Noir 2: This Time It’s Noirer

Watching I Wake Up Screaming got me in the mood to look for other noir films I missed during the time I was researching The Vengeance Season.  It didn’t take long to come up with two that I’d never seen: Kiss of Death and Nightmare Alley.

What is it with the titles of these movies?  No one woke up screaming in I Wake Up Screaming.  No one was kissed to death in Kiss of Death.  And nothing happened in an alley in Nightmare Alley.  It’s a carnie movie, for God’s sake.  There are no alleys, just sawdust and animal crap.

I’m beginning to think – and stay with me here as I go out on a limb — that they just picked titles at random to get people to come see the movie.  This was back before Hollywood turned super honest and straight up noble, so it’s entirely possible.

What can I say about Kiss of Death?  Well, the first thing I can say is that I didn’t finish watching it even though I was keen to compare it to the 1995 remake with Nicolas Cage and that ginger guy from that cop show who can’t speak until he dramatically removes his sunglasses. Oddly enough, that version was also unwatchable, but mostly because it sucked.

The reason I haven’t finished watching the 1947 version isn’t because it was bad but because Richard Widmark is in it and he portrays a character so vile it was simply too disturbing to listen to him talk.  And he talks all the time.  Remember Larry Drake playing the title character in Dr. Giggles?  Widmark’s character is equally creepy-cum-annoying.  I’ll get back to it eventually.  Not because I want to, but because I’m a completist.

And it’s really disconcerting to remember that Widmark went on to become a leading man later on in his career.  You’ll never watch Judgment at Nuremberg the same way again after seeing him in this movie.

On the other end of the spectrum, Nightmare Alley is excellent and bizarre.  This must be the only time other than Todd Browning’s Freaks that the sideshow geek was dealt with in any direct way.  The script even makes note of the fact that this bizarre act had been made illegal long before this movie was made.

But that’s not what is so mind-alteringly weird about this movie.  It’s Tyrone Power’s character arc.  This matinee idol goes from carnie roustabout to high society headliner to geek over the course of 110 minutes.  It’s a truly distressing thing to behold — he even looks like a man strung out on “booze” (I’m pretty sure booze is standing in for heroine here.  No alcoholic talks about limiting themselves to a one shot a day.) — and even more so because, unlike the heels in most noirs, he’s not actively evil.

Like most of us, the Great Stan is just to easily able to convince himself that his selfish actions are for the benefit of others.  If it weren’t for Coleen Gray, he would have no conscience at all.

Oh, and Coleen Gray, one of the most beautiful — in the modern sense of that word, she doesn’t even look like an actress from that era — actresses from that day is in both of these movies.  Damn, I just looked her up on IMDB and discovered she’s in The Killing, Red River, and Kansas City Confidential as well.  She had quite the noir run going there for awhile.

I hear people — okay, older people — complain that they don’t make movies like this anymore but I think they really do.  Kiss of Death was remade, as I mentioned above.  Out of the Past, a classic, was remade as Against All Odds.  Not a bad movie but nowhere near as strong as the original.  The Killers was remade in 1964.  It was good but nowhere as good as the… oh, here I am talking about “the original” again like it’s something untouchable that belongs in a reliquary.

So if you want a movie that was made like they used to make them, I would say Body Heat is your winner.  It’s not a remake but it satisfies on every note of the Noir scale and it has a truly mind altering twist.

BUT THAT’S NOT THE POINT!

We aren’t supposed to make them like we used to. Movies aren’t cars.  Wait, that’s not even a good analogy.  Movies aren’t bridges.  Here’s a paraphrase from Patton Oswalt: For any creative endeavor to survive, it must change and grow.

That’s the answer, by the way, to the argument that Michael Bay is a great director because his movies make a lot of money.  Making money is only a valid argument if you’re debating a banker.  And the heck with those guys.

We shouldn’t make movies like we used to because film is an artform and it must change in order to thrive.  White Heat becomes Bonnie & Clyde becomes The Godfather becomes Scarface becomes The Way of the Gun becomes Snatch and so on.

If you went back to 1949 and showed Snatch to Jimmy Cagney’s audience, well… no one would have stayed past the first act.  Movies reflect the times in which they are created.  That’s why there’s no point in remaking a movie like Nightmare Alley (which wasn’t even a box office success in its own time).  Our time is better spent looking for new reflections in our own golden eye rather trying to reach back to past successes.

Okay, I’ll be honest.  This whole post was about how pissed I am that Michael Bay tried to reboot the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles franchise.  That property is very near and dear to me and I hope he gets an unusually aggressive form of testicular cancer.

