Mr. George A. Romero

Some years ago now, I wrote a rambling blog post that was titled “Closing the Loop On Romero.” I still have what I wrote but I’ll spare us the reposting of it. The gist of it was that when I was in the seventh grade, in my Advanced English class, we watched two films, a 1955 film titled “Les Diaboliques,” in which a wife and mistress plot to get rid of the abusive man they’ve been sharing at their digs at a French boarding school owned by the wife, and a 1968 film titled “Night of the Living Dead,” in which a group of people hole up in an abandoned house in order to escape the “living dead” rising up out of the cemetery, whom seem to be interested in dining on human flesh, which makes it sound sophomoric when it is, in fact, completely adult, and despite our seeming cultural desensitization to such horrors, if you engage your brain and think about what you’re watching, it remains a completely terrifying film.

These two films taught me to understand films as art. These two films began my fascination with films as art. It was one of those moments in life when the world changed for me, expanded, deepened, became more interesting.

Imagine the world if George Romero had never made the film, “Night of the Living Dead.” It is an art film. It has been selected for historical preservation by the Library of Congress. “Night of the Living Dead” has a lot to teach us about the ways in which people interact with one another. It isn’t the first so-called zombie film, it is, however, the zombie film that irrevocably changed our cultural landscape.

Rest in peace, Mr. Romero.

The Girl in Geiger’s Bookstore Didn’t Know That

When it comes to my favorite films, I like what I deem to be good films regardless of genre. That said, I can also appreciate a film as being a good film, without actually, or necessarily, liking the film myself. There are also films that I have enjoyed or liked that I don’t know could even arguably be classified as “good” films. But, I was thinking the other day about my favorite Noir and crime films, and such.

Let’s get the Bogarting done.

The Big Sleep, 1946
Howard Hawks directed, based on the novel by Raymond Chandler, which I’ve read and enjoyed.
The running time on this one is just under two hours. It’s plot heavy, and it is good. Bogart portrays private eye Philip Marlowe in this one, hired by General Sternwood, to resolve the gambling debts of his younger daughter, the coy and coquettish Carmen Sternwood, played to perfection by Martha Vickers. Enter Lauren Bacall as the older daughter, Vivian Rutledge. Where Carmen is high, or drunk, and playing cutesy with everything, Vivian is sharp and savvy, and thinks that their father’s true motive in hiring Marlowe is to try to find the missing Sean Regan. This film is loaded with great lines and some of my favorite scenes in any film ever. Including a wonderful bit of business between Bogart and actress Dorothy Malone. Marlowe has just been at Geiger’s bookstore, asking questions, now he’s at the book store across the street…

That scene pains me, somewhat, as I know of a time or two when someone might have asked me something I should have known and I didn’t have the answer, but that’s not the point for this writing, the point is that in life, sometimes we forget things or our mind is “somewhere else,” but in Noir films, not having the answer when you should have the answer, that definitely means that something is rotten in Denmark.  A thoroughly enjoyable film, with the usual powder keg of chemistry going on between Bogart and Bacall, though really, every scene in this one is practically smoldering.

Martha Vickers as Carmen Sternwood. (Every time I see this scene, I think someone should smack her, I think that would be awfully cute.)

Dark Passage, 1947,
Delmer Daves directed this one, based on a book by David Goodis. This one is gimmicky, which is most of what makes this one worth the watch. Bogart is Vincent Parry, newly escaped from San Quentin, the open scenes are shot from his sight line so that we don’t see his face. Lauren Bacall is Irene Jansen, she followed Parry’s case and believes he is innocent. Enter Agnes Moorehead (Bewitched) as Madge, an acquaintance of Irene’s who won’t go away, and a woman who Vincent Parry once spurned, and you’ve got the makings of some good suspense. Exteriors were shot in and around San Francisco, also worth seeing.

