Thursday, October 29, 2009

And Now for Something Completely Different (Rex Reed and the New Journalism - 1968)

The New Journalism began in the pages of Esquire magazine in 1963 when Tom Wolfe was stumped as to how to write an article about a recent visit he made to a California custom car show featuring the futuristic fiberglass visions of Ed “Big Daddy” Roth. Wolfe showed his editor his rough notes and it was the editor’s genius to tell the dandy in the white ice cream suit that all the magazine had to do was publish his hyperbolic rough notes. And so “The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby” was born. And along with it the New Journalism.

The New Journalism employed novelistic techniques to tell a story or portray a subject. The scene, as opposed to the fact, became the basic unit of this form. Wolfe followed his initial offering with profiles of moonshiner turned race car driver Junior Johnson, “The Last American Hero is Junior Johnson, Yes!” (adapted into the 1973 movie The Last American Hero starring Jeff Bridges as Johnson and prominently featuring the Jim Croce classic, “I’ve Got a Name”), and Phil Spector, “The First Tycoon of Teen.” The latter includes the famous incident where the high-strung record producer demands to be let off a jetliner about to take off because he’s convinced everybody on board is a loser and the plane is sure to crash. (Conversely, Wolfe would later use the traditional tools of the journalist to sell the reality of his novels, such as The Bonfire of the Vanities.)

In 1966, the trajectory of the New Journalism in Esquire was fixed with the publication of Gay Talese’s “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold,” in which is recorded for posterity that famous confrontation between Old Blue Eyes and science fiction writer Harlan Ellison. In Huntington Hartford’s Show magazine, Gloria Steinen produced “A Bunny’s Tale,” her account of going undercover as a neophyte Bunny at Hugh Hefner’s New York Playboy Club (this article was the basis for a TV movie starring Kirstie Alley as Ms. Steinem). And in the New Yorker, Truman Capote published early chapters of what he would later refer to as his non-fiction novel, In Cold Blood.

It is very odd to think of movie critic and gossip writer Rex Reed in the same pantheon as these gods of New Journalism. But, in reading his Do You Sleep in the Nude?, a 1968 collection of articles originally published in The New York Times, New York Magazine (when it was the Sunday supplement of the eternally mourned Herald Tribune), Cosmopolitan and Esquire, one could make a case that Reed was also trying to change journalism by pushing back the frontiers of what was permissible in the celebrity interview. His method is artful in its simplicity: he simply sits back, observes his subjects and allows them to reveal themselves to him.

Reed was no mere handmaiden of the celebrity flack. Like Sidney Falco with J.J. Hunsecker, he was more than happy to bite the hand that fed him. Reed’s interview subjects are an unusual mix of Old Hollywood (Lucille Ball, Buster Keaton), New Hollywood (George Peppard, Sandy Dennis) Broadway (Leslie Uggams, Gwen Verdon), legends (Marlene Dietrich, Lotte Lenya) and literary figures (Robert Anderson, Marianne Moore), with some occasional oddball ringers let in such as Governor Lester Maddox and the Living Theatre. Many of the New Hollywood types, such as Shirley Knight and Peter Fonda, seem to have an ambivalent attitude towards fame and success. And in similar fashion, Reed seems to have an ambivalent attitude about many of those he is interviewing. Reading this collection, one gets the sense that Reed’s journalistic persona was a work in progress, drawn to the glamour of the world he was covering while, at the same time, trying to penetrate its glitzy surface to find out what really lay underneath it.

Born in Texas, Reed seems to gravitate towards Southern subjects, such as Carson McCullers and Tennessee Williams. He interviews the sick and elderly McCullers right before the release of the movie adaptation of her Reflections in a Golden Eye (an all-star disaster from 1967 directed by John Huston and starring Marlon Brando, Elizabeth Taylor, Brian Keith and introducing Robert Forster). Reed does a wonderful job of describing McCullers’ life at February House, a Brooklyn literary collective of the forties made up of Christopher Isherwood, Richard Wright, W.H. Auden, Jane and Paul Bowles and--improbable but true--Gypsy Rose Lee (working on her novel, The G-String Murders), all living and working under the same roof. Reed’s account of life at February House is infectiously written and reads like a coming attraction for Sherill Tippins’ February House, published almost forty years later. (A musical adaptation of the book is currently in the works.)

