Cloak and dagger on the margins: Pickup on South Street (1953)

pickup on south street posterPickup on South Street. 20th Century Fox; screenplay by Samuel Fuller, from a story by Dwight Taylor; produced by Jules Schermer; directed by Samuel Fuller. Originally released as a motion picture in 1953. Performers: Richard Widmark, Jean Peters, Thelma Ritter, Murvyn Vye, Richard Kiley, Willis Bouchey, Jerry O’Sullivan, Harry Carter. Summary: Petty crook Skip McCoy lifts a strip of microfilm bearing confidential U.S. secrets. Tailed by the Feds and the unwitting courier’s Communist puppeteers, Skip and Candy find themselves in a precarious gambit.

style ****
substance ***1/2

“So you’re a Red, who cares? Your money’s as good as anybody else’s.”

Surprising that so few films noirs are about espionage, given that the spy Weltanschauung corresponds so closely with that of the noir gestalt. Both abound in double and triple dealings, rampant paranoia, issues and choices always in tones of grey, never black & white, and most of all, flawed characters pushed to the edge of madness, about to descend into their own moral and emotional hearts of darkness. Moreover, the noir heyday years of roughly 1946-1953 correspond almost perfectly with the peak of anti-communist fervor in the U.S. at the time.

Pickup on South Street photo 4It all fed into noir’s sense of dread and desperation, usually as background, but in Pickup on South Street, we have that rare exception in which the Cold War, specifically its spycraft vagaries, looms front and center as an integral part of the plot. The irony of Pickup is that the protagonists don’t care a whit about all the high-powered Cold War politics, which only become a problem when it inconveniences their lives, and in most dramatic fashion. Samuel Fuller turned out to be the perfect, eminently un-auteurish, toughest-of-tough-guy directors, to helm this near masterpiece of overstated understatement.

Fuller began his career in the 1930s, writing for the New York Evening Graphic, a sleazy tabloid that was something of the National Enquirer of its day, just more so. No surprise then that even in his most polished A pictures like Pickup, he never totally shed his pulpy, journalistic instincts. His crusty cigar-chomping persona and seen-it-all background added to the mix. However, Pickup on South Street, for all its toughness, beats with a heart of exceptional warmth, all rendered through the three principal characters (a call girl, a stoolie and a professional thief), most of all through their inter-relationships. These are far from perfect human beings, but for all their failings, each has a basic streak of goodness and a kind of moral code. Thus we tend to root for them, even though their motivations and goals are often in conflict with each other.

pickup on south street photo 1Fuller came by his insight honestly: he knew marginal types like Candy, Skip and Moe personally through his experience as a journalist and through, well, life itself. Indeed, he probably identified with them through his perpetual outsider status in the film industry. Fuller’s lurid, un-pc side comes to the fore only once, and that’s the scene where Joey (Richard Kiley) beats up his onetime girlfriend and (probably unwitting) partner in crime Candy (Jean Peters). The sequence is done with a visceral realism and level of violence that was extreme even by the standards of film noir and still delivers a jolt sixty years later.

Are you waving the flag at me?

Richard Widmark continues the mold of self-destructive anti-heroes he created with Tommy Udo in Kiss of Death and Harry Fabian in Night and the City. He’s an amoral professional who will steal from – and deal with – anybody, and in this respect he’s not so different from the much less likeable Joey. But unlike Harry in Night and the City (‘an artist without out an art’) the character of Skip McCoy is indeed an artiste with his hands and fingers, which are employed not in musical, writerly or painterly ways but in the much dicier profession of pickpocket who has already gone to prison three times. Once more and its life.

pickup on south street photo 2Widmark and Jean Peters have great screen chemistry and their steamy romantic scenes entice with a deliciously languorous quality we don’t often find in this most frantic of film genres. And Thelma Ritter is terrific in her portrayal of a of a multi-dimensional, ultimately sympathetic character. The script gives her a bevy of one-liners (“I don’t know much about Commies, except that I don’t like ‘em.”), and she nails every one of them. It may well be her finest hour as an actress.

