Where Forgotten Films Dwell

Welcome to this site! It exists for one reason: to preserve the memory of films that have been forgotten about or under-appreciated throughout the ages. Take a seat, read an entry, leave a comment. You might discover your new favorite movie!

Friday, June 29, 2012

Park Row

Directed by Samuel Fuller
The United States of America

“Every newspaperman is a potential filmmaker. All he or she has to do is transfer real emotion to reel emotion and sprinkle with imagination.” - Samuel Fuller

In a smoky, sticky pub off Park Row, New York City, close-up on Phineas Mitchell as he nurses a drink and pours over a newspaper. Tracking shot across the crowded bar where exhausted newspapermen squeeze side-by-side for a tall mugs of beer. Back to Mitchell. Close-up on newspaper: CHARLES MOTT EXECUTED: FIRST HANGING IN NEW-YORK IN THREE YEARS: DESERVES FATE HE GOT. Close-up on Mitchell and another newspaperman. “The story really bothers you, doesn’t it?” “Yeah.” “What are you gonna do about it?”

Scene change to later that night. Medium shot of Mitchell, Davenport, and two other newspapermen. Gotta squeeze them together so they all fit in the 1.37:1 aspect ratio. “It’s no good writing anything if you haven’t got a paper to put it in.” “Know what I’d do if I had a paper?” Slowly zoom in on Mitchell. “First thing I’d do is christen it. I’d call it the Globe. I’d make it the best newspaper on Park Row, that’s what I’d do.” Tracking shot across the bar to all of the newspaper men staring at Mitchell in awe. Close-up on Mitchell and the elderly Charles A. Leach. “Mr. Mitchell, for three years every night I’ve been listening to what you’d do if you had a newspaper...I like it very much...All my life I’ve wanted to be what you are: a newspaperman. What you can do, I can’t. What you need, I’ve got...I’ve got a good steam press...I want to go into partnership, Mr. Mitchell. You’d be editor and publisher of the newspaper...I’ll handle the business end.” “You mean a paper of my own?” “You run the paper the way you want to run it and answer to no one...Is it a deal?” “Yup.” “You’ve got yourself a newspaper.”

Scene change to medium long-shot as Mitchell leaves the bar. Tracking shot as he walks along a 4 story replica of Park Row, dodging horse-and-carriage, ending on statue of Benjamin Franklin in right foreground, Mitchell in left background. Medium-close up on another nearby statue. Vertical pan down to plaque at base of statue: HORACE GREELEY: FOUNDER OF THE NEW YORK TRIBUNE. Cut to medium long-shot with Greeley in foreground, Mitchell in background. To the statue, “We’re in business.”

These scenes from the first fifteen minutes of Park Row set the tone of what would be director Samuel Fuller’s most personal film. A love letter to the birth of modern American journalism at the turn of the nineteenth century, Park Row is perhaps the purest crystallization of Fuller’s bombastic, hard-boiled style.  The film, shot in only sixteen days, was produced, written, directed, and totally self-financed by Fuller. Though destined to be a complete flop, Park Row demonstrated Fuller at the height of his skill and irrepressible energy. Fuller would later comment, “Goddamnit, Park Row was me!”

Before becoming a director, Fuller had been a newspaperman similar to the ones he immortalized in Park Row. He went from selling newspapers on sidewalks to working the beat as a crime reporter for the New York Evening Graphic. It was during these years that Fuller’s skills as a storyteller began to take shape and form. He developed a knack for exaggerating scenes and moments to display earth-shattering emotions while not going over the deep-end into self-parody. He learned to keep a story lean, mean, and simple while not totally abandoning its crucial human element. When he began to write screenplays, he wanted “to use the screen as a newspaper.” And so arose Fuller’s ultra-kinetic, to-the-point visual style.

