Wednesday, November 6, 2019

30 Days Has Noirvember: Christa Faust

So Jed asked me to throw together a quickfire Noirvember list of my top 5 under-known/underrated noir flicks. How could I resist a chance to champion a couple of my favorite underdogs?

Let me start off this top five list by saying that top five lists are bullshit. Seriously, total fucking bullshit. I have no idea which films are top or best or anything like that. All I can do is tell you about some flicks that I like. These films are all worthy of a little more attention, in my not-so-humble opinion and the write ups bellow are adapted from my annual Noir City coverage. Enjoy!

1. Crashout

Some friends and I were recently bemoaning the apparent extinction of the bad ass fat guy as a cinema archetype. These days you can have still a fat villain, but he’s always more of the evil mastermind type with lots of back up muscle to do his bidding, rather than a real man of action. Back in the day big guys could still be tough and strong and weren’t afraid to get their own hands dirty. Guys like Raymond Burr, Orson Welles, and my personal favorite, William Bendix, star of Crashout.

Crashout is a surprisingly brutal and violent film that follows a group of six escaped cons on the lam as they dodge cops, boost cars and search for a stash of hidden loot. A terrific ensemble cast, including Bendix at his best, William Talman as a creepy homicidal preacher and a stunning young Gloria Talbot (one of my long time monster movie crushes,) plus a top notch script makes what could have been a by-the-numbers action thriller into something greater than the sum of its parts. The characters are all memorable and complex and as they go down one by one, you find that you really care what happens to them. I also dug Beverly Michaels as the unconventional love interest, an unwed mother hiding out from her own ugly past. She got the best line too; (I’m paraphrasing here) “There’s two kinds of money, just like there’s two kinds of love. The good kind and the dirty kind.”
I can’t say enough good stuff about this one. In short, it’s brilliant. I hope someone’s got a DVD in the works for Crashout, because it’d be well worth it.

2. Appointment With Danger

You wouldn’t think that a film about mail inspectors in Gary, Indiana would turn out to be this witty and action-packed. But if you can get through yet another dull, stodgy Docu-Noir opening, this one extolling the virtues of the postal service, you’re in for a fucking treat. This one features a razor sharp script and a crackerjack cast of Noir City favorites including Jan Sterling, Paul Stewart and a pre-Dragnet pairing of Jack Webb and Harry Morgan, as crooks instead of cops.

When a nun (!!!) sees a couple of thugs struggling to dump the body of a murdered postal inspector, she finds herself a target. Cynical, wisecracking atheist Al Goddard (Alan Ladd) is assigned to the case and has to protect the witness while trying to infiltrate and bust up a big mail heist. Snappy patter ensues. Also, fisticuffs.

There was so much to love about this flick. The rundown industrial exteriors gave it a distinctly grim and gritty visual appeal. Jan Sterling is at her world-weary best as the music-loving moll and Phyllis Calvert manages to give what could have been a painfully sweet and sappy role some real backbone. But, look, forget all that. I want to talk about Paul Stewart’s junk.

I always notice things on the big screen that might not be as obvious on a television, iPad or phone. That’s one of my favorite things about seeing these movies in a theater. I love looking at other things in the shot besides the main action. Books on shelves. Goods in stores. Clothes on extras. Well this flick has a scene in a men’s locker room and everyone is wearing really tiny shorts. Alan Ladd is even shirtless. It’s a whole lot of beefcake with plenty to look at for those who enjoy ogling the male physique, but my eye was drawn right to the aforementioned junk.

Once again, I have been let down by the internet. It seems like you can find any and every kind of image you might ever want and then some, but no one seems to have posted a screen grab of Paul Stewart’s valiant little shorts trying and spectacularly failing to contain all that. Or how about a GIF of him standing up and trying to cover everything back up after letting it all hang out for the majority of the scene.

I’m not mad, perverts. I’m just disappointed.

In all seriousness, though, this is a great flick and you should watch it even if you don’t want to see Paul Stewart’s junk.

3. Cry Tough

This flick is hardly a work of cinematic genius or anything like that. It made the list because it hits all my sweet spots and then some. Nymphomania! Judo! Stag films! Gas masks and stingy brim hats! And this exchange: “What’s shakin’?” “The bacon. But this bacon is taken.” 

