#Noirvember Blu-ray: The docu-noir of ‘Boomerang’ and ‘The House on 92nd Street’

house92The House on 92nd Street (Kino Lorber Studio Classics, Blu-ray), a 1945 World War II espionage thriller based on a real life FBI case, launched what would become the semi-documentary strain of film noir. It opens with the authoritative narration of Reed Hadley (uncredited but omnipresent in the genre) insisting on that this is an accurate dramatic treatment of a true story shot on locations where it occurred and slips into procedural about a German-American scientist (William Eythe) who is recruited by the Nazis for their bomb project and goes undercover for the FBI to find the mole giving A-bomb research to Germany. It’s produced by Louis de Rochemont (producer of the March of Time newsreel series) and directed by Henry Hathaway with a rather flat style, which isn’t helped by the blandness of Eythe or the archness of Lloyd Nolan as the lead agent. It’s an interesting film for all of its detail and location shooting and use of real FBI agents in minor roles and it launched the docu-noir style that was picked up and developed in films like T-Men (1947), Call Northside 777 (1948), and The Naked City (1948). Signe Hasso, Gene Lockhart, and Leo G. Carroll co-star.

It makes it Blu-ray debut in an edition featuring commentary by film noir historian Eddie Muller (carried over from the 2005 DVD) and an animated still gallery.

boomerangBoomerang (Kino Lorber Studio Classics, Blu-ray) from 1947 is one of those films that picked up the semi-documentary strain and improved upon the original. It’s also produced by de Rochement and features the disembodied voice of narrator Reed Hadley insisting that the events portrayed here occurred in a small Connecticut town “but it could have happened anywhere,” and it is directed by Elia Kazan, who brings a focus on the performances and the social culture of the town. That voice of authority is ostensibly there to assure us that the public servants have everything in hand but the film, which turns from everytown American portrait to crime thriller with the point-black murder of a beloved priest, reveals otherwise.

The story follows the public pressure on the police after the shocking murder (and the scene is shocking and startling without ever showing the deed) and the political pressure on the State’s Attorney Henry Harvey (Dana Andrews) to bring a speedy indictment to their only suspect, a drifter played by Arthur Kennedy. His character is another of the returning veterans who came home after serving his country and found nothing waiting for him but dead end jobs and a grinding existence, and his fumbling response to the questions basically damns him in the eyes of the police, who have picked him up on circumstantial evidence. Lee J. Cobb is the solid cop swayed by the preponderance of evidence over his gut feeling. He thinks something isn’t right but shrugs it off after Kennedy signs the confession, exhausted and emotionally depleted after hours of interrogation. There been no beating, but the constant verbal and emotional assault wears him down. In one of the film’s most touching moments, he carries the exhausted suspect after a confession is signed, a moment of pure kindness. Jane Wyman is second billed but has little screen time and even less narrative importance as Andrews’ wife.

Like other films in the movement, it eases the chiaroscuro lighting of films like I Wake Up Screaming for more of a naturalistic look, and focuses on procedure and details over violence and action. This one spends most of the final act in the courtroom, and even there it defies expectation with a very measured effort by State’s Attorney Harvey as he lays out the issues in the case against the defendant, yet Kazan avoids the usual theatrics as Andrews, who loosens up a little under Kazan’s direction, methodically works his way through his case with a modesty rare even in today’s spate of TV legal dramas. It’s more film gray than noir, with the undercurrent of political pragmatism and shady business dealings behind the pose of jurisprudence. The “reform party” swept in with a promise of, well, reform, but under the hammerblows of newspaper headlines turning the case into the 1940 equivalent of clickbait, they don’t seem all that reformed. Not that the fourth estate comes off much better.

“This case was never solved,” informs our voice of authority, but we still get the Production Code-mandated ending suggesting that the guilty man—or at least, the man we assume to be guilty, given the circumstantial evidence slipped conspicuously into the drama—receives punishment. It’s the kind of assurance that studios liked to peg on the end of crime dramas and thrillers but it hardly sweeps away the portrait of outright corruption and insidious political machinations that Kazan reveals along the away.