Pickup confirms Fuller’s reputation as a subversive artist, most specifically through Skip’s brutal, near homicidal, quest, which has a purely personal, not ideological basis. Skip does the right thing but for the wrong reasons, and this is apparently what J. Edgar Hoover took exception to, along with the character’s flip attitude toward patriotism and his absolute indifference to all the Cold War huffing and puffing [1]. But Fuller offended liberals as much as conservatives throughout his career with his take-no-prisoners approach, and to be sure the film does depict the FBI agents in positive if rather bland light. In similar fashion the Joey character and his Red masters are given the obligatory treatment for films of that era: humorless, all business, effete, intellectual, and faintly lavender.

pickup on south street photo 3Pickup has a beautiful monochromatic look, especially the scenes of Jean Peters in white dress slinking around in the moonlight. The script also scores some of the best dialogue this side of Double Indemnity. Additional little touches surprise and beguile: a shady character named Lightning Louie slurps down Chinese food aided by chopsticks which he also uses to lift cash placed on the table; the rickety waterfront dive which serves as Skip’s retreat from the world; Skip’s terse response when he’s asked if he knows the meaning of treason: “who cares?”; the desperate, intense characters at a meeting of Reds and sympathizers, especially a sweaty, very nervous looking Joey, and Candy’s subsequent reaction as she gradually figures out what’s going on.

This is not to say Pickup a perfect film. I’m not thrilled about the jangly main title music, the cop character is a little overdone for my taste, and the ending strikes me as a bit strained. But on balance Pickup on South Street is a wonderfully entertaining, often wise film that gets better with each viewing. I’d call it my current pick as the most under-rated film noir ever.

[1] Pickup won the Bronze Lion at the 1953 Venice Film Festival, selected by a Red-leaning jury. The jury’s president, Luchino Visconti, opposed giving the award to Fuller. Visconti was a committed Leftist and considered the film anti-communist. But the jury overrode Visconti’s wishes because they appreciated the film’s artistic value. Fuller didn’t care about awards, and the whole affair amused him to no end.

Further reading : Edgar Chaput, Pickup on South Street sees Cold War tensions put the ‘heat’ on the criminal underbelly; Dombrowski, Lisa. The Films of Samuel Fuller: If You Die, I’ll Kill You! Wesleyan University Press, 2008; Jon Lanthier, To Slap a Dame: Sexual Violence in the Age of Reason; Review by Robert Cashill, Cineaste, Summer 2004, pp.54-55; Samuel Fuller, “Don’t Wave the Flag at Me,” in program booklet for Pickup on South Street (DVD), Criterion, 2004.

Pickup_on_South_Street- (Belgian poster)

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A glimpse of ‘Paradise’

Cover (complete) Front Oct 28 JPGAfter numerous revisions, seemingly endless proofings and the usual other trials, stops and starts in a book’s evolution, the final version of the latest Kay Francis mystery is now a reality. It’s the third novel which features the 1930s movie star sleuth but actually the first one that’s set in Golden Age Hollywood.

So, drum roll please . . . . PERIL IN PARADISE is now available via Amazon in print or Kindle. In addition, signed, reduced rate copies can be ordered directly from me by emailing: bcstoneb444@gmail.com.

A sneak preview, including chapters 1 and 2 and vintage photographs, can be found here.

 

There’s something about a print copy

IMG_0524

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“Spies are notoriously poor businessmen … ”

5 fingers (poster)5 fingers. Twentieth Century Fox; produced by Otto Lang ; directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz; screenplay by Michael Wilson, L.C. Moyzisch. Originally released in 1952 as a motion picture. Performers: James Mason, Danielle Darrieux, Michael Rennie. Music by Bernard Herrmann. Summary: In Turkey during WW2, the valet of the British ambassador offers the German ambassador priceless documents about the Allies for huge fees. But the British soon suspect the leaks and dispatch an investigator to learn the spy’s identity. Based on the memoirs of a German agent.

style ***1/2
substance ****

5 Fingers is arguably the most intelligent spy movie ever, dealing as it does with the principals’ interior motivations and passions, and focusing on spycraft mechanics instead of the sensationalist elements we’re all too familiar with in spy films nowadays. All the more remarkable is that 5 Fingers is (more or less) a true story. Certain details are fudged, e.g. the Countess character was a fabrication, but in the main the story sticks pretty close to the historical facts.

