Saboteur (1942)

If there’s anything I’ve learned from regularly attending the Classic Movies series at the historic Prytania Theatre on Sundays, it’s that even the “lesser” Hitchcock titles are not to be missed. After falling in love with the Marlene Dietrich sultriness of Stage Fright & the gorgeous Technicolor sex humor of To Catch a Thief, any & all Hitchcock titles have become appointment viewing — whether or not they match the iconic prestige of films like Psycho, Rear Window, or Strangers on a Train. The Prytania’s latest Hitchcock selection, Saboteur, was no exception to the rule. At first glance, Saboteur appears to be a noir thriller B-picture that’s only distinguishing detail is a co-writing credit from Dorothy Parker (who did a punch-up treatment on its dialogue). Only Alfred Hitchcock’s name in the “directed by” credit vouches for the film being anything more than that, but his is a name that consistently delivers. Even as much credit as Hitchcock gets for elevating genre filmmaking to the level of fine art, I’m beginning to question whether I’ve still been taking him for granted as one of the greatest directors of all time. He’s starting to cross the line from widely-praised cinematic icon to beloved personal favorite; the only question is why it took me so many years & just a few screenings of his “lesser” titles for me to get there.

In Saboteur, a couple of Air Force do-gooders attempt to put out a fire started by a foreign subversive at their base, and are punished for their heroism. One soldier dies in the fire, while the other is framed for the act of terror that killed his best friend & put national security at risk. What follows is a twisty, suspenseful mystery of grimy noir aesthetics & deep political intrigue as the surviving soldier travels the country in an attempt to thwart the terrorist syndicate who framed him and to clear his own name. At least that’s what’s promised on the tin. Instead, Hitchcock mostly delivers a weirdly patriotic road trip comedy about a hitch-hiker on the lam and the various weirdos who shelter him until he’s free of police scrutiny. Saboteur operates with a peculiar, admirable form of patriotism that loves America, but hates cops (as is right & proper). As our hero in peril finds comrades in billboard advertisement models, the disabled, working class truck drivers, and circus freaks while traveling by thumb across the country, Saboteur establishes a beautifully, radically inclusive definition of who & what is America. The enemies of that vision, by contrast, are wealthy pontificators who would sell the country to literal Nazis just to make another buck and ineffectual, brutish police officers who can’t determine the rightful target when enforcing the law. The crime thriller element promised in Saboteur‘s advertising is mostly just an excuse for this off-kilter version of war-time patriotism, one that course-corrects patriotism’s usual nastiness with a sense of humor & empathy the audience is not at all primed to expect.

Of course, Saboteur‘s surprises in tonal & narrative trajectory can only carry the film so far; they would amount to very little if it weren’t for Hitchcock’s visual craft & prankish spirit, both of which are on full display here despite this film’s modest budget & bevy of screenwriters. When crafting a noir thriller in the earliest stretch, the director casts sharply defined shadows of dangerous figures against stark white walls. When the inciting fire breaks out it’s announced with a thick black smoke projected against the same stark background, creeping into the frame with menacing intent. Incredible stunts & sound stage set pieces give the illusion of men crumbling in fires, jumping from bridges into wild rivers, and hanging from the torch of the Statue of Liberty. Although the accused’s hitch-hiking trip across the country is broadly informed with cheeky humor & outlandish character work, Hitchcock builds genuine tension in the feeling that he is trapped and will be caught at any second. Saboteur starts in the contained, dingy menace of a Poverty Row noir, but expands to deliver everything you could want to see on the big screen: comedy, romance, adventure, visual spectacle, shocks of terror, etc. You can feel Hitchcock straining behind the camera to elevate the material to match his own meticulous standard. In that way, it’s almost easier to see his merits as a director in these “lesser” works than in his better-funded, better-respected masterworks where everything is arranged in its proper place & tone.

I’m not sure that I would call Saboteur “essential viewing” for everyone with a passing interest in Hitchcock. For all of its charmingly skewed patriotism & admirably crafted spectacle, the film is still somewhat hampered by a dull lead performer (Robert Cummings) and an unsatisfactorily abrupt ending that prevent it from being Great Cinema. However, the way the film gradually reveals itself to be a wild, playfully cruel road trip comedy & popcorn movie after initially coming across as just another cheap-o noir truly feels like watching Hitchocck getting away with something, like he’s pulling a fast one on his producers. The dangerous thing about Saboteur is that it suggests that all Hitchcock titles might be essential viewing, that even his least-respected, lowest-profile works are not to be missed – especially if you have convenient access to seeing them on the big screen.

-Brandon Ledet

The Maltese Falcon (1941)

The common wisdom about Bugs Bunny is that he was modeled after Old Hollywood hunk Clark Gable; the only reason we even have the misconception that real-life rabbits love to eat carrots is because Bugs Bunny parodied Gable doing so in It Happened One Night and the image stuck. However, Gable’s slick, fast-talking, devilish pranksterism is just as much of a reflection of Studio Era sensibilities as they are a personal quirk. His rapid-fire dialogue delivery screams “Turner Classic Movies” more so than seeming specific to him, as if he were speaking a language called “Old Movie” that just happens to sound a lot like sped-up English. I’m saying this mostly because Bugs Bunny was the only thing I could think about while recently watching The Maltese Falcon for the first time, even though that’s a film that stars Humphrey Bogart, not Gable. The Maltese Falcon is a film with an absurdly prestigious pedigree: it’s the directorial debut of Studio Era legend John Huston; it’s cited as the first “major” film noir (as opposed to the smaller, independently produced noir pictures that preceded it); it’s one of the most defining examples of the MacGuffin as a literary device; etc. Still, all I could think about for the entire duration of the film was how funny Humphrey Bogart was in the lead role, and how much he reminded me of Bugs. Bogart is fluent in the same Old Movie language Clark Gable speaks (Bugsy Bunny also parodied him in the Casablanca poof Carrotblanca), and I feel as if I already owe the film a re-watch, not being able to keep up with each joke as fast as they were flying at me in Old Movie dialect.

