The Exiles (Kent Mackenzie, 1961)

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Kent Mackenzie’s 1961 film The Exiles provides an extraordinary record of both a community and a location. It takes a frank look at the experience of the first generation of indigenous Americans to relocate from the reservation to the city, giving them a voice to tell their own stories. At the same time, it provides a rich view of the working class Bunker Hill neighborhood of Los Angeles in which they live. Its iconic Angel’s Flight funicular and shabby victorian housing had in past decades played a starring role in the writings of John Fante as well as bit parts in the films of classic noir but, as Mackenzie made his film, plans for new development meant its days were numbered.

The film, which runs a tight 72 minutes and taking place in the space of twelve hours, was shot on evenings and weekends across a span of three and a half years, using the leftover ends of 35mm reel film from other productions. A recent alumni of the University of Southern California, the British born Mackenzie had begun to acquaint himself with the neighborhood and its inhabitants while making his graduation short, the appropriately named Bunker Hill (1956). In preparation for his feature, he spent a substantial amount of time befriending and earning the trust of this community, ultimately casting individuals to play and express themselves. The resulting film blurs the line between the documentary and the narrative film, capturing something of the feel of direct cinema, but using voiceover to allow the participants to express their stories and feelings directly to the viewer. This contrasts with the rest of the film’s dialogue. Of necessity dubbed after the event, it creates a distance between viewer and subject, giving an overall push/pull effect that chimes with Mackenzie’s approach to his characters. In their listlessness, their drinking habits, their violent impulses, and perhaps especially in their treatment of women, the men are not always shown in the best of light. However, the film ultimately connects their behavior to a deeper malaise, one that if not excusing every action, nonetheless allows them to emerge sympathetically.

Mackenzie essentially focuses on three members of a larger group: the pregnant Yvonne, her partner Homer, and his friend Tommy. Yvonne, first encountered while shopping for Homer’s dinner, is already consigned to her traditional role. She muses on her hopes for her child, that they will grow up in the city rather than the reservation, that they will speak English, go to college, have the things she never had. She hopes that Homer will sort himself out, but wonders if life might have been better had she never met him. Homer is restless. He finds it hard to sit in a bar, repeating the same conversations. “I like to have some kind of excitement, you know. Get into a fight or something. Even just get up and walk all over town or something.” For Tommy, this repetitiveness is the stuff of life: “It keeps going on, day to day, month to month. Before you know it the year’s gone and it’s still the same. It’s just like when you go to jail it’s the same thing. When I’m in jail I don’t worry about it, because I can do time.” 

We get to know these characters over the course of a single night. Yvonne is dispatched alone at a movie theater while the two men meet friends at a bar before Tommy and a friend take off to go dancing with two women, while Homer largely drifts from bar to poker game to bar. The culture they negotiate is the same as that for any young American of the period: convertible cars, advertising jingles, even westerns celebrating the superiority of the white settler. Tommy plays air piano to rock n roll music while Yvonne, after watching a movie concerning racial passing (Douglas Sirk’s Imitation of Life), gazes at shiny white mannequins displaying the latest fashions in store windows. Pausing outside a liquor store, Homer reads a letter from his parents in Arizona and we are briefly with them. His father sings as his mother and sister play with their dog in the long grasses outside their rural home. Back to Homer, and this scene of purity is contrasted with the bottles luringly displayed behind his back.

After debuting at the 1961 Venice Film Festival, The Exiles failed to attract commercial distribution and the film largely faded from view. A late lease of life came with the film’s appearance in Thom Anderson’s epic video essay Los Angeles Plays Itself (2003), which lead to Milestone Films approaching the UCLA Film & Television Archive for its restoration. Amongst the wealth of footage of this most filmed of cities, Anderson presents The Exiles as a progenitor of what he terms “a cinema of walking.” This he defines as the neorealist films, by directors such as Charles Burnett and Haile Gerima, about the marginalized communities who remain downtown after the wealthier whites take to their cars at the end of the working day. Watching Yvonne, laden with groceries, trudging home from the Grand Central Market, we might consider the term an apt one.

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The film opens with historical stills of Native Americans in traditional dress, their weather beaten faces proud and dignified. The sound of drumming and chanting soon accompanies the images. For Homer and Tommy, the night of revelry climaxes in a shared longing for this past. A convoy of 1950s automobiles snakes up a Los Angeles hilltop, an scene that would not be out of place in a monochrome Rebel Without A Cause. Atop the enigmatically named Hill-X, the indigenous Americans continue their party, the focus gradually centering on a set of tribal drums upon which a few among them beat a rhythm. Together they all chant into the night. The bars are closed, there are no prying eyes. As the city sleeps beneath them, these exiles can at last reconnect to their ancestors, to their culture, to their home. In this nightly ritual they can, all too briefly, become free.

The Exiles is available on DVD from Milestone Films.

