Friday, June 19, 2009

From Light to Dark

Ian at the now-renamed Midriff jazz blog recently wrote a pair of posts devoted to the 50th anniversary of Duke Ellington's deceptively simple soundtrack music for Otto Preminger's classic film Anatomy of a Murder, starring Jimmy Stewart and Lee Remick. Filmed in bleak b&w, this excellent close-on examination of a courtroom murder trial is set in the isolated Upper Peninsula region of Michigan, with Marquette and Ishpeming standing in for fictional towns "Iron Bay" and "Thunder Bay."

By a small coincidence I am currently reading a multi-prizewinning mystery series by William Kent Krueger--his "Cork O'Connor" novels, which are terrific character studies as well as beautifully written books. These are set in the far north of Minnesota on the shores of Lake Superior (the town is named Aurora), with forays into the Boundary Waters wilderness region, Michigan's U.P., and nearby Ontario--where there is a real Thunder Bay; one Krueger novel takes that as its title. Northern Midwest smalltown life features wonderfully in all of them.

This confluence of theme and place got me to thinking of my teenage years during the Eisenhower Era. Partly the result of all the uprooting and school changes my sisters and I were going through as military brats, I was a classroom "brain" but socially inept. So my lifelong escapist tendencies emerged in those years: preferring reading and music to real people; maintaining a lone-wolf, in-control attitude; having few close friends. And I began a lifelong love affair with the movies--sitting in the dark, dwarfed by a giant screen, the music and action carrying me away...

Four films from those years seem to encapsulate what movies meant back then, especially to one young teen: Boy on a Dolphin, Vertigo, Anatomy of a Murder, and Psycho; romantic adventure, suspenseful mystery, courtroom drama, and psychological scare fest, respectively. Only the first two were color films; stark black and white photography still seemed closer to "truth" back then. All four were graced with brilliant soundtracks that collectors still seek out today. And all had one other feature in common which will probably become clear as I write about each of them.

From 1956 to 1958 we were stationed in Izmir, Turkey, an historic port on the Aegean Sea, with the sun-drenched Greek Islands fairly close by. Boy on a Dolphin (filmed mostly on Hydra, released 1957) concerns an archeologist searching for Classic Greek artifacts, particularly the statue described by the film's title, with hero Alan Ladd immersing himself in the company of sultry sponge diver Sophia Loren (her first American film role). The plot was pretty silly, I imagine--can't remember most of it--but the Greek Islands scenery was spectacular, as was Ms. Loren dry or wet, but especially when she had just emerged from the sea. (One such moment left the director and crew thunderstruck and made Sophia a two-pointed star.) The music, by Hugo Friedhofer, was haunting and sort of familiar to us in Izmir, drawing as it did on Greek folk melodies--vaguely Middle Eastern; exotic, tuneful and repetitive; suitably mysterious for the undersea scenes.

That Ladd was only 5'4" while Sophia was a robust 5'8" meant that he had to stand on low boxes, or she had to walk in a special ditch beside him (all this came out much later, of course). Still, I had no trouble imagining myself in his, er, sandals and swimsuit.

Released a year later and a much better movie, Vertigo also played Izmir before we left, and it had a major impact on my psyche. I was already somewhat in thrall to the blond-bombshell beauty of sullen Kim Novak (thanks to Picnic and Pal Joey), so seeing her play two different characters--or the same character twice, actually--and watching her die twice (that clothed but curvaceous body!), was an unwelcome experience. (William Kent Krueger's novel Blood Hollow also has a young woman dying twice, but "she" is actually two different lookalike girls.)

Sure, it was only a movie, but detective Jimmy Stewart's fear of heights, his obsession with Kim, his anger and despair, plus composer Bernard Herrmann's complex and eerie music, and director Alfred Hitchcock's use of odd lenses and camera angles and long, slow, suspenseful tracking shots, all added up to a psychological hammer-blow of some sort that the film has never lost and that most viewers still experience even just screening it on DVD.

I'm jaded, cynical and 66, and it still affects me, anyway.)