As the film’s reputation of typifying a MacGuffin may suggest, the plot of The Maltese Falcon does not matter all that much. Bogart stars as a hard-drinking detective who gets sucked into a thieves’ quarrel by a dangerous dame (Mary Astor). At the expense of his partner, his freedom, and potentially his life, he aids this sultry stranger in their quest to obtain a highly valuable ornament ([whispering to my date while watching The Maltese Falcon when The Maltese Falcon first appears on the screen] “That’s the Maltese Falcon”) while avoiding the bullets of a small ring of thieves who also desperately desire to possess it. Casablanca’s Sydney Greenstreet, The Killing’s Elisha Cook Jr, and everyone’s favorite pervert Peter Lorre round out the main cast as that trio of gun-toting thieves, each taking turns backing Bogart into a corner so he can promptly talk his way out of it. It’s Bogart lashing out in that fight-or-flight position that makes The Maltese Falcon such a consistently fun watch. Whether talking to the dame, the cops, or the crooks, Bogart’s hardboiled detective delivers long strings of uninterrupted sass at a machine gun’s pace. Bogart knows he’s being lied to & bullied from all directions, but he finds the danger & mystery of that set-up to be a gas, taking great delight in calling everyone out in their deceits as his hypersensitive bullshit detector goes haywire. When Sydney Greenstreet’s would-be criminal mastermind repeatedly tells Bogart, “You are a character,” out of a gamesman’s delight, it the most honest sentiment shared by any of the film’s various players. This is a film built entirely on Bogart being a comically oversized character, in the colloquial sense of the word.

I don’t want to oversell The Maltese Falcon as a laugh-a-second yuck ‘em up comedy. Based on a very serious crime novel, the second adaption after a 1930s original (Hollywood remake culture has gone too far!), the film’s surface-level details deliver everything you’d want to see in a classic noir. Our “hero” is a hard-drinking adulterer who inserts himself into deadly criminals’ schemes for amusement & personal profit. He dons the classic suits & fedoras combo that inspire those wretched “Men used to dress classy” MRA memes. He’s framed with the intense lighting & drastic angles of classic noir while simply rolling a cigarette or pouring himself a drink, a handsome personification of gruff masculinity. This is directly contrasted with the fey, sexually devious energy of Peter Lorre, playing a character explicitly described as homosexual in the source material. Bogart gets into some S&M play with Lorre (who is introduced practically fellating the handle of his cane), dominating him with some Kung Fu action and barking “When you’re slapped, you’ll take it and like it.” There’s a serious, even tragic romanticism to this Alpha Male masculinity, typified by his fawning secretary’s plea “You always think you know what you’re doing, but you’re too slick for your own good.” Unfortunately, that macho posturing was something that trickled down into the zeitgeist just as much as Bogart’s “Ain’t I a stinker?” pranksterism, influencing descendants as disparate as the wise-cracking meatheads of French New Wave staples like Breathless and 1980s action spectacles like Commando. There’s a danger in making your troubled antiheroes out to be such slick charmers; they end up being so lovable they’re practically children’s-entertainment cartoon bunnies.

At this point, you probably don’t need to hear from me or any amateur film blogger that The Maltese Falcon is well-made & worth seeing. Catching it for the first time on the big screen (thanks to The Prytania’s Classic Movies series) mostly just confirmed for me what I had already assumed from its name recognition & its heavy rotation in corners like TCM: it’s a handsome, well-crafted noir with a talented cast & a distinct Old Hollywood charm. The only thing I didn’t know to expect was that it would be so damn funny. Even its score often reinforces the humor of the dialogue, with chipper flights of orchestral whims incongruously accompanying a murderous plot about greedy, gun-toting thieves. It’s practically the same accompaniment you’d expect to hear in a Merrie Melodies cartoon while Bugs Bunny cracks wise in an Old Movie cadence to talk his way out of getting shot by Elmer Fudd.

-Brandon Ledet

Panic in the Streets (1950)

Usually, when a Hollywood production is shot on-location in New Orleans, the expectation is that the audience will be doing some tourist sightseeing. 80s thrillers like The Big Easy & Hard Target where especially shameless about this, setting scenes in conspicuous tourist spots like Tipitina’s, Mardi Gras parade float warehouses, and Bourbon Street strip joints for easy, sleazy atmosphere as they drunkenly stumbled around the city. The 1950 health-epidemic noir Panic in the Streets aimed for an entirely different kind of local seasoning. Directed by respected dramatist Elia Kazan shortly before he fired off major hits like A Streetcar Named Desire & On the Waterfront, Panic in the Streets was something of an experiment & a gamble for the Studio Era way of doing things. The business of exporting productions to shoot entirely on-location in far-off cities wasn’t business as usual yet, which might explain why Kazan didn’t think to make use of the city in the now-traditional ways of visiting famous clubs, capturing Mardi Gras crowds, or just generally making a big deal about the environment where the action is staged. There are a few familiar shots of French Quarter exteriors that haven’t changed at all in the last 70 years and the film eventually concludes in a shipping dock warehouse setting that feels unique to its chosen location, but most of its drama is confined to the city’s interior spaces, which are familiar but not entirely unique. The novelty of shooting a Studio Era film entirely on-location did lead to a different, less frequently travelled path to local authenticity, though. Over 80% of the hired cast & crew for Panic in the Streets were local to New Orleans, which is still an unusual way of doing things by big-budget Hollywood standards, even with all the productions that film here for the tax credits. There may not be much documentation of what the city itself looked like in the 1950s here, but the film offers something a little more precious instead: documentation of and collaboration with the city’s people.

Outside its context as a New Orleans peoplewatching time capsule, Panic in the Streets is a fairly standard noir. Its central hook promises something novel beyond the standard antihero cops vs. wise guy criminals dynamic that usually defines the genre. NOPD detectives and representatives from the federal US Public Health Service reluctantly team up to track down a murderer who is now patient zero in a potential city-wide epidemic of the pneumonic plague, thanks to a comprised victim. This unusual medical angle to the crime thriller drama does allow for some distinctive detail unusual to the genre: scientific jargon about “anti-plague serums,” wry humor about tough-guy cops who are afraid of taking their inoculation shots, an excuse to burn all the evidence with the infected-and-murdered man’s body just to make the mystery killer’s identity tougher to crack, etc. Mostly, the plague angle is merely used to build tension by giving local cops & federal officials a tight 48-hour window to catch their killer before his contagions become a city-wide threat. There are some conflicts built around “college men” health officials and blue-collar detectives flaunting their authority in the investigation, but most confrontations mostly amount to angry macho men yelling about jurisdiction at top volume, which feels standard to most cop thrillers. The rest of Panic in the Streets is a faithful amalgamation of classic noir tropes: post-German Expressionist lighting, witty retorts muttered under hard-drinking cops’ breath, a villain who looks like he was plucked from a Dick Tracy lineup, more sewer-grate steam that New Orleans has ever seen, and so on. Anyone with a built-in appreciation for noir as a genre won’t need much more than the plague outbreak premise and the New Orleans locale for the film to be of interest, but it still doesn’t go very far out of its way to distinguish itself beyond those novelties – especially considering the prestige Elia Kazan represents behind the camera.

