From Film Noir

Bad Day at Black Rock: An Open, American, Hardboiled Wound

Bad Day at Black Rock. 1955. Directed by John Sturges. Screenplay by Millard Kaufman; adapted by Don McGuire & based on a story from Howard Breslin.
Starring Spencer Tracy, Robert Ryan, Anne Francis, Dean Jagger, Walter Brennan, John Ericson, Ernest Borgnine, Lee Marvin, Russell Collins, & Walter Sande.
Not Rated. 81 minutes.

POSTER John Sturges – a fine specimen of a director. He directed films from the mid 1940s right up into the latter half of the 1970s. I love a writer-director, but something is exciting about some of the older generations of directors, the guys that just went full force at their sole job as director and did a damn good job at that. Sturges is one of those types, whose main concern was the directorial choices necessary for making a picture.
For me, the era of his greatest work begins after this film, Bad Day at Black Rock. This is the story that captured a specific current in the American public which not many movies were ready to tackle. In 1955, with the wounds of World War II, Pearl Harbor and everything in between still fresh, a story like this one couldn’t have been easy to tell, nor would it have been easy to swallow. Also considering the plot is set in later ’45. What’s best is that it isn’t just a heavy handed toss at trying to be interesting. The acting is stellar, beyond that. The screenplay is tight, the at times minimalist dialogue edges just close to exposition before keeping itself wrapped in mystery. And finally Sturges himself adds that one perfect element as director, alongside the work of D.P. William C. Mellor with his eye for gorgeous landscapes and bringing to life the vivid portrait of a tiny town on the edge of a nowhere desert. There’s not enough time to talk about how good this movie is, and believe me, I love to ramble. I love movies from any era. I know not everybody does, that’s fine. However, you’re really doing yourself a disservice as a lover of film, if you call yourself one, by not seeing Bad Day at Black Rock. Right down to the score, this is a flawless bit of cinema that cries out to be experienced.
Right off the bat you can’t help but keep your eyes glued to Spencer Tracy. He has a charm that is immediate to me. Always, in any film. It’s the mystery of John J. Macreedy which I find intriguing, and from the moment you lay eyes on him there’s a quality that draws the viewer in. He’s so nonchalant, mysterious yet confident. His demeanour is sly, but still open. He almost feels a walking contradiction, though not in any way offensive. So then once the men in Black Rock start hovering around, causing him grief and getting into his business, it’s even more interesting to watch. This seemingly nice, normal guy – aside from having a missing arm, that doesn’t appear to give him much difficulty working around – gets thrown into the mix of a town that has more going on than it looks on the surface. Tracy’s ability to make Macreedy so calm and collected serves the film well, as it isn’t just the mystery of Black Rock but the mystery of him as a character that propels us further, wanting more. OH! When he kicks the shit out of that one guy with his single hand, it is in no way cheesy or forced or Hollywood-ish to the point of ridicule. He makes it genuine and bad ass.
The whole cast is spectacular, it isn’t solely Tracy. You’ve got Ernest Borgnine playing a sassy backwoods-type; not a huge role, but he does it justice with a proper menacing streak. Robert Ryan is wonderful – in parallel to the character of Macreedy, Ryan’s Reno Smith is calm in his own right, just that he’s calm for much different reasons with different things at stake than Macreedy. I love Ryan in general. Here, he gives a nice performance in a devious role. Then filling out the cast is Lee Marvin, always a treat no matter how big or small a role he plays; he’s welcomed addition to the rest of the players. As well as Walter Brennan and Anne Francis, each doing good things with their small parts. Overall, this is a classic cast of familiar faces that all make their characters stick in your mind.
But make no mistake, it’s Tracy who sells the film. Ten times over.
There’s a great little car chase over a desert ridge that’s lots of fun, even without all the more contemporary flash and any crashes/explosions. What I dig most is the way it’s filmed. You’d almost swear that in the more stunt-like shots Tracy and Borgnine are both actually driving. Although obviously they didn’t, especially considering Tracy’s character has his hand in his pocket the entire time (something they did well on for continuity), this is still an admirably filmed sequence. All around I love the look of the movie, the cinematography is every bit the classic Hollywood style and it is pure, simple beauty. There’s something to be said for shooting on film, as opposed to now where it becomes more expensive for directors to do so, many opting for digital. And not to knock digital, I dig certain filmmakers because they can make it look as good as film. Yet these old movies, the ones shot through the 1940s and into the 1960s, they have such a nostalgic, perfect feel. There is a vibrancy that is so clear, so pristine, it makes movies look like something right out of a memory.
Bad Day at Black Rock does something I’m a fan of, in terms of its screenplay. Mixing genres is something that, when done well, can be terribly fun. What I enjoy above all other elements is that the story is full-on western while also draped in the trappings of the film noir genre. We have that staple of the western, a lone and mysterious man riding into town, then there’s the setting itself being a small town out in the middle of the mountains, in the midst of desert. Everything screams Wild West, yet we’re set in 1945. On top of that there’s the noir-like plot of Macreedy searching for a man, one we gradually find out more about. The way the story’s structured is very much like an old hardboiled fiction novel, like a slice of Raymond Chandler crossed with John Ford. Truly a treat to watch play out. Best of all, the plot contains some touchy subjects for a film made in ’55. There’s a sensitive piece of American history involved, Pearl Harbor pulled into the story, but it’s well explored in a way that doesn’t feel like the writing stands on a morally high ground, rather one of introspection via mystery-thriller. This film touches at an open American wound that was freshly pulsing at the time. Kudos to Sturges and all involved.
This is a 5 star flick, all the way down the line. From the great performance by Tracy, to a drop of Ryan and Marvin, to every last god damn minute of the film. I can’t recommend it enough. It took me 30 years to see it, and I’ve already watched it a couple times so far this year. Might have to make it a hat trick before I turn 31 in the fall.

