A Great Pulp Performance
Let’s get this out of the way. Miami Blues isn’t a very good movie. Somehow it misses and misses pretty far. Perhaps it’s Fred Ward, cast as the lead detective, turning in an oddball performance highlighted by a pair of false teeth and goofy expressions. But I don’t think he can be blamed. It could be George Armitage’s fault, he wrote and directed the film, or the producer Jonathan Demme (the movie has a sort of Demme quality, the same that has ruined some of his other genre pieces). Still, it could be inherent in the source material, Charles Willeford’s detective yarn. Something about the quirky nature of the story might belong only on the page and not the screen.
Whatever it is. The movie glories in one aspect: Alec Baldwin’s performance. This is really the best Baldwin ever got. He plays Junior, a criminal who robs criminals (but this isn’t a Robin Hood story at all). He murders a hare krishna at the airport in the first scene with a single pressure point move. This sets the cops (specifically Fred Ward) on his trail. The real story happens outside the chase; he picks up a prostitute played by Jennifer Jason Leigh. She’s sweet, young and stupid. And he likes her and keeps her aside as his loving wife while he continues a crime spree in Miami. Junior raises the stakes higher when he steals Ward’s badge and parades as a cop, walking into robberies, shooting thieves, and of course stealing the money himself.
Alec Baldwin is electric. With full wild eyes he carries the movie from beginning to end. Yes, he is a psycho but he’s more than that. His scenes with Leigh really come off as genuine. One minute, he tells her all he wants is to work a 9 to 5 and come home to a loving wife. The next minute he’s running into a pawn shop, getting his fingers cut off with a meat cleaver. Was the first statement a lie? Yes and no. We believe him like she does. He is sincere. He loves her. But something drives him towards crime, the energy of action, the draw of the chase and the fight.
This is really a bizarre midpoint to Baldwin’s career. It falls between the action hero roles like Hunt for Red October and the comic direction he’s recently taken. I think by accident it shows what Baldwin really could have been at his best as an actor. In Miami Blues he turns in one of the best pulp performances of the last few decades. If used properly, he could’ve been a pulp star, a pulp hero.
Take for instance the sheriff role from Jim Thompson’s novel The Killer Inside Me. It’s been done wrong twice already, by Stacy Keach and just this year by Casey Affleck. Watching Miami Blues, I saw who I would cast. Baldwin can find the balance of crazy and caring, killer and cocksman. He would descend through a landscape of murder, still convincing those around him that he is the trustworthy deputy sheriff until the end when they know what really goes on his head.
There are many actors, especially in the 80’s and 90’s, who would’ve been perfect for the pulp/noir genre. Alec Baldwin is just one of them. Of course, it’s too late and he can only fill the roles in my movie fantasies.
Movie Title Songs
For many, many years in my young movie going career title songs seemed to be a fixed part of the cinematic landscape. For me it started with the western High Noon(1952) with “Do not forsake me oh my darling” being intoned by Tex Ritter throughout the film almost as a sub textural commentary by Sherriff Will Kane played by Gary Cooper who won an Oscar for his role. It heightened the dramatic intensity of the drama and it wound up winning the Academy Award as Best Song for that year. But I know that movie title songs started way before that. One only has to think of Laura (1944) and the haunting title song that film inspired. But I guess I didn’t pay attention to them until High Noon. But after that it seem like every movie coming out of Hollywood had a title song to go with it.
The logic behind the title song was that it helped to commercially sell the film. A producer would hire a composer/lyricist team or sometimes one person who did both and contract them to write a song with the hopes that the song would become a hit and get a lot of radio airplay. And every time the song was played and the title was heard it could mean more dollars at the box office. Therefore one of the requisites of the contract was that the title of the movie had to be a central part of the song. This placed the burden more on the shoulders of lyricist than the composer who could write any melody within reason and it would be accepted. But the lyricist had to find a reasonable way to utilize the title as a lyric. What do you do with a title like “Magnificent Obsession” or “Last Train from Gun Hill” or “The Fast and the Furious”? The interesting thing is, if given the problem song writers usually came up with ways to work their way around it. Some were wonderful like the previously mentioned Laura while others were either strained or downright silly. “They call him the winner who takes all and he strikes like Thunderball .” From the James Bond movie.