One noticeable auteurist touch Kazan brings to the table is an interest in this port city’s immigrant Greek population, which feels unique to him given that the director himself was born in Constantinople to Greek parents. Besides the expected police stations, race tracks, and shipping dock locations that naturally arise by setting a noir here, one of the few vintage local spots the film takes a documentarian interest in is a Greek-owned restaurant named Athena’s, presumably now long-gone. The rest of the local cast & crew are much less conspicuous, sporting neither the thick Y’at nor Cajun accents typical to Hollywood productions set here (or, at least they weren’t undetectable to this local’s ear). It’s nice to have a movie character pronounce “New Orleans” correctly on the big screen (a rarer occurrence than you might expect) and it’s a little funny how the plague victims’ dazed stumbling resembles the drunken zombie tourists of Bourbon Street, but most of Panic in the Streets’s local people-watching is just as subtly played as its minor deviations from the noir template. There’s a natural authenticity to the movie that arises from casting real-life characters in a majority of the roles, so that very few faces on the screen are the pristine, homogenous brand of Hollywood Beauty we’re used to seeing. For my taste, there are far too few women with substantial roles to paly in that dynamic (especially for the genre that effectively invented the femme fatale), but for the most part I was riveted just picking faces out of the crowd anyway. Shotgun Cinema projecting the film large & loud for a free screening at the Marigny Opera House was a major help in that regard. As a shot-on-location noir and an Elia Kazan procedural drama, Panic in the Streets is a solid genre entry, but not much more. As an act of local-history people-watching, however, it carries a lot of clout as something exceptional and I was glad to have the opportunity to share that experience with a live, local community.

-Brandon Ledet

Body Double (1984)

What if Vertigo wasn’t about vertigo, but was instead about claustrophobia? It feels like this is the catalyzing question that went through Brian De Palma’s mind when he first came up with the idea for 1984’s Body Double, a risque homage to one of the Master of Suspense’s greatest works (there’s also a little bit of Rear Window thrown in there just for good measure). In place of Jimmy Stewart’s Detective “Scottie” Ferguson, we instead meet Jake Scully (Craig Wasson) on one of the worst days of his life: after freezing up in claustrophobic terror on the set of the low-rent vampire flick in which he’s starring, Scully is sent home early, where he finds his girlfriend in the throes of passion with another man – she doesn’t even have the decency to stop. After running into friend-of-a-friend Sam Bouchard (Gregg Henry) a couple of different times at auditions and being rescued by him from an apparently emotionally abusive acting exercise in which he revisits the memory of being trapped behind a freezer during hide-and-seek as a child, Jake takes Sam up on the offer to house sit for him while he is out of town performing in a play. Sam takes Jake back to the home in question, the famous Chemosphere (aka Troy McClure’s house) and shows him the amenities: a fully stocked bar, rotating bed, and a telescope perfectly placed to watch the nightly erotic dance of a beautiful neighbor.

On his second night of housesitting, Jake witnesses a creepy-looking older man also watching the woman; the following day, he realizes that the other man is following her, so he pursues them both to a mall, where he overhears the neighbor planning to meet someone at a seaside hotel. He pursues her there, too, where the creep also lurks before snatching her purse. Jake chases him down, but is unable to follow him more than a few feet into a tunnel before his claustrophobia renders him immobile. The woman introduces herself as Gloria (Deborah Shelton), and the two share a passionate kiss after she confesses that she is unhappy in her marriage. Unfortunately, Jake’s new (and creepy) romance is over before it can truly begin, as he sees the villainous peeper burgling her home and arrives too late to save Gloria. The police are suspicious, but there are other witnesses, and though they are all rightfully disgusted by Jake’s voyeurism, he is released. Jake finds himself in a slump, until he sees porn star Holly Body (Melanie Griffith) performing a very familiar dance on late night television. So begins a journey of mistaken identity and duplicitous disguises that traces a path across LA, from reservoirs to the seedy (but also maybe kind of fun?) underbelly of the porn industry.

There are a lot of scenes in Body Double that draw on the visuals from Vertigo, and which highlight the Hitchcockian influence on this sleazy thriller. When Jake enters the tunnel and is paralyzed by his claustrophobia, the visual distortion that communicates his distress echoes the iconic top-down shot of Jimmy Stewart attempting to climb stairs. There’s also a shot of the famous tower at Fisherman’s Wharf, which calls to mind distant shots of the tower that becomes the site of the older film’s climactic showdown. Jake’s voyeurism reminds one of Jimmy Stewart’s other most famous role in a Hitchcock film; Rear Window presents Jeff’s peeping as largely harmless and ultimately beneficial to the resolution of a murder investigation. Body Double follows some of those same story beats, it doesn’t shy away from the fact that in the real world, such surveillance is deviant and creepy, happy ending or no. And then, of course, there’s the inclusion of Melanie Griffith, daughter of Tippi Hedren, star of The Birds (and Marnie, but let’s not talk about that). It’s admirably clever that De Palma, like John Carpenter before him when he cast Psycho star Vivien Leigh’s daughter Jamie Lee Curtis in Halloween, creates a rhetorical space in which he identifies himself as one of the next filmmaking generation’s Hitchcock successors by using the daughter of one of Hitchcock’s actresses. And that’s leaving aside the fact that Griffith is fantastic in this role, bringing vivaciousness and an unusual brand of smarts to what could otherwise have been a very of-the-era “dumb blonde” role. While Wasson’s Jake is an interesting character study, a seemingly ordinary man who easily falls into depravity, Griffith’s Holly is a porn star with a sense of humor and who won’t put up with any creeps giving her a hard time. She also knows her limits and is up front about them from the beginning: “I do not do animal acts. I do not do S&M or any variations of that particular bent, no water sports either. I will not shave my pussy, no fistfucking and absolutely no coming on my face. I get $2000 a day and I do not work without a contract.” In contrast, Jake is a man who’s never thought about what his limits are, but he finds that with very little prompting, he’s perfectly willing to perv on a strange woman long distance, stalk her around a mall, and follow her to a presumable hotel tryst. And, of course, steal underwear out of a trash can (it makes more sense in context, but only just).

