Tuesday, 25 August 2020

Noir Diary # 11:
(Anthony Mann, 1947)

Whilst I’m sure that more learned film scholars than I must have addressed this issue at length in books I haven’t read, it’s fairly clear that the initial, early ‘40s, iteration of Hollywood Film Noir underwent something of a sea-change in the immediate post-war years, as brimstone-tinged, nouveau riche melodramas in the Double Indemnity / ‘Laura’ mould were increasingly phased out in favour of more straight-down-the-line police / underworld procedurals. 

Though the fatalism and alienation which subsequently became recognised as signifiers of the ‘noir’ worldview remained intact, the work-a-day, proletarian outlook of these post-war crime flicks in some sense harked back to the Warner Bros gangster epics of the early ‘30s, albeit with an aspiration toward ‘documentary realism’ supplanting the snarling, comic book mayhem proffered by Cagney and Robinson. 

With its ground-breaking use of authentic urban location shooting, Jules Dassin’s ‘The Naked City’ (1948) is often held up as the ‘trigger film’ for this wave of ‘realist’ noir, but by that point the trend already seems to have been well underway around the margins of the industry by the time Anthony Mann laid down the preceding year’s ‘T-Men’ for freelance producer Edward Small. 

Released outside of the studio system by distributor Eagle-Lion, this remorselessly glum tale of two undercover U.S. Treasury agents infiltrating a Detroit crime syndicate in order to help take down a Los Angeles counterfeiting operation is about as ‘procedural’ as a crime film can possibly get whilst still retaining the essence of noir. 

So entirely unencumbered by movie-world glamour is its utilitarian world of men in hats taking care of business in fact, it could easily have been mistaken for a crudely staged re-enactment of factual events, or an instructional film for trainee federal agents, were it not for the presence of a few ‘larger than life’ character types, and, more importantly, of John Alton’s extraordinary, expressionistic photography. 

Perhaps a direct result of its quasi-realist aesthetic, ‘T-Men’ is unfortunately also a deeply schizophrenic motion picture, and not in a good way.

Let me put it to you this way: most fans of Production Code era Hollywood will be familiar with the phenomenon of the ‘tagged on ending’, a device particularly common to crime films and thrillers, wherein some comfortingly square authority figure tends to pop up after the story’s hair-raising drama has concluded, reassuring us that all evil-doers were inevitably brought to justice by the benign powers of the law and judiciary, and that we can all return to their homes for a sound night’s sleep, unmolested by the black-hearted rogues they’ve just seen tearin’ it up on screen for the past eighty minutes (and by extension, unconcerned about the social pressures and inequalities which created them in the first place). 

Meanwhile of course, we can practically see the film’s director and writer just off screen, laughing into their sleeves and making “nothin’ to do with me buddy” gestures, confident that any halfway intelligent viewer will grok that the REAL movie ended a few minutes beforehand, with the tragic antihero expiring in a gutter with police lead in his back.

Variations on this theme include the ‘glib happy ending’, the scene-setting, ‘story-you’re-about-to-see..’ prologue and the thunderous, explanatory voiceover, and they’re basically all just a part of the accepted toing and froing which allowed filmmakers to get their visions somewhere near the screen during the first half of the 20th century. Usually this stuff doesn’t do a great deal of damage to the movie itself – it remains fairly self-contained, and can be tuned out without too much difficulty… but boy, is ‘T-Men’ ever an exception.

Let me say straight-up that if Mann had been able to make the film as a tight, sixty-minute programmer about a couple of double-agent hoods taking down a counterfeiting racket, it would have been pretty great picture – a full strength draught of hard-boiled badassery, and a pretty much perfect exemplar of the post-war b-noir form.

Padded out to eighty-six minutes though, filled with blandly-shot visits to the hard-working back office boys in Washington and ham-fisted testimonials praising the moral righteousness and ruthless efficiency of the U.S. Treasury (“there are six fingers of the Treasury Department fist, and that fist hits fair, but hard,” some functionary behind a mahogany desk absurdly informs us at one point), together with voice-of-god narration constantly crashing in to reiterate plot points and remind us of our undercover protagonists’ patriotic, crime-fighting duty and…. well, let's just say the film’s impact is somewhat compromised, to put it mildly.

Imagine watching a version of ‘Psycho’ in which Simon Oakland’s psychiatrist character kept popping up in the middle of the story to calmly talk us through Norman Bates’ thought processes and to reassure us that everything will turn out ok, and you’ll get an idea of what a frustrating viewing experience ‘T-Men’ can be.

Nonetheless though, the good stuff here is well worth sticking around for. As our ostensible lead, Dennis O’Keefe (who went on to headline in Mann’s classic ‘Raw Deal’ a year later) is such a sneering, heavy-lidded bruiser that it’s hardly surprising the producers (or whoever) felt the need to cram in narration every five minutes reminding us that he’s actually on the side of the tax-collecting angels. (He puts me in mind of a somewhat younger version of Eddie Constantine in the Lemmy Caution movies, if that helps give you a bead on where he’s coming from.)

