Neo-noir II: ‘This Gun for Hire’ and ‘Roman Holiday’ in ‘L.A. Confidential’

In 1997, four years after Robert Benton’s Twilight, Curtis Hanson made the early-’50s period piece L.A. Confidential. The movie garnered a lot of praise: Oscars for its screenplay (adapted from James Ellroy’s novel of the same name) and Kim Basinger’s performance, and Best Picture nods from the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Board of Review. (It got beaten out for the Academy Award by the juggernaut Titanic.)

A quarter-century on, the movie holds up pretty well, and one of the best things about is the way it depicts L.A. of the time as so wrapped up in the Dream Factory that it doesn’t know what’s real and what’s Hollywood fantasy. This is clear from the opening-credit sequence, narrated by the gossip-purveyor played by Danny DeVito (another of the best things about it).

Badge of Honor is a fictional show, clearly based on Dragnet, with its valorizing portrayal of the LAPD. But the the titles on the marquees that appear just about every time the characters take a stroll are of real films, judiciously selected by Hanson for maximum ironic effect.
Danny DeVito and Kevin Spacey, as a bent cop; “When Worlds Collide” in the background.
For more on the movie back-lighting Russell Crowe, see ‘The Bad and the Beautiful’ in ‘Two Weeks in Another Town’

Mild spoiler to follow. At the center of the plot, and Exhibit A in the fantasy-reality mixup, is an enterprise (apparently based on a real one) in which prostitutes are made up, or have had plastic surgery, to resemble movie stars. Basinger’s character is supposed to be Veronica Lake, and her john is apparently so into the deception that he insists on screening Lake movies at their assignations — here, the noir This Gun for Hire. Fans of Taxi Driver should pay attention to the first words out of Alan Ladd’s mouth.

It’s a delicious moment, but as L.A. Confidential goes on, the movie-in-movie moments get a bit obvious. Not once, but twice, cops bust open the door to scenes of degradation and violence to find a TV tuned to something anodyne (in one case the 1932 cartoon “Noah’s Outing,” in the other, Perry Como’s Kraft Music Hall). And (another spoiler) when tormented cop Crowe and heart-of-gold hooker Basinger fall for each other, is it any surprise that their date movie is Roman Holiday? Yup, we get it: they want to escape to a world that’s less, well, noir.

Neo-noir I: ‘Downhill Racer’ in ‘Twilight’

Let’s lift a glass and drink to Robert Benton, a modest man of more than modest talent. Benton was born in Waxahachie, Texas, in 1932, attended the University of Texas, and made his way — as so many others have done before and since — to New York City. There he collaborated with a UT buddy, Harvey Schmidt (later to co-write The Fantasticks) on a clever book called The In and Out Book, and eventually landed a job as art director of Esquire magazine, then at the center of the New Journalism and other manifestations of American hipness. Benton and another Esquire editor, David Newman, created the magazine’s annual Dubious Achievement Awards, wrote a clever book of their own, and wrote the script of a clever musical, It’s a Bird … It’s a Plane … It’s Superman, which I saw on Broadway in 1966.

The following year, Benton and Newman really made a splash with their first screenplay, for Bonnie and Clyde. Benton made the move to directing in 1972 with the revisionist western Bad Company, and subsequently released a string of classics, near-classics, and interesting failures, including The Late Show, Kramer vs. Kramer, Places in the Heart, Billy Bathgate, and Nobody’s Fool. That last film, released in 1994, starred Paul Newman, and he and Benton reunited four years later forTwilight, an elegiac private eye picture. Newman is the detective, Harry Ross, who tries to sort out the truth and cling to a code of honor, however tattered.

That’s right, it’s updated Raymond Chandler, and frankly, Robert Altman did it better in The Long Goodbye. But it’s fun to watch Newman and fellow old pros Gene Hackman, Susan Sarandon, M. Emmett Walsh, James Garner, and Stockard Channing mix it up with the talented newcomers Reese Witherspoon, Margo Martindale, and Liev Schreiber.