The presumption that the audience will sympathize with Jake (which you do, to an extent; when this film was introduced as part of this summer’s Unhitched series, Wasson’s character was referred to as a “nebbishly inept weirdo”) is something that really dates this movie, but there’s another element that I don’t think De Palma could have predicted. I won’t name the actor to avoid spoiling it for you, but there’s a latex mask reveal (possibly foreshadowing De Palma’s eventual fate as the director of the first Mission Impossible film) in this movie that is completely undercut by the fact that the mask that the killer wears pretty much looks like the actor underneath does now, nearly 35 years later. The villain is also consistently referred to as “The Indian,” which is . . . not great. It’s a product of its time, a sleazy De Palma take on a Hitchcock classic, and as such it’s an oddity that I can’t recommend more highly. It’s definitely not going to be everyone’s cup of tea, but I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it for months. There’s a new 4k restoration making the rounds, and it’s well worth the price of admission. And, as Halloween approaches, if you generally like your scares a little more cerebral than slashy but still want to feel a little bit dirty, Body Double could be your new go-to.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

The Happytime Murders (2018)

Brian Henson (son of Jim) is currently being steamrolled by pro critics in his jump from directing children’s puppetry films like Muppet Christmas Carol & Muppet Treasure Island to his first feature intended for adult audiences. Most of the negativity for Henson’s The Happytime Murders (as indicated by its 27 score on Metacritic & its 21% on the dreaded Tomatometer) seems to be framed around the jaded, seen-it-all attitude that his film’s central gimmick of raunchy Muppets humor is far from a brand-new novelty, with Peter Jackson’s Meet the Feebles serving as the most often-cited comparison point. That critique feels a little empty to me, as Feebles is far from the only raunchy Muppets-But-For-Adults media setting a precedent for Henson’s film. Wonder Showzen, Greg the Bunny, Crank Yankers, and TV Funhouse have all mined the Dirty Muppets gimmick for “mature” humor post-Feebles. Better yet, Meet the Feebles itself was also preceded by over a decade by the porno-comedy Let My Puppets Come. Henson’s latest is not a Feebles knockoff so much as it’s part of an ever-expanding genre of adult puppetry, a subclass of comedy distinct enough to have its own Wikipedia page. In fact, Henson himself has participated in this genre before as executive producer of the (underseen, underrated) political punditry spoof show No, You Shut Up!, which features puppets & performers recycled & repurposed in his latest critical debacle; the unexpected joy of seeing those puppets again was admittedly a huge part of why I’m soft on The Happytime Murders overall. No, it’s not a debt to Meet the Feebles that tempers the successes of Henson’s first feature intended for adults. It’s the debt that it owes to Who Framed Roger Rabbit? that really weighs the film down (and also tarnishes Roger Rabbit’s memory in retrospect).

In Robert Zemeckis’s 1988 comedy/special effects showcase Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, live-action humans & 2D cartoons interact in an alternate-history Old Hollywood past were the toons are seen as second-class citizens. Brian Henson’s The Happytime Murders unwisely picks up that same dynamic in its Muppet & human-cohabitated LA, underlining the racial allegory of the Roger Rabbit conceit for empty, uncomfortable political satire. Melissa McCarthy is tasked to hold down the Bob Hoskins role as the too-old-for-this-shit cop with open, callous bigotry for the puppets she must interact with while working her beat. As demonstrated by Max Landis’s recent critical disaster Bright, this Roger Rabbit blueprint for racial allegory divorced from actual racial identity has not aged especially well since Zemeckis’s film was released three decades ago (at least not in the hands of white artists interpreting POC experiences). While McCarthy is reluctantly paired with a puppet partner to investigate a string of puppet murders and learns that not all puppets are so bad along the way, the audience has no choice but to squirm through each political implication of that overriding allegory in a way that detracts from the film’s central mission: comedy. Sometimes these political missteps are uncomfortable in a presumably unintentional way, like when a rabbit puppet is “humorously” indicated to have dozens of illegitimate children (because rabbits breed a lot; it’s in everyone’s best interest to read further into it). Sometimes it’s deliberately uncomfortable in an #edgy way, like when a homeless puppet performs a minstrel tap-dance for humans’ spare change on an L.A. street corner or another has their blue felt bleached to appear more like their fleshy oppressors. In either instance, the conceit is a clumsy misfire that says way more about the failed legacy of Roger Rabbit than it does about Meet the Feebles.

There are a couple Roger Rabbit-isms that The Happytime Murders does pick up to great success, however; its jokes are often funny & its noir pastiche plot makes for a genuinely engaging story. If nothing else, my first-act guess about the puppet-murderer’s identity was only half-correct, so I have some unexpected respect for the film’s ability to stage an engaging mystery. That’s not typically what I look for in a comedy, though. I’m looking to laugh, which is not at all a problem with the talent on hand: McCarthy, who is always a hoot; Elizabeth Banks bringing back some of that scenery-chewing Power Rangers energy; The Office’s Leslie David Baker, playing the exasperated police chief role he was born for; Maya Rudolph doing her best impression of Annie Potts’s 1940s secretary schtick from the original-flavor Ghostbusters. Then there’s the puppetry itself, which applies the level of artistry you’d expect from the Henson family name to novelty sex imagery like cow udders being rhythmically milked, Dalmatian dominatrices working the business end of whips, and a puppet ejaculating entire cans’ worth of silly string. The worst I can say about The Happytime Murders’s raunchy puppet humor is that a few of its jokes are openly “borrowed” from outside sources (particularly the line “Does this smell like chloroform to you?” and a bit about sewn-shut assholes lifted wholesale from a Wu-Tang skit), but that’s nothing extraordinary given the film’s overall commitment to schtick. Humor is highly subjective so there’s no accounting for what people might find funny or too old-hat in the picture, but if you have a general appreciation for the adult puppet genre (or think a ZAZ-style spoof of the noir template might be worth a chuckle) the movie delivers the dumb-comedy goods.

