This is the Night (and the Days!): TCM Classic Film Festival, Part II

Some people collect stamps. Others go in for Fabergé eggs. I seem to be one for collecting film viewings…on 35 or 16mm, preferably, and on the big screen (of course). Thus a film festival like the Turner Classic Film Festival is really and truly my venue. So after the amazing viewings I had already aggregated, I was ready, willing and able for more.

:::DAY 2:::

“You know there ain’t no forgetting…”—THE OUTLAW JOSEY WALES

Saturday morning, bright and early, I grabbed some coffee and a breakfast sandwich from my local shop, and headed out to Hollywood Blvd on my bike once more, arriving just in time to grab my seat for This is the Night (1932). Directed by Frank Tuttle, this little pre-code gem was Cary Grant’s first picture and couldn’t have been more delightful if it had TRIED. Generally, if I have a passing thought during a film that keeps coming back, I will have that be my theme. The one I had for this picture? I haven’t laughed this hard since Animal House (1978). I happen to think that Animal House may well be one of the perfect films in the world so…this was a pretty high compliment. Literally, my sides were aching by the time the film was over. I have not enjoyed myself that much in the theater in ages.

This Is The Night was the first screening I went to that was TOTALLY sold out within a few minutes of me sitting down. It was CRAZY!

The acting was perfect, the construction and comic timing was just insanely smart, and I was left feeling remarkably depressed that there are literally dozens upon dozens of films that I have come across that use virtually the exact same story line with some of the identical gags and they are JUST not done as well. It was definitely a “good morning” to me. Not that this was news to me, of course, but a decent reminder. It instantly became one of my all-time favorite pre-code films and…when I say that I’m obsessed with pre-code films? I like pre-code films like bees like honey and scandal loves politicians.

In addition to the film, Foster Hirsch was there to conduct a Q&A with Cary Grant’s daughter, Jennifer (who is the spitting image of mom, Dyan Cannon with a bit of Cary thrown in…needless to say, she’s no slouch). Hirsch is a favorite of mine from way back due to his amazing noir writings and he’s a great guy for a Q&A. Smart, funny, and charming, he discussed things with Jennifer and let her tell interesting tidbits without prying. It was a good Q&A.

Then it was time. Time for what? Time to check one off the list. A notch on my cinematic bedpost. Part of my collection, as it were.

Last year, after seeing Eli Wallach do a Q&A for The Good, the Bad and the Ugly  and then seeing the film in the big Chinese, I made a solemn swear to myself, right then and there, that I was going to do EVERYTHING in my power to see EVERY Clint Eastwood movie (primarily Westerns, but all the stuff I missed which is…well…most of the early stuff, to be 100% honest) in the theater. The Good, The Bad & the Ugly  made me cry because it was SO. DAMN. BEAUTIFUL. Beautiful? Yes, beautiful. It is film-making at its finest. The music, the visuals; it is a veritable ballet or symphony. With that in mind, the minute I saw that Josey Wales  was on the schedule, digital or not, I was going to see the film. And see it I did!

Once again, I met up with Dennis before the show began. I went inside the Chinese, and he came down with some friends and we all sat and chatted together about things we’d seen so far, and other assorted things. I remember thinking, GOD, I LOVE TCM CLASSIC FILM FESTIVAL!! and then Ben Mankiewicz came up and introduced the film. He talked about how Josey didn’t quite have the popularity or recognition back when it was released that it has now. It was called a “Prarie Death Wish” and that it came out at slightly the wrong time, yet it made money. However, the most incontrovertibly interesting part of the entire introduction was Mankiewicz’s discussion of the author of the original Josey Wales material, Asa Carter.

The Outlaw Josey Wales, in the big Chinese?? THAT is the way that film was intended to be seen. SERIOUSLY.

Carter was not only a supporter of George Wallace, but he was kind enough to start his own section of the KKK. A few years later, he was on Oprah’s best-seller list. Due to the fact that he wrote under the name “Forrest Carter” and people are excruciatingly poor researchers, not to mention that they have zero memory, no one remembered the “Asa Carter” and only saw this fabulous piece of literature lauded by Oprah, The Education of Little Tree.

While I think that the literature is possibly quite good, I’m not sure it can override or forgive Asa’s personal activities. But they can be held in separate places, perhaps. I don’t know. I’d have to read Little Tree  first. In any case, this personal data about Asa Carter made me wonder about the film that Eastwood had created. Since I am always fascinated by adaptations, upon seeing Josey Wales I had to stop and wonder about the similarities and divergences. I found Mankiewicz’s discussion of the film’s genesis remarkably funny and revelatory, not to mention quite original as far as an introduction to a film was concerned.

The film itself was everything I could have asked for…and more. It was funny and generously beautiful. Eastwood was gracefully stolid to a fault, and the phrase that kept coming to my mind, over and over during the film was “character jambalaya.” Not having seen the film before, it was a joy and a pleasure to be able to witness what I did on a screen like the Chinese.

Josey Wales is like a really good chunky soup, like a jambalaya. It is chock full of substantial bits and pieces of things, sometimes the very same elements (the soup analogy would be carrots, meat, etc), and each time you dip your spoon in for more? You come up with a different combination. Sometimes you’ll get the same bits with each bite, but sometimes you’ll be missing the carrots or you’ll run out of meat (the film equivalent would be the dismissal of a certain character, through whatever means that character gets, well, dismissed). Needless to say, I loved it and am eagerly awaiting my next chance to fill in the spaces on my Clint Eastwood movie dance card.

Immediately upon the cessation of the film, Dennis and I had to leave to catch what was to become one of the hits of the festival: a little-known British war film called Went the Day Well? (1942). There were a large amount of reasons I wanted to see this film. As a film scholar and Viewing Collector, it was rare. Those were the first reasons. However, more importantly, as a burgeoning film archivist/preservationist, I felt insanely guilty over not going to Kevin Brownlow’s in-person panel over at the Roosevelt Hotel (I couldn’t!! I had to see Outlaw Josey Wales!!) and was bound by my own personal decree to hear him present this fine piece of celluloid. And WHAT a piece it was!!