In fact, it’s easy to imagine a version of this movie – almost certasinly a superior one, from my POV - in which O’Keefe and his associate Alfred Ryder actually are just a pair of freelance crooks trying to muscle their way into an inter-state counterfeiting operation, rather than glorified tax inspectors, but I suppose that Eagle-Lion and/or Edward Small simply weren’t brave enough to foist that kind of cynical, amoral grue upon the Code era American public – assuming that the Treasury Dept weren’t actually covertly financing this picture as a propaganda piece (which seems entirely possible, given how heavy-handed their input seems to have been).

Ryder incidentally is by far the more low-key and reserved of our two undercover men, largely remaining in the shadow of the more charismatic O’Keefe, whilst the knowledge that he has a wife and family back home pretty much puts him on the chopping block from the outset vis-à-vis providing us with the necessary emotional clout to raise the stakes for an inevitable blood-soaked finale.

The film’s earlier, Detroit-set section is pretty straight-down-the-line gangland business stuff, as grim men convene in airless brick basements and back offices to pack crates, smoke cheroots and exchange briefcases, but Mann and Alton bring a dour, smog-choked atmosphere to proceedings which hints at dark deeds and snuffed out lives lurking just around the corner. 

Things really get going though once O’Keefe is reassigned to L.A., charged with using a series of unfeasibly vague clues to track down the gang’s West Coast connection, a “shover” of counterfeit notes known only as ‘The Schemer’. (He frequents Turkish steam baths, has a scar from a knife wound on his left shoulder and imbibes a certain brand of Chinese medicinal herbs.)

Once O’Keefe dutifully enters the orbit of the weaselly, eccentric Schemer (broadly but rather brilliantly played by Wallace Ford), things take a somewhat more fanciful turn, as he follows his mark to the Club Trinidad in Ocean Park, wherein he cracks wise with an underworld-savvy hostess/photographer (Mary Meade) whose ostensible job involves her selling snaps of punters back to them, whilst meanwhile acting an all-purpose message centre for the counterfeiting gang.

“Tell me, you make a good take shooting mugs like me?,” O’Keefe asks her, before leaving her a message in the form of one of his own tailor-made phony bills, folded just so. This of course brings him to the attention of Mead’s higher-ups in the biz, represented in the first instance by an even more shady technician operating out of the back of a Hollywood photography lab.

 Though beautifully rendered by Alton, the assorted scenes of back-stabbing and thuggery which follow, including much procedural details concerning the origins of printing plates and the grading of paper etc, prove less than scintillating, as O’Keefe and Ryder gradually work their way through the ranks toward the head honchos of the counterfeiting racket, one of whom, to our considerable surprise, turns out to be… a dame!

Played by Jane Randolph (whom you may recognise as the “Alice” character in both ‘Cat People’ (1942) and its sequel), ‘Miss Simpson’ is admittedly only ‘secretary’ to the actual Big Boss (who keeps a low profile behind a locked door), but she still seems to be largely in charge of day-to-day operations, and finding a woman in a position of authority in a film as unrepentantly masculine as this one is such an unexpected development it feels almost deliberately perverse.

In fact, it’s curious to note that whilst the two female characters in ‘T-Men’ are only on screen for probably about five minutes in total, they are both interesting, unconventional figures, playing important roles in the movie’s criminal infrastructure whilst failing to conform to the expected demands of either ‘love interest’ or ‘femme fatale’ archetypes.

It’s possible that the inclusion of these characters was simply the result of a compromise between the film’s producer(s) and writer / director, allowing ‘T-Men’ to include at least some kind of female interest without diluting the film’s procedural / quasi-documentary framework by resorting to rote romantic/domestic interludes - but whatever the case, they certainly make for an interesting addition to the drama, and allow the movie to play a lot better for modern audiences than it might have done as a 100% male affair.

Once the stentorian voiceovers and Treasury Dept bullshit is all out of the way meanwhile, the legit parts of John C. Higgins’ script (‘suggested from a story by’ ubiquitous Hollywood ideas-woman Virginia Kellogg) may not exactly sparkle with verbal wit, but they do at least include enough blunt, hardboiled shop-talk to keep me entertained. (“What’s the matter, ya gettin’ the whim-whams?”, a fellow hood asks O’Keefe when he seems reluctant to embark on a murder assignment.)

Brilliantly, the character played by Jack Overman (a distinctive actor with somewhat Asian features who also appeared in both ‘Brute Force’ and ‘Force of Evil’) answers to the name of “Horizontal”, whilst other rough coves on our identity parade of a cast list include “Moxie”, “Chops” and “Shiv Triano”. If you’re a fan of good ol’ Hollywood tough guy shtick in fact, you can count ‘T-Men’ as pretty essential viewing.

The real star of the show though is of course mid-century America’s foremost poet of men in dark hats walking down shabby hotel corridors, John Alton, whose distinctive work on ‘T-Men’ single-handedly elevates the film from a fairly routine caper to a true masterwork of noir visual style.