The less said about Reed’s interview with Williams, the better. Inspired by the famous playwright, he strains for effect trying to emulate Tennessee’s inimitable Southern Gothic voice, as though he had overdosed on beignets at the Café du Monde (which in itself is an infelicitous imitation of Williams’ style). Similarly, when he writes about Italian film director Michelangelo Antonioni, Reed sounds like a lost character in one of Antonioni’s movies.

Reed’s portrayal of New Hollywood is generally more revelatory than his overly reverential depiction of Old Hollywood. The sole exception is Ava Gardner, who gets off the all-time greatest putdown of Frank Sinatra when describing his marriage to Mia Farrow: “I always knew Frank would end up with a boy.” Reed manages to capture those on the cusp of fame. He interviews Warren Beatty right before Bonnie and Clyde (elusive, as always) and Mike Nichols right before The Graduate (pretentious, as always). But Reed digs and gets Nichols to reveal his impoverished existence before he hit the big time with Elaine May.

And every now and then, Reed perfectly manages to capture both the subject and the time he is writing about, such as this description from his poolside interview with Peter Fonda, before the success of Easy Rider: “Lying on his back, talking to a tape recorder, getting it down straight, the sun burning into his skin, with imported Helena Rubenstein ‘Bikini’ lotion turning his tan to butterscotch and a four-inch scar slashing across his stomach where he once shot himself with a gun when he was ten years old, drinking Carlsbad beer while fourteen Bozak-610 speakers played Vivaldi and Ravi Shankar and ‘Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,’ throwing it up to the hills above the tennis courts.” This is one impressive sentence, even if there is no subject or predicate in sight. And, if nothing else, this is all the proof we need that Reed should have been a card-carrying member of the New Journalism—like those others, he wasn’t afraid to break the rules to get to the truth of something.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Idols of the Teens, Part 2 (Paul Anka, 1961)

In recent years, it’s become fashionable in movies such as American Beauty, Little Children and Revolutionary Road to attack suburbia. But suburbia has been under attack for years. The same year that Richard Yates’ Revolutionary Road was published, 1961, Allied Artists released Look in Any Window, a movie that is profoundly obscure and deservedly overlooked. The movie is about a peeping tom who destroys the serenity of a peaceful SoCal suburban neighborhood. Coincidentally, the movie was released one year after English director Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom, a much more fully realized—and unsettling-treatment of the subject of voyeurism.

In Look in Any Window, the peeping tom is played by teen idol Paul Anka, who takes the role of a lonely and misunderstood teenager. Peeping, he explains, gives him power. Anka dresses in the typical teen ensemble of that period—blue jeans and a tight white t-shirt. With his black curly hair, pouty expression, and wounded eyes, he comes across as a non-acting version of Sal Mineo. One year later, Anka would play, in unconvincing fashion, a U.S. Army Ranger in Darryl F. Zanuck’s star-studded production of The Longest Day. In one scene, Anka blows up a German pillbox by squatting on its roof, tossing a grenade through the gun slit, then lifting his legs so as not to get them blown off by the blast. The insouciant manner in which Anka does this is what makes the action the complete opposite of heroic.

Anka is not the main character in Look in Any Window. Rather he is the catalyst for the adult relationships that surround him. Like That Night or The Ice Storm, most of the story takes place in the course of one long, event-filled evening. Sickened by her drunken husband’s (Alex Nicol) weak nature, Ruth Roman, who plays Paul Anka’s mother, takes off for a Las Vegas whirl with Jack Cassidy, who has likewise been sickened by his wife’s (Carole Matthews) inability to do anything fun or exciting. She seeks solace in the arms of her new neighbor, Carlo (George Dolenz), a widowed foreigner who is so suave that he speaks with a thick accent, smokes a pipe and wears a clam digger outfit that would make Harry Belafonte green with envy.

Wandering through this whole night on his own is Paul Anka, a tortured youth who seems not to fit in anywhere. Returning home, he samples some of his passed out father’s liquor and goes for a midnight swim with Jack Cassidy’s daughter, Gigi Perreau. She, in turn, has just returned home from a date, who disdainfully pushed her out of his truck because she refused to put out for him. This whole saga is being observed by two police detectives on the lookout for the peeping tom, one a veteran who depends on his experience to crack the case, the other a newcomer who believes that psychological understanding of the perpetrator’s motivation will bring the peeping tom’s identity to light. The ironic thing is, with all the big suburban pictures windows for them to look into, the two detectives are every bit as much the voyeurs as the one they hope to catch.

