slightly carla: day two

day two finds us catching up on yesterday's work with preston sturges' exceptional unfaithfully yours (1948).

this week is full of my favorite works of some of my favorite directors. preston sturges was more than a filmmaker, he was a cottage industry, far ahead of his time. he parlayed his success as screenwriter into complete artistic control as a director, building a stock company of actors who were in tune with his sensibilities and turning out a body of work that is consistently marvelous, slyly hilarious and always forward thinking. it is hard to pick a favorite but unfaithfully yours ranks way up there. rex harrison digs into his role as alfred de carter with a zest that registers just this side of errol flynn. he is a universally renowned conductor deeply in love with his younger wife, played by the stunning linda darnell. his directions to have his wife looked after in his absence were misinterpreted, resulting in the engagement of a detective. the private eye's findings are troublesome but de carter initially refuses to have anything to do with it. slowly but surely, though, doubt begins to creep in and soon his imagination has spiraled out of control. convinced of her adultery, he entertains three elaborate fantasy sequences, all playing out in his mind in conjunction with three pieces he is conducting. these sequences really are virtuosic pieces of black comedy, the hypothetical tangents moving through from his wife's destruction to his masculinity's destruction to his own at his own hand. it is perhaps the funniest distillation of a man veering into jealous insanity ever committed to film and harrison just goes all out. it sounds like he could be over the top but i don't want to give that impression. he nails it. his lunacy pushes the film over into an uncomfortable territory that 1948 audiences were probably a little thunderstruck by. thinking they were buying a ticket to a wacky romantic comedy, they soon found themselves enmeshed in a web of paranoid, homicidal flights of fancy, only pulling out of a steep dive in the final reel. it's damn near perfect, consistently sharply funny all while taking sturges' social satire to frantic depths only hinted at in his other work.

and it is the perfect gateway from screwball/romantic comedy into our next block of films, which find us in the netherworld of crime and film noir. we start this section with samuel fuller's pulpy punch in the gut, pickup on south street (1953).

holy cats, this film is raw. richard widmark plays a contemptuous pickpocket who lifts jean peters' wallet in a crowded subway car. unbeknownst to both he and peters, the wallet contains some frames of film that she is unwittingly delivering to a communist spy on behalf of her ex-boyfriend. his poorly-timed crime throws a wrench in the works of an investigation that has been active for months and was on the verge of breaking wide open. this macguffin kicks off a series of misfortunes for everyone that crosses widmark's path. overall, the film lives and dies by its tabloid nature. the red scare business plays almost like an afterthought, for the most part, seemingly there for no other reason than to give 1953 moviegoers something easy to be afraid of. the real story revolves more around the relative honor among thieves and widmark's reformation, what little there is of it, thanks to the love of a not-so-good woman. these are ugly, small people trying to stay one step ahead of each other and the law, doing whatever they need to to carve a tiny space for themselves in a shabby universe. widmark sneers his way through crowded train cars and empty diners, making a religion out of looking out for number one. jean peters seems custom built out of the sexiest/trashiest pieces of themselves that other women have thrown away. jesus, she is incredible. you can practically catch the smell of her sweat and makeup coming off the screen. she is so gloriously, irresistibly cheap. and fuller's photography leaves you no egress. it starts in extreme close-up about half the time and then moves in. you and these characters are in each others' personal space from the word go, so that all their shifty dealings and jockeying for position psychologically jostles you the whole time. and if all that isn't enough, you get vitagraph favorite, the sainted thelma ritter.

she essentially played one character her entire career and raised it to a fine art. a scrapper but weary, matronly but not sexless, well acquainted with just exactly what her place was in this mean old world, the mother teresa of the bowery who might just give you up to the cops for a sawbuck because, hey, she has to eat too. she is fantastic in this as moe, the stool pigeon with the heart of gold and mother figure to widmark's insolent punk. it is one of crime film's greatest moments when she tells richard kiley, knowing full well he is going to kill her for it, "even a fancy funeral ain't worth waitin' for if i've gotta do business with crumbs like you". her murder is the true catalyst for widmark's redemption, moving him much more than peters ever could. in her, we finally find the thing that matters to someone to whom not much matters at all. it's best (and easy) to just ignore the communism angle altogether and focus on these lousy small-timers and the way they affect one another's orbits. that's the grubby heart of this picture.

