Sunday, August 25, 2013


How to explain my fascination with Rondo Hatton? It started many years ago when channel 5 in Boston purchased a syndicated package of films called "Classic Horror." Every Saturday at 11:30 PM, after the nightly news, the station unfurled the entire Universal catalog, starting with Dracula and Frankenstein and working in a somewhat chronological order, all the way to the Universal horrors of the 1940s. After several weeks, the TV Guide listed a 1946 film called House of Horrors. I'd already seen House of Frankenstein and House of Dracula; so I assumed this was another one of those, featuring various monsters in a battle royal situation. Instead, it was a rather quiet suspense film that started with a destitute artist rescuing a man from drowning. The man, who turned out to be a famous killer known as the Creeper, was played by Hatton. With the exception of Boris Karloff,  I'd never been so instantly infatuated with an actor.

He looked peculiar. To a kid, I didn't find him particularly hideous, just odd. He had an elongated face and rubbery features, a sloping forehead, and ears that appeared large enough to flap.  He seemed enormous - only later did I realize he was wearing a padded suit - and his hands seemed to be set permanently into claws, perfect for wringing necks and snapping spines.  He didn't have much personality - he grunted a lot, and his few lines were delivered in a gruff voice - but there was something about him that was magnetic.  I liked him immediately, the way I have liked certain professional wrestlers and large dogs upon first sight. The Creeper, I imagined, might even snap somebody's neck for me, if I asked nicely.

The sculptor (Martin Kosleck) brings the hulking brute home and nurses him back to health. Grateful, the Creeper starts killing the critics who have panned the sculptor's work. The sculptor knows what's going on, but he's mum. He decides this Creeper fellow has an intriguing look ("Magnifique," the artist says, cradling the Creeper's head on his lap after pulling him out of the water, "The perfect Neanderthal Man...") and uses him as a model. The Creeper, rather submissively, sits for the artist. He collects no modeling fee, but he's got room and board, and as much stale bread as a man could want. It's not a bad deal. Unfortunately, the Creeper eventually realizes the artist is a nutter. Then things get touchy.

House of Horrors wasn't great, and it certainly wasn't up to the standards of Universal's best, but it was a good little film.   The horror genre was coming to the end of a cycle. The giant bug movies were coming up, as well as films about teen werewolves,  blobs from outer space, and atomic powered monsters from Japan. In other words, the old Gothic horrors of Universal were about to be put to sleep for a while. The company made one more film with Hatton as the Creeper, another nifty little thriller called The Brute Man, but didn't even release it under their own banner, selling it off to  Producers Releasing Corporation.  That was also the end of Hatton. He died at age 51, just as his career was gaining traction.

I read whatever I could find on Hatton, but there wasn't much. I learned that he had acromegaly, a disease that distorted his face. I read that he had acted in quite a few pictures before he became the Creeper. I learned Hatton had been a popular football player at a Florida high school, and then served in the military during World War 1, where he was hit with poison gas during a battle in France. It was this encounter with mustard gas that allegedly affected his features. His marriage ended, but he married a second time, to a woman named Mae who stood by him, even as his condition worsened.

His entrance into acting was a bit of a fluke, although some would call it fate. He'd worked as a reporter for a Tampa newspaper during the 1920s, and it was while reporting on Hell Harbor (1931), a  Lupe Velez film being made in Florida, that Hatton caught the eye of  director Henry King.  Noting Hatton's peculiar face, King asked if he might be interested in a small part in the film. Hatton agreed, perhaps to make a little money, or perhaps for a lark.  After serving in the war, appearing in a movie couldn't have been too daunting. He must have enjoyed it, too, for he took a small part in another film in 1931. By 1936 he was in Hollywood, trying to make a go of this acting thing.

According to Hatton legend, it was his second wife who suggested he try to make a living in the movies. If his odd appearance could help him earn a few bucks, so be it. Starting in the late 1930s he worked fairly often, playing pirates, lepers, and occasional heavies in westerns. He even had a cameo in the 1939 Hunchback of Notre Dame, as part of the 'ugly man' contest that was eventually won by Quasimodo (Charles Laughton). That same year, Hatton was featured in a Ripley's Believe it or Not cartoon. "Rondo Hatton, actor who played horror parts without makeup, won a prize as the 'handsomest youth'  during his school days, gassed during the great war - now suffering from 'acromegaly' "

By the mid-1940s Hatton was appearing in meatier roles. Two Sherlock Holmes movies,The Pearl of Death (1944) and  The Spider Woman Strikes Back (1946), plus a turn as Moloch, the mute assistant in Jungle Captive (1945), cemented him as one of Universal's  rising B-movie heels. Hollywood columnist Hedda Hopper wrote in Sept. 1945, "Universal is very proud of its latest zombie, Rondo Hatton, who plays a character called the Creeper and who'll creep through a whole series, B-gosh!"  

It was in The Pearl of Death that Hatton first played the Creeper character, described by one reviewer of the day as "a grisly, half-witted creature."  Kept in the shadows for most of the film, he murders several people before being shot by Holmes (Basil Rathbone). Hatton's presence was startling, and it is no wonder Universal considered him a potential breakout star.

House of Horror is generally regarded as the pinnacle of Hatton's career.  Director, Jean Yarboough, who would go on to helm such diverse projects as The She-Wolf of London and The Abbott and Costello Show,  directs House of Horror with a quick hand.  There are wisecracking cops and snooty art critics and a lot of verbal jousting that one doesn't ordinarily see in horror films. It also takes place in a city, probably meant to be Manhatton, which was another rarity, since most horror films of the era took place in castles or laboratories. The movie also showed Universal that Hatton was a capable character actor, limited perhaps, but compelling enough to be more than a bit player.

The immediate sequel to House of Horrors was The Brute Man. Screenwriters  George Bricker and M. Coates Webster borrowed a bit from Hatton's own life and attempted to give the Creeper an origin. In The Brute Man we learn that the Creeper  was Hal Moffet, a former college football star whose face was damaged in a chemistry experiment. Known for his temper, Moffet's ugliness drives him underground, where he acts on his murderous rages. On the run from the police, he finds himself hiding in the apartment of a blind piano teacher named Helen (Jane Adams). He befriends her, a bit like Frankenstein's monster befriending the blind old hermit in Bride of Frankenstein (or like Charlie Chaplin befriending the blind girl in City Lights?) and starts another killing rampage, this time robbing his victims, hoping to raise money to pay for an operation to restore Helen's sight. She eventually learns the identity of her new friend, and is used by the police to set a trap. The Creeper is caught, but not killed. Instead, he's hauled away to jail and perhaps, another sequel.

