Mental Hygiene Friday: “Booby Traps”

YouTube user shaggylocks has an enviable array of social engineering films posted on their channel. I imagine shaggylocks and I to be quite the kindred spirits in this regard. He/she and I probably have a lot in common, but selflessness and work effort are obviously not shared qualities, since I can’t even manage to embed code on a weekly basis. But a big thank you to shaggylocks and the hard work put into this staggering collection!

Today’s selection comes from the most unhygienic source of all… the United States GI!

From the description:
Private Snafu learns about the hazards of enemy booby traps the hard way.
This is one of 26 Private SNAFU (Situation Normal, All F***ed Up) cartoons made by the US Army Signal Corps to educate and boost the morale the troops. Originally created by Theodor Geisel (Dr. Seuss) and Phil Eastman, most of the cartoons were produced by Warner Brothers Animation Studios – employing their animators, voice actors (primarily Mel Blanc) and Carl Stalling’s music.

These old war films were the forerunners of the mid-century mind-blowers we mock today, like the ones directing suburban housewives how to navigate the perils of the produce section of the grocery store. Yet, it’s not a great leap to imagine how America went from warning our overseas airmen about the moist dangers of syphilis to questioning 50s teens on the topographically appropriate places for heavy petting (answer: none).

Say, Uncle!

There is one family story that I never get tired of hearing. This is it.

My dad and his brothers grew up on the wrong side of the tracks. Several wrong sides, in fact. My dad was born in Detroit, then moved to East St. Louis, and finally ended up in South Central LA for the rest of his childhood. Despite this, all three are fully independent and have never spent any time in state prisons.

My Uncle Ben is the first born. He’s brash and active, a consummate businessman and religious follower. He married a high-strung woman, had lots of kids, and then settled back to watch his high-strung offspring do their thing. He had his first job long before he could drive and didn’t retire until well into his sixties.

My dad is the youngest, not loud but not quiet, either. He can tell a mean story. He was an MP in the Air Force, volunteered three times for Vietnam (and was fatefully spared three times, but that’s another story), and was invited to be a member of the security police that guard Air Force One. He’s also a great runner and a gentle and wise soul.

However, this story is really about the middle brother, my Uncle Ed (whose full name on his birth certificate reads Eddie Lee – oh, the Ozark names!). Where Ben is loud and my father, James, is a mixture, Uncle Ed is the quiet, sensitive one. His manner is never overbearing, he talks in a low, quiet voice and his laugh is a chuckle that can barely be heard. Yet underneath all this he has a wicked sense of humour and a red-hot temper, which brings us to the story in question.

By the time my Uncle Ed reaches high school, my father’s family has moved from St. Louis to a tiny house in the middle of South Central Los Angeles. Ben is out of the house at this point, leaving my dad and Eddie Lee to the LA school system where they are pretty much out of their element.

While my dad is battling it out in the junior high, my Uncle Ed is left alone to fend for himself in a violent high school. Being the shy, quiet kid that he is, he has opted to take art class instead of shop and is hard at work on his masterpiece during the pottery portion of the semester.

He has just finished his ashtray (it’s mid-century, remember? My dad probably could have used it back then). It’s ready for glaze and a trip to the kiln when, out of nowhere, a hand comes down on his pottery wheel and smashes the ashtray into a lopsided lump of grey clay. Now, though Uncle Ed has a notoriously red-hot temper it is just as equally notorious for it’s long fuse. Bear in mind, also, that Eddie Lee was also the brother who punched his cousin Lenora in the face so hard she flew off the front porch. I think Lenora had been torturing the dog. No one knows what set off this episode – maybe the stress had just been building up for a long time – but when that hand came down on that wet clay, something snapped.

Without batting an eye, my Uncle Ed reached for the sharp pottery knife lying beside his pottery wheel, brought it down on the perpetrator’s offending appendage and pinned his hand to the crushed ashtray and pottery wheel.

Poetic justice.