Casablanca, 1942, Classified as a romantic drama, this is one is also ever bit a foray into the shadows of noir. An all-star cast, Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, Paul Henreid, Sydney Greenstreet, Claude Raines, and Peter Lorre. Set in Casablanca during World War II, Rick, ( Bogart), is caught between a rock and a hard place when he encounters an old love who is wedded to a new problem. This film is beautiful. Directed by Michael Curtiz, and, apparently based on a play ( I’m learning some of this as I go) by Murray Bennet and Joan Allison titled, “Everybody Comes to Ricks”, it wasn’t expected to do much of anything out of the ordinary at the box office. It went on to win the Academy Award for best picture. I’m not much of an Ingrid Bergman fan, this film though, is a favorite.

The Maltese Falcon, 1941, Based on the book by Dashiell Hammett, which I’ve read, this film was John Huston’s directorial debut. One of my favorite films of all time, this one is over the top Noir with a cast that is completely spot on nailing every line in every scene. Bogart, Mary Astor, Sydney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre, Jerome Cowan, Ward Bond, Elisha Cook Jr, Lee Patrick, really wonderful casting across the board. Bogart is Sam Spade, of Spade and Archer, Mary Astor is Ruth Wonderly, or Brigid O’Shaunessy, a woman with a sob story, or several, to sift through before we find out what everyone is really after, the black bird, the dingus, The Maltese Falcon, rumored to be encrusted with jewels and worth a fortune.

Rear Window, 1954, This is an Alfred Hitchcock Technicolor masterpiece based on a short story, “It Had to Be Murder”, by Cornell Woolrich. Photographer Jeff Jefferies, (Jimmy Stewart), has broken his leg and can’t leave his apartment which over looks a common courtyard and invites voyeuristic views into the apartments of his neighbors, one of which is Lars Thorwald, (Raymond Burr). Jeff and his girlfriend Lisa, (Grace Kelly), become enthralled with some of the goings on of his neighbors until their spying leads them to the conclusion that something has gone seriously wrong in one of the other apartments. Stylistically shot in fine Hitchcock fashion with some levity provided by Thelma Ritter as Stella, Jeff’s insurance company appointed nurse, I’ve watched this one many times and have never failed to be on the edge of my seat by the closing scenes.

L.A. Confidential, 1997, Directed by Curtis Hanson, based on the book of the same name by James Ellroy, set in 1953, I wish they made more films that look like this. A hard-boiled, old-style, neo-noir, crime story of organized crime and police corruption, it’s smarter than smart, but it also has great character arcs as each of the main characters undergoes a transformation to a change of perspective about whatever they though and however they’ve been doing things. There’s a depth to this one, and outstanding performances. One of my favorite scenes is at the beginning of the interaction between Lynn Bracken ( Kim Basinger), and Bud White ( Russell Crowe), when she pulls back the curtain on the silken facade of her life, and reveals her chintzy, private, bedroom, and lets him in. In addition to Basinger and Crowe, this film stars James Cromwell, Kevin Spacey, Guy Pearce, Danny Devito, David Strathairn, and a stellar cast of supporting players.

The Replacement Killers, 1998, Director Antoine Fuqua, based on a screenplay by Ken Sanzel. John Woo contributed his directorial skills to the action scenes, and this film is generally considered to be an action film due to the number of shoot ’em up scenes, Starring Chow Yun Fat, Mira Sorvino, Michael Rooker, and Kenneth Tsang, this is the story of a hit-man who decides not to carry out an assassination for a powerful crime boss, and the consequences of that decision. I think Mira Sorvino delivers one of her best performances as the tough as nails with tons of heart, Meg Coburn, who deals in forged documents and false identities. Danny Trejo is also in this one as one of the “replacement killers.”

Jackie Brown, 1997 Directed by Quentin Tarantino, adapted and written for the screen by Tarantino, from Elmore Leonard’s 1992 novel, Rum Punch. A stewardess, Jackie Brown, portrayed by Pam Grier, smuggles money from Mexico for Ordell Robbie, ( Samuel L, Jackson) and she gets caught. How she gets out of that mess is what the story is about. This one is about the performances. As Tarantino films go, I like this one far better than “Pulp Fiction”, I think it’s smarter, and a more interesting story. Robert Forster is fantastic as the unflappable bail bondsman, Max Cherry, Michael Keaton is spot on as the arrogant ATF agent, Ray Nicolette. Also starring Robert DeNiro and Bridget Fonda in supporting roles, this one has another killer Tarantino soundtrack as well.

