the life of Cotten’s wife and when he escapes sometime later, the picture really takes off. That’s all I’ll say about the plot. The picture, like many in the gallery of second-run crime movies, is fast, sharp, and much smarter than most A-pictures. The characters’ actions are fresh, unpredictable, and downright complex. Budd Boetticher was a great director, not only of Westerns. Whatever his strengths, I can’t help but credit the “story” men behind this one: the Hawkins brothers.
Crime Wave, which I focused on before in an article about its director, is a little crime gem too. A tale of the burden of being an ex-crook at its core, the movie comprises police-procedural, heist, and kidnapping in a killer plot. The cast highlights are Sterling Hayden and Timothy Carey. Hayden plays a tough cop about as good as anyone could and Carey plays the ultimate scene-stealing psycho (he may have been the best scene-stealer ever). Again, De Toth was a terrific director but it’s not only the starkness of the pace and lighting that make Crime Wave a great picture; it’s the root of the movie, the core, where it came from.
Unlike the previous two, the movie Hidden Fear was not based on a story by Ward Hawkins. From the available information, it seems the screenplay was written by both Andre De Toth and John Hawkins. Like the other two, this is a tight little crime movie. The basic plot involves an American cop (John Payne) trying to clear his sister’s name after she gets mixed up with a murder in Denmark. Somewhere along the way, counterfeit and other such crimes become involved.
On one level, Hidden Fear feels like an early entry in the French New Wave. The lighting is almost all natural, the cutting abrupt and ragged but effectively so, the whole thing stripped of Hollywood exaggerations. It is a lean, mean picture but what really gives it guts are the characters and dialog. Payne’s American cop is Mickey-Spillane tough. In one great scene from Hawkins and De Toth, he slaps his sister around to find out the truth. The Danish cop enters the interrogation room and tells him, “This isn’t the way we do things here.” Payne, lacking all emotion, responds, “Sometimes it’s the only way.” He parades through the picture as a tall, strong statue, a perfect machine of pulp and Hawkins’ script is his backbone. Outlined with tons of great characters: a sultry blonde played by Anne Neyland and a backstabbing ruthless villain played by Alexander Knox. Hidden Fear climaxes with a great, minimal car chase and a harsh ending that conveys the same bizarre since of victory and tragedy as Hawkins’ ending for The Killer is Loose.
I’ll keep an eye out for John and Ward Hawkins from now on. And because their names were once unfamiliar to me and have now become synonymous with great crime writing, I’ll look for others like the Hawkins, buried in the credits of great forgotten cinema.
Doris Day/Love Me or Leave Me
Whenever I tell people of a certain age (the younger ones don’t know who she was) that Doris Day was director Mike Nichols’ first choice for Mrs. Robinson in The Graduate (1967) they always look at me with a surprised / puzzled look on their face as if to say;“Doris Day? What was he thinking?” And when that happens I know that they’re channeling two things. 1) Anne Bancroft’s iconic performance in the role and 2) Doris Day’s image as “The world’s oldest virgin.” A remark that was based on the roles she played in a series of comedies she made with Rock Hudson and a few other leading men. All the films were highly successful at the box office but her roles in them were somewhat similar due to the formulaic nature of the screenplays written mostly by Stanley Shapiro which set the template not just for Doris Day’s films but for nearly all the romantic comedies being made at that time. But the “oldest virgin” tag stuck to Doris Day because her films were the most successful of the lot. The phrase was attributed to Oscar Levant, a pianist/wit who seemed to never be at a loss for a curmudgeonly bitter comment to sum up any person or situation. He is also credited with saying: “I knew Doris Day before she was a virgin.” based on the fact that they appeared together in her first film (Romance on the High Seas-1948). But there was much more to Doris Day as an actress and screen personality than can be summed up in an admittedly witty remark. She was a solid, hard working professional about whom it could never be said that she gave a shabby or lazy performance. She gave every film her all even some of the ones she didn’t want to do like Lucky Me (1954) and several others later on that her husband / manager Marty Melcher committed her to without her consent. But for anyone who thinks her abilities were limited to those artificial comedies that made her so popular I would point them to her solidly dramatic performances in Young Man with a Horn (1950), Storm Warning (1951), Julie (1956) and Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew too Much(1956). But at the top of the list would be Love Me or Leave Me (1955) in which she plays twenties singer Ruth Etting in a highly fictionalized but dramatically terrific version of her life. Prior to this Doris Day had scored in a number of modestly budgeted Warner Brothers musicals usually pairing her up with singer Gordon McRae (1921-1986) and dancer Gene Nelson (1920-1996). Those films were always pleasant and successful but it was her athletic knock- about performance in Calamity Jane (1953) that marked her as a class A performer and star. During this time she was also a top selling/ award winning recording artist as well.