Working a few years later on ‘The Big Combo’ (which I reviewed here), Alton famously managed to create both an airport and an opera house out of little more than a few strategically placed spotlights, some smoke and a few bit of wood and corrugated iron. Here though, he and art director Edward C. Jewell seem to have had slightly more at their disposal (including the use of real locations), and the results are often little short of extraordinary.

Few of the era’s DPs were able to add a sense of routine tough guy business quite as well as Alton does here. Throughout the film, underlit faces loom out of the shadows like horror movies ghouls, framed by beams of rusted steel or rotten wood, whilst tormented victims of beatings sprawl gigantically in the foreground of low angled shots, as groups of sweaty, behatted goons artfully cram themselves within the 4:3 frame as if they were stuck in a lift with a single flashlight.

Meanwhile, authentic downtown alleyways, gas towers and waterfront loading zones are all picked out exquisitely by Alton’s minimal, high contrast lighting, allowing his trademark looming silhouettes and distorted shadows to lend perhaps an even greater degree of expressionistic angst to the film’s visuals than he managed to conjure up back on the sound stages.

In an inspired touch, the film’s conclusion takes place aboard what appears to be a decommissioned cargo ship from whence the bad guys handle the manufacture of their counterfeit dough, and the lighting Alton manages to apply to this vessel is, as you might imagine, pretty remarkable.

Transforming the deck into a chaotic cat’s cradle of light and shadow within which harried, hunched figures dart, weave and fall through the final few minutes of climatic action, Alton seems to directly mirror the overlapping layers of urban disorder seen earlier in the film, in a number of daytime shots taken through reflection-clogged shop windows. Perhaps T-Men’s most distinctive visual motif, this sense of unfathomable chaos presents a disturbing contrast to the resolutely linear tale offered up by the film’s script.

Though it would be a stretch to call it a superior, or even particularly inspired, example of the form, ‘T-Men’s best passages nonetheless capture the absolute essence of the proletarian gangster-noir aesthetic that would define many of the most powerful examples of Film Noir to emerge from Hollywood through the late ‘40s and early ‘50s.

Certainly, the level of visual imagination on display in the film remains pretty astonishing. Both in purely technical terms and as a seamless fusion of the realist and fantastical strains of crime movie aesthetics, Alton’s work cements it as a key exemplar of the genre’s trademark atmospherics, irrespective of it’s sadly all-too-obvious drawbacks as a narrative movie entertainment.


Sunday, 9 August 2020

Lovecraft on Film:
The Curse
(David Keith, 1987)

After Stuart Gordon and Brian Yuzna reignited the possibilities for commercially viable Lovecraftian cinema with Re-animator and From Beyond, the late ‘80s and early ‘90s saw, if not exactly a flood, at least a steady trickle of American horror films purporting to take inspiration from “H.P. Lovecraft’s classic tale of terror” or somesuch.

By my reckoning, the first to hit theatres (or, more likely, video shops) was 1987’s ‘The Curse’, a loose adaptation of ‘The Color Out of Space’ (published 1927) featuring primary production credits which look at least…. somewhat promising?

Better known for his work as an actor, first time director David Keith had played the lead in Donald Cammell’s mesmerising ‘White of the Eye’ earlier the same year, whilst producer Ovidio G. Assonitis had previously specialised in over-reaching Italio-American co-productions, gifting the world with such inexplicable yet strangely appealing disasterpieces as ‘Tentacles’ (1977), ‘The Visitor’ (1979) and ‘Piranha II: The Spawning’ (1981). (1)

According to IMDB meanwhile, none other than Lucio Fulci himself also served as “associate producer” on ‘The Curse’, whatever that may have entailed, although I’m pretty sure I don’t recall seeing his name on the credits. (2)

So, could a touch of Cammell’s visionary magic(k) have rubbed off on Keith, inspiring him in his own filmmaking venture? Could Assonitis manage to rekindle some of the errant craziness of his glory days, perhaps even infusing the spirit of Fulci’s U.S.-shot horror films into proceedings..?

In short, the answer is ‘no’ on all counts, but, having gone to the trouble of acquiring and watching this film, I’m duty-bound to give it its due with a full review, so let’s get stuck in.

Given the wealth of Lovecraft tales which have never been adapted for the screen, I’ve never really understood why ‘The Color Out of Space’ has proven so popular with filmmakers over the years. (‘The Curse’ is the second of four feature length adaptations that I’m aware of, beginning with Die, Monster, Die! back in 1965.)

Admittedly, the story is one of the most accomplished pieces of descriptive writing HPL ever produced, but if we remove the uncanny pleasures of his extraordinary prose from the equation, the actual detail of the narrative are pretty sketchy and uninvolving, at least in terms of what could actually be captured on film. In fact, I would have thought that Lovecraft’s conception of the alien infiltration of earth’s eco-system being characterised by the spread of an impossible colour, previously unseen by human eyes, would have been an immediate deal-breaker when it came to adapting the story for a visual medium. But, what do I know?

