Formerly "Dave's Blog About Movies and Such"

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Wild Guitar (1962)

dir. Ray Dennis Steckler

"You don't believe what you read, only what I tell you."
-Mike McCauley

As with every new fad, when Rock and Roll burst onto the scene in the early fifties, the old guard feared that it signaled the downfall of civilization. All that movement below the hips, which this Rock and/or Roll inspired, couldn't be healthy. It was only a small step toward a bunch of young hoods being hopped up on goofballs and causing anarchy in the streets. Fear of this new music would eventually dissipate as this genre became well established in American culture. In my opinion, this occurred when Pat Boone recorded his first Little Richard cover. It was then that Rock and Roll got its first taste of lame. By the early sixties, Rock and Roll was fairly well established and staid and it would still be a few years before the British Invasion injected new life into this music. By this time, the biggest controversies surrounding the form did not involve the actual music, rather the wheelings and dealings of the record producers -- specifically, the payola scandal. The power of the music had also been slightly neutered after its use in many teen movies.

The exploitation production companies of this era were quick to jump on any fad where they felt they could make a quick buck, and Rock and Roll was no exception. These movies were made on the cheap and with little to no plot. It was as if the producers were making these movies with a contempt for the very teenage audience that shelled out so much money to see these pictures (for a good depiction of this subject, I highly recommend George Axelrod's Lord Love a Duck (side note: Lord Love a Duck only has a few scenes dealing with this subject but it is still a great movie)). In all honesty, the early sixties is my favorite era for cinematic trash. One of the reasons for this is that this was a time when filmmakers felt freer to push the envelope and move into more risque territory. Especially exploitation directors.

I would place Ray Dennis Steckler near the top (or should I say bottom) of this pantheon of trashy directors. His lack of skill with dialogue, actors, and general filmaking is quite a thing to behold. Steckler would eventually direct such cinematic gems as The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies!!? and The Hollywood Strangler Meets the Skid Row Slasher but his first feature was Wild Guitar. Is it as great a debut as Citizen Kane? One can not say. But when Steckler arrived, the world listened.

Wild Guitar concerns the fames and fortunes of rising superstar Bud Eagle (Arch Hall Jr.). Over the opening credits we see Eagle riding his motorcycle to L.A. with a guitar on his back. You would think that this scene would signify the arrival of a badass punk character but you would be wrong to think that. Eagle is as far from badass as is humanly possible. He's a simple (i.e., dumb) cornfed midwesterner with hopes of making it in the music business. When he stops at a diner in L.A. he meets a young woman named Vickie Wills (Nancy Czar) who notices his guitar case. They have this witty exchange:

"Say, are you a musician?"

"Well now I wouldn't go so far as to say that."

"Oh you just keep your laundry in there, huh."

"Oh no, that's a guitar alright."

Wow, what banter. Did Billy Wilder write this stuff? The sexual tension is palpable. The odd looking Vickie is referred to, throughout the movie, as being quite beautiful. Apparently, this is as much beauty as Steckler's meager budget could afford. Either that or he is using the Fellini standard of beauty (wow, what a douchebaggy thing for me to say). Bud and Vickie soon hit it off and when Vickie gets a gig dancing on a TV show Bud shows up to give his support. Wouldn't you know it, the musical guest gets sick so they hire Eagle to sing. After singing on this show, Eagle becomes a sensation across the country.

Apparently, the kids across the country are exceedingly lame. Eagle's music is a tame imitation of Ricky Nelson. Actually, a more appropriate comparison would be that Eagle is a much much whiter version of Johnny Crawford (wow, what an obscure reference). Eagle soon gets pulled under the wing of sleazy record producer Mike McCauley. McCauley is played by Arch Hall Jr.'s dad, Arch Hall, but under the pseudonym William Waters. McCauley has a sidekick named Steak who is played by Steckler. Steckler acts under the pseudonym Cash Flagg. I'll let you be the judge of who has the cooler fake name. Steak is supposed to be a psychotic henchman, not that you would have known that from any aspect of his character as presented in the movie. Steckler's chief bit of inspiration, acting-wise, seems to have been boredom. Seriously, he is the laziest and most uninterested goon I have ever seen in a movie.

