Sunday, February 24, 2019

Don't Make a Scene: Do the Right Thing

The Story: In the hub-bub, swelter and melee of Do the Right Thing, random acts of kindness are jumbled up with a constant beat-down as ever-present as the rattling bass-thump from a boom-box. In Spike Lee's version of "Our Town: Bed-Stuy" tossed with mixed (and salty) "Peanuts," a kind word is part of the stew of curses, a kindness is looked on with suspicion and rarely reciprocated.

There are many locales where the events of the film take place, but the most happen at Sal's Famous Pizzeria, which on this hot Summer day will see its best day and its worst night.  Run by Sal Fragione (Danny Aiello) and his two sons, Pino and Vito (John Turturro, Richard Edson), the pizza place is where everyone comes to get a slice. Twenty-five years in the neighborhood, Sal's is a hub of activity, not all of it good.

This scene is one shot, one take, but it's not as scripted.* At some point, Aiello and Lee agreed that the actor could ad-lib parts of his dialong, and, as a result, the character of Sal becomes a little more soft, more paternal towards his customers...and maybe a bit clueless where his son gets his anger (we've seen Sal get into some heated discussions before this scene, and we'll see more). It makes Sal a bit inconsistent in his attitudes, but then...maybe you can blame it on the heat.

The Set-Up: Hot town. Summer in the city. The tensions that already run high are simmering on the sidewalks and streets of Brooklyn. There's a break in the activity at Sal's and time for a father-son chat.

Action!

INT: SAL'S FAMOUS PIZZERIA--DAY

Sal takes a seat at one of the tables.

SAL: I'm beat.
Pino sits down next to his father.
PINO: Daddy, I been thinkin'. Maybe we should sell this place, get outta here while we're still ahead...and alive.
SAL: You really think you know what's best for us, Pino?
PINO: Couldn't we sell this and open up a new one in our own neighborhood?
SAL: There's too many pizzerias already there.
PINO: Well, maybe we could try something different.
SAL: Wha..What am I gonna do? What am I...That's all I know. What am I doin'? I been here twenty five years. Where am I goin'?
PINO: I'm sick of niggers, it's like I come to work, it's "Planet of the Apes." A bad neighborhood. I don't like being around them, they're animals.
SAL: Why you got so much anger in you?
PINO: Wired that way.
PINO: My friends, they laugh at me, they laugh right in my fuckin' face, they tell me go to Bed-Stuy, go on, feed the Moulies.
SAL: Do your friends put money in your pocket, Pino? Food on your table? They pay your rent? The roof over your head? Huh?
Pino is quiet.
SAL: They're not your friends. If they were your friends, they wouldn't laugh at ya.
PINO: Pop, what can I say? I don't wanna be here, they don't want us here.
PINO: We should stay in our own neighborhood, stay in Bensonhurst.
PINO: And the niggers should stay in theirs.
SAL: I never had no trouble with these people.
SAL: I sit in this window every day. I watch little kids get old. And I seen the old people get older. Yeah, some of 'em don't like us. But some of them do. I mean, for Christsake, Pino, they grew up on my food. On my food.
SAL: And I'm very proud of that. Well, you may think it's funny, but I'm very proud of that.
SAL: Look, what I'm tryin' ta say, son...is that Sal's Pizzeria is here to stay.
SAL: I'm sorry. I'm your father, I love ya, I'm sorry, but that's the way it is.
SAL: (chuckles) How ya doin'?
SMILEY: Hi, Sal! Two dollahs.
PINO: Get out!
PINO:(Pino raps hard on the window) GET THE FUCK OUTTA HERE, MAN! Get the fuck outta Here! (Pino gets up and goes ouside)
SMILEY: Two dollah's Sal.
PINO: Whatsamatter? Get outta here. Get the fuck outta here, man.
BYSTANDER: Hey, hey, hey, HEY!
PINO: Every day, it's the same shit. Hey, what? So there? Get a fuckin' job! Why don't you get a fuckin' job, man! Go to work! Get outta here. Get OUT!
PINO: See what I'm sayin'?


