Thursday, February 3, 2011

The sons of Norman Bates

The Killer Inside Me (2010) is entitled to film noir credentials due to its source material, a novel by Jim Thompson, perhaps the bleakest among celebrated hard-boiled writers. But the story takes place under a blistering Texas sun, and the film manages to feel like noir without ever looking like noir. Instead of moody shadows from overturned lamps or shiny wet pavements reflecting the streetlamps, we have the blank, affect-less face of Casey Affleck, an actor who, after Gone Baby Gone, is on his way to becoming his own hard-boiled genre.

Moreover, director Michael Winterbottom has a history of making films, most notably Tristram Shandy, which are about themselves. This may be more admirable than making films about other films; it is at least less derivative. So we are spelled the Brian DePalma-style quotes from better movies in favor of drilling deeper and deeper down into an empty man.

Is Lou Ford a sociopath or psychopath? Is he a seething volcano or a emptied-out husk? Neither Thompson nor Winterbottom seem to want to answer that question, but simply scatter random clues, especially about Lou's mother who apparently taught him to use women as punching bags. The film favors long takes with traveling cameras carefully displaying the spatial relationships among locations, and especially between cars and interiors, as if the film were being shot by a crime scene photographer. It is hard to make sense of the plot, for though it isn't complicated, the offered character motivations don't make much sense. And as if to throw up their hands in confusion with Affleck's polite and obsequious killer, a character A.O. Scott of the New York Times described as "Eddie Haskell on his way to strangle a puppy," the filmmakers do not let him escape as Thompson did, but leave him a self-started, but somewhat ambiguous housefire.

Lou Ford may just be the latest of nice young men who kill. I suppose the great-granddaddy of them all (aside from Dr. Jekyll and Dorian Gray) is probably Danny from Night Must Fall a twice-filmed Emlyn Williams play which feels in the theater as if it is two hours about nothing except whether or not there is a severed head in a hatbox. It set off a plethora of similar pleasant yet homicidal young men, culminating in Norman Bates (or was it his mother?). And Norman and his co-creator, Alfred Hitchcock established that most dangerous of rules of film in the post-Classical age: you can't trust anyone or anything.

Norman also set off some direct imitators in the first decade after his debut, such as Keir Dullea in Otto Preminger's Bunny Lake is Missing (1965). My feelings about Otto Preminger seemed to have been shaped more by the public persona he used in the 50s and 60s to promote his movies; the Prussian tyrant director, forever purchasing expensive literary properties, cramming them with stars and making glacially-paced superproductions such as Exodus and Hurry Sundown. Now that I examine his work without the baggage of his publicity, I see an interesting use of space and a respect for actors. His films are theatrical but in the good way. Not theatrical meaning given to overacting and static cameras, but in the sense of framing the action broadly (in this case using the 2:35 proportions well), giving actors distance and room to establish characters and relationships, rather than using close-ups and editing to create a performance, and the use of long takes both to enhance those performances and to delineate the space among them and between different loci of action. Look at this clip and how clearly Preminger sets the relative statuses of the characters, the jockeying for control between Keir Dullea and Laurence Olivier and the precise layout of the school from which Bunny has disappeared.

(Production of this film was undoubtedly the inspiration of the observation by Noel Coward - who plays a supporting role - "Keir Dullea, gone tomorrow.")

Preminger's approach suggests a respect for his collaborators, especially the writers John and Penelope Mortimer (John Mortimer was most famous as the creator of Rumpole) and the actors; it contradicts the pose of the arrogant self-sufficient autocrat the Preminger projected. (Of course, the whole facade was a sham -- Preminger was not Teutonic, as he played in Billy Wilder's Stalag 17, but an Austrian Jew.) Bad manners or not, Preminger lets things unfold, and in a swift efficient manner unlike most of his 1960s epics. In fact, it goes swiftly enough for most of the audience to have overlooked nice young Keir as the possible culprit in Bunny's disappearance. Most of the film is engaged in trying to suggest that Carol Lynley is mad.

Speaking of madness, Anthony Perkins, the original Norman Bates himself, got the tables turned on him in the game of "Who is Crazier" in Pretty Poison (1968) a pitch-black comedy variant of Lolita. Like, Killer Inside Me, it is a sunlit noir, here in a sun-dappled early New England autumn. Perkins, freshly paroled, seeks to seduce Tuesday Weld, here at the tail end of a 10-year period of playing prom queen types, with tales of being a secret agent under cover as a criminal and hints of involving her in his dangerous escapades. Perkins adds the wonderful quality of appearing to very possibly believe his own stories. Weld appears to succumb to his fabrications, even offering her own innocence; but that gift becomes a weapon, and in this scene she suggests they push their relationship to the next stage -- flight.

The would-be predator becomes the tool of the real predator, especially as Weld convinces Perkins to participate in the murder of her mother, played by B-movie icon, Beverly Garland (still alluring at 50). Lolita becomes Double Indemnity and the madness keeps spiraling up.

Pretty Poison has some nice visual flourishes beside the healthy-looking all-American countryside. The factory Perkins works in produces a chemical waste the color of blood, presaging the violence to come and echoing the fears of the then-emerging environmental movement. There is a multiplicity of viewing devices and lenses - binoculars, windows, an industrial lens at the plant, amplifying the sense of the male gaze on Weld's character. And the denouement is perfect, with Perkins pulling the pin of the grenade on himself, and Weld seeking out her next victim. It both recalls the femmes fatale of the 40s and suggests that Norman Bates was never as great a threat as Norma.

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