Kino’s disc brings out both the gray scale and the noir night scenes beautifully, with brief mottling at a couple of points but otherwise clean and crisp. Kino offers a newly recorded commentary track by Noir City Sentinel contributor Imogen Sara Smith (it’s her first commentary and she makes a fine and confident debut with an informative talk), plus commentary by film noir historians Alain Silver and James Ursini carried over from the 2006 DVD release, a terrific balance of historical backstory and informed observation, all in the easy-going, conversational give-and-take of longtime collaborators. Note that the back cover of the slipsleeve art includes a factually incorrect plot description (it describes two suspects and the efforts of the State Attorney “to prove one suspect’s innocence and the other’s guilt,” but there is no second suspect in the film) and a still from Whirlpool featuring actors Richard Conte and Charles Bickford. This is all cosmetics, mind you. I just want you to know that yes, I’m aware of the errors.

[Cross-published on Cinephiled]

Videophiled: James Dean Ultimate Collector’s Edition

James Dean Ultimate Collector’s Edition (Warner, Blu-ray)

Before the 1950s, there were no teenagers in the movies, at least not as such. There were adults and children, and that awkward age in between was largely seen as, well, that awkward period in between. You had kids on the cusp, troubled young adults, and juvenile delinquents but the teenager, with his / her hormonal surges and anxieties and identity crises, was pretty much ignored.

In many ways, James Dean was the first American teenager, the screen embodiment of the strangled cry of inarticulate kids to old be considered children but unready for the adult world. James Dean had knocked around in small film parts and television plays for a few years before he was case as Cal in East of Eden (1955), Eliza Kazan’s adaptation of the John Steinbeck novel (or rather, a small portion of it), and he became an overnight star. He’s basically a frustrated Cain to the Abel of Richard Davalos’ good son Aron and his performance is raw, tense, a combustible mix of ambition and frustration and desperation as the “bad” brother vying for the attention of his father (Raymond Massey), a hard, driven Salinas Valley farming magnate.

Dean wasn’t Kazan’s first choice for the role – he wanted to cast Brando – but screenwriter Paul Osborne suggested Dean for the part after seeing him on Broadway. Dean came from the Actor’s Studio, where Kazan himself had been active and found Marlon Brando, and Kazan decided to shy away from Hollywood stars for at least some of his leads and instead cast out of the Actor’s Studio, notably Davalos, making his feature debut as the “good” brother Aron, and Julie Harris as Aron’s girlfriend Abra, with whom Cal is in love. Tony Award winner Jo Van Fleet, also from the Actor’s Studio, made her screen debut as Kate, the craggy madam of the local brothel in Monterey who holds a dark secret to the family past, and she took home the film’s sole Academy Award (out of four nominations) for Best Supporting Actress.

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Elia Kazan’s “America, America”

America, America” (Warner)

“My name is Elia Kazan. I am Greek by blood, a Turk by birth and an American because my uncle made a journey.” Elia Kazan’s most autobiographical film—and his first production from his own original script—is a labor of love based on family autobiography, a first-person odyssey that he shot almost entirely on location in Greece and Turkey with a largely unknown cast. Stathis Giallelis plays Stavros, a stand-in for both his uncle and himself who comes off as a Greek-American James Dean by way of Sal Mineo in an “East of Eden” where the prodigal son follows his dream and this time makes his father proud.

Continue  reading at MSN Videodrone.

The Elia Kazan Collection

The Elia Kazan Collection (Fox)

To call this exhaustive box set a labor of love from Martin Scorsese risks understating its importance to Scorsese. The filmmaker cineaste and film preservation activist is overflowing with labors of love. And while in some ways this is a celebration of one director’s tremendous legacy in the American cinema, it’s also a gift from a child of the fifties to a man he identifies as a father figure solely because of his cinema.

