Harper (1966)

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Harper (1966):          
         This Paul Newman detective story might as well be ‘The Big Sleep’ or any of the good hard-boiled detective stories of the ‘30s or ‘40s.  All the interesting characters are there. 
         This was 1966, and Paul Newman was at the top of his game.  The supporting cast is all-star, too.  Lauren Bacall, Robert Wagner, Julie Harris, Shelley Winters, Arthur Hill, Janet Leigh; I could go on and on. They spent the money, they got it right.  Bright, slick and Technicolor, but also tough and true.
         It is a good story, a great detective story and all you could want from a mainstream Hollywood ‘A’ Picture in 1966.
         What makes this picture so special that I mention it here? Well, historically, this is the first U. S. film that - by it's ending - has the perpetrator of a crime go unpunished. Since the early Thirties the Hollywood Production Code had kept a strict hand on anything they considered morally unsuitable.
         Even Edward G. Robinson in SCARLET STREET – who got away with his crimes - went insane at the end.
         Warning, I have to use a SPOILER here to make my point.
         At the end of the film, and all its convolutions of plot, our hero Lew Harper discovers that his friend - the Arthur Hill lawyer character – has killed the missing kidnapped millionaire.  He didn’t do the kidnapping; just the opportunistic killing.  After having to take the millionaire’s abuse for many years, the lawyer made a choice and went for the money.
         When all the other matters are settled, Lew Harper, riding with his friend back to the millionaire’s wife, tells his friend he knows he did the killing.
         Quietly, still just talking, the lawyer tells Harper he’ll have to stop him from giving him up.
         Well, you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do, says Harper. He gets out of the car and slowly walks toward the door, he knows his friend has a gun trained on his back.
         At the last minute Newman (Harper) throws up his hands in a Christ-like gesture, they both say ‘oh, hell.’ and the film is over.  A sigh of relief all around. 
         Without saying a word more, Harper agrees not to turn his friend in for the killing. He is not going to cast his best friend to the wolves (the cops) over a dead kidnapped millionaire no one in the film liked. A bad man, forget it, let's split the money and just go on with our lives.
         Essentially, it's a "whoever is without sin, let him cast the first stone" ending.
         This was the first US film - by my reckoning - to do this.  After HARPER, any film could end any way it wanted, with no fear of the release being blocked by the Production Code.
         Unlike so many of the mid-‘60s Hollywood’s desperate attempts to be hip, slick and cool – trying so very hard to be as honest as the foreign films of that era - this one got it right.
         From this point on, no one had to go to jail or die by the last reel. Morally dubious? Yes. Realistic? Also, yes.
         For this, HARPER is a milestone. – Electro deFog / JBW.

The Exiles (1961, b+w)

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

  The Exiles (1961, b+w):           
            I came across this wonderful film recently on Turner Classic Movies.  Made by Kent MacKenzie, a USC Film School graduate, it seemingly is a documentary.  Amazingly it is, rather, a film with a cast that goes through a day in their life, filmed by a small crew, in real locations, using their own written words over their actions.  No scripted dialogue.  Just a general direction for the plot.
            Three young people in their early 20’s, make up the cast.  American Indians, they left their Reservations, where there was no hope of a future free from poverty.  Their new life is Bunker Hill, in the northwest corner of downtown Los Angeles.  But Bunker Hill in its way is as desolate and unforgiving a life as any Reservation.  Long since destroyed, Bunker Hill was a home to not only Indians, but old people, Latinos, homosexuals, and low-level criminals and drunks, all mixed together.  Poor people, edgy people, outcasts.
            These people live, jammed together in very old buildings, many of them once large homes that had been changed into one-room or two room apartments.  Many people to a room.  Men with no jobs who gather together for spiritual survival and the illusion that something is happening in their lives.
The something happening is decay.  Friends who smile at each other while rifling their pockets if they nod off.
            Only a few years after this film was made, all these homes were destroyed and replaced by sleek buildings, business and residential, for the wealthy.
            The scenes on the street show a way of life that is long gone.  Cooper’s Donuts, the bars, the sweat and lies of the street.  The floating, hovering sense of danger.  Blood waiting to be spilt.  The old Black Maria Police vans that swept the night streets every night.  Scooping up the scum and those not wanted.
            Other than this film, the only other place it exists is in the modern classic novel ‘City of Night’, by John Rechy.
            I hadn’t thought of writing this, until my son – ordinarily an intelligent and perceptive young man (see ‘Rocksplotch’) – saw the film and didn’t see what I so love about it.  He sees the events, but they don’t register the same.  The difference is that I remember those streets and have tasted that hopelessness.  My son, surely no stranger to tragedy and dashed dreams, sees it, but not as I do.  So I decided to see if I can put some of it into words.
            There are three main locations in the film: an apartment on Bunker Hill, various bars and other locations in the downtown Los Angeles, and a hilltop overlooking downtown L.A.
            The music for the film is by a band called The Revels, known now mostly for their song used over the rape scene in Quentin Tarantino’s ‘Pulp Fiction’.  In fact that song had been written for ‘The Exiles’, but wasn’t used.  Later it was released as a single.
            This film is amazing in many ways.
            How did the scenes get filmed inside homes and bars and no one visibly reacts to the camera?  In one section in particular, the people are in a crowded bar.  Serious drinking here, with escape their goal.  But no one reacts to the camera!  Amazing.  I’ve seen gigantic Hollywood cast-of-thousands Epics, and there is always one yokel who looks right into the camera.  But not here.  Why?
            The black and white photography is crisp, itself unusual to anyone knowing the available Black-and-White film of those days.  Plus X had a good fine grain, but was fairly useless in street lighting.  The best film then for filming documentary work was Tri-X.  This was a good film but could easily give way to coarse grain in darker scenes.  The phrase I used to always use was ‘a bug convention’.
            But here the camera work is top-notch, sharp and clean.  Not only does it catch the action, but the really subtle nuances of the very early morning half-light on the blighted world of Bunker Hill.  The camera work is superlative.
            I love this film, despite the fact that it is not fun to watch.  Really sad stuff here.  The scene on the hilltop – now long since the home of Dodger Stadium – is poignant as these cut-off Native Americans get together at the end of another drunken, hopeless night to reach back for the illusory memory of their heritage.
            ‘The Exiles’ is available on DVD from Milestone, a great DVD company. 
                        - Electro deFog / JBW. Monday, September 13, 2010.