Thursday, December 15, 2011

Have Yourself an SF-Film Noir Christmas! LADY IN THE LAKE and TRANCERS

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to you and yours from Team Bartilucci! When genres collide during the holiday season, you know you’re in for one of our double-feature blog posts. Hope you’ll enjoy them!
Dorian's Pick: Lady in the Lake (1947)
Every P.I. needs leads—Lila Leeds!

Adrienne Fromsett in The Big, Big Phone!
Director /star Robert Montgomery's advice:
Don't look directly into the tomato-cam!
Whaddaya mean, I'm mugging?
In Lady in the Lake (LitL), the durable Robert Montgomery not only played author Raymond Chandler’s tough but noble P.I. Philip Marlowe, he also made his solo directorial debut, having previously helped director John Ford to finish the 1945 war drama They Were Expendable when Ford broke his leg on location. Marlowe draws on his life of detection and crime-fighting to write a short story, “If I Should Die Before I Live.” (“They tell me the profits are good,” Marlowe says dryly. Wow, how can I get in on this gig?) Marlowe submits his work to Kingsby Publications, home of such pulp fiction mags as Lurid Detective and Murder Masterpieces. (Maybe Marlowe can go out to lunch with Walter Mitty and pick up pulp fiction tips!)

Is Marlowe out of his skull to trust Adrienne?

On Christmas Eve, Mrs. Fallbrook knows who’s been naughty and who’s been nice!
Before he can say “byline,” editor Adrienne Fromsett (Audrey Totter in her first major leading role after her memorable appearance in The Postman Always Rings Twice) has Marlowe up to his neck in murder, dirty cops, and missing dames, including Chrystal Kingsby (or “Crystal” if you believe the wire from El Paso in Adrienne’s apartment), the wife of Kingsby Publications’ head honcho Derace Kingsby (Leon Ames from The Postman Always Rings Twice, Meet Me in St. Louis, They Were Expendable, and so much more!). To top it off, you can see things Marlowe’s way, literally!

Between LitL and the rueful Humphrey Bogart/Lauren Bacall noir drama Dark Passage, 1947 seemed to be The Year of the Subjective Camera. Before all those slasher movies came along during the last few decades, LitL used the subjective camera treatment; hell, the camera was practically a character in the flick!

Throughout most of LitL, we see everything exactly as Marlowe sees it; the only times we see Marlowe/Montgomery’s mug is when he looks in a mirror, as well as in a brief prologue, an entrè-acte segment, and an epilogue. In the trailer featured on the spiffy DVD version of LitL (along with an enjoyable and informative commentary track by ace film historians Alain Silver and James Ursini), MGM’s publicity department did its best to push the film as the first interactive movie experience: “MGM presents a Revolutionary motion picture; the most amazing since Talkies began! YOU and ROBERT MONTGOMERY solve a murder mystery together! YOU accept an invitation to a blonde’s apartment! YOU get socked in the jaw by a murder suspect!” 

YOU occasionally start snickering in spite of yourself when the subjective camera gimmick teeters dangerously close to parodying itself, like when Adrienne moves in for a smooch with Our Hero The Camera. As Totter’s Adrienne spars verbally with Marlowe in the first half of the film, some of her facial expressions are pretty funny, too, though I’m not sure all of them were meant to be. Totter uses the arched eyebrow technique done so much more effectively later by Leonard Nimoy on Star Trek; Angela Lindvall in CQ, Roman Coppola’s affectionate salute to 1960s pop art films; Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson; and one of Team Bartilucci’s favorites, sexy Eunice Gayson from the early James Bond thrillers Dr. No and From Russia with Love.
Sgt. Preston of the Yukon, a gigolo? Say it ain't so!

The mirror has one face and a beautiful babe!

Adrienne gets close-up and personal
with Marlowe 
In fairness to Totter, she and the cast and crew had a challenge on their hands, considering they all pretty much had to re-learn how to act in front of the camera for LitL. As Jeff Stafford wrote in his article on the TCM Web site, “A good deal of the budget went toward elaborate camera set-ups and breakaway sets. ‘The real challenge was the filming itself,’ Montgomery told writer John Tuska in his book, The Detective in Hollywood. ‘We had to do a lot of rehearsing. Actors are trained not to look at the camera. I had to overcome all that training. I had a basket installed under the camera and sat there so that, at least, the actors could respond to me, even if they couldn’t look directly at me.’”

"DeGarmot, it's times like this that
I wish I was back on the U.S.S. Caine!"