Seeing Kevin Brownlow speak was inspirational. I have to say that growing up in Hollywood like I have, I have been lucky enough to come into contact with a great deal of extraordinary people. While I was impressed by each of those on a separate basis, seeing Kevin Brownlow speak was pretty awesome (in the true sense of the term, let us make Harlan Ellison happy). He is not only jovial and self-effacing, but incredibly entertaining and, from my perspective (hell, from any self-respecting film lover’s perspective), a substantial figure of pride for film preservation everywhere. Good grief, the man is the only guy in his field to have won an Oscar for what he does! Because of this status, I knew the film was also going to be special. I figured he wouldn’t talk in front of just any old film. I figured right.

Kevin Brownlow is a rockstar. SERIOUSLY.

I knew from the outset that it was going to be grim and gritty. I don’t think that anything that Graham Greene has had a hand in has ever not been at least a teensy bit brutal in that respect. And if you know me…well, you know I like brutal. So, I was VERY MUCH IN. Call me crazy or just an old-fashioned girl, but I’m a sucker for old school nihilism! And I got it. In spades.

This film was so good I very much considered going to see it when they screened it a second time on Sunday. But…so many films, so little time! It played INCREDIBLY well with an audience. Some of the best audience reactions I’ve heard in a very long time and by far the best audience reactions from the entire TCM Classic Film Festival. While it was indeed a packed house, a packed house does not always guarantee a reaction. The film must provide that. This film gave it to us hard and spared no one. Somehow this film sits squarely between the hips of  really messed up “home invasion” flick and war-time/patriotism-spy stuff. Went the Day almost invents its own damn genre.

I hesitate to truly describe anything about the film as I am deathly afraid of saying too much. The horrific aspects were enough to satisfy a gorehound like me, and the driving, pounding suspense was enough to drive even a Hitchcock junkie to nail-biting. Yep, this movie totally won.

On the way out, we ran into the always amazing, wonderful and lovely Michael Torgan, my long-time good friend and head of the New Beverly Cinema.

Film Fans Unite and Take Over!!

We all chatted for a bit and then all went our separate ways for a while, Dennis and I agreeing to meet back up for our next agreed feature. What can I say? The man has AMAZING taste and he’s more fun to hang out with and watch movies with than almost anyone I’ve ever hung out and watched movies with. Being TCM Classic Film Fest buddies with Dennis ruled!! I felt like the cool kid in school, man!

I believe that at this point we had run into my super great pal Peter, as well.  I had run into him several times during the festival, but due to Festival Craziness, I cannot for the life of me remember what movies it was between! However, I do know that he got to go and see Reds (1981) and he and I chatted about that for a while. He said the Q&A with Beatty and Baldwin was pretty epic!

After a short interim, I returned to the Chinese and the cinema for Pennies From Heaven (1981). I wanted to see this film for many reasons. Primarily because I had never seen it on a big-screen before and the Busby Berkeley-ness of it all made me want to know how that would go down…in color. Additionally, let’s get blatantly honest here- I wanted to see the Christopher Walken dance/striptease large and in-charge. He is such a magnificent dancer and on a big screen…I did want to see that play out. Those things said, I’m not certain that I made the right choice. This is the only film during the entirety of the festival that I feel a little badly about, due to the fact that another film was playing at the same time that I would’ve loved to have seen on a big screen-Niagara (1953). But… what can you do, right?

Why am I disappointed? Well, Pennies isn’t a bad film, per se. I just…don’t know. Somewhere it sits with me wrong. I think that perhaps that is where it has its glory? Perhaps its disjointedness and its dark mutilated humanity is where its beauty lies? I’m just not sure. It is an uncomfortable film. And perhaps I was just not entirely prepared for that after the smooth cinematic excursions I had been traveling on. In any case, I may do a further study on the film, but suffice to say that, while I enjoyed it, it wasn’t as wonderful an experience as I wanted it to be and I will take full responsibility as that may simply be my Terms of Viewership coming in.

But there’s room for one “off” film. Especially when the next film is as good as it was!!! When Dennis and I had been exchanging emails previous to the festival about our possible schedules, the one thing that we BOTH knew was where we were going to be Saturday night at 9:30pm. I sacrificed for this screening, man. Not only did I miss my friend’s birthday gathering for this, but that very same gathering was also partially a high school reunion full of people I actually wanted to see (I know- imagine that, if you will…hard to believe). Yeah, One, Two, Three (1961) was definitely a viewing that I needed to collect!

Michael Schlesinger introduced the film and he did it with style, candor and charisma. Indeed, his knowledge on Wilder and the film itself was impressive and extremely well-presented, both for Wilder-scholar and amateur alike. He branded One, Two, Three  as Wilder’s “testament movie” and discussed how, not unlike Hitchcock’s North by Northwest (1959), this picture was almost a “greatest hits” piece as it seemed to gather all of his favorite filmic themes (men in drag, political commentary, sex humor, etc) together and put them within one narrative piece.

It was a bit of an understatement to say that I was thrilled. Indeed, our love (and excitement) for this film was so great that we sat there before the film started, deeply concerned about the masking. We knew, after all, that this was a ‘Scope movie, and it hadn’t yet been prepped  for that! I was a bit nervous! But, all fears were assuaged as the curtains gently rescinded from the screen, and Jimmy Cagney appeared, swift-talking and sharp as ever! What a gorgeous print it was too!!

Giggling like a school girl & occasionally looking at Dennis & the rest of the audience for their reactions (I get high off Billy Wilder Audience Reactions- it’s, like, my favorite drug) I blissfully made my way through that film and could’ve gone home a happy camper. Beyond happy, even.

But no. Not an option.

Not even close.

If I had missed The Mummy (1932) at the Egyptian Theater I would have been a flaming idiot. Thankfully, I did not because I’m a very smart young lady.

Tragically, the theater no longer looks the way it did when I was a child, which to me is always a little saddening. The walkway into the theater used to be lined on both sides with sarcophagi and I seem to remember being covered by a kind of tent-like overhang amongst the other sundry Egyptian decorations inside.

Egyptian, circa 1989. It was closed for "maintenance" around 1992, then Mother Nature decided to go further with the 1994 earthquake. It reopened as the American Cinematheque in 1998.

All of these things really made the entire journey into the cinema a true trip into some fantasy historic realm called ancient Egypt where…you could see movies?? Yeah, I don’t know. I loved it. It is entirely possible that I entered the land of Tutankhamun to see pretty much any of the 20th Century Fox films being released at the time, which meant I likely saw Spaceballs (1987), The Princess Bride (1987) and possibly Willow (1988) there, which rocks.