Although Eagle has instant success, McCauley never lets him see a dime of his earnings. Eagle's rise to fame is displayed eloquently in a beautifully framed shot in which records and Monopoly money fall into a huge pile. That's when you know you've made it, when you can buy enough games of Monopoly to swim in the fake money. Although Eagle grows increasingly jaded with his lifestyle as he becomes more aware of McCauley's evil machinations, he is simply too dumb to figure a way out (Hall's sole facial expression in this movie is a confused look in which he scrunches his face). The simplest acts for you and me such as walking and talking are beyond the grasp of this poor simpleton.

Eagle finds his savior in the form of three hoods even dumber than he is. Eagle ends up getting kidnapped by these knuckleheads and held for ransom. The actors who played these goons appear to have been hired off a backlot from the thirties where they were hired regularly as New York tough guys (with very bad New York accents I might add). Steckler's sole bit of directing to these hoods seems to have been, "not retarded enough." These guys use plenty of malapropisms such as this gem:

"There's a elephant of truth there."

That's right. These people do not know what elephant means. When the goons inform Eagle of their plan to fleece McCauley, Eagle is overjoyed at having a chance of sticking it to his boss. He also refuses to accept any money stolen from McCauley (did I mention that Eagle is a dumb dumb country boy). After getting the first installment of their ransom money, the goons quickly lose it when Steak breaks into their lair and steals it back. Just in case we didn't realize how dumb these goons are, one of them tries to escape by climbing a ladder propped against the ceiling.

Managing to overcome the adversity of his stupidity, Eagle concocts a plan to catch McCauley on tape as he describes his nefarious ways. When McCauley realizes that his goose is cooked, he vows to change his evil ways. Then there is a beach party. The End.

The lack of skill with which Steckler directed this movie is simply astounding. During the scene in which Eagle met Vickie, the eye-lines were so mismatched that I honestly thought Vickie was blind. Despite this, what really struck me was how adventurous Steckler was with some of the filmmaking. Although most of the shots in this movie are static and uninteresting, during action sequences Steckler went nuts. In the fight sequences Steckler used unusual camera setups, strange camera moves, and an almost avant-garde style of cutting. Were he to make this for a traditional studio, he would have, no doubt, been reeled in and prevented from being as wild as he was in these instances. This is what I enjoy about director's of Steckler's ilk. Working, as they were, with cheapo production companies and small budgets, they had much less to lose. They were freer to experiment. Did these experiments always work? Fuck no. That's what makes this work so interesting. Decent studio craftsmen could have done a better job of getting all the technical things right, but adequate directors are a dime a dozen as far as I'm concerned. Truly unskilled directors are all inept in their own unique ways.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

My Favorite Opening Scenes (Part 1)

"If a story doesn't give you a hard-on in the first couple of scenes, throw it in the goddamned garbage."
-Samuel Fuller

This will be the first entry in a continuing series of posts in which I write about, as the title states, my favorite opening scenes from movies. This isn't necessarily a discussion of movies I find particularly noteworthy (although I do quite enjoy most of them), rather it is a discussion of opening scenes that serve their purpose well. Namely, to draw the viewers in and leave them wanting more.

The Naked Kiss (1964)

What better way to start this post than with a Sam Fuller movie. Fuller remains the master of the opening scene. In all actuality, I could write this entire thing about Fuller movies but I want to have a one movie per director limit. Fuller was special in that, although many of his movies started at a fever pitch, they managed to maintain that intensity and stay compelling all the way through. Fuller came from a journalism background so he knew the importance of grabbing a reader's attention from the first sentence. The Naked Kiss deals with issues of redemption, and with the idea of the possibility of escaping one's past. Constance Towers plays a prostitute, Kelly, who wants to start a new life. First, however, she must rid herself of her pimp. The very first startling shot of this movie shows a half naked Kelly swinging her shoe at the camera. She is attacking both her pimp and the audience. After pummeling him, she takes the money owed to her so that she can leave town. In a few quick actions, Fuller has set up the entire movie.