But anyone who was paying close attention could see that there was much more to her than the sunny and attractive girl-next-door types she portrayed in films like On Moonlight Bay (1951) By the Light of the Silvery Moon (1953). And if they weren’t, it was there for all to see in Love Me or Leave Me where she let it all hang out in a role that was originally meant for Ava Gardner. When offered the part Doris Day turned it down but changed her mind and today views it as the best film she made. James Cagney her co-star in the film who plays the gangster who strong arms Ruth Etting to success said that he was startled by the depth and range she brought to the role and by the emotional investment she committed to the part. “It was wonderful and easy to act with her,” he said. They had appeared together previously in the light weight musical West Point Story (1950) but nothing had prepared him for the mature ferocity she brought to Love Me or Leave Me. Cagney, who was no slouch in the acting department himself, was nominated for the Academy Award as Best Actor in that film. He counted it as one of his five all-time favorites. But Doris was passed over as Best Actress. In fact she wasn’t even nominated. But that’s another argument for another time. My point here is that anyone seeing that performance should not be surprised at Mike Nichols’ offer. Of course we’ll never know what she might’ve done with the role had she accepted it and speculations are a waste of time. But what I’m saying is the idea of her in the role isn’t as absurd as some might think.
As a kid Doris Day (real name Doris Kappelhoff) was my favorite actress. I thought her not only a terrific singer/dancer/ actress but a very handsome and sexy woman too. And this was in the era of such beauties like Lana Turner, Ava Gardner, Elizabeth Taylor and others. To me, in the looks department, she could hold her own with any of them. The sunny optimisms she brought to her roles was infectious but beyond that she was a true professional who could seemingly do it all, sing, dance and act. A triple treat who was not a threat. On screen she exuded confidence, strength and a kind of straight- forwardness that was in no way neurotic or doubtful. She was also womanly and feminine without being fussy and self involved. And if her personal life was troubled her professionalism was such that none of it appeared on screen.
Like anyone who has been in films a long time her career had its ups and downs. It began modestly enough when songwriter Sammy Cahn suggested her as the replacement for a pregnant Betty Hutton in Romance on the High Seas. It coasted along nicely with all of the films her home studio Warner Brothers assigned her to. Once free of that studio her career went into high gear with Pillow Talk. After that she remained the number one female box office star for so long that she still holds the record as the highest female grossing star of all time. But it was those years at Warner Brothers that provided her with the perfect apprenticeship that would sustain her later on. During that time she worked with such solid studio directors like David Butler, Roy Del Ruth, Andrew Stone and the great but absurdly unheralded Michael Curtiz with whom she made four pictures. All helped her to mold and sharpen her craft to the point that when she worked with Hitchcock she virtually required no direction. And when she querried him about it his famous remark was: “When you do something wrong Dear, I will.” This is remarkable for someone who started as a band singer and who maintained her singing career throughout the entire length of her tenure in films. She had more than 25 top selling hits and although she’s been long retired from show business her recordings still sell in great quantities today.
Since stepping away from the spotlight in 1987 she lives in Carmel, California where she owns a hotel and is known as an animal rights activist. Beyond that she has kept a cheery low profile which for some reason has led the tabloid press to making all kinds of unpleasant speculations about her. They just don’t seem to want to accept the fact that someone who spent 39 years making movies is not interested in glorying or wallowing in the past. Sensibly enough she has moved on with her life. What she had to give is all there on DVD’s and CD’s for us to look at , listen to and savor. We should be grateful for them. To want more from her is to be greedy beyond reason. And for anyone who wants to see Doris Day at her best just take a look at Love Me or Leave Me. Enough said.