As it turns out, the 2010 German version of ‘The Color Out of Space’ (‘Die Farbe’, directed by Huan Vu) overcame this problem simply by shooting in black & white, whilst Richard Stanley’s much discussed 2019 adaptation chose instead to simply remind us of the widely recognised fact that the colour of inter-dimensional alien evil is in fact magenta. As looser, less committed, versions of the story meanwhile, both ‘Die, Monster, Die!’ and ‘The Curse’ take the easy way out by simply not bothering to address the idea of ‘impossible’ colours at all.

Speaking of Stanley, he recently shed some light on the reasons for ‘The Color Out of Space’s popularity with filmmakers whilst appearing on an episode of Josh Olsen & Joe Dante’s The Movies That Made Me podcast (a great listen by the way – highly recommended). Setting out his reasons for picking the story as the first entry in his proposed trilogy of Lovecraft movies, Stanley modestly describes it as the “low-hanging fruit” of the Lovecraft canon, reasoning that it features no face-to-face encoutners with indescribable, sanity-shaking monstrosities and is set entirely on a remote American farmstead, rather than, “..on another planet, or at the bottom of the Mariana Trench”. Looking at it that way, I suppose he has a point.

As far as concepts for modestly budgeted SF/horror movies are concerned, “meteorite falls on farm, shit gets weird” is workable and easy to understand. Try, on the other hand, to deliver a one-line pitch for, say, ‘Dreams in the Witch House’ or ‘The Call of Cthulhu’ which would convince a sceptical production company or studio exec to write you a cheque, and suddenly the popularity of ‘The Color Out of Space’ begins to make a whole lot of sense.

Although it is difficult to imagine a filmmaker as defiantly leftfield as Richard Stanley taking notes from a film as pedestrian as ‘The Curse’, there are nonetheless a number of striking similarities between the 2019 ‘Color Out of Space’ and the approach taken by this film’s scriptwriter, David Chaskin. [For the sake of argument, I’m just going to chalk these parallels up as coincidence – the natural result of two writers taking the same steps in order to reshape HPL’s tale into a workable, contemporary-set screenplay.]

Both films portray the farm upon which the action takes place as a bright, orderly and somewhat idyllic location, prior to the arrival of the fateful meteorite – a far cry from the remote, backwater outpost carved from the dark valleys and forbidding deep forest of Arkham County, as stipulated by Lovecraft. (Ditching New England altogether, ‘The Curse’ actually takes place in the neatly cultivated countryside of Tellico Plains, Tennessee – the real life town around which the film was actually shot, insofar as I can tell.)

Additionally, both films take the character of the municipal surveyor who retrospectively narrates Lovecraft’s tale after hearing it second-hand from an aged local resident, and move him into the same timeframe as the primary action, allowing him to function both as a first hand witness to the ghastly events on the farm, and as a kind of belated ‘hero’ who turns up during the climax and attempts to rescue the survivors.

Most significantly though, both films essentially use the story’s supernatural events as a pretext for exploring the underlying tensions within a family unit – an approach entirely bypassed by Lovecraft, who, in typically misanthropic style, doesn’t even bother to introduce or name the members of Nahum Gardner’s ill-fated clan until it comes time for them to be transformed and/or destroyed by the malignant forces unleashed around them.

So, without further ado, ‘The Curse’ introduces us to sternly puritanical patriarch Nathan Crane (veteran Hollywood supporting player and TV regular Claude Akins), who is attempting to make a living off the land whilst also beating his strict religious beliefs into his newly reconstituted family [and/or using the word of the lord to cement the fragile bonds which unite them, depending on your tolerance for comically exaggerated, authoritarian bible-bashing].

Nathan’s significantly younger wife Frances (Kathleen Jordon Gregory) is a divorcee, and has apparently arrived from a somewhat more cosmopolitan background, with her two children in tow – early teenaged Zack (Wil Wheaton, top-billed here on the basis of his roles in ‘Stand By Me’ (1986) and ‘Star Trek: The Next Generation’) and his younger sister Alice (Wil’s real life sister Amy Wheaton).

It’s unclear how Nathan and Frances got together, but she mentions something about him providing for them in their hour of direst need, or somesuch. Indeed, the basic set up here suggests a variation on Charles Laughton’s ‘Night of the Hunter’ (1955) in which Robert Mitchum’s character, rather than killing and robbing Shelley Winters, had instead decided to stick around and play house. Oh, and if he’d brought his own child from a previous marriage along for the ride too (that being Cyrus, played by Malcolm Danare as an oafish, mouth-breathing bully).

Admittedly, Nathan’s religious mania is depicted here as heart-felt belief rather than psychotic hustle, but nonetheless, the trajectory of this story is clear from the outset, as are the filmmakers’ sympathies. We’ve got smart, sensitive kids Zack and Alice pitched against their abusive, scripture-spouting step-father, with thuggish Cyrus as his enforcer, and their mother caught in the middle as the weak-willed victim.