Before English director Sam Mendes exposed the dry rot inside the walls of the typical American suburb in American Beauty and Revolutionary Road, Look in Any Window did the same thing at a time when American suburbs were still a new phenomenon and still new as a subject matter for books and movies. One character rebels against the materialism of the suburban lifestyle by saying, “There’s more to life than home improvement; there’s self-improvement.” And another indicts the entire suburbanization of America as being essentially voyeuristic when he ventures that because of the mass addiction to TV, “We’ve become a nation of peeping toms.”

Unfortunately, Look in Any Window is directed in incompetent fashion by William Alland, whose career was largely as a writer and producer of monster, horror and teen exploitation movies (his The Lively Ones stars James Darren, another South Philly teen idol turned actor). Alland is way out of his depth here, although he does have some good actors to work with, including Ruth Roman and Jack Cassidy, playing a car dealer who flaunts his infidelity at the Fourth of July pool party that is the climax of this movie. With his too-tight sansabelt slacks, shirt-jacs and ascot, Cassidy, who specialized in playing slick creeps, cuts quite a snazzy figure. But Alland has no idea where to put his camera or how to light a scene. One image, though, Paul Anka and Gigi Perreau trying to relax on a trampoline and looking like prey caught in a spider web, remains enduringly haunting. It seems to capture the fragility of youthful interaction. Young couples moved to the suburbs with the hope of starting new lives together. Who knew, this movie says, that they would end up ensnared in a spider web woven out of their own frustrated desires.

(My special thanks to Mary Ann Koenig for the recommendation and acquisition of this one-of-a-kind DVD treasure.)

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Idols of the Teens, Part 1 (Frankie Avalon, 1962)

In the summer of 1962, American-International released another exploitation film, Panic in Year Zero. The movie exploited the period’s commonly held fear of thermonuclear war. The Cold War was at its height and would reach its zenith in October with the discovery of offensive missiles placed in Cuba. But in the summer of ’62, there was Panic in Year Zero to tell us what surviving a nuclear Armageddon might be like.

In a terse 92 minutes, the movie is nothing less than a how-to primer on how to survive a nuclear war. Ray Milland, who also directed the movie, stars as a middle-class, middle-aged American who is about to embark on a fishing trip with his family. His wife is played by Jean Hagen, looking like a real early sixties housewife. One can’t believe that this is the same Jean Hagen who played Lina Lamont, the immortal screechy-voiced villainess of Stanley Donen’s Singin' in the Rain and Danny Thomas’ first wife on Make Room for Daddy. And Ray Milland, bullying and humorless here, seems light years away from the charmingly confused military officer he played opposite Ginger Rogers in Billy Wilder’s hilarious and touching directorial debut, The Major and the Minor (1942). In the movie, he and Jean Hagen have two teenaged children played by Mary Mitchel and Frankie Avalon.

At the time, Frankie Avalon was a teen singing sensation, having come out of that small talent-rich section of South Philadelphia that also produced Fabian, James Darren and Bobby Rydell. Before this movie, Frankie had already appeared in small roles in John Wayne’s The Alamo and Irwin Allen’s Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea. (As an aside, canny Wayne often cast young pop singers in his movies to attract the youth crowd, which is why you get Ricky Nelson in Rio Bravo, Fabian in North to Alaska and Bobby Vinton in Big Jake). Frankie Avalon would go on to appear in several American-International beach movies with former Mouseketeer Annette Funicello. This series would reach its apotheosis with Beach Blanket Bingo (1966). But in Panic in Year Zero, Frankie plays it straight and does a good job as a teenager (he was 23 at the time) dealing with the harsh realities of life after a nuclear conflagration has devastated America.

