MIDDLE OF THE NIGHT, written by Paddy Cheyevsky, directed by Delbert Mann, with Kim Novak and Fredric March (1959, 118 min.)
Just a brief postscript to my recently posted “Kim Novak as Midwestern Independent”. If memory serves, I hadn’t seen this profoundly depressing piece of New York Chayevsky realism since I was 16, when it came out. Now it comes across, for better and for worse, like another version of Mikio Naruse depicting the shallow rewards and prospects of the urban, aging lower-middle-class. What’s distinctly un-Naruse-like, though, is Kim Novak, who brings a nervous, almost hysterical energy to her part as the divorced, 24-year-old secretary, girlfriend, and fiancée of a middle-aged widower and garment-industry worker (Fredric March), almost as if she were trying her hand at a Method performance. The fact that I can only believe in her character part of the time stems from the fact that I can so easily see her trying. Still, the mood swings of her character are often terrifying and believable in a way that even seems to go beyond the demands of the material–as if she were constantly trying on the part for size and then immediately changing her wardrobe in a fit of impatience. [7/29/08]
THE RACK, written by Stewart Sterm and Rod Serling, directed by Arnold Laven, with Paul Newman, Wendell Corey, Edmond O’Brien, Walter Pidgeon, Anne Francis, Lee Marvin, and Cloris Leachman (1956, 100 min.)
TIME LIMIT, written by Henry Denker and Ralph Berkey, directed by Karl Malden, with Richard Widmark, Richard Basehart, Dolores Michaels, June Lockhart, Rip Torn, Martin Balsam, Carl Benton Reid, and James Douglas (1957, 96 min.)
I’ve recently reseen these two taut black and white 50s melodramas about the impending courtmartials of American POWs in North Korea who broke under torture, including brainwashing, and became traitors–characters played respectively by Paul Newman and Richard Basehart, and interrogated by Wendell Corey and Edmond O’Brien in the first film, Richard Widmark in the second. Indeed, there are so many close similarities and parallels between these films and their existential issues that I’ve often mixed them up in my memory, although it’s now clear after reseeing them that Time Limit, the only film ever directed by Karl Malden, is by far the better of the two. The Rack is adapted by Stewart Stern from a 1955 TV drama by Rod Serling that aired on the United States Steel Hour; Time Limit is adapted by Henry Denkler from a 1956 play that he coauthored with Ralph Berkey.
It’s interesting to reflect in passing that the central issue of both films–why and how a much-admired officer broke under torture and wound up cooperating with the enemy–is one that has hardly been addressed at all in the case of John McCain’s torture as a POW in North Vietnam (Alexander Cockburn’s low-profile and not readily accessible Counterpunch is, as far as I know, the only publication that’s addressed it), which has been discussed almost exclusively as an account of what McCain endured, not in terms of how the enemy benefited from the torture when he eventually decided to cooperate. It also seems significant that the propagandistic value of the torture for the North Koreans isn’t questioned or discussed in either film (or in The Manchurian Candidate, for that matter, a 1962 film clearly informed by these two predecessors), although it’s widely felt today that the propagandistic value of the torture practiced mainly by U.S. mercenaries on Iraqi citizens who have mainly proved to be innocent has been exclusively negative.
Part of what for me makes Time Limit more provocative is the extent to which it challenges the audience’s view of what heroism is, with a well-calibrated surprise ending that overturns many of our initial assumptions. (The fact that it includes a few flashbacks to North Korea, unlike The Rack, plays some part in this.) The Rack also challenges some of our assumptions, to be sure, but does so a good deal more tentatively and uncertainly. Both films are very much worth seeing, although attempting to relate them in any way to present-day issues only highlights the depressing distance we’ve traveled between then and now. To the best of my knowledge, torture as a kind of sport wasn’t a commercial standby half a century ago in the same way it is today in such films as Saw and its sequels. And neither The Rack nor Time Limit regards it or uses it as any sort of sport. [8/03 postscript: TCM is showing Time Limit on Monday, 8/11, at 2:30 PM.][7/25/08]
Now that Jack Webb’s glorious PETE KELLY’S BLUES has finally become available on DVD, this seems like an appropriate time to exhume my Chicago Reader film blog post about it in 2007, now happily out of date, and update the links:
February 16th - 9:31 a.m.