And, that is indeed exactly the way things pan out once the bad ol’ meteor lands. Despite all kinds of latex-faced, goo-dripping hullaballoo being unleashed however, watching the movie grimly plod toward this desultory foregone conclusion across eighty minutes of cartoonish, one dimensional characterisation and bland, atmosphere-free visuals is… a less than edifying experience, to say the least.

Never mind though, at least we’ve got a fairly extensive sub-plot to distract us, concerning a buffoonish, cigar-chewing real estate agent (Steve Carlisle), who is trying to force Nathan Crane to sell up so that he can sell the land on at a profit to the company who are planning to build the big dam, or somesuch.

The Cranes’ nearest neighbour meanwhile is a doctor (hard-working character actor Cooper Huckabee) who provides the film with it’s only real voice of reason. Unfortunately for all concerned however, his slutty, gold-digging wife (Hope North) is in league with the real estate guy, so she does her best to distract him from all the f-ed up stuff going on over at the farm, and…. ugh. Yeah, I’m sorry, but this stuff is all just really bad. Again, with all due respect to the thespians concerned, these characters are portrayed as witless, face-pulling stereotypes, their scenes playing out like a broad ‘80s comedy, with added cruelty and minus the jokes.

Despite its lack of taste and imagination however, in technical terms ‘The Curse’ is at least reasonably efficient, with Keith doing a convincing impression of a seasoned b-movie hack, despite this being his first directorial assignment. The special effects – when they finally arrive – are fairly good, even as they stick strictly to the ‘syrupy goo and latex appliances’ approach so often favoured by late ‘80s American horror. Some of the shots of contaminated / maggot-infested fruit and vegetables are genuinely rather nauseating, and the climax boasts a few knobbly troll-faces, so if that sounds like your idea of a good time, knock yourself out.

Staying on the sunny side, one of the few things I enjoyed in ‘The Curse’ was actually Claude Akins’ performance. Though his character is clearly written as a one-dimensional hate figure, Akins manages to invest some of his scenes with a surprising degree of gravitas, lending a sense of hard-won sincerity to his biblical tirades, whilst the matter-of-fact manner in which he extracts his step-daughter from a barn full of demonic chickens(!) is also fairly admirable.

Though this abusive and delusional man was never exactly going to win much respect from us as he beats his step-son and locks his mentally ill wife in the attic, Akins’ efforts to make something of the part nonetheless add a note of depth and ambiguity to proceedings which this film otherwise sorely lacks.

Another highlight meanwhile is the score, which comes courtesy of Franco Micalizzi, erstwhile don of ‘70s Italio-crime movie funk. For ‘The Curse’, Micalizzi essentially seems to have delivered a killer soundtrack for an ‘Alien’ rip-off type sci-fi / horror film, leavened with some incongruous slide guitar to add a ‘southern’ flavour, and the results are quite pleasing.

Although ‘The Curse’ generally betrays few signs of its Italian pedigree, it does have a few fog-shrouded, blue-tinted exterior shots which, combined with Micalizzi’s score, momentary allowed me to make believe I was watching, say, a Lamberto Bava movie or something. A happy dream.

For the most part though, ‘The Curse’ simply offers an object lesson in why trashy horror movies generally work best when their casts are comprised of unattached singletons and/or duplicitous, scheming assholes who can line themselves up for the slaughter, sans baggage.

By instead working through the dynamics of an isolated, dysfunctional family, ‘The Curse’ inevitably ends up evoking issues of child abuse, mental illness and religious hysteria – all subjects requiring a degree of insight, subtlety and compassion which the filmmakers here are simply unable to muster.

As a result, the film merely feels depressing, its ostensible entertainment value tethered to such peculiar items as rotten, pus-filled cabbages, bubonic plague-afflicted dinner scenes, or the sight of a small girl being terrorised by her chained up, monster-headed mother… none of which exactly filled my heart with joy, to be perfectly honest.

It is interesting I think to note that all of the extant versions of ‘The Color Out of Space’ (excepting perhaps ‘Die, Monster, Die!’) share a touch of this genuinely upsetting quality. By far the most disturbing aspect of Lovecraft’s tale arises from the coldly dispassionate tone with which he describes the physical deterioration of Nahum Gardner and his wife, whilst Stanley, in his 2019 film, takes the opposite approach, selling us on his story’s drastic shift in tone by ensuring that these horrors are inflicted upon fully fleshed out characters whom we have spent time with and learned to care about.

Falling between these two stools with an artless lack of grace meanwhile, ‘The Curse’ simply seems squalid, mean-spirited and rather pointless, failing to meaningfully engage with its subject matter whilst simultaneously denying us the pleasures of a mindless good time. Individual mileage may vary, but I don’t think I’ll be returning to it any time soon.


POST-SCRIPT: Whilst it seems fairly extraordinary to me that a film this unenjoyable could become a ‘hit’, it is perhaps testament to the video rental era market’s unquenchable hunger for franchise horror movies that Ovidio G. Assonitis actually went on to produce two narratively unrelated sequels to ‘The Curse’, with parts II and III appearing in 1989 and 1991 respectively.