Throughout the movie, Ray Milland and Jean Hagen carry on a running debate about the importance of collective civilization versus individual survival. After an atomic bomb devastates their home in Los Angeles, Milland elects to head for the hills and remain there until order is restored. He becomes single-minded in providing for his family and protecting them from looters, rapists and marauders in the form of three hot-rod-riding hoods. Milland is absolutely ruthless in insuring the survival of himself and his family, even if it means risking the complete alienation of his wife. When two of the hoods try to rape Milland’s daughter in the woods, he and Frankie Avalon track them down and cold bloodedly exact their own form of justice. The odd thing about the movie is that it never attempts to color in Milland’s background to show how he makes the almost instantaneous transformation from civilized man to committed survivalist (two decades before the term was even coined). He is fully as resourceful and self-righteously determined as any hero created by science fiction author Robert A. Heinlein, or Robert Neville, the main character of Richard Matheson’s I am Legend, itself a how-to primer on how to survive a vampire plague (and first filmed by American-International as The Last Man on Earth with Vincent Price in 1964).

In the end, Panic in Year Zero is a movie whose low budget roots glaringly come through at times, which leads to some laughable faults in continuity. (The family car is towing a trailer. Yet, in scenes set inside the car, the rear projection seen through the car’s back window clearly shows the highway unwinding behind them.) But the low budget also helps concentrate the screenplay, whose narrative is never off the focus of Milland’s increasing obsession in keeping his wife and children safe from harm, even if it means destroying the fragile emotional bonds of the family unit. The movie begins and ends with close-ups of a car radio. This radio provides entertainment in the form of popular music and information in the form of updates on how America is responding to the nuclear attack. The radio is the family’s sole link with what remains of civilization, and in the summer of 1962, the radio that made Frankie Avalon a star also served notice that America had other, more important things on its mind.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Tribes Are Gathering (1970)

On November 10, 1970, ABC brought the war in Vietnam home to the TV viewer with the Movie of the Week, Tribes. In it, a young and effective Jan-Michael Vincent is a hippie draftee who squares off with his Marine Corps D.I., played by a solid Darren McGavin in a performance that is part of a twenty year continuum extending from Jack Webb in his self-directed The D.I. (1957) to Clint Eastwood in Heartbreak Ridge (1986) and R. Lee Ermey in Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket (1987). Ermey also plays a D.I. in Sidney J. Furie’s The Boys in Company C (1978), one of the first movies about the Vietnam War to dramatize the futility and irony of that seemingly endless conflict.

In Tribes, Vincent is a pacifist recruit who refuses to bend to the will of his D.I., using his hippie wiles to create an alternate reality for himself and some of his fellow recruits. McGavin plays an essentially decent gunnery sergeant who tries to work with Vincent and whip him into shape. But he is frustrated by fellow gunny, Earl Holliman, who makes it his personal mission to break the spirit of the anti-establishment recruit, who he recognizes as a subversive threat to the basic training routine that has been the backbone of the Marine Corps for 190 years. In a terse ninety minutes, these three men square off until the story reaches its inevitably sad conclusion. “Tribes are gathering,” goes the movie’s theme song, which sounds like a lost song from Hair, but this is a hegira that Vincent will ultimately have to make on his own and the movie makes it clear that his journey will be a lonely one.

The movie is directed by Joseph Sergeant, a director mainly of TV movies who got the occasional shot at features. The highlight of his movie career is probably the original version of The Taking of Pelham 123 (1974), which perfectly captures the downbeat zeitgeist of New York in the mid-seventies (along with Michael Winner’s Death Wish and Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver). Among his more notable TV movies are Amber Waves, a paean to the American heartland, and Warm Springs, the moving account of FDR’s battle with polio. Sergeant is not in the pantheon of great directors, but his work is always technically accomplished and his movies always have the virtue of being cleanly dramatized.

Tribes is a model of efficient movie-making as it and other MOWs were part of a creative assembly line that hadn’t been seen since the heyday of the Hollywood studio production system in the thirties and forties. And yet, it stands out and rises above the pack because of the way it succinctly crystalizes a moment in time when the establishment seemed corrupt and played out, but the counter-culture no longer seemed to have all the answers. Tribes are gathering, yes, but what will happen then? The movie has no real answers, something soon to be borne out by the changing cultural landscape as the tribes of the sixties were replaced by the "Me Decade" of the seventies.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Lock Up Your Daughters (1969)

For those who ask, why aren’t there more Restoration Comedies in the movies, have I got a small gem for you. Released in 1969, Lock Up Your Daughters is an oddball combination of the latest (then) in cinematic gimmickry combined with ripe period dialogue and a fidelity to the bedlam and bombast of the period that borders on the obsessive.