"I wish my sister Audrey was here!
Having said that, I felt that the subjective camera technique in LitL worked more often than not. In particular, I thought the fight scenes and a harrowing sequence where an injured Marlowe crawls out of his wrecked car worked beautifully. It helps that Steve Fisher provided a good solid screenplay for Chandler’s novel, though Chandler purists were annoyed and disappointed that the novel’s pivotal Little Fawn Lake sequence was relegated to a speech in the recap scene in the middle. Apparently, Montgomery and company tried to film that scene on location, but the subjective camera treatment proved harder to do in the great outdoors back then, so they gave up. I’d love to see how today’s filmmakers would do it, with all the different equipment and resources available! I also liked David Snell’s music (with an assist by an uncredited Maurice Goldman), and the way he made the Christmas background music sound increasingly foreboding. According to the IMDb, Goldman said, “I never got credit for being the composer of the choral score for Lady in the Lake. In those days, young, unknown composers who were hoping for a career writing film scores got their foot in the door by letting someone else take credit for their work. We had to agree, as long as we received some musical credit for our part in the film’s music.”

However you feel about the subjective camera approach, all the performances are top-notch, including supporting players Tom Tully (Oscar-nominee for The Caine Mutiny) as honest cop Captain Fergus X. Kane; Lloyd Nolan in one of his best performances as Lt. DeGarmot, a conniving cop who knows more than he’s telling; Dick Simmons as smooth, sly gigolo Chris Lavery, who went on to be the star of TV's Sgt. Preston of the Yukon; and an intense dramatic turn by young Jayne Meadows SPOILER ALERT…who essentially plays three characters!...END SPOILER ALERT. I also love the little throwaway bits here and there, like Kingsby Publications' charmingly distracting receptionist (Lila Leeds, who gained some notoriety after being busted for marijuana possession with Robert Mitchum), the phone chat Marlowe overhears in the Press Room (“Palm Springs? What’s the matter with Anaheim?”); the coroner’s mild disappointment when he’s told that the corpse in question, Lavery, is a man; and my favorite, Captain Kane’s phone conversation with his wife and child as he prepares to play Santa Claus for his “little dumplin’ darlin’” on Christmas Eve. Montgomery’s sardonic snap mostly works well for cynical Marlowe, though he sometimes forgets to tone it down during tender dialogue with Adrienne, making him sound like cinema’s crankiest Marlowe! Totter eventually tones down her mugging and becomes genuinely affecting as her Adrienne, after trying to be “the bright, hard lady,” lets down her guard and her hair (almost literally), with love growing between Marlowe and Adrienne at last. You may love or hate this Lady..., but if you enjoy Chandler’s mysteries and film noir in general, and you’re intrigued by offbeat movie-making techniques, I urge you to give her a try! Don’t forget to watch it on TCM on  Friday, December 23rd at 10:00 p.m. EST 

YOU play detective with cinema's crankiest Philip Marlowe!
(And play house at Christmas with Audrey Totter!)

Vinnie's Pick: Trancers (1985)

"Mommy, that man shot Santa Claus!"
There are Christmas movies and there are Christmas movies. Some movies are about Christmas itself, and usually involve a young child helping someone regain the spirit of Christmas; usually a relative, or if you're really lucky, a bear or an alien or something. Then there are the films that merely happen AT Christmas, which are usually more fun as they become holiday perennials almost by accident, much in the same way that the classic and controversial song "Baby it's Cold Outside" has become a de facto Christmas song, presumably because it involves snow.
Trancers is one of the latter. It takes place in Los Angeles at Christmastime, which means you wouldn't be able to tell at all save for the occasional holiday greeting, the punk band singing "Jingle Balls" and the zombie Santa trying to kill our hero with a set of mounted reindeer antlers. But I'm getting ahead of myself.
Jack Deth (Tim Thomerson) is a policeman in the 23rd century of Angel City, a city built after The Great Quake sank most of California into the ocean. After losing his wife to psychic cult leader Martin Whistler, he dedicates his life to bringing Whistler down, as well as his near-zombie mind slaves, known as Trancers. When Trancers are killed, the promptly disintegrate, leaving behind nothing but a scorch mark on the floor, hence the term for their execution; being "singed". The film starts off seeming to be an...oh, let's go with "homage" of Blade Runner, but very quickly reveals itself to be more of a Terminator pastiche. Whistler is revealed to be alive, surviving his last battle with Deth and has escaped into the past, planning to kill the ancestors of the city's High Council. He's already destroyed one of the three when Jack is called in to go after Whistler.