Mercifully, neither of these follow ups seem to have any connection to Lovecraft, so I’m not obligated to watch them, but nonetheless, I feel a dreadful certainty that they will be unfolding themselves before my cursed eyes on some dark night before too long, for such is the horror fan’s burden. Apparently, ‘Curse III: The Sacrifice’ stars Christopher Lee and concerns “black magic in 1950s Africa”, no less. How can I resist…


(1) David Keith is not to be confused incidentally with Keith David, the star of John Carpenter’s ‘Christine’, who also went on to pursue a directorial career.

(2) Fulci is actually credited here under the anglicised name Louis Fulci, for some reason. Quoth IMDB Trivia: “Contrary to the actual films credits, producer Ovidio G. Assonitis said in an interview that Lucio Fulci was not his partner on producing the film. He states that Fulci was only the director of the second unit.”

Saturday, 1 August 2020

Book & Film:
Night Moves
by Alan Sharp
(Warner Paperback Library, 1975)

Strange artefacts from an era before home video allowed viewers to return to their favourite movies at their leisure, movie novelisations (as opposed to tie-in editions of pre-existing source novels, although I appreciate the line between the two can get a bit blurred at times) can often make for fascinating and rewarding reading. Particularly interesting to me are those dating from a curious period in the mid ‘70s in which Hollywood studios (Warner Bros in particular) seemed to believe there was a market for tie-in novels based on quote-unquote ‘mature’ / adult-orientated films, rather than just the more obvious action-adventure and sci-fi franchise stuff which dominated the novelisation racket when I was growing up in the ‘80s and ‘90s.

I’ve found myself dipping into a number of these books in recent years, and though their quality naturally varies, I’ve discovered several which I believe actually surpass the quality of their cinematic counterparts. If I put Alan Sharp’s ‘Night Moves’, based on his own screenplay, into this category, that’s no slur on Arthur Penn’s film, which is excellent. But, as an experienced novelist expanding upon a story of his own creation about which he obviously cared quite deeply, Sharp here gives us a deeper dive into the uniquely despairing atmosphere of the piece, and the ennui-ridden, low key tragedy of its characters.

Though it betrays signs of being written in haste (as well as the inevitable typos, there are a few snowdrifts of incoherence which subsequent drafts would surely have cleared up), this ostensible promo item for Penn’s film feels very much like the definitive version of the story, and the true source of the ‘feel’ the director was trying to put on-screen.

In trying to understand where ‘Night Moves’ is coming from, it’s instructive I think to take a quick glance at a capsule biography of Alan Sharp. Born in Scotland in 1934, Sharp struggled to establish himself as a literary novelist during the 1960s, before apparently packing it in and deciding to try his luck in Hollywood, where he offered his services to the studios, expressing a particular desire to work on undemanding genre fare such as westerns and detective pictures.

This being the post-‘Easy Rider’, pre-‘Star Wars’ 1970s however, the genre films being produced were often far from conventional, and the distinctive authorial stamp present in the small number of Sharp scripts which made it to the big screen (including Peter Fonda’s excellent ‘The Hired Hand’ (1970) and Robert Aldrich’s revisionist western ‘Ulzana’s Raid’ (1972)) has often been noted.

Essentially, ‘Night Moves’ is exactly the book I would have expected this man to write, complete with eerie parallels to another U.K. ex-pat whose unfulfilled literary ambitions fed into the career-defining work he produced within the L.A. / Hollywood pulp fiction milieu, Raymond Chandler.

Though Chandler’s work is never explicitly referenced in ‘Night Moves’, his influence hangs heavy over both the celluloid and paper incarnations of the project. The moral ambiguities contemplated by Private Investigator Harry Moseby as he is paid to track down the wild-child daughter of a dysfunctional, implicitly abusive, Hollywood family directly echo those faced by Philip Marlowe in Chandler’s ‘The Big Sleep’. But, like Robert Towne’s similarly themed script for ‘Chinatown’ (released by Warner Bros a year earlier), Sharp’s story veers further into realms of uncertainty and darkness, evoking the foggy, depressive atmosphere of Chandler’s later masterpiece, ‘The Long Goodbye’.

The big difference here though of course is that, whereas Chandler’s Marlowe was essentially a cipher - more of a one-man Greek chorus or a vehicle for the authorial voice than a fleshed out, human character - the complicated ins and outs of Harry Moseby’s background and psychology instead become Sharp’s main focus.

Whereas Penn’s film is recognisably a detective story from the outset, briskly following the familiar A, to B, to C pattern of Moseby’s investigation as viewers mentally take notes and try to keep up, Sharp’s prose prefers to let these details of names, dates and places hang in the background - just the ambient noise of our character going about his day-job. His thoughts, which we share, remain elsewhere as he contemplates his own problems, and his uncertain place in the world.

