Norma Rae (US, 1979)

They won’t get you if you’re part of a union

Norma Rae is a bit of an outlier of New Hollywood cinema that thrived at the start of the 1970s. The big studios had lost their audiences and the surprise hit, backed by Columbia, of Easy Rider (1969) allowed an auteur directed cinema to, relatively, thrive for a few years. Peter Bogdanovich, Bob Rafelson and Martin Scorsese (amongst others) made films that were consciously art rather than ‘mere’ entertainment. Although Easy Rider was a watershed film, Bonnie and Clyde and The Graduate (both 1967) had already tapped the counter cultural zeitgeist and, as is so often the case in history, the transition between periods is blurred. So New Hollywood began before it flourished and continued, in a diminished form, after it ended. Of course, mainstream entertainment never went away but it was a time when Hollywood would back interesting films.

In a simplistic manner we can ‘blame’ Jaws (1975) for the end of director-driven movies and the beginning of the producer-dominated High Concept film. Star Wars (1977), with its backward-looking aesthetic, signified the end of innovative filmmaking (apart from the special effects) in Hollywood that, arguably, we are still in with superhero films and Disney remakes being virtually the only game in town. Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate (1980), which bankrupted United Artists, was the last straw.

Why is Norma Rae one of the last gasps of New Hollywood? It was directed by Martin Ritt, who was one of the most reliable of Hollywood’s liberal film directors, and focuses on working class people, in cotton mills. The narrative is driven by the attempt of a union organiser (Ron Liebman) to get the workers to join. It also features a female protagonist, Sally Ann Field as the titular character (who won a Best Actress Oscar), and an entirely non-sexual relationship between her and the organiser: not even a chaste kiss even after they go ‘skinny dipping’. It’s unusual for Hollywood not to hint at ‘romance’ between female and male protagonists. Field’s Rae is sexual but it is on her own terms. The film was based loosely on Henry Leifermann’s Crystal Lee, A Woman of Inheritance, a biography of Crystal Lee Sutton, w woman who did actually stand on a table holding a sign saying ‘union’ after she had been sacked (more details here).

The scenes in the cotton mill are superbly authentic, the horrendous racket of the machines defeating conversation and, indeed, making organisation difficult. The difficulties of everyday life, on poor wages, are admirably delineated and the workers aren’t patronised as being ‘stupid’ for not being in a union. Company propaganda is shown to divide the workers, sometimes on racial lines. These were, and are, very real battles and the inevitable triumph, it is a Hollywood film after all, is a rallying call to all non-unionised folk.

Norma Rae deserves its place, alongside films like the independent John Sayles’s Matewan(1987), as one of the best American films about trade unions. Field was on The Graham Norton Show (BBC1) recently promoting her autobiography. It was quite scary seeing her as she hadn’t seemed to have aged much in 40 years. She was more like simulacrum and it is an indictment of our age that high profile people, women in particular, aren’t allowed to age properly.

Killing Ground (Australia, 2016) and Don’t Breathe (US, 2016)

Unhappy New Year in Australia

Two critically appreciated horror-thrillers with very different audience reaction: Killing Ground‘s rated 5.8 on imdb and seems to have taken little at the box office; Don’t Breathe gets a 7.1 and took nearly $150m worldwide. Both are superbly well made but for me there’s a crucial difference that makes the Australian film far superior: I cared about the characters.

 

Just deserts?

In the American film, which cost approximately 10 times more to make, the three protagonists are burglars. In Australia, the protagonists are an ‘in love’ couple celebrating New Year in the Outback. Writer-director Damien Power ensures this isn’t sickly-sweet and he’s aided by excellent characterisation by Harriet Dyer and Ian Meadows. Aaron Pedersen adds some charisma as the lumpen proletariat and although the film’s been compared to Deliverance (US, 1972), the film isn’t really about class. So as the burglars break in to a blind man’s house I’m quite happy for him to terrorise them (they have to be quiet hence ‘don’t breathe’). It is true that the narrative configures our sympathy with the youngsters as we learn more about the apparent victim but it’s too late by then; ‘too late’ for me but not most apparently.

Power’s film has plenty of suspense but it becomes clear he’s more interested in the relationship of the lovers; Dyer’s Sam proposes early in the film. How does such a romantic commitment stand up to life-threatening circumstances? Most of the violence is handled well and the worse is off screen though I thought the fate of the baby was miscalculated (I’m not entirely sure what happened as it was pretty dark).