Do the Right Thing

Words by Spike Lee (and Danny Aiello)

Pictures by Ernest Dickerson and Spike Lee

Do the Right Thing is available on DVD through the Criterion Collection.




*
INT: SAL'S FAMOUS PIZZERIA--DAY


Sal takes a seat at one of the tables.


SAL I'm beat.


Pino sits down next to his father.


PINO Pop, I think we should sell this place, get outta here while we're still ahead...and alive.


SAL Since when do you know what's best for us?


PINO Couldn't we sell this and open up a new one in our own neighborhood?


SAL Too many pizzerias already there.


PINO Then we could try something else.


SAL We don't know nuthin' else.


PINO I'm sick of niggers, it's a bad neighborhood. I don't like being around them, they're animals.


VITO Some are OK.


PINO My friends laugh at me all the time, laugh right in my face, tell me go feed the Moulies.


SAL Do your friends put money in your pocket? Pay your rent? Food on ya plate?


Pino is quiet.


SAL I didn't think so.


PINO Pop, what else can I say? I don't wanna be here, they don't want us here. We should stay in our own neighborhood, stay in Bensonhurst.


SAL So what if this is a Black neighborhood, so what if we're a minority. I've never had no trouble with dese people, don't want none either, so don't start none. This is America. Sal's Famous Pizzeria is here for good. You think you know it all? Well, you don't. I'm your father, you better remember that.

Saturday, February 23, 2019

Criss-Cross

"Criss-Cross" (Robert Siodmak, 1949) You can't tell a grown man what to do. That's the problem. Even though he's old enough to know better ("old enough to vote for two presidents") and even though he keeps saying that he's over all that, Steve Thompson (Burt Lancaster) comes back to L.A. and manages to get hooked up with his ex-wife (the wide-eyed Yvonne De Carlo) all over again.

And she's trouble. His mom knows it, his police lieutenant pal Peter Ramirez (
Stephen McNally) knows it. Even his bartender (Percy Helton) knows it! On top of which, she's been seen stepping out with local hood Slim Dundee (Dan Duryea). And before you know it—boom!—she marries the bum.

So what are Thompson and Dundee doing planning an armored car robbery together? Dimes to donuts Anna Thompson Dundee is at the center of it all.Bet her maiden name was "Conda."

The mess that Thompson finds himself in is done with the best of intentions, but one of the tenets of film-noir is that good intentions done for bad people are a recipe for disaster. No good deed goes unpunished in the dark alleys and side-streets of film noir, even in blinded-by-the-light sunny Hell-A. And director Siodmak,one of the architects of noir-style,
finds the shadows cast even in the noon-day sun.

Criss-Cross is a good minor example of the genre, with nice performances by Lancaster, DeCarlo and Duryea. And look for Tony Curtis in a brief (and silent) early appearance.

Friday, February 22, 2019

The Killers (1946/1964)

Ernest Hemingway wrote his short story "The Killers" in 1927 for Scribner's Magazine. It's a simple story about two gunmen who come to a small town diner in Summit, Illinois and briefly terrorize the nighthawks there (including Hemingway's young alter-ego, Nick Adams), before setting their sights for their target—a washed up fighter nicknamed "The Swede", who, curiously, accepts his fate and tells Nick (who runs to him at his boarding house to warn him) that he's tired of running and not to do anything because nothing can be done. Nick leaves town knowing full well "The Swede" will be killed, but he can't stand being there any more, knowing a man has surrendered to his fate and awaits his execution.

Of "The Killers" Hemingway said "That story probably had more left out of it than anything I ever wrote. I left out all Chicago, which is hard to do in 2951 words." 


But that kernel of a story is perfect for a full-length motion picture (it's also been adapted into un-embellished short films, one by Andrei Tarkovsky as a student—see below), allowing film-makers to fill in the blanks, speculate about the circumstances that would set into motion the specifics of the short story, creating a preamble and, if one is concerned with the morality of the tale, an epilogue.


But, the two most well-known adaptations of the tale titled "The Killers" take a completely different approach to the titular characters—in the first, making them secondary, and in the second, the driving narrative force—and its unknowable back-story.


