Thursday, November 13, 2014

Triskaidekaphilia: '13 West Street' (1962)

On the 13th of each month, I write about a movie whose title contains the number 13.

A sort of alarmist melodrama about a respectable man who descends into vigilantism after being attacked by a group of teen hooligans, 13 West Street has a few things going for it, most notably an appealingly naturalistic performance from Rod Steiger as the world-weary police detective investigating the attacks, but is ultimately too stodgy and reactionary to make any meaningful social commentary or tell a gripping story about an ordinary man driven to the edge.

Star Alan Ladd is a big part of the problem, playing milquetoast aeronautics engineer Walter Sherill, who gets beaten up one night by sneering teenagers and then becomes increasingly frustrated with the police response. Ladd is just too stiff and stolid to really bring Walter's rage to life, although part of the problem may be that the movie simultaneously wants to endorse his disgust at teen delinquency and punish him for attempting to take the law into his own hands. The excessive moralizing gets in the way of creating a juicy thriller. Also, there is an inordinate amount of attention given to Walter's job (the entire opening scene involves a meeting about developing a new rocket, which made me wonder if I was about to watch a spy movie or a sci-fi story, since I hadn't bothered to look up the plot before starting the movie), without any payoff whatsoever.

But then there's Steiger as the jaded but well-intentioned detective who knows that investigations take time and footwork, and who, unlike most movie detectives, actually spends time working his other cases because Walter's is not the only one he has to investigate. He wears bow ties, always says "bye-bye" when leaving, and generally comes off like a real person amid all the hysteria about teenagers gone bad (the gang members turn out to be from upper-class families, which shocks Walter's wife, who assumed all delinquents were "underprivileged"). The rumpled sergeant seems as impatient with the movie itself as he is with Walter, and it's easy to sympathize with him on both accounts.

Wednesday, November 05, 2014

Bette Davis Month Bonus: 'That Certain Woman' (1937)

Writer-director Edmund Goulding packs an entire season's worth of soap opera storylines into his melodrama That Certain Woman, which starts as a strong showcase for Bette Davis as a whip-smart career woman, before devolving into a hand-wringing weepie. Davis plays Mary Donnell, the widow of a notorious gangster, who is trying to escape her shady past by working as the industrious assistant to respected lawyer Lloyd Rogers (Ian Hunter). As the movie begins, Mary is busy trying to keep her name out of the newspapers and romancing an immature playboy named Jack Merrick (Henry Fonda). Rogers, as her rather patronizing mentor (who's also obviously in love with her, despite being married), helps both of those situations along, and soon the movie is skipping ahead years at a time to chronicle the increasingly overwrought developments in Mary's life.

As Mary accumulates more emotional baggage, including a brief marriage to Jack and conflict with his stuffy father, a child born out of wedlock, and a scandal surrounding her (non-existent) affair with Rogers, she changes from a sharp, independent go-getter into a noble sufferer, and becomes much less interesting and entertaining for it. With its sudden time jumps, the movie is paced terribly, and its shifting focus makes it hard to get a handle on any of the characters. Fonda gives Jack a kind of puppy-dog earnestness, but he comes across as naive bordering on moronic when up against his devious father or confronted with the child he obviously fathered.

Mary's motivations as the movie progresses are sometimes a little hard to fathom, even given the strict moral code of the time period. She seems destined to give up everything in her life at the whims of capricious and/or paternalistic men, and the movie approves of her every decision. After sacrificing her son and her chance at a meaningful life, Mary ends up with a rushed happy ending at the very last moment, but it's just one more unconvincing turn in a movie full of them. Davis isn't as vibrant playing Mary the martyr as she is playing the brash woman at the start of the movie, but she fully engages with the emotions of every scene, absurd as they may be. It's a movie-star performance in search of a better movie.