I know, I know. You guys were all watching Aliens (1986), Predator (1987), and Robocop (1987), but I didn’t get to be that cool yet.  I got that cool later. But hell- my memories of going to the Egyptian theater are like the Holy Grail to me. I wouldn’t part with them for the world. Not even having gotten to see Big Trouble in Little China (1986) before my folks would let me…well, maybe that one…!!!*

[*disclaimer: have no real idea if/how many of these flicks actually played the Egyptian, but, ya know, artistic license and all that!]

At any rate, back to the main event, right? I’m not complaining about what the place has now, as it’s an amazing theater and I go there every year for the Film Noir Festival and MANY other events, but…if you remember from part I of this saga, I do have that 13-year-old boy living somewhere inside me, and he thinks it would be really COOL to have mummies and themed stuff like that around as much as possible, especially on a night like that one at the TCM Film Fest when I was going to go see Boris Karloff do his thing!

I rushed over from the Chinese and was able to run into my friend Andy who had been working the event. Tired as he was, he said that there was no way that he was going to miss The Tingler from the previous night. So he got to tell me how cool it was and, essentially, how much I had missed. My William Castle-gene was feeling mighty depressed at that point, lemme tell you. Agreements have since been reached, but it was quite bitter at me for missing the event.  Looking at the time, I departed from Andy’s company, quickly locked up my bike, and ran inside, once again pouncing on a seat that was nice and close to the stage, as one of my favorite working actors (and crushes) today was presenting the film: Ron Perlman.

Perlman noted that Karloff's performance was nuanced and genre-transcendent, yet still said, "He complained about spending a lot of time in make-up? Eh. I've spent more!"

I love me some Perlman. Ohhhh boy, am I a sucker for him!  It helps considerably that I have an extremely healthy love affair with Hellboy (comic and film) and that Jean-Pierre Jeunet has a big ol’ place in my heart. Even so, Sons of Anarchy is a great TV show that has had people like Tim Hunter (River’s Edge) and Chris Collins (The Wire) work on it, so…not so shabby. In any case, Perlman was fantastic. He was relaxed (although I may be mistaking exhaustion for relaxation, but hey-splitting hairs, right?), intelligent and ever-so-elegant.

He did a little Mummy history lesson, harmonized with some Karloff critique, and then said “Hey! What’s up guys! Let’s watch this thing!” It was wonderful. Charming, friendly and enjoyable. There was also a real sense that he very much enjoyed the film even if he had only revisited it very recently.

So I settled into my seat, the film came on, and I realized exactly what The Mummy is, and laughed to myself with a glow of affection that I had never had before: it’s a horror film for archivists.

The last time I watched this film, I was simply a horror fan. There was not a preservationist bone in my body. Now? Well, the word “ridiculous” comes to mind. All I could think about was how the terminologies and methods used within the film were (more or less) on the mark, and I got the biggest thrill ever. You know when you see a film and due to the innate human tendency towards egotism you think “My god! This film is about ME!”? Well, that was me at midnight at the Egyptian. Should I discuss how the film was brilliant in the make-up or the historical sensibilities or…?

Screw it.

It was about archeologists who totally mess up, mishandle their preservational work and suffer the consequences!!! See what happens when you mess with the wrong shit? Yeah, that’s right. Uh-huh. SO GOOD. Ok, so this is an excruciatingly nerdy angle to take, but welcome to my world. I like a good beer, a great punk show, and to save 35mm film. Got a problem? Horror cinema is one of my favorite genres to discuss because it is so multi-faceted (to me). It shows one thing while it clearly talks about another. The Mummy is fun for me because it is a film that explores historical restoration and preservation and science in tandem with nostalgia and great emotion. As a budding archivist/preservationist, any film that figures in characters within that profession, be they living or dead, is pretty damn cool.

I’ve heard people say that they think Mummy  is relatively slow and boring. Well, I’m sure that most people wouldn’t want to catalogue that Scroll of Thoth, either, so I suppose that makes sense. I disagree. I think it’s a wonderful film. Karloff gives the film enough of a jolt that any “slowness” someone might experience is solved by his creepiness (and it is creepy! Make no mistake!!). Either way, I got more joy out of this than I had ever gotten before. It is totally subjective and fully personal and dorky as all get out, but that is just fine with me. While James Whale’s Frankenstein (1931) will always be my favorite Universal horror film, this film, in one night, became my second-in-line.

:::DAY 3:::

“Good. Better. Best. Bested.” –WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF?

And then…as soon as it had begun, it was over. It was the last day. And I was a horrible mix of excited and depressed. Excited at the prospect of what my final choices on my final day were to be, horrifically depressed as I knew that it was all about to come crashing down on my head. No more full days of wall-to-wall film, running or biking from theater to theater on little-to-no sleep, bits and pieces of food (when there was 5 minutes or so) and a bucket full of coffee in my bag. No more terrific conversation with fabulous gay men from Baltimore or invitations from gentlemen asking me to dinner with his sister and himself complete with the all-important Elwood P. Dowd “business card”  accompanying the invite.

If this is confusing you at all, please see the film Harvey (1950). It will become much more clear at that juncture.

What would I do when this was all OVER??? I didn’t know, truthfully. So, as that gorgeous green-eyed dame said,I decided to “think about it tomorrow” and enjoy my final day!

My first film was something I was really enthusiastic about. If you don’t know who Ross Lipman is, you really should. He is an extremely brilliant gentleman and UCLA film archivist who specializes in some of the most unusual and cool stuff around. Not only has he worked on restoring some of Kenneth Anger’s work (already a big “hellllooo! You rock!” in my book) but his other work reaches levels in film preservation that are (in my mind) deeply necessary.

His interest in preserving and restoring the underrepresented and neglected areas/subjects of cinema is something that I am always deeply grateful for and, in this case, incredibly happy to see at the TCM Classic Film Festival. Lipman’s work, represented by such wonderful pieces as Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep (1981) (which he won an award for, incidentally), Barbara Loden’s Wanda (1970) , or the presentation for TCM’s festival, The Sid Saga- Parts 1, 2, 3 (mid-1980’s) is really important. I think if we didn’t have Ross around to grab some of this stuff and make sure it was nursed back to filmic health, we’d be a much sadder place. Plus, the added bonus? The films don’t suck!