Altman’s The Long Goodbye is Perfect Post-Modern Film Noir

The Long Goodbye. 1973. Directed by Robert Altman. Screenplay by Leigh Brackett; based on the novel by Raymond Chandler.
Starring Elliott Gould, Nina van Pallandt, Sterling Hayden, Mark Rydell, Henry Gibson, David Arkin, Jim Bouton, Jack Knight, David Carradine (uncredited), Rutanya Alda, Jack Riley, & Arnold Schwarzenegger (uncredited). E-K-Corporation/Lion’s Gate Films.
Rated R. 112 minutes.

Robert Altman is forever one of the greatest filmmakers. His innovation in capturing dialogue, his ability to encompass an ensemble cast so easily and effortlessly into solid storytelling, so many things make him a legend. He was simply the best. His movies often end up exploring very human stories, no matter their grandiosity or in some cases weirdness. Always, his focus remained on the human drama of life.
The Long Goodbye is a different case, only slightly. Taking on a Leigh Brackett screenplay, adapted from Raymond Chandler’s novel, Altman defies what the genre commands, what the viewer expects. He brings his ironclad style to the front, as well as a natural-feeling, slick performance out of Elliott Gould. The Chandler elements are there, but Brackett’s writing takes the famous Chandler character Phillip Marlowe out of the 1950s, placing him smack dab in the middle of 1970s Los Angeles, though still a man ahead of his time. All these things in their right place make for entertaining viewing. Not only is the film a joy to watch, allowing us the privilege of lapping up great directing from Altman, the story and the characters are vibrant. Like you literally walked into the middle of this film noir, the camera becoming a character in its own right. If you dig Chandler, you’ll certainly find Brackett and her script an interesting journey.
Dive on into a world of cold hearts, warm guns, flaming passion, and smart mouths.
What do I need a cat for? I got a girl.” This line from a young grocery clerk to Marlowe almost epitomizes the difference between him and all the other men in the story. He’s the only gentle, kind soul, lost adrift in a sea of heartless people without any degree of loyalty. Elliott Gould is perfect. Absolutely perfect. He embodies the laid back, nonchalant nature of what Phillip Marlowe is all about. He’s absolutely paying attention to detail, his whole life is a god damn detail. At the same time there’s a quite an aloof sense about him. Not in that he’s oblivious. Rather, he’s comfortable in his own skin, even if he’s uncomfortable in a situation. Gould can give us the sly Private Eye in Marlowe, while also calling into question the morality at play in a complex performance.
The small details about Marlowe’s character is what makes the movie interesting to watch. Like how he tricks his cat into believing he’s gotten the appropriate brand of cat food that it enjoys, and still the cat won’t eat. “Its okay with me,” says Marlowe. This is an oft-repeated line throughout the film’s runtime, as the plot gets increasingly more bizarre and intense for him, Marlowe almost seems to get more relaxed, more mellow with each passing scene. Because he’s gradually accepting the world is a bit crazy. This all comes to head in the end after Marlowe commits an act that is not a part of the original novel. Brackett changed the ending, Altman said he refused to the movie if they changed her finale. So in a way, this repeated line is how the main character somehow comes to an understanding about the world, insisting it’s okay with him. In the end, nothing is okay, and we find the biggest juxtaposition in where he’s ended up – he wasn’t one of the crazies, he was a sensible and moral man caught amidst so much turmoil, only to land himself right there next to all the madness. An aspect of Marlowe is that he’s not really meant as part of this world (in Brackett’s screenplay), just so happens he’s a Private Eye, so the more he gets caught up in the whirlwind of criminality, the further he must dive into the murky morality of navigating that whole landscape, the less Marlowe is able to hold onto his own morality. This is the ultimate dilemma in which the character finds himself. His actions in the end are against morality, and also driven by morals. Quite a sticky little spot to be in.