The movie-in-movie scene is a corker. Hackman plays Jack Ames, an actor who’s battling cancer. He and Harry have a complicated relationship, playing cards and avoiding mutually agreed on sensitive topics. Like a lot of aging stars, apparently, Jack likes watching his own old movies, in this case, Downhill Racer (1969).

The Twilight scene is a nice one for a number of reasons, including the appreciation Benton — as both writer and director — shows for the power of silence.

‘Springtime,’ Fake Western, and Fake Quiz Show in ‘One Hundred and One Dalmatians’

After viewing Disney’s One Hundred and One Dalmatians (1961) — directed by Clyde Geronimi, Hamilton Luske, and Wolfgang Reitherman — I am of the mind that there are two terrific things about the movie. The first is the animation of the dalmatian puppies, which is incredibly lifelike and endearing. The second (related) is the use of movies-in-movie.

Specifically, One Hundred and Dalmations shows, in a vivid and clever way, film’s ability to rivet us. As this blog has repeatedly noted, the power doesn’t necessarily diminish when the film is schlocky. A bit more than us humans, the puppies — especially Lucky, who seems to want to climb into the TV, even when a commercial is on — are transfixed by a good story, to the point of forgetting it’s not real. And especially when the hero is a dog.

The two bad guys entrusted with keeping watch over the dognapped puppies are similarly transported — to the point of neglecting their duties — by the quiz show What’s My Crime?, which by this time I probably have to point out was a takeoff on the then-popular series What’s My Line? Not surprisingly, Lucky, the sort of audience member every filmmaker wants, is loving it too.

I hate to say it, but to me the worst clip is the real one. We’re back with the bad guys and the puppies. On the telly is a Disney short from 1929, “Springtime,” complete with dancing flowers. It’s so blah it can’t even hold Horace and Jasper’s attention. But the doggies are into it. Especially — even after mayhem breaks out — Lucky.

‘Double Indemnity’ in ‘Ransom for a Dead Man’

This Columbo pilot from 1971 doesn’t quite fit into the trope of aging-actresses-watching-their-old-movies, but it’s a kissing cousin, so I’m going to take a look at it and then say farewell to ’70s TV detective series. (I hope.)

It’s actually the second movie-length pilot for the Peter Falk series, the first one having aired back in 1968. Here, Falk is the Columbo the world would come to know and love, smoking and shambling in his threadbare raincoat. Also in keeping with the soon-to-be-familiar formula, the murder takes place early on (at about the 2:15 mark) and there is no mystery about it. We see Leslie Williams (played by Lee Grant, 46 years old at the time, so not that aging) shoot her husband at point blank range, and we spend the rest of the episode watching Columbo come to suspect her, and then trap her.

Indeed, one of the fun things about the episode, which was directed by Richard Irving, with a script by Dean Hargrove, is Leslie’s realization of what he’s up to, and then calling him out on it.

Leslie: You know, Columbo, you’re almost likable in a shabby sort of way. Maybe it’s the way you come slouching in here with your shopworn bag of tricks.

Columbo: Me? Tricks?

Leslie: The humility, the seeming absent-mindedness, the uh, homey anecdotes about the family: the wife, you know?

Columbo: Really?

Leslie: Yeah, Lieutenant Columbo, fumbling and stumbling along. But it’s always the jugular that he’s after. And I imagine that, more often than not, he’s successful.

Columbo: I appreciate that compliment, Mrs. Williams, and I particularly appreciate it coming from you.

The movie-in-movie scene comes about halfway in. Leslie walks in as her stepdaughter, Margaret (Patricia Mattick), is eating breakfast and watching TV.

I love it that Irving and Hargrove (and I’ll thrown in Columbo creators Richard Levinson and William Link, who get story credit) chose Double Indemnity as the movie on the screen. It is a classic, perhaps the classic, of film noir, with credits to die for: directed by Billy Wilder, screenplay by Wilder and Raymond Chandler, based on a novel by James M. Cain, and starring Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray. (A bit sadly, they were better known in 1971 for their TV stints in The Big Valley and My Three Sons.)