Gorgeous young John Saxon plays a Puerto Rican ex-con who comes home to his old New York neighborhood and tries to go straight, but winds up seduced back into a life of crime. He falls for a hot Cuban nymphomaniac (Linda Cristal) who hates the idea of marriage and doesn’t want to be tied down to just one man. (My kinda gal!) After pulling a few violent jobs for a slippery, effeminate crime boss, he’s poised to take over the dirty business, but all he really wants is his disapproving father’s love and acceptance. Dad’s declaration that Saxon is dead to him sends the kid into a self-destructive downward spiral. No sappy, happily-ever-after in this one.

It’s set in my old hood, in the “teeming tenements” of New York City during the hottest part of the sweltering summer. I loved the steamy rooftop love scene on what we used to call “tar beach.” I loved the fact that the crooks had no guns, only switchblades. I loved the death-curse of the bloody chicken head. I loved the weird, homoerotic scene where Saxon confronts the naked crime boss in the bathtub. I loved all the thick Latina dancers in tight skirts. In short, I loved this movie. It was dirt cheap, shot for peanuts and a bit heavy handed in its attempt to be socially relevant but that didn’t stop me from loving every minute of it.

4. City Streets

Ok, so I guess this is really more of an early “proto-noir” but fuck it. I loved it and fell hard for sexy Sylvia Sidney in her role as a street-wise mobster’s daughter. 

This is the only Dashiell Hammett story that was written specifically for the screen, and it’s brilliant.

Nan, the aforementioned mobster’s daughter (step daughter actually,) played by Sidney, falls for a carnival sharpshooter and former bull-rider named Kid, played by Gary Cooper. She works with her slippery stepfather’s mob running illegal beer. She encourages Kid to get in on the action so they can earn enough money to get married but he’s reluctant. Then she gets pinched trying to dispose of a murder weapon for her stepfather and goes to jail rather than rat out Pops. Pops convinces Kid that Nan needs his help and talks him into joining the mob.

Nan does the time like a pro with her mouth shut, but while she’s in the stir, she starts to have second thoughts about getting Kid involved in such a dangerous racket. Especially after her cellmate’s gangster boyfriend is murdered right outside the prison. When he comes to visit all dressed in spats and fur and tells her about how successful he’s been at climbing the criminal ladder, she’s heartbroken.

When she finally gets released, she begs Kid to give up the racket and run away with her. But he’s gotten used to the cash and the cars and big swanky house, and refuses. Until the boss starts hitting on Nan hard and won’t let up. Kid soon realizes the boss is going to rub him out so he can have Nan all to himself.

Kid leaves to take care of business with the Big Boss, but Nan makes her own arrangements to meet the boss in secret, with a gun in her purse.

This isn’t Kid’s story, it’s really Nan’s and she is a sensational character. She’s smart, tough, resourceful and independent, but also fiercely loyal and not afraid to take violent action to save her lover. According to Hammett’s granddaughter Julie, who was on hand to introduce the film when I saw this at the Noir City film festival, Hammett thought Sidney was perfect and exactly what he had imagined for that character. Which is interesting because the role was supposed to be played by Clara Bow, but she had to back out because of her famous nervous breakdown.

Of course the film is a little clunky at times and you can see that they were trying to figure out how to use this amazing new technology, but that doesn’t take away from the crackerjack script and the terrific performances.

Again, I wish this film were more widely available. But if you ever get a chance to see it, you won’t be sorry.

5. The Bitter Stems (Los Tallos Amargos)

This Argentine flick is fucking aces, but I don’t know how available it is so I’m gonna go ahead and make with the spoilers on this one. In fact, I’m pretty much laying out the whole damn story because I loved it so much. Especially the ending. Those who prefer to avoid that kind of thing can go get a sandwich. Or, if you speak Spanish, you can watch it with no subtitles on YouTube and come back when you’re done.

SPOILERS (Seriously. You’ve been warned.) 
Still with me? Ok, let’s tackle this sweaty, sexy, masterful and pitch fucking black flick.

