This Tumblr still exists, honest. I am really upset at myself for using actor names instead of character names in my last post, especially when, as Eric Marsh pointed out to me, the character names in Underworld, USA and The Big Heat are so memorable. Eric Freeman has been traveling. I got a Roku Box and keep watching movies without realizing it. Bear with us.
Out of the Past was too wispy, too impressionistic; there are genre-similar films that are as opaque as we first imagine their characters to be. Out of the Past entrances, even as it fails to really strike a nerve. The other worst case is rote crime with a hint of doom. I’m a sap at heart, needing some dribble of humanity, or at least a splatter left where it once stood. That said, I still have a taste for the brutal and ruthless. And when it comes to (here it is again) film noir, few movies pull these off with eloquence like Lang’s The Big Heat and Fuller’s Underworld U.S.A. It’s probably worth no one’s while to have films compete with each other, or tabulate each one’s HAM quotient.
Yet both are so uncompromising, so intent on staring straight down into the chasm of vengeance, that there’s something inherently competitive about them. Each tries to present the most bleak, dysfunctional, corrupt America possible, and then unleashes on them an equal and opposite force. In both films, a man finds himself dead, emptied, and reduced to little more than negation. The system, the positive, is rotten; justice comes only through destruction. In The Big Heat, Glenn Ford’s Dave Bannion has his perfect suburban life taken from him; Underworld U.S.A. gives us Tolly Devlin (Cliff Robertson), a street kid who found out that you can always sink lower. Bannion might have a road back; he at least takes some time out now and then to show kindness toward Debby (Gloria Grahame). But it’s Devlin, in the middle of his far more substantial, systematic takedown, who manages to fall in love. Worth noting too that Bannion is a rough man who has lost whatever once tethered him. Seemingly born to lose, Tolly finds real purpose when his father’s death puts him on a collision course with some neighborhood toughs. That they end up national players lend him a moral authority, that no matter how accidental, makes his crusade less personal. How can it be? He was fucked before it happened, and it’s hardly fresh. Devlin is the avenging angel, a universal, unleashed on a world that badly needs it.
The Big Heat is a vendetta; Underworld U.S.A. is at times apocalyptic. What’s more, while both leads are vigilantes, there’s a difference between Bannion’s cop-gone-psycho, and Devlin, the worst, most nasty instincts of society turned back on its fat-cat crime bosses. Only superficially is this about bringing down the mob, or how evil must pay. It’s about a world so ugly that even the good guys are nothing more than villains pointed in the right direction.
Whenever you watch an early film from an acknowledged master, there’s a tendency to highlight the nascent genius and overlook the many flaws. Killer’s Kiss was Kubrick’s second effort as a feature director (although the first, Fear and Desire, isn’t available on DVD and barely ever screens), and it’s full of great shots (often in succession), most notably the opening shot on location in the old Penn Station and the climactic fight in a mannequin warehouse. Framing and lighting are immaculate, and it’s not terribly difficult to see how Kubrick made the leap to the essential The Killing one year later. Still, there’s a big difference between a few amazing bits and a good movie, and Killer’s Kiss often lags despite being only 67 minutes long. The performances are flat for reasons that can’t be placed entirely on the actors and the plot is boilerplate to the point of boredom. It’s a notable curiosity in the greater context of Kubrick’s career, but it’s for completists only. Which, given the importance of the director, probably means it’s worth watching.
Hey, here’s another thing that makes us who we are: Neither of us is all that fond of Out of the Past, a noir considered so quintessentially noir-y that most discussions of it devolve into genre-lapping patter. Actually, it’s misleading to say we don’t like Out of the Past. You would have to be a starving moron to not love watching Mitchum here, so young that his world-weariness feels like a mood he might get over, vital and elastic in ways that would, over time, be weighted down (his kind of sublimation). Tourneur, fresh out of Val Lewton’s shop, does great things with light, using its absence as its own kind of presence instead of an invitation to obscurity and shadow. The look is never bleak or constricted; there’s nature, assorted travel destinations, and a sprawling, picturesque quality to Out of the Past that has more to do with I Walked with a Zombie than its brothers in noir.
This describes the plot well, too. It’s not a caper, nor is it really that deep a psychological study. There’s not even desperation brought on by melodrama. Out of the Past is a drama. More power to it, but as a film, it lacks a certain nastiness, and for all its twists and turns, doesn’t wrack you with anxiety. It’s almost too accomplished, too assured, to leave much hidden, or stand for anything other than itself. That’s the noir psychology that, as a viewer, I’m after: Deceptive simplicity that’s readily converted into metaphor, and a sense that confidence is performance. Out of the Past is both too much and too little to be what, apparently, everyone else in the world wants it to be. — BS
I suppose it’s fitting that the first post on this site is a Fuller movie starring Barbara Stanwyck, since both are basically patron saints of our taste. This one is really good, duh, and for many of the same reasons as Fuller’s better-known crime movies: expertly framed shots, a cut to a bizarre angle that makes everything a lot weirder, and men who depend on their masculinity so much that it usually gets in the way of good judgment. What’s different here is that, as a Western, “Forty Guns” is about a way of life that’s fading out of style and into the past. As such, it puts the other Fullers in a new light: while contemporary, the characters, most of whom hew to an overly simplistic concept of life, are relics all the same. — EF