[Originally published in Movietone News 25, September 1973]
The Long Goodbye has been touted as a farewell to a whole genre, or at least to the Raymond Chandler subgenre, of the detective thriller and film noir. But this version of Chandler’s only unfilmed (till now) Philip Marlowe novel is best seen as neither farewell nor spoof, but as another Robert Altman film and as an extension of McCabeandMrs. Miller in particular. The two films are almost companion pieces: each an exercise in a familiar but still evolving genre, each concerned most of all with a more or less solitary boy/man/entrepreneur who mumbles his way through a world of questionable worth, each converting the lost innocence of a film genre into a kind of reluctant elegy for Hollywood, the U.S. of A., and “America.” Altman’s Marlowe and McCabe are both lone gamblers who are seen grousing to themselves a good deal, and each ends up being a deliberately shaky version of the American movie hero—the lone gun as sucker, the klutz as (mostly unnoticed) man of principle.
The Asphalt Jungle (1950) (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD) is one of John Huston’s rare forays into the genre that would later be called film noir. His first, The Maltese Falcon (1941), helped set the template of the PI noir. Ten years later, working from an adaptation of the caper novel by W.R. Burnett scripted in collaboration with the author, he essentially launched the heist film as a genre of its own and set the blueprint that all subsequent heist dramas built upon.
Sterling Hayden took his first leading role as Dix Handley, the former country boy turned angry urban thug in self-destructive cycle of small-time robberies and compulsive gambling, and he’s hired to be the muscle in a crew put together by heist mastermind Doc (Sam Jaffe), who has just been sprung from prison with a massive jewelry robbery he’s been waiting years to put in action. He inspires his brotherhood of thugs (Doc’s team is filled out by getaway man James Whitmore and safecracker Anthony Caruso) to reach for the stars—the biggest haul of their career—with a meticulously worked plan that calls on each of them to do what they do best, and do it better than they ever have before.
Johnny Guitar: Olive Signature (Olive, Blu-ray, DVD) – Joan Crawford’s Vienna is the most masculine of women western heroes. A former saloon girl who earned her way to owning her own gambling house, she’s a mature woman with a history and she’s not ashamed of what she did to carve out her claim for a future.
Directed by Nicholas Ray and starring Crawford and Mercedes McCambridge as frontier entrepreneurs in a war of wills, the 1954 Johnny Guitar is one of the most unusual westerns of its era, or any era for that matter. It’s dense with psychological thickets and political reverberations (including a not-so-veiled allegory for the McCarthy witch-hunts in Hollywood), designed with color both expressive and explosive, and directed with the grace of a symphony and the drama of an opera.
Sterling Hayden plays the title character, a lanky, affable cowboy who wanders into Vienna’s saloon in the opening minutes and serves as witness to the dramas bubbling up in this frontier community in the hills. But his acts of heroism aside, he’s the equivalent of the stalwart girlfriend watching the showdown between Vienna and the Emma Small (Mercedes McCambridge). She’s the town banker and moral arbiter whose power is threatened by Vienna (her saloon is built on the site of the railway line) and whose shameful desire for a bad boy miner (Scott Brady) flares up into vengeance against Crawford, the object of his desire.
[Originally published in Movietone News 29, January-February 1974]
Raymond Chandler’s novel The Long Goodbye, and others of its genre and worth, operate somewhat like a Socratic dialogue. Philip Marlowe (or whoever) moves from chance meeting to chance meeting, from one seemingly unrelated event to another, and by these means a Gestalt of existential accident and dislocated drift is achieved. That these dark tales are often played out in an urban environment of sleazy hotels and bars, sinister vacant lots, heavily guarded and highly suspect private sanitaria, plush residences, bookstores and photography shops without clientele, and of course the disreputable backrooms of police stations, only adds to the general ambience of paranoia and disorder. This geographical web, without apparent center or pattern, in which men like Marlowe operate perfectly mirrors the tangled, convoluted motives and desires of those enmeshed in its toils. However, a thread of logic, a path towards ultimate clarification, is consistently extended, delineated by the proliferation of event and character, though it is not until practically the dénouement that the reader fully apprehends the overwhelming sense of fatedness and design which retrospectively permeates the novel.
Inevitably, these novels generate a sort of mythic significance: the private eye takes on some of the benighted grandeur of a Greek hero seeking blindly for the key to a divine—whether benevolent or malicious—plan or doom; he becomes like some medieval quester for the Holy Grail, or the solution to a spiritual conundrum that will set all the world right—until the next quest is initiated. Ross Macdonald has authored few books in which he does not deal with the classical theme of familial sin that taints generation after generation until some final purgation is achieved, usually by means of Lew Archer’s (Macdonald’s Marlowe) intervention. Macdonald sets his characters in an environment that reflects their spiritual malaise: in his next-to-last published novel, TheUndergroundMan, he turns L.A. into a hellish arena in which, surrounded by encroaching brush fires and blinded by smoke and smog, Archer and his clients confront old sins and new retribution.
Johnny Guitar, an operatic western centered around two powerful female characters who are more masculine than the men around them, is one of the most unusual westerns of its era, or any era for that matter.
Dense with psychological conflicts and political suggestions, including a not-so-veiled allegory for the McCarthy witch-hunts in Hollywood, which both director Nicholas Ray and screenwriter Philip Yordan have acknowledged was their intention, it is a rich, vivid film directed by an artist at the peak of his powers and one of the most expressive color westerns of all time. And it has been one of the most anticipated DVD releases since the inception of the format.
Made for Republic Pictures, the poor cousin to the dominant Hollywood studios, and designed as a vehicle for Joan Crawford, a once powerful screen superstar whose popularity was in decline but whose talent and business acumen was still in fine form, this is a western as baroque melodrama. Crawford is Vienna, the owner of a saloon and gambling house built on the outskirts of a frontier town. She’s staking her claim for her share of the American dream–she chose her location on a tip about the railroad line coming through the area–and the former saloon girl (western movie code for hooker) used the only path available to her to earn her own capital and build her own business without bowing to anyone. She’s not ashamed of the road she took but neither is she especially proud of it either. Not that anyone in this film has a particularly proud past. It is past, however, for the Vienna we meet is no saloon girl. She’s a businesswoman and a boss and she has the strength and stature to stand up for what is hers, materially and morally. It’s not just business, it’s her right to lay her stake on the future of the American west.
Vienna faces hostility from the local townsfolk, most of it whipped up by Emma Small (Mercedes McCambridge), who co-owns the bank with her brother, and rancher John McIvers (Ward Bond). They are, not so coincidentally, the richest and most powerful people around. And when the local stagecoach is robbed and a passenger–Emma’s brother, in fact–is killed, a mob arrives at Vienna’s saloon and Emma accuses a group of miners led by the Dancin’ Kid (Scott Brady) of the robbery and Vienna of sheltering the outlaws. There’s no evidence, just suspicion and vitriolic hatred. The repressed Emma is attracted to Dancin’ Kid (seriously, it isn’t just his nickname, it’s the only name anyone knows him by) and can’t decide if she’s more ashamed of her desire of the handsome bad boy or of the fact that Kid has the hots for her rival Vienna. Coupled with the fact that Vienna’s prime location positions her to make a fortune when the railroad comes through, it makes for a combustible mixture of animosity and aggression.