Thief, 1981 Written and directed by Michael Mann, based on a novel written by real-life jewel thief, John Seybold, again, this one is about the performances. James Caan is Frank, a no-nonsense, career criminal, who, after falling for an equally disillusioned cashier named Jessie, (Tuesday Weld), decides that maybe he can have a family life too. Excellent performances by a supporting cast that includes James Belushi, Robert Prosky, and Willie Nelson.

Tequila Sunrise, 1988 Written and directed by Robert Towne. This film is classic 1980’s overly polished beautiful, in a way, like the polished noir films of the 40’s. Mel Gibson delivers an interestingly earnest performance as Dale McKussic, the drug dealer with the heart of gold who’s really trying to quit, and no one wants him to quit. He’s got a money-grubbing bitch of an ex-wife with whom he has a son, his oldest friend is a detective trying to bust him, his brother is an idiot who wants to play drug dealer too, he’s trying to untangle himself from his dealings with a Mexican drug-lord, and he’s fallen in love with a beautiful restaurant owner whom he fears would never want him and, though she is guileless, she is tougher than she looks. Not particularly hard-boiled, this is an entertaining film, with a big name cast, some great lines and gorgeous scenery.

Gunshy, 1998 Directed by Jeff Celentano. William Peterson plays Jake Bridges, a writer coming off of a bad relationship looking to punish himself with alcohol and getting into trouble. Really though, Michael Wincott as small-time gangster Frankie McGregor, who is in love with Melissa, portrayed by Diane Lane, steals a lot of this movie, as his friendship with Jake develops, and they all try to get out of this story alive.

HEAT, 1995, Written and directed by Michael Mann. This film is completely over-cooked with way too much star-power in it, and, it’s a good one anyway, with one of the biggest shoot outs ever. Apparently the film was based on a true story.

To Live and Die in L.A., 1985, Directed by William Friedkin, based on a novel by a former U.S. Secret Service Agent, Gerald Petievich, and that sounds like an interesting read. This movie is another one that really looks like the 1980’s, though with less polish. The main characters in this film are kind of pretentious and having a pissing contest with each other. Rick Masters ( Willem Dafoe)  makes funny-money, he is a very successful counterfeiter. Chance is the Secret Service Agent who is out to get him. I had a heck of a crush on “Chance”, portrayed by William Peterson, for a while, and I think that it’s the heart of the character Ruth Lanier, portrayed by Darlanne Fluegel, whom Chance is having a relationship with and extorting information from, that saves the movie because it gives some humanity to these characters who are operating completely without boundaries or conscience. Ruth wants out of the situation, has some feeling for Chance, wants to be able to see her kid, and is continuously faced with the reality that Chance is just using her. Agent John Vukovich, played by John Pankow, also lends some of that reality to the story as he is completely freaked out by how totally out of control Chance is. I’ve even seen the version of this with the alternate ending for Chance and Vukovich. John Turturo has a supporting role as snitch, Carl Cody. This film has in it what I think is the best film car chase of all time. It also has one of the best all time soundtracks by Wang Chung.