The director of Don’t Breathe, Fede Alvarez (who co-wrote with Rodo Sayagues), handles the darkness well when the blind guy cuts the power to take away the youngsters’ advantage of sight. We’re in Silence of the Lambs (US, 1991) territory with our ‘heroes’ floundering in the dark but we can see as its shot (or post-produced more like) with filters that signifies ‘pitch black’ whilst we can clearly see what’s going on. It’s far better than the ‘day for night’ technique used in Hollywood’s heyday.

Don’t Breathe‘s slated for a sequel (Alvarez has directed the flop The Girl in the Spider’s Web, UK-Swede-Germany-Canada-US, 2018) but I’d rather see Power get another shot; he’s only directed a short since. Hopefully this won’t need to be in Hollywood but unfortunately that’s the path to take to get the finance. I can’t fathom why imdb voters prefer the American film as the Australian is much more emotionally involving; I guess it is because the former has more visceral thrills which is what youngsters tend to be more interested in.

The Glass Key (US, 1942)

True sado-masochism

Simplistic histories state The Maltese Falcon (1941) was the first film noir and so The Glass Key, also adapted from a Dashiel Hammett novel, counts as an early entry. Stranger on the Third Floor (1940) now tends to get the pioneering accolade though obviously the trends were lurking earlier as noir specialists Alain Silver and James Ursini’s new book, Film Noir Prototypes: Origins of the Movement, emphasises. The Glass Key doesn’t have an overtly noir look but then the celebrated The Big Sleep (1946) has zero (or near to zero) chiaroscuro lighting. There are a few scenes where shadows entrap characters but other traits of the genre are certainly present. There are also numerous low angle shots giving a quasi-expressionist feel to the mise en scene.

The plot’s convoluted and Veronica Lake seduces with a glance though she’s more femme than fatale. Apparently she was only 4 foot, 11 inches in height, so complimented Ladd who was only eight inches taller and they starred together in other films such as The Blue Dahlia (1946).

‘You’re looking at me kid’

The worldview is dark though political corruption is given a comic edge as if to say it is to be expected; America doesn’t seem very different now with the gerrymandering that went on in some southern states to suppress the black vote last November. The heavies are supremely psychotic and William Bendix is quite terrifying in the role as he almost cuddles Ladd’s Ed Beaumont as he anticipates the beating. Beaumont doesn’t seem too impartial to being battered either; there is sado-masochism in play. Beaumont’s escape from imprisonment is quite brilliantly done and the visceral violence in the film, though inherent in the genre, probably wasn’t matched until Kiss Me Deadly (1955). Bendix was in The Blue Dahlia too and I don’t think I’ve seen Brian Donlevy in a better role and he manages to convey honesty and corruption in one.

The director was Stuart Heisler and this is his best known film and although he does an excellent job it’s probable that cinematographer Theodor Sparkuhl was also a big influence on the film as he started his career in Germany and worked during the Expressionist period.

It’s slightly depressing that one of the reasons film noir remains compelling today is its nastiness. There’s little sugar coating that can make early Hollywood sickly. For example, All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) is a superbly shot World War I drama and grips until the protagonist’s mother starts gushing in a way that was conventional at the time. Little in noir is dated as women are often as much a narrative agent as men though there appearance is paramount; that’s true today. The failure of the law to bring evil convincingly to justice, and at the time the Production Code’s ‘law of compensating values’ insisted that bad be punished, is an entirely modern viewpoint. It’s true The Glass Key does have a soft ending but that’s not what lingers. Rather it’s the scene when Bendix is dishing out a fatal beating and Ladd’s Beaumont is looking on admiringly.

Widows (UK-US, 2018)

Doin’ it for themselves

Widows represents a further step into the mainstream for co-writer and director Steve McQueen. Ironically, given 12 Years a Slave was essentially an art movie, this is likely to be less financially successful than its predecessor. Business Insider attributes this to the November release date; whatever the reason it’s not for the lack of thrills within the film.

Based on Lynda LaPlant’s ’80s TV series the film centres around a heist undertaken, in desperation, by the widows of thieves. It has elements of a number of genres, including the heist movie, political corruption thriller and urban gangster. McQueen overlays a political analysis that is both specific to Chicago (the film’s setting) and, he argues in his Sight & Sound interview (November), the world. McQueen manages to both revitalise the car chase (the brilliant opening) and use sound in distinctive ways. An example of the latter is where Daniel Kaluuya’s psychopath is listening to Black Panther Alfred Woodfox, on the radio, talking about his 44 years in prison. This brings in the discourse of racial politics and, particularly in one scene, #BlackLivesMatter (not as convincing as a similar scene in The Hate U Give).