Note: I heard this story recently, direct from my Uncle’s lips. He’s been living in North Carolina a long time (the original family seat, by the way. I am a Daughter of the Revolution!… but also a Daughter of the Confederacy, so I can’t get too uppity). An addendum to the ashtray story I never heard: he was promptly punched after the stabbing, which… you would figure. But kudos to the other guy for landing a cross with your off hand!

Noir of the Week: No Country for Old Men

 

“…I don’t want to push my chips forward and go out and meet something I don’t understand.  A man would have to put his soul at hazard.  He’d have to say, ‘Okay, I’ll be a part of this world.’” – Sheriff Ed Tom Bell.

1980.  A gas station somewhere in Texas.  The station’s proprietor rings up a transaction and, taking a gander at the vast expanse of dry nothingness out the window, asks the customer in front of him if there’s any rain up his way – seeing as how he’s got Dallas plates on his vehicle.  The customer’s expression is unreadable.  He sighs as if there’s a job at hand and he withdraws a quarter from his pocket:  “What’s the most you’ve ever lost on a coin toss?”  And slowly, through the course of a clumsy and dreadful conversation, the proprietor begins to realize every day in the gas station, with every customer walking through the door, in every attempt at small talk, he’s been gambling with his life.

In 2007, Joel and Ethan Coen presented No Country for Old Men, which would earn the brothers their first Academy Award for best picture.  (The Coens borrowed heavily and interfered little with their source material, Cormac McCarthy’s novel of the same name.)  Though generally admired by critics, No Country would alienate viewers with its graphic violence, anger more than a few people with its abrupt ending, and forever baffle movie store employees trying to shelve it under a genre header.  While Ethan Coen called it “the closest we’ll come to [making] an action movie,” action may be the last word that comes to mind when pondering the nature of No Country for Old Men.  The film is a wink and nod to Sam Peckinpah with its blunt and joyful violence; the photography basks in the Southwest landscapes in a way that recalls John Ford’s beloved Monument Valley; fists will clench through the suspense; laughter is often, and often uncomfortable.  Finally, a small, dark understanding from the viewer: this film is about me.

On the face of it, No Country for Old Men resembles the Coens’ earlier offerings of Fargo or Blood Simple.  The brothers are deft manufacturers of the noirish kind of crime procedurals that center on the simple man caught up in vicious circumstances beyond his control.  Here, our ordinary guy discovers two million dollars in a drug swap gone sideways.  His decision to keep it and flee will set two men on his trail: a psychopath bent on recovering the stolen cash and an aging sheriff trying to make sense of the new type of crime creeping into his county.  McCarthy’s novel offered the Coens a much more sobering and contemplative look at violence than previous films.  Dark humor is present but does nothing to temper the grisly nature of the story the way it did in, say, Fargo.  Violence is a silent partner in No Country, his capricious nature lending as much personality to the narrative as the three main actors.

Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) is a welder in the West Texas town of Sanderson when he stumbles across the leavings of a Mexican drug exchange while on a weekend hunting trip.  Brolin plays Moss as a straight shooter; you get the feeling he’s the type of guy who does a job right the first time.  Moss is no bumbler, but by the time the viewer meets him we’ve already seen two killings.  Neither is he naïve: after all, he finds the money amongst shell casing and bloated bodies, so he’s seen firsthand the violence this business provokes.  But like a lot of protagonists in the “everyman” noir genre, he’ll try to hedge his bets because he believes the possible payoff is worth the possible cost.  He may reckon two tours in Vietnam and sturdy Texan genes will help him through the aftermath of poaching drug money, but we know he’s doomed the second he slaps eyes on the cash.  Deep down, he might have the same inkling: “Things happen.  I can’t take ‘em back,” he tells panicky wife, Carla Jean (Kelly MacDonald).   Moss’s coin has been flipped.  He’ll just have to decide how to call it.

Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem, more chigger than sugar) is tracking Moss, sent by a nebulous crime organization to retrieve the money before the Mexican cartel.  We don’t learn Chigurh’s name until almost an hour into the film, but by then, we have all the information we need about him.  Namely, he sports a chilling Prince Valiant haircut, doesn’t like to get his feet bloody, and prefers to kill folks by way of cattle bolt.  One assumes he likes to keep things neat.  In McCarthy’s work, he’s described in barest detail: his one defining characteristic is a lack of sense of humour.  He’s a psychopath with warped ideas about fate, and the coin toss is a favourite trick of his.  It’s a callous way to decide whether or not to take a man’s life, but Chigurh’s got a twisted code of honor.  He believes the three separate paths of killer, victim, and coin have converged for a specific reason.  Later in the film, Chigurh confronts a fixer named Wells (Woody Harrelson) who’s been sent to dispose of him – Chigurh’s body count is climbing and making his shadowy bosses uneasy.  After he gets the drop on Wells, he mocks him, asking, “If the rule you followed led you to this, of what use was the rule?”  Chigurh’s honest with himself in a way that most of the world around him is not – even the smallest actions of yourself and those around you can have the highest consequences.  If you’re a part of society you must accept that.

Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) is Terrell County’s venerable lawman, drawn into the chaos surrounding by the drug massacre that’s landed within his jurisdiction.  Tommy Lee Jones is one of those actors whose name and face should overshadow any role he plays, but there’s none of that here.  Jones is a deep-in-the-heart-of-Texas native and his craggy face and homespun way of speaking inserts him seamlessly into the story.  If the viewer identifies somewhat with Moss, and not-at-all with Chigurh, we are all in with Jones’ sheriff.  He is the only character whose internal voice the viewer is privy to, in a plainspoken voice over at the beginning of the film.  It’s Bell’s story really, more than it is Moss’s or Chigurh’s, and we sympathize with him by the end because it’s our story, too.  Bell may be a participant in a cynical story about death and violence, but his feelings are shared by anyone who has ever felt left behind or overmatched by changing times.  At the beginning of the film, Bell tells us that as a new deputy he knew police work was a job he had to be willing to die to do… but it is a sentiment he didn’t fully appreciate.  It’s a decision he made as a young man, feeling indestructible and not having seen the things men are capable of.  As an old man, he’s a parable: if you haven’t despaired of the world you live in, just wait.

By the end of the film, Moss is cornered by Chigurh.  Having made no decision other than to keep the money for himself and his wife and run as long as he can, Chigurh calls it for him.  He makes Moss a new proposition: give me the money and Carla Jean stays alive; keep it up and I’ll hold you both accountable for what you’ve done.  Still, Moss refuses the two outcomes.  His new plan to give Carla Jean the money and run is disastrous.  He’s gunned down by the Mexican cartel men, a factor he hadn’t given much credence to since encountering Chigurh.  Turns out another coin had been in the air all this time.  Everyone is given an exit in the film, even if some are ambiguous (and since when has life provided resolution to all our outstanding questions?)  Chigurh retrieves the drug money, and in a sweet irony (that reinforces his own beliefs about fate), is blindsided and grievously injured in a car accident, after killing Carla Jean.  He walks away, perhaps to enter another small town the way he entered Bell’s, perhaps not.  As for Bell, he has squared himself with his part in a violent world, and retired from the job to detach himself from at least part of it.

The Coens are fantastic world builders.  As writers and directors they are masters at adding minute quirks that orient their characters. (The fact that Moss picks up his empty shell casings while hunting speaks volumes about his nature.)  No Country for Old Men doesn’t feel like a period piece, probably because most of us are old enough to recognize the fashion and cars within the film, but the visual details in each scene are so suspiciously perfect, you wonder if the Coens used a time machine.  The cinematographer was the Coens’ ace-in-the-hole Roger Deakins, an old hand when it comes to filmmaking.  He makes the most of the location shooting (mostly dodgy motels and borderlands in Marfa, Texas and Las Vegas, New Mexico).  The music and dialogue are sparsely used – long stretches of absolutely nothing, sometimes punctuated by carefully chosen words or a few music notes.  The supporting cast is small, but strong, the standouts being Woody Harrelson and Garret Dillahunt, who plays Bell’s deputy, Wendell.  Harrelson can’t quite get beyond his identity as well as Tommy Lee Jones is able to.  He’s still Woody here, but that’s okay because his lines are few and the role calls for a certain cocksure quality Harrelson naturally provides.  Dillahunt’s role is small, but important.  Wendell is a reflection of Bell: he’s the young deputy Bell once was, more concerned with impressing “the old-timer” than with making sense of the violence around him.