Double Indemnity, 1944 Directed by Billy Wilder, co-written by Wilder and Raymond Chandler, based on a novella by James M. Cain ( The Postman Always Rings Twice, Mildred Pierce), it is considered by many to be the film that set the standard for film noir. Walter Neff ( Fred MacMurray) sells insurance. Phyliss Dietrichson ( Barbara Stanwyck), is a cold, scheming woman, who wants her husband dead. The rest, as they say, is film history.  Listen baby, listen…

No Country For Old Men, 2007 Written and directed by the Coen brothers, based on the Corman McCarthy novel of the same name and classified as a neo-western, neo-noir, film, I tend to think of it as “rural noir,” this film was a surprise when it hit the box office and opened the door for a new era of story telling in the main stream. Llewelyn Moss ( Josh Brolin)  happens upon the aftermath of a massacre after a drug deal gone bad. He leaves the scene with two million dollars, the kind of money that someone is going to come looking for. Enter Anton Chigurh ( Javier Bardam) as the “bad guy,” the kind of bad guy that is keeping his own code, Carson Wells ( Woody Harrelson) as the other bad guy, and Sheriff Ed Tom Bell ( Tommy Lee Jones). This is one of those movies where the onscreen presence of Chigurh is such that you know how it’s going to end, but you keep watching anyway because it’s hard not to like Llewelyn Moss, or a man with two first names, Ed Tom, who is frustrated with the lack of common sense that he deals with on a daily basis in his general periphery.

The Usual Suspects, 1995 Directed by Bryan Singer, written by Christopher McQuarrie. An all-star ensemble cast in a complicated, convoluted, story of revenge. Who is Keyser Soze? And did Fenster always mumble? Seemingly coincidentally thrown together in a jail cell, a group of individual career criminals know that something isn’t adding up. They decide to pull a job together and are then approached by a Mr. Kobayashi, with an offer that none of them can really refuse. Worth watching for the casting, Gabriel Byrne didn’t want to do this film due to turmoil in his personal life at the time, it is, however, the intensity of his performance as Keaton, that anchors this movie.

In The Electric Mist, 2009 Directed by Bertrand Tavernier, adapted for the screen from a James Lee Burke novel, I watched this on the Netflix when it was briefly available for streaming. This one is Southern Noir. Detective Dave Robicheaux ( Tommy Lee Jones) is trying to solve a grisly murder while dealing with a film company that has set up camp in Iberia Parrish. He suspects Julie “Baby Feet” Balboni, ( John Goodman), a known criminal with ties to the mafia. He later gets information that perhaps it is another suspect. Meanwhile, a drunken actor has taken up residence in Robicheaux’s house while trying to dry out, and Robicheaux himself is drugged while at a party and has a strange experience where he meets a Civil War Soldier, played by Levon Helm, in the electric mist. Really good movie. I bet the book is worth reading as well.

Hell or High Water, 2016 Directed by David MacKenzie and written by Taylor Sheridan, this rural noir, is the story of brothers Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner (Ben Foster) Howard trying to save the family ranch by robbing banks. But not just any banks, they’re robbing branches of the bank that holds the note on the family’s property. Texas Rangers, portrayed by Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham, are trying to catch them. This one has it all, great story, good acting, unpredictable.

Out Of Sight, 1998 Directed by Stephen Soderberg, adapted by Scott Frank, from an Elmore Leonard novel, one that I’ve read, this is a stylish crime movie with some good romantic comedy thrown in. Escaped bank robber Jack Foley ( George Clooney), and U.S. Marshall, Karen Cisco, ( Jennifer Lopez) end up temporarily locked in the trunk of a car together where he proceeds to try to charm her and discovers that though on opposite sides of the law they may be, they have something in common. Ving Rhames, Steve Zahn, Don Cheadle, Albert Brooks, Dennis Farina, Michael Keaton appears as Ray Nicolette ( Jackie Brown.) Some great dialogue. Good movie. “You wanted to tussle.”

The Noir that I cut my teeth on was episodes of the old Perry Mason television series that I was watching and figuring out who dunnit when I was in grade school, and those are still some great stories. I was also a big fan of the true crime series “City Confidential.” I will sometimes still watch episodes of both of those shows. I teared up at the last episode of “Justified”, and thought that the British series, “Luther”, was outstanding. “Twin Peaks” was good, though it was slightly more surreal than I like my Noir. Documentaries that I though were pretty good, “Cocaine Cowboys”(2006), “The Seven Five” ( 2014), checking Netflix I see that there are a couple of other installments of “Cocaine Cowboys” to check out. Other notable favorites along these lines, “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil” both the film and the book are excellent, a film called “The Town” from 2010 that was adapted from a novel  by Chuck Hogan, called “Prince of Thieves”, by Ben Affleck,  “Devil in a Blue Dress” 1995, 1957’s “The Sweet Smell of Success”, 1987’s “Someone to Watch Over Me”, though I haven’t seen that one in years, and my movies to watch list got a lot longer in writing this. I can add that to all of the James Ellroy novels that I want to get back to reading.