Take, for instance, a phenomenal scene later on in Park Row. Having set up his newspaper, The Globe, Mitchell was quickly gaining new readers and powerful enemies. One such enemy was Charity Hackett, the rich, beautiful, and unscrupulous publisher of a rival newspaper that Mitchell used to work for. After several attempts at subtly sabotaging Mitchell’s newspaper, she finally instructs one of her henchmen to close him down.

 Charity Hackett in right foreground.

And so, late one night, Mitchell is called from his office by employees claiming that men are tearing apart their newsstands. In one long, expert tracking shot, Mitchell runs down the street and savagely attacks the goons tearing them apart. The use of the tracking shot highlights and intensifies the emotion and human drama of the scene.

Another part of Fuller’s use of “creative exaggeration” involves interweaving different, seemingly unrelated historical moments into his narrative. One of Mitchell’s employees invents a steam-powered printing press. The erection of the Statue of Liberty becomes The Globe’s cause célèbre. All of these are mixed with smaller scenes detailing various aspects of the newspaper production process. This involves a scene with a lightning-fast illiterate type-setter which produces one of the film’s best lines, “The day you learn how to read, you’re fired.” Fuller turns The Globe into a living, breathing microcosm.

Park Row may not be the most historically accurate or streamlined film, but like a great newspaper story, it’s engaging, entertaining, and even informative. It’s an ode to the tireless search for journalistic truth. But Fuller is wary of yellow journalism. One of the film’s maxims is “the press is good or evil according to the character of those who direct it.” A year before Park Row was released, Billy Wilder directed another drama about journalism entitled Ace in the Hole. The film was about a vicious reporter who turns a mining accident into a media circus for his benefit. It is a cynical look into the dark side of American journalism. In the past few decades, Ace in the Hole has become a classic. After all, in this age of 24-hour news cycles and punditry it is easy to identify with pessimistic outlooks concerning the press.  But perhaps critics and audiences should take another look at Park Row. Perhaps we should remember that not all journalists and news editors are jackals or political puppets. After all, the freedom of the press is one of the cornerstones of America. We should glorify stories about the people who defend it with their lives, not the ones who pervert it.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Stranger on the Third Floor

Directed by Boris Ingster
The United States of America

The true soul of film noir isn’t found in shadowy offices, tough private eyes, and deadly femme fatales. Many have made the mistake of believing that film noir is simply a style. It is true that as film noir became popularized overseas by European critics a certain aesthetic became associated with the genre. But the reason why these critics began to associate certain movies as film noir has to do with their plots and focus on the psychological status of their characters. Film noir isn’t the detective walking lonely streets, but the internal monologue bouncing around his head as he tries to separate friend from foe. Film noir isn’t the dark alleyways, but the deviants and crooks who hide in them. And finally, film noir isn’t about amorality, but about moral people trying to make sense of an amoral world. For instance, Boris Ingster’s Stranger on the Third Floor focuses on two happy, law-biding citizens who are trying to build a life together. But these two citizens find themselves caught up in the middle of a horrific situation that twists their minds to the breaking point. It is from this simple story that one of the first truly great film noir is borne.

 The film begins in a lively diner where a young reported named Michael Ward meets his long-time girlfriend Jane for breakfast. Ward happens to be a key witness in a murder trial for a small time criminal named Joe Briggs who was accused of killing a cafe owner named Nick Giuseppe. His eyewitness testimony is instrumental in Briggs’ conviction and sentencing to the electric chair. Ward thinks little of helping send a man to the electric chair. Because of this break, he was awarded a $12 a month raise and a byline for his newspaper. Ward sees this as the perfect opportunity to get married to Jane and to buy a house.

However, Jane is extremely uncomfortable with how he managed to get ahead by helping someone convicted of murder. After he was sentenced, Briggs screeched out that he was innocent over and over again. Jane was mortified by what she saw and consumed by anxieties over the possibility of his innocence. So she badgers Ward about her fears. At first he is dismissive. But then thoughts of wrongful persecution, conviction, and execution begin to haunt his thoughts and dreams.

