Friday, August 1, 2014

Five Reasons to Live by Charles Lieurance

1. Freddie Bauer Would Very Much Like to Quit/Force of Evil (Abraham Polonsky, 1948)

Picture Robert Crumb acting as the catalyst of doom in a pinko film noir penned by Franz Kafka & that's Freddie Bauer, as embodied by character actor Howland Chamberlain. In a world where the "good guys" only exist on the other end of phone conversations & in newspaper headlines where an invisible District Attorney crusades to eradicate the numbers racket, nebbish accountant Freddie Bauer is the feeble conscience. When the ostensibly benevolent numbers parlor for which he tallies is taken over by a syndicate, Freddie wants to quit. He only wants to be the bookkeeper for an illegal organization if there are no police raids & the boss -- in this case, the 40s version of Zero Mostel, Thomas Gomez -- seems like a nice guy. In other words, he'll only act dishonestly if he can completely overlook it on a day-to-day basis. Otherwise, forget it. Unfortunately, the syndicate can't really let a parlor's main accountant quit, so Freddie begs, asks some potent philosophical questions (imagine Kafka's Man Before the Law as a chronic pesterer) & finally brings the whole shebang down around his (and everyone else's) ears. All because Freddie wants to quit his job. He just wants to quit. And he wants to quit in that kind of jostled Bowery poetry popularized by pinko playwright Clifford Odets:

Bauer: Just like Doris, Mr. Morse, I'm quitting. I just wanted to tell you so you could get somebody else for tomorrow. This place makes me sick...Mr. Morse, what did you put me into? Did you put me into this without me knowing or saying, did you do a thing like this to me?

Joe Morse (John Garfield): Mr. Bauer, I'd like to straighten out whatever trouble there seems to be here, if I can.
Bauer: There's no trouble, I just want to quit. 
Morse: Is that fair?
Bauer: Maybe it isn't, but that's what I want to do.
Morse: But why go out of your way to make trouble for yourself?
Bauer: What do you mean?
Morse: Well, we're reorganizing the whole business now. We need every man's loyalty at this time.
Bauer: You can't make me stay. You can't. How can you make me? What are you gonna do?
Morse: I want to be friends with all you people. I'm looking ahead to where we can work on a nice friendly basis. I don't believe in an employer who has to say to his people, 'You've GOT to'. I like an employer whose people do things by themselves, because they like to, because they're loyal to the business.
Bauer: If I go now & walk out of here, how're you gonna stop me? How -- if I say I won't stay & walk out of here -- how are going to stop me?

Numbers Parlor Clerk: Well, I'm gonna quit just the same. It frightens me to work here.
Bauer: What are you talking about? We can't quit, they won't let us. You heard them, they said they'd kill me if I quit.
Clerk: They said they'd kill you, Mr. Bauer. You're the head bookkeeper here, they need you. They don't need us.

Waiter: Your friend didn't show yet.
Bauer: What's the matter, are you in a hurry for the table? There's no one here, you're not losing any tips letting me sit!

Leo Morse (Thomas Gomez): I'm glad you called me Freddie. I'm glad you thought it over to listen to me, to calm down & listen to me, so I can help you. I know how bad you feel Freddie. It was a wicked, foolish thing to do to put a gun in my brother's hand for him to kill you. That's what you wanted to do, that's what it was. I know how it feels to try to find someone to kill you, to finish you off, to take the crimes of your life on his head, in his hands...
Bauer: Please, Mr. Morse, all I want is to quit. That's all, nothing else. They won't let me quit & I want to quit. I'll die if I don't quit.

2. Captain Hauptmann Koenig & the Leipzig Suicides/Edge of Darkness (Lewis Milestone, 1943)

With its odd casting of Errol Flynn & Ann Sheridan as Norwegian freedom fighters, Milestone's Edge of Darkness occasional suffers from an undertow of ridiculousness, but in the end the film is too brutal & well-mounted not to be taken seriously. The opening prologue, in which Nazi soldiers arrive at the fishing village of Trollness after the bloody battle detailed in the movie proper, is so tragic, cold & littered with corpses that it turns the battle of wits between the townsfolk and the Nazis into a kind of sacred Dreyer-esque Passion Play. The use of miniatures &  iconic tableaux enhance the feeling that we're watching a story whispered down from generation to generation, about an innocent Nordic fairyland corrupted by incomprehensible evil. 

While heroism & comic swashbuckling abound in Edge of Darkness, it's the morose scenes that really grab you & the one in which Nazi Captain Koenig (a strikingly handsome & not inordinately despicable Helmut Dantine) is cornered by the rebels into taking his own life reminded us instantly of the classic photographs of Nazi suicides in Leipzig taken by Lee Miller & Margaret Bourke-White in 1945. There's a sinister, almost Catholic, morbid ecstasy & stillness to these photographs & the ritualistic details of Dantine's death in Edge of Darkness serve as the mystery moments on either side of those famous Life Magazine pictures. Dantine is driven into his office by the resistance & stands expressionless before an overbearing portrait of Hitler. He sits at his desk & pens an absurd note to his brother which begins as a patriotic manifesto, the degenerates into a sarcastic raspberry to all he's held dear. He unholsters his luger, pushes back his luxurious dark forelocks with the barrel & stares into the void. The hair falls back across his forehead & that is death. During the film's prologue, when he's found still sitting up in his chair by his fellow soldiers, they unceremoniously shove him onto the floor & compose a memo to headquarters. One comrade taps his black boot distractedly on the Captain's wrist, making the luger locked in his dead hand bounce just a little. 

Photographs of actual Nazi suicides by Lee Miller & Margaret Bourke-White

3. The Bad Lieutenant's Day Off/The Prowler (Joseph Losey, 1951)

To be accurate, he's only a beat cop, but the reference was irresistible. 

And, before you know it, the vacation's over & it's back to blurting out entirely inappropriate double entendres to lonely Bel-Air housewives. 

4. Oversized Novelty Booze Bottles/Private Hell 36 (Don Siegel, 1964)

It would surprise me a little if James Ellroy hadn't used LA detectives Cal Bruner (Steve Cochran, a bit of a revelation here) & Jack Farnham (Howard Duff) as inspirations for his corrupt, but strangely vigilant LA Quartet detectives Bucky Bleichert, Lee Blanchard, Buzz Meeks, Danny Upshaw, etc. Don Siegel's dank, soulless (in a great way) Private Hell 36 is the very model of moral  atrophy. You get the feeling Bruner & Farnham would really like to solve crimes but have no goddamn idea why it's even in their blood. To them it's just a virus they can't shake & it has nothing to do with high concepts like good or evil. In their minds, the detour they take into corruption & violence has nothing at all to do with their worth as cops. And they are relatively effective cops, in that LAPD Who Gives A Shit? way. They can do police work in their sleep, but getting some trim, tucking away some cash & actually enjoying life seems like rocket science to them. So, of course, they take a stab at it & fail in a dingy, humiliating fashion. But what can you expect from two guys whose idea of a swell place to bring a street-smart doll like Ida Lupino is a bar cleverly decorated with oversize liquor bottles? Who wouldn't want to be flirted with by two unbelievably cynical cops in the shadow of a huge Pabst Blue Ribbon bottle?

5. Edward Arnold Trims His Nose Hair/Three on a Match (Mervyn LeRoy, 1932)

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