The title songs that always ignited my interest were the ones written for dramatic films. Films like From Here to Eternity (1953), or Not As a Stranger (1955) or Dead Man Walking (1995) where there was nothing inherently musical in either the title or the content. With musicals it’s a given, comedies lend themselves to songs as well. And westerns always seemed to have some musical component built into the genre too. But take a gangster film like Little Caesar (1931) or Scarface (1932) or (1983) what could a title song say? And Horror, was there ever a title song written for a film in that genre? Come to think of it Science Fiction isn’t a particularly musical genre either. Still I would guess if some producer wanted a title song for something like The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951 or 2008) some songwriter would take on the challenge, and who knows, might even bring if off well.
The man who found a way to deal with those questions sometimes magnificently (Three Coins in the Fountain -1954) and sometimes absurdly (Oceans 11-1960) was Sammy Cahn(1913-1993), a facile lyricist who for the longest while was the go- to guy for title songs. He once said that if given the contract he could write a lyric for a film called “Eh!” He wrote things like The Tender Trap (1955), Pocketful of Miracles (1961), Best of Everything (1959)The Long, Hot Summer (1958) Johnny Cool (1963) and Somebody Up There Likes Me (1956). And for doing so he garnered 23 Academy Award nominations, this is the most by any lyricist in film history. He won 4 for Best Song. And today there is an annual award for the best movie song named in his honor; The Sammy Award. It is said that he wrote title songs for more than 100 movies but I couldn’t find any source to authoritatively verify that number. But the number is high. And most of the songs were lyrically of a high order.
The Bond films are the only ones that continue that tradition with any regularity today and their track record has been something of a mixed bag. But still they ought to be praised just for carrying it on. And I know that it is one of the things I wait for when a new James Bond movie is on the horizon. Who’s going to be singing the new Bond title song and what will it sound like. My absolute favorite is From Russia with Love (1963) which I find totally haunting, followed by You Only Live Twice (1967), Goldeneye (1995) and Diamonds Are Forever (1971). Many of the others are fine but those stand out for me. Now I’m not including the songs like All Time High from Octopussy (1983) or We Have all the time in the World from On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969) because they weren’t title songs. And I guess one could stretch a point and include Nobody Does it Better because the lyric does include a line that says; “Like heavens above me the spy who loved me is keeping all my secrets safe tonight.” That gets in the film’s title in addition to the fact that it’s a lovely song as well.
Title songs do serve another purpose above and beyond adding to the box office take of the film. From an audience standpoint it serves as a reminder of the film and its pleasures, if we liked it, when we hear the songs being played years after the movie has disappeared. So songs like Charade (1984) or North to Alaska (1960) or even something as silly like Georgy Girl (1966) can bring back not only memories of a fun movie but also of charming Lynn Redgrave who sadly passed away this year.
So title songs whether silly or great have a place in our cinema world and may the tradition remain with motion pictures forever.
Thelma Ritter: Wonderful and Humane
Thelma Ritter (1902-1969) was a character actor par excellence whose film career extended from 1947 to 1969 when she died suddenly of a heart attack. During those years she appeared in 31 films and countless TV shows. Due to the general excellence of her acting and her down-to-earth personality she became a reassuring presence in films no matter what role she played. At a certain time her appearances in films was so ubiquitous that we (I know I did) took the excellence of her performances for granted. Sort of the way we accept certain natural phenomena like the sunrise for granted. Fortunately her peers in the industry didn’t because she was nominated a record 6 times for the Academy Award as Best supporting Actress.