There are lapses in logic within the script. For one, the cops see any dead body and immediately say "It's the work of the Creeper!" Also, the actor playing the young Hal Moffet is several inches taller than Hatton. Still, much of The Brute Man is enjoyable, and the credit must go to Yarborough.

With Maury Gertsman as his cinematographer, Yarbrough uses even more film noir touches than in House of Horror, filming the Creeper from impossible angles. We see him lurking about in his dockside lair; scurrying up fire escapes; hiding in alleys. Yarbourough also makes great use of the Creeper's name. In The Brute Man, we actually see Hatton creeping about the city, always escaping detection, walking breezily in the dark, sometimes standing perfectly still as his pursuers walk by him unawares. True, the movie is flawed and at times silly, but taken as a sort of crude step-child of film noir, The Brute Man has many pleasures. One Kingsport, Tennessee critic described The Brute Man as "a taut melodrama," adding "the film utilizes the standard suspense rousing devices, but in its category it stands favorably."

Unfortunately, the many myths around Hatton seem to spring from The Brute Man. One of the worst is that Universal Studios was somehow ashamed of exploiting his facial deformities, so the company gave the film away to Poverty Row's Producers Releasing Corporation. The truth is that Universal was merging with International Pictures, which changed the entire focus of the studio and resulted in the shutting down of its B-movie units. (All of Universal's B movies were leased to a company called Realart Pictures, which rereleased them as double features during the 1950s. Was Hatton in the others? Of course not. To say Universal was ashamed of The Brute Man is just myth-making, especially considering they unloaded all of their B-pictures that year.)

Another part of the Hatton myth that has annoyed me over the years is that he was some sort of borderline idiot who was shamelessly exploited by Universal Studios. First of all, he'd been a journalist, as well as a soldier, so he couldn't have been the simpleton that mythologers make him out to be. Yet, the rumors have persisted for years. Director Fred Olen Ray, who wrote one of the first comprehensive pieces on Hatton for Filmfax in 1991,  disagrees strongly with the hearsay.

"I can't imagine that Hatton was a simple minded person," Ray told me recently. "I think he may have even been the valedictorian of his class.... he was a professional writer as well, so that alone speaks volumes about his level of intelligence. It's a shame that when faced with little to go on, people feel comfortable making up their own reality."
Another myth about Hatton is that he didn't enjoy acting.  Maybe he didn't love it like a classically trained thespian, but no one was forcing him into it.  "He was a pleasure to work with," said Martin Kosleck years after House of Horrors, "intelligent, sensitive, and kind."

Had he not wanted to play these roles, he could've gone back to journalism. Besides, he had finally moved beyond bit parts and the paychecks were increasing. It's not like he was letting people throw apples at him in a freak show. As his medical condition worsened, he needed these paydays to pay for his treatments. The enlargement of his lower jaw meant constant dental work, just so he could eat. "It was a tragic affliction," wrote Michael Mallory in his 2009  book 'Universal Studio Monsters,' "yet the fashion in which Hatton faced it was little short of heroic." Mallory added a bon mot where Hatton's place in the movie pantheon is concerned: "While never a threat to Spencer Tracy, Rondo Hatton did prove to be irreplaceable. In the history of Hollywood, there has never been anyone like him."

Still, Hatton has been an easy target for those smug types who like to mock low budget films. True, his movements are stiff, and his dialog was limited to monosyllabic threats ("Stop screaming."), but in comparison to some of the other actors of the day, he was positively subtle. Watch Hatton when the artist in House of Horrors announces that another critic has been murdered. Gnawing on a cold potato, he merely grunts, "Yep."  It's chilly stuff. Watch Hatton peer out of a window, watching a young woman walk by. He zeroes in on her with the cold eyes of a cat watching a mouse. But my favorite scene in any Hatton movie is when the artist  unveils his sculpture, allowing the Creeper to see it. Hatton takes it in, unemotionally. "It's pretty," he says, sounding just slightly surprised. I like his acting. I like his cement-mixer voice and his deadpan eyes. What more do I need from a creeper?


Carlos Clarens, one of the first writers to explore the American horror film as something more than junk fare, put Hatton into a specific category, one that feels right to me. He gently placed Hatton ("the real life acromegalic who proved that actual deformity could never take the place of Jack Pierce's makeup jobs") with the other B-movie actors of the era, folks like John Carradine and George Zucco and Turhan Bey, the eccentric character actors who spent careers walking slightly behind the mummies and vampires.
"In retrospect," Clarens wrote in 1967, "the sole charm of these films resides in the very proficient contract players that populated them...They appear now as the real stars of these films, a most valiant troupe temporarily mired in the lower half of the double bill."

Sadly, the man Sherlock Holmes described as having "the chest of a buffalo and the arms of a gorilla," wasn't well. His acromegaly was affecting his heart and his breathing. In early 1946, just as Universal was preparing to launch him into a sort of fame, Hatton suffered a series of heart attacks.  He died in Feb., before his two Creeper films were released. In fact, the year he died saw a veritable flood of Hatton movies in theaters, as the Sherlock Holmes films were often billed together, as were House of Horrors and The Brute Man.
I only wonder what could have happened for Hatton had he lived. Perhaps we would  have had The Curse of the Creeper, or even more tantalizingly, Abbott and Costello Meet the Creeper. Maybe he would have found work on television, appearing on shows like Gunsmoke or Thriller. He might have been a good horror movie host, too.
His image has lived on, occasionally popping up in comic books and album covers. In The Rocketeer (1991) a villain was given a full blown Hatton likeness. More than one screenwriter has attempted a Hatton biography, none coming to fruition. In 2001 a group of horror fans established The Rondo Hatton Classic Horror Award, a small likeness of the sculpture from House of Horrors. The awards are given to various category winners (Best Film, Best Book, etc) after an on-line vote. Still, most stories about Hatton describe  him as some some sad, pathetic freak. It's an angle I still refuse to accept.
 In 2009, a Georgia columnist from the Dalton Daily Citizen recalled receiving a few letters from Hatton back in the 1930s. The columnist had referred to Hatton as the ugliest man he'd ever seen, and Hatton, displaying an ironic sense of humor, sent a letter thanking him. The two established a correspondence. In one of the letters Hatton wrote, "still plugging along trying to get established in this movie business, so keep your fingers crossed for me." This doesn't sound like a man being exploited. In the other letter snippets, Hatton seemed like a friendly, humble man who enjoyed talking about his days on the Tampa news beat.  He also sent an autographed 8 X 10 from his latest film, In Old Chicago, autographed by himself and the film's star, Tyrone Power. Again, this doesn't sound like a sad person being exploited. It sounds like a man trying to make a living, and someone who was proud enough to brag a little, a man proud of being in a movie with Tyrone Power.