In one of the film’s most magnificent sequences, Ward has a nightmare where he is accused of a crime he didn’t commit. We witness a dazzling collage of hyper-stylized vignettes: reporters obfuscated by giant newspapers declaring his guilt, Jane committing suicide, a trial where Briggs mocks him when he is declared guilty, and a choreographed escort to the electric chair.

 This sequence was shot by German expressionist cinematographer Nicolas Musuraca who would later go on to film such masterpieces as Out of the Past (1947) and Clash by Night (1952). In fact, the cinematography in this scene encapsulates Stranger on the Third Floor’s breath-taking visual style. Unlike many other film noir which tended towards naturalistic cinematography enhanced by hard lighting and striking shadows, Stranger on the Third Floor features an astonishing inventory of expressionist filming techniques. There are oblique camera positions, dutch angles, dissolves, voice-overs, extreme shadows, and even exaggerated props.

These techniques all help create an atmosphere of suffocating dread and torment which is only magnified when Ward finally wakes up to discover that one of his neighbors isn’t snoring anymore. See, Ward lives in a tiny apartment building with paper thin walls. One of his neighbors, an irascible old codger, has a chronic snoring problem. The man had repeatedly called the authorities to Ward’s apartment for the slightest violations of the complex’s rules, such as typing on a typewriter after dark. He had annoyed Ward so miserably that he had snapped and threatened to kill him. But it had all been hot air. But when Ward awakens to a silent apartment building, his worst fears are confirmed: the man has been murdered. One thing leads to another and Ward finds himself arrested for a crime he didn’t commit.

What sounds like a predictable plot twist is delivered quite unexpectedly. After Ward’s neighbor is found dead, it is Jane who convinces him to go to the police and explain that  he found the body. After all, Jane reasons, if Ward was the killer, why would he so readily go to the police? But when the police discover that he was the key witness in Briggs’ trial, they begin to wonder why he was the first person to discover the dead body in both instances. But still, Ingster misleads the audience by having Ward interrogated by a sympathetic police detective. And then, suddenly, Jane gets the message that he has been arrested. Ingster’s decision to not show Ward’s arrest and instead only inform the audience of it via Jane throws the entire police and justice system into question. It comes as an assault to our senses and better judgment...much like a wrongful conviction would to an innocent man.

There is only one thing that can clear Ward’s name: a strange, little man who recently moved into his apartment building. Ward swears that he saw him before...possibly the night Giuseppe was murdered. So Jane sets out to find this mystery man.  The problem is that nobody can seem to remember him. That is, at least, until she accidentally stumbles upon him muttering to himself about things best left unsaid. Peter Lorre delivers one of his career’s greatest performances as this toad-like creature. What is even more impressive is that he manages to do so with less screen-time than he did as Hans Beckert in M (1931). Lorre manages to create a character that carefully teeters on the edge of insanity without becoming outright maniacal. Watch how he delivers his monstrous lines as casually as one would discuss their dry cleaning. There is a certain intensity, a kind of hatchet-behind-the-back apprehension that engulfs him much like Anthony Perkins in Psycho (1960), Anthony Hopkins in The Silence of the Lambs (1991), and Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight (2008). In hindsight, it is a blessing that Lorre was featured so sparingly in Stranger on the Third Floor. If they had used him more, it would have ruined his character.

Most film critics and historians point to John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon (1941) as the first authentic film noir. However, Stranger on the Third Floor should be lauded as the rightful recipient of that honor. More than any other film of its time, it zeroed in on what truly defines the genre: substance, not style.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

The Set-Up

Directed by Robert Wise
The United States of America

In his autobiographical account of his childhood as a young boy growing up in Cleveland during the 50s entitled The Quitter, Harvey Pekar recounted how he fell in love with the sport of boxing. The son of Jewish immigrants from Poland, Pekar admired how many successful Jewish boxers were able to become superstars despite racial prejudice. But after awhile, he began to notice something about the boxers that he looked up to. He wrote, “I didn’t know much about Jewish boxers, but they got into the sport when they were recent immigrants and didn’t have much money. Then got out in the 1940s with the coming of better economic opportunities. This indicated that they weren’t in love with boxing, just wanted to use it to make a living until something better came along.” That’s part of the majesty of boxing films: the best ones aren’t about people who love to box. They are about people who have to box.