"Nice tan, squid...very Christmassy."
They have interesting time-travel rules in the film - they can send back small inanimate objects, but not people. Instead, one takes a drug which sends you back "down the line" into one of your genetic ancestors. They'll watch over his body in the future, along with that of Whistler, who they found in a secret hideout in the desert, having already escaped down the line. The plan is to capture Whistler and return him to their time so he can be tried. Jack offers another plan - he singes Whistler's body, making sure that when he finds him, there'll be no coming back for the madman.

They send Jack back to 1985, where his ancestor is a journalist, and Whistler's is a high-profile police detective. Jack arrives after what was apparently a very successful one-night stand with Lena (Helen Hunt), who he drives to work at a local mall, where she's a photographer for the Santa Claus booth. Whistler has apparently been quite busy amassing an army of Trancers - when they enter the mall, Santa recognizes Jack and attempts to kill him, resulting in a exciting yet hilarious battle in Santa's workshop. Jack ends up shooting Jolly Old Saint Nick and runs off with Lena, to whom he hastily explains his situation.
His job is relatively simple - protect the ancestors of the remaining council members. Well, simple unless you count the fact that all he has to go on is a photo of one, a baseball card of the other, a gun (with two doses of the time-drug antidote in the handgrip) and a funky watch that slows time for a few seconds, and Whistler has the LAPD at his command, and a growing army of Trancers. Indeed, by the time Deth catches up with one of the Council's great-times-your-age-grand-father, he's already been Tranced. They track down the last remaining ancestor, former baseball player and now drunken Sterno-bum Hap Ashby.

Who wouldn't want young Helen Hunt under the mistletoe?
As pleasant as Helen Hunt is to look at (especially at this age...woo), this film, indeed the entire series rises and falls at the awesome charisma of Tim Thomerson. A solid stand-up comic and busy character actor, he plays Jack Deth like an old-school street P.I. -- no surprise when he starts surfing the channels of 1985 he becomes enamored of Peter Gunn reruns. It's a shame he never got the same level of Geek fame as a Bruce Campbell. It's likely the folks they got to work with -- Bruce partnered with Sam Raimi who has gone on to do great things, and Tim never really advanced past the mid-low budget of Band and New Moon.
The plot is solid, and pretty original, with moments of great dialogue. The film is played fairly straight until the first reel, then goes a bit broader and witty. After being saved from nearly being roasted alive in a turned-up-to-11 tanning booth, Jack's first words as he comes to is "How's my tan?" You know things are gonna be fun shortly after the fight in the mall starts and Mrs. Claus calls security with an ominous "There's trouble at the North Pole". It's hard to ride the balance between a straight sci-fi film with moments of comedy and an out-and-out parody, but they do it well here. The film also features Telma Hopkins, half of Tony Orlando's Dawn who built up a solid acting resume in the '80s and '90s and well-recognized "That Guy!' character actor Art LaFleur.

First appearing at Charles Band's Empire Pictures and the franchise moving with him to New Moon, they made 5 Trancers films, two of which written by talented comics and sci-fi writer Peter David. One of the most successful series they had, along with the Puppet Master series, they tried to make a new film a few years back, but without Thomerson, and suffered a deserved failure. As is true of a lot of the low-budget horror flicks, if you don't blink you'll see people who went on to really be somebody. Look in the credits, down in the art team, you'll find one Frank Darabont.

The first two films are on Netflix Instant, and are well worth your time. The last film's for squids.


  1. Great info on Lady in the Lake!I learned a lot of the backstory I did not know. I have always thought Audrey Totter and Jayne Meadows steal the film.

  2. Gilby, we're happy to have you joining the chat here at TotED! Despite my good-natured ribbing of Audrey Totter in the early parts of LADY IN THE LAKE, she won me over, and Jayne Meadows was quite the wonderful scene-stealer. Thanks for your praise, and feel free to drop by anytime!

  3. LADY IN THE LAKE is a perennial Christmas favorite around these parts, Dorian. This and THE THIN MAN, not two films you'd normally think of at Christmas, but that never stopped moi.

    I wrote about this one a while back and showed that same pix of Audrey Totter about to pop her eyes out of her head. Ha! She was SUCH a hambone.

    I like Montgomery in this gimmicky film, a lot. I also like Lloyd Nolan as the dicey cop. For whatever reason, he never quite looked as sexy to me as in this flick. What's wrong with me anyway??? Ha!

    Vinnie, I must say I've never heard of this film and rightly or wrongly I just can't help but feel that I'm not missing much. :)

    Whatever happened to Helen Hunt's career? She won an Oscar and then disappeared. The curse continues!

