Cinema Station

Gus & Travis Talk Film: Film Noir

June 3, 2014
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Our video blog series, Gus & Travis talk film. This week features a discussion about William Holden.

We talk about films such as Detour, Double Indemnity, Body Heat, Night Moves, The Killing, Kiss me Deadly, Chinatown and more.

You can listen at this link or watch below: http://www.runningwildfilms.com/gus-travis-talk-film-film-noir/

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Gus & Travis Talk Film: Fred MacMurray

April 9, 2014
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Gus and I are back with a new film discussion. This time we talk about the great actor Fred MacMurray and such films as Double Indemnity, Caine Munity, Quantez, The Absent-Minded Professor, The Apartment and more.


Body Heat

January 6, 2011
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Body Heat

Body Heat (1981) is a movie that I like and dislike at the same time. I dislike it because it poses as an original when it is so obviously derived from Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity. I mean plot point by plot point it matches up identically. But then I like it because it is so smartly written and directed by Lawrence Kasdan, beautifully acted by William Hurt and Kathleen Turner in the principal roles with great support by J.A. Preston, Ted Danson and Richard Crenna who spiritually ties Body Heat to Double Indemnity because he once starred in the TV version of Double Indemnity (1973). In that version he plays the hapless hero, in Body Heat he’s the victim. In this film Ted Danson gives what is to my mind a truly witty performance that fore shadows his wonderful turn as Sam Malone for all those years on the TV series Cheers. Also in the cast is a young Mickey Rourke giving a charmingly relaxed performance. I remember critics at the time saying that they thought he stole the film, I don’t agree. But he is damn good in his role.

What I like about this film is that it is both sexy and erotic. This is one of the few American films that possesses those rare qualities. A lot of films claim to either be one or the other and are usually neither. They are frequently explicit but generally never sexy or erotic. And as I said before, this film is both. The two leads (Hurt and Turner) go at each other like adolescents in heat and it comes off the screen in a palpable way. Added to that the dialogue is smart and the plot turns ingenious particularly if you haven’t seen Double Indemnity. And even if you have it’s still interesting from a literary stand point to see how he spins something old into something new. The ending strikes me as somewhat problematic but it’s not so bad as to negate what came before it.

 

As I said I didn’t like the film the first few times I saw it but as the years go by I appreciate more and more when I see the poor job other filmmakers have done trying to make something remotely sexy and mysterious about the criminal doings of ordinary people. In other words something in the Film noir genre. I wish Lawrence Kasdan would do something else in that tone. He came so close the first time maybe he’ll hit center target the next time…I can dream, can’t I?

-GE


Fred MacMurray: A Man for all genres

November 10, 2010
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Fred Mac Murray was to me, one of the most accomplished and underrated actors in the entire history of American film. His range seemed to encompass nearly all the genres. Light comedies (The Gilded Lily-1935), literary drama (Alice Adams-1935), Musicals (Sing You Sinners-1938), Military/war films (Dive Bomber-1941), Film Noir (Borderline-1950),family comedy (The Egg and I1947),Romantic Melodrama (Singapore-1947), Westerns (Gun for a Coward-1957), Slapstick comedy (The Shaggy Dog-1959), Crime drama (Pushover-1954),Action/Adventure (Fair Wind to Java-1953), and even Science Fiction (The Swarm-1978). It seems that the only genre he missed was horror. But that is a list that is unmatched by any other leading actor in his time or now. And I’m only citing one film in each genre but he made considerably more. It should be remembered that he made over 100 theatrical films.

Granted he came along and worked during the Studio system period when most leading actors were required to try every kind of style until it was found where they fitted most comfortably. But after their round of genres most usually settled into one that both the audience and the studio determined for them. So some became gangsters, others cowboys, others musical stars or romantic leads, action stars, etc. Errol Flynn was the adventurer, Cagney the tough guy, Bogart the gangster, Hepburn the society girl, Monroe the sexpot and so on. MacMurray was cast this way too. He was the light comedy guy. But then just as it seemed that his screen image was settled he surprised and confounded the critics as well as the audience with an outdoor film like Far Horizons (1955) where he played explorer Capt. Meriwether Lewis to Charleton Hestons’ Lt. William Clark of the famous Lewis and Clark expeditions. Later he would venture into westerns with a run of small budgeted but well acted titles including; At Gunpoint(1955), Quantez (1957),Day of the Bad Man (1958),A Good Day for a Hanging (1959) and  Face of a Fugitive (1959). No comedies here. In fact MacMurray acted and succeeded in so many genres that he came to be considered cinema’s “Man for all genres”. Covering a period from around 1938 to 1960 no other leading actor matched this record. The only other names that come quickly to mind are Henry Fonda, James Stewart and another shamefully underappreciated actor Joel McCrea. But none had the common touch that MacMurray brought to his characterizations. Fonda always seemed somewhat aristocratic even when he played outlaws, Stewart too home spun and folksy, and McCrea too upper middle class. MacMurray’s “common touch” was so popular that in his heyday (between 1940 to 45) that he was among the highest paid actors in Hollywood. And in 1943 he was actually the highest paid actor in the world.

Fred Mac Murray was the son of musicians and was a musician himself. He played the saxophone and sang with various bands. Later he appeared on Broadway with Sidney Greenstreet and Bob Hope… Late in his career he became well known for his TV series My Three Sons which ran for 12 years on two different networks. But today to fans and film buffs he is best known for his performances in three particular films in which he played the complete opposite  of his decent nice guys  or the absent minded professors or tough guy cowboys and farmers. In The Caine Mutiny (1954) he played Lt. Keefer whom one character called “The true architect of the mutiny”. MacMurray’s performance in the role is by turns sincere, sly, cunning,  bold faced and shameless as befitted the character. It is a terrific performance in a film that boasts several terrific performances especially Bogart as Captain Queeg. So MacMurray’s got overlooked and forgotten… Another terrific performance that he doesn’t get enough credit for is a role he stepped into after the originally cast actor Paul Douglas died just before shooting began. That film is Billy Wilder’s multiple award winning The Apartment (1960)in which he plays the duplicitous boss Jeff Sheldrake. His performance though overlooked and often forgotten is peerless…Then of course his greatest and most memorable is as Walter Neff the smart ass, wise cracking insurance salesman who travels down a tunnel of no return with the adulterous Phyllis Dietrichson smashingly played by Barbara Stanwyck in the film that has to be considered possibly the apex of the film noir genre, Double Indemnity(1944). That  film was nominated for 7 Academy Awards ,Stanywck was nominated as Best Actress but MacMurray was never mentioned. This happened to Mac Murray throughout his career. My assessment is because he played all of his characters so close to the skin that as they often said about Spencer Tracy “you could never catch him acting”. Now Double Indemnity had been remade 3 times. Twice officially and once unofficially as Body Heat (1981). Okay, I can’t honestly call that a remake but in terms of characterizations and plot structure it is awfully close. And good as the other actors were ( especially William Hurt) in what is essentially the Walter Neff role none comes close to what MacMurray did in the part. He was so good that he created a prototype of this kind of sexy/amoral protagonist that we now see so many times in crime stories that it has almost become a cliché.

In motion pictures today  we don’t have that kind of generalist anymore. We do have some wonderful actors now but like physicians everyone is a specialist. The era of the generalists has passed. But Fred MacMurray was a great one and his contributions should not only be remembered but properly appreciated as well. He is here.

-GE


Noir is Dead: A Personal Note… or Rant

October 5, 2010
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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 ChinatownBody 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.

-TM