A few weeks ago I was talking to my old man, telling him about some of the things I have going on. He wrote back that he didn’t know how I managed to find time to watch a movie a day and still do all the things I have on my plate. Since moving to upstate New York in August, I’ve gone through post on my movie (we are nearly done, thank God), started planning the next script I’m going to write (I am obsessive about these things, and I’ve got it narrowed down to two ideas), written a short, and created/written the first two episodes for a podcast radio drama. The whole “movie a day thing” kind of fell off in March.
That’s not an excuse, just an explanation. I’ve been doing this other music blog, and finding the time to write that a day makes me feel guilty about not keeping this one up. One of the things that helped over there was setting a goal for myself and sticking to personal deadlines. So, I make the promise to you, the reader, that you can look for new updates in this blog (including the return of the John Sayles Project) three times a week — Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.
Another reason is that I’ve got things to talk about! I’ve been listening to a lot of music, a lot of new music, and watching a ton of television. I’ll go through periods where I’ll watch a lot of movies and then watch a lot of TV, and right now I’m completely obsessed with Mad Men, State of Play (one episode left; I can already see how the Affleck/Crowe casting is going to work in terms of replacing David Morrissey/John Simm in the film), and the first season of Dr. Who (which is the most fun I’ve had with a genre series since Buffy.).
But those are just promises. Let’s see if I can put my fingers where my mouth is. (Which may, in fact, be what she said.)
“I Know What I’m Getting Out Of”
A modified version of these comments on Jules Dassin originally appeared on another blog I write for, New York Noir.
I’m not going to be one of those assholes who tries to pretend he’s
been into Dassin forever, as I wasn’t. It was only since this year that I started watching the noir classics that I should have seen a long time ago. One of those pictures was Otto Preminger’s Laura,
which kicks ass, but featured a beautiful actress named Gene Tierney in
the lead. I’m not one of those assholes who pretends he’s been into
shit forever, but am one of those assholes who will track down other
movies featuring a pretty girl he likes. And Miss Tierney is, like the
Stones sing, such a pretty, such a pretty, such a pretty girl.
Tierney (beautiful woman, crazy broad with a fucked up life) was the female lead in Night and the City,
which was the first Jules Dassin picture that I watched. This is one of
those movies that is simply perfect. I have a really hard time talking
about the things that I love other than “Oh man, it’s awesome and this
part rocks and that part rocks,” but Jesus God, is it ever good. Not
only does it feature gorgeous cinematography, a great performance by
Widmark as a boxing promoter who has epic fail encoded onto his DNA
(the total loser: an under-used noir stereotype), great villains, one
of the best fight scenes I have ever seen (it goes on forever and you
feel every single punch), and a wonderful sequence near the end where a
bounty is put out on a character’s head that feels so fresh it’s like
you’re seeing that sequence for the first time, but you get a side
order of Gene Tierney singing. And friends, let me tell you, Gene
Tierney singing is pretty awesome. I haven’t seen as many noirs as I
should, and I fell off major-ly in March, but Night is now not only one of my favorite noirs, but one of my favorite films of all time.
So, we went from Tierney to Dassin, and Night knocked my on my ass enough that I decided this Dassin guy was worth checking out. Which brings us to The Naked City.
Fact: this is probably the first police procedural. Fact: it is
awesome. Fact: it’s one of the all time great New York City movies.
New York Noir owes a great debt to The Naked City because of one word: location. Dassin, in all of the noir I’ve seen of his, knows how to use locations, and apparently, City was a big deal at the time because it was actually shot on location in New York and not on sets. It shows.
It’s funny how the smallest things can have a big impact on you when it comes to art, and especially film. There’s a scene in City
where a cop is interviewing a woman in a resturant on the Lower East
Side, and in the background, through the window, a bunch of Orthodox
Jews are standing on the corner, waiting for a cab. Knowing what you
know about the movie (or what at least the 40s version of Mr. Movie
Voice has told you at the beginning), those are real people in real New
York. They’re not extras, they’re just standing there, hailing a cab
while this movie’s being made. Just another day in New York, just like
how you walk by film shoots all the time when you live there. I
remember thinking that was cool, buying into the whole of City
because of it. Dassin was a Yiddish theatre actor in New York before
moving into films, and he was clearly as in love with the city as most
people — it’s a very dark movie, but it’s also a movie that shows New
York as it is, and I think you have to acknowledge that to really love
the city. Or something.
City also features one of the more iconic voice overs in noir, which lives on today in what is probably the Naked City of the modern day, the Law & Order series. Dick Wolf’s more of a Dragnet guy, but there’s a lot of Lennie Briscoe in Barry Fitzgerald’s character, and again, the use of location — Law & Order was, for many years, the only NYC show being shot in New York.
Dassin also did Rififi, which is dark as fuck and features a heist sequence that’s been ripped off since time immemorial, and Thieves’ Highway,
which I didn’t like that much, but I did like some of the characters in
it (like the bickering rivals), the really tense end sequence which is
mostly people sitting around a table, talking, and again, the use of
location. I really like how Dassin manages to take noir out of the big
city for a film that’s set mostly on the road.
I think, though, the way Dassin uses cities from Montmartre to New
York, the way he makes locations feel like actual places and not just
sets and the people in the background, the detail of it, is what was
the biggest influence on me as a filmmaker and writer.
Thanks, JD, and sorry that you got fucked so thoroughly by HUAC.
(Dassin was a communist in the 30s who refused to testify before
HUAC, but was named in the hearings. He had to leave America after
being blacklisted — right as he was working on Night and the City.
In the ensuing years, the U.S. government would, apparently, try to
block him from even making movies overseas. To which I say: damn.)