 

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Uptight! (Jules Dassin, 1968)

In 1968, veteran director Jules Dassin (The Naked City, Brute Force) returned to the United States following a long absence. Working in his home country for the first time in nineteen years, he took as his subject Liam O’Flaherty’s 1925 novel The Informer. The source material surely resonated. Years previously, in anticipation of trouble, Twentieth Century Fox shipped Dassin to London for the shooting of Night & The City (1950). While he was away filming his noir masterpiece, testimony against him was placed before the House of Un-American Activities Committee and the director found himself on the blacklist. Unable to work in the United States, he turned to a career in Europe, beginning with the great Parisian heist movie Rififi (1955), then moving through Italy, until settling in Greece. Now back home, amid the upheaval of the late sixties, Dassin collaborated with civil rights activists Ruby Dee and Julian Mayfield on an updating of O’Flaherty’s novel. While the book (previously adapted by John Ford) focuses on the IRA in 1920s Dublin, Uptight! transfers the action to the contemporary ghettos of Cleveland, Ohio, for a film planted firmly within the revolutionary firmament of the black power movement.

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Shooting of the film began in the immediate aftermath of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, and Uptight! opens with footage of the massive funeral procession moving through the sunny streets of Atlanta. From here, we soon move to those viewing the televised event in the crowded northern city, where tears give way to brewing rage. Day turns to night, and for the most part the film stays there. As King’s acolytes plead for calm on the streets, an anguished Tank Williams (Julian Mayfield) is watching the funeral at home when his mourning is interrupted by his militant best friend Johnny Wells. Plans are afoot to rob a munitions factory. With Tank too drunk to play his part, the others leave without him. One man short, the robbery is botched, a guard killed, and crucial evidence left at the scene.

Much of the action centers on Tank’s feverish passage through the following night.  Shorter and heavier set than the disciplined radicals, Tank was once a respected union rep at the steel mill (a pointed nod towards Dassin’s own former union president?), but his past activism is now considered an anachronism. An unemployed drunk, he is viciously rejected by the militants who see him as a security threat and turned away by his former lover (Ruby Dee), who has been forced to prostitution so as to feed their children. A pathetic and broken man, his loneliness and desperation reach such a pitch that he finds himself approaching the police for the reward on Johnny’s head.

In its nocturnal scenes, Uptight! achieves a register that contrasts sharply with its documentary opening. Low key lighting and splashes of bright color combine to a stylized, expressive effect, while Tank’s progress following the betrayal is through a series of scenes marked by their symbolism: a bar room bacchanalia bathed in red, street preachers regaling passersby, cowboy and Indian regalia in a street side fun fair. While Johnny’s murder of the guard turns him into an enemy of the state, Tank’s mirror action, the targeting of a model cowboy in a shooting range, simply marks him as harmless exotica to a group of well-heeled whites.

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This is not a perfect film. The clichéd flamboyance of gay character, Clarence “Daisy” (Roscoe Lee Browne), is unfortunate in itself, but hurt is added by making the character a stool pigeon for the police. Nonetheless, the film’s serious intent shines through. The final minutes allow daylight to intrude into the frame, and a chase through the industrial landscape in which Tank feels himself most at home allows this sad figure to emerge with a kind of dignity. For the director however, there is no intention of letting bygones be bygones. Returned from exile to a country at war with itself, he shows those in positions of power striving to say the right things, but to no effect. For those who have for so long been victim to injustice and oppression, the time for reconciliation has passed. Dassin never made another film in the United States.

Dead End (William Wyler, 1937)

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The dead end sign sits where Manhattan’s Lower East Side meets the water. Here, the poor have long struggled in squalid tenements while next door, in a manner painfully reminiscent of today’s gentrification struggles, the wealthy luxuriate in newly built condominiums situated to capitalize on the river views. Adapted by Lillian Hellman from a hit stage play by Sidney Kingsley, William Wyler’s Dead End follows a group of people stuck in this literal and metaphorical cul-de-sac over a space of a day. The film brims with the cynicism of the depression era, taking swipes at the police and penal system, the fourth estate, and the empty dream of upward mobility.

In an attempt to blunt any social commentary, MGM’s Louis Mayer insisted on the film being shot in a Los Angeles studio rather than Wyler’s preference for an actual New York slum. John Breen, Head of the Production Code Administration, had recommended that the film should be “less emphatic, throughout, in the photographing of this script in showing the contrast between conditions of the poor in tenements and those of the rich in apartment houses” (Carl Rollyson, qtd. Terence Hoagwood, Literature/Film Quarterly, Vol. 41 iss. 1). Whether or not the magnificent set fully delivers on Breen’s suggestion is debatable.  Cinematographer Gregg Toland invests the cockroach infested interiors, dirty alleyways, and hidden crannies of the docks with the expressive shadows later associated with film noir. On the other hand, the barred windows of the slums gaze mournfully towards a sun kissed, tree lined eden behind the walled enclosure of the condominium.

Drina (Sylvia Sidney), a striking shop worker, spends her days facing down the cops on the picket line whilst dreaming of escaping the slums with her young brother. She is in love with the upstanding Dave (Joel McCrea), who trained to be an architect so as to build a better neighborhood. His reformist zeal is on hold, the only job he has found being as a sign painter. For his part, Dave is infatuated with Kay (Wendy Barrie), a young woman who escaped poverty via a loveless attachment to a wealthy man, and now resides in the plush tower beside the slum.

