Saturday, January 23, 2010

Border noir I part 2

Border Noir I Part 1 here

The movie’s better.

Originally published in 1956 and written by Robert Wade and William Miller under the pseudonym of "Whit Masterson," Badge of Evil was the original title of the novel that was to become the movie Touch of Evil. These days the book is periodically reissued under the film’s title. Upon reading the book my reaction was: it’s ok, a competent if bland detective story, but no Touch of Evil.

  There are numerous differences between the book and the film, mostly of characters, emphasis and setting. There’s no Vargas in the novel; the book’s main protagonist is a Vargas-like assistant district attorney named Holt, who has a Mexican (albeit thoroughly Americanized) wife. There’s no Sgt. Menzies; the film collapses the characters of McCoy and “Sgt.” Quinlan into the single character of Capt. Quinlan. The unnamed, rather Santa Monica-like Southern California setting of the novel is transmogrified in the film into an über-border town of irresistible sleaziness and decay.

Most important, the book lacks the poetry and atmosphere of Welles’s film, specifically the Mexican-ness, border tensions, and racially-charged edginess which overlay almost every scene. But bottom line: the movie, with its special alchemy by way of Welles’s magic ‘touch’, transforms a conventional crime thriller into a phantasmagorical, and unforgettable, work of art.

style ****
substance ****

Bibl : Frank Brady, Citizen Welles : a Biography of Orson Welles, N. Y., New York, Scribner, 1989, pp. 496-511; Danny Peary, Cult Movies 3, N. Y., Simon & Schuster, 1988, pp. 255-260; “Touch of Evil” : Crossing the Line; “Hallucinations of Miscegenation and Murder: Dancing along the Mestiza/o Borders of Proto-Chicana/o Cinema with Orson Welles's Touch of Evil," in : William Anthony Nericcio, Tex[t]-Mex : Seductive Hallucinations of the "Mexican" in America, Austin, University of Texas Press, 2007, pp. 39-80; Brooke Rollins, “Some Kind of a Man : Orson Welles as Touch of Evil’s Masculine Auteur,” Velvet Light Trap: A Critical Journal of Film & Television, Spring2006, Issue 57, pp. 32-41.

[1] For more on border noir see: Dominique Brégent-Heald, "Dark Limbo : Film Noir and the North American Borders," Journal of American Culture, v29 n2, pp. 125-138.

[2] Eric M. Krueger, “Touch of Evil: Style Expressing Content,” Cinema Journal, Vol. 12, No. 1 (Autumn, 1972), p. 57.

[3] In Quinlan's calculus, American invariably equates to White, as opposed to Mexican, different, or otherwise foreign (i.e. brown-skinned). Thus his nationalistic bias has a pungently racist element to it.

[4] Sympathetic or not, by the end of the film the character of Quinlan isn’t redeemed in any sense – in fact he has become progressively more vile and ruthless. To be sure, there’s the minor bone tossed his way with Sanchez's confession which confirms his repute as a detective. The really nice twist, however, is that it’s the squeaky clean Vargas who’s ultimately dragged down to Quinlan’s level, literally, as he meanders through the sewer-like, oil-drenched waters trying to collect surreptitiously obtained evidence to, in effect, frame Quinlan.

Despite all the technical razzle-dazzle and convoluted plot, Touch of Evil is at heart a character study, specifically of two characters: the somewhat one-dimensional Vargas and the more complexly textured Quinlan. And if the particular vehicle for the character study is tragedy, then the true tragic figure is not the obvious choice of Quinlan, who has already, self-accommodatingly, sunk to his own moral and ethical heart of darkness, but rather, the by-the-book Vargas, who little by little compromises his professional ethics, eventually employing Quinlan-like methods of aiding justice in pursuit of an ostensible, and probably illusory, greater good.

Contributing in no small part to our identification with the Quinlan character is the uncanny similarity to Welles himself. Thus the bloated visage of Quinlan is a metaphor for the spectacular ruin of Welles's career. And Capt. Quinlan’s relationship to the city parallels Welles’s own outsider, quasi washed-up status in a depraved, indifferent film industry in the late 1950s. Moreover, Quinlan’s previously referenced distaste for politics is mirrored by Welles’ own conspicuous ineptitude in film industry politics.