So the films that he presented and the stories that went with them were almost unbelievable. The Sid Saga- Parts 1, 2, 3 (mid-1980’s) is created from a number of smaller films that a man made over his lifetime. I would say that he’s just like your grandfather, and perhaps he is…if your grandfather had done everything from carpentry and a Fuller Brush salesman to being a (literal) one-man-band and a rocket scientist. Then…he made films about all of it. With animation!! The funny thing? It was conducted with some of the most romantic life-honesty I’ve ever seen. For all intents and purposes, much of the evolution of these films serves as a love story to his wife, Adelaide, in a way that many documentary films simply cannot dream of negotiating.

On the preservation aspect,  damn I love Kodachrome. There will never be anything like that. Sid shot some absolutely incredible nature films that just yelled “Hey! It’s Kodachrome here! Do ya miss me yet?? Huh?? Do ya??” All I wanted to do was reach out my arms and cry out: “Yes! Come back! Please! We made a mistake!” But the films themselves looked phenomenal.

Lipman discussed that the preservation was fairly labor intensive, which seemed to make sense. Not only was there a veritable plethora of media to contend with (Sid used still photos, home movies, audio bits, newspaper clippings, animation sequences…the kitchen sink, maybe?) but some of the stock was fading and, while Sid had done all the editing work, he had never completed a full composite print!! Without getting too complicated, suffice to say that, while difficult, they were successful in their endeavors to complete a beautiful version of these films using all of the various sources that Sid provided them. It must’ve been work, but it certainly paid off in my eyes- literally.

I can only say this: if you possibly get a chance to see these (or really anything that Ross presents- he has excellent taste, and in addition to the stuff I said before, he’s a very entertaining speaker) please do. They will make you laugh, cry and entertain you in a way that most documentaries don’t and the vast majority of independent and experimental cinema can’t. In my eyes, there was more life and joy gushing from each frame of this piece than I have seen in quite some time. It was a wonderful experience to meet Sid through this film, and I am a better woman because of it.

I wish that I could tell you that I went and saw something BRAND SPANKING NEW right after The Sid Saga. But I totally didn’t. I totally went to This is the Night  again and laughed myself silly, and had a blast sitting next to Dennis as he laughed himself  to pieces, too. It was just as much fun the second time around. Man, I love that movie.

Bouncing from pre-code to pre-code, we left Night and went straight to the screening for Hoop-La (1933). I was so thrilled to see this on the bill again for Sunday with the people who had been presenting it before, as writer David Stenn is a fabulous historian on Jean Harlow and Clara Bow, and I had experienced the awe-inspiring coolness of MoMA film archivist Katie Trainor the first evening of the festival.

As the two began their intro to the film, I think Dennis must’ve thought I was a little crazy when I practically leaped out of my seat in pure, unadulterated excitement upon the discovery that this film was a Carnie Film. I have…a thing about freakshows, circus-life, carnivals, and their representations in cinema. I love anything having to do with that world. From Freaks (1932) and Nightmare Alley (1947) to Ghoulies II (1988), I love the carnival. So a pre-code with Clara Bow set in the circus world?? SIGN ME UP! And to be honest? Hoop-La was everything it claimed to be and more.

We were the second audience to ever see this print. The first audience had seen it a few days earlier. It originated from nitrate prints that Fox had given to MoMA that had been then blown up to 16mm and printed. The only other print in existence up until this point had been at the Cinematheque Francais, and it’s apparently not very good at all. But this print looked amazing. They clearly have put a good amount of love, time and energy on making this beautiful piece of history last.

Clara Bow was always breathtakingly gorgeous with a killer body to boot, but she has never looked as sexy and delicious as she does within the frames of this film. I felt extremely lucky to be one of the first audiences to get to see the premiere of this film’s restoration and to hear such wonderful scholarly discussion on the subject from Bow’s biographer and from the woman who made the final call and decision to select the film for preservation and restoration.

From Hoop-La to…Haskell- Wexler, that is! There was a break for a bit, but then it was time for the Final Film of the 2011 TCM Classic Film Festival. There was really no question for me as to what it was going to be when it was announced: Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1966) with Haskell Wexler in conversation with Leonard Maltin. Maltin may have an obsession with films being unnecessarily short, but he’s not the worst guy at a Q&A, and I was eager as hell to hear Wexler discuss…well, anything! Additionally, I had only seen this film once before in my life and all I remembered about it, as I laughingly related to Dennis, was that it’s a film that has “a lot of yelling in it.”

The discussion with Wexler was simple and fantastic. He is a tall and elegant man who is profoundly humble and seems almost unaware of how much of an impact he has had on other people. He went up to the table and sat down, answered a few questions, and then stated, “But I’m sure you didn’t come here to see me, so perhaps we should just watch the film…” The audience response was emphatic! Yells and clapping and people stating how much they had come just to see him speak. It was lovely.

He said it was his first studio film and he said that they wanted to fire him. He said that they told him that everything was “too dark.” I laughed when he said this. I laugh even more now, as I write this. Too dark? Virginia Woolf? Really, guys?

Wexler also said that while he may have gotten the Academy Award that year, he gave Nichols a percentage of the credit. “He knew more about filmmaking,” Wexler shrugged. He also said that in his acceptance speech, he appealed to the audience to be able to “use our art for peace and love” due to the fact that Vietnam was hot and heavy. Unfortunately, that didn’t work too well in tandem with what he had won for- he got letters back from people who said, “Oh yeah? Use our art for peace and love? Like Virginia Woolf?”

So there we were. Ready to go into the final, final stretch. Sad, tired, and cinematically-fulfilled, but ready for Albee and the machine-gun-onslaught that is Burton/Taylor and company. Or were we ready? I’m not certain that I was. Things are different on a big screen. Things are also different with less sleep and less food, but I believe in this case it was Wexler’s photography in tandem with the large-screen presentation that made me as vulnerable as a small orphaned child.

Dear lord, that is a rough and brutally gorgeous movie. It has all the intensity of a river rafting trip gone suddenly wrong in the most desperate way. Yet that river? It’s still in the middle of nature and therefore breathtakingly beautiful. To be honest, for a good percentage of that screening, I’m not certain whether I was crying, breathing, or if I ever took my hands away from my face. The impact of that film on me was strong as hell and will probably remain so for the rest of my life.