Enjoy!

TS

 

Resilience. Carrie Fisher. The New Modern. How To Be Yourself.

So, I’m uploading/importing files to Kindle Direct and, apparently, that can take a minute, unless I start typing something else, I figure, and never mind that I need to vacuum and dust, and I thought, I’ll write that post now.

Last night I watched the HBO sort of documentary, it was more personal than that, “Bright Lights,” about Debbie Reynolds and Carrie Fisher. It was an exceptionally well done, intimate, revealing, glimpse into the lives of these two enigmatic, iconic, stars. That sounds canned.

I grew up watching old movies, was a fan of the Golden Age of Hollywood. There was the glamour of it, of course, but I was drawn to the stories behind the stories, how the “movie stars” became movie stars. In those days, the Hollywood studio system controlled every aspect of the lives of the actors and actresses under contract to them. Everything was about the canned image, the keeping up of appearances. Love affairs and scandals were kept from public view, as much as possible, and nonetheless, became the stuff of legend. Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, Lana Turner and Johnny Stompanato, Clark Gable and Carol Lombard, Ingrid Bergman and Roberto Rosellini, Elizabeth Taylor and, well, Eddie Fisher, the husband of Debbie Reynolds, for one, among others.

I read quite a few movie star biographies because so many of them were “rags to riches” stories, the kind of thing that got so many naive young ladies to get on a bus and head out to Hollywood back in the day, however, what it was that appealed to me about those stories was that there was always a strength of character presented, presented, as in, a lot of those stories are loaded with fabrications as well, because that’s what they did, they put the best face it on it all that they could. There’s something to be said for that, there’s a lot to be said for that sometimes. Debbie Reynolds was a product of that Old Hollywood system, and that made for some tough dames. The old school, “Never let ’em see you sweat, kid.” I’ve known women like that, women who said things to me, in my youth, like, “That’s when you really know you’ve got ’em by the balls!” But, only as an aside, you’d have never in a million years heard them utter such a thing in “public” or in polite company. Stoic. There’s great strength in that.

Debbie Reynolds personified this kind of stoic strength, putting the best face on it, right to the end. In this documentary, it is so there at the surface as she’s telling Carrie how they should be seen, how they should appear to be while they are in public, as they’re going to an awards show where she will be the recipient of the SAG Life Achievement Award, even though she’s barely well enough to be there. It’s apparent after her final show appearance on stage, as she’s carting around a casino afterwards saying that you can’t let life get you down because life is hard and if you do, it’ll kill you, you’ve got to keep going. It’s there in her making light of her “bad” marriages right to the end, because it’s how she owned it and controlled it. I was reminded of why I read those old biographies, because those women had great big balls to go play in the rough and tumble world that is Hollywood, especially back in those days, they had moxie, they had independent spirit, they had intestinal fortitude, and they had backbone for days. The show must go on! I took strength from those examples, what they said to me was, Yes, life’s a total bitch sometimes. This is how you do it! And that was Debbie Reynolds, without ever saying the word “bitch,” that you know of.

