News flash: It is harder to write about Alligator and The Howling than I thought. Plus, with the Secaucus 7 DVD having Sayles commentary, I know I’ll be watching that twice before writing about it. (Thoughts on that one so far: Lawrence Kasdan is so unbelievably full of shit when he says he hadn’t seen it when he wrote The Big Chill, and, Jesus, did David Strathairn come out of the womb as a 40 year old dude?)
Anyway, in addition to my Sayles fixation, I’ve been watching a lot of film noir over the past month or so, mostly from the classic era, although I’ll throw in an occasional Red Rock West (Dennis Hopper was so great in that) or Body Heat to mix it up. It’s definitely become my favorite genre, although I’ve been a cop show fanatic for a while now, but I like watching film noir because it allows me to think critically about movies while still enjoying the story and performances.
I’ve written about this elsewhere, but I think one of the reasons I love noir and detective stories so much is that they remind me of jazz. At some point, every variation on a particular story has been done, and at that point it becomes about the singer rather than the song. It’s about the improvisation around the material, which is why Rian Johnson’s Brick is so brilliant. The key moment in that movie being Levitt’s line, “Either write me up or suspend me.” How many times had we heard that before? But there it’s given new context, and it works.
Through this journey into the heart of post-war darkness, I’ve discovered a lot of faces and filmmakers that I hadn’t before. I think that’s one of the joys of being a film fan in the Netflix age. I know there’s the divide between guys my age and some of the other writers for this site, and I do believe that some movies need to be experience in the theatre for the first time, but I love being able to say, watch Laura and get a huge crush on Gene Tierney and then reorder my queue so I get a bunch of her movies in the mail. (Or Colleen Gray for that matter, which is how I wound up watching Red River for the first time.)
The Tierney connection is how I got hooked on the director Jules Dassin. His Night and the City may be my favorite noir yet, and I’ve already reordered my favorite films list so that has a spot on it. I didn’t know that when he made it, the studios knew it was going to be his last movie after he was blacklisted. (I’m really surprised how many people of my generation don’t know about, or don’t understand the magnitude of the blacklist, which is really sad.)
In retrospect, it definitely feels like a filmmaker making sure he goes out swinging. Night and the City is just a brilliant, brilliant movie, and not just because Tierney sings in it. It’s one of those movies, like Miller’s Crossing or Nashville or, in terms of other noirs, Out of the Past or Bunny Lake is Missing, that I find to be flawless. It’s a film I want to watch again and again, and introduce to people so I can talk to them about it.
So that’s how I became a fan of Jules Dassin. Last night, I watched The Naked City for the first time. Loved that one, too. One of the things that I loved about Bunny Lake was Lawrence Oliver’s Superintendent Newhouse, and I kind of wished I had a time machine to go back in time and force MGM to make more movies with that character. In Naked City, the lead detectives are Lieutenant Muldoon (Barry Fitzgerald) and his protege Jimmy Halloran (Don Taylor), and I loved both of these characters so much — Fitzgerald especially — that I wanted to go back in time and order Universal to make more movies with them.
I adored that it’s a New York movie shot on location when that sort of thing wasn’t exactly done. There’s a scene in the movie where a detective jumps over a fence, and some kid yells “Superman!” And another scene where that same detective interviews a woman in a shop on the Lower East Side, and in the background you have a bunch of Orthodox Jews talking on the street corner. (I couldn’t read their lips, but I’m betting they were discussing A History of Violence.)
Both of them were one of many small details which made the film feel very real, and it’s that kind of detail is why I get annoyed by films set, but not shot, in New York City. You can’t really get that kind of detail, that vibrancy, unless you’re actually shooting on the streets — which is probably one reason why I love Mean Streets so much, too. There’s a grittiness and a reality to it. I like that it’s Scorsese with a camera and his friends from NYU shooting in stairwells and off fire escapes.
If I haven’t convinced you to check out The Naked City yet, you might be interested to know that one of the reasons it has such a vibrancy to it is because it’s done in a pseudo-documentary style. It’s such a strange combination, but it works so, so well — it’s part noir, part police procedural, but it also tries to move beyond that to give us snippets of life from New York City in 1948. The opening, where we intercut between late night jobs to and hear what people are thinking, is a great, great example of this. I don’t know enough about film to accurately say, but I was surprised to see this technique of a fake documentary being used so early.
But the scope of the film is both broad and pointillist in its exploration of city life, which is another reason why I loved it so much. I have this theory that certain films are like Rosetta Stones, where if they’re not completely ingrained in our culture like The Godfather or Star Wars, you can certainly see the influence even today. Red River was one of those, and so is The Naked City.
All that, and it’s just a goddamn good movie. You should see it.
Ebert says that Dassin invented the modern heist film with Rififi, and that’s probably going to be next after I finish Secaucus 7. Two of Dassin’s other films recently released by the Criterion Collection, Thieves’ Highway and Brute Force are coming soon. I may write some more about him, but between the near-perfection of Naked City and sheer perfection of Night and the City, I think he may soon be one of my favorite directors.
And that’s why I think being a film fan in the Netflix age has its benefits.
(Okay, so that wasn’t entirely about Jules Dassin.)