After dark, my sweet

Oct 17, 2007 at 12:00 am

James Ellroy: American Dog
Facets Video

Like P.T. Barnum and Charles Manson, James Ellroy has transcended his work, and has arguably become more of a show himself than are his writings. The glib, profane, darkly hilarious Ellroy of countless interviews, live appearances, and now two documentaries is a character far more memorable than any he's created on the pages of his books — no, he didn't invent the Black Dahlia.

A bold statement, perhaps, considering his prodigious output, but American Dog reveals the king of crime fiction delving into the non-fiction horrors and pleasures of his own history (which often seem to be one and the same).

The mesmerizing film focuses on the author's mother's 1958 murder, fodder for his brilliant, autobiographical My Dark Places and numerous shorter pieces. We get plenty of Ellroy traversing his Los Angeles, cruising its noir recesses, revisiting the upscale neighborhoods where he used to break into homes and sniff panties, all of it narrated with the stark delivery that marks his writing style.

Plenty of worthy bonus material abounds; of note is a dinner at Ellroy's fave L.A. steakhouse with author and LAPD detective buddy Bruce Wagner. Wagner breaks the dank (albiet intoxicating) Ellroy mood, deadpanning, "So. I understand your mother was murdered. You should write about that." —Peter Gilstrap


The Naked City
The Criterion Collection

Naked is but one of the things New York City is in this brutally perfect noir gem. The 1948 slice of death paints a black-and-white world of grit, grime, scum and despair in a place where life is cheap and cheap is a beautiful thing. And, if you put any meaning in Oscar nods (a questionable standard at best), this thing nabbed two of them, for cinematography and editing.

The plot is standard noir — cops try to solve a murder —but the lurid feel of the film is the attraction. Filmed on Gotham locations and narrated Dragnet-style by producer Mark Hellinger, Naked City offers terrific performances by Barry Fitzgerald as an aging, wisecracking Irish detective and sweaty noir character stalwart Ted de Corsia as a sociopathic wrestler named (yes!) Willie the Harmonica. Dig his third act scene atop the Williamsburg Bridge.

Brilliant fodder for noir freaks and the uninitiated alike, the newly-restored, hi-def DVD transfer offers a wealth of bonus treasures including commentary by screenwriter Malvin Wald, footage of the late director Jules Dassin speaking at an L.A. appearance, and — a swell treat for Big Apple fans — analysis of the shooting locations.

So grab a scotch and vibe the seedy, claustrophobic loser world of post-WWII NYC. —Peter Gilstrap


Roger Corman Collection

Roger Corman will always be known more for funding the careers of soon-to-be-giant directors than for crafting his own work — Martin Scorsese, Jonathan Demme, Francis Ford Coppola and others all studied under his tutelage. As producer/executive producer, Corman is responsible for a staggering 380 films, dating back to 1954. But as this set tries to justify, Corman himself was once a significant director.

The eight films here prove that Corman was more versatile than detractors will admit, but they don't make one want to canonize him alongside other B-movie mavericks such as Anthony Mann and Samuel Fuller. The image of a Corman picture — cheap, sleazy and MST3K-friendly — should be dispelled upon viewing any of Corman's Edgar Allan Poe adaptations. Like his great House of Usher, this collection's Premature Burial is an absorbing tale of Gothic expressionism with Ray Milland as a medical student obsessed with being buried alive.

Others from Corman's early period are as engrossing: 1959's modern-art satire A Bucket of Blood, set in a hilariously pretentious beatnik bar, follows a pathetic busboy who becomes a celebrated artist (lauded as genius) after his "works" — murder victims he sets in clay. The sci-fi Man With the X-Ray Eyes, reunites Corman with Milland (playing an ambitious doctor whose development of X-ray vision leads to his downfall). Aside from the requisite moralizing (like so much classic science fiction), the movie's a visual buffet aided by Milland's passionate, dedicated performance. Corman's one of the few directors to use Don Rickles in a subversive role, casting him here a creepy carnie lech.

The rest of the set doesn't quite hold up. Corman became too much a slave to the '60s zeitgeist, resulting in garbage like Jack Nicholson-penned The Trip. It follows Peter Fonda on his first LSD trip, where he encounters death, sex, an Eden-like garden, witches, Dennis Hopper and corny kaleidoscopic montages. A complete waste of the hip formal innovations — which American directors (like Corman) began adopting from the French New Wavers — this might appeal to aging hippies. The Young Racers, ostensibly a stock-car drama, is more like a laughable love octagon among its self-absorbed characters. It plays out like a parody of a parody of a soap opera, with acting that makes the average porno stiff look like Olivier. Gas-s-s-s is worse, a self-indulgent anarchic youth film that wants to be Godard's Weekend.

The collection concludes with Bloody Mama, a repugnant retelling of the Ma Barker story with Shelley Winters as the domineering matriarch and a creepy Robert De Niro as one of her drugged-out bank-robber sons. Corman probably considered this a trashterpiece, and it counts animal cruelty, prison rape and the gang-bang of a little girl among its grotesqueries. But there's something raw about its depiction of redneck ethos and gruesome bloodbath of an ending that's hard to forget.

Only Corman die-hards will be pleased with everything in this boxed set. Buyers beware: My copy of Wild Angels here is faulty, so keep your receipts. —John Thomason


A Guide for the Married Woman
20th Century Fox

Not only should married women in search of guidance avoid this 1978 made-for-TV sex farce, but so should fans — and who are they, really? — of oddball Cybill Shepherd.

Oddball meaning, is she smart? Is she funny? Is she beautiful? Is she talented? At the least, the actress was a decent comic foil for pre-skinheaded Bruce Willis in the Moonlighting days, and the Shep does/did have that fab, God-given rack featured to great effect in The Last Picture Show (along with her winningly coy acting chops), but still ...

The plot delves into a classic '70s theme: How do you keep a wilting marriage fresh? Yes, think Love American Style. The film attempts to take off from the '67 movie A Guide For the Married Man, a delicious Walter Matthau period piece; both were scripted by Frank Tarloff, but this femme version falls short. Where Man was a ridiculous, enjoyable romp, Woman is a fairly tedious example of weakly plotted, insert-guest-starism gone bad.

Or good, depending on your thirst for TV kitscherrati: count in Tom Poston, Bonnie Franklin, Bernie Kopell, and John Byner, plus Hollywood Squares vets George Gobel and Peter Marshall (he plays a jogger — when was the last time anyone gave a shit about jogging?). All that said, watching the stupendous Barbara "Agent 99" Feldon in action as the Cyb's girlfriend makes AGFTMW almost worth it. Almost. —Peter Gilstrap