What I love most about the writing is that Chandler was ahead of his time with Marlowe, as a character. So in the original 1950s setting, there’s this sense of Marlowe being a post-modern-type character. Even when the cops show up for their first chat with him early on, he quips: “Oh, is there where Im supposed to sayWhat is all this about?’ and he says, uh, ‘Shut up I ask the questions‘?” The way in which Leigh Brackett writes is he partly keeps the spirit of the novel, the hardboiled fiction of which Chandler was just about king, then at once he gives his own post-modern twist on the genre. So that direct line from Marlowe is the character’s own hint at the subversion of genre.
Brackett was an incredibly screenwriter, as well as a writer in general. She worked on The Big Sleep (another Chandler-Marlowe caper), Rio Bravo, and perhaps most famously The Empire Strikes Back. Often hailed as hugely influential for being a woman writing science fiction in the late 40s and into the 50s onward, which most certainly she was, though I can’t help feel she was also equally adept at writing film noir and crime stories. This is my favourite screenplay of hers, personally. Of course there are a huge liberties taken all over the place. However, why would you expect any different from here? Part of her power was subverting the general expectations. And do you really think Altman was going to direct some straight take on Chandler’s biggest, perhaps most convoluted novel? Not likely.
This brings me to the director himself. He’s one of my top five favourites. Although his genius is well known inside and outside of the movie industry, by those with whom he worked and also those of us that watch his films, there’s still an underrated quality to him. I don’t often enough hear Altman mentioned in the same breath as directors you always hear people talking about. The Long Goodbye is an atypical story for him to tell, but he does so with his typical Altman grace. He films Gould’s Marlowe lazily walking around his apartment, to the apartment next door, to the grocery store and down its aisles, and every bit of his movement, his speech, the way the character almost drags himself through life is captured like any other character out of the director’s filmography. That is to say, he’s captured naturally; a human being in his own element. Brackett brings the idiosyncrasies of Marlowe (via Chandler’s writing) out and adds some of her own invention to give him a decidedly ’70s feel, which work so well with Altman’s directorial choices. The naturalism of his way of filming, the sound design right down to the dialogue (particularly how Gould is recorded; makes you feel close to the character), these elements lend themselves to making a unique slice of film noir cinema.
This is one ramblin’, gamblin’, 5-star classic. A personal favourite of mine from the ’70s. Altman has a large part to do with it, then you can’t forget Gould for a second. Their talents are enormous in this film noir – or maybe it’s a neo-noir? Either way, fantastic all around. We also can’t forget Sterling Hayden. Ever since I first saw Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove I’ve been captivated by his talent, so as one of a younger generation does I went back in cinema time to revisit some of his other movies, then worked forward – getting to this one. His character is also great, the writer Roger Wade. Hayden channels equal parts Ernest Hemingway and his own creation into one fun persona. He adds an extra element to the whole spectacle. If anything, you’ll love The Long Goodbye for its characters, some slightly typical, though most against the grain. Throw Altman’s interesting techniques and intriguing style of directing, and this is a piece of crime cinema that’s easily up there with some of the best.