    Merry Christmas to both of you and your family, my dear movie mavens. :)

  4. Yvette, once again you've proven yourself to be a gal after our own hearts, even if TRANCERS isn't your cup of tea! :-) I hear that Helen Hunt has been directing her own indie films. Gotta look into that more closely, if only out of sheer curiosity.

    Loved your remarks about "hambone" Audrey Totter! I've been meaning to check out your blog about LADY IN THE LAKE, and now is the perfect opportunity; thanks for the reminder, my friend!

    Like you, we of Team Bartilucci are also huge fans of THE THIN MAN, and its sequels, too! In fact, we did a Christmas double-feature last year with two comedy capers: THE THIN MAN and FITZWILLY. If you're interested, check out the link below and enjoy!

    Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to you and your lovely family, dear Yvette, and may you and your loved ones (including your adorable granddaughter and Rocky The Wonder Dog) have a truly happy, healthy, joyful holiday season and New Year! We look forward to more of your fun " so many words" blogs during the new year!

  5. Not so perennial as I've just discovered, Dorian. Ha.

    My mind must have been wandering as it likes to do now and again. Perennial from now on then. :)

    But THE THIN MAN is definitely on my yearly Christmas viewing list.

    Having a bit of rotten stomach to-do today, so I'm a little off key.

    But tomorrow should be a better day.

    Thank you for your kind Christmas wishes, Dorian. You're a rock star.

  6. Hey, gang, here's a blast from my zine-writing past: our longtime pals and fellow movie mavens, Meg and Scott Ruisch from CAPrA! Meg has a cool and unique blog herself, but let her tell you about it in her own words:

    "Hello & Merry Christmas to you, Vinnie & Siobhan from New Jersey. :)

    Always a pleasure to read the Tales! If it ever interests you, my blog is here: (I blog about perfume, but manage to work cinema & pop culture into a lot of my reviews....)
    Hope all is well w/ you- have a peaceful New Year, Meg."

    Meg, thanks for dropping by to join the TotED fun, and for all of you who love fragances, by all means read and enjoy Parfumieren; Meg has a wonderfully enchanting writing style. In fact, I've already taken the initiative and added Parfumieren to "Further Distractions"! :-)

  7. Aw, Yvette, you're a rock star yourself! Hope your stomach settles down, and that you'll be feeling like your peppy self again in no time! (I can sympathize, having let holiday treats get the upper hand more often than I should.)

  8. Dorian,

    I always from LADY IN THE LAKE a bit annoying though I agree the wrecked car scene works well. I think this technique used more than sparingly becomes just a gimmick. The performances though a uniformly good. I like Montgomery the more I see him. Totter is femme fatale delicious.

    I like your crack about RM the crankiest Marlowe!

    Have not seen TRANCERS but I like Vinnie's opening like "Mommy, that man killed Santa Claus."

    If we don't "speak" here's hoping you and your family have a Merry and peaceful Christmas!


  9. John, you make a good point about a little of the subjective camera gambit going a long way. I'm pleased you enjoyed my "crankiest Marlowe" crack, especially since I loved your delightful description of Audrey Totter being "femme fatale delicious"! Vinnie and I both thank you for your comments; we always enjoy having you drop by TotED!

    To borrow a line from Robert Montgomery's Marlowe, John, an enchanted Christmas to you -- and may you and yours have a truly Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year with more blogging fun to come!

  10. Hey, gang, our dear friend and fellow blogger, the amazing ClassicBecky herself, is doing battle with Internet hobgoblins -- don't you hate when that happens? Luckily, Becky was able to e-mail her comment to me, so here it is for your enjoyment. Take it away, Becky!

    "Dorian, I really like LitL, but I have to agree with you here: 'YOU occasionally start snickering in spite of yourself when the subjective camera gimmick teeters dangerously close to parodying itself, like when Adrienne moves in for a smooch with Our Hero The Camera.' That looks pretty hilarious. Your background info on this was new to me and very interesting. I'm a big Montgomery fan, and this was a brave venture he took. But I do feel frustrated that you hardly get to see him! I'm still laughing about your picture captions with Audrey Totter ... the Big Big Phone, and Mugging!

    Vinnie, your assessment of some movies and songs that become Christmas classics by accident was great, especially with Trancers: "It takes place in Los Angeles at Christmastime, which means you wouldn't be able to tell at all save for the occasional holiday greeting, the punk band singing 'Jingle Balls' and the zombie Santa trying to kill our hero with a set of mounted reindeer antlers." What a lovely family film! I haven't seen it, but I think I'm going to have to after your description!

