Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Playing Ketchup with: K.C. Confidential, The Black Hole, "Baby Jane?"

Now time to play a little game, based on the joke: Mama tomato, papa tomato and baby tomato are walking along, baby tomato's lagging behind, Mama tomato turns and says, 'Ketchup'! ...ketchup, ketchup...

So yeah, some movies that I've seen recently (that is in the past month) that I neglected to dish my thoughts on, either due to lack of time or just lack of interest, or a combination in various percentages. If you can guess which one was lack of interest of these three, you get a cookie ;)


Take a look at this poster for a moment. What do you see outside of unadalterated bad-assery? All you'd need is Lee Marvin and a hot dame (that is bigger than the one already pictured) and you might have one of the truly great posters in movie history. Often times one will look at a poster like this and three out of five times it won't live up to the promise. The surprising part of Kansas City Confidential - which was paired somewhat wisely with Reservoir Dogs on a Heist-movie double feature (thing in common? attempted anonymity among thieves) - is how for a 1952 code-era B-movie it does its god-damndest to be as bad-ass as it can be in a tale of double crosses and payback.

It's also the kind of B-movie that you kind of have to be a fan of these old-school down-n-dirty early 50's B-noir movies; there aren't any big stars (the two most recognizable faces to me were Western character actors Jack Elam and Lee Van Cleef), and one has to be taken along by the hard style of storytelling.  The heist in the movie takes place early on, as a mysterious older tough-guy brings in three crooks - Pete Harris, Boyd Kane, and Tony Romano, each good at at least something criminal be it getaway driving or cop-killing - and plots and executes an armored car robbery of a Western Union truck.  Trouble is there's a patsy truck driving around and the guy driving it, Joe Rolfe, ex-war veteran and once gambler, is brought in for questioning - HARD questioning.  You know, the kind that leaves a fella bruised and beaten and found somewhat innocent as it wasn't his truck.

Joe decides he must clear his name, and through a connection heads down to Tijuana, first to track Pete Harris (the shifty eyed Jack Elam steals his own scenes as a half-pissed half-nervous wreck with a permament lazy eye), and then to another location where everyone else in on the robbery will meet up... including (dun-dun-dun!) the mastermind, who doubles as a retired police chief!  Oh there are some twists and turns in the story, not least of which how Joe falls for the 'dame' of the piece, the retired police chief/criminal boss' daughter who just happens to be studying for her Bar exam to be a lawyer!  And maybe Joe isn't who he says he is, at least at first.  The kind of close-ups and reaction-exchanges that these characters have at various points (framed with the utmost attention to distrust and sweat and grit and grimace by director Phil Karlson) are the stuff film noir is made for - in black and white of course on a low budget.

It would be one thing if the story was decent enough, and it is, and at the end as these things sometimes go everything is tied up neat and tidy.  But its getting there that brings the suspense, and shots like the one up above, where a moment gets very intense and is stretched out to a point that seems extreme for 1952.  Karlson isn't about to let the characters play-act their roles: they're gangsters through and through who might just skate by the law and into their hundreds of G's (or maybe more).  So, the stakes get raised in how situations erupt and mayhem sizzles slowly to a boil.  Maybe the director knew he could get away with a little more violence and brutality in the B-movie system, and it works for the story that he's telling.  This is about men who are conniving and double-crossing monsters and the protagonist could be one step away from being one himself if he loses his path as a sympathetic character (the actor in the role of Joe, John Payne, does a good job of gaining our sympathy, and rooting for him as he gets into his "double" role at the hotel-resort). 

The other big success for the movie is the script.  The dialog crackles with that too-tough-to-handle noir-ish dialog that knows, a lot of times, how clever and funny it is.  This is a movie where the hero says lines like, "I know a sure case for a nosebleed: a cold knife in the middle of the back," or when Tony, with his little 'conchita' at the resort (Lee Van Cleef, ever the ladies man, however handsome in his early years), looks at something she wants for 11 dollars and quips, "Everything around here is 11 bucks!"  But this is just the clever stuff.  What works is at what's at the heart of the story: a guy who knows what's right, sees what the score is, and how he can connive his way with the other bastards.  It doesn't aim for the bleachers, but it goes far enough to score as the kind of after-the-heist movie where up until the last few minutes one can keep guessing who will go next or what hand will be revealed.

Oh, and that Helen Foster is a nice little number, appearing at one point in a bathing suit too...

Enough of that, moving right along...



Now here's another poster. Nifty, a little trippy, sciency (or maybe it's just the green lines), an odd object on the right that looks like a castle-cum-spaceship, and a title that careens over and around near the margins. What it ends up being as a movie is less so than the poster can realize.  It was Disney's attempt in 1979 to try and cash in on the current science-fiction movie craze that got kicked back into gear with Star Wars and would get some added sophistication that year with Alien.  But The Black Hole tries to do two things at once: be a smart-contemplative science fiction story in the mold of Forbidden Planet where a team goes to investigate something, finds a ship and its Captain that has been gone for so long, and finds the wonder and madness that lies therein.  The other thing?  Wacky robots for kids voiced by Roddy McDowell and Slim Pickens!  Ho-ho.

I wish I could go on about how smart or insightful the movie is about the nature of man's exploration into space, but it would not be so.  It pays lip-service to the weird wonder that is a black hole - a thing that should defy description that can pull anything inside of it and have it trapped in a perpetual existence for a thousand (or thousands) of years, or more.  Its mystery could make for a really intriguing book, or perhaps a movie by someone with the right eye.  The eye and minds behind The Black Hole are less interested in how it "works" than what kinds of cool stuff can happen with it when a mad space-Captain who has his own group of scientist-zombie people working for him on the double.

As happens in these sort of stories, the ship that discovers them, which includes Anthony Perkins, Robert Forster, some actress named Yvette Mimieux, Ernest Borgnine, and the asshole-ish robot voiced by McDowell, wants to help them out.  Then they see how mad/genius they are, and they get split as to what to do.  Without spoiling too much, things don't go quite as planned, and things turn to chaos... that is, the kind I wish I could give a shit about.  Perhaps it's the passage of time of 30+ years, or that the story itself just isn't as interesting as its predecessors, but it's a dull movie.  Even for kids the best that they can hope for with it is some bizarre robot-encounter scenes and McDowell's VINCENT so bitchy and snide you'd swear C-3PO and Marvin from Hitchhiker's Guide were meant to be one-upped.

One of things I mean by the 'passage of time' isn't just the story, though that too is kind of brainless until the last ten minutes when it becomes a visual clusterfuck.  It's the special effects.  Some of the early space stuff looks decently laid out and modeled, but some of it hasn't aged well at all.  It looks creaky and dark and the opening title sequence actually dominates as the highpoint visually for the film.  The work as a whole isn't a total loss - it's fun seeing actors like Borgnine and Perkins and Maximillian Schell chew a little scenery (Forster, the professional he is, is the more relatable, boring protagonist here, but not his fault - plus the music by John Barry makes for spectacular listening at the least, and is comparable to the other great sci-fi movie soundtracks of its period).

But it's a combination: the dull plot, the uninteresting treatment or brushing past of the science of the black hole, the asinine treatment of the zombies, and that finale where all I can remember is the color RED and a lot of crazy happenings without any cohesion, that make it a forgettable experience.  If it had focused on one or the other - a wacky-campy sci-fi trip for kids or a serious look at a black hole in the guise of a thriller, it might have had something.  Only one death scene by a particular actor stands out as truly memorable, maybe worth checking out on Youtube.  If I wasn't writing about it now, I'd probably lose sight of it within the next week. 

But how about a memorable movie? ...

and #3)

And now poster #3 - here is something that sticks out, for its two primary images: one is the nightmarish-garish doll-face, the "Baby Jane" doll named after its character, "Baby Jane" Hudson, as a child-star-singer.  Of course we see in the first few minutes of the film this origin story, of sisters Jane and Blanche, the latter always ignored but told that one day she'll have her time in the spotlight.  Then it cuts to a very mysterious scene where we're lead to believe Blanche, circa 1936, is run into by a car in a driveway - most likely by jealous fledgling movie star sister Baby Jane (her sister, Blanche, has also become an actress in her own right).

