Thursday, June 14, 2007

Adventures with the Night People: Film Noir (et Blanc)

In 1955, Jean Shepherd began broadcasting on WOR in NYC. But--before the unmatched gift of A Christmas Story in 1983--I knew him best from NJ public TV--Shepherd's Pie in the late '70s--and of course his many published stories of Golden Memories and Havens 'o Bliss. And noodling around for information on John Cassavetes' directorial debut, Shadows (1959), I discovered that Shepherd had Cassavetes on his WOR show, and, according to the Internet Movie Database, "loaned his assistant Ellen Paulos to Cassavetes to help with [Shadows]." (One of the opening credits of the film reads, "Presented by Jean Shepherd's Night People"--which is what he called his listeners). I was simply thinking of jazzy, noir-ish films of the late '50s-early '60s when I came across this--not trivia by any means, but evidence of the Great Integument that, if examined closely enough, reveals itself spread out everywhere,* holding us all together with surprisingly fewer degrees of separation than we could imagine in our most Baconian dreams.

Still--albeit soothed as my hand lies along the unbroken expanse of said Integument--I digress.

Sort of. Because in the late 1950s and early '60s, all kinds of Night People stood up in the movies and called out, allowed at last to begin to draw attention to their after-midnight struggles toward dawn. I watched Man in the Middle (1963) and Odds Against Tomorrow (1959) in my usual haphazard manner, simply wanting to see Robert Mitchum and a heist movie, once more noodling--and once more pleasing myself with a sudden melody, as these two came together in their focus on race--more specifically, the hell to pay for racism. Shadows stands in their midst, so to speak, a work-in-progress that snaps like jive gone stone cold, a strange hybrid viewpoint: race from both inside and out, as Cassavetes' jazz sensibilities improvise with his Black actors to take a stab at some after-hours truth. It may not quite get there--and neither do Man in the Middle and Odds Against Tomorrow--but, again, I'd like you to hear this accidental chord I managed, Humble as usual, but for once along a kind of groove.

Man in the Middle--set in 1944 in India, where relations between British and American forces were, it seems, strained--plays a little like A Few Good Men (1992); except Mitchum's Barney Adams, the court-martial defense attorney, is, at least at the film's start, more of an insider than Tom Cruise's Daniel Kaffee, more ready to play ball and help convict his client, who had shot in cold blood a British soldier. But as Adams prepares his boilerplate defense, he begins to realize that Keenan Wynn's Charles Winton is a genuine psychotic--and that everyone knows it, but is still eager to have him executed to prove the Americans don't play favorites, that the British can trust them. Things stink; the film keeps reminding us of the heat, the remoteness of the locale, the ease with which expert testimony and the simpler mechanisms of justice can be shipped out or intentionally fouled up. And like a true hardboiled hero, Adams puts his career on the line to give his man a fair trial.

But something else is going on here. Winton is indeed insane, but the expressing symptom of his illness is simple, goggle-eyed racism. Winton's delusion is painted in white and black--and black scares the hell out of him. He sneers, he coils, he rages, and the trigger is a black face, a whiff of miscegenation--interesting, because Winton's only ally is Kate Davray (France Nuyen), a Chinese-French nurse--and she is also Mitchum's love interest. Why? At first, it seems just because. But maybe not. His attraction underlines his increasing hostility toward the powers-that-be and his growing unconcern for What People Think. Still, his relationship with her is typical for Mitchum: offhand muttering followed by no-escape clinches. In the end, a bit odd, although Nurse Davray emerges as the most determined truth-teller, as she too risks her position to track down the transferred/exiled psychiatrist who knows how crazy the defendant is. But again, the movie gives its audience no other choice but to agree that racism is simply paranoid delusional psychosis. There is no evidence to the contrary.

Less self-consciously Hollywood-ish, (at least, seemingly more seat-of-the-pants), is Robert Wise's masterful Odds Against Tomorrow, a heist film perched at the tail-end of noir--and the midpoint of the first great surge of the Civil Rights movement. Its cast is pitch-perfect: Ed Begley as the Old Man with a Plan, all but washed-up and literally gnashing those famous choppers over the chance for One Last Score; Harry Belafonte as his vibes-playing right-hand-man, a boiling-cool sharpie completely immersed in a New York world of sweetly sad gray dawns and smoky nightclubs, his dapper car coat cut as cool as John Lewis' score; and Robert Ryan as the muscle, a good-ol'-boy whose tough-guy matter-of-factness is matched only by his little-boy insecurity. And just when that seemed like enough, we get Shelley Winters as Ryan's devoted wife--as always half-wheedling, half-scolding, and near-dangerous, like her pal Marilyn; and Gloria Grahame as the lonely neighbor whose bathrobe could use a tighter cinch, her lower lip out, her eyes down, once more in a lonely place. Just watching them makes one claustrophobic, they fill up the spaces so much.

Blacklisted Abraham Polonsky's screenplay gives them plenty of scenery to chew, and at the center of the Plan, the Setback, the Execution, and the Crack-Up is again an illness bred out of paranoia--and here, severe self-esteem issues, if that does not sound too distractingly Oprah-tic (sorry). Ryan's Earle Slater is a racist; it's his only defense against self-doubt and despair. (There's a crying scene with Shelley Winters (Earle doing the crying) in their hotel room--in only the second windy hotel I know of, the other the Earle(!) in Barton Fink--that is about as unsettling as anything that man-mountain has done on screen.) [Spoiler Alert: Skip next sentence if you're going to Netflix this one.] And of course, Earle's mistrust of Belafonte's Johnny Ingram bollixes up the deal, and leads to Begley's agonizing death in the alley, shot full of holes slammed in one by one by faceless cops, mere instruments of Slater's hysteria.

It was illuminating to run into these two at the same time, my desire for one thing leading to another. I'm not sure how successful these movies are as direct confrontations with racism, but they serve as allegories of a sort, in which the racial divide leads to madness and death. Within a few years, plenty of people--not just in Selma, but watching Selma at home, with Cronkite trying to analyze the symptoms--will get a good look at the snake pit's grinning inmates, dressed up like sheriffs and cops, mayors and governors--and just plain folks--their compulsions captured in grainy network black and white, ironic, accidental noirs with code heroes square-shouldered and waiting where the sidewalk ends for the gunman's decision.

*Case in point: Preparing for this piece, I found out Bob Clark died in April. In his memory, and despite everything I said back on October 12, 2005, I really was happy about the possibility of a remake of Children Shouldn't Play with Dead Things (1972). Good-bye, Bob.

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