But, in a classic case of Wellesian one-upmanship, it seems that the wily director may have had the last laugh after all. In particular, by way of the 1998 restoration (which incorporates a goodly amount of Welles’s suggestions in his famous 58-page memo), the artistic vision of Welles the auteur - even from beyond the grave and more than a half century later - has, at least to some extent, prevailed over philistinic studio interference. Thus, the mythology of Welles as misunderstood genius only continues to grow over the years.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Border noir I part 1

  "Think Hitchcock's Psycho with Chicana biker dykes, the desert, and pachucos, and you are ready for Welles's frontera Odyssey.” - William Anthony Nericcio, Tex[t]-Mex : seductive hallucinations of the "Mexican" in America, Austin, University of Texas Press, 2007, p41.

“You people are touchy.”

   Touch of Evil is an irresistible, one-of-a-kind movie; it inspires so many thoughts and associations that there’s the inevitable impulse to want to write them all down. Alas, Touch of Evil is also, with the conspicuous exception of Citizen Kane, probably the most written-about Orson Welles film. Thus the embarrassing fate to offer my proverbial two cents’ worth. But I will, and I’ll do my best to be mercifully brief. Suffice to say that if there is indeed a cinematic subgenre we could call border noir, then present film is arguably the supreme example [1]. I’ll leave it to others to determine whether it’s the last film noir, the first post-noir, or first, albeit proto-, neo-noir.

   Time alters the way we see a movie, and Touch of Evil indeed improves with repeated viewings. My initial impressions of disjointedness and strangeness are a large part of the joys of subsequent viewings of the film. So are the almost caricature-like noir motifs which lard the proceedings: sinister back alleys; sleazy, smoke-infested night clubs; Spanish-deco architecture; flying trash; jagged staircases; dive hotels; off-kilter camera angles. Indeed, the border town universe of Touch of Evil might be seen as the Lady from Shanghai fun-house come to life for a couple of hours. Or as one critic so aptly expresses it : “Touch of Evil is a seedy experience.” [2]

   Looming over all is the malevolent, hulking presence of Capt. Hank Quinlan (played by Orson Welles). Brutal, physically repulsive, and more important, morally so, Quinlan is the type of cop who doesn’t hesitate to plant evidence in the cause of “aiding justice.” A rampant, unapologetic American supremacist [3], Quinlan carries with him an anti-Mexican bias that translates into a guilt-before-the-fact philosophy of law enforcement. Yes, Quinlan is a no-nonsense, realpolitik sort of cop. For him those starry-eyed idealists like Vargas (Charlton Heston) cause all the problems in the world (“they’re worse than crooks; you can always do something with a crook”).

   Yet what makes Quinlan fascinating is that he has several shadings of gray in his professional and personal character. To wit, there's the surprisingly sentimental side, along with a clever if nasty sense of humor. In one scene he reminisces wistfully with brothel madam and former girlfriend Tana about better days as schmaltzy, ersatz Mexican piano music wafts in the background. And for someone who sits atop the power structure, Quinlan has little flair for, even patience with, politics; he chides his nominal bosses, the D.A. and police chief, for their tuxedoed garb which they wear to a steakhouse dinner, which Quinlan, ever the detective, quickly divines is a political event.

   But if Quinlan isn't exactly a heroically tragic figure (then again, maybe he is!), he’s nonetheless deserving of some sympathy from the audience [4]. In his own twisted way Quinlan has a sense of professional integrity. He pushes himself to and beyond his physical limits. And he reminds us that he never framed anyone who wasn’t already guilty. Perhaps even more important, he never personally profited from his work as a policeman, with only a small turkey ranch to show for his 30 years of dutifully taking on the dirtiest jobs. Most of all, Quinlan attaches a highly personal, moralistic righteousness to his work; his capturing criminals is a revenge-laced atonement for the unpunished murder of his wife decades prior. The one silver lining for him in his sordid world is a certain police celebrity status. All in all, one of cinema’s great villains, with a touch of the hero.