Peace!

Here We Go Again…

One of the problems with reading about the addictions of your heroes is that you stand a very good chance of getting infected yourself.  For instance, you might read a memoir by a guy who got a little too obsessed with consuming movies and come away with a whole list of movies you feel compelled to see.

My psychic burden from reading Silver Screen Fiend doesn’t appear to be too bad, at least at the outset, I don’t think.  I’m reading Clark Ashton Smith, one of those authors I knew in my gut I should read but assumed would be dripping with that 19th century purple prose I find so taxing.  That’s not too far off the mark, his prose is far more dense than what we think of as the modern style, but it’s actually kind of beautiful.

The first story was so lyrical — I’m listening to the audio book — that I thought it was a poem placed in the forward for purely thematic purposes.

I have to be honest about something here before we go any further.  I’ve always been a big fan of H. P. Lovecraft — in theory.  I love his stories and his ideas, but his writing has always been a little too wooden for my taste.  That’s what I was expecting from Smith.

That’s not what I got.  Instead, I find myself jotting down phrases and similes that are startling in their clarity.

Note: I do this because I live in constant terror I’m going to subconsciously plagiarise something I’ve read.  So whenever I come up with a really good line, I check my notes to make sure I didn’t rip it off.

I also jot them down because I want to be able to enjoy them on their own merit.  Here’s one I took note of from Oswalt’s book: He was someone who left a noxious fragment behind that led others to evil.   That’s something that would fit perfectly into the novel I’m working on so having it on hand both urges me to do better, to reach a little further, and keeps me honest.

IP theft is not a joke.  It’s poison to your career and it kills your legacy.  Let’s face it, no one not currently trying to roofie a coed wants to be Dane Cook.  And speaking of Dane Cook it’s probably time I explained what all the hubbub is about with that guy.  Or maybe not.  This post is going to be long even without a proper excoriation of the alleged joke thief.  So let’s just push it to another day.

And now back to our regularly scheduled program…

The other tenebrous hook Oswalt’s book sunk into my pasty, willing flesh was a movie called I Wake Up Screaming.  The title hints at something Karloff might have done during his heyday, one of the overlooked gems like The Devil Commands — which I just obsessively added to my Netflix queue and pushed to the top because now that I’ve thought of it, I have to see it again — but it’s actually a film noir starring Victor Mature who turns out to be a much better actor than I remember.

The problem: I went through a film noir addiction ten years ago when I settled down to write The Vengeance Season.  The idea was that if I was going to get into that mindspace, I would need to truly submerge myself in the era and the zeitgeist and film noir seemed like the best sensory deprivation tank for the job.

I got around to seeing all the classics — The Killers, Criss Cross, Out of the Past (who knew that the 1984 movie I loved so much at the time, Against All Odds, was a remake of this classic noir that was even better?  Not me until I finally saw it), Touch of Evil (which I don’t think really counts as a Noir), Night and the City, The Maltese Falcon, Double Indemnity… okay, so the list is too long to enumerate here so let’s just take it as read that I watched all of them multiple times with and without the commentary track.

Except for I Wake Up Screaming which is one of the best. In and of itself, it’s a strange thing, but however off kilter it feels, it works just the same.  It’s like two movie productions got together to make two different movies, one a romantic comedy with Betty Grable and the other a gritty murder mystery with Victor Mature.  You wouldn’t think the result would be anything more than an odd mishmash but it actually comes out as a super hybrid that succeeds on both sides.

Plus, Laird Cregar.  If you don’t know that name, go watch this movie now and then listen to the commentary.  Nuff said.

But the existence of I Wake Up Screaming raises a terrible, almost unbearable question for an obsessive completist: If this one is out there and I didn’t know about it, what others have I missed?

So now I’m quietly filling up my Netflix queue with titles off of Best Noir lists even though I have given up crime writing and no longer have a reason to see these movies.  Except that they’re, you know, great.

Oh, look, here’s one with Bogart.  In A Lonely Place.  I’ll give that one a try.  It sounds fun.

See you guys in… a… while, I guess?  I’m going to be kind of busy for the foreseeable future.

Here’s another one with Bogart: They Drive By Night.  Into the queue it goes.

How long could it possibly take to see every movie in the film noir category and jot down every quotable line in the script?  Cool, here’s one from I Wake Up Screaming: I’ll follow you into your grave. I’ll write my name on your tombstone.

Has a nice ring to it, doesn’t it?