At the risk of being absurdly reductionist: there are two kinds of special effects. The first is the Invisible effect—the kind that you aren’t meant to notice.
Back in the days of classic film, these sorts of effects included matte paintings used in establishing shots, or rear projection effects. Of course, keen eyed observers probably did notice these effects from time to time, and modern eyes are even more attuned to spot them, but the point was that you weren’t really supposed to remark on these things—they were executed by the production team simply as a means of filling out the scenery and frame within which the important stuff happened. Nowadays there are even more sophisticated CGI techniques to perform similar functions. When film fans (like those of us congregated here) argue over the relative merits of CGI vs. old school practical effects, we’re generally arguing over the second kind of special effect, which I’ll get to in the next paragraph. The fact is, the vast majority of CGI effects and digital compositing pass you by without you even noticing, because they’re Invisible. Here’s a link to a surprising video montage of the extraordinary ubiquity of digital effects in the most ordinary of situations:
Which brings us to the second category of special effects, which is the one most people think of when you say “special effects,” and that’s the Spectacle. Instead of techniques used to help dress the set and set the stage for the real drama, these are effects that are the drama in and of themselves.
The Killing is many things. It’s a 1956 film noir heist film. It’s the earliest work that Stanley Kubrick embraced as representative of what he wanted to do. But The Thing You Need to Know About The Killing is: it’s a daringly non-linear jigsaw puzzle of a story that jumps back and forth through its own timeline, looping through the same events as it shifts perspective among its many characters. Such innovative narrative gymnastics remain striking even today, and give the film a weird modernity for a B&W picture set in an era before airport security. Quentin Tarantino has identified The Killing as (part of) the inspiration behind his own exploration of non-linear storytelling in Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction.
But, for all that, there’s a risk here of taking this too far. The more we praise the supposedly non-chronological storytelling in The Killing the more we risk misunderstanding how movie storytelling works in the first place, and crediting this film for innovations that it doesn’t really innovate. I don’t mean to be churlish here, it’s just that the events in The Killing did not actually take place—they’re made up. So there is no “other” chronology involved. The only order in which these events “happen” is the order in which Kubrick tells them to us.
Key Largo (tonight on TCM) is one of those venerable mainstays of TCM and likely something everyone here has already nearly memorized. I remember once I made a point of watching it in Key Largo, while on vacation (much like how I watch movies like Airport 77 while flying). I mentioned this to the proprietors of the bed and breakfast where we were staying, and they told me that the island of Key Largo was actually named in honor of the movie.
It took me a long time to wrap my head around that statement. That couldn’t possibly be true, could it?
Well, it is and it isn’t. Click the fold below to read the whole story, about the citizens of a gorgeous island paradise insisted on naming their community after a grim thriller about murderous thugs and a hostage crisis. Like you do.
Posted by Kimberly Lindbergs on June 12, 2014
Posted by R. Emmet Sweeney on June 10, 2014
Whenever I have a spare sixty-five minutes, I try and watch a movie by Edward L. Cahn. While he started out making well-regarded Westerns and crime films for Universal Pictures in the early 1930s, he was eventually demoted to short subjects for reasons unknown, and ended his career cranking out one-week quickies for producer Robert E. Kent, distributed through United Artists. He made eleven features in 1961, many of which were shot in his split-level home to save money. He passed away in 1963, reportedly from complications due to his diabetes. But over the course of his thirty-year career he directed 71 features and innumerable shorts, leaving behind a grimly deterministic body of work, evident even before he slid out of Universal’s favor. The bellboy murder witness in Afraid to Talk (1932, aka Merry-Go-Round) and the escaped convict in Laughter in Hell (1933) are doomed from the first shot – the rest of their movies are a low-lit explication of their inevitable fate. His movies are best described from a line in When the Clock Strikes (1961). They are “like a door closing behind you, and you have to go on all the way.”
Cahn has received a bit more attention these days thanks to Dave Kehr’s column in the November/December 2011 issue of Film Comment magazine, and Wheeler Winston Dixon’s fascinating article on When the Clock Strikes for the Film Noir of the Week blog. Those should be your starting points if you wish to study the Edward L. Cahn sciences. I am taking a more patchwork approach at Movie Morlocks, writing up his features whenever I have a spare moment to watch them (I previously wrote about Laughter in Hell, You Have to Run Fast, and a grab bag of noirs and Westerns). Many of the films Cahn made with Robert E. Kent are streaming in cropped versions on Netflix, Amazon Prime and Hulu Plus. Watching his movies in dodgy samizdat prints seems somehow appropriate to his checkered, cheap and vibrant career. Last week I sampled a feature Cahn romantic comedy, Redhead (1941, on Amazon Prime), and one of his bleaker noirs, When the Clock Strikes (1961, Hulu).