The Happytime Murders is a three-star comedy with a half-star critical reputation, which is not at all uncommon with this shamelessly lowbrow end of raunch & schtick. The central allegory in its human-puppet racial relations is a clumsy embarrassment, but its general sense of raunchy Muppet humor is good for a goof, especially if Meet the Feebles isn’t your only comparison point for the adult puppetry genre, as they both benefit from a lager perspective than a 1:1 comparison. This is especially true for anyone who felt betrayed by the untimely demise of No, You Shut Up! (which was tragically canceled months before our last presidential election cycle, to my personal horror). As much as I enjoyed the film more than most audiences seemed to, it never made me as happy with a sex joke as it did with an incorporation of a discarded puppet or vocal performance from that show.

-Brandon Ledet

Lonely Hearts Killers vs. Blasphemous Hollywood Phonies

When opera-composer-turned-one-time-filmmaker Leonard Kastle dramatized the serial murder crime spree of Raymond Fernandez & Martha Beck, he deliberately avoided Hollywood glitz & glamor. The Honeymoon Killers was Kastle’s anti-Bonnie & Clyde project, a low-fi genre picture meant to capture the full grime & absurdity of his subjects’ tabloid-ready crimes without glorification. He explained “I didn’t want to show beautiful shots of beautiful people.” Before Kastle’s movie and since, there have been roughly a dozen crime thrillers about so-called “Lonely Hearts Killers,” murderers & thieves who lured their victims through romantic personal ads in the newspapers. Fernandez & Beck in particular have only received the movie treatment in two subsequent productions, however: a 90s Mexican crime drama titled Deep Crimson and 2006’s Hollywood-produced Lonely Hearts. It’s in that latter title that we got a glimpse of exactly the kind of movie Kastle didn’t want to make, a phony game of 1940s dress-up packed with “beautiful shots of beautiful people.” The Honeymoon Killers deliberately set out to be the anti-Bonnie & Clyde; Lonely Heats carelessly stumbled into being the anti-Honeymoon Killers, bringing the whole phony Hollywood enterprise full circle.

The first glaring Hollywoodization of true-life grime in Lonely Heats is the casting of Raymond Fernandez & Martha Beck. A large part of public fascination over the killers’ tabloid-documented trial was how much objectively better-looking Fernandez was than his lover/partner in crime. Martha Beck was a plain, ordinary woman who had intensely latched onto a very handsome (and eventually violent) man. Her caked-on makeup, over-plucked eyebrows, and low-fashion attire afford her the appearance of a John Waters character as she’s played by Shirley Stoler in The Honeymoon Killers. In Lonely Hearts, she’s played by Selma Hayek, one of the most exquisitely beautiful movie stars around. Jared Leto co-stars as Fernandez, equally miscast in the way his forever-young baby face struggles to convey the rugged, old-fashioned masculinity the role requires. When they attempt to age up Leto with a bald cap (in scenes where Raymond isn’t wearing his signature toupee) it plays as an unintentional joke. Leto looks as if he’s guest-hosting SNL, which I doubt was the intended effect in this drama about women & children-murdering grifters. In the casting alone, Lonely Heats undoes everything Kastle envisioned for The Honeymoon Killers, but it does so by having no particular vision at all. It’s likely no one had Kastle’s film in mind during the making of Lonely Heats; they were just naturally blasphemous to his ideals by deferring to Hollywood’s default mode of filming beautiful people playing dress-up.

After the casting of its leads, the second most baffling (and unintentionally blasphemous) decision Lonely Heats makes is in its choice of POV. Whereas Kastle’s film morally challenges the audience by making Fernandez & Beck the protagonists, Lonely Heats frames the story around the (presumably fictional) cops who are tracking them down. James Gandolfini provides convenient exposition for the film as a police force old-timer who burdens the proceedings with verbose noir narration so overly-familiar it borders on parody. John Travolta contrasts him as a loose-cannon partner with a troubled past & an apparent death wish, distracting from Fernandez & Beck’s exploits by wasting screentime on his own past romantic tragedy & his current troubled relationship (with a too-good-for-this-shit Laura Dern). Through this police procedural device, the movie allows itself to play very fast & very loose with the truth of the case that inspired its narrative, but then drop in flatly-stated facts about Martha Beck’s childhood sexual assault that Kastle didn’t dare touch in his own version of the story. The details of the individual crimes are familiarly paralleled in each film: bodies stuffed in clothing trunks, women struck in the skull with hammers, Fernandez & Beck posing as brother & sister to lessen suspicion in their grifts. Lonely Heats just distorts those details through a phony Hollywood POV and often tempers their impact by depicting cops uncovering victims after-the-fact. Where The Honeymoon Killers will show a victim atonally singing “America the Beautiful” at top volume in a bathtub for a campy comedic effect, Lonely Hearts will counter that deliberately un-sexy image with a perfectly posed naked female body found in a bathtub filled with her own blood, looking more like a fashion shoot than a suicide. Where Honeymoon Killers will show Fernandez & Beck teaming up to drown a child in a basement sink, Lonely Heats will only show cops discovering evidence of that crime in horror, long after the event. The details are largely the same (they both depict the same true-life crime spree after all), but the methodologies are philosophically opposed – if not only because Lonely Hearts seems to have no specific philosophy at all.

Of course, there’s an entertainment value built into phony Hollywood glamor. For all of Lonely Heart’s efforts to beautiful Fernandez & Beck’s crimes and shift the moral ambiguity of audience empathy by framing their story through the cops hunting them down, the film still does not skimp on sex or bloodshed, something it treats with the same casual decorative ease as its 1940s big band music & dress-up costuming. Lonely Hearts even occasionally achieves some of The Honeymoon Killers’s off-putting absurdist camp in its more lurid details, such as in a scene where a blood-spattered, bald cap wearing Leto masturbates for Hayek’s amusement. As always, Hayek herself is a joy to watch and is clearly having fun with the material. The “beautiful shots of beautiful people” ethos Kastle detested is difficult to despise too vehemently when it involves Hayek chewing scenery in 1940s femme fatale couture. The pleasures of Lonely Hearts are mild & unexceptional, though, requiring a willingness on the audience’s behalf to settle for an outrageous tabloid saga being reduced to a generic crime picture & an old-fashioned game of Hollywood dress-up. If you want the full scope of Fernandez & Beck’s violence & absurdity, watch The Honeymoon Killers. If you want beautiful shots of beautiful people playing cops & robbers in a low-rent version of old-fashioned Hollywood glamor, Lonely Hearts is your destined-for-cable-broadcasts alternative.