So how did this intelligent, friendly man appear so dumb and menacing as the Creeper? The answer, dear readers, is that Rondo Hatton was a good actor.

There, I said it.

And if you disagree, there is a dark alley where we can meet to discuss the matter. You'll recognize me. I'll be the one in the padded suit, with hands like claws...


Monday, August 19, 2013



 Jules Dassin was so impressed with Richard Widmark after directing him in Night and The City (1950) that he proposed they do another project together: Hamlet. To Dassin's disappointment, Widmark didn't love the idea.

It is telling that Dassin saw Widmark as Hamlet after filming him for six weeks as the manic Harry Fabian.  Widmark told the Associated Press at the time that he was tired of “playing heels.” He described Fabian as “a poor, befuddled fellow, a wrestling promoter, trying to be a somebody. I hope the audience will like him.”  The film wasn’t a hit, but it marked the beginning of a transition in Widmark’s career.    In 10 years, Widmark would be co-starring with John Wayne in The Alamo, which wasn’t exactly Hamlet, but it was a long way from twitchy characters like Fabian.


Night and The City features more sweating close-ups of strange-looking people than any dozen films you could name. Its London underworld setting allowed Dassin to film a horde of beggars and forgers  that seemed to have stepped out of a Tod Browning circus drama. Still, the film’s key face belongs to Widmark, perhaps the only leading man in the history of Hollywood who could easily veer from handsome to rat-like. The first time we see Fabian, he’s running through the dark London streets. In his baggy suit and white shoes, he looks like a song-and-dance man fleeing something terrible. Fabian stops to pick up a flower for his lapel, and continues running, all the way to his girlfriend’s apartment. Mary (Gene Tierney) isn’t surprised to catch him rooting through her purse. He's in trouble again, unable to pay a gambling debt. That's our Harry, smart enough to get out of most jams, but not smart enough to avoid them.

Mary is a good girl. Fabian’s previous lover Helen (Googie Withers), is a bit past her prime and long ago shacked up with Fabian's boss, club owner Phil Nosseross (Francis Sullivan). The film’s other women are either vapid waitresses or old hags. This seems fine with Fabian; he's less interested in women than in his own dreams of success.

Fabian's job is to lure people to Nosseross' club, The Silver Fox. One night he enters a wrestling arena, hoping to lure some customers out. Once inside, he witnesses a family squabble between Gregorius the Great (Stanislaus Zbysco), an aged wrestling champion from the past, and his son, Kristo (Herbert Lom), who is promoting the gaudy new style of pro wrestling. Kristo's main attraction is a goon known as The Strangler (Mike Mazurki). Fabian weasels into the scene and sides with old Gregorius, proposing a match pitting Gregorious' younger son Nikolas (Ken Richmond) against The Strangler. The event, Fabian imagines, will rocket him to stardom as a wrestling promoter. Fabian, who knows little about wrestling,  doesn’t care how fame comes to him. Fabian is an "artist without an art," says an aspiring sculptor in Mary's building (Hugh Marlow). That the sculptor supports himself by making toys for children is part of a theme that runs through the movie: no one is what they want to be.

One of the delights of Night and The City is that Fabian seems, for a time, on the verge of being exactly what he wants to be. When Kristo learns of Fabian's plan and tries to intimidate him, Fabian won't break. Fabian seems shrewd enough to make this wrestling thing work. But when Nikolas is injured in a scuffle, Fabian's plan falls apart. An impromptu match between the hotheaded Strangler and Gregorius ends tragically, the old man winning the contest but dying in the locker room. Kristo, who surrounds himself with knife-wielding muscle-heads,  soon has the entire London underworld on Fabian’s trail. Once again, Fabian is on the run.

It's tempting to think of Widmark/Fabian as a stand-in for Dassin, a soon-to-be blacklisted American filmmaker on the run from McCartheyism.  The reality was far less romantic.  The casting of an American actor like Widmark was likely because the British film industry was struggling, and there was hope that the film would find an American audience. Producer Darryl F. Zanuck assigned the film to Dassin just as Dassin was to appear before the House Un-American Activities Committee, with orders to shoot the expensive scenes first in case the shit hit the fan.  By the time Dassin finished shooting, his left-wing activity was made public. He had to do his post-production work by phone, for the studio editors feared being seen with him.

Dassin's film offered a more sympathetic Fabian than the one found in Gerald Kersh’s novel of the same name. The novel, purchased by 20th Century Fox for $40,000, had featured a harder, meaner Fabian. Kersh's Fabian was a member of post-war Britain’s disenfranchised male lower class, a heartles pimp taking his tips from, of all things, American gangster films.  Screenwriter Joe Eisinger paid only partial attention to the book; Dassin claimed he never read it. The Fabian we get in the film is a sort of heroic fool, one who doesn’t realize his ambition is a poisoned sword that hurts everyone around him.

 One of the final scenes in the film has a regretful Fabian confessing his sins to an old woman who has allowed him to hide  in her waterfront shack. Fabian brags about how close he came to hitting it big, but adds ruefully, “It was just an accident.”  Mary arrives, but he is so stricken with guilt that he can barely face her. As Kristo’s henchmen gather on a nearby bridge, Fabian hatches one last plan,. Determined that the long-suffering Mary gets the reward money for finding him, he runs into the street, right into the awaiting Strangler. Fabian suffers a quick death,  dumped into the Thames. In the British cut of the film,  Kristo flicks a cigarette butt in after him.

