Tuesday, September 16, 2014

You Only Live Once: Outlaws on the Road

What is it about Fritz Lang’s films that makes them so idiosyncratic? His masterpiece, “M,” (1931) has an unmistakable look and vitality that you seldom see in films of that or any other era. In “You Only Live Once,” (1937) he translates his German Expressionist instincts to the most American of all film genres, the gangster film, and creates a powerful statement about justice and loyalty. Few American films of that era delved into the murky waters of criminals and the deeds they do with such assuredness.
In “You Only Live Once,” Eddie Taylor (Henry Fonda), a three-time loser, gets released from prison.  He promptly marries his sweetheart, Joan Graham (Sylvia Sidney) and is set up in a job with a trucking company courtesy of the correctional system.
But Eddie’s path to redemption quickly turns rocky.
His rooming house landlord has seen him in a true crime magazine, and landlady, Margaret Hamilton, future Wicked Witch of the West, insists that he be evicted.
Convicts and their wives are not welcome at this tawdry establishment.
They find a new place – a shabby house to buy. But Eddie get’s fired by his nasty boss at the trucking firm.

Joan moves into the house, and Eddie feels he has to keep up a charade that he’s still gainfully employed. That mean he has to make the down payment on the house by the end of the week.
We see that Eddie has ideas of his own about how he will make the down payment when he pulls back some bedding to reveal that there’s a gun under his pillow.
Last Ditch Effort
Eddie makes an appeal to his boss, but he won’t rehire him or give him a recommendation. Eddie loses his temper and slugs him.
We cut to a cleverly shot scene of a heist. An armored car is held up beneath a strong downpour. It’s all beautifully shot in stunning black and white. We see only Eddie Taylor’s hatband, with the initials “ET” emblazoned on it that appears to identify him as the culprit although we don’t see the perpetrator’s face throughout the scene.
Eddie goes to his new home, but “The bottom’s dropped out of everything.”
He tells Joan his hat was stolen in Tony’s Beanery – it’s the only clue left at the robbery scene – and he is being framed. Joan wants him to turn himself in, but the police find him before he can.
In a clever scene that takes place in a newspaper office, we learn that Eddie has been found guilty, and is electric chair bound.
The authorities have no sympathy. “Eddie Taylor has been pounding on the door of that execution chamber since he was born,” says one.
On death row, he tells Joan to bring him a gun when they have their last visit.
But a priest who accompanies her is wise to the charade and gets her to give him the gun after she sets off the metal detector.
The shadows reinforce Eddie's desperate situation.
One of the truly great German Expressionist images in this film is that of the shadows cast by the bars in Taylor’s cell. They are severe and blunt, and could never be cast in real life by the lighting we see in the frame. But they visually reinforce the fact that Eddie is inescapably trapped in his cell.
A kitchen-worker inmate passes Eddie a note that there’s a gun stashed in the mattress in the isolation ward.
Escape Impossible
Eddie tears apart a tin cup, cuts his wrist and goes wild so they’ll put him in isolation.
He uses the gun to escape, and takes a doctor as hostage.
The warden sends out the order, shoot to kill, but save the doctor hostage if possible. The scene cuts to a news ticker tape – the armored car Eddie supposedly robbed has been recovered and evidence shows he is not the guilty party. A pardon for Eddie has been issued – probably the quickest delivery of justice in American history. The real killer is Eddie’s former cellmate, Monk.
Taylor is still trying to break out of jail, and when they tell him he’s a free man he thinks it’s a ploy to capture him. Father Dolan, the priest who clipped Joan’s gun smuggling activities, intervenes. But Taylor no longer believes in anything or anyone.
It’s appropriately foggy outside in the prison yard, and prison officials are afraid to let Eddie escape with gun even though he’s been pardoned. He’ll kill the first person he meets, prison officials say.
As he’s making his escape, Eddie kills Father Dolan.
The Fugitives
Joan follows Eddie to a rail yard where he’s holed up in a boxcar.
Eddie is wounded, but they go on the run together – as known fugitives they are blamed for every stick-up in the area.
Joan's sister wants to send her to live in Havana, but she hits the road with Eddie instead.
It's not long before the law bears down on them. When they are motoring down a seemingly calm country road a highway patrol officer sprays their car with machine gun fire. Both are wounded
Troopers pursue them on foot, and they’re almost at the Mexican boarder, where they can escape and start a new life. But it’s not to be.
Eddie carries Joan, just yards from the border, and she expires in his arms. We see the pair lined up in a trooper’s telescopic sites. A blast of gunfire ends their quest for freedom.
End of the Game