What’s more, the clip points up the ways in which Ransom for a Dead Man echoes Double Indemnity. There’s no insurance scheme in the Columbo episode, but both are about cold-blooded cases of husband-cide. And knowing Double Indemnity adds an extra wrinkly to Ransom. In Wilder’s film, it’s the victim’s daughter who first realizes the person responsible for her father’s murder is her stepmother, Stanwyck. You can just imagine Margaret coming to this point in the movie and saying to herself, “Hey, wait a minute…”

‘Rebecca’ in ‘Cannon’

I keep finding new examples of 1970s TV detective dramas with aging actresses playing aging actresses who, a la Sunset Boulevard, watch their own old movies. After I wrote about Columbo episodes starring Janet Leigh and Anne Baxter (Baxter’s actually not the one doing the watching), reader Ronald Landri clued me in to an episode of Cannon with Joan Fontaine in the aging siren role.

Great idea but hard to execute for the blog, since I needed to see (and post) the scene, and episodes of Cannon — which starred William Conrad as a portly private eye — are quite hard to come by. They’re not streaming anywhere, and I couldn’t find a copy of the DVD on Amazon or Ebay. Fortunately, nineteen libraries worldwide own the DVD set of Cannon, season five, and I was able to order one through Interlibrary Loan.

The episode was called “The Star,” and it aired on December 10, 1975. The date is important since the Janet Leigh Columbo episode, “Forgotten Lady,” aired barely three months before, and “The Star” is a pretty clear rip-off of it.

Fontaine plays Thelma Cain, who (of course) lives in the past. She’s engaged Cannon because her wayward son is missing. But some rough characters are also on the chase, and Cannon barely escapes from their clutches. He heads back to Cain’s mansion, which she shares with her (suspiciously) young husband.

Yes, it’s Hitchcock’s Rebecca (1940); Fontaine, as the second Mrs. de Winter, is having her classic confrontation with the diabolical Mrs. Danvers (Judith Anderson). It probably wasn’t the best idea for the Cannon director (William Wiard) and writer (Margaret Armen) to include this scene. Even in black and white and projected on Cannon’s capacious body, it is so much better than “The Star” that one wants to avert one’s eyes. As even Cannon says, “I like that performance better.”

I came away from the episode with one question. It was done pretty much on the cheap, and so, in contrast to “Forgotten Lady” or (for that matter) Sunset Boulevard, the mise en scène doesn’t include lots of framed pictures of the star’s early days. With one exception. This portrait is in Thelma Cain’s parlor:

It’s clearly of the young Fontaine, sort of in the style of Renoir, and I’m quite curious as to how it was procured. But I can’t find it via Google search. I wonder if the Cannon folk commissioned it, and it’s now resting in someone’s attic. Probably one of life’s unanswerables.

‘Diner’ in ‘The Kominsky Method’

The 2018-2021 Netflix series The Kominsky Method, produced and written by Chuck Lorre, had a lot of showbiz in-joke Easter eggs. There was the moment when Jon Cryer (playing himself as an awards-show presenter) shouts down a heckler named “Chuck”–presumably Lorre. It tickled me when some students in the acting class of Sandy Kominsky (Michael Douglas), students staged a scene from Lorre’s popular hit, critical whipping post Two and a Half Men. The somewhat pretentious Sandy cringed; the scene killed. And (spoiler alert), in the final season, Sandy–who has always been a those-who-can’t-do-teach kind of guy–gets cast in the title role of a big-budget version of The Old Man and the Sea, directed by Barry Levinson, playing himself.

But my favorite was the movie-in-movie scene in the penultimate episode, written by Lorre and directed by Andy Tennant. Gathered around the TV are Sandy, his ex-wife (Katherine Turner), their daughter, Mindy (Sarah Baker), and Mindy’s husband, Martin (Paul Reiser, going with the unfortunate balding pony tail look).

