Sunday, April 15, 2007

Broken by the Middle Class Dream

A lot of cinephiles have an unsung and frequently unseen director (or several) from classical Hollywood that they cherish and champion. Quentin Tarantino has William Witney, you can find advocates for George Sherman or Hugo Fregonese (The Raid is a masterpiece!), myself I like to pump up John Brahm or possibly even Charles Marquis Warren from time to time. My friend Damien swears by a handful of Howard W. Koch-helmed films he's seen. Today, I watched Shield for Murder (1954), co-directed by Koch and Edmund O'Brien, also one of the stars.

In commercial cinema, some of the real gold mines come when an industry starts putting out relatively low- or modestly-budgeted material in a particular genre or vein that they know will turn a modest, steady profit, and which they won't have to invest too much planning or publicity into. Because of the (comparatively) low cost and low risk of such programmers, there's often less supervision from the "suits," and hence less interference with the creative talent on the set. Quite often you'll wind up with several talented people able to shake the formula up, aesthetically as well as thematically. Not "subversive" per se, it's still ultimately a product by elite interests for mass consumption just like every other industry film, and too much deviation from the prescribed, commercial(ist) norms will see the people responsible penalized and discouraged ... but there's enough potential material in there to show a system's cracks, and to show individual agency and opinion, in a way that big-budget committee works simply can't replicate. For the aesthete (who may also be a politically conscious observer), this is where the brilliant personal touches of B-movie auteurism come in. For the politically conscious observer (who may also be an aesthete), this is where standard representations are tweaked or sometimes altogether overturned, where indictments of The System or, more likely, some of its constituent parts are made (because, anthropomorphically speaking, these types of films are where The System speaks quietly, discreetly out of the side of its mouth). Low-budget Hollywood genre movies (noirs, westerns, melodramas, etc.) are only one example of this sort of potentiality in commercial cinema--there are comparable areas in the Italian genres of the 1960s and '70s (which I know less well), or Japanese erotic movies of the same period and later (less well still), or possibly the recent spate of low-to-medium-budget Hollywood horror films (almost totally ignorant of).

Shield for Murder is a great illustration of this tendency. The police force is largely crooked; one character in the film (a journalist) indicates why when he mentions the low pay and the lure of authority & impunity that tempt these working class goons to grab a better life for them & theirs. One of the main characters in the film is Barney (co-director O'Brien), a veteran cop and "pistol expert" whose self-proclaimed "wild shots" are known to ruthlessly, conveniently bump off small-time bookies and Mexicans. We see him find fiancée at a men's club where she starts a new job selling cigarettes in a skimpy outfit; he's furious and takes her away; he later takes her to see the house he plans to buy with the dirty money he's stolen off a bookie: it's furnished in grand 1950s middle-class style, with a great convenient kitchen (and what looked vaguely like a Buddha statuette--an orientalist consumer touch?). Through watching the film we gather very clearly that Barney is a racist, sexist, aggressive individual, and that his corruption suggests a lot of the thin blue line ... but neither does the film ascribe all of these flaws to simple personal moral failure or character evil (plus, he's shown to be a bit of an avuncular figure with troubled young men); it makes clear that these are the products of a certain amount of societal and economic hardship, and the privilege given to someone of Barney's stratum to "advance" at the expense of those even further below him--the more "expendable," the lumpen--petty crooks or Mexicans. There's a fantastic bit of parallel editing when Barney shows the home to his fiancée, and she walks around admiring the amenities while he escapes to the backyard to check in on his buried stash of money, a bit of work in the general direction of Eisenstein to indicate a material (and violent, dishonest) substrate to middle-class comfort and luxury.

(By the way, a type of product placement that I'd never noticed before--when one of the good cops has to call the fiancée about the model home, he asks who furnished it, and Patty says, "I don't know--Kling, I think." The credits reveal that a company named Kling indeed did furnish the model home!)

There's another interesting scene where a worldly blonde meets Barney in a bar; he doesn't respond to her advances, so she tells him "You know what your problem is? You want to be bad, but you don't know how." So they look in the mirror across the bar and she tells him how to hold his cigarette and narrow his eyes appropriately. If it were in a 2007 neo-retro-noir there would be obligatory references from critics about the "postmodernity" of such an instance. But such is the problem with presentist film appreciation--usually when people talk about post-1960s genre cinema as being fundamentally more violent, critical, subversive, skeptical, or self-aware than the earlier genre examples it usually just means the person doesn't know the classical stuff very well yet and has just bought what other "authorities" (authorities who wish to sell their companies' new products!) tell them.

I hope I'm not overselling the film; I don't think it's a masterpiece, it's not going to change anyone's life or bring down capitalism or anything nearly so impressive. But it is an example of how "Hollywood" doesn't always believe all the myths ascribed to "it" (i.e., the monolith doesn't exist; it's a system in which agents comply or rebel to varying extents); how the slightly autonomous, less-guarded sectors of an industry can and will burp up varying degrees of aesthetic experimentation (hence possibly beauty) and sociopolitical skepticism (hence also possibly critique) ...


Jaime said...

This sounds a lot like a particular post-9/11 TV favorite of mine, THE SHIELD, where the division between good and "bad" cops is merely the epicenter of dozens of other conflicts, all of which comprise the show's reason for living.

Zach, I tried to invite you to my "Netflix friend" feature but had no luck. Will you send a message to me with your Netflix billing e-mail?