The Last Boy Scout (1991)

A hilarious send-up of a "Monday Night Football" music promo plays over the opening credits and then we jump full force into the movie. A star football player receives a call from his bookie telling him that if he doesn't score more touchdowns during that night's game he's history. He pops a bunch of pills and heads out onto the field. After catching the ball and running down the field, he pulls out a gun and shoots members of the other team as they try to tackle him. Finally, after making it to the goal line, he turns the gun on himself and ends his life. Tony Scott is a master of the unapologetically trashy action movie and this one is no exception. This scene is perfect because it lets the viewer know immediately how far this movie will go in terms of absurdity and violence. If ever a movie grabbed the viewer by the balls right from the start it was this one.

Touch of Evil (1959)

I guess it's a bit obvious for me to choose the opening scene from this movie, but the obvious choices are obvious for a reason (wow, I used obvious three times in one sentence; that must be a record). This scene is a magnificent feat of virtuoso film making. Done in one unbroken take, we see a man stick a time-bomb in the trunk of a car. Then the car's owner and his girlfriend jump into the car and drive into traffic. We follow the car through traffic as it drives alongside the movie's two protagonists. We don't know when this bomb will explode and this tension is played to the breaking point. This scene is a classic example of suspense done right. These sorts of scenes are usually reserved for a movie's climax. Orson Welles has done a clever thing by placing it at the beginning of the movie because it imposes an air of fatality over the main characters before fully introducing them. Every subsequent scene is made that much more suspenseful because of this.

Bananas (1971)

In the seventies Woody Allen could do no wrong. His comedies were so biting and on point that they still feel fresh today. As far as I'm concerned, Bananas is still the funniest movie Woody Allen has ever made. When this movie was made it seemed as though political assassinations were a daily occurrence -- especially in Latin American countries. Violent political takeovers were just a fact of life in many of these countries. Woody Allen chose to send that up in the opening scene of this brilliant and absurd comedy. He turns the political assassination into a sporting event commentated over by the ubiquitous Howard Cosell. A crowd of spectators waits outside the presidential palace of the tiny country of San Marcos. When the president exits he is gunned down. This is shot in a style resembling an Eisenstein movie. Meanwhile, Cosell gives play by play commentary over the whole thing. This scene combines political commentary, a skewering of pop culture, and a movie geek style of shooting; and it completely succeeds in the execution of all of it. The most important thing is that it's hilarious. This, of course, is the best way to start a comedy.

Magnolia (1999)

Although I find Paul Thomas Anderson's third movie flawed, it is still a compelling piece of work. It weaves an Altman-esque tapestry of compelling, pained characters. These are all characters dealing with pasts that they can not escape. This movie also deals with random coincidences. Magnolia contains the greatest opening Anderson has yet written. A narrator introduces us to three different stories dealing with the issues of fate and chance. All three of these stories deal with murder: the first one is deliberate, the second one is accidental, and the third one is a murder in which the victim is an accidental accomplice in his own death. These three stories have no relation to the rest of the movie except in their dealing with similar themes. They also help set up the tone for the rest of the movie. This is one of my favorite kinds of openings because it leaves me wondering what the hell could possibly happen next. This is the very definition of a ballsy opening.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Panic in Year Zero! (1962)

dir. Ray Milland

"We've had it. Haven't we dad?"
-Rick Baldwin

To anyone who's even remotely familiar with modern American history it is well known that the 1950s gave birth to the idea of the nuclear family. After the Second World War, Americans wanted to believe in the stability of the tight nit family. America, luckily, was untouched by war. Its citizens were not, however. After the war was over, returning GIs started families and had children at an enormous rate. Because of the popularity of the car, more often than not, people would start these families in newfangled suburbs rather than in crowded cities. Americans needed stability and this was a period of renewed prosperity (if you were middle class and white, that is). Along with this need for stability came a newfound blandness. From this was born the sitcom families of TV's golden age. These characters reflected what Americans aspired to: loving families with minor problems easily resolved by a superdad (don't worry, I'm going somewhere with all this).