There are certain big-screen viewings that you will remember forever. They become like lovers or family members in your life. I left that theater with a new addition to my circle, without a doubt.

As Dennis and I left the theater and prepared to say our goodbyes, we were approached by a fellow TCM festival go-er.

“Did you hear what happened???” She asked, clutching her friend, both of them shaking, eyes wild with a strange and uncomfortably odd kind of excitement.

Normally in this situation, approached by a random stranger, I would likely respond with something mildly smarmy about having been sitting in a movie theater for the last 10 hours. I was pretty drained. I looked at my compatriot to see if he registered anything/knew anything, but he seemed as blank as I.

“Bin Laden has been killed!” she continued, barely even waiting for our response, “Can you believe that? While we’ve been sitting in all of these films for hours and hours on end, the world has changed completely! And we didn’t even know it!”

Dennis and I looked at each other, stunned to our eye-teeth. I believe that we might have stuttered some kind of response to her, but really? What do you say to that? In any case, she seemed to want to alert the rest of the film festival, so off she ran, and we were left looking at each other.

“Well that certainly changes things, doesn’t it?” he said.

I nodded. It was definitely a “wow” moment.  We spent a few minutes considering the new information in tandem with the leftovers of Albee/Nichols/Wexler/et, al swirling about in our brains, and then we parted ways, him home to his family and me to the TCM Film Festival party.

When it comes down to it, all these weeks later, I have to think- did Bin Laden mean anything to me personally? Will his death personally effect me in the same daily way that seeing honor and relationships deconstructed in Becket did? In 20 years, will I be filled with some perverse joy  that a man who was a catalyst for others’ deaths was wiped out and will it feel as good as watching One, Two, Three or This is the Night? Somehow, I doubt it.

The world may have changed completely according to that woman, due to Bin Laden’s demise, but my life was changed completely by watching 16 films over the course of a few days, spending time with people of like-mind, and getting the rare opportunity to see some incredibly iconic figures discuss their work and creative intent. I’m pretty young still. But from what I have seen, I think that the real change will come when we start to look more at cultural objects as capable of change rather than people’s deaths.

I honestly don’t know how we will view Bin Laden’s death a few years from now. But do I think that people will still be talking about the latest film that they liked, whether it was The Hangover 8  or Nicholas Winding-Refn’s newest? Yes. Yes, I do. And as long as that doesn’t change, well…I’m A-ok.

Seeing Double: The Big Combo and Visual Kinetics


The Image is more than an idea. It is a vortex or cluster of fused ideas and is endowed with energy.

Ezra Pound

Richard Sattin called it an “economy of style.”[1] Louis Black wrote that “the visual aspects of the film are much richer and more complex than the narrative they are wrapped around.”[2] In an interview with Peter Bogdonovich, director Joseph H. Lewis simply stated, “What interested me most was telling the story through the eyes of a camera. I didn’t like words- wherever I could, I cut words out, and told it silently through the camera…I think that’s what the camera is for and I think that’s what our medium is for.”[3] From these statements, it is safe to assume that, while many filmmakers concentrate on the integrity of plot points or the caliber of an individual actor’s performance, this was not as crucial to the filmmaking of Joseph Lewis. A man who had climbed up through the ranks of the studio system, and had done everything from sweeping the studio floors to directing his own feature films, Lewis understood what he wanted out of a story, and he used the camera and the narrative in tandem to generate the desired results.

While having already made quite a few films by this point, Joseph H. Lewis’ The Big Combo came right at the latter end of the “Noir years.” Released in 1955, the film was labeled by Motion Picture Daily as “strictly adult trade,”[4] with Variety taking pause to note that it was “grim…and hard-hitting… The moronic fringe of sadists will enjoy this, and all the little kiddies will be sick to their stomachs.”[5] Clearly an example of the trend in post-war cinema, James Naremore states, “the postwar thrillers…seemed more downbeat and perverse, perhaps because the war and its aftermath created a vision of ontological evil and a growing appetite for sadism.”[6]

For all of its excessive violence and shockingly explicit sexual displays, the film actually deals more intrinsically with the power of the visual image, both narratively and stylistically. Within this tale that is summarily about a detective who is seeking to bring down a gangster’s syndicate, there is a strategic effort made to discuss the evolution of identity and the recouping of individual agency. Through the use of character doubling, as well as the development of the meaning of visual representation between characters, this film impresses upon the viewer the importance of trying to maintain agency, in an unstable world where it is easy to lose sight of who you are.

Seeing You Seeing Me, Being You Being Me

In her article, “Women in Film Noir,” Janey Place writes that film noir’s visual style conveys a mood of total instability, shifting values, and constantly redefined identities through the “expressive use of darkness: both real, in predominantly underlit and night-time scenes, and psychologically through shadows…Characters (and we in the audience) are given little opportunity to orient themselves…Silhouettes, shadows, mirrors and reflections (generally darker than the reflected person) indicate his lack of both unity and control. They suggest a doppelganger…or distorted side of man’s personality which will emerge…and destroy him.”[7] Within the filmic text of The Big Combo, not only are the characters doubled through the shadowy visual style, but they are also given mirror images through the narrative. Each of the primary characters has a corresponding “doppelganger” that, like Place’s argument, seems to represent a darker, more destructive element that exists within them. As well, exacerbating the cracks in this already-fractured environment is the fact that these characters are doubled not once but twice, each with a different “other half.”

At the hospital, when Detective Diamond (Cornel Wilde) first meets Mr. Brown (Richard Conte), the gangster, and McClure (Brian Donlevy), Mr. Brown’s flunky, we are given visual cues as to the relationships between all three characters. Mr. Brown and McClure are both representatives of different aspects of the otherwise lawful and “righteous” man, Lieutenant Diamond, as well as doppelgangers of each other. Shown in medium close-up, Brown deems Diamond not worthy of speaking to directly, thus he uses McClure as a go-between. He refuses to face Diamond, so he remains seated, back to the policeman. Not only are the shadows starkly present in this shot, but the physical positioning of the gangsters Brown and McClure put them back to back, almost as though they were a strange set of Siamese twins.


Noir is as noir does: Mr. Brown exists in the forefront of McClure's shadow.

