The getTV Mickey Rooney Blogathon: PULP (1972)

Preston Gilbert (Mickey Rooney), the old-time Hollywood actor whose gangster roles may have carried over into real life, arrives 40 minutes in to Mike Hodges’ 1972 neo-noir, Pulp, and he is only in three scenes. But his presence dominates. Gilbert is the reason that our protagonist, pulp fiction writer Mickey King (Michael Caine), lands in this particular shadowy maze of circumstances, and, through Rooney’s apparent total disregard for likability, the character becomes a standout in a film well-stocked with eccentric characters, plot twists, political machinations, and dark humor.

King lets us know in a perfectly noir voiceover that he is an advocate of quantity over quality in his writing. His goal is to generate 10,000 words a day, no matter what. He writes under a variety of pseudonyms for a publisher who matches him in shadiness. Summoned to the office one day, he is asked to ghost-write an autobiography for an actor. The actor’s emissary, Ben Dinuccio (Lionel Stander), is a gangster right out of Central Casting. He tells King that the subject’s identity and location must remain a secret. If the author agrees to work on the project, he will be sent on a 5-day sight-seeing tour, and another go-between will make contact at some point on the road, ultimately leading him to his still-unknown subject.

Suffice to say, King is intrigued, and then progressively less so, as he endures quite an entertaining (for us) rigamarole, including an attempt on his life. Just before he finally arrives at the isolated island home of his mysterious quarry, he learns the latter’s identity: Preston Gilbert, who was, according to King, “one of screen’s immortal mobsters, hero-worshipped and imitated around the world,” but is now “a two-bit blown-out film star.” Director Hodges also wrote the script and based the character on George Raft, who had a faded career and inconvenient Mafia ties.

Rooney had already shown in films like Baby Face Nelson and Quicksand that he was interested in going beyond the apple-pie persona that had made him famous, and in Pulp, he was not afraid to appear narcissistic, pathetic, or repellent. We first meet him cooking in a sauna, savagely berating the attendant, who has fallen asleep.

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He then orders the attendant to get into the sauna himself, in a shot emphasizing his shorter stature.

vlcsnap-00008-500wGilbert is no one to mess with…he seems as nasty as anyone Raft, Edward D. Robinson or Jimmy Cagney ever portrayed…the attendant does as he’s told. Next we see the actor getting ready for dinner. In showing us Gilbert’s vanity, Rooney completely abandons his own. Parading around in his skivvies, posing in front of his gigantic mirrored closet, bellowing along to a phonograph record, putting on a toupée…

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vlcsnap-00015-500w(Bonus points when he opens the closet doors, and there’s, yep, another mirror.)

vlcsnap-00014-500wAt dinner, Gilbert reveals more of his loudmouthed unlikability. He is demanding with his staff, coarse and insulting to his wife, and doesn’t even respect his elderly mother. When Gilbert hears there’s someone trying to kill King, he is elated. Despite King’s misgivings, they begin to work on the book, which is completed in a week. Then a couple of scenes later, at a book wrap dinner, Gilbert is murdered. He had been such a practical joker that at first no one believes he’s actually dead, even though they saw it happen. The rest of the film is King’s attempt to find out whodunit, not because he feels any particular affection for Gilbert, but because the same person(s) are after him.

vlcsnap-00021-500wThere is much to recommend Pulp: a solid, irony-laden neo-noir plot, witty lines, sight gags, and great performances from everyone from the bit players to Caine to Lizabeth Scott, one of noir‘s best actresses. One of the most interesting of these aspects to me, though, is Rooney’s brief turn as swaggering has-been Preston Gilbert, a role which showcased the actor’s dedication to his craft and willingness to be seen in an unflattering light. Pulp wouldn’t be the same undiscovered classic it is without him.

This post is part of the getTV Mickey Rooney Blogathon hosted by Paula’s Cinema Club, Once Upon a Screen, and Outspoken & Freckled, taking place throughout the month of September. Please visit the getTV schedule for details on Rooney screenings throughout the month and check out the megapost for a complete list of entries. You can access the entire getTV schedule here and check to see if getTV is available in your area here.

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James Cromwell, What A Character! by Jack Deth

by Jack Deth

Greetings, all and sundry!

It’s been a while since being invited to delve in and play around in the wonderful world of those consistently and hardworking people towards the back of any room or set. The character actors. Who begin their careers in obscurity. Usually as one of a pack. Or spread throughout a set. Earning and learning their trade. Either silently, or with only one or two throwaway lines as roles, lines and screen time increase.