Sound is also to the fore when Colin Farrell’s conflicted politician, Jack Mulligan, leaves the Projects to return to his leafy home, barely a minute away. Whilst Mulligan rages on the soundtrack the camera remains on the car’s bonnet observing the shift in wealth of the environment.

It’s a stellar cast: Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriquez, Liam Neeson, as well as the aforementioned Kaluuya and Farrell. Robert Duval plays Mulligan’s dad and leaves a lasting impression as a hate-filled demagogue. The budget, notwithstanding the immense financial success of 12 Years a Slave, was a meagre $42m so it’s obvious that the talent is keen to work with McQueen.

Given the director’s ethnicity I was surprised to see, once or twice, that Viola Davis’ face was less clear than the white actor in the scene. It’s difficult to shoot both clearly, though I imagine digital technology could ‘cure’ this, and it is commonplace to have the black face more undifferentiated than the white. I’d’ve thought McQueen, and his cinematographer Sean Bobbit, would have reversed the power relationship.

However the film is as much about gender as race and McQueen ensures we have no doubt about the evil of toxic masculinity. There’s one moment when Neeson screws up his face and wails about saving himself that is especially noteworthy. Davis portrays her widow as indomitable in the face of her circumstances and Elizabeth Debecki’s transformation of an abused wife to a self-contained woman is entirely convincing.

Unsurprisingly, Widows doesn’t have the power of 12 Years a Slave, the subject matter sees to that, but McQueen confirms himself to be one of the most imaginative directors on the circuit.

The Boston Strangler (US, 1968)

Straining to be modern

By the late 1960s the old Hollywood guard must have known their time was past; Jack Warner’s attempt to bury his own film, Bonnie and Clyde, lasted six months when, on its re-release, it became a hit. The Production Code, that had pickled representations for over 30 years, went the way of the moguls and Hollywood grew up. The push was more economic than cultural, the audience was disappearing because Hollywood was no longer in touch with the zeitgeist. The ’60s was the age of the teen and Aquarius as the counter culture, fuelled by Civil Rights and atrocities in Vietnam, was where it was at. In cinema, the French ‘new wave’ had affectionately broken the binds of classical Hollywood form and, by the end of the decade, was washing over Los Angeles.

The formal innovations of the time can be seen particularly in The Boston Strangler through director Richard Fleischer’s use of split screen. It is especially affective when characters are knocking on a door in one half of the screen; in the other we can see the strangler’s corpse awaiting discovery on the door’s other side. The last part of the film, a fanciful interrogation by the lead detective and the suspect in a mental asylum, gets ever more abstract (so not classical Hollywood) with the whiteness of the setting and the use of flashbacks; ‘fanciful’ because the film is based on an actual case (that has reared its head in numerous films) and this dialogue never happened. The roles are played by classical Hollywood stars, Henry Fonda and Tony Curtis, respectively. Curtis is far more comfortable, possibly because he was playing out of his ‘persona’ comfort zone, a psychopath rather than a charmer. His difference fits with the difference of the film whereas Fonda ‘good guy’ plodding belongs to another era.

Unsurprisingly not all the innovations have dated well. When Fleischer splits the screen even more, into a mosaic, it becomes difficult to know what to look at. Not that it was confusing as the subdivided frame was serving as a montage, but it was nevertheless distracting. In addition, the psychology espoused in the asylum no longer rings true. Cinema’s representation of psychology often has a loose relationship with the discipline as it’s used for dramatic purposes.

However, the film remains worth seeing as an example of the transition between old Hollywood and the New Hollywood of the early ’70s. Of course, most of the films emanating from California at the time were standard genre fare not suitable for experimentation. The Boston Strangler strains to be modern which is better than not being modern at all.

Panic in the Streets (US, 1950)

Palance representing the noir virus

It’s a long time since I’d seen Panic in the Streets and I don’t think I appreciated its brilliance on first viewing. One of the continuing attractions of film noir, I think, is its modernity in terms of the ideas expressed. The sickness in the human soul that noir portrays hasn’t gone anywhere, indeed it may be taking the ‘upper hand’ at the moment. So to see representations of evil is both cathartic and a warning. Richard Murphy’s screenplay has more than a human evil, personified here by the outstanding Walter Jack Palance (as he was credited), as the bubonic plague is spreading in New Orleans.

The screenplay’s good, but the plaudits must go to Elia Kazan for his extraordinary direction. Kazan’s roots in documentary are evident with the location shooting which helps make the threat of plague seem real (as does the casting of non actors, in small roles, as people who are just trying to get on with their lives). Richard Widmark plays the public spirited health official who fights the complacent cops to get them to understand that a serious epidemic is possible. Palance plays Blackie who believes there’s a ‘Maltese Falcon’  (something extremely valuable) being hidden and his search takes him to the plague carrier: a wonderful metaphor for venality.