A Brief Note on Marilyn Monroe
Like Montgomery Clift, Marilyn Monroe (1926-1962) was a fragile and beautiful presence in movies who was destined to shine for a few brief seasons and then disappear from us forever. But fortunately for us she is immortalized by the celluloid performances she left behind. Now a lot, some might say too much, have been written about her since that fateful night in August 1962 when she was found dead in her Los Angeles home. And over the years I have read many, many accounts of her, her life, her acting, her affairs etcetera. Some have been interesting, some exploitative, some have been fictional and some just downright mean. It seems that the fascination with Marilyn will never end. Why that is, who knows? And so the books will go on and on… But far and away the best and most loving account of her in print is Truman Capote’s essay A Beautiful Child from his book Music for Chameleons (1980). It can also be found in Portraits and Observations: The Essays of Truman Capote (2007). I won’t go into what the essay contains because I want you, if you’re interested, to experience the pleasures of the portrait first hand. So my function here is to point it out to you if you didn’t know about it before. I reread it about once a year just because it makes me feel that through it I have grown to know and appreciate her a little bit more.
Duel at Diablo – Rousing and lively.
For anyone who liked westerns when they were young Duel at Diablo (1966) is the kind you looked forward to seeing every time you went to the movies but rarely got. It’s tough, it’s exciting, it’s sometimes mean and mean spirited, not too deep, and it’s loaded with lively action sequences and all sorts of confrontations between the principals. It also showcases James Garner in a refreshing role reversal away from the easy going, wry characters he played so often in both comedies and dramas. Here he is an emotionally scarred and embittered military scout who is in search of the man who murdered his Comanche wife. But that’s just a subplot. The main story is about a military battalion of inexperienced soldiers led by an ambitious lieutenant who must transport several wagons of ammunition through hostile Indian Territory. Their enemy is Chata, an Apache Chief on the warpath because he and his tribe have been forced by the US Government to live on a thread bare reservation. So he goes after this troop with his full army of warriors for their ammunition trapping them in a boxed- in space called Diablo Canyon. Will this group of mostly green soldiers be able to hold off this marauding horde or will they succumb and be destroyed the way the US Government destroyed the Indians so many times before. This is the question that the film poses. We of course know the answer. But the fun of this film isn’t in its resolution, it’s in its details and in the inter play of its characters.
The cast is an interesting mix of American and European actors. Sidney Poitier co-stars as an ex-soldier turned horse wrangler ordered against his will to accompany the soldiers. British actor Bill Travers (Born Free-1966) plays the lieutenant who dreams of becoming a general. Sweden’s Bibi Andersson plays Ellen Grange, a woman once kidnapped by the Indians and now shunned by both the townspeople and her husband Dennis Weaver of TV’s Gunsmoke (1955-1975). He has the most interesting role in the film because his character shifts from callous and cold to sometimes caring and tender and back again. Poitier is suitably flashy in a not sharply defined role. Travers does his martinet soldier thing well. Bibi Andersson gets to strut her dramatic stuff out doors instead of the inner chambers of Ingmar Bergman’s claustrophobic world. Garner at the center of much of it is as I said before tough and laconic and quite physical as well… “You got no luck Jess” The lieutenant says to him at one point, “Ellen Grange is already married.” and that sort of sums up the melancholy nature his character. But this isn’t the kind of film that’s designed to demonstrate the histrionic versatility of its actors. It’s about action and more action with a few shades of character sketches thrown in then it’s back to action and shootouts as any good western should be.
It was adapted from a novel (Apache Uprising) by Marvin Alpert, a prolific screenwriter and novelist. He wrote Rough Night in Jerico-1967. It was directed by Ralph Nelson, an all round pro who moved easily between TV and Movies. He directed Sidney Poitier in his Academy Award winning performance in Lilies of the Filed – 1963.The script makes some mention about the plight of the Indians so as not to paint them as heinous villains although they do some pretty heinous things but none of that is important in this film. Its main purpose is to provide you with rousing genre entertainment and that it does in spades. If there is a cinematic equivalent to a good paperback western this is it. There are many others too but this one would be high on the list.
