Thursday, December 1, 2011
No Rules: MIKE DENNIS
The first thing I ever read by MIKE DENNIS was a sort of love letter to rockabilly and blues called CADILLAC'S COMING. It was a solid piece of work, full of the sort of understanding of popular music that only a musician is capable of (and Mike IS a musician; he tickles the ivories, natch).
I've never heard Mike play, so I can't tell you if he's any good. I wouldn't be a bit surprised if he was, though. I can tell you this much with certainty: he's a Killer when it comes to writing fiction. Aside from CADILLAC'S COMING, his other books include THE TAKE, BLOODSTAINS ON THE WALL, and the first two volumes of his Key West noirs, SET-UP ON FRONT STREET and THE GHOSTS OF HAVANA.
And apparently, writing and music aren't all there is to the man. Here's MIKE DENNIS, with a great piece on the leading men of film noir.
THE MEN OF FILM NOIR
A few months back, Heath put out a list of his favorite films noir. After reading it, I was inspired to do the same. Then he suggested we do a "Who's The King Of Noir?" post. Since I'm not really sure any one actor could hold down the top spot, I'm going to throw a few of them at you and see what you think.
ROBERT MITCHUM: Even if no one actor can be number 1, Mitchum would certainly come very close. His performance in The Friends Of Eddie Coyle (1973) was, without a doubt, the finest of his career and perhaps the greatest single performance of any film noir actor ever. He crawls inside Coyle's skin and drags the viewer with him to all the seedy bars and parking lots where he reveals his desperation through dialogue. His hand gestures, body language, voice inflections—all pitch-perfect in his portrayal of this world-weary street criminal.
You can't talk about Mitchum and noir without mentioning Out Of The Past (1947), a classic directed by Jacques Tourneur. True to the traditions of noir, Mitchum's Jeff Bailey is all trenchcoat and cigarettes, the everyman drawn into a situation he can't control. And of course, his downward spiral is greased by a smokin' hot babe, in this case, the deadly Jane Greer.
ROBERT RYAN: Part average Joe and part psychopath, Robert Ryan always makes you nervous everytime he walks onscreen. You never know if (or more likely, when) he's going to come unhinged. In An Act Of Violence (1948), he's terrific as the creepy ex-POW thirsting for revenge against his former commanding officer. His Oscar-nominated turn as a violent anti-Semite in Crossfire (1947) is probably his greatest role. Over and over, throughout his career, Ryan shows you how long he can dance on the very lip of the abyss before plunging in. You just have to be careful you're not too close to him when he jumps. He might take you with him.
RICHARD WIDMARK: Two words: Harry Fabian. Night And The City (1950) is one of my top three personal film noir favorites, maybe even number one. Fabian is without question the quintessential film noir character, a dreamer whose reach far exceeded his grasp. Widmark's complex performance in director Jules Dassin's masterpiece far outweighs anything he ever did at any other point in his long career, but few actors get the chance to play a character like Fabian. Widmark never got such an opportunity again, often being relegated to standard leading man roles and later, ordinary character parts. The excellent Road House (1948) was his only other film noir performance worth mentioning. I deliberately omit Kiss Of Death (1947), where he played the snickering Tommy Udo, because I consider it a cops-vs-gangsters movie, not film noir.
DAN DURYEA: Anyone who can be as consistently slimy as Duryea was throughout his career deserves inclusion in this list. From Criss Cross (1949) to Woman In The Window (1944) to Too Late For Tears (1949), he's there to remind you that film noir is not for sissies. They play for keeps in these movies and you know from the moment he walks onto the screen that someone's going to wind up at the bottom of the river.
Duryea and Hollywood endings weren't really meant for each other, and his turn as pimp Johnny Prince in Scarlet Street (1945) drove that point home. The little-known and very underrated Too Late For Tears (1949) is another great example. Black Angel (1946), One Way Street (1950), even Anthony Mann's noirish western, Winchester 73 (1950)...I could go on and on with Duryea. He was one of a kind.
ELISHA COOK JR: Whenever you saw Elisha Cook Jr's name in the credits of a film noir, you knew things were going to fall apart for the central character. Cook could do that to you. Come on with those raised eyebrows and his diminutive (but compelling) presence, and presto! You're in deep shit. A lot of noir characters paid the price for associating with Cook. Sterling Hayden in The Killing (1956) comes to mind, not to mention Marie Windsor, Cook's "creamy dish" in the same movie. Gene Raymond learned the hard way in the superb Plunder Road (1957) and Lawrence Tierney certainly could have done without him in Born To Kill (1947). Cook had his mojo working at all times. One of the greatest character actors in movie history.
Which reminds me, LAWRENCE TIERNEY: If ever there was an actor whose personal life played out like a film noir, it was Tierney. Way better-looking and a far better actor than his brother Scott Brady, it rankled him that Brady was more successful. After setting the screen on fire in Dillinger (1945), and in the aforementioned Born To Kill (1947), he was on his way to major stardom. The New York Times even said that Born To Kill was "not only morally disgusting but is an offense to a normal intellect." That alone should've cemented Tierney's place in film noir history. Unfortunately, however, his hard-drinking lifestyle prevented him from fulfilling his potential. A true, real-life tough guy, he got into plenty of barroom brawls, got thrown in jail numerous times, saw his career take a southward dive, and wound up in the 1960s in New York City, tending bar and driving horse carriages for Central Park tourists. His career never recovered, although he made a slight comeback in the 1990s, topping out with Quentin Tarantino's great film noir, Reservoir Dogs (1992).
RICHARD CONTE: Probably the most exciting news I heard in 1971 was that Richard Conte was tapped to play Don Barzini in The Godfather (1972). Although that movie was more opera than film noir, Conte oozed noir every time he stepped in front of the camera. He made you realize they were making a real gangster movie. And I mean a real gangster movie like The Big Combo (1955), where he's the gangland subject of a police investigation that is going nowhere. As the ice-cold Mr Brown, he lets you know in no uncertain terms that he doesn't like being investigated. Thieves Highway (1949), directed by the great Jules Dassin, while not exactly noir, is close enough, and Conte makes his way through this tale of revenge in his usual top form. Cry Of The City (1948) shows him in tangled relationships as an accused cop-killer on the run.
CHARLES McGRAW: You can't say "trenchcoat" without thinking of Charles McGraw. He should've gotten a piece of the action for every one sold in this country because God knows he helped to sell a shitload of them. Nobody could wear one with more authority. Brutal films like The Killers, The Narrow Margin, and Border Incident helped solidify McGraw's hold on the cinematic realism that was film noir. You knew guys like him in your own town, real hardasses, and you didn't fuck with them. Even when McGraw was on the right side of the law, you still were never sure he wouldn't break your face if you didn't tell him what he wanted to know.
McGraw, like the rest of these guys, had the presence, the look, the swagger, that was meant to be photographed in black and white. You know, at night against a backdrop of wet city streets. Sultry alto sax lines slithering through the soundtrack as guns slide in and out of oiled shoulder rigs.
Gimme a cigarette and pour me some whiskey, then bring in the femme fatale and let my world collapse around me. You know what? I don't give a shit.
It's noir, baby.