Saturday, August 15, 2009

Manny Farber on Ugly Melodramas

Hollywood has spawned, since 1946, a series of ugly melodramas featuring a cruel aesthetic, desperate craftsmanship, and a pessimistic outlook. These films ("The Set-Up", "Act of Violence", "Asphalt Jungle", and “No Way Out") are revolutionary attempts at turning life inside out to find the specks of horrible oddity that make puzzling, faintly marred kaleidoscopes of a street, face, or gesture. Whatever the cause of these depressing films -- the television menace, the loss of twenty-four million customers since the mid-forties -- it has produced striking changes in film technique. Writers overpack dialogue with hackneyed bitterness, actors perfect a quietly neurotic style, while directors -- by flattening the screen, discarding framed and centered action, and looming the importance of actors -- have made the movie come out and hit the audience with an almost personal savagery. The few recent films unmarked by the new technique ("Born to be Bad") seem naive and obsolete.

The new scripts are tortured by the "big" statement. "All About Eve" (story of the bright lights, dim wits, and dark schemes of Broadway) hardly gets inside theater because the movie is coming out of somebody's mouth. The actors are burdened with impossible dialogue abounding in clichés: ''Wherever there’s magic and make-believe and an audience -- there's theater"; timely words: ''We are the original displaced personalities"; and forced cleverness that turns each stock character into the echo of an eclectic writer. The new trick is to build character and plot with loaded dialogue, using hep talk that has discolored cheap fiction for years. In "The Breaking Point" the environment is a "jungle", the hero a morose skipper ''with only guts to peddle" who decides after a near-fatal gun battle that ; "a man alone hasn't got a chance". His spouse comes, through with "You’re more ma n than anyone I ever knew".

Stories, parading success-seekers through a jackpot of frustration, are unique in that they pick on outcasts with relentless cruelty that decimates the actor as much as the character. As a colored interne moves through the "No Way Out" blizzard of anti-Negro curses, everything about him is aggressively spiked so that a malignant force seems to be hacking at him. When the cruel aestheticians really click on these sadistic epics, foreboding death lurks over every scene. Cameramen dismember the human body, accenting oddities like Darnell's toothpick legs, or Pat Neal's sprawling mouth to make them inanimate; faces are made up to suggest death masks, expanded to an unearthly size, spotlighted in dark, unknown vacuums; metaphorical direction twists a chimp's burial ("Sunset Boulevard") into an uncanny experience by finding a resemblance between monkey and owner. Under the guise of sympathy these brutally efficient artists are sneaky torturers of the defeated or deranged character.

Directors like Wilder and Mankiewicz mechanically recreate the unharnessed energy and surprise of great Silent films with an elegantly controlled use of the inexplicable. In the jitterbugging scene of "Asphalt Jungle" Huston delicately undresses the minds of four characters and gauchely creates a sensuous, writhing screen, though his notion of jive is so odiously surrealistic it recalls Russian propaganda against the United States. The first glimpse of the faded star in "Sunset", using Bonnard's suede touch on Charles Addams's portraiture (a witch surveying her real estate through shutters and dark spectacles) is lightning characterization with a poetic tang. Brando, in "The Men", commands a G.I. troop into battle like a slow, doped traffic coping cars through an intersection, but his affected pantomime electrifies the screen with the hallucinatory terror of an early painting by De Chirico. Movies have seldom if ever been as subtle as these scenes, or as depressing in the use of outrageous element to expedite ambiguous craftsmanship. To understand the motives behind the highly charged, dissonant acting employed today, one has to go back to the time wasting, passive performance of an early "talkie".

No matter how ingenious the actor -- Harlow, Garbo, Lee Tracy – effectiveness and depth were dissipated by the uninterrupted perusal of a character geared to a definite "type" and acted with mannerisms that were always so rhythmically and harmoniously related that the effect was of watching a highly attenuated ballet. Directors today have docked the old notion of unremittingly consistent, river-like performances, and present what amounts to a confusion of "bits", the actor seen only intermittently in garish touches that are highly charged with meaning and character, but not actually melted into one clear recognizable person. Darnell's honestly ugly characterization of a depressed slattern is fed piecemeal into ''No Way Out", which moves her toward and away from malevolence, confuses her "color", and even confounds her body. Her job -- like the recent ones of Nancy Olson, John McIntyre, Hayden -- shouldn't be called a “performance” because it is more like a collage of personality, which varies drastically in every way to create the greatest explosion and "illumination" in each moment.

-- Manny Farber

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