Border Nor I Part 2

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Errol Flynn in Mexico

[editor’s note : Errol Flynn appeared in no films noirs [1], but his life and career have a noirish trajectory and a connection with Mexico which we’ll explore below]

The stealth intellectual

  Errol Flynn, the proverbial
touch of color in a gray world, is my favorite Hollywood personality. Yes, he was irresponsible, gullible, alcoholic, reckless, self-centered and immature, among other failings [2]. But for all his roguishness, Flynn was a man of surprising shadings and complexities. To wit, and contrary to his dissolute public persona, he was that rarest of rare birds in cinema’s Golden Age – an actor who was also an intellectual. 

  Flynn’s cerebral nature found expression in various ways : collecting fine art; writing professional-caliber novels and journalistic dispatches; studying marine biology; a keen interest in the world’s political events; a wispy, philosophical sensitivity that he seldom revealed publicly (though hinted at in his autobiography). Flynn’s loftier side could be a source of disappointment: his perpetual longing for substantial character roles which were not forthcoming until the twilight of his career. 

  The more thoughtful Flynn can probably be seen to best advantage in his colorful and highly literate autobiography, My Wicked, Wicked Ways [3]. Also present in the book is Flynn's shadow side, i.e. his lifelong fondness for drugs and alcohol; single-minded Don Juanish pursuit of the opposite sex (including a penchant for underage girls); and frequent insensitivity - sometimes downright cruelty - to those closest to him. All these and more he recollects in Wicked Ways with almost too much relish. It followed of course that minor annoyances like marital fidelity, financial responsibility, and physical health be damned, and thus Flynn constantly found himself in the bad graces of his Hollywood masters, the press, wives and ex-wives, and on occasion even the law. Ultimately the restrictions and intrusiveness of American society in general and the Hollywood lifestyle in particular inspired Flynn, and other Hollywood luminaries, to seek refuge in the sunnier, more relaxed climes of Mexico [4]. 

Down Mexico way.

   A common theme in American films noirs is the illusory 
escape to Mexico [5]. South of the Border becomes a place to hide out from dark forces, or the law (or both), an El Dorado where a literally brighter future is possible. And it’s in this context – admittedly however tenuous – that Mexico, film noir, and Errol Flynn intersect.

  Flynn’s connections with Mexico were both numerous and diverting [6]. They included frequent sailing trips, including one in connection with the below-mentioned
Lady from Shanghai. It was on one such sailing voyage that he met future starlet and (for a time) companion Linda Christian, the eventual wife of Tyrone Power. And it was in Mexico, with Morelia filling in for Pamplona, that Flynn gave one his last – and best – performances in The Sun Also Rises. And then there was that curious (and somewhat fictionalized?) opium-laden soirée at Diego Rivera’s house which Flynn recalls with obvious affection in his autobiography.

  Much like the proverbial film noir protagonist, Flynn was plagued not only by his own inner demons but also by - real or imagined - external forces of darkness, as represented by creditors, divorce lawyers, tax collectors, bullying producers, paparazzi photographers, and heaven knows what else, with Mexico or Mexico-like places standing in as his retreat from the pressures of the world. With his frequent south of the border sojourns, Flynn could find solace in a real place of vibrant colors, spicy foods, pristine beaches, and, not least of all, beautiful women. It was much removed from the through-the-looking-glass world of Hollywood and even farther removed from the the fantasy version of Mexico, which beckoned, siren-like but ultimately deceptively, to the desperate characters in films noirs. 