Into the mix comes the simmering “Baby Face” Martin (an electric early performance from Humphrey Bogart), a murderer with a price on his head, on a nostalgic home visit. First spurned by his anguished mother, then discovering that his first love, Francey, has turned to prostitution to survive, picking up syphilis along the way, the raging gangster looks for another way to capitalize on his journey. Claire Trevor’s lone scene as the tragic Francey earned her an Oscar nomination.

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With particular reference to Bogart’s early roles in The Petrified Forest (1936) and Dead End, Thomas Doherty notes in Pre-Code Hollywood (1999) that, in these early years of the enforced production code, “gangsters were magnetic intruders … not centers of attraction whose rise and fall dictated the trajectory of the narrative.” Indeed, rather than the big plans of “Baby Face”, much of Dead End is given over to the antics of a gang of street kids led by Drina’s brother, Tommy (Billy Halop). The child actors were ported from the Broadway play and, as The Dead End Kids, then The East Side Kids, and finally The Bowery Boys, they would appear together in numerous films and serials for Warner Brothers and Universal. Given perhaps more time on screen than any of the marquee actors, their constant presence can feel a frustrating diversion from the adult narrative. Nonetheless, the two intertwine, with Dave and “Baby Face” representing very different role models for Tommy, and paths that his lives may take. Tension between the two men rise as the gang’s antagonism of a rich kid brings Tommy to the attention of the police, but it is Tommy’s story that ultimately provides the film’s climax.

As dictated by the production code, any wrong doers are brought to justice. But a barbed commentary cuts through the film’s conclusion. The justice system works for those with money, and reform school is just a path towards a life of crime. For a woman, escape from the slums depends on selling yourself to a wealthy man. For a man, escape comes through violence. Eight men lost their lives so that “Baby Face” Martin could arrive in an expensive silk shirt. The message that to succeed, you need to make a killing, is ultimately reinforced. Of course, killing on a global scale would ultimately bring the depression to an end. While the adventures of “Baby Face” and young Tommy both culminate in violence, the greatest terror is experienced by the upwardly mobile Kay as she ventures into the darkness of Dave’s tenement building. For those poised precariously beyond its reach, poverty represents the greatest fear of all.

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Woman On The Run (Norman Foster, 1950)

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Walking his dog one evening, artist turned window dresser Frank Johnson chances on the murder of the key witness on a gangland trial. Informed by Police Inspector Ferris (Robert Keith) that he’s now going to be filling the dead mans shoes in the witness stand, Johnson decides not to stick around and promptly goes to ground. Cue Eleanor Johnson (Ann Sheridan), the sardonic ice maiden married – but only barely – to Frank. From initial unconcern, the danger that her husband is in begins to sink in and a change registers. Before you know it, she is traversing the San Francisco rooftops in high heels, Dennis O’Keefe’s pushy yet charming reporter in tow, in an attempt to track down Frank before the killer, or police, get to him first.

Norman Foster’s taut thriller contains all the deep shadows, canted angles, narrow staircases and watery endings of classic noir, but without missing a beat Foster takes the drama into other areas of melodrama. Finding her spouse requires following a clue that has her searching not only the streets of the city, but also into the crags of her own marriage. To a crescendo of insinuation that Frank may actually be running from her, Eleanor is also forced to the realization that she may not know her husband as well as she thinks. Reversing the noir stereotype of a weak man lured off the rails by a dangerous woman, in Woman On The Run a straight woman seeks to rescue her sap of a husband from danger while discovering that he actually might be a great guy.

The resources put into the beautiful 2015 restoration of this movie by the Film Noir Foundation might be justified by the images it provides of mid-century San Francisco alone. Foster makes full use of the photogenic city locations, as Eleanor’s quest takes her from the hills to the wharf, into its narrow bars, and unusual subterranean haunts: the eerie mannequin workshop in which Frank works on a familiar line in cadavers, the city morgue, and to a Chinatown cabaret act which reminds one that while the Orson Welles’ vehicle Journey Into Fear might be the film Norman Foster is best remembered for, he also had a clutch of orientalist Charlie Chan and Mr Moto mysteries under his belt. Throughout, Mohr’s cinematography imbues the film with a glistening, seductive gleam.

At the heart of the film is the superb performance from Ann Sheridan. Her Eleanor is sharp and resourceful, her dialogue a riot of zingers unleashed with deadpan solemnity. At around the halfway mark Foster ups the tension with a big, if not entirely surprising, twist and the film builds to a thrilling fairground climax where Eleanor’s rollercoaster ride turns from the metaphorical to the literal. Nonetheless, while the pace of the adventure never lets up, it is Sheridan’s handling of Eleanor’s faltering interior journey, her transformation from jaded disenchantment to love renewed, that lets Woman On The Run stand out as a true classic of crime melodrama.