We hear Father Dolan’s voice say, “You’re free, Eddie, the gates are open!” referring to the gates of Heaven, rather than any earthly passageway to freedom. It’s one of the corniest endings to a solid film that I’ve seen in a while.
You have to wonder if the studio forced the cloying ending on director Lang. I'd like to think he would never have chosen to close his film that way.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

James Ellroy to Discuss New Novel, 'Perfidia'

Celebrated L.A. crime novelist James Ellroy will be talking about his new book, "Perfidia," at the main branch of the L.A. Public Library on Tuesday, Sept. 9. Wait list tickets are all that are left, and admission is free. He'll be signing "Perfidia," but only copies you buy from the library -- proceeds help support its cultural programs. The event takes place at the Los Angeles Central Library's Mark Taper Auditorium, 630 W. Fifth Street. Wait list admissions will be handed out starting at 7 p.m. Get there early.


Saturday, July 12, 2014


From left, Pat Cameron (Claire Trevor), Ann Martin (Marsha Hunt) and  Joe Sullivan (Dennis O'Keefe) are on the run from the law in 'Raw Deal' (1948).
In film noir, it's unusual for the femme fatale to act as narrator. But in "Raw Deal," the dilemmas of conscience are seen through the eyes of the morally challenged Pat Cameron (Claire Trevor), who only cares about saving her convict boyfriend Joe Sullivan's (Dennis O'Keefe) and her own skin.
When social  worker Ann Martin (Marsha Hunt), a straight arrow if there ever was one, enters the picture, Pat start to feel that do-gooder Ann is crowding her out of the picture.
Joe wants a "breath of fresh air," and skips out of prison, but circumstances bring Joe, Pat and Ann together, and the three go on the lam. It doesn't take long for the smoldering love triangle to catch fire.

Strange Music in my Ears
Pat comments on the action in voiceover, while some other-worldly music warbles in the background. It's almost as though the Amazing Kreskin is interpreting the action.
Director Anthony Mann handles the film's violence artfully. "Raw Deal"'s several fistfights and shootouts happen in dark, shadowy or foggy places, and we don't really see who is getting the better of whom, but that ramps up the tension.
Each of the three main characters faces a moral dilemma or two. When another outlaw appears on the scene and begs for shelter, Joe must decide whether or not to hide the unlucky perp and put himself in jeopardy. Predictably, Pat wants to lock the schnook out of the house they're holed up in, but Joe, against his better judgment let's the "poor slob" come in.

Going Native
Meanwhile, Ann, kidnapped by Joe and Pat, gets a strong case of Stockholm syndrome and goes from good girl to gaga for Joe.
When Pat receives the call that head bad guy Rick Coyle (Raymond Burr) has Ann, and that he's going to do her in if Joe doesn't turn himself in to the gang boss, Pat chooses to sacrifice Ann to an almost certain death at the hands of Rick and his henchmen. She flunks the morality test when she dummies up and doesn't tell Joe, who would certainly make like the Calvary and snatch the imprisoned Ann from the evil Rick.
As the clock ticks and they plan to head for South America, Pat gets a pang of conscience. It's a last minute bit of redemption, and she fesses up and tells Joe that Ann's in trouble and is with Rick.

Joe to the Rescue!
Joe confronts Rick, and holds a gun on him, but Rick outdraws Joe and they wound each other. They struggle and the apartment accidentally catches fire. In one of the film's less convincing process shots, Rick flies out the window and is killed stories below on the sidewalk.
Joe is reunited with Ann, and he apparently saves her, but tumbles down the front stairs and dies in Ann's arms as a befuddled Pat looks  on helplessly. Joe finally got the breath of fresh air he wanted but won't live long enough to savor it. Pat finally sees happiness in Joe's face, but he dies in  the street as Rick's office burns
Pat is the heroine of the story, which explains why we're hearing her voice as narrator rather than Joe's or Ann's. While Ann makes the leap from being a rigid "good" citizen to one who bends her principles for the man she secretly has come to love, Pat is redeemed when she decides to do something that is morally sound, even if it means that there's a good chance that she'll end up sacrificing Joe.

Stream this on Netflix while you can!