To that end. I would like to introduce one of a collection of thousands. Who caught my attention in small parts amongst the plethora of television prime-time situation comedies and later, dramas of 1970s and ’80s. Specifically, at first glance. Playing four distinctly different characters in the superbly cast, live audience, classic cop situation comedy, Barney Miller. Reveling in their interplay with master of dry, wry comedy, Steven Landesberg’s Detective Sgt. Arthur Dietrich. Knowing there was something there in this tall, gaunt actor worthy of greater things. Enjoying his episodic and occasional background work. While moving to the forefront work in smaller films.

Until the right opportunity presented itself. As the omniscient, erudite and charmingly bent as barbed wire Honcho of Homicide Detectives in a recent classic of noir genre.

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James Cromwell: Kingpin Cop, Captain Dudley Smith in L.A. Confidential

Take the wisely-purchased rights to an award-winning and best-selling James Ellroy novel that has to bleed mood, setting, lighting and allegiance to the near “anything goes’ mindset of a spread-out city becoming the land of milk and honey. And does!

Focus its spotlight away from the packaged and highly bankrolled glamor of the day and take a look at what runs rampant underneath. With a well-known crime boss, Mickey Cohen (Paul Guilfoyle) safely ensconced in prison, but leaving a massive power vacuum to be filled. Add a large batch of stolen heroin and the money and types of uncouth, out of state, riff-raff clientele it draws, and you have the makings of a prime neo-noir!

That begins with an eye-blackening scandal for the LAPD. In the shape of a very violent, multiracial rumble erupts in a lone precinct’s holding cells prior to a Christmas party attended by the local press. Papers are printed. Conferences amongst the highest ranks of the LAPD are held. And scapegoats are sought. Aided by a still wet behind the ears precinct officer, Edmond Exley (Guy Pearce, at his most bookish looking, easy to underestimate best)! Who yearns to achieve the reputation of his iconic, killed-in-the-line-of-duty father.

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An old, not quite crooked, soon to retire “hat” (Graham Beckel) is selected. Along with celebrity busting, Hollywood connected, Jack Vincennes (Kevin Spacey channeling Dean Martin, smooth and cool) are on the chopping block. Events all overseen and manipulated by Mr. Cromwell’s Captain Dudley Smith. Who may have a new and intriguing appreciation of young Exley’s familiarity in playing the system.

Vincennes is placed on suspension. And the old “hat”, Detective Dick Stensland is forcibly retired without his pension. Creating a massive amount of hate within Officer Bud White (Russell Crowe showing tremendous potential for future greatness!) and his sizable hard on for newly promoted Lieutenant Exley.

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Time passes and erupts with a spree shooting at an all night diner, The Nite Owl. Which brings about an instance of swords crossing between Exley and Smith. Who wisely wants to keep this eager beaver at controllable arms length. Even more so when it is discovered that White’s retired partner and Susan Lefferts, a prostitute made up to look like a star, are among the dead.

The hounds are set loose the following morning. With all data, direction and where to look generated by Captain Smith. Two “negroes” are sought while Vincennes, recently reinstated to Narcotics, follows the lead of a Fleur De Lis business card that screams high-end and very cautious prostitution. Vincennes seeks counsel from his under-the-table business partner, Sid Hudgens (slimily played to the hilt by Danny De Vito), who points him towards prominent citizen, with his fingers in everything dirty, Pierce Patchett (David Strathairn). Whose minion is seen setting up an introduction between the District Attorney (Ellis Lowe) and a promising young male talent (Simon Baker).

As with any atmospheric cop film. People are murdered. Criminals escape only to meet a bloody end. Medals are awarded and won. Alliances are formed between the unlikely (Vincennes and Exley) who know something important about each other’s cases. And inroads are made into Mr. Patchett’s empire. Courtesy of Kim Basinger, playing Veronica Lake lookalike Lynn Bracken. Who knows and whispers enough between Exley and White to send them on a collision course with a glimmer of photographic extortion hinted at by a soon to be a loose end, Sid Hudgens.

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And through it all Captain Smith stays in the background. Always one step into the shadows and ahead of everyone. As he gently pulls a string here. Or tugs one there. Throwing up false signals and leads, as White and Exley start dipping into the past records of the LAPD in general. And Smith, in particular. Which leads to his, Stensland’s and the recently-discovered “Buzz” Meeks’ past cases, and later ties to opportunities for crime and corruption. On scales small. Large. And in between.

What does Mr. Cromwell’s Captain Smith bring to the film?