Jaames mason photoFingers is also something of a comedy of manners which sends up British class consciousness and old boy attitudes. There’s also the twistiest ending this side of Agatha Christie. So much of the success is due to screenwriter Michael Wilson’s and director Joseph Mankiewicz’s brittle, spot-on script which wears well over time. Supposedly the screenplay was so pungent it contributed to writer Wilson’s getting blacklisted for a decade.

Also noteworthy is the remarkable even-handedness in the portrayal of the Germans, who are depicted almost more sympathetically than their equally clueless British counterparts. In any case neither side could quite keep up with all the goings on and myriad double dealings. Mason’s unlikely spy is always one step ahead of both sides, but could he himself keep up with … but I can’t ruin it for you.

Great little touches abound. To wit: Edith Piaf tunes waft in the background while Mason conspires with partner and romantic interest Danielle Darrieux. 5 Fingers also benefits from a near perfect cast. Über-British and dry as always, Mason is wonderful but costar Darrieux is just as good and her character matches Mason’s, deceit for deceit, double-cross for double-cross. The superb casting extends to the supporting cast and bit players, especially the bad guys: Oskar Karlweis, Herbert Berghof, John Wengraf. The svelte Hannelore Axman, best known for her sinister turn in The Red Menace, here has a fetching cameo as Von Papen’s secretary.

James Mason & Danielle Darrieux

My only minor quibble with this DVD is that there are no special features. This kind of story would seem ready made for the customary behind-the-scenes or documentary bonus. Filmed partially on location in Istanbul and Ankara, Turkey. Later made into a short-lived TV series.

Further reading: L.C. Moyzisch, Operation Cicero, Coward-McCann, 1950; Elyesa Bazna, I Was Cicero, Harper & Row, 1962; Richard Wires, The Cicero Spy Affair, Praeger, 1999.

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Propaganda of the deed : The Baader Meinhof complex (2008)

baader poster 2The Baader Meinhof complex [videorecording (DVD)]. 2 discs. Presented by Constantin Film and Bernd Eichinger; directed by Uli Edel; written and produced by Bernd Eichinger; co-writer, Uli Edel; director of photography, Rainer Klausmann; executive producer, Martin Moszkowicz; a production of Constantin Film in co-production with Nouvelles Éditions de Films and G.T. Film Production and NDR … [et al.]. Based on the book by Stefan Aust.
Performers: Martina Gedeck, Moritz Bleibtreu, Johanna Wokalek, Nadja Uhl, Stipe Erceg, Niels Bruno Schmidt, Vinzenz Kiefer, Simon Licht, Alexandra Maria Lara, Daniel Lommatzsch, Sebastian Blomberg, Heino Ferch, Jan Josef Liefers, Hannah Herzsprung, Tom Schilling, Bruno Ganz.
Summary: Germany 1967. Murderous bomb attacks, the threat of terrorism, and the fear of the enemy inside are rocking the very foundations of the still-fragile German democracy. The radicalized children of the Nazi generation, led by Andreas Baader, Ulrike Meinhof, and Gudrun Ensslin, are fighting a violent war against what they perceive as the new face of fascism.

style ****
substance ****


If you throw one stone it’s a crime. If you throw a thousand stones, that’s a political action.
- Ulrike Meinhof

I’m ashamed to admit that prior to watching this film I didn’t know much about the Rote Armee Fraktion (RAF), aka the Baader Meinhof group, a terrorist faction active in Germany in the 1960s and 1970s. I’d only heard about it vaguely and seen a few snippets of present film.

baader photo 2Though relatively little known in the U.S., the activities of the RAF are still a subject of great interest and fascination, if not quite nostalgia, in Germany. Revolution was in the air in 1967-68, and Baader Meinhof’s principal targets were American militarist expansionism and interventionism, especially in the Middle East and Southeast Asia; the creeping authoritarianism in their own country; and the excesses of capitalist greed everywhere. The RAF’s rampage peaked in the 1970s, when their swath of terror included bombings, murder, kidnapping and hijacking.