Violent Segregation and Cartoon Heart in Who Framed Roger Rabbit

Who Framed Roger Rabbit. 1988. Directed by Robert Zemeckis. Screenplay by Jeffrey Price & Peter Seaman; based on the novel Who Censored Robert Rabbit? by Gary K. Wolf.
Starring Bob Hoskins, Christopher Lloyd, Joanna Cassidy, Charles Fleischer, Stubby Kaye, Alan Tilvern, Richard LeParmentier, Lou Hirsch, Betsy Brantley, Joel Silver, Paul Springer, Richard Ridings, Edwin Craig, Lindsay Holiday, & Mike Edmonds. Silver Screen Partners III/Touchstone Pictures/Amblin Entertainment.
Rated PG. 104 minutes.

POSTER These part couple decades I’ve been watching this film and not once did I ever hear this was based on a novel. Amazing! The original book by Gary K. Wolf is titled Who Censored Roger Rabbit? and follows in the film noir tradition of hard boiled detectives, femme fatales, and so on. Except for the fact it’s set in a world where human beings and cartoons coexist, or at least try to anyway. In the film, as opposed to comic cartoons, Private Eye Eddie Valiant navigates a world filled with animated film characters. We even get some familiar faces like Betty Boop, Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Mickey Mouse, Yosemite Sam, and the one and only Donald Duck.
More than that, Who Framed Roger Rabbit gives us a dose of comedy, some mysterious crime, and plenty darkness for a PG-rated flick. At the helm is director Robert Zemeckis who’s no stranger to a fun romp. This is one of the most underrated pieces of cinema out there. Dressed up to appeal to families, as it boasts a cast filled with cartoons many kids will recognize, Zemeckis gave us a crime thriller wrapped up in mystery further wrapped in the sheep’s clothing of a cartoon mixed with live action gimmick. Bigger than the sum of its part. Better than a gimmick. Zemeckis and producers, including Stephen Spielberg among others, allow us a window into a little seen view of the cartoon and human universe where Toons and people alike are subject to the dangers of living in a hyperreal world. Don’t let the friendly exterior fool you, fellow fans of the weird and the frightening – there’s stuff for you, too! Plenty of it. In fact, the mix of tones in this movie is a major reason why it is an unheralded masterpiece.
I’ve always loved the opening because we get that typical animated style, which is awesome, then we’re led into the real world right behind the camera. The animated feature we watch is excellent. What’s really fun is that the Toons aren’t drawn here. In this universe, they’re corporeal, they’re simply different. After we cross over from the animation into half animation, half live action, it is almost surreal for the first few moments. The animation director, Richard Williams, drew unconventionally for this project. Generally, there are rules animators follow when combining live action with animation; nothing written in stone, just a general way to do things. Instead, he broke some of those rules. He makes the Toons interact with the real people and real world frequently (stroke of genius handcuffing Eddie to Roger), as much as possible without feeling forced, as well as move the camera around a good deal because it makes things feel more 3-dimensional instead of looking like everything’s on a flat background. Finally, Williams uses light and shadow in a way not seen before. This is what truly gives it that hard boiled, film noir feel. The atmosphere is one of the more incredible elements of the picture.
And this flawless mix of live action people with cartoon animation helps us break into a larger theme in the film. You might not want to break down a movie like Who Framed Roger Rabbit. But I do, so if you can’t dig it, then see ya.
