Off the Beaten Track: Shack Out on 101 and Plunder Road

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We associate film noir with cramped urban spaces, labyrinthine warrens of crime and vice. This slipperiest of genres, identified by French film critics years after its demise, also gained resonance by departing from the city and hitting the road. Often this takes the form of a last ditch attempt at salvation, as in the transition from city to country in On Dangerous Ground, when Robert Ryan’s cop finds humanity in the dead eyes of Ida Lupino. Olive Films recently released two curiously located 1950s noirs, the beachside diner of Shack Out on 101 (1955) and the highway heist film Plunder Road (1957). Both dispense their pleasures through their constrained locales, the first taken place almost entirely in a shabby eatery, the second inside a getaway truck. The first veers towards absurdist humor while the second is a straight-faced procedural, but both display how the noir ingredients could be combined in an endless variety of ways, and that there are always discoveries to be made in even this most picked over of genres.

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The Hawks Report: When Howard met Lauren

Once upon a time, there was a pretty girl.  As has happened to many other pretty girls, other people liked to take pictures of her—and one of these pictures ended up in a magazine read by one of the greatest filmmakers who ever lived.  And this set in motion a chain of events that led to an enduring masterpiece of classical Hollywood—To Have and Have Not.  (Tune in July 17)

 harpers

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The Cahn Film Festival

CageofEvil

As May approaches, the film world turns its eyes to the Cannes Film Festival, which will host world premiere screenings from the likes of Jia Zhangke and Alexander Payne at its Grand Théâtre Lumière. I, however, will be celebrating the Edward L. Cahn Film Festival, taking place on my mustard stained IKEA couch in Brooklyn. No accreditation was necessary aside from an active Netflix account, and travel time was limited to trips to the bathroom. Cahn, born in Brooklyn, was a promising director of incendiary corruption dramas at Universal (Afraid to Talk, Laughter in Hell) before spinning his wheels for MGM short subjects in the late ’30s. He re-emerged as a pathologically prolific director of B-Westerns and gangster films in the 1950s, at AIP and the various companies of Robert E. Kent. Seventeen of these grim 1950s features are available to stream on Netflix, but all are due to expire from the service tomorrow [UPDATE: only OKLAHOMA TERRITORY and IT, THE TERROR FROM BEYOND SPACE expired, the other 15 were renewed], along with almost 1,000 other titles (check here for the full list). So I attempted to watch Cahn’s films with as much speed and urgency as he made them.

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Twin Killing: The Dark Mirror (1946)

In 1946  the German emigre Robert Siodmak directed a trio of brooding hits that lifted his Hollywood pay grade from programmers to prestige pics, earning him a rare share of fame for a  director of the period. The creepy slasher The Spiral Staircase was a hit in February, his noir adaptation of Hemingway’s The Killers made headlines in August, and October brought the finely wrought psychological thriller The Dark Mirror. In ’47 he would receive a lengthy profile in LIFE magazine that makes proto-auteurist arguments while stating he was “just moving into the front rank of his profession.” The first two titles are ensconced as classics of their genres, and have long been available on home video, but  The Dark Mirror has been elusive until Olive Films released a a sharp looking Blu-Ray/DVD in September. Capitalizing on the spike in interest in clinical psychology following WWII, it winds together a traditional whodunit with a case study of a paranoiac, filmed with endless images of reflections and doublings by Siodmak.

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Warner Archive Roundup

The Warner Archive continues to release an enormous amount of the WB back catalog, at a rate impossible to keep up with. Here is my vain attempt to catch up, covering a group of four films made up of bad men and one very bad woman. The most famous title is Nicholas Ray’s Born to Be Bad (1950), a devious noir/woman’s picture in which Joan Fontaine uses her seductive wiles to marry the heir to a family fortune. Then there is a trio of manly ne’er do wells, with Peter Graves leading a mercenary force in the spaghetti western The Five Man Army (1969), Robert Mitchum doing the same in a priest’s habit in The Wrath of God (1972), and Rod Taylor carousing his way through Dublin in Young Cassidy (1965).