Along with Noir and the Musical, the Western is a genre of the past. There have been entries in the last forty years on television and the cinema that serve the Western well, notably Appaloosa, Open Range, Lonesome Dove and some of the films of Clint Eastwood. For the most part it is an unused side of cinema, regrettably so, a distinct American creation that dominated the first half of 20th century moviemaking and still holds a gallery of some of the greatest films ever made.
Near the end of the sixties, directors were still playing with the genre. Playing is the operative word. What many of these late Westerns achieved was a purposeful rejection or reaction to the values and ideas that make up the Western. Robert Altman turned it into a dark landscape full of Leonard Cohen folk songs in his great McCabe and Mrs. Miller. Sydney Pollack experimented in the mountain-man sub-genre with his Jeremiah Johnson. Peter Fonda made his Hired Hand and Michael Cimino tried for epic size glory with Heaven’s Gate. These films contain shoot-outs, men in hats, and horses; still they are not quite Western.
Again, whether on purpose or by accident, they ignore or refute the principles of the Western. Though there were endless variations of this genre before it faded, certain qualities exist throughout. The idea of code, in the law and against it, is consistent in the work of John Ford, Howard Hawks, Budd Boetticher and others. There is a lack of code or a corruption of code in the late sixties experiments. And in the Spaghetti Westerns that followed (and have grown more popular amongst current audiences than the films that spawned them), code is practically abandoned and replaced with a focus on style and sensationalism. Though the Westerns of old had style too, and never ignored the visual, most of them were focused on something else: the characters and what they held true and how that affected their conflicts with others. In that light, it seems that Spaghetti Westerns are hardly Westerns at all, but skeletons wearing the clothes and the hats, holding guns.
Of these “Not Quite Westerns”, there are some magnificent films. As mentioned before, McCabe and Mrs. Miller is haunting and beautiful. Heaven’s Gate possesses some extraordinary moments in its four hours. And of all the Sergio Leone movies, his Duck You Sucker is his best and his closest to being authentic.
Bad Company (1972)
I recently watched my favorite of these films: Bad Company, directed by Robert Benton in 1972, starring Jeff Bridges and Barry Brown. Brown plays a young man dodging the Civil War draft. He goes West and soon stumbles into a gang of young ruffians, led by Jeff Bridges. Together they go through a series of trials and misadventures.
On the surface, the movie sounds like a light, Western adventure. But this is no ordinary West. There are no beautiful landscapes. The background is drab, a dreary mid-west setting of dead grass and naked trees. The colors are dark grays and pale yellows. There are startling moments of violence. Take for instance a scene where the youngest of the group, just a kid, tries to steal a pie from a window. Someone shoots him in the head with a rifle.
At one point, the young men buy quick rounds of sex with another traveler’s wife. There’s something pitiful about the scene. They betray and lie to each other constantly. Everyone in the picture is starving, and the phrase “Who told me to go West?” is repeated often. Even the villain, a fast-slinging gunfighter played by David Huddleston is the opposite of the traditional Western bad guy: he’s obese, he acknowledges that he’s the leader of a band of idiots, and even his most impressive “gun trick” is not impressive at all. Near the end of the picture, he calls himself “the oldest whore on the block.”
The final shootout is at once thrilling and violent and completely absurd. The piano score spins a Marx Brothers feel while the characters awkwardly kill each other. It’s an odd moment, but in its own not-quite-Western way it works really well.
The best part of the picture is Jeff Bridges and Barry Brown. Their struggle for friendship is an interesting reverse of the usual Western companionships (John Wayne and Dean Martin in Rio Bravo, or Henry Fonda and Victor Mature in My Darling Clementine). Bridges was and is a great presence on screen. He is unpredictable, yet he avoids any sign that he is acting. Barry Brown, an actor I wasn’t familiar with until this picture, carries the whole thing. He is as authentic and natural as Bridges and together they make a great pair.
I was sad to read that Barry Brown committed suicide in 1978, not ten years after he made this film. He had a short career but however short, something of him is left in this great movie, not really a Western, but still great nonetheless.