The end of the war also gave birth to the cold war. The dropping of Atomic bombs on Japan put the nail in the coffin of one era and ushered in a frightening new era. The lethality of this new weaponry was deep in the mindset of this new world. Although most people would like to believe things were just peachy keen, they knew that everything could go horribly wrong with the push of the button. This fear informs the AIP produced Panic in Year Zero! This movie saw the confluence of these two major forces: the nuclear family and the cold war.

Panic in Year Zero! starts off with a bang (not a bomb, if that's what you were thinking). A loud jazz score blasts forth as the title is displayed on the screen. We are then introduced to the bland Baldwin family: level-headed father Harry (Ray Milland, best known for The Lost Weekend) and doting wife Ann (Jean Hagen, best known for Singin' in the Rain). Soon we see the Rebel Without a Clause influenced teenage son Rick (Frankie Avalon). Oh yeah, they also have a daughter, Karen (Mary Mitchel). For some reason, it seems that the writers of this movie forgot to write anything for this character until the movie's end, but more on that later. These folks live in an L.A. suburb and they are packing up their car in preparation for a fishin' trip.

Well on their road trip, they see a flash of light and then they lose radio reception. They stop their car to see what all of this commotion is and then they see a mushroom cloud directly over LA. After getting mildly upset about this, they decide to drive back and see what all the ruckus is. I think the more appropriate response would have been something like: "HOLY FUCKING SHIT, IT'S THE MOTHERFUCKING APOCALYPSE! LET'S GET AS FAR AWAY AS POSSIBLE!" It is astounding how calm this family remains. Seriously, the characters in this movie react the way the characters in an Ozu movie would react when confronted with a minor domestic squabble.

On their drive back to LA, the Baldwins witness humanity run amok. People fight over food at a supermarket; gas station owners engage in price gouging; and hoodlum kids run amok. This movie really has the feel of a government manual instructing citizens through every scenario of nuclear survival. The plot is very segmented. It is less a continual flow than a series of events in which this group has to decide on a case by case basis the best method of surviving. Through it all, Harry remains the voice of reason. The Baldwins soon realize that they can not travel back to L.A. and instead venture back to their secret fishin' spot (surely no one would find them there). Things become harder for them the longer they journey. Harry soon becomes forced to resort to violence on more than one occasion. It becomes clear that the lines between civilized society and barbarity have disappeared. Although many of Harry's later actions make logical sense given the context, his wife becomes horrified at what is becoming of him.

After they get settled at their fishin' spot it seems like everything is going to be just swell (cue ominous music). Oh wait, some young toughs manage to follow them here. These goons soon find Karen alone by the lake and attempt to rape her. I found this scene quite offensive. It was clearly used as a cheap ploy to instill fear in the audience. It is a sad fact that far too many movies of this period (mostly the 7os, though) would use rape as a cheap plot device. The thing that annoyed me most about its use here was the fact that the Karen character was almost non existent until this scene. I imagine the screenwriters' discussion about this must have gone something like this:

"Alright, it seems like these folks are safe, so how are we gonna scare the audience and show them how terrifying this life is?

"Rape. Street toughs rape the daughter."

"Perfect. That's why I have you around. You're an ideas man...wait, these folks don't have a daughter."

"Sure they do. She uh-" He leafs through the screenplay. "Well I'll be damned. Fuck it, let's just throw one in there."

"Shouldn't we develop her character and-"


"Alright. Moving on-"

When Harry learns of this incident he goes apeshit and takes his son along on a roaring rampage of revenge. They kill the attackers and Rick gets wounded. While traveling to find a hospital for Rick, they stumble upon some military personnel. They are safe for now, but it is up to them to start building a new society.

If you've ever wondered what it would be like to watch the Cleavers from "Leave it to Beaver" survive a nuclear attack, this is the movie for you. Although many of Harry's actions might seem tame today (not the whole killing people thing, of course), if you imagine Ward Cleaver doing this stuff, it's pretty awesome. The tagline for this movie was "Where science fiction ends and fact begins." I think a more appropriate tagline would have been, "Meet the Baldwins -- America's first Nuclear Family." (If only I was responsible for movie promotion in the 60s) Although the nuclear family can attempt to remain intact after nuclear war, everyone has a breaking point. If put in this situation, even Ward Cleaver would resort to using his gat.