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Blogathon 2012: Toshiro Mifune and the Strange Case of Stray Dog

A boilingly hot summer day, a crush of commuters, a moment of carelessness. With these universal ingredients, Akira Kurosawa set up a film that would mix the grim obsessions of film noir with a documentarian’s observation of postwar Japanese life. Talk about universal–Stray Dog is a mashup of pulp pop and reportage, of true crime and intimate drama, of buddy cop movies and art house cinema, of East and West. There isn’t much a movie can do that Stray Dog doesn’t put on its agenda.

That being said, the international critical acclaim that greeted this film requires some dissection, because there’s something really weird going on here. Stray Dog was never a barn-burning commercial splash, and it wasn’t even distributed in the US until 1963 (almost 15 years after it was made) but it was an award-winning and highly regarded art house release that contributed substantially to Akira Kurosawa’s growing renown, and there’s something screwy about that.

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Something Tough: Body And Soul and Force Of Evil

(L-R) Abraham Polonsky, George Barnes, Jack Warren (?) and John Garfield on the set of Force of Evil

“According to materials contained in the PCA [Production Code Administration] files in the AMPAS Library, PCA director Joseph I. Breen objected to ‘the completely anti-social basic theme of this story, which presents wrong as right and right as wrong, in violation of both the letter and spirit of the Production Code.’” -Force of Evil entry, American Film Institute Catalog

In 1946, John Garfield’s contract with Warner Brothers expired. Instead of re-signing, or moving to another studio, Garfield signed on with the independent Enterprise Productions. Bringing together a group of artists who were communists, or communist sympathizers, Enterprise made an inflammatory group of nine films before folding, after which many of its members were blacklisted, including directors Robert Rossen and Abraham Polonsky. Two of their features, Body and Soul (1947) and Force of Evil (1948), respectively, ended up in the Republic Pictures library, and are being released today on Blu-Ray from Olive Films, in strong transfers. Garfield was eager to make a statement with Enterprise, telling PM Magazine in this period that:

I want to make pictures with a point – I know I gotta continue to appear in pictures like Postman [The Postman Always Rings Twice, 1946]. I know I gotta retain my position of value at the box office, but I also want to be available in between for the kind of picture that’s harder to do but may turn out to be more interesting. Maybe in the next few years I’ll make so many mistakes I’ll kill my career. I can afford the chance. There’s fear in Hollywood about tackling dangerous subjects, difficult subjects. I feel I owe it to myself to be available when some enterprising people want to try something tough.

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Abraham Lincoln, Action Movie Star

Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter?  Seriously?

I took my kids to The Avengers a few weeks ago and we were assaulted by a preview for Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter.  Both kids, almost simultaneously, leaned in to me to ask in incredulous bafflement, “This is a movie?  For realsies?”  (That’s how 14 year-olds talk these days.  For realsies).  Now, just consider how far off the mean you have to have wandered to have the audience for The Avengers think your premise is too preposterous.

Well, the fact is, the definitive Abraham Lincoln action movie already exists—and has done for over 60 years.  If it was a person, it could retire.  Now, this fantastic action thriller may not have Lincoln in very many scenes (one, if you’re counting), but it’s about Lincoln, it’s an action thriller, and it hits it out of the friggin’ park, so…

We’re here to enjoy The Tall Target.  And hoo boy is there a lot to enjoy.

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Edward Dmytryk vs. the Blacklist

“Are you now, or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?”

Before you answer, please understand: this is not a Yes or No question.

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Tales from the trenches: Pahlen Season

Having retired from the DVD business, I am realizing now that I’m sitting on 15 years’ worth of anecdotes from behind the scenes that I never felt like sharing publicly at the time, because I worried they didn’t gibe with my marketing plans, and I was also mindful of not misusing this forum for self-promotion.  But I no longer have a vested interest in any of these movies, and I’m now starting to feel more willing to talk about what went on in the making of some of these DVDs.  I’m posting a few stories these weeks to gauge reader interest.

This week I want to talk a bit about my triptych of DVDs with the estate of Victor Pahlen!

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