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Preston Foster

“When it’s night time … “: Myth and the Geography of the Unconscious in ‘I Shot Jesse James’

[Originally published in Movietone News 50, June 1976]

“I wanted the camera to tilt slightly in one direction and the picture to tilt in another. So when it evens out, we have death. I wanted something weird in the beginning, but when it’s over, dead men are usually horizontal, and everything is simple, on one line.”

-Sam Fuller, discussing the murder scene in I Shot Jesse James

Sam Fuller does not really seem too preoccupied with the Jesse James story as Western myth. In all of his movies he is too busy delving into the dark corners of human nature to indulge in the more abstract enterprise of mythmaking (or its iconoclastic obverse in films like The Ballad of Cable Hogue and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance) à la John Ford, Leone, or Peckinpah. I Shot Jesse James, Fuller’s first film as a director, does partake of mythic qualities, but primarily as they arise in conjunction with the psychological dissolution and imminent mortality of Robert Ford (John Ireland), emphatically the man who shot Jesse James. The term “psychological Western”—rife with Freudian undertones—seems a dangerous description, an oversimplification of Fuller’s complexly human drama; Fuller’s people are people rather than symbols. He gets at their humanness through an intensely subjective narrative, emphasizing, through an environment of airless closeups, the interior space of Bob Ford’s informing consciousness. In the process, Jesse James, the legendary outlaw, is not only de-romanticized (Reed Hadley’s abbreviated appearance as Jesse definitely makes it hard to sympathize with him)—he gets pretty much ignored. The angst of a confused man who would shoot his best friend to gain amnesty for himself is much more compelling subject matter for Fuller. The title of the film itself is a sign of this agonizing subjectivity, suggesting both confession and advertisement, the ordinate axes of guilt and potency that delineate the planes of Robert Ford’s inner struggle.

John Ireland as Robert Ford

Fuller has said that he modeled the shooting scene after a version of the legendary betrayal that most people were familiar with from pictures showing Jesse straightening a picture on the wall while Ford calmly plugs him in the back. That image becomes the core of the movie, but in an interesting and unexpected way that allows Fuller to create a delicate interplay between myth and artistic creation by introducing Kane (J. Edward Bromberg), a travelling impresario who stages “heartwarming dramas” with Cynthy (Barbara Britton), Ford’s girlfriend, as his leading lady. Fairly early in the film there is a brilliantly economical and. subtly motivated scene in which Robert Ford and Mr. Kane are in Cynthy’s dressing room playing a simple game of cards for a quarter a hand. As Ford talks on and on about legendary figures like the Dalton gang and some other Western gunslingers, Kane loses hand after hand. Finally we see Kane draw an ace of spades; he glances at Ford and says, “Four.” Ford has a nine. He picks up another two bits and tells Kane that it looks like a real streak of bad luck. Kane agrees and asks if he can see that .45 now—the .45 that killed Jesse James. As he fondles it, he says, “You know, that gun’ll probably go into a museum one day.” “Not while I’m alive to tote it,” Ford replies. While the allusions to Ford’s growing mythic status accumulate (his invoking the Daltons gives us a context of legend from which to view Ford’s ascension to that very same plane of reputed existence), the actual business of the scene—hidden somewhere behind Kane’s dissembling face when he drew the ace and called out a four—still brews unseen, until Cynthy walks in, Kane goes out, and Ford tells her that Kane is going to make him a “special added attraction” in the show. Each night, he will play out onstage the way he murdered Jesse.

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MOD Movies: ‘Screaming Mimi’ and outliers of film noir

Screaming Mimi (Sony Pictures Choice Collection), directed by Gerd Oswald from a novel by Fredric Brown, is a real cult item in the film noir filmography, weird and lurid and kitschy, but fascinating all the same. Anita Ekberg stars as Yolanda, an exotic nightclub dancer who survives an attack from a serial killer and becomes much more than a story to “night beat” reporter Bill Sweeney (Philip Carey), a combination crime reporter and nightlife columnist who accepts free drinks from the clubs he plugs. Carey comes off as an oily Richard Carlson, a B-movie version of a second-tier performer, while Ekberg is pure sexual fantasy: voluptuous, scantily clad, dancing as if in a trance, and inviting the reporter’s advances with every glance. Or at least it seems to Sweeney, who clashes with Yolanda’s possessive manager (Harry Townes) as he traces the killer back to the Screaming Mimi of the title, a statue of hysterical woman.