For more on August’s Movie of the Month, the romantic crime thriller The Honeymoon Killers, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film and last week’s examination of Martin Scorsese’s involvement with the film.

-Brandon Ledet

The Hitch-Hiker (1953)

“This is the story of a man and a gun and a car. The gun belonged to the man. The car might have had been yours – or that young couple across the aisle. What you will see in the next seventy minutes could have happened to you. For the facts are accurate.”

In the late 2010s, it’s still depressingly rare for a female director to land a substantial Hollywood production. In 2017, only 8% of the Top 100 film productions were directed by women, a number that has been showing no improvement despite increased scrutiny on the issue. It’s always incredible to me, then, when I discover films from female directors in the distant past when men’s stranglehold on the industry wasn’t even a topic of wide discussion, but just a silently accepted inevitability. Pictures like The Red Kimona from the silent era feel like total anomalies, as it’s almost unfathomable how a woman would have been able to get her foot into the door of Hollywood’s boys’ club back then. 1953’s The Hitch-Hiker is another such anomaly, especially as it participates in the traditionally macho noir genre. Director Ida Lupino worked her way into the industry by directing movies with strong moralistic warnings, message pictures. The Hitch-Hiker finds her using that pronounced moral finger-wagging as an excuse to participate in & mutate the crime thriller genre, restricting the movie’s direct messaging to just a few minutes of screen time and busying herself for the rest with crafting nonstop tension & suspense. This picture is credited as being the first noir directed by a woman, a distinction that adds pressure for Lupino to prove herself as a creative force, something she achieves with a tight grip & gritted teeth.

Two men on what’s supposed to be an innocent fishing trip lie to their wives and change course to check out girly shows across the Mexican border. On their new route, they’re overtaken at gunpoint by a crazed hitchhiker who’s quickly revealed to be a notoriously violent escaped convict. What develops is a hostage crisis in motion (like an AIP precursor to Speed), as the three men perilously evade trigger-happy cops on the way back to California, two of them under constant threat of the hitch-hiker’s pistol. There’s a moderate amount of guilt laid on the wandering husbands for their duplicitous ways, but most of The Hitch-Hiker is instead focused on building tension in both the close quarters of the hostages’ car and the vast, isolating expanse of the desert terrain. It’s in the nighttime drives where the film most resembles a typical noir. The escaped convict is an absolute terror in the shadowy backseat, where he keeps a constant eye (and gun) on his two victims. We’re first introduced to him in a montage detailing his earlier crime spree, jumping from car to car, stolen wallet to stolen wallet, as cops discover his previous victims in flashlit crime scenes. These nighttime noir set pieces are in stark contrast with the harsh sunlit desert setting of the daytime, but Lupino finds plenty ways to terrorize her audience there as well, most spectacularly in a forced game of William Tell. The movie is light on plot & thematic soul-searching, choosing to instead strive for 70 straight minutes of pure, cruel, nightmarish tension.

The small cast and cheap locations of The Hitch-Hiker remind me a lot of Corman’s early work for AIP, even though this was a slightly more substantial RKO production. Its aptitude for Corman’s genre thrills is only part of the story, however, as the picture is much, much crueler & tenser than most of AIP’s more traditionally entertaining catalog. The audience hardly has space to breathe as Lupino maintains a stranglehold on our throats, walking us through each reluctant step toward impending freedom or death. I’m not well-versed enough to say for sure how many women-directed noirs are out there at all, only that this is reported to be the first. The film would remain significant even without that distinction, though, as its command of minute-to-minute tension and the terror of its randomly applied violence feels like a real-life threat more than most, slicker noirs could. The moral of The Hitch-Hiker seems to be less that you shouldn’t cheat on your wife by slinking off to the strip clubs than it is that this could happen to anyone at any time because life is chaotically cruel. Anyone with an affection for dark, tense genre cinema should find plenty of value in that conceit, especially anyone who wishes their noir was a little rougher around the edges or their Corman cheapies were a little more willing to go for the jugular.

-Brandon Ledet

The Killing (1956)

I’m used to thinking of Stanley Kubrick as a fully-formed artist, the meticulous craftsman behind mind-boggling technical achievements like Barry Lyndon, The Shining, and 2001: A Space Odyssey. It now seems obvious, but it never before occurred to me that the director must’ve had many, many stepping stones to that machine-like precision in his early career. 1956’s The Killing is an excellent snapshot of what early-career, still-figuring-it-out Kubrick looks like while still exhibiting the promise of what he’d later accomplish with more experience & larger budgets. In a way, its small-scale genre film territory is much more in tune with my usual cinematic interests than Kubrick’s grander, more precise productions, so seeing it screen locally at The Prytania Theater was oddly more of an eye-opener than similar screenings of works like Barry Lyndon or A Clockwork Orange. I was already aware Kubrick was capable of large-scale technical anomalies; what I had never seen before was him paying his dues in the low-budget genre film trenches.

Purported to be Kubrick’s first professional-level production, The Killing is a straight-forward, late-period noir with all the bells & whistles that genre descriptor indicates: intense black & white cinematography, over-written voice over narration, dangerous criminals, even more dangerous dames, guns hidden in flower boxes & musical instrument cases, etc. The story concerns the planning, execution, and unraveling of a heist at a race track. It’s like a less zany precursor to Logan Lucky, except with horses instead of NASCAR. It even preempts some of Logan Lucky’s humor, especially in a drag-ready performance from Marie Windsor as the wandering, dangerously greedy wife Sherry Peatty. As a disparate group of sweaty men plan, execute, and lay low from the race track robbery that’s meant to make them millionaires, Sherry lazes in her lingerie, swills liquor, hurls insults at her husband, and fetches her on-the-side boy-toy to retrieve the stolen cash for her by any means necessary. Her plan is just as disastrous as the heist she’s attempting to usurp, but she’s consistently amusing in her cold-hearted quips in a way that transforms The Killing into The Sherry Peatty Show. There’s a humor to the way the central heist, an operation commanded by a contingent of macho brutes, is ultimately all in service of a woman who hardly ever leaves her apartment. The movie also ends on an even sillier joke where a small, rascally poodle becomes an even bigger bane to the burly men’s aim for quick, easy cash.