It’s a classic scene from Levinson’s first movie, Diner (1982), featuring Steve Guttenberg, Daniel Stern, Kevin Bacon, and–of course–Reiser himself, more or less unrecognizable. As Sandy says, “Hard to believe these guys were unknown actors when Barry cast them.”

Delicious.

? in ‘Across the Pacific’

The Maltese Falcon (1941), Across the Pacific (1942), and Casablanca (a little later in 1942) make up a trio of films that interlock in complicated ways.

All three: star Humphrey Bogart, costar Sidney Greenstreet, released by Warner Brothers.

Falcon and Pacific: directed by John Huston, costar Mary Astor (whom the Bogie character calls “Angel”), Greenstreet character referred to as “the Fat Man.” (He’s even called that in the Across the Pacific newspaper ad, above.)

Falcon and Casablanca: costar Peter Lorre.

Pacific and Casablanca: Bogart character named “Rick,” film is set in the days just before Pearl Harbor.

Across the Pacific is the weakest of the three, but it’s the only one with a movie-in-movie scene, and hence it’s my subject today. Bogart is Rick Leland, who, as the movie opens, has been court-martialed from the U.S. Army for stealing. But things are not as they seem. He’s actually a spy on a top-secret mission, which involves him traveling on a Japanese ship from Nova Scotia to Yokahama. But the ship is held up in Panama, where the denouement takes place.

The whole thing is pretty ludicrous, not to mention racist. Rick at one point actually says, “They all look alike.” (Huston and Warner Brothers must have thought so, too: all the Japanese characters are played by people of Chinese descent. In 1942, of course, Japanese-Americans were otherwise engaged in internment camps.)

But by the time, the movie-in-movie scene comes around, all the plot points have been taken care of and we can get down to action. Rick’s contact has told him to go to a movie house, which turns out to service Panama’s apparently sizeable Japanese community. Rick sits down, and Huston very skillfully builds suspense that suddenly erupts in a climax reminiscent of HItchock’s Saboteur, which had come out just a few months earlier. Note the audio track, with its mix of audience titters, a crying baby, and the movie’s dialogue and soundtrack.

Now, you will have noticed the question mark in the title of this post. The usually reliable IMDB doesn’t name the film being shown, and I haven’t been able to find it in any other source. I happen to have a neighbor and occasional tennis partner named Satoru Saito, who is a professor of Japanese literature and film at Rutgers University. He was kind enough to take a look at the clip and reported:

“Unfortunately, I couldn’t figure out the name of the film. The poster in the lobby (the same one as the outside) is a women’s magazine (Fujin koron) cover. As for what the characters are saying, it’s a bit hard because the woman is definitely not a Japanese speaker, and they are both reading off a script (the movie is likely a silent film, and I don’t know if what is being said accurately reflects the silent movie). The dialogue is something like this:

The man: “I will make sure to use my time only for you.  I won’t go out with Hanako.   For ___ reason, I couldn’t help it.”

Woman: “I am happy to hear that…. Oh my classmates are here.”

Classmates: “They are very touchy.”

Man: “You must be tired; let’s go for some tea.”

Woman: “I don’t think I can today.”

Man: “Don’t say that, let’s go.”

So that’s all I got. If anybody has a clue to what this movie is, I would be delighted to hear it.

Spielberg Roundup, II: ‘Dumbo’ in ‘1941’; ‘Goldfinger’ in ‘Catch Me If You Can’; ‘The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance’ in ‘Munich’

When we left Steven Spielberg, he was putting various movies and TV shows into Close Encounters of the Third Kind, which was his second blockbuster in a row, after Jaws. Their success gave him permission to try something completely different, 1941, which I didn’t see when it came out in 1979 and can now report is his mashup of The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming and It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, in being a madcap, star-studded, slapstick movie about an aborted invasion of the U.S. Also like IAMMMMW (there’s no way to sugarcoat this), it is a mess.