Like a Restoration Comedy version of On the Town, this is the story of three sailors on shore leave, having just returned to London from ten months at sea and in the West Indies. Lusty (Jim Dale, the once and future narrator of the Harry Potter audio books) is unable to see his prostitute lover, Nell (Georgia Brown, the original Nancy in the musical, Oliver!), who is busy seducing Lord Foppington (Christopher Plummer). While those two are otherwise engaged, Lusty impersonates Foppington so he can wed and bed the lord’s virginal fiancée Hoyden (Vanessa Howard), who comes to the marriage with a two thousand pound dowry. Shaftoe (Tom Bell, Helen Mirren’s departmental nemesis in the first Prime Suspect) longs to be married to Hilaret (Susannah York), over the objections of her father, Gossip (Roy Dotrice before he went on to lead the underground denizens of Manhattan in Beauty and the Beast). A third sailor, Ramble (Ian Bannen, master of the cricket pitch known as the googly in John Boorman’s Hope and Glory), pines for his drowned wife, Cloris, but drowns his sorrows by trying to seduce Magistrate Squeezum’s wife (Glynis Johns, with a slight borrowing of Joan Greenwood’s insouciant purr). All three men end up in Magistrate’s Squeezum’s court, accused of rape. It all ends happily, though, with Shaftoe and Hilaret wed, Ramble reunited with his supposedly dead wife (who turns out to be Hilaret’s maid), and Lusty married to his virgin bride (and learning in the bargain that he and Hilaret are long lost brother and sister).

Lock Up Your Daughters has an unusual provenance. It is a non-musical adaptation of the West End musical, with music by Laurie Johnson (the sprightly theme to The Avengers) and lyrics by Leslie Bricusse (Stop the World, I Want to Get Off as well as the Goldfinger theme by John Barry), which, in turn, is based on a play by Henry Fielding (author, of course, of Tom Jones and Joseph Andrews). The only real singing in the film comes from a men’s chorus belting out some kind of faux sea chantey on the soundtrack.

The movie is directed by Peter Coe, a theatre director making his film debut, and it’s obvious that he studied Tony Richardson’s Tom Jones (1963) and the collected works of Richard Lester, not to mention Hogarth’s the Seven Deadly Sins and A Rake’s Progress, before even gazing through his viewfinder. The movie is steeped in early 18th century atmosphere. It was shot on location in the Republic of Ireland, with the town of Kilkenny doubling for period London. The streets of this London are covered with mud, dung and straw. Each frame of film is crammed with acrobats, begging children, hanging corpses, emptied chamber pots, milling crowds, marching soldiers, drunken carousers, fairground rides, pilloried prisoners, fighting cocks and flocks of sheep disrupting traffic. Every interior is stuffed to the rafters with people and furnishings. In the house of Hoyden’s parents, paintings are askew and chickens and pigs run wild. In Magistrate Squeezum’s chambers, books and papers are piled haphazardly on every available horizontal surface. The result is one of the most lived-in looking movies made up to this point in time

The director pays so much attention to the background details that he totally forgets the story going on in the foreground, which is more antic than it is actually funny. The performances are completely over the top, but to too little effect. Even the glorious Susannah York is wasted, playing the ingénue, even though it is obvious that she is a little too mature for the part (this is nine years after she played the ingenue role in Tunes of Glory). This being the Restoration period, Ms. York and the other actresses are squeezed into tight-fitting corsets that make their breasts pop up so high it’a a wonder they can see over them. Peter Bull (owner of the largest Teddy Bear collection in the British Isles) is quite droll as Reverend Bull, who has a mercenary idea of how religious benefits should be doled out. The second best performance is given by Jim Dale, a supple performer (as he proved on the boards in Scapino) as the false Lord Foppington. And even better, Christopher Plummer is hilarious as Lord Foppington himself. He moves his arms and legs like a spastic marionette. The idea here is that Foppington spends so much time being carted around town in a sedan chair that he has little working knowledge of how to walk. With made-up bow lips and rouged cheeks that make him look like a china doll, and a lisping, languid way of speaking, as though the very idea of talking is too great a physical burden to him, Lord Foppington is a walking Restoration cartoon come brilliantly to life.

The highlight of the movie is a food fight that erupts after two stubborn burghers in sedan chairs get into a disagreement about which one has the right of way. The scene takes place in a narrow alley lined with food stalls. The scene also serves the important function of separating the two main lovers, Shaftoe and Hilaret, on their way to the altar. Playing like an 18th century version of the food fight from National Lampoon’s Animal House, this scene is both an affront and a delight—an affront that a movie could stoop this low, a delight because it does.