When No Country for Old Men was released, critics were mostly positive, while audiences were mixed.  For some, the film contained too much gore and violence.  The contemplative tone was found boring and tedious.  Others felt cheated when the criminal element of the film took back burner and didn’t answer the questions raised: Who took the drugs?  Who does Chigurh work for?  Where did the money really go?   Perhaps, like the country its title alludes to, this film is not for everyone.  Perhaps you have to have learned how raw a raw deal can be to appreciate the anguish of it.  Most of those who had issues with the film were unsatisfied with the ending in which Sheriff Bell reveals a dream he’s had about his deceased father, also a lawman: “And in the dream I knew that he was goin’ on ahead and that he was fixin’ to make a fire somewhere out there in all that dark and all that cold, and I knew that whenever I got there he would be there. Out there up ahead.”  And if you can see yourself in Bell, I’m willing to guess you’ve lost a few wagers yourself.

***

(Author’s note:  As always, if you are interested in classic film or films noir, please stop by the Film Noir Foundation. If you are interested in learning more about noir, head over to Steve’s wonderful Noir of the Week or the Back Alley Noir forums.

Poster by Emily at Minimal Movie Posters.)

Mental Hygiene Friday

A Word to the Wives

1955.  What had more chrome and steel than the behemoths coming of the assembly lines in Detroit?  Kitchens.  These 1950s sales films about dream kitchens turn me green with envy.  Recently I became entranced by a film that featured a stove with a built in boiling pot (you lose a burner but gain a pasta pot!!) and a built-in periscope that allowed you to peer into the oven.  Never mind the logistics of bending over a piping hot electric range — or the fact that all you really needed was a transparent glass oven door — here’s a nuclear sub periscope in your own kitchen!

A Word to the Wives features Marsha Hunt as an alarmingly devious woman who helps her best friend trick her unsuspecting husband (Darren McGavin!) into not only buying the kitchen of her dreams, but an entire house along with it.

I once watched a film on a concept kitchen that featured irradiated food drawers to keep your groceries fresh.  Ponder this:

“The Army Quartermaster Corps concluded early on that wholesome, economical, shelf-stable field rations could be provided through irradiation. However, early sensory evaluation of sterilized (1) irradiated meats described it as having a “wet dog aroma.””

We still irradiate certain foods, albeit not with nuclear cancer rays, and alas, not in our own veggie crispers.

Last week I did my part to help UN-modernize a friend’s kitchen.  She collects Depression Glass so I bought her a lovely lime green glass juicer for her birthday.  Depression Glass can also be known as Vaseline Glass or… Uranium Glass.  Wonder if you’ve got some stored away in the attic?  Just bring out your trusty UV light.  It will glow in the dark.

Noir of the Week: Cape Fear

(As always, if you are interested in classic film or films noir, please stop by the Film Noir Foundation. If you are interested in learning more about noir, head over to Steve’s wonderful Noir of the Week or the Back Alley Noir forums.)

“At his best, man is the noblest of all animals; separated from law and justice he is the worst.” – Aristotle

The road to hell is paved with good intentions. Nearly a decade after defense attorney Sam Bowden (Gregory Peck) acts as Good Samaritan by intervening in an attempted rape, perpetrator Max Cady (Robert Mitchum) tracks him to Savannah, Georgia and begins to deal out long-awaited retribution on Bowden’s family. As Cady carefully navigates the ever-thinning line between licit and illicit, Bowden becomes increasingly vulnerable to crossing criminal boundaries in order to protect his wife and daughter. The threat of the stable family unit by outside forces is a common motif in the noir genre, but never did the threat feel as tangible as it did in Cape Fear. An unpretentious film, it was received as coarse and vulgar in its time, yet it provokes a visceral reaction from the viewer as it questions the supposed usefulness of societal law.