Jeff Bridges and Barry Brown, not long after the Bad Company shoot.
Gus’ recent entry spurred me on to finally watch The Big Country for the first time.
It is a completely unique Western, an epic vision from William Wyler quite different than anything Howard Hawks or John Ford ever made but just as important and valid in the Western canon.
I want to briefly mention one scene: the fist-fight between Gregory Peck and Charlton Heston. From the beginning of the film, the two have unresolved tension. Heston always tries to challenge Peck in public; Peck won’t have it. But one night, he visits Heston’s room and tells him it’s time. The scene really begins when Peck says, “The goodbye I have in mind will take a little more room than we have in here.” They go out to a field and fight.
Wyler and his editor cut from close shots of the fight to the wide landscape where these two men appear minuscule against the “big country”. There is no music, just the sounds of the fists, the feet, the falling, the heavy breathing. It is simultaneously minimal and grand. It is also more than the fight between two characters, but the battle of two cinematic icons.
They fight each other a long time because they are both strong men. When they are both exhausted, Heston says, “All I can say McKay is that you take a helluva long time to say goodbye.”
Here is the scene. Though the quality isn’t terrific, it represents the epic nature of the movie and this great scene well.
Westerns: The Big Country
Of all the genres in cinema my two favorites are musicals and westerns. Both are out of favor at the moment so few films are made in either. Still I want to talk here about the western in general and about one film in particular.
I think one of the reasons I like westerns so much is because it is the genre I grew up watching in the 1950s. In those days it seemed like every other film was a western. And the stars, all the big stars, had to make at least one western as a sort of career rite-of-passage. So even some definitely urban types like James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart wound up in westerns. The most interesting and amusing is The Oklahoma Kid (1939) in which Cagney plays the title character and Bogart is his nemesis Whip McCord. The fun of this film is watching these two out-of-their-element dynamos playing their roles with such vitality and brio that they absolutely bring it off. I once showed it in a class and at the end the students applauded. Others who made westerns included Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn in Sea of Grass (1947) directed by Elia (On the Waterfront) Kazan of all people. Even the recently deceased Bronx heart throb Tony Curtis starred in a western once (The Rawhide Years – 1955). The genre was so ubiquitous we couldn’t get away from it even if we tried.
The other reason I love it is because it is so flexible. It can accommodate virtually every other genre as well. So over the years we’ve had Sci/Fi western ( The Beast of Hollow Mountain-1956), horror (Curse of the Undead -1959) , musical (Oklahoma – 1955),Mystery ( 5 Card Stud-1968), Psychological (Invitation to a Gunfighter -1964), Greek tragedy (The Furies-1950),epic (Duel in the Sun-1946),comedy (Paleface-1948),social realism (High Noon-1952),African American (Posse-1993) and the list goes on. One offbeat title would include Terror in a Tiny Town (1938) the all midget musical comedy western and there are others as well. But I don’t have time to go into them here. The point is the western appears to be the “Everyman” of the genres. But as I said before it’s very much out of favor. The only western of note in the last few years is Appaloosa (2008) with True Grit by the Cohen Brothers on the horizon.
One of my favorite westerns is one that isn’t much remembered today, The Big Country (1958). It is a big, sprawling, epic- like film that plays like the adaptation of a literary masterpiece or towering work. But it was derived from a modest sized novel (under 200 pages) by Donald Hamilton author of the Matt Helm spy series. So what we have with The Big Country is a film that expands the novel rather than compresses it as films adapted from books usually do. And interestingly enough this expansion doesn’t come from adding more narrative or deeper characterizations. It comes from the deliberate pacing of the film which clocks in at 2 hours and 47 minutes. And with the multiple camera set-ups that the director William Wyler employs in presenting each scene. Where another director might give you 3 perspectives Wyler here gives you 7 or 8, sometimes even more. Contemporary audiences when viewing this film often get impatient with it and wish sometimes audibly that things would just move faster. But when I think about when I first saw the film way back when, many in the audience then felt the same way. I wasn’t one. I like the pacing. I think it’s one of the film’s big virtues.
