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!

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?
Dorian's Pick: Lady in the Lake (1947)

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!) 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 At 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!
Happiness is a warm gun for Christmas!
The mirror has one face and a beautiful babe!
In Totter’s defense, I’d like to point out that she and the rest of the cast had quite
Adrienne gets close-up and personal with Marlowe
a challenge on their hands, considering that 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.’”

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 as Lt. DeGarmot, a conniving cop who knows more than he’s telling; 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 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’.” 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 Friday, December 23rd at 10:00 p.m. EST

"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.

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.
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 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.

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