ZC said...

I've seen a little bit of The Shield--the beginning of the season (3?) where Glenn Close joined the cast. All these critically acclaimed multi-cast shows are impossible to evaluate on the basis of one or two or three episodes. (Of course, there's the catch--TV's great at drawing eyeballs in!)

Jaime, I just flaked out on the Netflix friend thing. Send it to me again and I'll reply once I see it. I'm warning you though, if you look at my queue you will find at least one Dolph Lundgren vehicle, one Van Damme vehicle, and one Uwe Boll movie. My reputation as a cinephile could be at stake, so don't tell anyone.

Anonymous said...

I'd say that "Shield For Murder" is a masterpiece, or close to it; at a minimum it's one of the nastiest and most cynical films noir I've had the pleasure of encountering. I'd suggest, though, that the content might owe more to the screenwriters than to Koch.

Richard Alan Simmons, whom I spent some time with shortly before he died, was a terrific TV writer whose work (namely on "The Dick Powell Show") merged a classical sense of structure and character with elliptical, almost existentialist, dialogue. The other credited screenwriter, John C. Higgins, is also associated with other tough, terse noirs.

celinejulie said...

I really have little knowledge about classical cinema, but I’ve seen three old movies by Mark Robson, and I like that the good characters in the films are rebellious and the bad ones are the authority. These three films are THE GHOST SHIP (1943), ISLE OF THE DEAD (1945), and BEDLAM (1946). The bad ones in these films are really evil, though. There are no shades of gray in them. But I think these films are very encouraging for the audience who don’t like to obey.

ZC said...

Stephen, I can't say I know Richard Alan Simmons' work very well (not even a few I have on video), and with John C. Higgins I've only seen a few of the Anthony Mann noirs--so I have no good sense of either writers' work. But Koch was the whole reason I saw the film in the first place, so if I've given him undue attention, that's why! (Higgins also wrote the Koch-helmed Big House, USA, I see. And Untamed Youth in '57. A small-time partnership?)

Jit, strangely enough, I have not seen those three films--three blanks in my knowledge of the Val Lewton oeuvre! But I have seen the Lewton/Robson film that many consider the best collaboration of the two, The Seventh Victim, which is very good. (Though my favorite Lewton is I Walked with a Zombie, directed by Jacques Tourneur, a total masterpiece!) If you try to catch that film, I'll root through my video collection (or just rent the Val Lewton DVD box set) and catch up with those three you mentioned ...

celinejulie said...

I saw THE SEVENTH VICTIM (1943) a few years ago. I think it might be the best film of Mark Robson, though there are some personal reasons why I like those three films a little bit more than THE SEVENTH VICTIM on my first viewing. One reason is because my English listening comprehension isn’t very good, and I saw these Mark Robson’s films without any English subtitles. I have to admit I couldn’t quite follow the story of THE SEVENTH VICTIM. I could understand only 50 % of what the characters were talking. Another important reason may be because I tend to feel involved with a film in which the villains are people of the established religions or the authority. That’s why I feel involved with those three films more than THE SEVENTH VICTIM. Anyway, I think THE SEVENTH VICTIM is more atmospheric than those three films, while those three films are more “mainstream” than THE SEVENTH VICTIM. The scene that I like the most in THE SEVENTH VICTIM is one early scene in which the private detective is about to open a door, or something like that. That scene is very exciting.

I haven’s watched I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE and THE LEOPARD MAN, but I have seen CAT PEOPLE (1942, Jacques Tourneur, A), THE CURSE OF THE CAT PEOPLE (1944, Gunther von Fritsch + Robert Wise, A-/B+), and ROBERT LOUIS STEVENSON’S THE BODY SNATCHER (1945, Robert Wise, A-/B/+). All of which are produced by Val Lewton. I think CAT PEOPLE is very classic. Sonthaya Subyen, my friend, showed these films to me and other people. I guess one reason why he promoted these films is because these films show that horror and fear can be successfully achieved without loud music, gore, or “what you can see directly”. These films are quite the opposite of most current horror films. These films play with the imagination of the audience. However, I think I am too accustomed to current horror films, so I couldn’t help falling asleep a little bit while I was watching THE CURSE OF THE CAT PEOPLE and THE BODY SNATCHER. They might be too artful for me, I guess. Hahaha.

Speaking of those Val Lewton’s films always makes me think about the novel “FLICKER” by Theodore Roszak. I can’t remember exactly if the novel mentions Val Lewton directly or not. But the novel talked about some old horror films, and I guess the novel might be inspired by some Lewton’s films.

Ah, you watch Dolph Lundgren and Van Damme’s vehicles. Of all the Lundgren’s films that I saw, I like THE PUNISHER (1989, Mark Goldblatt) the most. One reason is because the film has very stylish villainesses. And hey, Boaz Yakin (the director of FRESH, UPTOWN GIRLS, A PRICE ABOVE RUBIES, REMEMBER THE TITANS) wrote the script. I don’t know which Van Damme film is to be recommended. But the last time that I saw him is in a French comedy film called NARCO (2004, Tristan Aurouet + Gilles Lellouche, B+), in which he did a brief appearance. I regret that Lundgren and Van Damme’s future might not be very bright. And I think it would be difficult for them to play in a dramatic role as the role of Stallone in ROCKY BALBOA.