Location shooting adds to the tension

It’s not just the location shooting that gives the film a realist edge; Kazan uses some extraordinarily long takes (for Classical Hollywood) that add to the intensity as the drama plays out (for a short time) directly before our eyes (no cutting to signify mediation). This requires great acting and there’s plenty on offer in the film: the aformentioned Palance, his sidekick Zero Mostel (all sweaty obsequiousness) and Barbara Bel Geddes as ‘the good woman at home’. In addition, Kazan doesn’t simply let the long take impress us, but sometimes actors and/or the camera moves and the resulting compositions continue to be aesthetically satisfying. Often when a director uses a handheld camera to signify realism the balanced composition is lost in favour of directness. Kazan offers us both directness and meaningful mise en scene.

Finally, deep focus compositions, which by their nature tend to be expressionist due distortions created by the lenses, add to the sense of panic by both showing the narrative world in detail whilst subtly displacing its fabric. Much of the film’s action takes place at night, giving plenty of opportunity for chiaroscuro lighting and so brings the noir into the everyday world.

In addition, J.P. Teloitte in Voices in the Dark (Illini Books) showed how eating runs as a motif throughout the film as a metaphor for appetite; something that drives us but not necessarily in our best interests.  Overall it’s a brilliantly constructed and executed film; one of the best noirs.

Walk on the Wild Side (US, 1962)

Fonda brings modernity to Hollywood

The film seems to be most famous for the Elaine and Saul bass designed title sequence with a slinky black cat on the prowl however, for me, it’s Jane Fonda’s performance and charisma that mark it as a movie worth seeing. It also includes Barbara Stanwyck in one of her (coded) lesbian roles and Laurence Harvey, an actor I don’t usually enjoy, is excellent as the naive boy with a heart.

It has a classy cast, though one of leads – Capucine – seems to be in the role at the producer’s insistence rather than for her acting skills, and it is directed (though apparently not finished as it was a troubled production) by ‘classic Hollywood’ great, Edward Dymytrk. By having a brothel as a prime setting, and a lesbian as a lead character, Walk on the Wild Side was a thoroughly modern production for its time. Though because of the Production Code it had to imply anything that would be deemed untoward. Of course having Stanwyck, playing Jo the madam, as a lesbian who is cruelly manipulative is hardly a statement of tolerance.

Fonda plays a troubled youngster who just wants to ‘have fun’, though her attempts to seduce Harvey’s Dove Linkhorn are rebuffed. It struck me that her acting style was different to the Hollywood veterans in the cast. Apparently she insisted on changing her dialogue, maybe to make it more naturalistic, and she’s a very physical actor; there’s no standing around waiting her turn for dialogue, she is always engaging with the scene. 

Wild Fonda

She’s only in the film at the start and end but grabs the eyes when she is (and that’s not just to do with how she looks). She was 25 when the film was released and had only just started appearing in movies, after a career on stage. The scenes she has with Anne Baxter, who does her best playing a Mexican gas station owner, show the contrast between the ‘old’ and ‘new’: Fonda wriggles whilst Baxter is stately.

Although obviously hamstrung by the Production Code, the ending is suitably downbeat with the ‘law of compensating values’ (the bad need punishing) only fulfilled as an afterthought on a newspaper front page that’s been discarded. 

Sudden Fear (US, 1952)

Plotting her reaction

It’s great at my age to find a mini-classic that I hadn’t even heard of never mind seen. Add to this the delight in seeing a remastered print (on Talking Pictures), so Charles Lang’s lovely cinematography can be appreciated to the full, Sudden Fear was a real treat. It’s a while since I’ve seen Mildred Pierce (1945), but it’s difficult to imagine Joan Crawford being better. She plays Myra Hudson, an heiress and successful playwright who has the misfortune to fall for Jack Palance, in all his battered-face glory.

As this excellent Film Comment piece suggests, Crawford draws on her silent era acting skills and there is a brilliant moment (when she knows of Palance’s plotting) where she hugs him and we see disgust on her face which is transformed into affection as the clinch ends, as he can now see her. She is more than matching his dissemblance. As the film progresses, Palance is shot less sympathetically, emphasising his angular facial features as an emblem of his monstrosity.