Rocky Balboa had to prove to himself that he could go the distance. Jake LaMotta used boxing as an affirmation of his own insecurities surrounding his masculinity and self-image. Maggie Fitzgerald saw boxing as a means to escape her exploitative family and her own blue-collar purgatory. But what about Stoker Thompson, the working class hero from Robert Wise’s The Set-Up? What does he want? The man has been a boxer for most of his adult life. He’s 35 years old, hasn’t won a fight in years, and is scheduled to have a match against the rising superstar Tiger Nelson. Everyone expects him to lose. In fact, there are many who want him to lose. Stoker knows that this could very well be his last fight. So why does he box when the odds are so impossibly stacked against him? 

Maybe it’s to escape the world that he inhabits. Stoker’s city is a tangled mess of dark alleyways and slums. Everyone is sweaty and greasy.

Only the local mobsters seem to have clean, unstained shirts. The masses who attend the matches aren’t much better, either. Rowdy off-duty sailors, disheveled businessmen, made-up streetwalkers clutching to their latest customers, and fat louts balancing hot dogs on their enormous guts call for blood.  

The locker rooms where the various fighters prepare for their bouts reeks of desperation. Utilizing a real time narrative structure three years before it was popularized in High Noon (1952), the film keeps the audience largely contained in these lockers as they watch fighters get called up one-by-one for their fights. A young kid triumphantly rejoins his comrades after winning his very first fight in the wake of a minor nervous breakdown. 

An enthusiastic older boxer with a cracked face only a couple of matches from hitting the big-time returns so badly beaten that he is rushed to the hospital. 

Maybe it was here that Stoker found his motivation. But, maybe it was his wife, Julie. While Stoker prepares for his fight, she walks the mean, grimy streets around the boxing center. She hates that her husband has to fight. She’s tired of him being humiliated and used by the boxing industry. Stoker wants to make good so he can support them in the future. But Julie has begun to wonder if it is worth it. In a fantastic scene, she walks by a store with the radio turned on to the boxing matches. She hears that a boxer has just been brutally defeated, and her heart sinks. But then it is announced that this boxer was not Stoker and that his fight is coming up soon. Watch her relieved realization. At that moment, the spark of hope filled her heart.

Whatever Stoker’s reasons for fighting, one thing he didn’t count on was that everyone was counting on him to lose. His manager, Tiny, has made an arrangement with the mob for Stoker to take a dive. The only problem is that he never bothered to tell Stoker. He fully believed that Stoker would lose on his own. But he didn’t expect for Stoker to go for the glory one last time.

The Set-Up is a glorious film and one of the very best examples of the boxing sub-genre of film noir.  This isn’t a film about boxing, per say. The Set-Up is a lyrical poem about broken dreams and impossible goals. Stoker is played by that reliable stand-by of B-grade film noir, Robert Ryan. This film was made just five years after he had been a drill instructor in the United States Marine Corps. So not only is Ryan’s performance filled with emotional and psychological pathos, he looks like a man who has been battered, beaten, and abused for years.

I mentioned that The Set-Up isn’t as much a boxing film as a psychological character study. But that doesn’t mean that the film doesn’t contain some of the best fighting footage ever featured in the genre. Ryan fight scenes are particularly authentic, probably in no small part to his being a boxing champion while studying at Dartmouth college. But more importantly, the fights aren’t just random flurries of punches and jabs. There’s a rhyme and rhythm to the fighting like a ballet. Each round of Stoker’s fight becomes symbolic of him overcoming his personal demons and doubts. 

