Thursday, June 17, 2010

Film Forum to the Rescue

Film Forum made my weekend. As I suspected midway through my Friday, I would not be able to leave the office in time to catch the 7ish showing of “Agora” at the Landmark/Sunshine Theatre, and I didn’t think I could start watching a movie at 9 p.m. without snoring by the end no matter how good it might be. 8 o’clock showings were few and far between on my route home through Manhattan, and in Queens – and the few choices were not choice. So I grumbled and decided to just walk up to the Village and head home. Then it came to me -- what's playing at the the Film Forum?!
The answer was: Lots. I’d have had to rush for the film I didn’t recognize – Double Take. But I had time enough to relax and grab some popcorn and a forbidden cola before the film I chose: Tourneur’s Nightfall. Aldo Ray, Anne Bancroft, noir. Yes, I’d seen this, but not a brand new 35 mm print and not on a large screen.

Jacques Tourneur's Nightfall is just fun. The writing is crisp, clever, and fast-paced. I felt I was watching a film honoring a great short story, American, noir, post-WW2, of course. The story was by David Goodis, and the screenplay is credited to Stirling Siliphant.

I’ve had a soft spot for Aldo Ray since “Pat & Mike” and “We’re No Angels.” Even if his emotional range is in the shallows, his line readings are clear so doubtless pleasing to screenwriter Siliphant. Aldo is an all-American kind of guy, and even when playing a “bad guy” we just know he must have been forced into it by insurmountable circumstances. We first see him as James Gregory does – at a newsstand in LA looking for a paper from Evanston, Illinois, to no avail. The lights go on as twilight darkens the city street, and Aldo flinches.

James Gregory’s voice, inflections, timing, are those of all the characters he played on probably every television program in the 1960s and 1970s. His character “Ben” approaches Aldo, asks for a light, and engages in small talk. We immediately learn important things about both – that Gregory’s character was 4F and did not serve in the War. Aldo’s character served in the Pacific War, established neatly by talk about the heat, and how can the people in the tropics take it. “Born to it,” Aldo says. The talk is desultory, Aldo only slightly paranoid. Gregory hops a bus while Aldo shakes off his moment of suspicion and chooses to enter a nightclub where Al Hibbert (who sang the opening theme song) might have entertained. He sits and is shortly joined by Anne Bancroft, who is unable to pay for her drink. The pair chat, sharply, not particularly flirtatious, they challenge and parry. The small talk is a tad bitter, and yet she accepts his invitation to dinner. He’s a commercial artist, she’s a model – this is L.A., after all. Bancroft is young but not sweet, with a swell figure. They chat, they laugh, they smooth some rough edges and get along, such that there may be more to the evening

Who knows what might have occurred outside the restaurant had not two very confident men approached, who told Bancroft, essentially, to scram, inviting Ray into their car. She skulks off, looking back with something like anger at Ray, as if he’s betrayed her. He speaks to her in a nasty tone, as if she’s set him up. Ah, the misunderstanding.

But who are those two jokers? The clear and present villains of the piece are: Rudy Bond as seemingly dense thug named “Red,” with a braying laugh and a big gun; and Brian Keith as “John,” the smarter of the two crooks, cool, funny, with gorgeous line readings, style and timing. Brian Keith! Yes, the sweet uncle in the “Family Affair” television series we grew up with, down to the weird hair (although darker here). Keith’s is the most delightful, disarming performance of the film, closely followed by Bond. They want $350K they believe Aldo Ray has; he denies having it, and therein lies some conflict that can be resolved in the viewers’ minds by flashbacks, but not in the minds of the two villains.

Alternating with these scenes are home scenes of James Gregory with very ‘50s Stepford wife Jocelyn Brando. She is the perfect mate for a hard working insurance detective. Gregory clearly leans the way we the viewers do – he just doesn’t believe Ray’s behavior is that of a man who killed his best friend and somehow made off with $350,000.

In the present, the lighting dark when the two villains take Aldo out to a field of oil rigs and derricks, planning to torture the location of the$350K out of him. They beat him up, take his wallet, including an address for Bancroft, then take a really long time to threaten him into confessing. Maybe it didn’t feel long in 1958, but in our jaded century, these guys were remarkably polite.