Really, though. This movie at its basic level is about difference, acceptance, and yes even straight up racism. For all its bright and vibrant glory, this Zemeckis feature is dark, macabre. It can be quite grim, at times. Judge Doom is even going so far as to execute Toons in such an awful way. His dip is comprised of turpentine, benzene and acetone; these are paint thinners actually used to remove animation from cels. It’s twisted and a nice little addition to the screenplay. Overall, we see the segregation of Toons from the real people. Doom represents a sort of uber-Republican, ultra-conservative viewpoint on city living. Like so many African American, Korean, Italian (and so on) citizens in big cities of America, the Toons find themselves at risk due to the white supremacy running these places. Doom is almost too obvious, as he’s bald, his skin is sickly white. Of course there’s more to him, but on a surface level he’s like a totalitarian dictator. And like many of them in history, he finds himself so disgusted with his own existence that he is self-hating, doing evil to those closest to him, trying to create a perfect world where the purity of real people is preserved. Such an eerie thing when you get down to it, as Doom’s revelation that he is in fact a Toon brings to mind someone like Daniel Burros, a Jewish man that went on to legitimately become a member of the American Nazi Party. I know, I know – awful heavy for a cartoon-live action hybrid. But the evidence is there if you’re looking. For me, it makes the whole thing better to have some depth.
Roger: “Yeah, check the probate. Why, my Uncle Thumper had a problem with his probate. And he had to take these big pills, and drink lots of water!
Eddie: “Not prostate, you idiotprobate!”
This is also the film that started my cinematic love affair with Bob Hoskins, rest his wonderful soul. He was a phenomenal actor, though I’m almost positive this is my favourite of his roles. Apparently an original choice, likely Stephen Spielberg, hoped for Bill Murray. I do love Murray. However, Hoskins brings this excellent presence to the role of Eddie Valiant. He is conflicted, he’s a hard man. He lost a brother at the hands of a mad Toon. All the while you feel this empathy for him, as well as a bit of anger at times, though eventually he comes to be the anti-hero, the underdog defying expectation. Murray could’ve surely played the part, probably well. Hoskins makes this into an utterly necessary performance as to why the story works. The chemistry between him and Roger Rabbit (voiced by the spectacular talent of Charles Fleischer) renders what could quickly fall into complete foolishness (the bad kind) into something far better, foolish in the right way, and emotional even to the point it tugs at the heartstrings.
And then there’s Christopher Lloyd, the enigmatic, wild, weird character actor known for his major role as Doc Brown in Back to the Future. For me, his role here as Judge Doom is the defining moment of his career because he is just unbelievably wacky and grim at once. Check his eyes when not wearing the shades – he doesn’t blink. He’s somewhere between goofy Republican and nationalist psychotic. This role almost went to Tim Curry, but apparently everybody in the room found him too terrifying, so Lloyd offers the creepiness while simultaneously keeping it funny, even if it’s darkly comic. Either way he rocks this performance. As a boy, I saw this around six years old; it came out when I was three. Lloyd always left an indelible mark on me and I’d actually credit him, as well as the movie overall, for being an early influence on my odd tastes.
I love, love, love Who Framed Roger Rabbit. Every last frame and cel. There’s so much to enjoy, right down to the score. Robert Zemeckis does a fantastic job directing, which could not have been an easy feat. Not even close. Bob Hoskins, Charles Fleischer, and Christopher Lloyd each add essential elements to the final product. The film noir mystery of the screenplay is a ton of fun, and this 1988 film makes 1947 feel so palpable. You’d swear the film sets are right under your feet, as if you’re walking the lots of the studios, even the cartoon streets of Toon Town right alongside Valiant.
I’ll never forget this film’s influence on me. Forever this stays on my list of favourite movies.