Night and The City was reasonably well-received upon its original release in June, 1950. Variety called it “an exciting, suspenseful melodrama,” directed by Dassin with “mounting menace.” Several movie columnists of the day chose it as their “pick of the week,” placing it above such releases as Quicksand, Open City, The Jackie Robinson Story, Ma and Pa Kettle Go To Town, and Father of the Bride. But others felt Night and The City was a routine “crime doesn’t pay” story. Time dismissed it as “a gaudy melodrama” that “gets some lurid effects out of a sordid story, murky backgrounds, and a gallery of grotesque characters.” Bosley Crowther of The New York Times called it “a pointless, trashy yarn.” Wood Soanes of the Oakland Tribune called the script "mediocre," and described Widmark as “running around in circles, making funny faces.” But even the worst reviews mentioned the strong supporting cast, with Zbysco and Mazurki garnering their share of the praise.

For the role of Gregorius, the studio had wanted an actor who might be able to wrestle a bit; Dassin wanted a wrestler who could learn to say a few lines. In Zbysco, he found a walking cathedral of wrestling lore, a former real-life champion who had wrestled throughout Europe and America. The fellow could act a bit, too. A quiet game of checkers between Gregorius and Nikolas is one of the few touching scenes in the movie, and Gregorius’ death scene is a marvel. "He had a way of physicalizing things to make them real,” Dassin said in a 2005 interview, still in awe of Zbysco more than a half-century later.

If Zbysco brought stature and nobility to the role of Gregorius, Mazurki imbued The Strangler with sadistic menace. “Iron Mike” Mazurki had once been a top wrestler, but he’d already lent his intimidating presence to several movies, including Murder My Sweet (1944) and Nightmare Alley (1947). As The Strangler, Mazurki was spot-on, particularly when he would mock Gregorius and Nikolas as “Old woman and dancing boy!” The match between The Strangler and Gregorius is surprisingly ugly, partly because of The Strangler's glee at hurting the old man. Mazurki would temper his persona during the next few decades, until he became a familiar face in 1960s TV sitcoms. He also had a nice role as a lovable mountain man in Challenge to Be Free (1975). But in Night and The City, Mazurki was rock-bottom evil.  You might even say he was the embodiment of Fabian’s dark id, as uncaring and powerful as Fabian wished he could be.

Night and the City pounded across America for most of the summer of 1950 before landing in that netherworld where old movies exist. It was occasionally seen on late night television, but was largely forgotten until the 1960s when film buffs celebrating the genre rediscovered it. But Night and The City wasn’t an immediate touchstone for lovers of film noir. There were no hardboiled private eyes, no dangerous females, and no guns. Noir fans pointed to Dassin’s Riffifi (1954) as a superior film.

The reputation of Night and The City changed when a new print was shown at the 1983 Teluride Film Festival in Colorado. It was the surprise hit of the week and sparked a Widmark retrospective that played in revival houses around America. The Boston Globe's Jay Carr observed in 1984 that Night and The City "holds up splendidly in recirculation. So much so, in fact, that it seems to combine Widmark's best role and (Dassin's) best film."

The film started appearing regularly on American movie channels (AMC, TCM) and enjoyed an almost yearly rotation at various American art cinemas and noir film festivals. The British cut sometimes made its way onto American screens. Dassin claimed to favor the American version with its pulverizing musical score by Franz Waxman, but the British version is a delight, including a great scene of Fabian demonstrating a new type of pill designed to improve a car’s gas mileage.

Aside from a grungy remake produced in 1992, Night and The City has enjoyed an almost continuous streak of appreciation since that 1983 Teluride screening. The cinematography by Max Greene, the breakneck pace, the labyrinthine London streets, the mesmerizing supporting cast, particularly Francis Sullivan’s turn as Phil Nosseruss, added up to a British noir with an American heart. 

Dassin made only a handful of films while remaining an exile in Europe. Widmark would go on to play a variety of detectives, doctors, ragged sheriffs, and military men. Now and then would come the loopy grin, and for a brief moment, Harry Fabian was back.

Widmark bridged two eras. He was part of the old Hollywood studio system, but in his willingness to play characters as if they bordered on nervous collapse, Widmark was as modern as Marlon Brando or, as David Kehr of The New York Times once commented, James Dean. Kehr, writing about Widmark's death a few years ago, made special mention of Night and The City:

"It’s hard to imagine another tough-guy actor of the period allowing himself to come as close to tearful impotence as Mr. Widmark does at the end of that film, at the moment his character realizes that there is no escape from the vengeful associates he has betrayed. Running toward the camera, as well as toward his death, Mr. Widmark allows his face to go slack and his limbs to loosen; he seems to become a panicked child before our eyes, shrinking into infantile helplessness. A jump cut might take us to the opening scene of Rebel Without a Cause, when James Dean’s drunken teenager collapses on the sidewalk, playing with a toy monkey."

If Widmark were around today, he'd make an interesting Joker in a Batman movie. But unlike modern actors, Widmark wasn’t one to overanalyze his performances.  “There is something suspicious,” Widmark once told Roger Ebert, “about a guy who is too articulate about his work.” He also told The New York Times that he didn't enjoy watching his old films. ''I always tried, but I was never satisfied," Widmark said.  Dassin remained a faithful admirer, though. The 2005 Criterion DVD of Night and The City included an interview with Dassin, who praised Widmark as an underappreciated actor. “Dick," Dassin said, "was fearless.”

Widmark died at age 93 on March 24, 2008. Dassin died just a few days later at age 96. There is never much that separates a director and his Hamlet.


August 2015 saw the release of a Criterion Blu ray edition of this classic noir.

Friday, August 16, 2013


Film by Michael Curtiz
Review by Don L. Stradley

For many Elvis Presley fans, King Creole is proof that he could've been a real actor. They have a point. This was, after all, the one Presley film that offered more than  just another rockin' good time.