Those of us of certain years are old enough to remember similar movements, protests and riots of the late 60s and early 70s in this country, and Baader Meinhof Complex does a nice job of capturing the flavor of the times both from the standpoint of the passionate revolutionaries and the beleaguered forces of established order. It’s to the filmmakers’ credit that the story walks such a fine line of not taking sides, presenting events objectively and portraying each side in a neutral, faintly sympathetic light.

baader photo 3
BMC
is a brilliantly edited and well-paced piece of work, albeit with a few slow patches. The film is done in a semi-documentary style in the manner of much better known movies like Day of the Jackal, though in this case the message is presented in far more visceral fashion. To wit, amongst the best scenes is one of the earliest: a virtuoso recreation of the demonstration against the Shah of Iran’s visit, the subsequent riot, and, most important, the excessive police response.

Kudos to the relentlessly edgy performances by the principals who play the historical figures, and who incidentally bear uncanny resemblances to the originals. The male leads all do a fine job, but even with the presence of such a heavyweight as the great Bruno Ganz, it’s the women who walk away with top acting honors. The always compelling Martina Gedeck gives another finely nuanced performance, here as journalist turned revolutionary Ulricke Meinhof. Likewise for Nadja Uhl as Brigitte Mannhaupt, the leader of the RAF’s ‘second generation.’ But the real standout is the steely faced, unbending Johanna Wokalek as Baader’s girlfriend and the group’s motivator-on-chief, Gudrun Ensslin.

baader_meinhof_complex image 1

Regardless of one’s ideological bent, BMC will inspire an emotional roller coaster of anger, bewilderment, and, for some viewers, grudging admiration. More than just a formidable technical accomplishment, this is one terrific movie that ranks right up there with the best political films ever, in spite of, or just maybe because, it plays it down the middle. My only complaint is that at an intense 144 minutes it goes on a bit too long.

Further reading: Christopher Hitchens, Once Upon a Time in Germany, Vanity Fair, August 17, 2009; J. Smith, Andre Moncourt, The Red Army Faction: A Documentary History, Vol.1: Projectiles for the People, PM Press, 2009.

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Vampire chic: Dracula’s Daughter (1936)

Dracula's Daughter (poster)Dracula’s Daughter. Universal Pictures. Originally released as a motion picture in 1936. Directed by Lambert Hillyer. Director of photography: George Robinson. Performers: Gloria Holden, Otto Kruger, Nan Gray, Margueritte Churchill, Edward Van Sloan. Summary: A hypnotic woman steals the body of Count Dracula and bloodless corpses start appearing in London again.

style ***1/2
substance ***1/2

I’m a little early for the party as Halloween is a couple of months away. However, I’ve been on a bit of a vampire movies kick lately, one of the results being postings here and here. But I also felt inspired to pen some thoughts on my favorite vampire film from the classic era, Dracula’s Daughter.

Daughter is a kind of sequel to the Bela Lugosi 1931 original, and just about everything in it hits the mark, especially the shadowy look. But for me the highlight is Gloria Holden in the title role. She’s maybe the most stylish female vampire in cinema history. What a wardrobe! Louise Brymer’s gowns really outdo themselves and Miss Holden seems to be wearing something more spectacular in every scene. It all looms just right on her scrumptious, statuesque frame.

BTW did anyone ever notice that: all movie vampires are rich, good looking, dress stylishly, speak with smoothly mellifluous accents, and have a thing for classical music?

I simply have nothing to wear!

I simply have nothing to wear!

That uncertain feeling

Of course much has been made of the two lesbian scenes in Daughter and the title character’s preference for female victims. Daughter was also the first vampire film which portrayed the undead in, relatively speaking, more sympathetic terms while managing to sneak in a good bit of sensuality and psychoanalysis. Our heroine seeks release from her vampiric urges, which she refers to as an obsession, and it’s tempting to view said urges as a metaphor for her ‘unnatural’ desires which are the true source of her angst. Thus the title character in Daughter is both cinema’s first lesbian vampire as well as and the first neurotic vampire. Similarly, Dracula’s Daughter can also been seen as the first vampire film which more or less equates vampirism with drug addiction.