McClure is explicitly referred to as Mr. Brown’s double. As Brown states so succinctly in the scene previous to this, while gesturing at McClure, “We breathe the same air, sleep in the same hotel. He used to own it, now it belongs to me. We eat the same steaks, drink the same bourbon. Look-same manicure, same cufflinks.” It is made visually apparent in this shot, however, that McClure’s shadow is hanging over Brown. This might seem strange as he is, in actuality, second string. This shadow, however, speaks to the fact that, besides being Brown’s double, McClure used to be Brown’s boss. However, Brown is now the top dog, and, as he says, hinting at McClure’s own denigrated position, “First is first and second is nobody.” Thus, although McClure’s shadow may be bigger than Brown’s, it is just that- a shadow. McClure’s shadow is bigger than his physical appearance, meaning, essentially, he really is “nobody.”

What brings all these men together is Jean Wallace’s character, Susan. But Susan is quite complicated. Not only is she Brown’s girl, but she has just attempted suicide by chugging down a bottle of pills. If that wasn’t complicated enough, due to hospital and legal issues, not only is Susan the suicidal gangster’s moll, but we have now found out that half the reason that Diamond is obsessed with this case is that he is in love with the girl too.

Narratively, the parallels between Brown and Diamond are clearly drawn. If we couldn’t figure it out from their relationship with Susan, we are given a sequence in which the girl is removed from her hospital room out on a gurney, half-conscious, saying the name “Alicia” (incidentally, one of her doubles). Both Brown and Diamond possess intense gazes as she is wheeled down the corridor. Looking at these men standing next to one another, it is all we can do not to make a joke about them shopping at the same stores. With the exception of Brown’s hat and pocket kerchief, the two men are almost identical visual replicas of one another. Lit similarly, and located right next to each other in an analogous stance, it appears as if Diamond is just a taller version of Brown. Aligning these figures in this fashion only serves to underscore the doppelganger effect between the two men.

As we watch Diamond, he watches Brown watch Susan go down the hall. While we would expect Diamond to be watching Susan as well, seeing that he has spent $18,000 of the taxpayer’s money (as the police captain none-too-gently reminds him earlier) chasing her, he is actually watching Brown. It is almost as though he recognizes his alter ego/mirror image, and sees what Janey Place called the “distorted image…that will destroy him.” It is this kind of recognition that does in fact effect change in the characters within the diegesis. While Diamond is already shown as being obsessed with Susan and the case, this “recognition” leads him to play a significant role in facilitating the other “doppelgangers” and doubles to reveal the clues that help him solve the case.

Brown and Diamond: the yin and yang/dark and light. Even within their names, there is a stark visual connection between the two men.

Susan Lowell, the girl in the hospital, is formerly what one might call a “society girl.” Cultured and beautiful, she was interested in classical music and trained in piano- before she met Mr. Brown. At the point where we encounter her, she has been with him for almost 4 years, and is far from that girl that she used to be. As she states to the old friend she encounters in the bar, just before passing out from the overdose of pills, she is now more skilled in “stud poker” than piano. Her alter ego, the name she was murmuring in the hospital, is Alicia, Mr. Brown’s estranged wife, described by one of the characters as a “good girl. Healthy, right off the farm. Brown married her…two years later she was a lush, drink anything.” Susan now not only occupies Alicia’s place by Brown’s side, she has also taken up her position as the “good-girl-gone-bad” resulting from Mr. Brown’s formidable powers of corruption. Later, when Alicia and Susan meet, it is made unequivocally clear that Alicia is simply an older version of Susan. Through their encounter, we are shown the catalytic effect that meeting your “other half” has.

What the audience sees places more insistence on the narrative. Alicia & Susan's "mirror stance" underscores the fact that they are being doubled as characters within the plot.

In that scene, Alicia is sitting in Diamond’s office. Susan enters the room, and Diamond pulls out a chair for her, facing Alicia. Alicia, smiles brightly, asking if Susan is a policewoman. The tone in her voice is the same slightly insane and child-like one that she used when Diamond found her tending her flowers at the sanitarium. Alicia, desiring to be someone else, someone younger and not scarred and tarnished by her past, is attempting to reclaim a child’s identity. Susan then identifies herself, telling Alicia that she is to be a witness against Mr. Brown, and that she has been Brown’s girl for four years. Alicia’s expression changes, “I’m not,” she says, and goes into complete denial, saying, “He met lots of girls, they were crazy about him.”

Susan admits her regret at being with Brown, to which Alicia’s entire attitude changes. “Then why did you stay with him for four years? Why’d you start?” To which Susan reacts with “I don’t know,” and tears. The way Alicia physically responds to Susan is with obvious identification, seeing her own innocence that is now gone.

The effect of the two-shot in which they appear, and the way the camera moves into a closer shot give it a certain degree of intimacy.

As we begin, the camera depicts a shot that is further away, visually involving the rest of the men in the room, Diamond, the police captain, and one other officer. As this scene slowly becomes about recognition of the self in the other, the camera moves in, focusing solely on the two women. The only time this is broken up is when Diamond butts in, making the comment, “Take a good look at her Alicia, take a good look. You can see yourself ten years ago. If you had only spoken up then, how different your life would have been.” As heavy-handed as this comment is, the shot of him, between the women, is fast, while his voice continues and we watch Alicia battle with the reality of “meeting herself” ten years earlier.

The Harsh Truth of the Camera Eye

Beyond the doubling that has been shown, photographic evidence plays a huge role in the progression of the film and its emphasis on the visual image. By utilizing photographs as major catalysts for the revelation of secrets within the film’s narrative, The Big Combo exploits the visual image within the visual image. While the perspective vacillates between the character as privileged spectator and the audience as privileged spectator (or sometimes both), these seemingly innocuous “props” within the film point to the intrinsic value of visible representation. Whether it is through physical doubling or through a piece of photographic paper reflecting a certain likeness, it is that very visual insignia that serves to propel internal conflict within characters and an eventual revelation of truth.

At the point in the film when Susan leaves Mr. Brown, she comes to visit Diamond and brings him a photograph. Having not yet found her, Diamond is under the impression that Alicia is dead, having been murdered by Mr. Brown. The night before, Brown’s men had mistakenly killed Diamond’s on-again/off-again lover, the burlesque dancer, Rita, thinking it was Diamond, so this was not a far jump in logic. Susan hands him the photograph, telling Diamond that not only is Alicia alive, but according to Brown, she is well and living in Sicily. After a brief look at the photograph, Diamond realizes that not only is Alicia not in Sicily, but she may be closer than they think. He takes the photo to a lab to have it analyzed, and the results expose not only Alicia’s location, but also her personal evolution.