The film was directed by Michael Curtiz, a Hollywood legend who had directed Yankee Doodle Dandy and Casablanca in the same year. He was working from a strong script by Herbert Baker, a veteran of various Jerry Lewis and Jayne Mansfield movies, and Michael Gazzo, who'd enjoyed a recent success on Broadway with his play, A Hatful of Rain. Baker and Gazzo were working from a novel by Harold Robbins, 'A Stone for Danny Fisher.' They jimmied the plot, changing Danny from a boxer trying to fight his way out of poverty to a singer trying to sing his way out.

King Creole had originally been created as a non-singing vehicle for James Dean. It was put on a shelf after Dean's death, and dusted off for Presley, who by 1958 had three films to his credit and seemed to be improving with each role.  Unlike Dean, Presley could leap into violence with shocking speed; few actors have ever been such coiled springs, or threw themselves into fight scenes with such abandon.  Who threw a better movie punch then Elvis? John Wayne, maybe. Elvis threw his right hook like he wanted to kill, bringing it up from the floor.  He may have been a mama's boy from Tupelo, but there was some devil in him.  It would all come out in King Creole.

He plays a busboy at a Bourbon Street dive in New Orleans. He's flunked out of high school, and has no hope for the future. As would happen in many Elvis movies, someone hears him sing and offers him a job.  But there are complications. Some local hoodlums have already enlisted him in a robbery. There's also a mysterious babe named Ronnie (Carolyn Jones).  One day at work, Elvis notices her getting smacked around by a local slob. After Elvis does a number, he leaps to Ronnie's rescue. As Ronnie's attacker moves in, Elvis breaks a bottle and holds it up, ready to cut and slash. "Now," he says, "you'll see what I do for an encore."

Ronnie "belongs" to Maxie Fields (Walter Matthau), a Bourbon Street power player. Fields  wants Elvis to sing in his club. Meanwhile, Elvis wants to sing for another club-owner. Matthau doesn't like to lose, so he sends Ronnie to seduce Elvis. Elvis and Ronnie have some chemistry, but Elvis also has feelings for a nice girl at a drugstore he helped rob. Plus the local hoods are pressuring him to work for Maxie.

Then there's a subplot about Elvis' dad (Dean Jagger), who works in a pharmacy. Elvis doesn't want to end up like him, pushing a broom for pennies. The old man wants Elvis to quit singing and go back to high school. Elvis feels like the whole world is closing in on him. It's no wonder he keeps losing his temper and lashing out.

Presley was surrounded by a top cast of veterans and strong newcomers. Along with Matthau,  Jones, and Jagger,  Dolores Hart is back in her second Elvis movie as the good girl who comes all undone by Elvis' charms. Vic Morrow, only a few years removed from his role in Blackboard Jungle, is perfectly venal as "Shark," the scaliest of the local hoods. But Carolyn Jones is the show stealer. Her early scenes in the film, where she's drunk and wants to follow Elvis to school, are a perfect mix of humor and pathos.  Her last scene, when she dies from a bullet meant for Elvis, is right out of the darkest film noir.  

Where does King Creole rate in the Presley canon? Well, one could argue that the two he made prior - Loving You, and Jailhouse Rock - were superior films. They had better songs, and the Presley phenomenon was still so new that the movies crackle with excitement. But even if those movies are better than King Creole,  I'll suggest that Elvis is a better actor in King Creole. He's a whirlwind here,  one minute he's on the balcony of his home, throwing kisses to prostitutes, the next he's arguing with his family, then he's battling the bar bums to protect Ronnie, then he's at school arguing with the principal. In his earlier movies Elvis was a bit pouty and stiff, but in King Creole he's more comfortable, more fluid.  He's more mature here, even though he's actually playing a younger character.
The reviewers of the day weren't sure what to make of this jumble of noir, New Orleans nightlife, and teen thuggery. Even the music felt different, more Dixieland than rockabilly. Noted The Spectator:

"As the most extreme example of a contemporary idol, Mr. Presley is pretty fascinating, and, though you may be put off at first by his pale, puffy, bruised looking babyish face, by the weary cherubic decadence you might imagine in Nero, and the excessive greasiness of his excessively long, spiky locks, his films, however bad (and King Creole is pretty low on his list), are well worth taking a look at."
Other reviewers derided the film's violence, but most agreed that Elvis was improving. Variety praised his work, describing him as "a better than fair actor."

As for Elvis, he was playing it cool, man. Movies were just an extension of everything else he did. "You get on the radio, and then you go on television," he said. "Then someone wants to put you in movies. It's a natural progression."
But according to those who knew him, his blase attitude disguised  the truth: he wanted to be taken seriously as an actor.  

"Elvis copied certain traits from several actors," said his cousin Billy Smith in Alanna Nash's excellent book, 'Elvis Aron Presley, Revelations from the Memphis Mafia.' "He liked Dean's rebel attitude and his intensity. And he liked that brooding of Marlon Brando's,  and the way Rudolph Valentino projected a lot out of his eyes. Elvis tried to do the same thing."
But just as Elvis seemed to be hitting his stride, two events altered the course of his his career.

First, the songwriting team of Leiber and Stoller cut their connection to him. They'd written many of his best songs, but admitted years later that they'd grown bored of the Presley formula.  The King Creole soundtrack would be the last  time an Elvis movie would feature songs by Leiber and Stoller. 

Elvis' career grew even more complicated when the US Army served him with a draft notice one month before filming was to begin on King Creole. He received a 60-day deferment, but the thought of army life must have been hanging over him as he filmed his scenes.
When asked to name his favorite film, Presley often mentioned King Creole. Although many of his fans prefer the more lighthearted romps like Viva Las Vegas and Blue Hawaii, it's interesting that Presley chose the meanest, darkest film of his career, one with an unhappy ending. It could be because he simply worked the hardest on this one, or that he did it with an impending army hitch on his mind and still delivered a solid performance. It also marked the last phase of his first era, the pre-'60s Elvis. He would continue to act in movies, but once he was back in civilian life Paramount changed the tone of his films. He would become family entertainment, or as Smith said bluntly, "They kept putting him in crap."  
Elvis' screen character would change, too. He would never again be such a rebellious loner. Instead, his character became lighter. Paramount would also surround him with "buddies," starting with GI Blues
The women in his movies would also change. There certainly wouldn't be anymore dark, hellbent babes like Carolyn Jones. From 1960 onward, Elvis would play opposite an interchangeable cast of  women, some better than others, but none as offbeat or unpredictable as  Jones. She was the only actress in his movies who seemed otherworldly enough to meet him one on one. She's one of the reasons  King Creole stands out.