Enter Carrie Fisher. The prodigal daughter of Old Hollywood, the opposite of her mother in so many ways. At the very beginning of the documentary, she’s taking a soufflé that she has made out of her own oven in her very lived in kitchen and she’s spewing the words, “Fucking criminy.” She chain drinks Coca-Cola’s like they’re going out of style, she smokes, splashes herself with glitter, has a player piano in her bathroom. The walls are green, purple, blue, red, whatever, and on them are such delights as a painting that she describes as “A very unhappy woman who looks like Kevin Spacey.” When she appeared in her first movie role in the film “Shampoo,” her mother didn’t want her to say the line, “Want to f____k?” wanting her to use the word “screw” instead. Warren Beatty went to the house to talk to Carrie Fisher’s mother about that, the f-bomb stayed. Carrie Fisher, the daughter who had to find the strength to say, “I can’t do it your way. I can’t do it the old way.” And in that, showing everyone a different kind of strength, a different kind of resilience and backbone.

It was an incredibly moving portrait to be able to understand the depth of meaning that was on display in this representation of a true changing of the guard, the transitioning from not only one generation to the next, but from one era to the next. It occurred to me that I was raised with so many of those old ways because they weren’t just the ways of Old Hollywood, they were the ways of the world, the old social mores, not just about the way that a woman or a lady should behave, but about the way that people in general should behave, like not sitting down at a table, to eat, without taking your hat off. It wasn’t a matter of being phony or fake, keeping up something of a facade for “the sake of appearances,” though some certainly used that to be fake and to hide horrible things, it was that the world was a different place, people understood things in terms of there being no point in wallowing in it or focusing on the ugly because yes, life was hard, but it went on, and best to get on with it. They also understood the great buffer that manners and a mannerly society can often provide, for everyone. BUT, I was always of a mind of, I can’t do it your way.

I understand Debbie Reynolds stoicism. I understand Carrie Fisher’s, “Fucking criminy.”I realized, that has been so much of my own struggle, and I’m sure that of many other women of my generation.

As I watched, I realized that there are a couple of generations now to whom those old ways are completely unknown, and to whom they must seem patently ridiculous, if not unfathomable, not only as ideology, but in practice. Actress Loretta Young, who was single at the time, had a child with actor Clark Gable, hid the pregnancy, gave the child up for adoption, so that she could adopt it back as her own, without the public ever knowing, in order to protect their careers as Gable was married to Maria Langham. Who now would ever think of such a thing? Or try it if they did?

I think of Carrie Fisher in “The Blues Brothers,” as the mystery woman with her arsenal, just blowing shit up.

This is how social structures are rebuilt, reformed, as though they were fashion, and in some ways, they are.

I was moved by the revelation of this relationship, enduring friendship, between mother and daughter. I thought it was wonderful to get to see inside the homes of two great stars who very obviously actually lived in their houses, that were essentially only a walkway from one another. The sterile super-mod glass, chrome, polished marbles of celebrity mansions so often presented to us these days are complete bores, totally lacking in creativity, by comparison. Debbie Reynolds went into debt collecting up old movie memorabilia in the hopes of building a museum to share and preserve it, though that never happened, her affection for, and care of, this time in movie history was completely admirable, filled with affection and sentimentality. Carrie Fisher’s home was filled with things that she loved seemingly without a moment’s thought for whether or not any of it “went together,” or what anyone might think of it, and it was amazing.

There was something so exceedingly normal here, at one moment they’re all standing around in formal wear in the driveway, Carrie, her daughter, actress Billie Lourd ( Scream Queens), Carrie’s brother Todd, his wife, actress Catherine Hickland, limousines waiting to take them all to an awards show, and they’re waiting on grandma, Debbie Reynolds. They could have all been heading to Bingo together for the fanfare involved, except that they weren’t. What struck me about it was that it was less staged, less fake, than any A-list star wafting by in their sunglasses, looking at the ground, that you’ll see anywhere today. Secure in themselves, so famous that it was normal, and they were over it. Carrie Fisher was completely over being famous, and that’s famous. But there’s a lesson in that for everyone, about how to be.

These two women, Debbie Reynolds and Carrie Fisher, gave us two completely different examples of resilience, and strength, of backbone par excellence, they did it right. I think that Carrie Fisher personified, in so many ways, a new kind of modern which is, simply put, being and embracing oneself. Completely inspirational.

T.S.