Although nuclear scare movies were not new (On The Beach is an earlier notable example) they took off in this period. Fears of nuclear annihilation were particularly pronounced after the Cuban missile crisis. A spate of nuclear scare movies were produced at this time, including: Dr. Strangelove, Fail Safe, and the terrifying made for BBC production "The War Game". Movies have long functioned in this role, namely that of examining and coming to grips with society's biggest fears and anxieties.

Panic in Year Zero! is a great time capsule. Although this movie may not seem too terrifying today (especially when compared to something like the TV movie "The Day After") it did play on some of the prevailing fears at the time. This movie's influence can also be seen in many of the apocalyptic movies that arrived in subsequent years: The Last Man on Earth, Night of the Living Dead, "The Day After", and even Michael Haneke's The Time of the Wolf. It is still, obviously, a relic of its time. As a society, we now have different fears and thus these older fears don't seem as dangerous. Oh how quaint it seems to be scared of two super powers initiating a nuclear holocaust that would destroy all of civilization. Those were simpler times.

(I couldn't find a clip of the trailer from this movie, but I did find this clip of a scene in which Harry explains to his son that they should continue shaving so as to remain civilized.)

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Scarlet Street (1945)

dir. Fritz Lang

"How can a man be so dumb? I've been waiting to laugh in your face ever since I met you. You're old and ugly and I'm sick of you. Sick, sick, sick!"
-Kitty March

Fritz Lang remains unrivaled when it comes to depictions of ordinary folks gettin' fucked over by fate. So often was this the theme of noir, but never did it seem more bleak than in the work of this monocled German expatriate. In his home country he witnessed the rise of fascism and would eventually have to flee the Nazis. It would be safe to say that that his world view wasn't exactly rosy. Truth be told, Lang was quite the taskmaster on set. Actors rarely worked with him on multiple occasions because he was so demanding. He seemed to hate everyone and life itself, and he took out this anger and frustration on all of those around him, including the characters in his movies. The characters in Scarlet Street sure don't get a fair shake. The characters here are either extremely cowardly or extremely base. No matter what the character type, however, every character is doomed.

Scarlet Street opens with a party in honor of milquetoast bank clerk and aspiring artist, Chris Cross (Edward G. Robinson). When walking to the subway after the party, Chris witnesses a beautiful woman named Kitty March (Joan Bennett) being attacked by a drunk. After intervening in this situation, Chris becomes infatuated with Kitty (To quote Velvet Jones, "he was kicked in the butt by love."). What Chris does not know is that Johnny, the man who was beating Kitty, is actually her pimp. This is never stated specifically but it is implied throughout the movie (Johnny's nickname for Kitty is "Lazy Legs"). Johnny is played expertly by Dan Duryea. During his years in the movies, Duryea was the personification of smarmy douchebaggery.

Chris tells Kitty that he is a painter and she assumes that he is a successful one. When Johnny learns of this, he convinces Kitty to take advantage of the situation and squeeze as much money out of Chris as possible. Chris, meanwhile, is stuck in a loveless marriage to hateful hag Adele (Rosalind Ivan). She was previously married to a cop who died while trying to save a woman from drowning. Of course, we later learn that he was far from heroic. Neither one wanting to be alone, Chris and Adele had gotten hitched. Here is some of the typical banter between this couple:

Adele - "Next thing you'll be painting women without clothes."
Chris - "I never saw a woman without any clothes."
Adele - "I should hope not!"

Chris is a very weak man who is easily manipulated by Kitty because he feels that, for the first time in his life, someone actually loves him. If this were any other movie (or at least not a noir) Kitty would eventually fall in love with Chris. Not so here. The longer she is with Chris, the more she is repulsed by him and the more she is in love with her abusive pimp, Johnny. Pretty, isn't it.