The first-person perspective shot of the photograph when given to Diamond, juxtaposed against the darkened room of the laboratory where they are doing a photographic comparison, lays bare the nature of what the photograph means within this context. Where we become aligned with Diamond’s perspective in his office in viewing the photograph, we then are welcomed into the police laboratory and are privy to their commentary on Alicia’s “changes” but through the machinery. We enter the lab, and see a projector, with its image the only light in the room.

This shot of the projector is just another reminder that our film text is about looking at things within a world of doubles and weird mirror vision. Indeed, like the scene in the police station, it is literally a kind of dual projection.

Now aligned with the actual image-making apparatus, the shot follows its line of projection to the two off-kilter and shadowy images of Alicia, in full view upon the wall. One is Alicia from the past, with Brown, and the other, more recent image is the one offered up by Susan. With this carefully constructed spectator view, we are reminded that visual images within the noir film text are volatile and changing, speaking to the very character points that are reinforced by the narrative. Even one of the technicians notes, “She sure changed since the other picture…”

When Diamond finds Alicia, she is at a sanitarium, and happily introduces herself as Anna Lee Jackson, denying any knowledge or affiliation with Mr. Brown.

As Diamond continues to question her, he confronts her with what we are led to assume is the photograph of her with Mr. Brown. However, we do not see the photograph. All we see is her expression change drastically upon taking it from Diamond’s hands, and her extreme emotional response as she tears it to shreds.  As Diamond tells her about Rita’s death at the hands of Brown’s men, Alicia screams in denial, covering her ears, closing her eyes, and repeating “I’m sick, can’t you see? I’m sick?” Diamond responds that she is not sick, just scared. Finally, as the camera closes in tight on her face, she reveals the truth.

As we are now given a more privileged and personal view, we learn why she is really in the sanitarium, information that would not have been revealed had the photograph not prompted a response. Alicia’s eyes still closed, she tells Diamond, “I’d rather be insane and alive, than sane and dead.” It is the threat of Brown that has kept her away, in the sanitarium, feigning insanity.

The photograph acts as a truth serum in this circumstance. The “harsh truth” of the camera eye has lifted the mystery of Alicia’s disappearance, but by her own admission. Just as the uneven and shadowy projected images in the dark police lab led us to see that this is a “visually unstable environment in which… identities that pass in and out of shadow are constantly shifting and must be redefined at every turn,”[8] photographs serve as reminders of past and present identities and the passage between them, rarely in a positive way. Alicia’s revelation to Diamond comes with a steep price: she must reclaim her identity. She can no longer be Anna Lee Jackson, but must revert to the discarded and unwanted identity of “Alicia Brown,” all because of a likeness on a piece of paper.

Within the film text, we are witness to the mistaken homicide of Rita by Brown’s men. Rita, a physical representative of the underworld, is a stripper as well as possibly a prostitute. On the other hand, she is also one of the few genuinely sensitive characters in the film, making her death all the more tragic. However, her significance comes not necessarily from her life, but from her death. Rita’s image, both in underworld iconography and as photographed object helps to facilitate both character development as well as narrative progression.

In the meeting between Alicia and Susan, Diamond shows them the photograph of the dead girl. Diamond shows the women a photograph, growling that Brown had killed her, “Someone he didn’t know, never met, never saw.” Alicia stares at the picture in horror, as Susan begins to cry. “They took eleven bullets out of her body, and Miss Lowell had breakfast with him the next morning,” Diamond continues, shoving the photograph of dead Rita in Alicia’s face. Alicia stares at the photo, closes her eyes, and states, “I’ll tell whatever I know.”

Until this point, Alicia had continued to deny that she had any knowledge whatsoever about any of Brown’s wrongdoings. In the beginning of the scene, she strongly asserts that she is not testifying against Brown. When Diamond brings up Rita, she refutes any previous knowledge of her murder even though Diamond told her all about it at the sanitarium. As Diamond becomes more insistent, Alicia mirrors her previous behavior at the sanitarium, insisting she knows nothing. However, upon seeing the photograph, she calms down, realizing, once again, what she is looking at: another image of herself.

Rita is the double of both women. Both Susan and Alicia are good girls who have fallen, due to the advances of one, Mr. Brown. Thus, their identities are liminal ones: they are “good” yet they have partaken in the underworld, similar to the story of Persephone. Seeing Rita’s dead body is like seeing a reflection of themselves, which serves a dual purpose. This photograph, shown only to them, helps Susan and Alicia realize that this is their “out,” and that by revealing the truth, testifying against Brown, they can be resurrected from their liminal identity as “good-girl-gone-bad.”

Additionally, it propels them into the truth because they quickly realize that the image of the dead burlesque queen could just as easily been their image, 11 bullets in their body, while someone else eats breakfast with Mr. Brown. When Alicia was gone, he got Susan. What happens if Susan is gone? They are expendable. The lifeless double in the photograph reminds these women that in order to recuperate their personal identities, they must tell the truth, and put Brown away.  As the scene ends, the women look at each other as if in the mirror, recognizing each other as the “other,” and knowing that in order to regain personal agency they must keep these secrets no longer.

Taking Back the Light

Janey Place and Lowell Peterson note that, “in the most notable examples of film noir, as the narratives drift headlong into confusion and irrelevance, each character’s precarious relationship to the world, the people who inhabit it, and to himself and his own emotions, becomes a function of visual style.”[9] Strategically, at the end of the film, Lewis and cameraman John Alton make the most of noir visual style by showing what happens when a character decides to “take back the light.”

In the beginning of The Big Combo, we see Susan running through extremely dark, almost black, corridors, as though she is being chased. As the scene progresses, we see that she, in fact, is being chased by two men. They catch up with her, and grab her by the arms. The light shines brightly on her head and shoulders, but nowhere else, making her appear practically naked. The intention of this was to show her ultimate vulnerability, and increase the visual strength of the two men imprisoning her, as they are bathed in darkness and shadow. Not only does this set up Susan’s situation within the underworld, but the vulnerability that is an integral part of the character she starts out as.