    Good one, guys!

    I'm heading out to do my last-minute stuff -- hugs and kisses to TB!


    Thanks a million, Becks; always great to have you here at TotED, especially with your witty and charming feedback! Also, I'm heading out for Christmas cheer myself today: Siobhan and I got free tickets to The Civic Theatre's production of A CHRISTMAS CAROL! Happy Holiday hugs to you and yours from all of us here at Team Bartilucci H.Q.!

  11. Nice review you two. I have a total bias in favor of Trancers, but never really associated it with Christmas. I always made the connection through film noir and the "Nice tan.Very Christmassy" line.

    Lady In The Lake was never my favorite, but I commend the daring use of POV shots. As for Trancers, I am happy to find out that I am not the only one who likes that movie.


  12. Michael, after reading your film reviews and Facebook comments, Vinnie and I are delighted to see you commenting here at TotED! Glad the marriage of TRANCERS and LADY IN THE LAKE worked out. :-)

    We agree with you that while LitL has its flaws, the unique use of POV shots was quite daring for its time. No doubt that's where all the slasher flicks of yore got the idea! :-) Still, I applaud Robert Montgomery and his game cast and crew for being among the first to try these techniques in a mainstream movie.

    Thanks for joining the conversation here at TotED, Michael; feel free to drop by anytime!

  13. I loved this film and the performances are very good: Lloyd Nolan, is perfect playing the bad cop and the dramatic turn by Jayne Meadows, is one you may not soon forget. Montgomery, gives a good performance as the cynical Marlowe. You will also love how Totter's character mellows overtime and falls for Marlowe. If you enjoy film noirs you may want to add this one to your "gotta see" list of films.

    I also wrote a post on this film and I will add a link to your post.

    I have not yet seen Vinnie's Pick: Trancers. Although, I really enjoyed reading Vinnie's review and will add it to my "gotta see" list of films.

    Merry Christmas to you both!!

  14. Dawn, Vinnie and I thank you kindly for your positive feedback! We hope you'll enjoy TRANCERS when you have a chance to see it.

    I was happy to find that you're a fellow fan of LADY IN THE LAKE; our great minds think alike! :-) One of my favorite things about LitL is that the background music -- when there is some -- is either music on the radio or undertones of the spookiest-sounding Christmas carolers ever. Isn't that just the kind of caroling you'd expect in a film noir? :-)

    And Dawn, thanks for your thoughtful LitL blog link, too; you're a sweetheart! All of us here at Team Bartilucci H.Q. wish you and yours a very Merry Christmas and a truly Happy New Year, with more wonderful N & CF blog posts to enjoy in 2012!

  15. Dorian! Thanks to visit my blog. Your blog is fantastic! The noir genre is really good. Sorry for my bad english, but I'm from Brazil... Was a pleasure to welcome it into my blog. I'm following you!

    Have yourself a merry little christmas and a prosperous new year!

  16. Rubi, it's a pleasure to meet you, and I really enjoyed your ALL CLASSICS blog post about one of my favorite stars, Danny Kaye. Thanks for Following me and Team Bartilucci! We all hope you and yours will have a Merry Little Christmas and a prosperous New Year in 2012 as well!

  17. Great reviews and thanks for the holiday wishes too. You keep sending me to Turner Movie Classics and it's already the best channel on television.
    Hope you have a great New Year Dorian!

  18. Eve, thanks so much for your positive feedback about our LADY IN THE LAKE/TRANCERS double-feature! Is TCM the coolest movie channel ever, or what?

    I also left you a comment on your own wonderful DESERT ROCKS blog. I'm really enjoying it, and I'm glad FICTION NOIR led to our friendship.

    Eve, all of us here at Team Bartilucci H.Q. wish you and yours a truly Merry Christmas (or any other holiday you care to celebrate, for that matter) and a Happy New Year that's truly happy and prosperous in every way! We look forward to more of your excellent writing in 2012!

  19. "Lady in the Lake" has grown on me over the years. It just isn't Christmas unless I'm spending time with Marlowe.

  20. Caftan Woman, you're a gal after my own heart! Like you, I feel it just isn't Christmas unless you're watching LitL; goodness knows it's quite a bracing bit of holiday counterprogramming. I won't deny that between LitL's tense moments, we can't help giving it a little MST3K-style good-natured ribbing, but as we used to say in my old neighborhood, we kid because we love! :-)

    Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to you and yours, dear CW, and may you and yours have an enchanted holiday with joy, laughter, and no bad guys slinking around! :-)