A hothouse atmosphere of sex and obsession pervades this picture, as much due to the low-rent environs of the low budget sets as to the nightlife culture itself. Her manager is also her doctor (from when she was the best dressed patient in the asylum) and, we can assume, her lover, while the nightclub matron (Gypsy Rose Lee) shows an equally possessive interest in the petite cigarette girl (Linda Cherney), who she keeps around like a pet. I don’t know if “tea for two” was a cultural euphemism for female couples, but when Sweeney says it, it sure sounds like it. And when Yolanda runs out on the reporters and spends the night at Sweeney’s home, the two cigarettes burned to butts side by side in the ash tray says all you need to know about the sleeping arrangements, regardless of the fact that she emerges from a separate bedroom. Oswald knows how to cue the details of this dime novel world behind the restrictions of the production code. Even the deficiencies of the performances, from Ekberg’s breathy vacancy to Carey’s smugness to Gypsy Rose Lee’s overworked folksiness and sass to Red Norvo’s smart-aleck jazzbo comments, add to the weirdly off-key tone. The screenplay is largely faithful to Brown’s novel, except that it irons out his storytelling twists, dropping the detective story discoveries into the prologue. Curiously, it doesn’t affect the mystery much, it merely establishes the sordid attitude much earlier.

The disc is presented in 16×9 anamorphic widescreen, approximating the original release aspect ratio just fine, and the image is solid, from a clean, well-kept black-and-white print.

The Big Night (MGM Limited Edition Collection), the final American film made by Joseph Losey before he fled Hollywood and the blacklist for Europe, has a title just generic enough to suggest anything from a musical extravaganza to a teen sex comedy. But vagueness aside, it’s really quite a provocative youth noir with John Drew Barrymore as an angry young man out to revenge the brutal beating of his old man (Preston Foster), a modest barkeep, by a bullying sports reporter with the marvelously ironic name of Al Judge (Howard St. John). Neither juvenile delinquent drama or a wild youth thriller, this is a portrait in rage and shame and disappointment in fathers and father figures. On this big night, as he arms himself with a handgun and hunts down the newsman, he is let down by one authority figure after another, from his father to a friendly but cowardly professor who takes him under his wing to a corrupt, predatory cop in the pocket of Judge. This is some coming of age as he discovers over this long night that his heroes and the authority figures he’s been taught to respect are not merely flawed, but often corrupt, petty, and unreliable.

Losey made this for an independent producer on a small budget but his direction is commanding, making his odyssey through the city at night into a journey through the heart of darkness. John Drew Barrymore (billed here as John Barrymore, Jr.) never really established himself as much of an actor (though I’ll always love him for his beat poetry history lesson in High School Confidential), but Losey pulls a vivid, tormented character out of him here, almost dizzy with hurt and fury and confusion as he pushes himself to follow through on his vengeance. There is a powerful undercurrent to this modest production.

The Black Book (Sony Pictures Choice Collection) is another kind of cult noir: pure American urban film noir sensibility dropped into the Terror of the French Revolution, with guys and dames in flouncy costumes and flamboyant hats talking like gangsters and street thugs. It’s been available in some truly wretched PD editions, until VCI released a decent copy a couple of years ago. While it was fine, this edition is far superior, really providing an appropriate showcase to Anthony Mann’s shadowy scenes of death and double crosses in the alleys and dungeons of 18th century Paris as suggested on backlot sets. This is, in a word, formidable!

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The Missing Juror (Sony Pictures Choice Collection), one of the very first features helmed by westerns master Budd Boetticher (credited as Oscar Boetticher, Jr. early in his career), is a typical B-movie mystery about a glib newspaperman (Jim Bannon) chasing a story about members of a high-profile jury turning up dead. What should be an ominous thriller is knocked off-balance by outsized personalities and comic by-play, like a film trying to split the difference between crime movie, screwball romance, and snappy newspaper film, all played out on cheap backlot sets. Boetticher doesn’t bring much to the film beyond energy: this film moves along with a momentum that almost fools you into thinking there’s something going on.

