I went to the office today because I suspected I would go mad if I didn’t. Had to get out of the house. Had to be around other people. Didn’t help much, I’m afraid; I’m in A Mood. I don’t like anything I’m writing and I’m writing a lot of it, which is not exactly a recipe for Olympian levels of self-esteem. Sometimes it’s okay if you’re leading the Parade of Banalities, but when you feel like the guy who comes along afterwards and sweeps up after the elephants, you question your vocation.
Boo-hoo poor me, wah.
Anyway. No need to plough that furrow. It’s a busy night, so we’ll have to content ourselves with a Bonus Essay that chomps at the ankles of my better, and the obligatory Tuesday Noir. Again, it’s not intended as a movie review; it’s a history lesson. This was the last disc in the compilation – “The Racket,” a Howard-Hughes produced remake of a 20s movie. Oh, the promise: gangster Robert Ryan, all nine feet of him, against Robert Mitchum, sleepy-eyed cop. An all-star Noir-Off, except that Mitchum wanders through the film like it’s noon and he’s taking a break from a much more interesting movie, and is this the way to the cafeteria? No? Well I suppose I could speak a few lines.
The movie had several directors and several post-production reshoots and inserts; after half an hour I went back to the start and enabled the commentary, since it was much more interesting than the inert plot-glob I was watching. One of the scenes shot after the movie wrapped was the very first, and it set up the Titantic Struggle between the forces of law and the Rackets. This required a member of the Authority-Industrial Complex to spell out the perils, and the opening speech used this fellow:
I remembered him from a few other movies. Familiar. But who? Les Tremayne. He was an immensely popular radio host whose voice was one of the best-known in the country; his face, perhaps, less so, but in those days that mattered less. This would be like having Paul Harvey appear in “The Godfather” to make the case for cracking down on La Cosa Nostra. Odd how those moustaches have completely fallen out of favor – I don’t know if we have John Waters to blame or thank, but they now spell “Creepy neutered retro-hipster” and nothing more. In fact this fellow could play John Waters. Even the name is so pre-Boomer: Lester. There’s something furtive and sweaty and nasty about it now. Lester was a pestering molester with a festering chest. It’s one of your moister names, I’m afraid.
There was a corrupt reporter:
This being a Noir, they had to conduct the nasty amoral discussion by the Venetian blinds. It’s a sign of how the conventions of the genre made life easy for directors: just stage the scene so the slanty shadows fall just right, and if the actors have to stand with their cheeks touching the blinds, so be it. The actor here was another radio professional: William Conrad, the voice of Marshall Dillon on “Gunsmoke.” It would have been a hell of a show if they’d cast him in the TV version, too, but he was insufficiently rawboned. He’s one of the few good things in “The Racket” – he’s like a big sack of rancid butter. Later he was "Cannonball" on TV, a fat detective who always laid people out with a few meaty roundhouses. In this period, though, he knew the secret to projecting scary malice: indifference.
You know you’re in trouble when this guy pulls you over:
Officer Friendly? No. He killed Officer Friendly in a bondage game and quicklimed the body. It’s Hamilton Burger from Perry Mason, previously known for his psycho roles. Apparently we were supposed to forget all that, because he’s a square-john here all the way. But he can’t quite kill that dead-eyed reptilian menace, which makes him a very scary cop and a man at odds with the character he’s playing. For those of us who grew up with Perry Mason in reruns, it’s instructive to note how he was first presented to the public: RAPIST SICK-0. A modern equivalent would cast, oh, George Clooney as Perry Mason and Michael Jackson as the District Attorney. We’d expect Jackson clutch his withered beans and shriek WHEE-HEE, but when he didn’t, and actually presented a pretty good cross that seemed to call Mason’s case into question, we’d begin to accept him. No? Well, William Tallman was wrong from the git-go, but now it doesn’t seem as if there’s anyone else who could have filled the role.
Maybe not Michael Jackson. Say, post-“Taxi-Driver” DeNiro. With the Mohawk. But that would have gotten tiresome; there’s only so many times the judge could say “Yes, District Attorney Bickle, I am talking to you, and no, there is not anyone else here talking to you, and even if there was I suspect they would overrule your objection as well. Please continue.”