A word about the ending. Few times have I ever seen a film have an ending that was sad and uplifting at the same time. Don’t mistake that with an ending being bitter-sweet. The Set-Up ends with triumph and loss, punishment and salvation, humiliation and acceptance. This is a story about a man, after all...a man with everything to lose and nothing to win, except his own dignity.

Friday, June 8, 2012

The Sun Shines Bright

Directed by John Ford
The United States of America

Who was John Ford? The legendary Hollywood director was a mess of seemingly impossible contradictions.  The man who would become so closely identified with the Western genre was born in Maine as the son of Irish immigrants. While he helped redefine the depiction of Native Americans in such films as Cheyenne Autumn (1964), he rode as a Klansman in D. W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915).  The same man who directed such ground-breaking progressive masterpieces as The Grapes of Wrath (1940) was instrumental in the casting of Stepin Fetchit, a very close friend, in many of his films. While he valued the institution of the family more than almost anything else in his films, in real life he was an absentee father and husband. At times staunchly conservative and at others unapologetically liberal, his political and social outlooks on life could change on a whim.  He was a kind, sensitive man who perpetuated the image of an angry perfectionist authoritarian out of fear that others would take advantage of him.  While he claimed to not give a damn about what other people thought about him and his work, his fear of being rejected would lead him to heartbreaking alcoholic breakdowns in between film productions. So I ask again, who was John Ford?

For a man who tried so hard to make an enigma of himself, the clearest picture of who Ford truly was can be partially glimpsed in his beloved films. But which film best represents Ford? I would answer a little known film from 1953 entitled The Sun Shines Bright. Ford described later in his life that it was “really my favorite, the only one I like to see over and over again.” Made following the tide of studio goodwill borne from the unexpected success of The Quiet Man (1952), the film is essentially a morality play about an elderly judge in a tiny Kentucky town in the twilight years of the 19th century. Based on three short stories by Irvin S. Cobb, the film revisits the character of Judge Priest, previously portrayed by Will Rogers in Ford’s film of the same name from 1934. Though Ford re-adapted some of the same material from his earlier film in The Sun Shines Bright, he was given a much wider berth of creative freedom.  The result was perhaps Ford’s most emotional and personal film.

It begins with a series of vignettes that form a picture of the town of Fairfield, Kentucky. We watch Judge Priest and his servant Jeff Poindexter (Stepin Fetchit) preside over a trial involving U.S. Grant Woodford, a black teenager who won’t work to support his relatives, that ends with a grimace-inducing impromptu performance of “Dixie.”  A meeting of Confederate veterans is held where they give a solemn and heart-felt eulogy to a Rebel Jack after dutifully saluting the Union flag. When a nearby gathering of Union veterans asks them to return the Union flag that they borrowed for their ceremony, Priest serves as an honorary color guard. Of course, once in the presence of the Union veterans he wastes no time to remind them that he is coming up for re-election.  Soon certain class and racial divisions are established: the well-to-do white folk, the Temperance League and their 200 votes (i.e. husbands), the subservient blacks, and the Tornado Boys, a large informal gang of backwoods hunters and trappers. But everything is pleasantly idealized. This is the South as envisioned by wistful romantics.

But the film’s early comedic tones soon take a turn for the worse. An old prostitute shows up, collapses, and dies in a local bordello. She is soon revealed to be the disgraced and disowned daughter of General Fairfield, the much revered and beloved local Confederate leader.  Meanwhile, Woodford has been arrested and wrongfully accused of raping a local girl. The enraged Tornado Boys begin to gather near the prison in order to lynch him. And finally, Priest’s chances to win the election become severely challenged by Horace K. Maydew, the “son of a carpet-bagger from Boston,” who seeks to destroy Fairfield’s idyllic community by forcing it into the future.  