Fight scenes would continue to play a big part in his movies, but he'd never approach them with the wildness he showed in King Creole. Just look at the scene in a trash-filled New Orleans alley where he slams Vic Morrow against a brick wall and says, "I should bash your brains in."  Can you imagine Justin Bieber, or Justin Timberlake, saying such a line and sounding convincing? For that matter, can you imagine Elvis saying it at any other point in his movie career? Probably not. This was the last time he would play such a bad ass. 
According to various biographers, Elvis felt King Creole would probably be his last film. He didn't know if he'd still be popular once he got out of the army. "This could be it," he said constantly during filming. 

Maybe that's why he let the devil out in King Creole, and threw punches like he was trying to break every last jaw in Hollywood.


Sunday, August 11, 2013


"Look  at my shit!"

The above words are spoken by James Franco as Alien, the standout character in Harmony Korine's Spring Breakers. Alien is standing on his bed,  his silver teeth gleaming,  a menacing black automatic weapon in each hand. He's holding them up Scarface style. "Look at my shit!" He's entertaining some young girls he bailed out of jail. They find him amusing, if a little weird. His bedroom is filled with guns and knives and all the other stuff you'd equate with a white rapper from Florida. But it's not just his arsenal that he wants to boast about; he's equally excited by owning underwear of all colors, and designer t-shirts, and two types of cologne ("So I smell nice! I smell nice, right?") The girls giggle. He giggles, too. By the end of his monologue, which is one of the great acting turns in  Franco's career, he's laughing. Look at my shit, he says. I am living the American dream. What's sad about the scene, as well funny, is that the American dream has become so small.

Keep in mind, that isn't necessarily the message behind Spring Breakers. I'm  not exactly sure what this careening, beautifully realized movie is trying to get at, and I'm leery of looking too closely. Part of the reason is that I suspect Spring Breakers wouldn't hold up under serious scrutiny, for as rich as it is with images and pure cinematic sweep, the movie also feels strangely delicate, the scenes strung together like a handful of rose petals on a wire. Even the beach scenes where hundreds of kids seem to be undulating like a human hive feels fragile; the kids are tanned and exuberant, and they wave drug paraphernalia  around like spiritual totems, but they're so childlike in their happiness that the scenes feel playful, rather than anarchic. Even the sexual posturing that goes on feels less carnal and more like a bunch of kids play acting.

This theme of kids at play gets a workout when four girls who can't afford to go on vacation decide to steal a car and rob a restaurant. The girls (Selena Gomez, Rachel Korine, Vanessa Hudgins, Ashley Benson) use squirt guns to hold the customers at bay, and sledgehammers to break up the place, but it's the way they get psyched for the job that resonates throughout the film. "Just pretend you're in a movie," says one of the girls. "Don't be scared of anything."

The first act of the film shows the girls at an unnamed southern university, sitting through Bible lectures (former pro wrestler Jeff Jarrett is great as the school's youth pastor) and dreaming of getting to spring break. There isn't much to these girls. They seem a little dirty and unkempt, and they like to pile on top of each other like kittens.  They touch each other a lot, combing each other's hair, sleeping on each other's laps. The robbery of the restaurant appears to awaken them; once in St Petersburg they talk constantly of how they've found themselves. Faith (Gomez), the most vulnerable and girlish of the quartet, has a touching scene in a hotel swimming pool where she wishes spring break could last forever.

This part of Spring Breakers is well done, and filmed in a kind of dreamy, slow-mo style.  In some ways, it feels like a throwback to the juvenile delinquent films of the 1950s, the good-girls gone bad scenario whipped up into into artsy, modern, foul-mouthed  froth. When the police raid a party, the girls are busted and have to spend a night in jail. Alien, there to bail out two of his cronies, decides to bail out the girls, too.  This is when the film kicks into a new gear. The first act was moody and interesting; the second act is great.