Seeing as Chris is poor, he decides to steal money from his bank to support Kitty. He even sets her up in a nice apartment where he comes occasionally to paint. Johnny, looking to make a few extra bucks, sells a couple of Chris's paintings under Kitty's name. When Kitty tells Chris about this, he is overjoyed that anyone would be interested in his work. He decides to continue painting under Kitty's name and tells her, "It's just like we were married, only I take your name." (someone's really gotta do something about that boy's self esteem). Eventually, Chris catches Johnny and Kitty embracing. From there, everything really falls apart.

This was the movie that proved to me that Edward G. Robinson could really act. This isn't to say that I never liked any of his other performances. On the contrary, he is one of my favorite performers from Hollywood's golden age. During this era, you went to see different personalities. When you went to see a John Wayne movie, for example, you watched him play a variation of himself, or at least his public persona. Edward G. Robinson struck it rich with his portrayal of the gangster Rico Bandello in the movie Little Caesar, so he made a career out of playing variations of this character. In actuality Robinson was quite a sophisticated, cultured man but the public new him as the streetwise tough guy. In Scarlet Street, however, he was really given a chance to shine. So convincing was he in this role, that I would sometimes forget I was watching Edward G. Robinson. Over time, I would eventually see many other movies in which he showed his versatility, including: The Whole Town's Talking, The Stranger, and The Woman in the Window.

Scarlet Street has often been regarded as a retread of The Woman in the Window, the movie Lang made a year earlier. The two movies had most of the same cast and crew, and similar stories. Both of their stories deal with a timid, upright citizen (side note: wow I used "upright citizens" in two posts in a row. I guess I've got "U.C.B." on the mind) who, because of an infatuation with a beautiful woman, gets caught up in dangerous shenanigans beyond his control. Then again, this could be the description of about 90% of noirs. I always thought of Scarlet Street as superior to The Woman in the Window, mostly because Scarlet Street doesn't have the bullshit copout ending of the other movie (although I should say that The Woman in the Window's ending only seems this way because it's been copied so often).

Edgar G. Ulmer's classic Detour has my favorite quote from any noir, "That's life. Whichever way you turn, fate sticks out a foot to trip you." This is one of the central themes in almost every noir, but never more so than in Scarlet Street. Here, not only does fate trip Chris, but after he has him on the ground and has his way with him, fate gives Chris a donkey punch. This is not to say that we are meant to feel sorry for him, however. Much, if not of all, of his downfall is meant to be seen as the result his own personal weaknesses. Now that I think of it, pretty much everything that happens in this movie is a result of character flaws (I guess I just really wanted to use that Detour quote).

I should also note that the great humanist director Jean Renoir previously made a version of this story in 1931 called La Chienne. Unfortunately, I haven't seen this yet, but I can only assume that it's not nearly as bleak as this version. Renoir's masterpiece, The Rules of the Game, contains the classic line, "The awful thing about life is this, everyone has their reasons." (look at me throwin' all these quotes around) This quote was the perfect summation of Renoir's treatment of characters. He was the master of getting the audience to empathize with everyone. Lang could do this as well, but he really excelled at showing humanity's darkest side. One could argue that, in Scarlet Street, everyone has their reasons. It's just that all their reasons are wrong.

Upon watching this movie again, it really struck me how much bile was contained in it. It really seems as if Lang has nothing but contempt for the human race. These used to be the exact qualities that drew me to this movie, but I guess I've mellowed in my old age (I'm 27, by the way). Now, a lot of this stuff repulses me about this movie. That's not to say I don't think it's good. It is quite masterful. I would even consider it Lang's greatest American movie. I just have a hard time watching it anymore. Lang only shows us the worst that humanity has to offer. That's not to say that anything feels forced about it. Every character is quite believable. In the context of the movie every horrible situation is quite believable as well. Although the ending has some surprising twists, nothing feels unreal about it. It all flows very naturally and makes sense within the context of the movie. It is just that, in this movie, Lang has shown us the worst of all possible outcomes.

(I can't find a clip of the trailer for Scarlet Street so here's the trailer for The Woman in the Window)