. . . Joseph H. Lewis

. . .

The 100 Super Movies au maximum: The Big Combo

Conte/Wallace We have lots of reasons to be grateful for low-budget specialist Joseph H. Lewis's work, but Peter Bogdonovich's book of interviews is what made me grateful for Joseph H. Lewis's existence. In a field full of insecure egotists, Lewis comes across as happy, gracious, and busting with healthy pride in everything he ever did (except for the Custer movie: "I became terribly confused because I found out what a horrible man Colonel Custer was. Jiminy Cricket!"). It's just nice to know that it's even possible to be someone like that, you know? 'Cause sometimes you look around, and.... Anyway, here's Lewis on The Big Combo:

You know, Cornel Wilde and Jean Wallace are married, and they're a charming couple. I asked Jean why her character -- a society girl looking like herself -- would throw herself at a character like Richard Conte's gangster, a known murderer. And she couldn't come up with an answer.... I said, "Jean, when this man takes you in his arms, he doesn't stop at kissing you on the lips, he doesn't stop at your earlobe, he doesn't stop at your neck, he doesn't stop at your tummy. He covers you all...."

I actually wanted to show -- again by impression only -- a man making love to a girl in this delightfully unique fashion that we have all dreamt about or experienced. Now, how do you show it on film? Well, I had an idea: as you saw the two of them, mixed with kissing her on the lips and then on the ear, the camera moved closer and closer and closer and, as you came into a huge close-up of Nick Conte and Jean Wallace, gradually Nick's head disappeared: first kissing her neck, then lower and lower and then, at the precise moment, Jean, who was icy -- I think she was afraid to betray herself for fear Cornel would raise hell with her -- but at that precise moment I envisioned, I went "uh-uh-uh" off-scene, and that was recorded.

Cornel never forgave me for it.

Which makes the scene sound like fun. It isn't. It begins with a nasty quarrel and ends with whispered dialogue:

"What do you want, Susan? Tell me. I'll give anything you want."


"Anything at all."

"Nothing, nothing. Nothing. Nothing. Nothing...."

over an unflattering close-up of a woman's face struggling to become as inexpressive as possible, one tear-track drying. It's Ingmar Bergman sadism 11 years early. And if Bergman had been capable of integrating it with a fast-paced cop thriller, Bergman might've been as good as Joseph H. Lewis.
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Combo of One

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Placeholder til I get a frame capture  
Movie Comment: The Arizonian (1935)

The Arizonian is a wonderful anomaly: a 1930s Western B-movie that scrapes the mindless sunny-side-up of Buck Jones or Gene Autry into the slops and rustles us up something more like Marxist spaghetti or the bitter winter rye of Joseph H. Lewis.

There's no roving outlaw gang or renegade Injuns; instead, all hell boils over due to departmental rivalry between marshal, sheriff, and mayor, and the intertwining of money and politics (brought together, as ever, in the person of Louis Calhern). Ethical and emotional compromise is frequent, and sporadically effective at delaying the progression from bullying to murder to group ambushes to massacre. Costumes, sets, and lighting all have a worked-over and lived-in look. So does hero Richard Dix, who carries the gravitas of Randolph-Scott-on-Jupiter -- he's even stolidly tragic about getting the girl.

Where the movie doesn't -- for the most part -- rise above its station is in its "comic relief." With scare quotes because it's scary. When it comes to inspiring utter shamefaced horror in post-Jim-Crow audiences, shuffling idiot Willie Best is second only to the sub-Tor-ean Fred "Snowflake" Toones. Best may be the only guy who can really make us appreciate the skill of Stepin Fetchit. (Mantan Moreland and Eddie "Rochester" Anderson are in another class altogether -- those guys were stars.) But wait, there's more! Much more, by volume anyway: Best's "comic relief" "love" interest in the film is Etta McDaniel, the lookalike but much less talented sister of Hattie McDaniel.

So.... The most I can say is that at least white actors weren't being paid to wear the blackface.

But even here the movie holds a surprise if you can get past "the most part." [And if you want to keep it a surprise, stop reading -- but I reckon odds are slim that any of you will get a chance to see it soon.] The film's everything-falls-apart catastrophe begins with the shooting of Willie Best, rather than, I don't know, the love interest of the hero? a drunk newspaper editor?

Then the allies, having arranged a cover of total blankness, walk into total blankness, firing, disappearing. As the smoke clears, the one true melancholy hero stands alone, surrounded by corpses. Making the perfect target for the one true self-assured villain.

Who in turn turns out to make the perfect target for Hattie McDaniel's sister.

A lunatic servant saves the world with a shot in the back. This is a most satisfying conclusion to the sort of story that's being told.

But that's because it's a disturbingly odd conclusion.

The American Film Institute catalog was disturbed enough to repress the memory entirely. Etta McDaniel, despite her surprisingly central role, doesn't get mentioned in the movie's credits. That sort of omission's not unusual in a 1930s B-picture. But it is unusual for the AFI researcher to have not filled that credit in, and then to have simplified the ending to: "The only survivor of the gun battle, Clay leaves a reformed Silver City with Kitty at his side."

After the catalog was printed, the AFI was apparently told that there was a problem and someone tried to correct it on their super-expensive-exclusive-access-only web site. That someone hadn't bothered to see the first hour of the movie, though, because their correction goes as follows: "... a mysterious black woman [who's been in about a half-dozen earlier scenes] shoots Mannen with a rifle."

(A more accurately chaotic synopsis is available online. I'd send a correction to the AFI's web site but they don't give any contact information.)