Vice Raid (MGM Limited Edition Collection) gives top billing to Mamie Van Doren, playing a brassy working girl hired by mobster Brad Dexter (in smirking sleaze mode) to frame incorruptible cop Richard Coogan (a charisma-free stiff), who gets kicked off the force and goes rogue to take down the syndicate. Mamie is actually the classiest thing in this cheap little crime 1959 knock-off from Imperial Pictures, which isn’t really noir as much a noir by product. It never creates an appropriately sordid atmosphere to match the culture of corruption, just a general generic sleaziness. The disc is presented in the square 1.33:1 format (what was once called full frame, a term that has become rather confusing in the era of widescreen monitors), but was shot to be seen wider and is better watched zoomed to fill the 16×9 screen.

Sony Pictures Choice Collection:
Screaming Mimi
The Black Book
The Missing Juror

Available by order only from Sony Pictures Choice Collection, from Amazon, Critics Choice Video, Classic Movies Now, Warner Archive, and other web retailers.

MGM Limited Edition Collection:
The Big Night
Vice Raid

Available by order only from the MGM Limited Edition Collection, from Amazon, Screen Archives Entertainment, Critics’ Choice Video, Classic Movies Now, Warner Archive, and other web retailers.

MOD stands for “Manufacture on Demand” and represents a recent development in the DVD market, where slipping sales have slowed the release of classic, special interest and catalogue releases. These are DVD-R releases, no-frills discs from studio masters, ordered online and “burned” individually with every order. You can read a general introduction to the format and the model on my profile of the Warner Archive Collection on Parallax View here and on the MGM Limited Edition Collection on Videodrone here.

Black and Blu: “Kansas City Confidential”

Kansas City Confidential” (HD Cinema Classics/Film Chest)

The first of three collaborations between Phil Karlson, a director who graduated from B-movies with a strong storytelling punch and a tough, two-fisted sensibility, and John Payne, a former light romantic lead and bland song-and-dance man of Fox musicals, was a career changer for both of them. Payne was already reinventing himself as a hard, taciturn lead in the westerns and action films when he connected up with Karlson and (according to the director) they came up with the story: “he and I loaded with a bottle of Scotch. We wrote the entire script and then we turned it over to a writer to put it in screenplay form.”

Who were those masked men?

Kansas City Confidential opens on Preston Foster, a mystery man with a stopwatch and a checklist casing a bankfront, piecing together his plan and his crew, a real rogues gallery of desperate thugs all but blackmailed by this mystery man in a mask into filling out his strike force. The robbery is executed with clockwork timing and Karlson directs the scene with terse efficiency, snappy momentum and crack timing. It’s also where we get our first real look at delivery man Joe (Payne), the hard-luck working class guy flipped off by fate when the armored car heist uses his florist deliveries as cover and leaves him to take the fall: a patsy to give them camouflage and the cops a distraction as they make their getaway. He’s a decorated soldier and survivor, a war hero who took the hard knocks that came his way and rolled with the punches, but is almost knocked down for the count with this sucker punch. His name is smeared in the press and his livelihood stolen by suspicion, but he’s resourceful, resilient and unflinching when it comes to taking the hit. He follows his only lead out of the states and into a sleepy little Mexican vacation spot where a payoff already complicated by double-dealing and double crosses gets a new player.

The hoods in this film are a triumvirate of essential B-movie thugs with attitude and an edge of psychosis: a beady-eyed Neville Brand, a smiling cobra of a Lee Van Cleef and a skinny, sweaty Jack Elam, who later played his cock-eyed looks for shaggy humor but here works his gargoyle face for underworld shiftiness. They give the film a shot of raw menace, a trio of thugs who are quick with a gun and slow to trust anyone and would just as soon solve a problem with a bullet. Foster, never the most dynamic of screen professionals, doesn’t exactly radiate authority as a criminal mastermind but part of the film’s fun is the play of false identities and double lives and Foster’s ex-cop with a grudge is all about appearing innocent while pulling the strings behind the scenes. His revenge on his forced retirement is a doozy that, if all goes to plan, will leave both rich and a hero.

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