The plot is simplicity itself. In the middle of a vast expanse of territory (thus the title) two ruthless patriarchs the Major Henry Terrill and Rufus Hannassey are fighting for control of the water rights to a strip of land that separates their property. In the middle of this comes Jim McKay (Gregory Peck), an easterner who is preparing to marry the Major’s spoiled daughter and is told that he has to take the Major’s side in this blood feud. But McKay resists because he is not a man of violence. His father was killed in a duel that he thought was pointless. So with the best intentions he attempts to broker a peace between the two warring factions and finds his philosophy of non-violence tested in a variety of ways.
This film has a terrific all-star cast and that is one of its virtues. The two old buffalos are played by Charles Bickford (Terrill) and Burl Ives (Hannassey), a folk singer turned actor who later abandoned acting for singing. He won an Academy Award for his performance in the film. In a surprisingly small supporting role is Charlton Heston as Steve Leech the Major’s right hand man. Heston at first refused the film but was later persuaded to take it by his agent. It was a smart move because it got him the lead in Wyler’s next film (Ben Hur-1959).It was good casting here because he’s set up as Peck’s rival and they balance each other out well on screen. Former professional athlete (basketball and baseball) Chuck Connors gives a terrific performance as Rufus’ loutish son Buck. And Carol Baker, fairly new to Hollywood at the point, this was her 4th film, plays the willful daughter of the Major. And lovely Jean Simmons plays Julie Maragon, the down to earth schoolteacher who owns the land that both men covet.
Some things to savor in this film are the wonderful use of the wide screen vistas that illustrate the title throughout. The Academy Award nominated score by Jerry Moros. Then there are the confrontations, the gun duels, the fist fights, the hard riding sequences so loveably and excitingly photographed along with just the sheer scope of the entire picture. This is a film that dazzles with its expertise, its professionalism, its confidence in the story and in the manner it is being told. Gregory Peck who was the main producer on the film has the least interesting role in this gallery of colorful characters. But he brings it off with the grace and quiet confidence that kept him a star for nearly six decades. When the film came out in 1958 there was a kind of grudging acceptance of its excellence from the critics. It was even nominated for the Academy Award as Best Picture that year. But in the ensuing years the film has pretty much been forgotten in the gallery of great westerns. Now it’s no masterpiece like High Noon (1952), Shane (1953) or Unforgiven (1992) but it does have its fans. Mel Gibson, for example cites it as one of his inspirations while making Braveheart (1995). It may not be much remembered but it is still one of the best westerns made.
The Big Knife – or: Hollywood on Hollywood
Over the years and decades of its existence Hollywood has made any number of films attempting in one way or another to dramatize itself, its industry, its lifestyles along with stories of those who seek the spotlight of the motion picture camera as a way of making them successful and famous or simply justifying their existence on earth. All of these films have been flawed one way or another. So much so that it was touted as conventional wisdom that “Hollywood was capable of examining just about anything but itself”. The search for “The great Hollywood movie” appears to be as elusive as “The great American novel” that was talked about so often years ago. Some writers even claimed that they had scaled that particular Everest. But today that ambition has pretty much been forgotten. That seems to be the fate of “The great Hollywood movie” as well. At least two novels challenged for the title of “great Hollywood novel”. They are What Makes Sammy Run? (1941) and The Disenchanted (1950). Both were written by Bud Schulberg (1914-2009) who was the son ofB.P. Schulberg the head of Paramount Pictures. Both books were best sellers but thus far neither has ever been adapted for the big screen. On stage and on TV yes, but not on the big screen.
In considering the films about itself that Hollywood has produced the two that stand head and shoulders above the rest (at least in my mind) are: Sunset Boulevard (1950) and Singing in the Rain (1953). Both are considered masterpieces of their particular genre. Somewhat below there are: The Bad and the Beautiful (1952) and A Star is Born (1954). Then on a third tier are a group of films that don’t quite deliver all the goods but are interesting nevertheless. In chronological order they are: What Price Hollywood (1932), A Star is Born (1937), The Star (1950), Man of a Thousand Faces (1957), The Goddess (1959) Inside Daisy Clover (1965), Day of the Locust (1975), The Last Tycoon (1976), Barton Fink (1991), The Player (1992), and Ed Wood (1992). A couple of wild card titles would include In a Lonely Place (1952) and They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (1969). But to me those films belong in a category by themselves. Wonderfully so.