Alien is one of the most mercurial characters in the history of American cinema. We first see him entertaining the spring breakers with his odd stage act, rapping while gigantic inflated aliens hover above him. He raps about bringing the kids into outer space. He throws money around, a cartoon version of a gangsta - rapper. At first, when he tries to win the girls over with his flashy car and his gangster talk, he seems like a typical pimp wannabe on the make.  What redeems him as a character is his absolute belief in himself ("Of course I have money; look at my fucking teeth!") and the fact that, as we eventually learn, he's horribly lonely; his best friend from childhood has cut him off in a kind of simpleton's turf war. But what's most compelling about Alien is the way he loves these girls.  When a couple of them  take his guns and force him into a weird little sex game, he declares them as his soul mates. "I think I just fell in love with y'all," he says when they pull the guns out of his mouth.
Korine has made a career out of upending the expected. From his earliest screenplay for Kids (1995), to more recent features such as Trash Humpers (2009),  he's never been one to give viewers exactly what they want.  Roger Ebert described Korine's Mister Lonely (2007), a film about celebrity impersonators, as "utterly, if pointlessly original." Ebert added that Mister Lonely was "an odd, desperate film, lost in its own audacity, and yet there are passages of surreal beauty and preposterous invention that I have to admire." And so it is with Korine's entire body of work, a messy, at times breathtaking, mix of color and light, with some real sadness underneath what seems to be a bunch of nonsense.  
He's upended expectations again with Spring Breakers, in that he has finally made film that comes dressed for the multiplex. Although it's a beautifully made art film, it's also the sort of film that might appeal to fans of say, Quentin Tarantino.  Korine would deny this, and would blanch at any comparison. Korine said at the time Kids was released that he nothing in common with Tarantino, or any of "the video kids," as he called the generation of filmmakers coming around in the 1990s. Korine was quite full of himself at 19. Now he's 40. He's a veteran. With Spring Breakers, he's taken the trappings of a typical modern "cool" crime film, the sort praised by both hipster filmgoers and critics, and has thrown it into the Korine blender. What spilled out is rather fascinating. In a way, Korine, too, is saying "Look at my shit."  I can show you dozens of nubile young honeys cavorting in the sun.  I can show you guns and violence, and some weird imagery you'll never forget. I put a silver grill in Franco's mouth! You love it, right?
While Korine has paid occasional homage to Werner Herzog in the past,  Spring Breakers reminded me of nothing so much as Terrence Malick's Badlands (1973), the classic retelling of the old Charlie Starkweather story, a great film that featured Martin Sheen as the rebel hoodlum, and Sissy Spacek as his vacant female companion. Only in Korine's case, the female is as trigger happy as the male. Badlands has Sheen and Spacek dancing in their woodland hideout to 'Love is Strange,' while Spring Breakers has the girls wearing pink masks and wielding weapons, whirling around Alien's yard in a kind of makeshift ballet, while he plinks out a Britney Spears tune on a white piano.  The era is different, the effect is different, but the scene has the same feel: outlaws finding a moment alone to dance. Much of Badlands was told in Spacek's voice over, and Spring Breakers is heavy with voice overs, usually snatches of phone calls made by the girls to report home. "Having a great time, mom, I really found myself down here."
And finally, like Spacek, the girls in  Spring Break hate their surroundings and want to get away. Spacek wanted to get off the farm and away from her abusive father. The Spring Break girls want to get out of the stultifying atmosphere of their college. An early scene shows them in a darkened lecture hall, the lights from their laptop screen creating a lonely, crypt-like mood: formal education equals a slow death in this world. The girls'  perfect vacation eventually comes apart.  Faith  leaves because she doesn't trust Alien. Another girl leaves when she's shot in the arm by one of Alien's street rivals. That leaves Alien with his two favorites. He turns them into killing machines. Or maybe they were killing machines to begin with.
Of course, there are a few markers to remind us that we're watching a Korine film: Alien has a pair of identical twin henchmen that could have fit into any of Korine's previous movies; there is  the threat of shady older characters trying to seduce young girls ( a Korine theme going back to Kids);  Korine's penchant for masks and hoods and disguises is here; and in what could be viewed as the main theme running through all of Korine's films, there is the dullness of American society at odds with the aimless energy of youth.
Mostly, we get a sense that we are watching a film made by a unique voice in American cinema. Pointlessly original? Perhaps. But in this day and age, as another wave of comic book movies sit ready to pounce on our late summer screens, Korine's work is as new and invigorating to me as Duchamp's Nude Descending a Staircase was to another era.



Friday, August 9, 2013

LOVELACE (2013), Plus Évocateur: The Morton Downey Jr. Movie.

Morton Downey Jr had charisma, as we’re constantly reminded in Évocateur: The Morton Downey Jr. Movie. One person who worked with Downey describes him being “as manipulative as a serial killer,” while  an animated clip turns him into a Hitler-like demagogue, presiding over something like the Nuremberg rally.

But even more important to Downey’s crazy television success in the late 1980s was his canny understanding of America’s blue collar population; he became their fire-breathing spokesman, and there wasn’t a “pablum puking liberal” who could stand up to him.

.Évocateur: The Morton Downey Jr. Movie, is loaded with great clips of Downey’s glory days, and excellent commentary from several of his friends and producers. The documentary, directed by Jeremy Newberger,  burns with the same over-caffeinated intensity of The Morton Downey Jr Show,  and creates a picture of a man so tortured by demons that fame  only exacerbates his problems.

His shows were the broadest kind of theater, filmed in Secaucus NJ in front of an audience that more than one TV pundit described as a “hockey crowd.” The crowd wasn't there to see political discourse. The crowd was there to see Mort blow down the house.  There were some laughs, too.  Downey took the format of the old Joe Pyne show and injected it with buffoonery.  Still, Downey knew his bread and butter was in violent confrontations with unsuspecting liberal guests.   If Downey was at a loss for words, which was rare, he’d have a mullet-haired goon known as “The Secaucus Slammer,” throw the guest out physically.

Downey didn’t start out as a right wing rabble rouser.  The son of a famous singer – Morton Downey Sr., a tenor of the 1930s  known for singing Irish ballads – Downey Jr tried to carve out a singing career and also wrote poetry, some of which is used in the movie to show that he had a better than average understanding of his own psyche. In short, he hated his father’s guts and wanted to be a big shot.

The 1960s saw Downey as a liberal working for Ted Kennedy, and the 1970s saw him as a struggling folk singer.  The documentary never quite connects the threads that lead to his rebirth as a conservative, but suggests at least some of Downey’s right wing posturing was an act.  There’s some great footage of Downey, still in his folk  phase with long hair and a cowboy jacket, speaking through a megaphone at an anti-abortion rally. It’s early in his transformation, but the power he wields is plain to see.

There were fewer brawls on Downey’s show than in some of the other trash TV programs we’ve grown used to, but there was always the sense that something ugly was about to happen. When things did veer out of control, such as the night Roy Innis decked Al Sharpton at the Apollo Theater, the Downey show dwarfed all imitations to come.

He seemed to be having fun during the early days of his show, but the clips from  the end of his run  two years later show him looking exhausted. He wasn’t a drug addict, but fame was his drug and it wore him down.  After a bogus stunt where he pretended to be attacked by neo-Nazis in an airport bathroom, his popularity evaporated over night.  The next thing we knew, Downey had lung cancer. He even turned that into a media event, going on Larry King’s show the night before he was to have a lung removed. Downey died in 2001.

Who knows if he ever beat his demons.  But look at the people in  Évocateur: The Morton Downey Jr. Movie. When they remember the man, they can’t help but smile.

Since the popularity of Boogie Nights, which borrowed a bit from the life of '70s porn king John Holmes, there have been rumors that a screen bio of Linda Lovelace was in the works.  Lovelace, with Amanda Seyfried as the well-meaning but abused title character, is the end result of who knows how many screenplay drafts. The story has been whittled down to a quick 90 minutes, but rather than feeling bright and lively, it feels like a sloppily assembled Showtime original.  
We first see Linda as a young woman in 1970, the product of uptight suburban parents.  Linda is a bit of a prude until she meets Chuck Traynor ( Peter Sarsgaard), the cocky owner of a topless bar.  This part of the film is full of period music, and roller discos, and lots of 1970s frizzy hair, but it feels more like a high school pageant with a "Celebrating the Seventies" theme.  Not everyone who lived in the 1970s had a perm and wore lime colored bell bottoms, but it sure seems that way in movies.