It is only in its final twenty pages that the novel finally (reluctantly?) ratchets up the pace and becomes a thriller, with guns and dead bodies and murders to avenge. Up to that point, Sharp has taken things slowly; time has been given more of a chance to stretch out than would have been possible in a commercial movie, even in the free-and-easy 1970s.

Repeatedly during the story, Moseby tells people that he has no idea why being a detective appeals to him so much, or why he ended up pursuing such a shady profession. One key detail lost in the film is the fact that Harry’s detective agency barely breaks even. It is his wife Ellen’s interior décor business which pays the couple’s bills, thus making a mockery of his dishevelled, “just doin’ my job” attitude to his work.

Meanwhile, the leisurely detail Sharp gives us on Moseby’s day-to-day travails make the reasons behind his anachronistic choice of career abundantly clear. For all the squalid, ethically dubious activity his profession requires of him, he enjoys being a detective. It allows him to travel to random places, and to hang around in them for extended periods of time, essentially not doing much. He can get lost in his thoughts, replay chess games on his portable board and observe his surroundings – all whilst still feeling like his activities have ‘purpose’.

The job allows him to meet interesting people, and to enjoy the frisson of a bit of low level antagonism and physical threat which perhaps reminds him of his football days. And, most importantly, it allows him to leave his ‘real life’ responsibilities left far behind; the passages in the book which describe Harry flying to New Mexico and Florida, dropping out of the sky into a new, strange world, his marital strife temporarily forgotten, are beautifully observed.

In both book and film, we get a sense of there being a chasm separating Harry’s ‘detective’ life (in which he can fool himself into thinking he’s solving problems, overcoming entropy) from his ‘real life’, as an aimless dude with thinning hair who’s just hit forty and discovered that his wife is cheating on him, whilst his hopes for the future slowly slide beyond his reach. People – women in particular – keep reminding him of this division, and it bugs him, like a twinge of conscience.

Sharp’s essential point seems to be that, if you make your private eye a three dimensional figure, complete with the kind of problems and failures faced by each of us in our day-to-day lives, there is no way he can navigate his way toward ‘solving the case’ in the way Chandler’s archetype demands – particularly not when he find himself alone amid the nebulous, poisoned atmosphere of Watergate-era L.A., laying deceit, half-truths and half-baked armchair psychiatry on him wherever he turns.

And, let’s make no bones about this, I love the way that ‘Night Moves’ – in both of its incarnations – taps into that bottomless well of lost, disenfranchised downer vibes which seems the have to consumed American culture in the mid-1970s, and just lets the waters flow. I’ve not yet come up with a satisfactory name for the very particular aesthetic unique to this place and time, but suffice to say, I’ve become increasingly fascinated by it as I get older, and ‘Night Moves’ provides a key touchstone for this particular ‘feel’.

When Moseby, having just discovered he is being cuckolded, takes a diversion on the way home and sits, lost in his thoughts, watching the surfers on Malibu’s Zuma beach, I can’t help but imagine Neil Young in his beach house somewhere down the way, laying down the album of the same name with Crazy Horse. Or of Donald Cammell freaking out in his hideaway up in the nearby hills, or characters from Steely Dan songs, sliding seedily down the boulevards, looking for their next big score. Forty-five years down the line, the weird, ugly and desperate is transmuted into magic.

Whereas these ‘70s downer narratives usually tend to focus on the disillusionment of former hippie / counter-culture types though, Harry Moseby most definitely does not find into that mould. As a former football pro, his character, insofar as we can read it in societal terms, seems to represent the American male who has unthinkingly followed the path set down for him as a result of his physical aptitude…. only to find himself in a confusing and lonely mid-life dead end once his athleticism, inevitably, fails him. In some ways, he seems like softer, more vulnerable counterpart to the ravaged, emotionally neutered Vietnam vets who were just starting to stumble into the glare of popular culture at this point in time.

This aspect of Moseby’s character is lent greater clarity in the novel through his interactions with Charles, the gay aesthete character with whom his wife works in her furnishing business. In the film, Charles’ sexuality remains unclear, and the brief scene in which Harry needles him thus becomes rather confusing. In the book though, it’s clear that Harry is riffing on the vast chasm which separates his lifestyle from that of the other man (“when are we going bowling again, Charles?”), and that Charles, who sees these remarks as venomous in their intent, is genuinely offended by Harry’s insistence on putting him down for no good reason.

What really makes this scene interesting though, in a way that a film couldn’t easily communicate, is that Harry’s interior monologue reveals that he actually likes Charles, and doesn’t really resent his effete manners or homosexuality in the slightest. He just can’t resist belittling him, feeling the need to assert his macho ‘caveman’ credentials, for reasons he doesn’t fully understand.

Harry’s strange, rather masochistic, affectation of an anti-intellectual tough guy persona is further explored when he declines an invitation to go to the cinema with his wife that night. In the film, urban sophisticates Ellen and Charles are seeing Éric Rohmer’s ‘My Night at Maud’s’, of which Harry comments, “I saw a Rohmer film once, it was kinda like watching paint dry.” Fair comment perhaps for a rough n’ tumble American guy without much of a taste for arty French films.