Her performances were never showy or ostentatious. Just simple and direct without any show of emotional embroidery. In fact Ms. Ritter was so good that she could’ve easily been called “The Female Spencer Tracy” for the fact that like him, you could never catch her acting. In acting classes students are always urged to be “in the moment” if they want their performances to be somewhat worthwhile. On screen Thelma Ritter was always in the moment and that I think was the reason for her great success. On screen she was a very good listener. That I think was the secret of her success. She listened closely and then as in life reacted to what she heard. That in short is the secret to good acting across the board and she was a master at it.
Many of her roles were what in other hands would be called stereotypical parts. She played a number of servants, mothers and drunks. But she invested those parts with so much genuineness and clarity that they became interesting, individual and most importantly human. And because of this she was always able to transcend the stereotype.
Some of her best known films include: Miracle on 34th Street (1947), A Letter to Three Wives (1949), All about Eve *(1950), With a Song in My Heart *(1952), Pickup on South Street*(1953), Rear Window (1954), Pillow Talk* (1959),The Misfits (1961), How the West Was Won (1962) and Birdman of Alcatraz* (1962). The titles with the * along with The Mating Season (1951) were films for which she was nominated as Best Supporting Actress.
I had the good fortune to meet Ms. Ritter and get to know her briefly. It was in 1955 when she came to St. Thomas, Virgin Islands to shoot a film called The Proud and Profane (1956), a war picture starring William Holden and Deborah Kerr, directed by George Seaton. I interviewed her for the radio station I worked for just as I had done all the other creative personnel on the picture. I was 16 years old at the time and the world of motion pictures and the people who made them seemed like a magical wonderland to me. I badly wanted to become a part of that world, primarily from a writing standpoint. I wanted to become a screenwriter but I had no idea what a screenplay contained or even what one looked like. The interview with Ms. Ritter went so well that afterwards we sat around just talking about things in general. There was something so informal and caring about her manner that I felt as though I had known her all my life. So somewhere in our conversation I mentioned my screen writing ambitions and the fact that I had never seen an actual screenplay.”Oh we can remedy that,” she said and gave me her script for the film to take home and peruse. So I did. Now this was before Xerox and other copy machines for reproduction were available. So I did the next best thing and read the script in one sitting and then began to copy it in longhand exactly as it was structured on the page. I could keep the script for two days I had been told so I did and copied as much as I my free time allowed. I wasn’t able to finish it but I got enough down to tell me all I needed to know at the time. Later on I would go back to it over and over again in order to learn and relearn the format.
In Tennessee William’s A Streetcar Named Desire there is a line about “The kindness of strangers” that has been quoted and requoted multiple times. I think that line aptly describes Ms. Ritter’s kindness to me. I’ll never forget her for it and whenever I see any of the films she appeared in I always think about what a wonderful person she was as well as being a wonderful actress.
Blake Edwards: A fine movie craftsman.
The obituaries of writer/director Blake Edwards talk a lot about his better known and often high grossing films like Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961), The Days of Wine and Roses (1962),the 1st Pink Panther (1963), and of course 10 (1972). But no one talks about my favorite Edwards’s film Mister Cory (1957). And that’s understandable. It was early in his career before he became an important name director and has probably not been seen by many. In fact it is hard to find. You seldom see it on regular TV and only occasionally on TCM. Still, I think it’s quite good and deserves a look see if you get the chance. As I said it came early in his career when he was a just a studio hired hand. Universal-International being the Studio. My curiosity about his work was ignited because we shared the same last name, so naturally I was curious about who this Edwards person was and what kind of movies was he making. I saw Mister Cory and was hooked. After that I saw every Blake Edwards film and was hardly ever disappointed with the result. This film stars Tony Curtis who was to play the lead in many of Edwards’ later films. And in it he gives what is to my mind the first of his many terrific dramatic/comic performances. It is an interesting mix that not many actors were able to master but Curtis had it down pat. And so did Blake Edwards. His film has a light touch but it is firmly grounded in reality as well.