Posted by Kimberly Lindbergs on May 29, 2014
Ava Gardner in a publicity shot for THE BAREFOOT CONTESSA (1954)
Ava Gardner makes one of my favorite film entrances of all time in Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s THE BAREFOOT CONTESSA (1954), which airs on TCM June 1st. If you want to kick off the new month with a bang I highly recommend making time for this verbose Technicolor-noir that critiques Hollywood excess and the powerful studio system that frequently exploited its stars. Mankiewicz’s film is a heady brew of CITIZEN KANE (1941), LAURA (1944), SUNSET BLVD. (1950) and the director’s own ALL ABOUT EVE (1950) shot with abundant style by master cinematographer Jack Cardiff. It dramatically depicts the rise and fall of Maria Vargas aka “The World’s Most Beautiful Animal” (Ava Gardner), a seductive Latin dancer and renowned beauty who is discovered in a Madrid nightclub and carted off to Hollywood where stardom awaits. Her fascinating story is told in flashbacks by the men who knew her and begins in a rain soaked cemetery where our chief narrator, veteran director and recovering alcoholic Harry Dawes (Humphrey Bogart), is attending Maria’s funeral.
Posted by R. Emmet Sweeney on March 11, 2014
After Howard Hughes purchased RKO Pictures in 1948, the release slate was severely curtailed. Of the forty-nine features planned for 1949, only twelve were made, three of which were directed by Richard Fleischer. Fleischer had started as a title writer at RKO’s Pathe News division, but had worked his way up to B-movie director, specializing in the dark crime tales later described as “film noir.” The influence of his brief reportorial experience is visible on the big screen, his thrillers notable for their detached, observational qualities, with the emphasis less on the individual cops and robbers but on the routines and processes that feed their institutions. His three RKO features in ’48 were The Clay Pigeon (an amnesiac mystery), Follow Me Quietly (a serial killer procedural) and Make Mine Laughs (a collection of filmed vaudeville bits co-directed with Hal Yates). His work evaded Hughes’ attention, with Fleischer receiving “no interference from anyone” that year, though his luck would run out soon. He completed his most famous noir, The Narrow Margin, in 1950, though Hughes would delay its release until ’52 (he was hoping to remake it with bigger stars). Witnessing the constricting impact Hughes was having on RKO, Fleischer rented out his services to Eagle-Lion, an even lower-budgeted concern that was originally a distribution arm for British productions. Trapped is the fourth Fleischer film from 1949, the story of an imprisoned counterfeiter (Lloyd Bridges) who pretends to turn informer to secure his freedom. It’s Eagle-Lion’s attempt to recreate the financial success of their own 1947 hit T-Men, directed by Anthony Mann. It screened last weekend at Anthology Film Archives in NYC, part of a Fleischer retrospective programmed by critics Nicolas Rapold and Nick Pinkerton, part of their Overdue series on neglected films.
Posted by R. Emmet Sweeney on March 4, 2014
George Raft started out on his toes, dubbed the “The Fastest Charleston Dancer” in a 1925 issue of Variety. That agility never quite carried over to the big screen, but the maniacal focus did. Note that he was the “fastest”, not the most graceful or technically sound. He was there to get a job done quickly. He became a star as a hired goon in Scarface (1932), obsessively flipping that coin of his. It was a bit of business director Howard Hawks requested Raft to master, so he did with machine-like efficiency, reflecting the soullessness of his killer. With this breakout role, and his real-life palling around with mobsters (he counted Bugsy Siegel as a friend), Raft was typecast as a gangster, whereupon he became one of the most popular actors of the 1930s. As the 40s progressed his star began to dim, and he took on projects that might shake up his persona, including two films noir that Warner Archive has just released on DVD: Nocturne (1946) and Red Light (1949). Both are flawed, fascinating works in which Raft’s deliberate style is adapted to ostensibly heroic ends. One expects one of Raft’s Lieutenants or vengeful brothers to go full sociopath, but they remain stubbornly on the straight and narrow.
Last week’s post on Jean Renoir’s The Elusive Corporal brought to light a pocket of fans of Fritz Lang’s While the City Sleeps—and so in honor of that long-suffering cohort, this week I figured I’d properly pay tribute to one of Lang’s unsung classics.
For the last few weeks, we’ve been looking at the career of Claude Chabrol, a filmmaker who took pride in repeatedly remaking the same basic film endlessly. We’re finally done with Chabrol—which means it’s time to skip back in time to one of Chabrol’s idols, Fritz Lang.
If you want to play along at home, TCM will be screening The Big Heat on Friday December 20th. It’s as hard-hitting and bold as any American film noir—which is appropriate, for a film that found Lang updating his Dr. Mabuse franchise for American audiences.
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