And the next time I'm in L.A., I'll have to check the Academy records to see how the Production Code office reacted to it, 'cause they usually didn't take kindly to such things. Like in 1938 when Spirit of Youth was made, starring Joe Louis the year after he won the heavyweight title (and giving Mantan Moreland his first big break), Joseph Breen warned that the movie was "questionable from the standpoint of policy, because it shows, among other things, several scenes of a black man victorious in a number of fistic encounters with white men." So assassinating a white man seems like it would be right out.

What I figure is that the screenplay didn't mention the race of the characters and the Production Code people didn't bother watching the movie any more carefully than the AFI catalog people did. But I'm still curious.

. . .

Movie Comment: Eric Rohmer: With Supporting Evidence

"Every possible decision entails some sacrifice, paradox or irony. But irony doesn't subvert morality; morality is about choosing the lesser of two ironies."
      -- Raymond Durgnat on Eric Rohmer
Godard was louder and funnier, but the best criticism in Cahiers du cinéma was written by Eric Rohmer, and it used to seem sad to me that he didn't, like Godard, keep it going as an occasional thing.

One of the rewards of sitting through this two-part TV interview-with-dumbass-arty-touches is that instead of sad it now seems inevitable, and louder, and funnier. Unlike Godard's too-cool-for-school improvs, Rohmer's criticism was labored over; it was never "occasional" prose. Even if it had been, there's no room for any occasion outside movie-making in Rohmer's post-Cahiers life: every strand, scrap, and moment of his existence is replete with movie-making, and the tools and souvenirs of movie-making threaten to bury him as we watch, cassettes, notebooks, videos, photos, lights, filters (colored tracing paper), reflectors (made in 1959 from tin foil and a portfolio), projectors, photos, and props piling on the desk like from Harpo's inexhaustible trench coat....

I've always been against destruction. I think that in order to build, we mustn't destroy.

In still photos, Rohmer always looks dignified and aristocratic. In action, he's an enthusiastic (if still very polite) goofball, fondly mimicked by Jean-Louis Trintignant in My Night at Maud's and by Hugues Quester in Tale of Springtime, more like a monomaniacal Roland Young than like cold-blue-blooded Antonioni.

Maybe most like Joseph H. Lewis: happy as a pig in low-budget slops.

I believe more and more what I wrote in my last article, that is, that cinema has more to fear from its own clichés than from those of the other arts. Right now, I despise, I hate, cinephile madness, cinephile culture. In "Le Celluloid et le marbre" I said that it was very good to be a pure cinephile, to have no culture, to be cultivated only by the cinema. Unfortunately, it has happened: There now are people whose culture is limited to the world of film, who think only through film, and when they make films, their films contain beings who exist only through film, whether the reminiscence of old films or the people in the profession. The number of short films by novices who in one way or another show only filmmakers is terrifying! I think that there are other things in the world besides film and, conversely, that film feeds on things that exist outside it. I would even say that film is the art that can feed on itself the least. It is certainly less dangerous for the other arts.

If movies are your entire life, life can't enter your movies except through the knotholes and the rust-streaking leaks and the breezy gaps between the amateurish joins. Hollywood can pay to seal itself in; Rohmer can't, and that's exactly what he enjoys about the process.

So nice to think that this is what can happen to a fine analytical critic. Loving the pre-decadent days of cinema, Rohmer, almost uniquely, understands and follows its percepts, that is, its precepts -- that is, its restrictions, which is to say its freedoms. As the man says, it's better to have fifty films made by crews of ten than to have one film made by a crew of five hundred. You can't have a healthy art form without excess production.

It is also because that when you see a "movie" being shot in the streets you usually see 5 production trucks, and an army of assistants running around or standing around, and bright lamps in the middle of a sunny day, and traffic being blocked off, etc etc etc. So nobody takes notice of a professor-looking-type with his young women holding small cameras/equipment (and Pascal, big burley guy who looks like an eternal student), even if some of Rendezvous in Paris was actually shot with Diane Baratier (the camerawoman) sitting in a wheelchair (our idea of a dolly) with Rohmer pushing it.

Rohmer not only takes inspiration around him but is deeply affected by the lives of his immediate entourage. It is not by accident that Winter's Tale told the story of a young woman raising a child single-handedly while sorting out her sentimental webs, it was around that time that Rohmer's immediate entourage turned from young carefree girls into young women freshly divorced or separated with a young child.

Taking the responsibility of adaptation as seriously as any other responsibility, Rohmer didn't go through the same improvisational process with the three movies he's based on existing texts. Instead, as if to fill up any time gained by starting with a finished script, all three laboriously emphasized technical demands and formal experimentation -- and stumbled (sometimes with a triumphant lurching leap) over anti-realistic (or stiff, or inappropriate) acting, or even (in the latest, anyway) horrendous structural problems in the script.

Rohmer is a great moviemaker, and so his experiments are interesting. But one reason he's a great moviemaker is that his rote way of making movies works reliably.

His latest 100-super-movie-au-maximum, Tale of Springtime, I figured was planned from the start as a wiser and more gynocentric answer to My Night at Maud's. It turns out the philosophical discussions that connect the two films were only constructed after long negotiations with the actress who had been cast as the lead. She was a philosophy scholar, the sketchy teacher of Rohmer's original plan was, at her request, realized as a philo prof, and the bare branch blossomed from there.

That's the routine that works, like the seasons. Rohmer quietly worries for decades at vague ideas, suspending their resolution until they can opportunistically latch onto the particulars of setting and collaborator. He films in vacation spots because that's where his friends' empty houses are; he picks amateur actors because they're unyielding enough to propagate story and grateful enough to do it again and because he can afford them; his shots are dictated by his cheap bundle of equipment, and he loves it like a muse. New life is born of abundant wish and a lack of choice.


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Public domain work remains in the public domain.
All other material: Copyright 2015 Ray Davis.