Dim day, cool; worked. Worked a lot. But I had the boon of a breakfast with Gnat, which we haven’t had in a while. We read the paper together – she loves the weather page, and somehow this makes the Metro section her section – then adjourned to our separate computers. (She’s working on Zoo Tycoon, trying to keep her Thompson’s Gazelles happy.) I dropped her off at a park program, thinking how I’ll always associate this place with the end of summer, just as I will always remember shooting off to Eden Prairie two years ago for Power Kindergarten. I listened to Philip Marlowe on the way home. In-grid was the song of the moment. A very long time ago. Also, yesterday.
Five hours later I was heading back to pick her up, listening to Medved; a caller was hammering the host’s doubts about light rail. “When the progressives take over, and have the courage to be progressives," the caller said, "we’re going to tax the hell out of you, because your selfish single-occupancy vehicles are KILLING THE EARTH.” As it happened, I was driving a single-occupancy vehicle, KILLING THE EARTH, I suppose. (The only EARTH KILLING I could see along the lush green parkway was the orange marks on the trees, indicating they had been infected with fungus or beetles.)
I have to ask: what do these people want me to do? How do they expect me to adjust? I telecommute a lot; I have putbut 8000 miles on my vehicle in 15 months. Without the ability to use my car to take my child from Point A to Point K I wouldn’t be able to do what I need to do. But the hell should be taxed out of me, because I am KILLING THE EARTH – one of the more persuasive and rational justifications for steep tax increases, I grant. It’s fascinating: some people actually believe that the salvation of the city core lies in increased taxation and decreased freedom. In their vision of utopia, I walk through blinding snow for 20 blocks, urging my child on, headed for the high holy rail station.
I changed the channel. Went to the classical station: Rossini. I had the parkway all to myself; I rolled down the window and turned up the volume. Glorious. It feels good to sin sometimes.
The return of a long-lost summer feature – just in time for fall, I suppose. It’s Noir Theater Tuesday: a look at classic (meaning old) B-pictures (meaning low-budget) films that reveal the hard, desperate, and occasionally redemptive nature of the post-war man’s life (meaning, guns, people in trouble, and dames of varying degrees of virtue.) I just got Volume 4 of the Film Noir Classic Collection series from Warner Brothers, and it starts out with a keeper:
Strangely legal-sounding title. It's almost like a noir prescription: take one act of violence with meals. You don’t know what you’re going to get, really. Violence, yes, but what else? The trailer has a few clues:
Ah, well, there you go. I first saw Van Heflin in “Airport,” and even then – I was 11 – the name struck me as incomplete. There was Dick Van Dyke, so how could you have just Van Heflin? And then there was Van Johnson, which was even more indistinct. "Van" is not a first name. It's either a prefix or a vehicle.
I don’t know how this matchup struck audiences at the time – Van Heflin wasn’t exactly a towering force of masculine fury:
So he ran around in tights with a tiny moustache and shouted en garde? He’s up against noir psycho exceptionale Robert Ryan:
In a clash situation, you’d put your money on Ryan: the man was so noir he bled black. Feed him bullets and he’d crap venetian blinds.
Three! Two wives and a hooker, if you’re curious. Wife number one:
Janet Leigh, a few years away from checking into the Bates Motel. Wife number two was Phyllis Thaxter. Woman number three was a surprise:
She’s a hooker with a heart of gold – fool’s gold! Sorry. Slipped into trailer-speak. I never saw the attraction to Mary Astor, and always thought she was the weakest thing about “Maltese Falcon.” She comes pre-bored for your convenience. But she's great here - used-up, cynical, but somehow an okay frail in the clinch. The movie begins with the noiriest noiry noir shot I’ve seen in some time:
The entire movie is like this. Black on black, with black highlights, and black shadows. Just for fun, I ran a few filters:
Not the same, is it.
As Ryan’s character approaches, we note he drags a bum leg. It makes a scraping sound. We’ll hear it throughout the film, and whenever you hear it the hackles stand up; it’s more terrifying than Freddy Krueger’s fingerblades screeching on a metal handrail. This you could imagine hearing outside your window.
So what’s it about? Robert Ryan is after Van Heflin. That is all you know, and all you need to know, genre-wise - but there's more. (I won't spoil the reasons.) After the promising opening shots the movie moves to the countryside, which makes your heart fall: aw, not another one of these. Not another noir that starts in the city and ends up in a cabin in the woods. That’s not noir. It’s not noir if there’s lots of trees around. But the action shifts to a small town, which gets noiry as hell, then shifts to the Big City, which is so consarned noir the sun has been banned by mayoral edict, and all industrial areas ordered to be A) emptied of people, and B) dramatically lit by hidden floodlights. Ryan pursues Heflin for reasons I won’t relate here, sand Van finds himself lost in the ever-handy demimonde that lies at the fringe of the Square John world, a place with helpful hookers and shady lawyers who know a guy who knows a guy with a gun. What’s remarkable is the series of locales through which Heflin wanders, lost. There's a tunnel, which has pertinent symbolic impact to his backstory, but also just plain looks great:
The empty city, the buildings swallowed by night as they rise:
My favorite shot, straight out of a Spirit comic book: a trolley car heads down a steep grade while Van runs through the streets in panic:
I’m pretty sure that’s the Angel’s Flight line.
What is it about these films that gives them their heft? Well, it’s the fact that all the men, no matter how dire their lives have become, still present themselves well. Coat, collar, tie:
But no matter how far you run, it comes down to this:
Checklist: is this the 40s? Is everything black and white? Are you Robert Ryan? If YES, then answer if cause = just and self = redeemed by love of good woman; if YES proceed to credits. If self ≠ Robert Ryan, is cause = just and self = redeemed by love of good woman? If value ≠ 2 then sum is SCREWED, because the injustice of your cause will trump the amount of redemption provided by Good Woman. It's the Noir Code.
As if Van didn’t have it hard enough, Gunsel McFrogEyes is looking for a three-way:
Then it happens: the Act of Violence. Rather than spoil the ending, I’ve put the picture here. In the noirest of endings, the dead man floats on a sea of black. A certain amount of redemption and/or justice, fleeting and insufficient, is parceled out to those in the immediate vicinity.
Sharp, taut film. I expected little and was constantly surprised.
That's it for today - except, of course, for three regrettable pages from Comic Book History, starting right here. Enjoy - and I'll see you at buzz.mn.