Tuesday, June 24, 2014


Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway in 'Chinatown.'
There's something about iconic films that make fans get dizzy. When a movie so inspires a legion of followers to dress up like the film's characters, and perhaps talk like them, when kindred spirits communicate at parties by exchanging sharp, witty lines of dialogue that they know by heart ... well, then you've got yourself a cultural phenomenon there, buddy.
If you're a "Chinatown" fanatic, you'll want to trace the movements of one Jake Gittes, the private eye who unravels the complex yarn of scandal, murder and deception that unfolds in Roman Polanski's 1974 classic film.
The folks at Curbed L.A. can help you do that, with their online Ultimate Chinatown Filming Location Map of Los Angeles. Some of the filming locations aren't exactly in the same location that they're supposed to be in the film. Immaterial.
What's important is that you can walk in the footsteps of "Chinatown" stars Jack Nicholson, Faye Dunaway and John Huston. You'll see such locations as:

Los Angeles City Hall, the scene of a Water Department meeting, where an angry sheepherder crashes the party with his charges.
The Oak Pass reservoir -- actually the Stone Canyon Reservoir, where Hollis Mulwray takes the big sleep.
The Brown Derby, where Nicholson and Dunaway meet to talk turkey.

And the list goes on. So, pack a lunch and gas up the car. It's "Chinatown" -- remember it!

Wednesday, June 4, 2014


TV Movies Network’s film noir lineup this weekend – June 7-8 -- looks good. The listings are all East Coast times starting early Sunday morning in the East, or Saturday evening in L.A. (KCOP-TV).

12:25AM / I Wake Up Screaming (1941) TV-PG
A young promoter is falsely accused of the murder of a beautiful actress he "discovered" while working as a waitress.
Featuring: Betty Grable, Victor Mature

2:10AM / The Burglar (1957) TV-PG
A jewel thief's big heist is upended when his half-sister is kidnapped by a crooked cop who demands the loot in exchange for her safe return.
Featuring: Dan Duryea, Jayne Mansfield

4:10AM / Human Desire (1954) TV-PG
A Korean War vet returns to his job as a railroad engineer and becomes involved in a sordid affair with a co-worker's wife and murder.
Featuring: Glenn Ford, Gloria Grahame, Broderick Crawford, Edgar Buchanan, Kathleen Case

6:10AM / Pickup on South Street (1953) TV-PG
A pickpocket unwittingly lifts a message destined for enemy agents and becomes a target for a Communist spy ring.
Featuring: Richard Widmark, Jean Peters

Wednesday, May 14, 2014


DEA Agents raid Whitey Bulger's South Boston headquarters.
I know ... Whitey Bulger's ties to L.A. are tenuous. His career as boss of the Irish mob in Boston is not the stuff L.A. legends are made of. But, indulge me a bit. He was arrested here, or, in Santa Monica to be more precise, in June 2011, after years of being on the lam.

So, the news is that after some delay, filming of the Scott Cooper directed "Black Mass" is getting under way in Boston. The first shots of Johnny Depp in full Whitey Bulger makeup have been leaked, and the look seems at first glance fairly authentic.

The film is based on Dick Lehr and Gerard O'Neill's book, "Black Mass: Whitey Bulger, the FBI, and a Devil's Deal."

Johnny Depp, center, in Whitey makeup.
In addition to the tome in which the movie is based, Lehr and O'Neill co-authored another book about the life of James "Whitey" Bulger that covered the crime boss's ascent as a career criminal and eventual downfall. Whitey's  prison terms, including one at Alcatraz, are detailed in the book. Also discussed is his participation in an early test of the drug LSD.

Movie folks are reportedly busy mocking up a Triple O's set in Cambridge, Mass., that will be used for shooting exterior scenes. The real Triple O's, a South Boston bar Whitey used as his headquarters, no longer exists.

So, what are the chances that "Black Mass" will hit it out of Fenway Park, so to speak?

Cooper's previous crime writing-directing assignment, last year's "Out of the Furnace" scored a paltry 52 percent fresh on Rotten Tomatoes.
We'd better hope for some of that good Irish luck.

Sunday, May 11, 2014


Orson Welles prepares a crucial scene in "Touch of Evil"
Downtown L.A.'s refurbished Million Dollar Theater recently screened the Orson Welles' classic dark tale of corruption and murder, "Touch of Evil." The film, originally released in 1958, was recut and partly re-dubbed due to studio meddling. The current version in circulation these days is largely restored to the version that Welles intended thanks to a 40-plus page memo Welles sent the producers protesting the changes they made to the film.
Film historians consider "Touch of Evil" as the last film of the classic noir era, which began with "The Maltese Falcon" in 1941.
"Touch of Evil" is set in a Mexican border town, but Venice Beach, with it's Spanish style colonnades, stood in for a jerkwater berg overlooking our neighbor to the south.
Welles co-wrote the script, directed and co-starred along with Charlton Heston, Janet Leigh and Marlene Dietrich. Also, playing supporting roles are Zsa Zsa Gabor and Dennis Weaver.
Below, a video about "Touch of Evil" restoration:

See the photo at top, and note how the crane shot is used in a clip from the film's opening: