Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Movies: James Ellroy Theater

On November 13, novelist James Ellroy served as guest programmer on Turner Classic Movies. Among his selections were three relatively unheralded crime dramas, all from 1958, all set in California, all new to me.

It took a while, but I finally made my way through them. Feature it: we’re firing up the time machine and journeying back to the Golden State, when everybody claimed to like Ike but secretly sought sanctuary in shadow. It’s gonna be a gas.

First up is Stakeout on Dope Street. A trio of teenagers (including Little Shop of Horrors star Jonathon Haze and Yale Wexler, brother of cinematographer Haskell) stumble onto two pounds of pure heroin from a busted drug buy. They set an aging hophead to work selling the stuff and next thing you know, according to the out-of-place voiceover, they’re pricing “bongo drums and other racy items.” But Yale’s gal Abby Dalton wants no part of his dirty money, and the cops and drug dealers are hot on their trail.

Dope Street is a bargain basement production with a half-baked script; the JD scenes fall flat. But it’s also a crudely effective piece of filmmaking. There’s an extended withdrawal sequence that’s still harrowing, and director Irvin Kershner uses unexpected edits and camera angles to maximize tension. It’s no surprise he went on to better things. The movie also has a solid jazz score and the night’s best credit: Bowling Technical Assistance by the Redondo Recreation Center.

Murder by Contract has two things in common with Dope Street: a low budget and actor Herschel Bernardi. The similarities end there. Vince Edwards stars as a hired killer who takes up his trade solely to buy a house for himself and his unseen girlfriend. He’s sent to L.A. to eliminate a witness and has a crisis of conscience when he discovers his next target is ... gasp! ... a woman.

Objectively, Murder by Contract is terrible. Three reasons why, off the top of my head:

1. A drab look, shot in weirdly underpopulated Southern California locations;

2. A thin script packed with pretentious “psychological” dialogue, all delivered by the charisma-impaired Edwards;

3. The worst soundtrack in film history.

And yet ... the movie’s sheer lousiness and its struggle to say something exert their own fascination. Ellroy’s right in observing that its vision of the hit man as an existential figure is years ahead of its time. I can easily see how it would have made an impression on him as a young man.

ASIDE: Thanks to Ben Casey, Edwards was one of the biggest TV stars of the 1960s. Now he’s been banished to total cultural insignificance. I’ve never seen him in anything other than this movie. (Ed. note: I stand corrected. Please see the comments below.) Audiences actually bought this guy as a neurosurgeon? At least now I get another Simpsons joke. The show’s melodramatic veterinarian was drawn to look like Edwards.

The final ’58 film, The Lineup, is by far the best of the bunch. It’s based on a then-current TV series, a San Francisco version of Dragnet. The opening scenes suffer for hewing close to the show’s format. Two uninteresting cops investigate a bizarre incident at the docks and realize that unsuspecting travelers are being used as drug mules for the Syndicate.

It’s when the villains turn up that Stirling Silliphant’s script kicks up the kink. Eli Wallach, in only his second film, is the man tasked with retrieving the dope at all costs. He travels with an older “associate” (Robert Keith) who records the dying words of each person Wallach kills. Their relationship officially out-creeps anything I’ve seen in a dozen more recent, “edgy” crime dramas. There’s also nice work from Richard Jaeckel as a cocky getaway driver with a drinking problem.

Don Siegel, who knows his way around San Francisco, directs. The climax includes some shocking acts of violence and a dazzling car chase on the highway system then under construction. But it’s Siegel’s throwaway use of everyday locations that elevates the movie. A single shot of Jaeckel parking a sedan in front of a freighter that begins pushing away from a pier is a thing of beauty.

Overall, some great picks by Ellroy that highlight his influences and provide an X-ray of a young author in development. And that depresses the hell out of me. Movies like this, that don’t skimp on the mayhem but always show the toll it takes, are in short supply these days. Where is the next generation of crime writers supposed to get their fix of human-scaled sex and violence?

Miscellaneous: Links, No Country For Old Men Edition

See the movie. It’s a hell of a ride. Then you won’t mind the spoilers in the AV Club’s comparison of book and film. Nora Ephron also puzzles it out.

Music: My New Favorite Christmas Song

‘Don’t Shoot Me, Santa’ by the Killers. A novelty record that also manages to be an authentic Killers song. And it’s for charity.