By 1959 when Anatomy of a Murder was released, we had moved on to Tacoma, Washington. I had read the novel, and its plot and actor Jimmy Stewart are what persuaded me to try the film too, with then-little-known Lee Remick proving a beautiful bonus. I was too callow to appreciate Duke Ellington's music, but it wasn't used that much anyway. Director Otto Preminger seemed unsure what to do with the Duke's brazen, non-scene-specific themes, composed as pieces of music adding up to a suite rather than Hollywood's typical brief cues or "stings."

Besides, Preminger had other fish to fry. He loved to push the social envelope--think The Moon Is Blue, Carmen Jones, The Man with the Golden Arm--and this story had rape, a revenge killing, and a rather amoral atmosphere, including snide battling lawyers and Stewart carefully coaching his client (defendent husband Ben Gazzara) while half-way falling for flirtatious Lee himself. (Not for nothing were two of Duke's pieces of music called "Flirtibird" and "Happy Anatomy"; Remick/Laura's youthful, careless sexuality and a pair of her panties entered in evidence were prominent features of the film.) The viewer is never sure whether she was brutally raped or was a somewhat willing partner, and whether her husband acted as a cold-blooded killer or a crazed man not fully aware of his actions.

The music, which can be heard in more depth and with more clarity on Columbia's official 1999 CD reissue, has its own smoldering sensuousness (Johnny Hodges' alto at work, plus the clarinets of Russell Procope and Jimmy Hamilton)--sophisticated, making no judgments, sometimes upbeat or shrill but more often tinged with sadness. The Midriff write-up uses the word "lugubrious," but I wouldn't go that far; instead I hear elements suggesting smalltown America, tired roadhouse blues, the sound of a dreary Fifties existence lived unadorned--in harsh black and white, as it were--in the desolate far North. (But of course that's me looking back 50 years later; in 1959 I was simply titillated by Remick and puzzled by the film's callous, casual amorality.)

Psycho was a summer 1960 release. Hitchcock fans (and I was one already, having been convinced by Vertigo and The Man Who Knew Too Much) knew only that the film was b&w and reported to be intense and shocking, featuring name star Janet Leigh, best known for high-bodice costume drama. I was 17 and driving by then, and I got a speeding ticket zipping along some backroads route to the theater downtown, but nothing was going to keep me from that August midnight screening...

Well, the experience was literally life-altering. As we know now, viewers experienced definite nail-biting suspense leading to sudden shock violence. (This was the tame Fifties, remember, long before chainsaws and 13ths and excessive gore.) Screaming string music, again courtesy of Bernard Herrmann. Embezzler-thief Janet in her bra and half-slip as the film begins, and later watched by creepy Tony Perkins (and us audience voyeurs) as she undresses--and then standing naked and helpless in the shower as she is graphically knifed to death in 40 seconds of frantic quick-cutting (to coin a phrase). And this only a third of the way into the picture!

There were other jolting shocks ahead, yet they induced fewer post-screening nightmares; maybe unnerved viewers had become instantly inured. But for years afterward, no matter where I was, I felt a frisson of fear every time I closed any shower curtains, and I took to locking the bathroom door beforehand.

But I suppose these four films (one could add The Searchers earlier and The Apartment a bit later) also unlocked some intellectual capacity, induced some critical thinking, in me and other young people of the era. We saw that the world was rich and varied, beautiful and difficult, sexual and dangerous and sometimes deadly. That Krueger novel mentioned above has a pertinent passage:

Cork had been young once, in Aurora. He remembered the explosive feel of summer nights, when, at fourteen or fifteeen or sixteen your heart was big and your head was forgotten, when you believed you had it in you to do everything, when you felt like you'd never die, but if you did that was all right, too, because it couldn't get any better than this, or any worse.

And the unidentified feature that I mentioned above, found in all four films? Well, what's still guaranteed to claim the close attention of any curious teenage male? (Duke Ellington would likely smile. Duke Wayne as Ethan maybe wouldn't.)

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