Saturday, January 31, 2009

Robert F. Lyons: A Prince of Our Disorder (1970-72)

By the late 1960s, there were protesters of every stripe. There were college students who protested the war in Vietnam and blacks and whites who protested on behalf of civil rights. There were women who protested for equal rights for their sex. And homosexuals made their stand at the Stonewall Tavern in Greenwich Village, marking the opening salvo in the Gay Rights Movement. Among those movie voices who spoke most persuasively for societal change was Robert F. Lyons.

Robert F. who?

Robert F. Lyons, with his long hair and hippie-ish manner, was, for a short time, Hollywood’s go-to guy when it came to embodying the counterculture. He first came to prominence playing Elliott Gould’s whacked out friend in Richard Rush’s Getting Straight, one of three movies released in 1970, along with Stanley Kramer’s R.P.M. and Stuart Hagmann’s The Strawberry Statement, that attempted, although too late and in too bogus a fashion, to dramatize the student unrest on U.S. college campuses during the Vietnam War. Lyons is hilarious as a hippie who tries every trick in the book in order to escape conscription into the military. He walks around with a purse, has a black woman with a passel of kids pretend to be his wife. It’s all in very bad taste and all very funny, with the kicker that in those days a very simple formula applied to the draft--conscription = Vietnam = death. Based on this performance and a slightly laidback Jack Nicholson vibe, Lyons stood poised for movie stardom.

Lyons next shows up as sociopathic serial killer Skipper Todd in Barry Shear’s The Todd Killings (1971) opposite a pre-John Boy Richard Thomas. Perpetually clean-cut, Thomas himself had just played a sociopathic teenager, along with Bruce Davison and Barbara Hershey, in Frank Perry’s Last Summer (1969), which ends shockingly with the disaffected suburban characters played by these three actors gang raping a helpless victim touchingly played by Catherine Burns.

The Todd Killings is a fictionalized account of the true story of sixties’ thrill-killer Charles Schmidt, who was known as “The Pied Piper of Tucson.” Director Shear knew a thing or two about restless youth, having directed Wild in the Streets (1968), about a rock star who parlays his star power into a seat in the Oval Office, The Todd Killings perfectly captures the dark side of the peace and love subculture that eventually led to the Tate-LoBianco murders and the ultimate bad trip of the Altamont Free Concert, where Hell’s Angels employed to provide security at the speedway beat a fan to death while the Rolling Stones played on stage. This terrifying moment was captured in the Maysles Brothers’ famous documentary, Gimme Shelter (1971). Lyons’ chilling performance as Skipper Todd is the flip side of the beatific disposition he deployed so amusingly in Getting Straight.

In 1972, Lyons starred as the scruffy romantic lead in the marquee-bursting Dealing, or the Berkeley-to-Boston Forty-Brick Lost-Bag Blues. The movie is based on a novel by Michael Douglas. No, not the son of Kirk, husband of Zeta-Jones and Academy Award-winning star of Wall Street. This Michael Douglas was the pseudonym for the writing team of the late Michael Crichton and his younger brother, Douglas. In it, Lyons plays a Harvard law student who travels to Berkeley to pick up forty bricks of marijuana for his friend, John Lithgow (hilarious in his movie debut as a dandified Harvard student), who is the campus drug dealer. In Berkeley, Lyons meets Sukie, played by Barbara Hershey, an actress who was the perfect embodiment of the hippie ideal, playing, among other roles, an earth mother who rents out her womb to a barren doctor’s wife in James Bridges’ The Baby Maker (1970) and the free spirited girl friend of Michael Sarrazin in Robert Mulligan’s The Pursuit of Happiness (1971). (In her real life, Ms. Hershey even added Seagull to her last name in recognition of the bird that was accidentally killed during the filming of Last Summer.) In the time-honored tradition of screwball comedy, Lyons is even given a straight-laced girl friend (Ellen Barber with her hair tied back tight in a chignon) to provide the proper contrast to the unconstrained--in every sense of the word--Ms. Hershey.