The movie-in-movie scene is one of the quieter ones, and one of the more appealing. General Joseph Stillwell (Robert Stack) — who was actually stationed in California in 1941 — is portrayed as a movie buff and a softie. He sneaks into a Hollywood cinema to see Disney’s 1941 release.

That’s right, Dumbo. It makes no sense, but I guess it’s the ultimate kitchen sink in this very kitchen-sink movie.

Flash forward a quarter of a century or so. Spielberg has achieved his status as the ultimate popular entertainer, eager and able to explore a variety of cinematic forms and historical periods. Catch Me If You Can (2002) is firmly set in that moment when the early ’60s was about to turn into the middle ’60s, that is to say 1964. And what better film to stand for a certain aspect of that moment than … pause for bass line and Shirley Bassey voice … Goldfinger. I well remember the excitement when this third Bond film came out, what with Sean Connery at the peak of his form (never mind the toup), the double-entendre character names (well, one character), and the iconic cars, props and set pieces. How were we to know that the moment would pass and become passe in an instant — and the movie turn into as much a period piece as Connery’s baby-blue terrycloth swimming ensemble?

In this clip, young con man Frank Abagnale Jr. (Leonardo DiCaprio) hears himself described as “James Bond of the sky.” Then quick cuts to Goldfinger (Gert Frobe is the other guy in a swim outfit), and a dolly-shot zoom in on DiCaprio watching the movie in a theater.

As you can see, even more humorous edits ensue, culminating with DiCaprio (or his double) at the wheel of an Aston-Martin tooling through New York. It’s an entertaining sequence, yet my ultimate reaction is that it probably wasn’t worth the expense of the dolly shot, licensing Goldfinger and John Barry’s Bond music, and putting the car and a period setting in the middle of Manhattan. Not to mention the suit. Of course, if you’re Spielberg, what’s a few dollars more in the budget?

In Munich (2005), the movie-in-movie is an easy-to-miss grace note. Spielberg has frequently talked about how much he was influenced by John Ford, once saying, “I try to rent a John Ford film, one or two, before I start every movie. Simply because he inspires me and I’m very sensitive to the way he uses his camera to paint his pictures.” He used The Quiet Man in a key scene in E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. Munich is about Israel’s targeted assassination of those it suspected of involvement in the 1972 Munich Olympics massacre. More broadly, it’s about the complicated morality and personal costs of such an enterprise.

In an early sequence, the Israeli operatives are following a Palestinian translator and poet living in Rome, who is on their list. We watch them watching him as he goes into a small corner store and buys some groceries. There’s a small TV playing. Presently, the man leaves the store and is murdered.

You wouldn’t know it because the TV is in fact so small, but the film that’s shown is The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), one of Ford’s profound meditations on violence, its costs and its arguable necessity. I believe it’s my favorite movie-in-movie in all of Spielberg.

Spielberg Roundup, Part I: ‘Sssssss’ and ‘Whoa: Be-Gone!’ in ‘The Sugarland Express’; ‘Duck Dodgers in the 24 1/2 Century’ and ‘The Ten Commandments’ in ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind’

Not surprisingly for a charter member of the Film School Generation of directors, Steven Spielberg has always been a savvy user of movie-in-movies. We’ve already considered E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, Jurassic Park, and Minority Report. This post and the next will look at a few more Spielbergs, in chronological order.

His first feature film, in 1974, was The Sugarland Express, with Goldie Hawn and William Atherton, a low-speed chase movie based on the true story of of a real-life Texas couple who took a cop hostage in their quest to wrest back their toddler from his adoptive parents. It has a real ’70s vibe, with its improv-seeming scenes, use of non-actors, and sense of the American roadscape that’s at once loving and ironic. The last is enhanced by Vilmos Zsigmond’s cinematography, often grainy because of long shots showing an endless trail of police cars. The movie is of a piece with contemporaneous character-centered slices of Americana like Terence Malick’s Badlands, Robert Altman’s Thieves Like Us, and Lamont Johnson’s The Last American Hero.

