Friday, June 22, 2012

Film Pairings — A Strong Sense Of Time And Place, 1950 At Night

I watched a late ‘40s film the other night, one that some critics had given the noir seal of approval.  And it wasn’t bad.  A malicious, greedy woman’s life ended with irony. She died thinking she got what she wanted. But getting what she wanted killed her.  And in the end, she didn’t get it anyway.  The strange little drama was set in San Francisco, or so the dialogue would suggest.  But there wasn’t a hint of the city anywhere on screen.  Watching it wasn’t a waste of time, by any means.  It was clever and innovative in its way, but it might as well have been done in dark clothing on an empty stage.

Not at all true for these two films — Crime Wave (also known as The City is Dark), which was set in 1950s Los Angeles and Night and the City, set in 1950s London. 

Crime Wave, L.A. night.
Crime Wave (1954), after some jumbled scenes behind the opening credits, settles into a dark, tight drama with a backdrop oozing LA.  A gas station is robbed. A cop is killed. One of the three robbers is wounded. Seeking safe haven, the killer tracks down a guy he did time with a few years earlier, a decent enough guy who has managed to find a girl, a job and plan for the future.  Tough luck for the guy trying to straighten out his life.  Worse, there’s a hard ass cop determined to put them all way.

The cast, Sterling Hayden as the cop, Gene Nelson as the decent ex-con and Phyllis Kirk as the girlfriend do well more than a convincing job in this surprisingly realistic portrayal of a guy caught in a system that doesn’t give second chances.  As it turned out, this film was one the first chances for actor Charles Burchinsky, who later changed his last name to Bronson. It’s easy to see why he rose to the top.  Hayden is also rock solid, dominating every frame he’s in without really trying.  The real surprise is Gene Nelson, better known as a Broadway dancer. He does a great job as an ex-con. At six foot, he seemed dwarfed by Hayden, who was 6’5”. But then, so was everyone else. Even with this cast, the star is the city at night.

I have a new, old star to track down.  Francis L. Sullivan.  He’s every bit as important to Night and the City as Sydney Greenstreet was to The Maltese Falcon.  Sullivan plays the owner of the Silver Fox Club in London — a sleazy place where tourists are lured with vague promises of sex and instead plied by cheap champagne at outrageous prices. Gene Tierney is a singer there, unhappy about the situation, but surviving.  Richard Widmark is the con artist who brings in the unsuspecting marks for expensive drinks and inevitable disappointment.  The thing is, Widmark has higher aspirations.  He wants to be somebody.

With the exception of Tierney, everyone is out to screw everyone else. Widmark and Sullivan keep raising the stakes.  Widmark, the small-time crook keeps finding ways to turn each disastrous failure into an even greater opportunity, though each step takes him closer to destruction.

Richard Widmark in Night and the City
We see London in 1954 — and not Big Ben and Windsor Castle.  We get a look at down and out alleys as well as witness a marriage of British character actors with a couple of American stars, both playing their parts in recreating an underworld of petty crimes played out against an essentially American tragedy. This aspect may have been unintended in the beginning.  The director, Jules Dassin, was a victim of the McCarthy era and was forbidden to work in Hollywood films. They moved the production to London and brought in the other American, Tierney, as a favor. It worked.  The direction and cinematography is exceptional, from an opening scene that is a work of art to a closing scene that is a technological triumph in filmmaking.

While there have been dark, dramatic films of the era that have had greater impact, these strike me as near perfect films.  They are not only fascinating as entertainment, but they help capture the history of film through a deep grasp of both time and place. That, in turn, becomes an archive, chronicling an era in the city.

These are tough, moody films, shot mostly at night.  I’d skip the cheap champagne. Let’s drink with the tough guys — Hayden, Widmark and the owner of the Silver Fox Club. Whiskey on the rocks seems about right.

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