She marries Traynor but he treats her badly; he soon introduces her to a pair of porn producers. To please her hubby, Linda ends up starring in Deep Throat, a film that would become a huge hit and afford Lovelace  a kind of notorious fame - Johnny Carson even told a crude joke on the Tonight Show about how the Mississippi River was the only thing in America with as big a mouth as Linda Lovelace. She eventually tires of Traynor's abuse, writes a tell-all book, and marries a nice man who doesn't force her to be in porn films. 
Seyfried works hard to make something of this role but she's strapped by a hackneyed script. It's one of those movies where you know she's going to cry in a bathtub. She is a trooper during the porn scenes, but is at her best in the scenes when dealing with her parents. A tearful phone conversation with her father (Robert Patrick) after he's seen Deep Throat is the most moving scene in Lovelace.  
What are we supposed to think of Linda Lovelace?  Are we supposed to see her as an abused but inspirational character breaking away from her oppressors, like Tina Turner running away from Ike?   Is the film even a fair representation of what happened? Who can say? The makers of this movie don't appear to have a clear idea of what they wanted. The first half is all 1970s' silliness, the second half feels like a dreary courtroom drama. Then again, something tells me this whole project was merely an excuse to put a young actress in a series of degrading scenes.


Sunday, August 4, 2013


Lindsay Lohan and James Deen in The Canyons

Paul Schrader's The Canyons feels like two movies bound together. One is a winding, complicated story about petulant twits on the fringes of Hollywood. (It's written by Bret Easton Ellis, who specializes in writing about vapid people behaving badly.) The other film, the better one, is Schrader's smartly directed lament for a vanishing America. 

In a career that has included some great films, Schrader's opening montage of boarded up movie theaters is one of his finest moments. He returns to it again and again, using the old theaters the way Japanese filmmakers once used "pillow shots" to link one scene and the next.  Schrader's linking shots are melancholy, reminding us that eras sometimes come to an end before the next one is in place. The characters here -- trust-fund brats, part-time yoga teachers, wannabe actors, sleazy on-line swingers -- exist in this world of dead cinemas, empty shopping malls, and overpriced bistros. They never seem like fully formed people, but more like the weeds that sprout up unexpectedly in an alley.
The movie starts with promise. Schrader sets the table beautifully, introducing Christian (James Deen), a smug producer of low budget movies; his girlfriend Tara (Lindsay Lohan in Cleopatra makeup that looks like it was applied by a lazy drag queen), Christian's loyal assistant (Amanda Brooks), and her slightly thick boyfriend Ryan ( Nolan Gerard Funk ), a struggling actor who once loved Tara.  They're seen having dinner at the Chateau Marmont on Sunset Boulevard, celebrating the launch of a new film project. Their dinner conversation, which is mostly made up of Christian talking about sex, tapers off until they're all staring into their smartphones. 

If their lives seem on the verge of being crushed by ennui, we soon learn that there's a lot going on: Christian enjoys setting up Tara with creeps he meets on-line, pimping her out so he can add to his collection of personalized porn. Meanwhile, Tara is still seeing Ryan on the side. Christian realizes what's going on, and enlists his flunkies and underlings to help him end the affair.

There's a strong anti-Hollywood feel in The Canyons. Christian only produces movies because he wants to prove to his father that he can do something on his own. He couldn't care less about his latest project, which he describes as "a bunch of teenagers being tortured by a ghost in a warehouse." It also seems the key reason he objects to Ryan sleeping with Tara is because Ryan is "just some dumb actor." Tara's no movie buff, either. At one point she asks Gina, "Do you even like movies? When was the last time you went to one and it really meant something you?" The movie business as depicted here involves a lot of people doing favors for each other, and working on projects they don't like. There's also a lot impromptu oral sex that goes into making films, and everyone in the business seems to be someone's ex-lover. It can also be, quite literally, a cut-throat way of life. As for  Ryan the actor, he doesn't seem very bright; he's just consumed with rescuing Tara from Christian.
Despite there being a lot of commentary on modern  topics like smartphones, Internet sex, and the death of the cinema, The Canyons is actually a typical Schrader movie, harping on themes he's loved since the 1970s.  He did, after all, pen a famous story about a taxi driver trying to rescue a teen hooker.   Since Schrader is one of those directors who likes to tell moral stories by shoving his camera directly into the dirty stuff, it's not surprising that The Canyons features a lot of dangling flesh, both male and female. Still, Schrader does some of his best work in years, imbuing Ellis' smarmy script with a kind of lava-lamp glamor. The Canyons isn't a great movie, but it is, at times, highly watchable.

As played by Deen,  Christian is a moody sociopath with a fetish for control.   It's hard to be totally engaged by Deen - a real life pron performer who looks like a meaner version of former SNL star Chris Kattan - but  he creates a pretty good noir villain for 2013. He's not exactly Raymond Burr tormenting Grace Kelly, but in an era where Ashton Kutcher is a movie star, Deen's not bad.
Lohan is the film's anchor as Tara. She's convincing as a desperate young woman terrified of being broke, even if it means spreading her legs for any jerk Christian brings home. As good as she is, she's less successful with the sexual aspects of the character.  The role may have been written for a Sharon Stone type, someone more blatantly sexual; Lohan, although she looks older than  her age,  still seems too girlish, as if she's a high school student dressed  as a slut for Halloween.  Yet, Lohan is  more compelling than anyone else in the cast, and when she yells at Christian that she wants some of her life to remain private, it's as if she's dredging up feelings from her own tabloid past.

Much has been written about Lohan's problems during filming, and how Schrader stuck with her because he felt she brought something special to the film. Schrader's gamble paid off, for in close up Lohan  possesses a kind of bruised beauty, her puffy lips and mussed hair saying more about her character than most of Ellis' dialog. Lohan is not only the image of wasted American youth, but she's become the symbol of a lost generation, a human version of  the abandoned theaters that open the film.
There's no telling if The Canyons will be a breakthrough  for Lohan. For a film billed as an "erotic thriller," it's not particularly erotic or thrilling.  Lohan, though, is very fine in it.  If anyone ever dares to remake  Barfly,  she gets my vote for Faye Dunaway's role.