  [1] Okay, Flynn technically appeared in at least one film noir, one of the best in fact, though hardly in a starring role. In The Lady from Shanghai, he can be glimpsed (look fast) outside a cantina in Acapulco. Perhaps this was Orson Welles’ way of rewarding Flynn for the use of his yacht the Zaca in the movie, though I’ve also read that the studios paid Flynn $1,500 per day plus expenses for the use of the boat. Some would also cite as an example the curious, late-career The Big Boodle, filmed in Cuba and with a decidedly noir-like look and feel. Flynnophiles are, perhaps rightly, divided on this film’s artistic merits and whether it’s genuine film noir. See also : Thomas Sanfilip, "Errol Flynn, Cuba, and Film Noir : Revisioning The Big Boodle," Journal of Popular Film and Television, v31 n3 (Fall 2003), pp. 141-144. 
  [2] If we are to believe imaginative biographers, these were among the milder of Flynn’s character flaws, almost minor virtues when considered alongside his true failings. To wit : wife beater; tax cheat; plagiarist; deadbeat; gun runner; pedophile; communist sympathizer; closet gay; Nazi agent and notorious anti-Semite; jewel thief and slave trader; and all-around out-of-control hedonist. (When did he ever have time for acting?). In any case, obscured in the sensationalist - and mostly unsubstantiated - haze were Flynn's good qualities, and it must be admitted that a prominent source of misinformation was Flynn himself, with his tendency to embellish and exaggerate the facts. 
  [3] Much has been made of Wicked Ways’ ghostwritten status. To be sure, author Earl Conrad spent three months in Jamaica in 1958-59, assisting Flynn on the book, but sources are vague as to Conrad’s actual role in the mechanics of writing Wicked Ways. Flynn was a born storyteller, and his writing credentials were well-established by this time, with a couple of books, numerous articles and journalistic dispatches, and various half-completed projects to his credit. Why in the world would he need someone to write his autobiography? Indeed, considering the book's quintessentially and uniquely Flynnian voice and attitude, it’s tempting to view the much-vaunted Conrad as little more than a glorified stenographer who occasionally applied some literary polish. His more likely, admittedly significant, contribution was in keeping the project on track and thus assuring the book’s completion, and for that alone he deserves much credit. Nonetheless, ultimately it seems that the ghosted meme has it backwards; it gives far to much credit to Conrad for his role in the book and shows far too little appreciation for Flynn’s genuine literary skills.
  [4] The other sunnier locales of refuge included Majorca, Cuba, Italy and of course his beloved Jamaica. 
  [5] The notion of refuge in Mexico also had a darker, real-life side in the film noir heyday years, which coincided with the Red Scare era. A number of refugees on the Hollywood Blacklist ‘escaped’ to Mexico and continued making a living, as it were, as screenwriters, actors, directors, etc., or worked in related fields, in any case under varying, usually greatly reduced circumstances (Bernard Gordon, Hollywood Exile, or, How I Learned to Love the Blacklist : a Memoir, Austin, University of Texas Press, 1999, p. 33). Curiously, considering his vaguely leftist political views, Flynn was never a target of the Blacklist.
  [6] In at least one case the idea of escape to Mexico may have been a literal one. According to Flynn’s account in his autobiography, he had an airplane at the ready to spirit him away to Mexico and beyond if the jury came back with a guilty verdict in the notorious statutory rape trial in 1942. True? Or another of Flynn’s tall tales? We can never be sure, but either way the issue was moot as the verdict was not guilty.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Family affair

La Casa de la Zorra
(1945). 89 min. Producción : Compañía Cinematográfica Mexicana. Director: Juan José Ortega. Director of photography, Domingo Carrillo; editor, Juan Jose Marino; arreglos y dirección musical, Gonzalo Curiel; production designer, Paul Castelain; writers, Xavier Villaurrutia and Luis G. Basurto. With Virginia Fábregas, Isabela Corona, Alberto Galan, Sara Guasch, Susana Guízar, Ricardo Montalban, Carlos Orellana, Andrea Palma, Andres Soler, Roberto Cañedo. "Homenaje a la Eximia Actriz Mexicana, Doña Virginia Fabregas.”

More drawing room melodrama than genuine noir, Casa de la Zorra nonetheless has a couple of nifty noirish scenes of limousines prowling sinister back alleys. It also employs to good effect that noir staple, the night club (though here I believe it’s referred to more as a casino). In any case, the film also shares certain, eminently noirish thematic similarities [1] with the better-known hybrid noir-musical Aventurera, though Zorra is a straight drama without musical numbers.

But probably of most interest for American audiences is that this is an early entry in Ricardo Montalban’s oeuvre. On the cusp of rapidly rising stardom, he already displays the smooth self-assurance and easygoing charm that would serve him well throughout his career. Ricardo plays Alberto, a slightly wayward scion of an upper crust Mexico City family. Alberto has a fondness for those two usual suspects of vices, gambling and alcohol. And, yes, he has an eye for the ladies, but his romantic adventures eventually get, as the saying goes, complicated [2].