The film starts off with an unlikely pair of men taking a train ride out to the country on a hot, muggy night. A ride that will clearly be one way for one of them.

We then flashback and get to know one of the riders, our (anti) hero Alfredo Gaspar. He’s a struggling journalist with financial problems who’s deeply unsatisfied in every aspect of his life. He has a decent job, a supportive family and a gorgeous, devoted girlfriend (with some truly amazing Bitch Eyebrows) but he longs for something more. Excitement, adventure, some kind of deeper meaning. And, of course, more money.

When he meets the second man on the train, a friendly and seemingly naive Hungarian barman named Liudas, the two become fast friends and decide to partner up in a clever mail order scam.
When Gaspar finds out that Liudas needs money to help his wife and children to escape the ravages of war in Europe, he’s found that deeper meaning he’d been missing all this time. Having lost his own father in WWI, he selflessly offers his new pal 75% of the take from the scam. Liudas is effusively grateful and can’t stop gushing about his beloved eldest son Jarvis, who he can’t wait to see again.

But, since this is Noir City, you know it’s not going to end well.

When his girlfriend questions Gaspar’s decision to give the majority of their profits to Liudas, she plants the seeds of doubt in his mind. How does he know this man, who he only just met, isn’t scamming him just like they’re scamming their so-called students? How does he know this Jarvis really exists?

Now that the doubt has taken root, there’s no going back for Gaspar. Everything Liudas does seems suspicious, from buying a fancy suit to closing his office door while talking on the phone to a mysterious woman. He decides to follow Liudas to a nightclub, where his supposedly happily married friend secretly meets with a sexy bar girl. Gaspar strains to eavesdrop on their conversation, but is thwarted by the loud, brassy music. He does hear fragments, including Liudas laughing and saying “Of course he believes in Jarvis, why wouldn’t he?”

This is all Gaspar needed to prove that he’d been had.

Which brings us back to that doomed train ride. Gaspar leads his trusting friend to his empty family home and a cold and noirish death by way of an electrical blackout and a hammer.

Struggling to bury the body in the pouring rain, he finds a dropped letter on the wet ground. The ink has run, making it illegible, so he tosses it and the handful of seeds inside the envelope on top of the fresh grave before covering them with the last of the dirt.

He seems to have gotten away with murder, but when he returns to Buenos Aires, he finds a telegram for Liudas. It’s from Jarvis, who will be arriving the following day.

But you saw that coming, didn’t you?

Here’s where things start to get really interesting. In classic Film Noir fashion, our beleaguered protagonist is forced to dig himself deeper and deeper into trouble while scrambling to cover up his first crime. He buys time by telling the kid his dad’s gone to Chile on business, but knows the flimsy cover story won’t last forever. When Jarvis meets his father’s nightclub mistress, Gaspar realizes he’s going to have to find a way to silence her. But when Jarvis meets and falls in love with Gaspar’s own kid sister Esther, there’s no way out.

Gaspar’s paranoia reaches a crescendo when Jarvis notices a special native Hungarian plant growing out of the spot in the garden where Liudas was buried. He wasn’t surprised to see the plant, since he’s the one who sent his father the seeds, but he is shocked that an experienced gardener like Liudas would choose a shady spot for the sun-loving plant and plant them all crowded together. He asks Gaspar for a shovel so he can dig up the sprouts and move them to a sunnier spot.

Near delirious from guilt and shame and sure that his terrible crime will finally be revealed, Gasper runs away and flings himself in front of a train.

Meanwhile, unaware of Gaspar’s torment, Jarvis and Esther finish moving the plants to their new spot. He explains to her how smart his father was to make sure the seeds weren’t buried too deep, or else they would have died. He fills in the shallow hole, never knowing his father’s corpse lay just a few inches deeper.

And that, Faustketeers, is how you end a motherfucking noir flick.

Christa Faust is the author of Money Shot and Choke Hold as well as many film and television tie-in novels (Snakes on a Plane, I shit you not) and a frequent contributor to Noir City magazine. She is the co-creator of the comic Peepland and thank the noir deities her lucha libre novel Hoodtown is back the fuck in print. Learn more at her website.

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