The film under consideration now is The Big Knife (1955) directed by Robert (The Dirty Dozen) Aldrich and adapted by James Poe from a play by Clifford Odets. The story concerns the fate of Charlie Castle (Jack Palance), a man of humble beginnings who has become a top Hollywood box office star, and who apparently has succumbed to all the material trappings of his profession; the big house with servants, adoring fans and the availability of any number of women at the snap of a finger. Charlie is married to and is still in love with Marion (Ida Lupino), a serious and intelligent woman who is fed up with their life in tinsel town and would rather end their marriage than endure another year of it. Complicating matters is the fact that the dictatorial studio head Stanley Hoff (Rod Steiger) is insisting that he sign a lucrative 7 year contract with his studio. And if Charlie refuses the studio will release information that they covered up about a DUI incident involving Charlie where a child was killed.
The play by Odets, who spent much of his career in Hollywood working mostly as a screenwriter and an occasional director, appears to be trying to make a large statement about movie stardom and Hollywood success, how it saps the creative spirit and through its false values destroys the very souls of its inhabitants. The dramatic event revolves around watching Charlie struggling to save his own. And all the usual suspects show up….The predatory gossip columnist (Ilka Chase) a combination Louella Parsons, Shelia Graham, Hedda Hopper and others. Sample dialogue; (To Charlie) “Some of you seem to forget this town has to keep its skirts clean…A scandal is not forgotten if I choose to revive it.” (To a studio underling) “Shut up. I want my news from the horse’s mouth, not its tail!”
The long suffering agent ;( Everett Sloane) “No matter how you slice it up there’s never enough time in Hollywood.”…The adulterous wife of a publicist, Connie Bliss (Jean Hagen). “I like snug, draped bedrooms with locked doors so I can be my naked self, as you desire me….You’re hurting me love. But I’m a bad girl, I wish I could say I didn’t like it”…The cynical studio factotum Smiley Coy (Wendell Corey); “Ideals, kid? Nowadays? A lost crusade.” And in response to the question: What do you think about women? He says; “There’s no satisfying them. Like kids, they’re not of our world. I like them for the tricks they can do Their so-called specialties.”…. The abused starlet Dixie Evans (Shelley Winters). “If I take one more drink I’ll see a snake. …Although I’d rather see a snake than a Hollywood producer…They hire girls like me to entertain the visiting sales force.”…The tyrannical studio head; “Who are you? Petty aristocracy because the female admissions want to sleep with you? I’ll break you like I broke Wally Cole. He was a bigger star. You have pissed away a kingdom today.”
One could quote dialogue from the film all day, the good and sometimes terrific, the bad and the clumsy simply to illustrate the literary ambition behind The Big Knife in its effort to tell the definitive Hollywood story. What the film does achieve to a great extent is reflecting the love/hate relationship Odets had with the place. And as a result the whole thing comes up like a poison pen letter to Hollywood and the industry. Charlie Castle at one point observes; “California, think of it. The place where an honest apple tree won’t grow.”
The acting throughout is big and vivid in the 1950s method and semi-method style. And everyone in the cast is up to the task. The directorial concept appears to favor retaining the concentration of the plays one set location (The Castle home) abetted by a few exteriors (The swimming pool, a studio sound stage, a brief glimpse of a party next door and a shot of Marion at the beach). But the play wasn’t “opened up” much. The camera doesn’t even travel upstairs of the Castle home where the most dramatic event of the story takes place. We’re just told about it. There are big confrontation scenes that just explode with fury. And a few quiet ones that make you wish they were better or more lovingly staged. The worst thing about The Big Knife is its heavy handed need to indict Hollywood and all it represents. Odets play and the screenplay practically scream it at you. And the result is it denies the film any moderation and nuance. The whole thing often comes up like a rant. It also has some of the most pretentious sounding dialogue heard anywhere. Most of it spoken by Hank Teagle (Wesley Addy) , a melancholy novelist who’s leaving Hollywood to write a novel about; “How a man can become a popular movie star without reflecting the average (man) in one way or another.”… Someplace else he says; “Half idealism is the peritonitis of the soul. America is full of it.” The character comes up like the author’s stand-in mouth piece and Charlie Castle’s conscience. In another exchange he says to Charlie “If you wrestle (with your integrity) you might win a blessing.” To which Charlie says; “I’ll miss you Hank. Write your book and make it scandalous. Wire me for money anytime you need it. Someone has to complete the work he was born to do.”