A masterfully delivered dose of quiet mystery. Tall, seemingly omniscient. Grandfatherly and quiet in his disposition. Simply because, as a Captain of Homicide, he doesn’t have to raise his voice or chew scenery best left to Mr. Crowe’s “Bud” White. The Captain’s word is law. And the Captain assigns manpower and initially directs where it goes.

The wizened spider in the center of its web. Getting tickles from Vincennes, delving into the death of Mr. Baker’s Matt Reynolds. Sensing that “Bud” White may be wanting to expand his career horizons beyond that of muscle for one or more “valedictions” with greedy out -of-town talent.

While also being blessed with a soft Irish brogue. And the film’s, and possibly, cinema history’s best lines.

Offering advice to “Bud” White and the officer’s desire for a gold shield:
“I admire you as a policeman – particularly your adherence to violence as a necessary adjunct to the job.”

And later. After White concedes;
“Wendell – I’d like full and docile co-operation on every topic.”

During a “valediction” with recently arrived out of state talent at the deserted Victory motel:
“Go back to Jersey, sonny. This is the City of the Angels, and you haven’t got any wings.”

When Vincennes expresses a desire to look once again at the Nite Owl murders:
“I doubt you’ve ever taken a stupid breath. Don’t start now.”

And later:
“Don’t start tryin’ to do the right thing, boy-o. You haven’t the practice.”

And through it all, Mr. Cromwell’s Dudley Smith radiates a serene, untouchable confidence. That easily equals that of his fellow cast of veteran, A-List and soon-to-be A-List talent. In a film loaded with color, shadow, glitz and post-war glamor for the masses.james-cromwell-in-l.a.c-lowres

WAC-banner-2013-greenThis post is part of the 2013 What A Character! blogathon, co-hosted by myself, Kellee of Outspoken and Freckled, and Aurora of Once Upon A Screen. Be sure and check out all the other Monday posts. And there’s Saturday and Sunday’s as well.

Reckless Review: UN FLIC

Every year, Turner Classic Movies (TCM) throws a few surprises into their Summer Under The Stars (SUTS) programming. As you may know, SUTS means each day in August is dedicated to the films of a single brilliant star. Along with actors you might expect, such as Humphrey Bogart (Aug. 1) and Bette Davis (Aug. 14), TCM always includes a few surprising choices. For instance, I don’t know of any other cable channel that would run nearly 24 hours of silent films, but that’s exactly what happened on Ramon Novarro‘s day (August 8). If you missed Ben-Hur (1925) starring Novarro and Francis X. Bushman, you really should check it out.

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The other somewhat unconventional and totally welcome choice in the SUTS mix this year is Catherine Deneuve (Monday, August 12). As I said on Jean Gabin day in 2011…big ups to TCM for running 24 hours of subtitles. (Actually, there is one English-language Deneuve film, The Hunger, showing at 4:15 a.m. on Tuesday, August 13. But still…it’s not something you see every day.)

Of Monday’s films, I highly recommend Un flic (1972). It’s showing at noon on Monday and stars Deneuve, Alain Delon and Richard Crenna, directed by Jean-Pierre Melville.

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Un flic is French for “a cop;” the film’s American title is less ambiguous: Dirty Money. Delon plays the title role, a brutal, not-so-clean police commissioner, who suspects that his friend, a nightclub owner (Crenna), is behind a series of bank robberies and drug deals. Cathy (Deneuve) is caught between them, sleeping with both and keeping both their secrets. Her model beauty and perfectly coiffed hair belie the anxiety in her nervous gestures and darting eyes. It’s a small part but a memorable one.

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Melville is one of my favorite directors, he does crime pictures as well as anyone. His newsreel-style, on-location filmmaking was influential on Jean-Luc Godard (whose use of jump cuts was inspired by Melville). This was Melville’s last film, and like my favorite Le samouraï, Un flic may as well have been shot in the black and white of a film noir…cold desaturated colors, dark rooms, inky shadows. Thematically it’s as melancholy as any noir, and the line between the lawman and the criminal is as hazy as dusk in the Paris of Melville’s creation…this isn’t Woody Allen’s City of Lights. Part of it is unbelievable (you’ll know it when you see it), and I’m pretty sure Crenna was dubbed, but these are minor details in a suspenseful and enjoyable neo-noir.

UPDATE: No worries if you missed this on Deneuve day and you have Netflix. I searched the site on the off chance they would have Un flic on DVD, and lo and behold, not only do they have it, it’s also streaming. C’est super!