We flashback to bright whites in the mountains before the snows closed the roads up in Wyoming, when two bank robbers drove a car very badly, crashed it, were helped by Aldo Ray and his camping/fishing/hunting buddy, “Doc.” Suffice to say, the good turn is served with a bad one, crazy Red kills the doc and sets up Aldo for the killing.

So somehow these two bank robbers manage to crash their getaway car when they are many states away from the original robbery, add murder to their crimes, lose the other witness, AND lose the $350,000 they stole. They appear rather incompetent, especially when Aldo gets away a second time in their own car. Then Aldo, for no good reason at all, goes to confront Bancroft.

Misunderstanding is resolved based totally on trust. She thought he was a criminal and the two villains were cops, he thought she’d worked for them in setting him up. Apparently someone thought there was chemistry between these two, but there wasn’t. Just the facts ma’am. He tells her the story in flashback, the villains show up, and the chase begins.

This is the primary failure of the film. I’ve always liked Bancroft, but her character is entirely unbelievable, as is the baseless relationship between her and Aldo Ray. Sigh.

Meanwhile, James Gregory follows Aldo to a bus station where Aldo has bought two tickets back to the mountains now that the roads are open. Apparently this happens based on the calendar, not the weather, since the date the roads would reopen (so he could go back and try to find the $350K) is circled on Aldo’s calendar.

So everybody’s following Aldo Ray, who is going to meet up with Bancroft where she’s modeling in a fashion show for rich people with nothing else to do on a sunny afternoon. Bancroft sees the two villains in the audience (who do not try to hide – they enjoy her discomfiture, hoping perhaps for a smidgen of fear, and Bancroft glares right back at them like the Bronx broad she is). When Aldo appears, she flees the runway in a long tight dress to protect him. They run off together, but clearly the tight dress and foolish shoes pain her, and suddenly Aldo picks her up in his arms and keeps running. The audience howls.

Tourneur uses light, dark, and reversals beautifully. The darkness of the southern nights is hot, the brightness of the northern days are cold. Stark or sultry, the film and Tourneur owe a great debt to cinematographer Burnett Guffey. Gorgeous as only black-and-white film can be.

The thaw allowing them to revisit the scene of the crime, Aldo, Anne, and James Gregory truck through the knee high snow and find their way to the little hut where Aldo thinks he lost the medical bag. A tractor-like plow is outside the hut. Aldo makes his way to the hut, and guess who made it there before him. Yes, “Red” and “John.”

Anyway, despite the fact that this is not Hitchcock, there’s a MacGuffin. It’s that bag filled with $350K in cash (half of which would apparently, in 1958, purchase a tropical island for Brian Keith’s character). A bag that looks just like Doc’s medical bag (the sort of bag Marcus Welby would have carried to a house call). Yes, there was a switcheroo.

This film had two big kicks for me:

Brian Keith. It was like watching Double Indemnity for the first time, when I’d known Fred MacMurray as the dad in “My Three Sons” and the doofus but kind guy in Disney movies for years, there he was – cool and suave and sexy. Him and Barbara Stanwyck. This was similar. Keith would slide into view, shrug, comment, philosophize. Really, a bad guy, but so cool. So different from the television personality I had come to expect.

And the film’s last line. The final scenes of Nightfall are in glaring bright light reflecting off the snow. That snowplow wasn’t there just for show, and that little medical bag? Well by the end, the bad guys have lost the upper hand, the good guys are buddies, and there’s that bag. Sitting in the snow. All by itself. And Aldo Ray says, “Let’s go keep it company.”

Now that’s a last line.

The next night I trekked back in to catch the film I hadn’t picked the night before: Double Take, a film by Johan Grimonprez (apparently there’s also a book). This film is about Alfred Hitchcock (about whom I've been thinking a lot lately -- deju vu?), Hitchcock films, television, the Cold War, the Space Race, paranoia, fear, and doppelgangers. At some point in its creation I would surmise its creators were a little bit stoned, but that doesn’t detract from the entertainment value. There's a lot of Hitch in his hilarious commercial moments, and food for thought in the scenes from Hitch’s films inter cut with the newsreels of the time -- McCarthyism. Nixon/Kennedy debate. Bay of Pigs. Berlin Wall. Kennedy assassination. Art is a reflection of its world, is it not?

And some say we all have a doppelganger.

Two good films at Film Forum saved my weekend. May it save yours.

~ Molly Matera, signing off. Time for a little Hitchcock....

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