The best thing about the film is the passion its makers (Writers, actors, director and producer etc.) invest in their endeavor. It charges the screen with several bursts of energy that is quite bracing. Many of its scenes feel like they’re about to break out of their cinematic confines at any minute. And that is something to be treasured. I can’t say that it’s a good film or a bad one. That has to do with your mood, your tolerance for the kind of high flown dialogue Odets likes to throw around and your appetite for stories that have to do with the pitfalls of success. The Big Knife is a film I go back to from time to time. Sometimes it annoys me, other times I’m amused by it while at other times I become engaged with some of the questions the screenplay is wrestling with. This is a film I always wish was better but for what it is I still like it, faults and all.
It’s more of a question: Is Noir dead? And the answer that keeps pestering my optimism is a reluctant and bitter yes.
The Noir I mention is pure unadulterated Noir. I could provide a list of qualifications (as Gus did in a previous entry on genre) but to mention a few movie titles might do better. Detour directed by Edgar G. Ulmer is Noir. Double Indemnity directed by Billy Wilder from a screenplay by Raymond Chandler is Noir. Night and the City directed by Jules Dassin is Noir. A combination of sex, deception, jazz, double-cross, murder, desperation, money, and a moody atmosphere… Noir.
It thrived in the 40’s and 50’s along with the Pulp literature from which it came. In the passing decades it has ruptured into so many sub-genres that the meaning of Noir is corrupt. For instance, we have “Country-Noir” with this year’s back-woods crime story Winter’s Bone. The Nicolas Cage-starring Red Rock West is sort of “Western Noir”. Films like No Country for Old Men pass as Noir, and I ask why. Is any movie that includes crime and dark shadows Noir? Even Curtis Hanson’s L.A. Confidential, as good as it is, isn’t Noir. It’s more police procedural than anything. And these corruptions apply to the classics of Hollywood as well. For instance, some might call Sunset Boulevard a Film Noir, but for what reasons? Because it has dark Black & White photography and demented, fated characters? Any genre might possess those elements.
As Gus once told me, the crime genre (in writing and movies) is a house with many rooms. The gangster story, the Cozy, the court-room drama, the who-dunit, the caper and others.
Imagine if someone were to call Agatha Christie’s work Pulp in the same vain as Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and Cornell Woolrich. Such a suggestion would be laughable but that’s the same mistake that has been made concerning Noir.
Of course, there have been examples of pure Noir, at least by my standards, since the 50’s. The Arthur Penn-directed Night Moves with Gene Hackman fits the bill. So does Chinatown. Body Heat though disgustingly imitative of Double Indemnity makes most, if not all, the right moves. The Hot Spot, directed by Dennis Hopper, is maybe the best of its era. Even a movie like Phoenix (a forgotten crime gem with Ray Liotta) comes close but misses the genre.
And to be fair, there is nothing wrong with the creation of the above-mentioned sub-genres; in fact, the evolution of genre is necessary for a living cinema. Still, it’s important to remember where these terms came from, what they once stood for and possibly still can.
Is pure Noir possible in current cinema? In a world where jazz isn’t as popular, where the detective is more an icon of the past than a hero of the present… What would pure Noir look like in a modern setting?
Would it have pornstars instead of lounge singers? And Meth dealers instead of thieves? It might resemble something like Werner Herzog’s Bad Lieutenant; the German director’s depraved-cop yarn, full of drugs and Iguanas, is the closest I’ve seen anyone come to the genre in recent years. Herzog seems to think that New Orleans (a place torn-up by crime and natural disaster) is the perfect location for a resurgence of Noir.
Maybe he’s right. Perhaps the genre has just been asleep for too long.