Don’t ask me how, but I recently had a chance to resee Jack Webb’s Pete Kelly’s Blues (1955), a terrific, atmospheric, period noir in Cinemascope and WarnerColor about a cornet player (Webb) in a Dixieland band in 1927 Kansas City (after an evocative prologue in 1915 New Orleans and 1919 Jersey City showing us where and how Pete Kelly came by his cornet). It’s got an amazing cast: Edmond O’Brien, Janet Leigh, Peggy Lee, Lee Marvin, Andy Devine (in a rare and very effective noncomic role), Ella Fitzgerald, and even a bit by Jayne Mansfield as a cigarette girl in a speakeasy. The screenplay, which deservedly gets star billing in the opening credits, is by Richard L. Breen, onetime president of the Screen Writers Guild and apparently a key writer on Webb’s Dragnet, and it’s full of wonderful and hilarious hardboiled dialogue and offscreen narration by Webb. (When a flapper played by Leigh says to Kelly that April is her favorite month, he replies, “If you like it so much, I’ll buy it for you.”)
It seems that Webb was as passionate a jazz buff as Clint Eastwood, and this movie is at least as much of a labor of love as Bird. In his film essay Los Angeles Plays Itself, Thom Andersen compares Webb’s minimalist direction of Dragnet episodes to the direction of Ozu, but here the mise en scene is positively baroque in spots -– and beautifully composed. Another point of interest, for me at any rate, is that I’m strongly persuaded that John Cassavetes borrowed substantial chunks of this movie’s plot for his underrated, neglected, and hard-to-find Too Late Blues (1962), his first Hollywood film (see the black-and-white photo below).
In any case, Pete Kelly’s Blues has never been released on DVD. But it was once released on VHS in England, and if you go to Amazon UK, you can find a used, letterboxed VHS of the film on sale for 150 quid -– which, according to current exchange rates, comes to about $293 -– heralded as a “low price”! This is outrageous even if one places it alongside the $210 being charged by one dealer on American Amazon for a used DVD of The Complete Goofy.
What’s the meaning of this? That enthusiasts of certain cultural items are supposed to be crazy, I guess. I’m reminded of Peggy Lee’s chilling portrayal in Pete Kelly’s Blues of an alcoholic singer who winds up in an insane asylum with a doll and the mind of a seven-year-old after her gangster boyfriend (Edmond O’Brien) beats her up. We cinephiles are sometimes made to feel almost equally bruised and bereft. [7/23/08]
TEX AVERY: A UNIQUE LEGACY (1942-1955) by Floriane Place-Verghnes (Eastleigh, UK: John Libbey Publishing), 2006, 214 pp.
I love the last line in Dr. Place-Verghnes’ Acknowledgments–a tactful understatement which demonstrates both that she wears her academic armor lightly and that she’s temperamentally suited to dealing with someone like Avery: “I reserve a particular sentiment for Warner Brothers Inc., without whom and their point-blank refusal to grant copyright authorisation, this volume would have contained multiple images from Tex Avery and others’ cartoons in support of the textual content.” (Actually, she does cheat a tad by reproducing or at least imitating a classic Avery image on the book’s cover–two giant bulging eyeballs as they appear in one of the Wolf cartoons.)
It’s too bad she didn’t publish this book online–in which case I presume she would have had as little difficulty in illustrating the graphic brilliance of Avery as I’m having here by scavenging diverse items from the Internet. For starters, here are three more characteristic samples:
One of the more interesting challenges in viewing Avery’s vintage MGM work is learning how to process various aspects of their racism and sexism without overlooking their good-humored humanity or drowning in political correctness. Though I’ve only sampled Place-Verghnes’ book so far, she appears to pull off this difficult task. Meanwhile, recently reseeing some of Avery’s more questionable items, such as Uncle Tom’s Cabaña (1947) and Half-Pint Pygmy (1948)–see below for illustrations of each–it seems to me that Avery’s stereotypes are far more objectionable when they stem from areas of experience, e.g., Africa, about which he appears to know nothing. Avery’s Africa, for instance, includes palm trees, assorted sea creatures, and a kangaroo, and the title pygmy, far from being the hero (the heroes are clearly George and Junior, who are pursuing him), is basically a generic pickaninny who loves watermelon and a fleeing potential victim like Jerry in Tom and Jerry–not to mention a conceptual variation on the antagonists in the classic King-Size Canary (1947). By contrast, Uncle Tom is the uncontested hero of his own cartoon, living in what is recognizably an American city with slave quarters, and extremely resourceful and eloquent as well as multifaceted (he plays a mean piano), even if he fibs a lot.
I guess my main point is that Avery, a quintessential and perhaps even stereotypical Texan, can be judged either as that or as a man of his period (which appears to be mainly Place-Verghnes’ approach), or perhaps as both, in conjunction with being an artist at least as talented as his Uncle Tom [7/19/08]