Susan's capture

Because one of the primary thematic elements of this film is doubling, it is fitting that the film should end the way it began. However, due to the fact that this is film noir, it will not be an exact replica, by a long shot. As Janey Place has argued, and as is made apparent within the film text, a doppelganger is not necessarily an exact duplicate.

Foster Hirsch notes, “the ideal metaphor for the world view that prevails in noir is the maze-like, many mirrored fun house…”[10] In a place where nothing is as it seems, it would make sense that things as integral as power can change during the course of even one scene. Film noir, rife with its unstable personality, whether represented visually or developed narratively, causes the power structure that is ominously present in the beginning of this film to be flipped by the end.

By the finale, Mr. Brown realizes that he’s done for. He has nowhere to run and nowhere to hide. He kidnaps Susan before she has a chance to rat him out, and goes to a private hanger where he waits impatiently for the plane that is supposed to arrive. Susan goes to light a cigarette, and he slaps it out of her hand, and then slaps her face, hard, warning her not to try that again. She looks directly at Mr. Brown and responds, “I want to be seen.” And she does. After meeting Alicia, and looking her own possible future straight in the eyes, she realizes what she has become, and wants to “out” her true self, the one that does not go along with everything that Mr. Brown says or wants.

Brown continues to pace, complaining about the pilot not arriving. “Everything’s falling apart. Can’t trust nobody, nothing,” he says, walking into the fog. As he completes this statement, he looks upward, just as a light hits him.

He looks towards the light, and realizes it’s a police car, and, like Susan’s sprint at the beginning of the film, he runs into the blackness of the hanger, knowing he’s trapped, trying to get away. From the deep fog, where his physical appearance cannot be seen, we hear Diamond’s footsteps coming closer and closer, and his voice telling Brown that it’s done, and to come on out. Brown starts to shoot, but he is shooting at nothing, as he can’t see his target. He can’t see anything, and is looking back and forth, panicked. At the same time, the camera returns to Susan, who is actively watching this exchange between Brown and the police. When Diamond says, “You can’t get away, Brown,” the camera returns to a shot of Susan, who turns around

and grabs a light on the car. Turning towards the camera, she flashes the light directly at the camera, and at the spectator, but is supposed to be at Brown. The scene continues and wherever Brown is, she finds him with the light. In this way, Brown is finally caught and taken away, a man on either side of him, small and vulnerable, a vision analogous to Susan’s in the beginning.

By trapping Brown with the light, Susan succeeds at retrieving personal agency. The main thrust of Brown’s intimidation factor was that Brown could not be caught because no one would speak out against him, for fear of personal injury or death. No one could touch Brown. Within the heavy fog and blackness, it seems that Brown is still untouchable. When the police fire back, they do not hit him. Susan wants them to know how vulnerable he truly is, thus she makes use of the light, and shows him in all his ensnared glory. Through the claustrophobic spotlight, Brown is now shown to be as vulnerable as Susan was, with the solid blacks and whites that cut across her body in the opening sequence.

Brown's capture


It is a mixture of revenge and empowerment. Although Susan is not a femme fatale in the archetypal way, and Brown is certainly no hero, she does use Brown’s trust to undo him, like many other great femme fatales before her. However, through the shining of the light directly at the spectator, we are made aware that she is not doing this out of vindictiveness or with malicious intent, but to look at the situation straight in the eye, as she does the camera, and reclaim the strength of the light for herself.

To See or Not to See…

From its inception, the term “film noir” has taken on a multiplicity of definitions. Ranging from a “series” of films[11] to “subtle qualities of tone and mood,”[12] this term has come to mean a variety of different things to different critics and film historians. Perspective is bounced back and forth like a ping-pong ball, and, for the most part, the end of each film is not necessarily a happy one. These labyrinthine plots involving detectives, policemen, and regular Joes (who have fallen into irregular circumstances), while interesting, never seem to matter as much as the journey itself. In fact, more often than not, the plot is rather forgettable. What is not forgettable, however, is the visual style of each film.

The Big Combo holds special significance in this respect because it is entirely predicated on visual presentation. From character doubling and significance of a photograph to the use of light within a darkened area as an expression of power, visual communication structures the very heart of this film. John Alton, the cinematographer of The Big Combo, wrote that the right visual stimulation “becomes a symphonic construction…with the aid of this visual concert we can actually hypnotize the audience.”[13] In this respect, Joseph Lewis and John Alton worked in collusion to create a film that not only underscored the integrity and the power of the visual image but actualized it in such a way that the spectator could participate in the journey as well.

[1] Sattin, Richard. “Joseph H. Lewis: Assessing an Occasionally Brilliant Career.” American Classic Screen Nov/Dec 1983: 51-55.

[2] Black, Louis. “The Big Combo.” Cinema Texas: Program Notes 14.3 (1978): 75-84.

[3] Bogdonovich, Peter. Interview with Joseph H. Lewis. Who the Devil Made it?: Conversations with Legendary Film Directors. New York: Ballantine Publishing Group, 1997.

[4] “The Big Combo.” Motion Picture Daily 1 Feb 1955. The Big Combo Production Code Administration file. Special Collections, Margaret Herrick Library, 14 March, 2005.

[5] “The Big Combo.” Variety 16 Feb 1955. The Big Combo Production Code Administration file. Special Collections, Margaret Herrick Library, 14 March, 2005.

[6] Naremore, James. More Than Night: Film Noir in its Contexts. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998.

[7] Place, Janey. “Women in Film Noir.” Women In Film Noir. Ed. E. Ann Kaplan. London: British Film Institute, 1998.

[8] Place, Janey and Lowell Peterson. “Some Visual Motifs of Film Noir.” Film Noir Reader 1. Ed. Alain Silver and James Ursini. New York: Limelight Editions, 1998.

[9] Place and Peterson, ibid.

[10] Hirsch, Foster. Film Noir: The Dark Side of the Screen. New York: Da Capo Press, 1981.

[11] Borde, Raymond and Etienne Chaumeton. “Towards a Definition of Film Noir.” Film Noir Reader 1. Ed. Alain Silver and James Ursini. New York: Limelight Editions, 1998.

[12] Schrader, Paul. “Notes on Film Noir.” Film Noir Reader 1. Ed. Alain Silver and James Ursini. New York: Limelight Editions, 1998.

[13] Alton, John. Painting With Light. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995.