Gloria Holden and Nan Grey

Commentators have focused on the notorious scene in which the Countess seduces the young model. However, an arguably more overt context occurs later in the film at Castle Dracula, where the sinister Countess has whisked away Dr. Garth’s Gal Friday Janet. In this brilliantly edited sequence, the Countess longingly and gradually bends over the helpless girl, coming ever closer as she’s about to put the (vampiric or otherwise) moves on her. However – the good doctor may get there just in the nick of time to intervene.

gloria holden marguerite churchill

Dracula’s Daughter is a most stylish entry in Universal’s formidable canon of monster movies from the 1930s and can be highly recommended, largely for its elegant sense of atmosphere and Miss Holden’s hauntingly haunted performance.

Further reading: Paige A. Willson, et al., “Alienation, Essentialism and Existentialism Through Technique: An Analysis of  Set Design, Lighting, Costume and Music in Dracula’s Daughter and Nadja.” In: Douglas Brode, Leah Deynaka, Dracula’s Daughter’s: The Female Vampire on Film, Scarecrow, 2013, pp. 45-67; Liz Kingsley, Dracula’s Daughter (review).

Gloria Holden and Bela Lugosi on the set of Dracula's Daughter.

Gloria Holden and Bela Lugosi on the set of Dracula’s Daughter.

 

gloria holden photo (eyes)

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Was Agatha Christie a closet liberal?

About a year ago I penned a piece suggesting Agatha Christie was a misanthrope. Some commentators have also noticed a xenophobic and (maybe) racist bent in her work. If indeed she was a liberal in her political views, Agatha wouldn’t have been so out of step with any number of British writers and intellectuals in the 20s and 30s of a more progressive ilk: Shaw, Orwell, Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury Circle, to cite just a few examples.

In any event the conventional wisdom suggests that, as a product of the British upper middle class, Agatha was a conservative, which is a not illogical conclusion. It’s true that at least superficially her stories abound in references to conservative British elitism. Moreover, the very cozy formula itself is status-quo biased and thus slanted toward the upper classes: the rarified, benevolent world is insulted by a terrible crime, and the job of the brilliant sleuth is to bring about justice and restore order to the world. This contrasts with the classic American detective story, which has a proletarian, leftist bent.

Fellow traveler?

Fellow traveler?

But I suspect the reality is something more subtle and complex. The murderer in an Agatha Christie mystery is usually of the upper crust, and the well-tended characters who dominate the novels are not very likable. They have this snooty sense of entitlement and superiority, and are oh, so British. It’s tempting to read into the writing a subtle criticism of such excesses and insensitivities. In contrast, the foreigners, Poirot, for example, and the lower classes – police, domestics – are often treated in an affectionate manner. There may or may not be a political message in all this but it’s interesting to observe.

This wonderful ambivalence is perhaps best represented in the character of James Ferguson in Death on the Nile. Ferguson is an uncompromising radical who turned communist during his days at Oxford. But in reality he’s a titled lord (Lord Dawlish), and Poirot correctly describes him as rolling in wealth. But in best Ahatha-esque fashion, the issue is not back and white as Ferguson himself is a rather unpleasant fellow despite his modish, noble leanings.

An initial Google search on Agatha’s political sympathies was predictably inconclusive. The same for more scholarly sources, including the standard biographies. It seems whatever the great lady’s political views, she kept them to herself. Only appropriately so, the clues must be found in her novels and short stories. And like many great works of fiction they can be interpreted in various and mysterious ways.

Short version: we don’t really know if Agatha Christie was a liberal or a conservative. And, one might argue, it doesn’t matter.

Further reading : A.S. Knepper, “Agatha Christie – Feminist,” Armchair Detective, v16 n4, Winter, 1983, pp. 398-406; José Rodrigues dos Santos, Can Agatha Christie be Political?