Spielberg, of course, would quickly pivot to a very different approach, but this movie works best in its small moments (the periodic car wrecks are tiresome), including the movie-in-movie sequence. Hawn and Atherton are hiding out in an RV that’s in a used-car lot overlooking a drive-in-movie. (Talk about the American roadscape!) We only briefly see the film that’s playing, but reliable sources assert that it’s Sssssss (1973), whose premise an IMDB contributor summarizes as: “A college student becomes lab assistant to a scientist who is working on a serum that can transform humans into snakes.”

Trust me: the movie on the drive-in screen is “Sssssss”

Sssssss has nothing to do, on any level, with The Sugarland Express, and I’m pretty sure the only reason it was used is that — like Sugarland — it was produced by Richard Zanuck and David Brown and released by Universal, and hence cost little or nothing.

The more pointed movie-in-movie is a cartoon that subsequently comes on at the drive-in, the Road Runner short “Whoa, Be Gone!” (1958), directed by Chuck Jones. (This is the third time I’ve noted Jones being used in feature films, the others being The Shining and the Spielberg-produced Gremlins.) “Hey, we got a free movie next door!” says Hawn’s character:

Improbably, Spielberg makes the Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote’s antics into a tender moment, and foreshadowing of what lies in store for the young couple.

Spielberg followed up Sugarland Express with Jaws (no movies-in-movie) and, in 1977, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, which is marked by quite a few — and quite varied — inserts. IMDB claims that a Road Runner clip is shown on a TV, but I confess I wasn’t able to spot it. It’s impossible, however, to miss another Chuck Jones short, the classic “Duck Dodgers in the 24 1/2 Century” (1953), which is on TV as Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss) obsessively labors on a his model of a landscape that’s really important, he doesn’t know exactly why. The contrast, of course, is between Jones’s wacky version of spacemen and Roy’s (implicitly) real ones.

In a couple of other moments, the urgency of the scenario is contrasted with the banality of ‘ the 70s TV shows that are playing in the background: Policewoman in one scene, The Days of Our Lives in another.

The tastiest meta set piece is a scene where Roy’s at home with his wife (Teri Garr) and three kids. He gets temporarily distracted from his UFO obsession by the fact that Pinocchio — for some reason one of his favorite movies — is playing at a local theater. The Disney reference isn’t the only one in Spielberg: Gremlins features Snow White and in the next post, you’ll see what’s in 1941. It’s (to me) an odd enthusiasm — I much prefer the madcap and antic Chuck Jones — and I’m with the kids, who vote to play miniature golf instead.

The focus then shifts to Cecil DeMille’s The Ten Commandments (1956), which is playing on TV. Everybody except Garr is transfixed by it: the kids for unknown reasons, and Roy because Mt. Sinai resembles, of all things, the landscape that’s haunting his consciousness.

It’s a long movie but, Roy says, “I told them they’d only watch five commandments.”

Next: 1941, Catch Me If You Can, and Munich.

Nestflix Arrives

Since this blog started, a small but active portion of it has been devoted to fake movies and TV shows seen in real ones — including the most recent post, on a Tony Randall-starring werewolf movie in an episode of Happy Days. (If you want to see a list of all such posts, go to the bottom of the sidebar at right and choose “Not Real” in the drop-down category menu.)

Anyone interested in this phenomenon has a new go-to site: Nestflix, put together by a web creator named Lynn Fisher, who does a lot of interesting projects, and also, clearly, has a lot of time on her hands. Nestflix is a very cool site, currently with more than 400 entries, including:

Loyal Movies in Other Movies readers will recall my posts on Habeus Corpus (in The Player) and Home for Purim (in For Your Consideration). But there’s obviously a whole lot here that I haven’t touched. When you click on one of the rectangles, you get a screen like this (the running time, logo, and credited director are completely fanciful):

Nestflix does such a great job that I will be giving fake movies a rest. At least for a while.