Then it's cut to 'present day' 1962 Hollywood outskirts.  This is when we get the near meta-movie where the two toughest gals in the business in their time (and most revered) - Bette Davis and Joan Crawford - play Jane and Blanche living in the same house as Jane "takes care" of Blanche, who is paralyzed from the waist-down.  The quotes are meant to emphasize a complete lack of 'care', as Jane, for quite a number of years, has been loony.  More than that, she's vindictive, spiteful, sarcastic, cynical, and bonkers enough to still have a lot of her old clothes and get-ups from the "old days" of being a child star and even puts on the same make-up and does little 'numbers' when she's bored.  In short, she's the kind of washed-up has-been Diva that makes Norma Desmond seem reasonable.  At least she had Max to keep her somewhat lucid.

The question might arise (and did for me as I watched it with a friend bothered by the logic of the story) as to why Blanche puts up with Jane like she does.  Sure, Jane makes her meals and keeps the house going, but Blanche is also a little too nice and not quite wise enough to see past the mania to put her away for good.  The film reaches certain hysterical-suspenseful moments where one might think Blanche can get someone's attention outside from her window high up in the house to alert the nuttiness of her sister, who is going ways to not only do her very best to piss off the very patient and trying-to-be-understanding woman in the wheelchair with things like a dead rat in her plate, or stealing her money for a possible "comeback" performance piece.  There should be logic here as to why she doesn't go for the chances she has (this goes without saying no phone upstairs, lack of mobility, the way Jane can perfectly mimic Blanche to the doctor at the asylum).  Just call the cops, why doncha?

It should be something bothersome, but I really didn't care after a while.  This is less about its story than it is about its bigger-than-life character at the center, done up with the kind of BRAVURA (in caps) and mad intensity and gusto that Bette Davis can bring to a role, to which this is one of her BIGGEST and most creatively satisfying.  She's fearless in giving Jane a ruthless demeanor, and just when you think she might crack for a moment, she snaps back to a being in arrested development.  It's bizarre gallows humor that has been identified (correctly) overtime as "camp"; the film is apparently a big hit with the gay community who see Davis and Crawford as their Goddesses.  I still have a great memory of going to see Johnny Guitar and being surrounded by guys hootin' and hollerin' for their mean-Queen-bitch.  Oddly enough Crawford gives the more understated role here - or as understated as she can be as a perpetual "woman-in-trouble", though there may be more to her story than it seems.

In Robert Aldrich's stark black-and-white film on fame and psychosis, love and loss, and living in freakish ways has never looked so hilariously frightening (or frighteningly hilarious).  There are some genuine shocks here and there is some thought put into the horror of the situation; a maid who comes by every so often becomes the one character not locked into the Hudson facade, to which the end of that provides one of the film's most memorable moments.  And there's a wonderful, weird sub-plot involving a musical composer whose fallen on hard times who responds to Jane's seemingly innocent ad in a paper and gets embroiled in her supposed "comeback" as Baby Jane.  That he's able to try to hold a candle to Davis in their scenes together is admirable on its own.

 But back to these two stars: they really are what makes the film so amazing to this day.  Sunset Blvd. may have a better or more cynical look at the disturbing side of fame in Hollywood for the older crowd, and All About Eve (also featuring Davis) may have the unlikely female-rivalry story down pat.   The power of Baby Jane comes as being a mixture of psychological horror, satire, tragic family melodrama, and a radical star vehicle.  Davis and Crawford had a rivalry of their own for many years- sometimes to do with awards, other times particular roles, or status at the studios- and its transposed here like a battle of the titans.  The fire that Davis breathes is only matched by her slight moments where she reveals the character's odd vulnerability.  And the tenderness Crawford appears to exhibit gets turned around by a big twist that comes at the end - when Blanche, beat and tired and starved, reaches near her own end as well.

Bottom line, it's a wonderful B-movie in A-list clothing, about movies, mania, obsession... in a word: emotion.  Godzilla and Mothra got nothing on these Grand Gugnol women.

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