As humorous as The Killing can be in its more eccentric details, it still delivers the brutal violence expected of it as a noir-era crime picture. Cops, criminals, horses, and bystanders are torn apart by gunfire. Men and women who threaten the planning of the heist are treated with equal physical force, knocked unconscious by the alpha criminal’s burly fists. Infidelity, liquor, armed robbery, and police corruption define the film’s borders, establishing a crime world setting that’s so in tune with noir sensibilities it often feels like it was assembled entirely of genre tropes. Kubrick was smart to balance that macho brutality with slyly cartoonish humor and an exaggerated femme foil, a tactic he doesn’t often get enough credit for in his later works. There’s an over-the-top absurdity to films like Barry Lyndon, The Shining, and 2001 that’s often overlooked for the sake of praising their technical achievements. Kubrick is understood to be coldly calculating in tone, but his depictions of human villainy often find absurdist humor in the intensity of their brutality, the same way Daniel Day Lewis is oddly amusing in his villainous PTA performances in There Will Be Blood & Phantom Thread. You can feel the early stirrings of that brutal/comedic tension in The Killing, especially in the character of Sherry Peatty, who joins the ranks of humorously wicked Kubrick villains like Jack Torrance and HAL 9000. Marie Windsor deserves that recognition.

The Killing follows another pattern of Kubrick’s later, greater (in scope, at least) works: it wasn’t properly recognized in its time. It’s difficult to understand now, but when his more out-there works like The Shining & 2001 were first released, they were divisive at best. Many critics initially passed off the now-beloved director as an over-ambitious hack. The Killing experienced almost the exact opposite trajectory. Wide audiences passed on the film, which was ultimately something of a commercial flop, while professional critics raved about it long enough to keep it in the conversation for Best of the Year lists (and, eventually, repertory screenings like the one I just attended). Six decades later, The Killing still feels essential in the same way it was to critics then – showing immense promise in the stylistic & tonal ambitions of a young director who would eventually go on to accomplish big budget greatness. For genre film enthusiasts, it’s an especially precious gem, as there’s nothing better than an ambitious, talented creator imposing their personal impulses on a set-in-stone structure with its own built-in, pre-established payoffs. The Killing finds a young Kubrick playing by the rules of a strict genre template and struggling to work around the limitations of a modest budget. It’s a rare mode to see him working in and makes for one of his more distinct accomplishments as a result.

-Brandon Ledet

Roger Ebert Film School, Lesson 29: The Third Man (1949)

Roger Ebert Film School is a recurring feature in which Brandon attempts to watch & review all 200+ movies referenced in the print & film versions of Roger Ebert’s (auto)biography Life Itself.

Where The Third Man (1949) is referenced in Life Itself: On page 157 of the first edition hardback, Ebert explains his general taste in cinema. He writes, “What kinds of movies do I like best? If I had to make a generalization, I would say that many of my favorite movies are about Good People. It doesn’t matter if the ending is happy or sad. It doesn’t matter if the characters win or lose. […] The Third Man is about two people who do the right thing and can never speak to each other as a result.”

What Ebert had to say in his review: “The Third Man reflects the optimism of Americans and the bone-weariness of Europe after the war. It’s a story about grownups and children: Adults like Calloway, who has seen at first hand the results of Lime’s crimes, and children like the trusting Holly, who believes in the simplified good and evil of his Western novels. The Third Man is like the exhausted aftermath of Casablanca. Both have heroes who are American exiles, awash in a world of treachery and black market intrigue. Both heroes love a woman battered by the war. But Casablanca is bathed in the hope of victory, while The Third Man already reflects the Cold War years of paranoia, betrayal and the Bomb.” – from his 1996 review for his Great Movies series.

I was hoping to redeem myself after my relatively muted response to Casablanca by falling head over heels for its British mystery thriller descendant The Third Man, which seems equally lauded as One of the Greatest Films of All Time. The Third Man boasts the same fast talking, hard drinking, manly noir efficiency of Casablanca, although its depressive post-war exhaustion is tonally different from the Humphrey Bogart classic’s wartime unease. I found myself technically impressed, but emotionally disengaged by both works, unable to echo their set-in-stone praise as the best of what cinema has to offer. I suppose the film’s dizzying Dutch angles and classic noir attention to lighting are largely what elevate it above most pulpy mysteries that were being produced in its era, but that visual flair only took me so far as a modern audience. The Third Man is undeniably a well-made film in terms of craft, but I’m failing to connect with it as an essential, rewarding cinematic experience.

An American pulp novelist arrives in a post-war Austria looking to meet with a dear old friend, Harry Lime. He discovers that Harry Lime has died in a suspicious car accident, where everyone at the scene knew the man personally in some way. Especially disturbed by the report of an unidentified “third man” present at the scene, the American novelist embarks on a vigilante mission that mirrors the kind of genre fluff he writes for a living. In the process he learns some shocking, damning things about Harry Lime’s post-war racketeering and makes the mistake of falling in love with Lime’s girlfriend, who remains true to him even in death & among accusations of his unscrupulous racketeering (which lead to many more deaths). Harry Lime becomes a sort of mythic legend during this investigation, both in the exposure of his crimes & in the endless repetition of his name. The mystery of how he died is gradually swapped out for the mystery of who he was as a person, a question that only can be answered in the grimmest of terms.

Besides its forward-thinking (and sideways-leaning) cinematography, I suspect The Third Man is a movie remembered mostly as a collection of iconic moments, the same way Casablanca plays like a greatest hits collection of Old Hollywood dialogue. Some of these moments worked especially well for me, including a movie-stealing speech from a maniacal Orson Welles in the third act and a couple chase scenes that lead to unexpected hideouts like a Ferris wheel or a movie theater or an applauding literary audience. Occasionally, though, I’d have to scratch my head over the movie’s reputation, like when the most shrill, annoying child actor in the history of shrill, annoying child actors accuses our American makeshift gumshoe of murder in a piercing whine. I was also confused by the praise of the film’s zither soundtrack, which gives it the comedic shrug of a Curb Your Enthusiasm episode, completely cutting the tension of watching our protagonist get in major trouble by asking too many questions. Ebert went out of his way to praise the zither’s influence on the film, writing “Has there ever been a film where the music more perfectly suited the action than in Carol Reed’s The Third Man? […] The sound is jaunty but without joy, like whistling in the dark. It sets the tone; the action begins like an undergraduate lark and then reveals vicious undertones.” I don’t understand at all where he’s coming from, but I doubt he’s alone in believing that.