The making of Cape Fear was put into motion by Gregory Peck, who also acted as producer through his motion picture company, Melville Productions. While his production house may have been named after a respectable author, Cape Fear’s origin was pulp – the touchstone of film noir screenplays. Though author John D. MacDonald was a graduate of Syracuse and Harvard universities, the Second World War derailed his life, and once discharged he found himself penning short stories for even shorter stacks of cash. Thanks to a booming crime novel market MacDonald was well-known by the time he wrote The Executioners, which eventually fell into the hands of Peck. Under the impression that films with geographical titles did well at the box office, Peck ran his finger down the Eastern Seaboard until he hit the Cape Fear region of North Carolina. In short order, Peck assigned himself the role of Sam Bowden and handed Cady’s reigns over to drinking partner Robert Mitchum.

Peck looked no further than his last director, J. Lee Thompson who had earned himself an Academy Award nomination with The Guns of Navarone. Cape Fear would be Thompson’s sole expedition into noir territory, but he was enthusiastic about conveying the film’s sense of threat and carnal undertones. Director of Photography Samuel Leavitt had little more experience with the genre. When all was said and done, his offerings were slightly dubious noirs like Johnny Cool, Crime in the Streets, and The Crimson Kimono. Yet Leavitt absolutely understood how to film chiaroscuro; after all, he took home the Oscar for black and white cinematography for Anatomy of a Murder and The Defiant Ones. Leavitt elevates Cape Fear from thriller to noir with his careful attention to shadows and light: he and Thompson shoot Mitchum behind a blur of black wrought-iron, with shadows of bar glasses gleaming on his naked back, and the sheen of sweat and black blood glistening on his skin.

“Hello, Counselor. Remember me?” – Max Cady

Max Cady has spent the last eight years, four months and thirteen days (roughly) with one thing on his mind: revenge against the man whose interference put him behind bars. Or, more accurately, Cady has spent his incarceration learning the loopholes in criminal law so he may legally terrorize Bowden’s wife Peggy (Polly Bergen), and teenaged daughter, Nancy (Lori Martin). The film follows Cady as he plagues the Bowden family unit, but always outside the long arm of the law. There are no witnesses when he poisons the family dog. And if he’s outside Nancy’s school or leering at her on a boat dock? Well, a man has a right to be in public places, does he not? Not without resources, Bowden pulls a few strings and asks police chief Dutton (Martin Balsam) to roust Cady or dig up some warrants – but he’s clean. “You show me a law that prevents crime. All we can do is act after the fact,” Dutton complains. When the chief somewhat scornfully suggests a private detective, Bowden hires Charlie Sievers (played by a positively hirsute Telly Savalas) and Bowden is finally given something he can work with. Sievers follows Cady and finds that he has picked up and brutally beaten a young woman named Diane Taylor (Barrie Chase.) However, it is Cady who is sending a message to the counselor: he’s hurt and scared the young woman so badly she refuses to press charges or make a statement. Cady’s threat to her looms so large that she flees the city in the middle of the night. Bowden and his wife, Peggy, understand now that this is what Cady means to do to Nancy. It’s not the act that is important to Cady; he wants Bowden to think about an attack on his daughter for the rest of his life.

The denouement of the film is particularly tense and almost wordless, and Bowden’s indecision about his own capabilities and the practicality of law are neatly tied up. After a nerve-wracking cat-and-mouse through swampland, Bowden has Cady lined up in the sights of his revolver but does not pull the trigger. He dooms him to spend the rest of his life in jail and restores his own faith (if not so much the audience’s) in justice.