As the blurb for the later version says, "There's more than one way to kill a man."





The Killers (Robert Siodmak, 1946) Credited to Anthony Villiers (with unbilled contributions by John Huston and Richard Brooks), the movie starts with Hemingway and leaves him behind. Two toughs in suits, Al and Max (Charles McGraw and William Conrad) drive into Brentwood, New Jersey and case the burg. They check out the local service station of the Tri-State Oil co. and then set their sights on Henry's Diner across the street. Henry's offers boiled dinners but they don't come any more hard-boiled than Max and Al, who immediately start to get cute with the menu and calling the guy behind the counter "Bright Boy." They're looking for Pete Lund, "The Swede" ("What did Pete Lund ever do to you?" "He never had a chance to do anything to us..."), but Pete usually comes in at 6 and he's not there, so he's not showing up. So, Max and Al start to mess with the only other patron, Nick Adams (Phil Brown*), Lund's co-worker at the filling station, telling him to get in the kitchen with the cook (Bill Walker), where Al ties them up and Max stands guard. Satisfied that "The Swede" isn't showing up, the two leave, allowing Nick to get untied and warn Lund (Burt Lancaster). But, Lund won't leave saying, finally, enigmatically, "Once I did something wrong."
Pete is gunned down in his room by Al and Max. But, that's not the end of the story. Tri-State's insurance investigator Jim Reardon (Edmond O'Brien) is checking out the killing to see what's going to be done with Lund's $2500 life insurance policy. The local police aren't handling the case because the two gun-men are from out of state. Why? Examining Lund's body, he notices that the dead man's knuckles are scuffed up like the hands of a boxer and he has his office check out local rings. He tracks down the beneficiary, but she doesn't know any "Pete Lund," she knew him as "Mr. Nillsson," who stayed briefly at her boarding house. But why would he name her as beneficiary?
A check at the office finds that the victim's real name is Ole Andreson, ex-prize-fighter and that tip comes from Lt. Sam Lubinsky (Sam Levene) from the Philadelphia police department. Lubinsky once busted Andreson a few years back—ironic as the two grew up together and were friends since childhood. But, that's part of it. Lubinsky's wife, Lily (Virginia Christine) used to be sweet on the Swede (and Sam was sweet on her), but Ole dumped her for another woman, Kitty Collins (Ava Gardner), and Kitty was involved in rackets, and pretty soon, Ole was involved with both. It was Kitty that got Ole arrested when he took the fall for her shoplifting charge—and violently resisting arrest. But, Lubinsky wants in on Reardon's investigation because, as he says, "once a copper, always a copper."
Ole spends three years in jail, pining for Kitty and determined to make it on the outside. When he gets out, his former cell-mate, Charleston, tells him about a big job being planned, knocking over the payroll of the Prentiss Hat Co. (in Hackensack, New Jersey), the "biggest caper anyone's pulled in a long time" according to its ring-leader, "Big" Jim Colfax (Albert Dekker). When Ole goes to meet Charleston at the planning, he meets Colfax, "Blinky" Franklin (Jeff Corey), 'Dum-Dum' Clarke (Jack Lambert), and oh yeah...Kitty's there, as she's hooked up with Colfax again. Charleston, having spent too much of his life in prison, opts out. But, "the Swede" is in, probably because of Kitty's presence. But, it doesn't make relations between Colfax and Ole amicable. They get worse the night of the robbery.
The original meeting place to split the dough gets changed, and the only one who isn't let in on it is The Swede. That meeting place is burned down at about the planned time for the meeting. This leads to what Reardon ultimately calls "the double-cross to end all double-crosses," that will leave most of the culprits dead, including the two killers who started the gun-play, when it all gets figured out not-so-nice and not-so-simple.
Huston, Brooks and Villiers stage the story like Citizen Kane: a guy dies at the beginning and a snoop goes around talking to people trying to learn the big secret of the dead guy, interviewing them one by one, their stories told in flash-backs, running parallel forward courses to the ultimate answer of who put the killers onto Ole and why. Siodmak had a way with pulp material and he and cinematographer Woody Bredell produce some amazing lighting effects, whether its to highlight Gardner's cheek-bones or stage a murder without gunfire. It was the first movie of Burt Lancaster, launching his career, and the first big role of Ava Gardner's, while also giving Edmond O'Brien a chance with a major screen role of a type that he would continue to play throughout the 40's and early 1950's.
Mention should also be made of the tough brutal score by Miklos Rosza, which folks will recognize even if they've never heard of the composer or seen this version of The Killers. The opening bars over the Universal Studios logo are a stark four-note motif that is repeated whenever the hit-men Max and Al appear on-screen, and it so impressed a young producer named Jack Webb that he used it as the opening theme for his series "Dragnet" in all of its incarnations. It may inspire some audience giggles, but these things have to start somewhere.
Hemingway's reaction to this version of The Killers? I've read a couple stories—one where he went into the john and threw up; the other (from producer Mark Hellinger who has a vested interest) where he set up a private screening for Hemingway at his domicile in Sun Valley, Idaho. Hemingway attended the screening with an overcoat in which he had a full bottle of gin in one pocket and a full bottle of water in another. After the screening, he shows the two full bottles to the studio publicity man and and said "...didn't need 'em."