It is about a handsome young man (Curtis) from the streets of Chicago who vows to escape his impoverished background anyway he can, legal or illegal. He has his eyes on the main chance in terms of money, romance and social position. Then at a Wisconsin resort where he works as a busboy he discovers that he has a talent for gambling. Complications occur when he romances a rich young woman from across the lake in the guise of a young socialite and the envy he generates among his fellow busboys. The action then moves to Chicago and the glamorous world of illegal gambling and high society. Blake’s direction is smooth, graceful and completely free of some of the eccentricities and quirks that show up in his more important and better known pictures. Here he is just telling his story in the most entertaining way he can. And it is welcome for even at that early stage he was already showing fine craftsmanship. He guided his actors, his camera crew and all the other creative personnel with a sure hand and a clear eye for maximum effect on the audience. This is not a perfect film by any means but it is what you wish most films coming down the studio pole would be, punchy, good looking, unexpected and smart.
Martha Hyer, a studio reliable even at that that young age is on hand to provide romantic support. Character actors Charles Bickford and Henry Daniell in a very amusing performance lend their expertise to the proceeding. But a young Kathryn Grant(later Mrs. Crosby as in Bing)) almost steals the show as a sparkly eyed ingénue. The screenplay by Edwards was based on a story by Leo Rosten. They worked together again in 1963 when Edwards did the adaptation of Rosten’s bestselling novel Captain Newman MD. Curtis was in that one too.
Blake Edwards was a writer turned director and to my mind one of the best. He was a fine film craftsman in the best sense of the term. To me that is high praise in a time when that particular virtue is often sacrificed on the altar of so called personal authorship and ego manifesting cinematic tics. He was prolific and his body of work was mixed. This is true of most filmmakers who had careers as long as Blake but when he was good, he was very, very good indeed. His brand of smart, professional filmmaking will be missed.
Cinema Station: Our 100th Entry Milestone
We started this blog for one reason and one reason only. To talk about and share our thoughts and cinematic pleasures with anyone who might be interested. It is now a little over a year since we started and our surprises are multiple. First the amount of people who have looked in on us. The number is rapidly approaching ten thousand. Then there are all the people who write or talk to us privately about the various entries. And now having logged in a hundred different entries is also a surprise because I for one didn’t know that I had so much to say about the subject. But then again it shouldn’t be because I have been seriously watching and attending movies for more than fifty years. So naturally all sorts of notions, observations, opinions and ideas have accumulated in my mind that it would probably take me another 50 years to get them said or written down. Because for me the world of the cinema is infinite. An alternate universe that is limitless and this blog Cinema Station is just one small planet in a galaxy of other blogs and websites in the vast expanse of space called “The Internet”. I also like to think that this blog Cinema Station is similar to planet Earth in our solar system in that it is a warm inviting place full of countries, islands, cays, inlets and promontories that can sustain all aspects of life in the form of memories and celluloid images inspired by or born on the silver screen. And in doing so we perpetuate and celebrate various aspects of human existence and human endeavor of every kind.
Somewhere at another time I said that I worshipped at the Cathedral of Godard. I was of course being facetious. But in another sense I was being truthful because I see cinema as a church. A church where we worship and revere the beauty and excellence of art, a place where we value and preserve the poetry of human existence. A church where the directors, writers, stars and all other creative personnel are our saints, the white screen (of any size or shape) our Holy Grail and the search of good and great movies our unending quest.
“If God didn’t exist mankind would have to invent him” someone once said. It is the same with movies. It didn’t exist therefore mankind had to create it. Now we have it and treasure it because it reflects and represents us in ways no other art form can. It represents our closest link with immortality. And with advancement and technology it is constantly changing and reinventing itself which is why it is such a vital and healthy art.
So we thank you for visiting us here at CINEMA STATION AND INVITE YOU TO COMEBACK AS OFTEN AS YOU LIKE AS WE EMBARK ON OUR SECOND MILESTONE.