The film is not strictly noir as the plot lacks narrative convolutions and it is only toward the end that the chiaroscuro visual style kicks in. However, the ideas of noir are entirely in keeping with the story as Hudson’s life plunges from opulence to psychological despair. Miller’s direction is excellent and there’s a superb nightmare sequence.

Daringly we are given what is in effect a flashforward of Hudson’s plot for revenge. Whilst this seems dramatically compromising, as this is ‘classical Hollywood’ there’s no doubt that ‘justice will prevail’, the actual execution of it doesn’t go to plan adding to the tension. 

I can’t not mention glorious Gloria Grahame in one of her trademark ‘bad dame’ roles. She more than matches Crawford for screen presence and is the icing on a superb film.

The Hate U Give (US, 2018)

An apartheid state of mind

Hollywood and overt politics (‘overt’ because it’s directly engaging with the political) are unlikely bedfellows hence film buffs tend to celebrate anything subversive to come out of that commercial – hence conservative – institution because it ‘gives it to the man!’. This adaptation of a YA novel, written by Angie Thomas and adapted by Audrey Wells, is entirely political as it portrays racial discrimination in America in a gripping and highly intelligent fashion.

Amandla Stenberg plays Starr Carter (referencing Beyoncé who she name-checks?) a teenager from the ghetto whose protective parents enrol her in a suburban, ‘white school’. At the start of the film her dad is giving her ‘the talk’ but it’s not about sex, it’s about what to do if the police pull you over when you are in a car. Immediately the different world people of colour have to live in is made clear and the film filters Starr’s coming of age through the #BlackLivesMatter zeitgeist of America.

It can be difficult to make political statements when working in mainstream institutions (the film was distributed by Fox 2000) but the film’s brilliance is it manages to effectively convey the political message through the conventions of the ‘teen pic. So, for example, Starr’s ‘girlfriend’ problems, from her white friends at school, manifest themselves as incomprehension of what it is like to a person of colour. Starr realises that she isn’t seen as black because she is like her middle class peers at school; she hides her ‘ghetto persona’ as a survival mechanism. Her relationship with her boyfriend (a miscast KJ Apa who looks too old) is also subtly done as he’s sent to the margins at the climax; there’s no danger, in this film, of having ‘white saviours of black folk’.

The film reminded me of the great Boyz n the Hood (1991) which also dealt with ghetto life and had a keynote speech, delivered by Laurence Fishburn, where he explained that drugs in the ghettos were not an accident but a form of repression. The Hate U Give has at least three such speeches but they never feel like they are being delivered via a soapbox, they are fully integrated into the narrative and are crucial lessons for both POC and whites.

In a chilling scene Starr runs through a scenario, with her black cop uncle, about the different ways a white man in a suit would be treated compared to a person of colour if pulled over. The uncle’s response reveals the racist core of America (and any society tainted by racism – it was revealed last week that, in the UK, not one person on the 240-strong parole board is ‘minority ethnic’). With the bellicose Trump in charge that isn’t going to change soon but, after last week’s mid-term elections, there is a sense that the ‘times are a changin” – let’s hope so.

Whirlpool (US, 1950)

Jose Ferrer entangles Gene Tierney is his hypnotic web

Narrative implausibilities don’t matter too much in film noir as it is a genre that deals with often grim mental states rather than the ‘real world’. This is particularly true in the films from around the middle of the last century in America when Dr Freud’s ideas had passed, in some form or other, into the mainstream. That’s fortunate for Whirlpool as the way Charles Bickford’s lieutenant conducts his investigation more than beggars belief. Gene Tierney is mixed up in murder having been entangled by Jose Ferrer’s bad guy; Ferrer is brilliant in the role. The narrative allows the husband to question his wife in the presence of the cop, and vice versa, and this highlights the investigation is into a woman’s psyche rather than into crime.

Tierney’s husband (a miscast Richard Conte – he was a great heavy) is a psychiatrist so we can be sure that what ails his wife lurks in childhood. And it is this that makes the film particularly interesting as the psychological villain turns out to be patriarchy: her father and later her husband. There isn’t any ‘reading between the lines’ required to work this out for the film explicitly states this. Many noirs focused on male insecurity, particularly of veterans, and the femme fatales that brought them down. Whirlpool deals with female insecurity and the men that bring her down.

This insecurity manifests itself as an entirely patriarchal creation: the belief that women were weak and easily hysterical. Tierney’s character’s kleptomania also derives draws on the idea that women mentally were weak consumers.

Preminger restricts his use of chiaroscuro lighting and doesn’t offer expressionist angles but shoots the film efficiently enough. Arthur Miller’s cinematography looks great, as does Tierney even if her range as an actor was limited she does embody the part very well.