Almost every movie comedy of this period features a scene in which a straight character “turns on” for the first time and has some kind of epiphany. Think of Peter Sellers tasting those hash brownies proffered by Leigh Taylor-Young (the poor man’s Barbara Hershey) in Hy Averback’s I Love You, Alice B. Toklas (1968). Or Barbara Streisand offering uptight George Segal a toke of her marijuana cigarette in Herbert Ross’ The Owl and the Pussycat (1970). What’s interesting about Dealing is the fact that it contains no such scene. Marijuana is presented as a normal, everyday aspect of college life. In fact, Dealing, the book, is really a big shout out to law enforcement for the decriminalization of anti-marijuana statutes. But what’s funny about the book is that, instead of adapting the psychedelic stylings of a Ken Kesey, Dr. Hunter S. Thompson or Tom Robbins, Dealing is written in a slightly hipper version (obviously the younger brother's influence) of the stolid, middlebrow style that is the mainstay of Crichton’s fiction, from his first, The Andromeda Strain, through Jurassic Park, to, sadly, his last, State of Fear.

In the movie, trouble happens when Hershey flies from Berkeley to Boston to visit Lyons, muling eighty pounds of marijuana. She is busted by a corrupt cop played by Charles Durning, who takes the marijuana for himself. And the story recounts what happens when Lyons tries to get the marijuana back from Durning. The movie goes the book one better and ends with a climactic shoot-out at—of all places—Walden Pond! In the same way that marijuana entered the soft underbelly of white middle class American life during the late sixties, hippies were eventually subsumed into the rest of mainstream society. And Robert F. Lyons went from hippie outsider sidekick in Getting Straight to handsome hippiesh leading man in Dealing.

Dealing is also notable for featuring an actress with the onomatopoeiac name of Joy Bang. She would also appear in Roger Vadim’s Pretty Maids All in a Row (1971), in which Rock Hudson, cast surprisingly against type, plays a popular high school gym teacher and guidance counselor who sleeps with his prettiest female students, then murders them. The movie is a virtual hymn to the enduring power of young female flesh (what else would you expect from the French auteur who directed his wife, Jane Fonda, as the scantily-clad Barbarella?).

Inexplicably, Robert F. Lyons never became a movie star, although he does have a long resume of acting in episodic TV (from The Rookies to Cold Case). Dealing was barely released by Warner Bros. in the winter of 1972 and was never given a chance to find its audience. Perhaps, when the spirit of the 1960s soured in the wake of Charles Manson and Altamont, actors such as Lyons suddenly found they weren’t needed any longer to embody an idea that no longer existed. Barbara Hershey went on to play more complex female characters in movies such as Phil Kaufman’s The Right Stuff (1983), as the wife of test pilot Chuck Yeager (an iconic Sam Shepard), and Woody Allen’s Hannah and her Sisters (1986), as the object of brother-in-law Michael Caine’s romantic obsession. But for one brief moment, in 1972, Lyons and Hershey were the Tracy and Hepburn of the turn on, tune in, drop out set. The outcasts had become card-carrying members of the status quo. And Robert F. Lyons became an unintended victim of his own contribution to transform society.

Monday, January 5, 2009

The Money Trap (1965) - The Last Noir?

It’s quite possible that Burt Kennedy’s The Money Trap (1965) is the last example of film noir to be actually shot in black and white. By the mid-sixties, black and white was not an artistic choice made by a director and dictated by the film’s subject matter, but was employed mainly in B-movies as a cost cutting measure, because the film stock was less expensive to use than color. And despite the august presence of Glenn Ford and Joseph Cotten, make no mistake about it--The Money Trap is definitely a B-movie.

As an L.A. detective with personal demons to overcome, Ford walks through the movie with a world-weary air. Or maybe it’s just that he’s tired of being reduced to B-List status and is going through the motions of making one more pulpish thriller. Gone is the charisma that made him such a complex villain in the original 3:10 to Yuma (much better than Russell Crowe in James Mangold‘s overstuffed remake of this 1957 western classic). Or the reassuring sense of decency that makes him such a strong foil for Ross Martin’s asthmatic bank extortionist in Blake Edwards’ noirish Experiment in Terror (1962). Or the glee he displays in playing straight man in Frank Capra’s Pocketful of Miracles (as Damon Runyon’s Dave the Dude) and those two World War II-era service comedies, Don’t Go Near the Water and The Teahouse of the August Moon (opposite Marlon Brando as Sakini, an Okinawan translator). And in Cotten’s wooden performance, one searches in vain for any trace of the actor whose Yankee brio enlivened Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane, Alfred Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt and Sir Carol Reed’s The Third Man, three of the best movies of the forties. The only bright spot in this movie comes from Ricardo Montalban playing Ford’s detective partner with an uncustomary-and much welcome-hint of bemusement in his smile.