from here, we move to the other side of the atlantic to france where every criminal is weary for jules dassin's most impressive statement made in exile, the seminal heist film rififi (1955).

for the longest time, i was the furthest thing from a francophile when it came to cinema. as i was growing up, french film seemed the most foreign of all foreign film to me. i resisted, bolstered by only really being exposed to the elements of it that were most easily parodied. then i saw rififi. it turns out i had just been watching the wrong french films that whole time. i just needed one made by an american expatriate to grease the skids. this one is so beautifully bleak and cruelly efficient. it's an ill-fated perfect crime story, maybe the ill-fated perfect crime story. jean servais is perfectly cast as shelfworn gangster tony le st├ęphanois. newly released from prison, he is making tentative steps to re-establish his life. his former girlfriend is now the chattel of a rival gangster and he is being prevailed upon by old friends to get back to work. initially, he declines to participate in a planned jewel heist but, after an episode where announces his return by whipping the message into said ex-girlfriend's back, his course becomes clear to him and he joins his comrades in the heist. their plan lacks ambition, though. not satisfied with their idea of simply grabbing window displays, he decides they will make a play for the safe. what follows is one of the first and best robbery rehearsal and execution sequences in film history. i remember when i saw blood simple (1984) being knocked out at the audacity of the coen brothers and marveling at them putting a twenty-minute section with no dialogue dead in the middle of their movie. then i saw this and learned where they had potentially cribbed that idea from. thirty years prior, jules dassin had done it. for one quarter of this film, no one speaks and you can't take your eyes off the screen. of course, as with all jobs that you can't pull on your own, someone lets down the side, lousing everything up because of a dame, and the final act is a beautiful unraveling in which numerous, inevitable bad decisions are made, violent revenge is had and dassin takes subtextual shots at those who named names before the house un-american activities committee. of course it was the french who first noticed the development of, and coined the name for, film noir. who else could have? the existential malaise of the criminal underclass and the inevitability of their bad end is practically their cinematic birthright and you will never see it done better than this.

and, finally, we take a step out of noir toward the new wave with louis malle's feature film debut, elevator to the gallows (1958).

ah, jeanne moreau and her perfect, tired eyes. she and maurice ronet play lovers conspiring to kill her husband, a subcategory of perfect crime whose rate of failure would be, you would think, enough to discourage anyone from even considering it. hardly. ronet enacts their plan - which is clever, i admit - only to forget one little detail. as we all know by know, that one little detail is always enough. he commits the murder and begins to make good his getaway only to notice he has left a piece of evidence behind. abandoning his car to retrieve it, he becomes trapped in an elevator as the security guard shuts down the power to the building in preparation to leave for the weekend. meanwhile, the girl who works in the flower shop, where ronet has left his car running, and her juvenile delinquent boyfriend decide to take a joyride. ronet's hasty mistake added to the kids' dumb decision doesn't just amount to an idiotic sum, but a deadly geometric progression, as the young hothead kills a pair of travelers, leaving ronet's car and belongings behind as evidence. in the meantime, moreau wanders the streets waiting for word from ronet in that way that only french women can. moreau's performance here feels like she is single-handedly building a bridge between more traditional, conventional forms and the new wave that was just on the horizon. malle splits time between expertly ratcheting up the tension in the elevator and navigating the haze moreau finds herself equally trapped in, using this snappy genre exercise to point the way to what's next. in addition to that, miles davis' iconic score blows through the film like the last trumpet on earth, a sentiment echoed by paris' oddly empty streets. it all makes for a perfect, lonely, unsettling world in which nothing is perfect, least of all the perfect crime.

well, that was a beautifully dark day. tune in tomorrow for a special treat:

color! what'll they think of next?

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