There’s a really interesting post-war tone that commands a lot of The Third Man (when it isn’t being disrupted by children & zithers). Piles of rubble and greedy profits made from people’s suffering in a time of crisis lurk in the movie’s fringes, rarely directly playing into the plot the way it does in Casablanca, but often overpowering the impact of the central murder mystery. Major twists in that central mystery never meant more to me than that post-war gloom, but the two narratives do compliment each other nicely. Like with Casablanca, I’m willing to accept that a few rewatches might be necessary to fully appreciate The Third Man as an all-time classic, but the film’s murder mystery reveals will likely only dull in those revisits. It’s the post-war exhaustion that’s going to matter more in the long run (along with the film’s bold visual aesthetic). The doomed romance at the heart of Casablanca sounds a lot more pleasant to experience on loop, though, so for now I’ll just have to continue to damn this film by calling it merely very good.

Roger’s Rating: (4/4, 100%)

Brandon’s Rating: (3/5, 70%)

Next Lesson: The Silence of the Lambs (1991)

-Brandon Ledet

Shock (1946)

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Like a lot of people, I always picture Vincent Price as an older man when his name comes up, as if he were air-dropped into the world as an already-established horror legend in the 50s or 60s. The truth is that Price toiled away as a workman character actor for decades before he was really set loose to chew the scenery in pictures like The Abominable Dr. Phibes & The Masque of the Red Death. One of the earliest glimpses of the Vincent Price that was to be came in the form of the 1940s tawdry noir thriller Shock. A subpar Hitchcock descendant that functions entirely within the rigid boundaries of its genre, Shock is a fairly standard sample of in-its-prime noir, one that might not be especially worth digging back up from its ancient cinematic grave if it weren’t for Price’s villainous performance. The babyfaced future-legend is a lot more measured here than he would become at the height of his onscreen treachery, but there’s enough mad scientist stirrings in this early performance to telegraph the weird, wonderful trajectory his career would eventually take. If you’re a fan of Price’s horror work, this early landmark should not be casually dismissed or overlooked.

A soldier returning from deployment in World War II discovers his wife is frozen in a state of stone-faced shock, despite seeming healthy over the phone mere hours before his arrival. Her doctor passes this catatonic state off as a symptom of stress due to her husband’s delayed return from the war. The truth is that the woman witnessed the doctor (played by Price) murder his own wife through a hotel window in a fit of rage. In order to cover his tracks the doctor holds the woman hostage in a mental institution, attempting to convince her & anyone who’ll listen that she’s crazy & the murder was a hallucination. With the doctor’s mistress whispering in his ear & the patient’s husband becoming increasingly skeptical of the diagnosis, the walls start to close in on the dastardly cretin and his cruelty grows in its self-preserving wickedness. Will his evildoing be exposed before his unnecessary shock treatment procedures forever destroy the mental stability of his victim/patient? Surely, if you’ve seen any thrillers from the era before you know the answer to that question, but the because this film is built on suspense instead of mystery, the fun is in the performances & the melodrama, not in guessing what happens next.

Hitchcock expertly, leisurely surfed the balance between trash & art and this knockoff certainly falls on the less prestigious side of that divide. Even 1940s audiences bristled at its tawdry insensitivity, especially miffed that it exploited shock treatment & PTSD, which were hot topics on the heels of WWII, for cheap dramatic weight. In a modern context these transgressions play more entertaining than they do offensive.The film’s mental health mumbo jumbo is quaintly (if not horrifyingly) out of date and it’s actually fairly easy to accept the way it sleazily turns real life issues like women wrongly committed to mental institutions & the real world practice of insulin shock therapy into tawdry thriller fodder, thanks to its distance in time. There’s actually an almost progressive, Rosemary’s Baby type criticism built into the story about the way women are manipulated & institutionalized by men who patronize & refuse to believe them (not that shrieking, “I’m not crazy! I’m not crazy!” helps at all in this particular case). There’s one specific moment when the victims’ soldier-husband confides to Price’s wicked doctor, “She’s out of her head. She’s got a crazy idea that she saw a murder. I don’t know what to do,” that had me screaming, “Well, did you try believing her?!” and I assume that was an intentional effect on the movie’s part. There’s plenty to pick at here, misogyny-wise, especially in the way that it’s only the women’s lives that are ever threatened & the fact that the doctor’s heartless mistress manipulating him with her womanly ways is largely to blame for the villainy, but Shock does have its surprising moments of feminist critique peaking through some of its thick noir sleaze.

Like I said, you’re not going to get much out of Shock that you couldn’t find in some other trashy thriller of the era, except if you look to Vincent Price’s performance as the wicked psychiatrist. There are a few moments of post-German Expressionism weirdness in the imagery, but they’re mostly relegated to a single dream sequence featuring the troubled protagonist running in a strange void & a passage of time montage steeped in calendar page-turning noir cliche. A young Vincent Price stands as the film’s sole beacon of distinctiveness, but he delivers in an uncharacteristically dialed back, measured performance that becomes increasingly ridiculous as his rash decisions reflect the walls closing in around him. The movie serves as a sort of bridge between two eras of the iconic actor’s career, starting with a dramatic stage play seriousness, but ultimately touching on some distinct mad scientist vibes by the time he attempts to erase the woman’s memory (and possibly her existence) through overdoses of insulin & hypnosis. Price’s performance makes Shock more than worthwhile as you watch the early formation of a distinct onscreen personality that fully blossomed in the decades that followed, but is rarely seen with such grounded dramatic weight & dead-serious delivery. The campy impulses in me might’ve wished that he went even more over-the-top with the role, but by toeing the line between those halves of his career, he delivered something much more special, something you can only find in Shock.

-Brandon Ledet