There is, come to think of it, another bright spot-the character of Ford’s former girl friend from the old neighborhood, played by Rita Hayworth in what amounts to an act of bravery, as she drops all pretense of glamour and really allows her age to show. Ford and Hayworth were, of course, famously paired in Charles Vidor’s Gilda (1946). And the casting of Hayworth is more than a stunt because it forces the audience to recall the Hayworth of old even as she now strips away her cosmetic facade to show how many miles she has traveled in the years between that movie and this one. She is probably the only untainted character in the movie, and she acquits herself with dignity in a role that calls for her to be bloodied but unbowed by life.

In The Money Trap, Ford plays a detective who is married to Elke Sommer. They live beyond their means in a cool sixties house (complete with swimming pool) and are in desperate need of money. So Ford, with the connivance of his partner, plans to break into the safe of a society doctor (Cotten) with mob ties who peddles heroin on the side. The story takes place in L.A, but is shot mainly on the M-G-M back lot. The climactic shoot-out in the rain takes place on a dead end street that looks déjà vu familiar because it was probably used as the street where Tom Hanks guns down Paul Newman (also in the rain) in Sam Mendes’ Road to Perdition (2002). The interior sets look empty and unlived-in. And the movie is only enlivened by two scenes actually shot on location—one on the Bunker Hill funicular, the other at what looks to be the Ocean Park amusement pier.

The director, Burt Kennedy, got his start as a screenwriter. Among his credits is the terrific western, The Tall T (1957), directed by Bud Boetticher and based on a short story by Elmore Leonard (3:10 to Yuma is also based on a Leonard story). As a director, Kennedy has mostly western films to his credit, such as The Rounders (1965-not to be confused with the Matt Damon/Edward Norton vehicle, Rounders) and the popular Support Your Local Sheriff (1969). The Money Trap is an anomaly among his oeuvre. No attempt is made on Kennedy’s part to turn it into a contemporary western. Instead, with a screenplay by the one-time blacklisted Walter Bernstein (adapted from a novel by Lionel White), it is a morality tale that exposes the corrupting influence of money (and its lack thereof). With the exception of Ford’s wife, everyone in the movie who comes in contact with the contents of Cotten’s safe ($250,000 cash and an equal amount of heroin) ends up falling victim to it. Ford and Montalban even grow mistrustful of one another and clash over it. Innocent people also lose their lives over it.

In true film noir fashion, Ford, too, becomes a victim of his own greed and corruption. But instead of dying outright, he is given the chance, like many noir heroes, to contemplate his own fall from grace before the final fade out. In the last scene, a wounded Ford returns to his cool sixties house. Elke Sommer sees that he is wounded, maybe even dying, and goes to call for an ambulance. As they wait, Ford, holding his gut with one hand, turns on the house lights, switches on the hi-fi, which floods the house with jazz, goes outside and turns on the pool lights. And so, surrounded by the empty signifiers of his materialistic lifestyle, Ford waits to meet his fate. In an ironic note, one of the first true film noirs to be shot in color, John Boorman’s Point Blank (1967), features a scene in which, while spending the night at a mob boss’ empty house, Angie Dickinson awakens Lee Marvin, with whom she is on the run, by turning on every electric appliance in the kitchen—a brilliant comment on America’s consumerist culture run amuck.

In the course of the movie, beginning with the shock cut that ends the opening titles, Kennedy shows a love of women’s underthings that verges on the amusingly fetishistic. The jazz score that accompanies the movie’s action strikes a discordant note. And there is a subplot involving a man who kills his wife because she turned tricks to help make ends meet that is supposed to show the humane side of Ford’s detective. But Ford can’t seem to muster up enough energy to reveal this aspect of his character to the audience. And there is not enough desperation attached to Ford’s need for money. Can’t he just tell his wife to cut back the poolside cocktail parties to once a month? In the end, though, with its stripped-down plot and unsparing sense of fatalism, The Money Trap is a good enough example of neo-noir to help you make it through the night.