In the novel though, Harry makes the same comment about a Claude Chabrol film, before admitting in his interior monologue that he’s never actually seen a Chabrol film is just bluffing it – clearly not realising that Chabrol was actually primarily known for making tightly plotted thrillers, pretty much like the one Moseby is in, in fact. Poor Harry, he can’t even get pretending to hate arty-farty French films right.

Much like Robert Altman’s inspired 1973 reimagining of ‘The Long Goodbye’, Sharp’s distaste for the empty and amoral, punctured ego sandbox sprawl of ‘70s bourgeois life – and the strange aptitude with which Chandler-esque noir can serve as a prism for dealing with it – is clear here. The tasteless marble ornaments which Ellen and Charles sell to their monetarily overburdened clients can be linked to the repulsive lifestyle of third rate Norma Desmond figure Arlene Iverson, to the dolphins which Paula and Tom Iverson keep in pens down in Florida (“people buy them for their pools, they think it’s chic to have a dolphin for a pet”), and – in the film – to the glass case full of antique Central American trinkets which Harry’s detective buddy Nick keeps in his office; strictly as investments, rather than cultural artefacts.

More despairingly satirical however is the key ‘specific-reflecting-the-whole’ line found in both versions of ‘Night Moves’. This occurs when Moseby, having discovered that his wife is cheating on him, responds to her disinterested query regarding the Monday night football game he is watching on TV; “nobody’s winning, one side’s just losing quicker than the other”.

Lent an added dimension of literality in the book by other moments in which Moseby expresses his disgust at what he sees as the sloppy conduct of current football players in comparison to those of his own (aging/retired) generation, the extent to which this throwaway line becomes a damning indictment, not just of a crumbling marriage, but of American culture as a whole during the 1970s, is little short of extraordinary. There is no success in the world Sharp is depicting here – just different kinds of failure, progressing at different speeds.

Far more-so than the rushed and mundane (if pleasantly surreal) thriller scenario which comprises ‘Night Moves’ final act, it is in this earlier character stuff - which expands later in the story to take in both Moseby’s instant kinship with stuntman Joey Ziegler and his oblique, somewhat borderless inter-action with the trio of characters in whose aimless, sun-baked world of unspoken tensions he becomes enmeshed once he hits Florida - that the strength of the book really lies.

One of the main thematic threads running through ‘Night Moves’ arises from Moseby’s passion for chess, and in particular his fixation with a 1922 game in which a player named Bruno Moritz “severely fucked up”. The novel opens with Harry obsessively moving through the moves of the fated game on his travelling chess board as her sits in his car, working a stake-out for a particularly undignified feuding neighbours case. Later, in Florida, he discusses this obsession with Paula, telling her, “[Moritz] must have regretted it every day of his life. Well I know I would…. fact is, I do, and I wasn’t even born.” (“That’s no excuse,” she responds, before abruptly leaving.)(1)

Perhaps it’s just because I don’t play myself, but it was only upon reading the novel that I realised the title of the movie is a (slightly awkward) chess pun, as Moseby dwells on the fact that Moritz allowed his opponent to achieve checkmate, using only “three little (k)night moves”. His failure to see his mistake until it was to late, which Harry feels so inexplicably troubled by, provides Sharp with his central metaphor - a perfect analogue to the private eye who is not only unable to see the solution to his case, but unable to even comprehend the path he’s left open for his own destruction, gliding ever closer, as he sits around fretting over other people’s problems.

Those three little knight moves, which Moseby can move through every day in the cold, logical space of his portable board, he is unable to replicate in the soft, sick, ever-shifting world of unpredictable human life which he inhabits.

Although I stated earlier in this piece that Chandler is “never explicitly referenced” in ‘Night Moves’, I later found myself slapping my forehead upon realising just how fiendishly inspired the manner in which Sharp evokes Chandler’s legacy here actually is.

I mean, didn’t Philip Marlowe also play chess during (extremely rare) quiet moments alone in his apartment? And, did Chandler ever explicitly connect this with his oft-quoted declaration that his most famous character should act as a “white knight”? I’m not sure, but either way, Sharp certainly did.

Moseby may achieve top marks as Chandler’s “man who is not mean,” but his failure to become the “white knight” who can pull those three little moves against Moritz’s black, without abandoning his soul in the process – that’s the tragedy at the heart of ‘Night Moves’, one which Chandler, and the majority of private eye writers who followed in his gumshoed footsteps, could never quite bring themselves to acknowledge. (2)


(1)To relive the 1922 Kurt Emmrich vs Bruno Moritz game which so obsessed Harry Moseby for yourself, try here.

(2)Readers wishing to sink further into this particular black hole may wish to note that one of Alan Sharp’s earliest screenwriting credits was a 1965 BBC TV play entitled ‘A Knight in Tarnished Armour’.