One of the film’s delights is Montalban’s mostly twilight-of-their-careers supporting cast, which includes among others Mexican film legends Andrea Palma and Virginia Fábregas. My favorite scenes include a silky Montalban/Palma waltz and Fábregas’s drunken, and very public, harangue at her casino. Despite a certain light-weightness and predictability, Zorra can be recommended as a well-heeled representative of the Golden Age of Mexican cinema.

style **1/2
substance **1/2

[1]  Family secrets and shady business dealings in particular.

[2] I must admit that I had difficulty accepting the story's basic romantic premise.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

south-of-border noir: Salón México (1949)

Salón México (1948). 95 min. Director: Emilio Fernández. With Marga López (Mercedes López), Miguel Inclán (Lupe López), Rodolfo Acosta (Paco), Roberto Cañedo (Roberto), Silvia Derbez (Beatriz), Mimí Derba (directora del instituto). [Remade in 1995].

If there’s such a thing as the definitive Mexican noir, then this may well be it. I’d heard about the film’s classic status but had no idea it was this good. A representative of Mexico’s Golden Age of cinema, Salón Méxicois a virtual catalog of noir visual flourishes. And though the film dates from the peak of the noir cycle [1], the touches still feel fresh: smoky nightclubs; flashing neon lights; craggy staircases; back alleys; mists and fog, all of which contribute to a general sense of foreboding and doom in a claustrophobic, sleazy urban setting.

Marga López plays the heroine with a quiet charisma and dignity. Interesting that she bears a striking resemblance to noir icons Linda Darnell and Jean Brooks. Rodolfo Acosta makes for a deliciously slimy villain, but the film’s real star is Gabriel Figueroa's cinematography, which reel for reel, scene for scene, out-noirs most (and far better-known) American films from the same era.

I couldn’t help noticing the many similarities between Salón and Touch of Evil [2]: an urban, slightly sinister Mexican setting; bustling, crowded streets; jumbled sounds; a somewhat bumpy narrative; Latino music; seedy nightclubs; Spanish-deco architecture; a constantly menaced heroine; cigarette smoke; and of course lots of night and shadows. Anyway, my favorite scenes are the ones at the club, in the street just outside the club, and in the hotel across the street. If the movie has any weaknesses, they’re relatively minor: the heavy-handed music score; too many scenes at the girls’ school.

Question: was the Salón México a real club or made up for this film? Based on a real club with a different name? Whatever. Wow! What a movie!

style ****
substance ***

[1] Salón México and the even more flamboyant Aventurera rank among the supreme examples of the cabaretera genre, which might well be seen as the Mexican equivalent of film noir; so many of the cabaretera films have noir-like overtones both in content and style. Indeed, as has been pointed out, Mexican films with a noirish look and feel appeared as early as 1943 and even before, anticipating the American heyday years by nearly a decade (Joanne Hershfield, Mexican Cinema/Mexican Woman, 1940-1950, Tucson, University of Arizona Press, 1996, p142). Conversely, echoes of cabaretera can be found in the immensely popular Latin-American telenovelas, as well as in American movies as diverse as Casablanca and the 1970s American disco movies.

[2] Did Orson Welles know this film? It’s hard to believe that he didn’t. BTW, incredibly, Salón predates Touch of Evil by about a decade. And while we’ve no conclusive evidence that Welles had ever seen Salón, it’s certainly possible that he did and might well have been influenced by the earlier film. Welles had a sympathy for and appreciation of the people and culture of Mexico (all of Latin America, for that matter), dating as far back as 1936 with his Haitian ‘voodoo’ Macbeth, through the early Forties and his travels to Mexico and Brazil, culminating in his doomed South American epic, It's All True. 

One of the most striking parallels between the two films is that each contains a pivotal scene in a dingy hotel room. In fact, the two hotels could probably be interchanged and no one would notice. But what is common to both is the heavy layer of atmosphere provided by the pulsing on-and-off lights. (This type of lighting effect, one should hasten to add, is virtually a noir staple, certainly not unique to these films). In any case, in both films surreptitious activity is happening: in Salón, Mercedes steals some money from her ‘agent’, but in Touch of Evil Welles ups the ante dramatically by using the hotel room as the setting for a drug frame and murder.