By some peculiar coincidence, this was the obligatory corrupt politician:
It’s Lt. Traaaaaag from “Perry Mason.” The chortling troll who enjoyed confounding Mason, grudgingly admired him, secretly believed he was guilty of something, but at the end of the day was content not to arrest him on general principle. Tragg was the Cerebus at the end of Burger’s leash; he was enough of a lawman to know everyone was guilty of something, but enough of a lawman to know that Mason’s 300-1 record in overturning the state’s case was not due entirely to his ability to turn courtrooms into circuses. He knew Mason was interested in justice as well, but he did it for money, which made him a whore. Still, he was a sharper man than Burger, who leaped to the wrong conclusion everytime Tragg brought him a piece of evidence. Find a shoe at the scene, Burger would arrest Jesse Owen; find a scarf, he’d dig up Isadora Duncan.
I like to think that Tragg joined Paul Drake’s firm when he retired, and was paid well. I’ve seen this man in many movies, and they all lead up to Tragg. He was born to Traggdom. He narrowed his craft down to the Columbo hunch, the gargoyle grin, the eyes that cut right through to the guilty thing you held in your heart and filed it away. (Might not matter now. Might matter some day.) It’s almost wrong to see him shouting on a phone. Tragg never had to shout.
It has come to my attention that not everyone gets Garrison Keillor’s column in their local paper. I have great admiration for Mr. Keillor’s skill as a novelist and monologue author, but his short pieces have always seemed at odds with his manifest abilities. The column is uniquely inert, and I wonder how many papers signed up thinking they’d be getting home-spun wry crinkly wisdom. Well, he’s certainly doing well, but in case your local paper misses an installment of “The Old Scout,” I have provided an emergency backup which should be good until 2008. Clip 'n' save.
THE OLDER SCOUT
The other day I went to a movie, which is what they call it because things move around a lot. It is called a movie even if the people don’t move around a lot, such as an Ingmar Bergman movie where they talk about things like Death, and being Swedes, they tend to talk about Death a lot even though they live longer than most, perhaps because of the pretty girls and the herring but probably the pretty girls. The movie was in a big building where people go to shop instead of shopping downtown in smaller buildings the way they used to before we decided we’d rather sit in our cars and look out the window than sit in a streetcar and look at our fellow man. He might have a gun nowadays so it is not exactly an overreaction.
It was a movie about animals, because we love animals, especially the ones that talk. Somehow it makes us feel better about destroying the habitat of real animals, because if that was wrong then the animals would speak up, and if they can’t then they deserve what they are getting. It is typical that a nation where half the country thinks Evolution is a myth also believes in Survival of the Fittest. The animals in the movie were certainly fit, equipped with sharp wits and strong muscles that would not be out of place on a wrester or action hero or other form of Governor.
There were other people in the theater as well and they sat through the previews and advertisements as though they were in church.
It is strange that we call it a theater since the word has always been a disreputable thing with Lutherans, who associated it with rolled-down stockings and women smoking in public and other signs of loose morals. I can say that about Lutherans because I am one and so are many other good people who never talk about religion and support reproductive rights and libraries. Before the movie began there was a short film advising everyone to turn off their cell phones and for a moment I almost wished I had one because it would make me look modern and up-to-date to reach into my pocket and set the phone on Mute or Vibrate or Do the Mashed Potato or Lie There Quietly, Mabel, Until the Spell Passes because Mabel sometimes exerted herself when weeding the carrots.
I have never heard a phone go off in a movie. When I was a young man it would have seemed strange to ask people to turn off their phones in a movie because we did not have any, but now people are as used to having phones as they are used to having their pension plans blow away like dandelion seeds. If I had a phone back then I would have used it to call girls but I didn’t so I relied on public phones, which were in booths and gave everyone the chance to feel like they were Superman. This was when Kennedy was alive.
It reminded me of the Current Occupant of the White House, who has people answer the phone for him and screen out the calls from generals and mothers so he can concentrate on making his own movie about good animals who are fighting evildoers animals, which threaten to take over the forest we are burning down anyway.
After the movie was over I wandered through the mall and saw many people talking on phones and other people buying phones at places that sold them. I considered getting one myself but I would only have to turn it off when I went to a movie even though sometimes you have to take an important call and leave because there is an emergency. But we do not believe in emergencies anymore and no one wants to interrupt the movie and impeach the Projectionist In Chief even though the film broke and we are looking at darkness and pretending it is a colorful picture.