“You just put the law in my hands and I’m going to break your heart with it.” – Max Cady

Although the ending of Cape Fear stops short of the anticipated slaughter of Max Cady, the film goes beyond B-grade horror by doing an effective job of exploring the uneasy introspection of the its hero. While Cady patiently bides his time in the murky grey waters of the law, Bowden becomes positively mired in it. He’s a man who has built the foundations of his life in the black and white world of right and wrong only to discover that a he cannot use logic to solve an illogical problem. The core struggle in the film is not whether Bowden will stop Cady’s reprisal, but whether he will give up the known truths in his life to operate outside societal rules. Sam Bowden never quite makes the transition into full-fledged noir anti-hero. Though he constantly questions the law’s ability to protect upright citizens, he only dips his toes into the criminal cesspool when he hires thugs to rough up Cady after Diane Taylor’s assault. After the thugs are neatly dispatched by Cady, Bowden waits for imminent threat to his wife and daughter before he takes personal responsibility; he’s only willing to bloody his knuckles within the confines of the laws he stubbornly clings to.

“Max Cady, what I like about you is you’re rock bottom. I don’t expect you to understand this, but it’s a great comfort for a girl to know she could not possibly sink any lower.” – Diane Taylor

Draw a line in the sand, because the debate for Mitchum’s best villainous role is about to begin. Watch these Cape Fear scenes back to back: Cady’s soliloquy on the reckoning of his ex-wife, the aroused phone call he makes after he’s worked over by a chain, and the treatment he gives Peggy Bowden on the houseboat. Mitchum’s accolades for his work in Charles Laughton’s delirious The Night of the Hunter are deserved, but his character is not as authentically depraved as Cady. Yes, preacher Harry Powell surely is a devil of a man, but his performance there is somewhat tempered (through no fault of his own) in the dreamlike mise-en-scène. Powell’s ruse of posing as a preacher renders Mitchum’s performance just the tiniest bit hammy – though no less fun to watch. However, Powell is like a character in a nightmare the audience can wake up from. Max Cady’s foundation is realism; you find him not in your nightmares, but in your local tavern.

Inevitably, what made Cady such a great noir baddie caused great concern for the censors: he stares unabashedly at a scantily clad adolescent and slowly smears raw egg across a woman’s décolletage. Mitchum doesn’t walk in this film, he oozes. During the climax he slithers into the swamp like a cottonmouth. Any perceived slight gives Cady the motivation for savagery, and he wallows in the fun of it. Though censors had grown more lenient since the inception of the Hays Code, they were still vigilant with respect to two issues. Gone was Max Cady’s past as American Government Issue. In the past, noir films had gotten away with the unstable soldier issue by giving characters a good case of shell shock or amnesia, but Cady goes through life as a psychotic rapist, unchallenged by the Army or prison. Gone too, is the real reason Cady focuses on Bowden’s daughter. The original attack the good counselor tried to prevent was not on a woman, but a fourteen year-old girl. Cady finds a certain humor and justice in despoiling Bowden’s adolescent daughter. While British censor John Trevelyan lopped six minutes of Cady’s degenerate behaviour off the UK version, American censors gave Thompson a little more leeway with his film. Good thing, too: his portrayal of Bowden’s antagonist is the driving force behind the film and Cape Fear would fall flat with a tamer villain.

Cape Fear is a transitional film, one of the last that can claim noir roots. If its predecessors were thoughtful noir films like Act of Violence, then Cape Fear ushered in the era of psychological horror along with Psycho. It was not well-received by audiences despite the release of Hitchcock’s film two years prior. It came up about one million dollars short of production costs. “What on earth is Gregory Peck doing in such a movie?” The New Yorker wondered, calling it “A repellent attempt to make a great deal of money… out of sexual pathology.” Indeed, Cape Fear would be the last film put out by Peck’s Melville Productions. But in Hollywood everything old becomes new again, and when Martin Scorsese remade Cape Fear as an homage to Thompson’s film, Peck received a rather late return on his investment and a new audience was introduced to Max Cady. While Robert DeNiro’s Cady is fun to watch, it is Mitchum’s performance that has stood the test of time. Cape Fear is ageless: still unapologetic, still chilling, still raising relevant questions. Watch this one at night with the lights turned low and raise the volume for Bernard Herrmann’s disconcerting hymn to depravity.