Wednesday, June 07, 2006

B Noir: The Big Night (1951) and M (1951)

Film Forum trotted out a pair of Joseph Losey rarities last night to packed crowds, and I was grateful to count myself among them. The buzz was around his M remake, but first up was The Big Night. It's a juvenile delinquency film with balls. That is, it shaded every action with doubt, undercutting each moral certainty with the rather brutal facts of living. John Barrymore Jr. plays a fidgety, picked upon lad whose stunned to find his father flogged in front of him on his birthday. Pissed at his father's mute acceptance of this indignity (shades of Rebel Without a Cause), he takes it upon himself to get revenge upon the bookie who did it. So he steals a gun and goes searching, falling deeper into the drunken underbelly of town - and aping Dean's mewling every chance he gets.

The Alice in Underworld conceit is solid plotting, each divey vignette more sordid than the next, and allows for deft character work from the hangers on he encounters - especially from the catty aristocratic drunk played by Philip Bourneuf, who plies him with shots. He hits bottom at a hallucinatory nightclub, where an ace drum solo segues into memories of his father's caning, and where an attempt to complement the black vocalist becomes a racial epithet - his mask of moral righteousness beginning to crack. Adults just don't understand, but he doesn't know jack shit either. Attempting to regain his father's masculine mantle, he opens himself up to a world without absolutes, where the gal who kisses him thinks he's a fool, and in which the friendly drunk turns into a selfish conniver at the first sign of danger. Barrymore's mission becomes confused - and the act itself, when completed, is awkwardly violent, death comes by accident - not by righteous indignation. What is most remarkable is the father's performance, who Preston Foster embodies with zen-like calm - his face in the climax gives away nothing - but when he says he cares for his son, the authority it carries is shattering for all the emotion shuddering beneath his hulking frame.

M is fairly faithful to the Lang touchstone, with a few effective flourishes. Like Lang, it's a portrait of a city, the personalities submerged amid geometric urban planning, the child-killer taking advantage of its anonymity. The opening scene is nearly a shot for shot remake - with the mother setting the table, the girl bouncing a ball, the killer buying the balloon, but instead of a bird's eye view of the staircase, it's low-angle, and instead of a whistle, the killer spits out a tune on a small flute, and it's not Threepenny Opera, it's something not nearly as catchy. But the mother apes the yell, that octave raising second syllable of El-sie that's forever etched in my memory. And then the killing, marked by the balloon in telephone wires and a ball rolling into a street. Ok, Lang is (much) better, more precise cutting (and that looming shadow!), but Losey has L.A. and a strong performance from David Wayne who smartly strikes his own psychotic path despite the lame Freudian baggage he's saddled with (he chokes girls with his mother's necklace). He's less articulate but more physically precise in his motions, sort of an inverse of Lorre - his final speech is a jumble of run-on sentences that comes to little except for the grim faced intensity Wayne gives it, while Lorre's speech is hysterical eloquence, he gains a modicum of sympathy while Wayne is distancing and piteous.

It is a great L.A. film though, especially in its final sections, with a race down a staircase adjoining a highway that ends up in the film historical hothouse that is the Bradbury Building (Double Indemnity and Blade Runner are two of its former occupants - thank you Los Angeles Plays Itself!) The final scene cannot help but be fascinating, here set in an abandoned parking garage, where the lawyer, here given a much more prominent role - as a drunk, disgraced lawyer to the hoods, who redeems himself by indicting the whole criminal establishment in the end. Yes, there is a similar strain in the original, but here the character is built throughout, and suffers a martyrs death in the end. In the end it's a fascinating curiosity, a low-budget location rich riff on Lang's masterpiece.


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