Elia Kazan

Along with the fifteen films in the set, Scorsese contributes a personal tribute to the director with a new documentary. The hour-long A Letter to Elia, written and directed by Scorsese and Kent Jones and narrated by Scorsese, is not a conventional survey of the director and his work or a simple tribute from another admiring director. This is a first-person reflection on the films and the creator, a mix of history, biography and aesthetic appreciation informed by the personal connection that one can have with films. Scorsese explores the powerful connection he made with Kazan’s art and vision, especially On the Waterfront, which Scorsese remarks was set in the urban New York world he lived in, and East of Eden, two formative films in Scorsese’s coming-of-age as an artist and a person: “It spoke to me in a way that no one else I knew in my life seemed to be able to,” he says of Eden. “The more I saw the picture, the more I became aware of the presence of an artist behind the picture.”

Continue reading “The Elia Kazan Collection”

‘East of Eden’ on TCM

I take a look at East of Eden, both the film and the details of the production, for Turner Classic Movies, in anticipation of its February showing during its month of Oscar.

James Dean - the tormented teen
James Dean - the tormented teen

For all the prestige of Steinbeck and fame of Kazan, the big news of East of Eden (1955) was Kazan’s discovery, a young New York actor named James Dean making, for all intents and purposes, his feature debut in the lead role. Kazan had originally hoped to cast Brando as Cal. It was screenwriter Paul Osborn who, after seeing him on Broadway in a small role in The Immoralist, suggested Dean for the part. Kazan was unimpressed with him as an actor but, as he later wrote in his autobiography, “I called Paul and told him this kid actually was Cal in East of Eden; no sense in looking further or ‘reading’ him.” He sent Dean to meet Steinbeck, who “thought Dean a snotty kid. I said that was irrelevant; wasn’t he Cal? John said he sure as hell was, and that was that.”

Elia Kazan had been very active in the Group Theater and the Actor’s Studio, where Dean himself had been training, and was a proponent of the Stanislavsky “Method,” from which the term “method acting” arose. Kazan decided to shy away from Hollywood stars for his young leads and instead cast them out of the Actor’s Studio, most notably Richard Davalos, making his feature debut as the “good” brother Aron, and Julie Harris as Aron’s girlfriend Abra, with whom Cal is in love. She had earned an Oscar® nomination for The Member of the Wedding (1952), her only previous film appearance, and came away with top billing on the film. “Her face was the most compassionate face of any girl I had ever seen, and I stressed it,” he told Michel Ciment in the 1974 interview book Kazan on Kazan. “I contrasted her face and Massey’s, which was a piece of wood.” Raymond Massey, a stage and screen veteran from a more traditional school of acting, was cast as Cal’s father, an almost sanctimonious figure who nonetheless lives up to the letter of his moral convictions, and the contrast in styles helped exaggerate the generational conflict with the looser Method players. Folksinger turned actor Burl Ives was cast as the sheriff, a plainspoken authority figure with a strong sense of justice and a paternal affection for Cal, and Tony Award winner Jo Van Fleet, also from the Actor’s Studio, made her screen debut as Kate, the madam of the local brothel in Monterey. Kazan considered another young student of the Actor’s Studio, Paul Newman, for the role of Aron, and even made a screen test of the two. Newman’s big break, ironically, came playing Rocky Graziano in Somebody Up There Likes Me (1956), a role Dean was set to play before his fatal car wreck.

Yet it is James Dean that everyone remembers. Marlon Brando and Montgomery Clift had helped popularize method acting in Hollywood, but James Dean brought an entirely new and fresh perspective to it. East of Eden is set in 1917 but Dean feels completely modern and contemporary, a boy not quite comfortable in his body. He’s never still, constantly fidgeting or shrugging or pacing. He drops his eyes in uncomfortable moments and slips into giggles when conversations become too personal. In the opening scenes, as he stalks Kate through back alleys to her brothel on the outskirts of town, he runs with his hands jammed into his pockets, as if to stop them from acting on their own. And sure enough, when he takes them out of his pockets while pacing in front of her house, they instinctively pick up a rock and throw it at her window. It’s a strikingly articulate portrait of an inarticulate man-boy; you can practically hear his mind whirring just by observing his body language. In many ways, this is the first take on the troubled teen that he immortalized in Rebel Without a Cause (1955).

Read the complete piece on TCM here.