The Killers (Don Siegel, 1964) Adapted by Gene L. Coon (who was a showrunner/scripter for the best episodes of "Star Trek") and directed by Don Siegel (who was briefly attached to direct the first one), this version was originally designed to be a TV-movie, but was deemed "too violent" for "The Tube" and was thus released to theaters. Coon, who wrote it under the title "Johnny North,"** took a completely different approach to the adaptation, leaving out Hemingway's basic story and the characters that formed the basis of the original, but leaving in the plot that Huston and Brooks and Villiers designed for the back-story—and even—when it fit—some of the dialog. But, with one very important difference. This time, the point of view isn't from the investigating insurance agent. It's told from the point of view of the contract killers who are hired to "take out" the man "who just stood there and took it." Although, the two have a rule that they never discuss the work, this one is different enough that it makes the older one of the two gun-men curious and decides to do a little digging to find out what it was about this particular guy that he didn't run from certain death but just took it passively. Call it professional curiosity.
Charlie (Lee Marvin) and Lee (Clu Gulager) are an odd pair of hit-men. Lee is young and a bit of a goof-ball, almost child-like attracted to flashy things. Charlie is older and "going gray" and has been doing "this" ("this" being killing people) for a while. They show up at "The Sage School for the Blind" for a job and walk around unnoticed—two guys wearing shades indoors in a school where a lot of people wear shades. They head to the principal's office—she's sightless, too (the blind leading the blind?) and after viciously toying with her a bit to find out the location of their target "Jerry Nichols," they knock her unconscious and start casing the school for Jerry. 
After some cursory reconnaissance, they find that "Jerry Nichols" is teaching an auto repair class in the school's basement. Even though "Nichols" is warned by a telephone call, he stays in the classroom, telling his students to get out quick. During the confusion of the exiting would-be mechanics, Lee and Charlie burst into the room, and "Jerry" (John Cassavettes) just stands there and takes several silenced slugs from the two hit-men, who use the confusion to briskly walk out.
On a train away from the scene, the two killers start to talk, but Charlie is ruminating on the hit. He recognized "Jeff" as Johnny North, former race car driver that might have had some criminal past. And he won't let it go. There are four elements that has him thinking: 1) Johnny North "just stood there and took it," while anybody else would try and run 2) the price for the "simple" hit was $25,000, an extraordinary sum of money to kill one guy and 3) Johnny North was involved "in a big mail-robbery in California, supposed to get away with a million bucks"—what happened to the million dollars and 4) the person who hired the hit wasn't worried about those million dollars "and the only person who doesn't worry about a million dollars is the guy who has a million dollars." He wants to find that million dollars.
It's partially curiosity, partially greed, but he and Lee decide to divert to Miami to find out more about the late Johnny North and that missing million dollars. They'll follow a trail of witnesses: first, Earl Sylvester (Claude Akins), Johnny's pit-boss and chief mechanic (and friend—very good friend), who witnessed Johnny get involved with one Sheila Farr (Angie Dickinson), who liked hanging around the pits and basically ran over Johnny going 90, until all he could think about was Sheila, to the point where his high-living brings him low when he crashes during a big race breaking his leg and messes up his peripheral vision, not that he could see anything beyond Sheila, anyway. Earl tells a hospitalized Johnny that he's not the first guy she's had a fling with, but she keeps going back to a guy named Jack Browning (Ronald Reagan), an older racketeer who can keep Sheila in the lifestyle that she's grown accustomed to. It's the last time Earl sees Johnny.