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Melodies and melancholy : Homoresque (1946)

Humoresque main titleHumoresque. Warner Bros.-First National. Produced by Jerry Wald; screenplay by Clifford Odets and Zachary Gold; directed by Jean Negulesco. Based on a story by Fannie Hurst. Originally released as a motion picture in 1946. With: Joan Crawford, John Garfield, Oscar Levant, J. Carrol Naish, Joan Chandler. Summary: a glamorous socialite takes an interest in an aspiring violinist.

style ****
substance ****

“Bad manners, Mr. Boray … the infallible sign of talent.”
 – Helen Wright (Joan Crawford)

We’ve had plenty of movies about classical music and musicians, and even more movies with a classical score as a backdrop. They range from good to not so good to awful, but for me the ne plus ultra has to be Humoresque, largely because it firmly places the music front and center. Indeed if the leads weren’t so compelling and the film’s look not so magical I’d be tempted to say music is the real star here. One of the great things about Humoresque is that it’s a kind of equal opportunity movie, insofar as what music is presented. There’s something for every taste: Chopin, Wagner, von Suppé, Malagueña, Tchaikovsky, Carmen, Gershwin, Cole Porter, and much more.

“I don’t like to play the piano. It makes me too attractive.”

“I don’t like to play the piano. It makes me too attractive.”

Humoresque also scores with its still resonant, subtly leftist message about the business, and social, aspects of classical music and, somewhat related, class divide, which are all handled in a more or less realistic way. For all the high tech razzle-dazzle at our command today in the production and transmission of music – both serious and otherwise – the facts of life for a classical musician haven’t changed all that much in the seven decades that have passed since Humoresque first appeared. Oscar Levant’s truisms which he spouts in the course of the film remain very much to the point.

But whatever its political or philosophical underpinnings, Humoreque is at heart a quintessentially Forties-style melodrama, an offbeat love story, if you will, executed with the ultimate in polish and atmosphere. Much deserving kudos to director Jean Negulesco and cinematographer Ernest Haller. Also to Clifford Odets and Zachary Gold for their spot-on, still fresh script.

John Garfield delivers an energetic, typically intense performance as the willful, talented violin virtuoso with more than a touch of the self-destructive. Alas he tends to be upstaged in every scene he’s in with nominal supporting star Oscar Levant. Fortyish and in his peak years, Levant is simply terrific, delivering his wisdomly pearls with customary effortless panache. He pretty much steals every scene he’s in. Levant was of course also a world class pianist and he’s given plenty of chances to show his stuff. Too bad his neuroses and chemical dependencies resulted in an abbreviated, artistically unfulfilled career.

joan crawford 2


‘It’s a woman’s privilege to be vague’

Then there’s Joan Crawford in arguably her finest hour. The character she plays is socialite and purveyor of la vie boheme Helen Wright, truly the dream Joan Crawford role: Helen is nearsighted (love those glasses!), dominating, bored, a compulsive smoker, chronically unhappy, and very alcoholic. She has a predilection for surrounding herself with rather fey looking male admirers. She’s also quick with the witticism. It’s no surprise that she takes an immediate interest in the John Garfield character. She makes her entrance in Humoresque thirty minutes on, and it’s only then that the film’s emotional juice really kicks in.

joan crawford beach sceneJoan never looked, or acted, better, those thick pouting lips and large eyes so compelling, the face and the voice of a thousand nuances and shadows. Did the camera ever love an actress so much, before or since? And those fabulous Adrian gowns – padded shoulders were never so sexy. Only Joan could get away with wearing black sequin evening dress and high heels while walking on the beach in the moonlight. Speaking of the beach scene, Humoresque is worth watching if only for its haunting, brilliantly edited, deliriously over-the-top finale.

In sum, an almost perfect movie, and still the gold standard for a story which integrates a serious musician’s personal and professional life. It also serves as a reminder of how good an actress Joan Crawford really was. If one could cite a weakness it’s that, at a leisurely two hours and five minutes the film goes on a bit too long. Another minus, of a sort: judged by today’s standards, a curious bit of un-pc is that never is it suggested that Helen’s life would improve if she gave up drinking.

Further reading: Humoresque and the Apotheosis of Joan Crawford.

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