With the town of Fairfield ready to rip itself asunder, the ailing Judge Priest must step in one last time to try and maintain the peace. Priest represents one of Ford’s favorite character archetypes: the reluctant patriarch. Just like in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949) and The Quiet Man, The Sun Shines Bright revolves around an aging male authority figure who finds himself drawn one last time into a terrible conflict to preserve peace. These men are presented as relics of a bygone age who nevertheless must serve as a moral compass for younger generations. And, indeed, Judge Priest is considerably worse for wear. Despite Stepin Fetchit’s painfully hokum performance as Jeff, it is clear that Priest relies on him, and not the other way around. Priest is a rampant alcoholic who regularly uses the excuse “Jeff, I gotta take my medicine - I gotta get my heart started” to sneak off and take a massive drink from a hidden cask. He projects an aura of strength and vitality while courting voters...but it’s a sham. Priest is a tired, tired old man.

And yet Priest will not stand idly by and watch his beloved Fairfield destroy itself. He grabs a gun and single-handedly prevents the Tornado Boys from lynching Woodford (Ford had previously tried to incorporate this scene in Judge Priest, but it was cut by the studio). Afterwards, he shames the entire town by marching behind the white hearse holding General Fairfield’s daughter. This scene is easily one of the most powerful in Ford’s entire career. The town of Fairfield had tried to ignore the poor woman’s fate due to her lowly social status. But Priest marches right behind her fellow prostitutes in her funeral procession. Then, slowly, the rest of the town follows suit until over a hundred march with Priest. The procession leads to a black church where Priest delivers an earth-shaking sermon. And then, finally, in the middle of the service, General Fairfield enters the church to see his daughter one last time.

To say that Priest’s actions were controversial would be to criminally understate it.  His prevention of the lynching may have further endeared him to the black community, but it potentially lost him hundreds of vital votes from the Tornado Boys.  Respecting General Fairfield’s daughter may have been the righteous thing to do, but it disgraced him in the eyes of the community’s more unforgiving sectors. As Jeff mournfully notes, “Me ‘n’ the judge sho’ ain’t gonna get elected now.”

But then a miracle occurs.

On the day of the election, when Maydew seems guaranteed to win, the Tornado boys rally en masse and vote for Priest, securing his victory. Later that night, the entire town passes Priest’s front porch in review. Every social group is represented: Confederate veterans, Union veterans, Temperance League, Tornado Boys (holding a banner reading “He Saved Us from Ourselves”), and finally the blacks who are given a position of honor by marching at the very end in the opposite direction.  The film’s final shot has Jeff playing “My Old Kentucky Home” on the harmonica on Priest’s front porch. The 20th century and progress may soon arrive, but for tonight peace and balance has been restored to the town of Fairfield.

Of course, as any modern viewer will tell you, everything is not alright in Fairfield. Segregation remains the unwritten rule. The few blacks who have any screen-time are of the “yessuh” and “nossuh” variety.  The Confederacy is romanticized and fiercely defended by primary characters. Fairfield is quite obviously a white-washed charade. But look a little deeper. Ford isn’t romanticizing segregation or social inequality. He is obsessed with the idea of an ordered society founded on principles of justice and honor led by men who aren’t afraid of shattering taboos. Quite simply, Ford is Judge Priest and the cinema is Fairfield. By the time he shot The Sun Shines Bright, Ford was already tiring of the Hollywood establishment. As he stated in a 1953 interview, “I don't want to make the kind of junk the screen is offering today, because we made those pictures better thirty-five years ago.” The cinema that Ford loved was disintegrating right before his eyes. And so Ford endeavored to make intensely personal films like The Sun Shines Bright to help restore Hollywood to its former glory. One can almost imagine John Ford standing in Judge Priest’s shoes in the final scene with a legion of producers, screenwriters, actors, and directors holding a banner reading “He Saved Us from Ourselves.” And that is why The Sun Shines Bright is one of the best explorations into Ford’s mind. For just a moment we see the man that Ford truly wanted to be: venerated, respected, and loved by everyone. What he was too scared to achieve in real life he replicated on screen.