Next, they move to New Orleans where an acquaintance of Browning's, Mickey Farmer (Norman Fell) has a gymnasium. They turn the heat on Mickey (literally) and he picks up the next chapter of the story, where Browning and Farmer are planning a big mail robbery that depends on some fast driving on some bad road in a car that might require a little tweaking of an engine. Browning can't do it, so Sheila recruits her old friend Johnny who's fallen on hard times driving demolition derbies. He's suspicious of the whole job, but Sheila's very convincing, especially when she tells Johnny that Browning plans on not splitting the million, and if Johnny can deal with Browning first, she and he can run away together. That's enough to seal the deal.
So, the next step is for Charlie and Lee to head to Los Angeles, where they find Browning has done very well for himself, going straight and starting a lucrative development and construction business. He has no idea what happened to the million dollars, or what happened to Johnny North after the robbery—he only has a vague idea where Sheila is, but Charlie and Lee are very persuasive with their pistols, telling him they want to meet Sheila to get the rest of the story and where that million dollars is. They say that he needs to arrange a meeting and if he doesn't—or if he plans a double-cross—they'll find him...eventually.
It's the meeting with Sheila that's the most disturbing. The hit-men have a time set up and they show up a couple hours before expected and are far rougher with Sheila than with any of the men they've interviewed, punching her around and even almost throwing her out a high apartment window. If Marvin and Gulager have the flashier parts, it's Dickinson who gets the best part and, as one might expect, she plays the hell out of it, both in her seductive flashbacks and the hysterics of her "interview" with Charlie and Lee. Ultimately, one shouldn't feel too sorry for the character—she's been in control the whole time, and is responsible for a lot of carnage along the way..
"...I don't have the time."
It's similar in composition (certainly with the introductory killing and the flashback structured piecing together of the story) to the earlier film, but the tone of the latter version of The Killers is—despite it's sunnier settings and color photography—tougher, grittier, and deeply cynical, especially considering that the vast majority of the characters in the 1964 version are completely unadmirable, back-stabbing sociopaths whose only redeeming quality is they're too busy turning on each other to do any permanent harm to the outside world of innocents, mostly represented as passive bystanders and watchers. The 1964 Killers is a bit like a circular firing squad, where the bad-guys get exactly what they deserve...from each other. It's almost a noir farce in living...and dying...color. Hemingway might have been horrified. 

What Hemingway would have thought can't be known. He died at his own hand on July 2, 1961.

A couple of after-after thoughts: Actress Virginia Christine appeared in both versions—as Lt. Sam Lubinsky's wife in the first, and as the principal of the Sage School for the Blind when Charlie and Lee are looking for Johnny. Older folks might remember her as "Mrs. Olson" hawking Folger's Coffee.

Jack Browning was the last major role played by Ronald Reagan before he pursued his political ambitions. Older folks might remember him as a President of the United States. Even older folks remember him as an actor playing good guys. He's not too convincing playing a bad guy, but he does have a cynical rueful look that's endearing.



Andrei Tarkovsky's student film of "The Killers"




















"If there's one thing in this world I hate, it's a double-crossing dame."


* Here's some juicy trivia for you: the actor who played Hemingway's alter-ego, Nick Adams, is the same Phil Brown who played Luke Skywalker's Uncle Owen in Star Wars.

** The screenplay was titled "Johnny North", but, for whatever reason—maybe due to some situations and lines of dialogue being similar—Universal Studios chose to hang it with the title "Ernest Hemingway's The Killers", a move that director Don Siegel was dead set against.