September 14, 2010. Two meticulously prepared film devotees sat before their Macs at the appointed hour and discussed (via Skype) Cavalcanti’s 1947 gangster/noir revenge melodrama, They Made Me a Fugitive, a restored print of which will be screened this weekend as part of LACMA’s tribute to the Film Foundation, on the occasion of its 20th anniversary.
“Shall we just jump into it then?” said Wes Anderson.
“Absolutely,” said Kent Jones.
“I wonder if we need to begin in such a way that we’re kind of announcing why we’re talking about this movie,” said Anderson thoughtfully. “Here’s a possible opener: ‘One of the films showing in the tribute to the Film Foundation is They Made Me a Fugitive. I had never seen this movie before, and I’d never heard the one name of its director, Cavalcanti.’ ”
Jones was mildly surprised. “Really?”
“No,” said Anderson. “But then I realized I’d seen Dead of Night, the horror omnibus movie from Ealing [Studios] — and he directed the most famous episode, ‘The Ventriloquist’s Dummy,’ and also ‘The Christmas Party,’ which are both very interesting. Do you know his other films?”
“He was Brazilian,” offered Jones as he downshifted into information mode, “and sometimes he used his first name, Alberto. He worked in France, crossed paths with Jean Renoir, wound up in England working for John Grierson’s documentary unit, and then made those great fiction films. For instance, he made a tremendous wartime movie called Went the Day Well.”
“I should see that,” said Anderson. Jones sensed genuine excitement in Anderson’s voice: He was always on the lookout for new discoveries. “I loved They Made Me a Fugitive. The grittiness and the style and the great, great dialogue. It’s sort of like a British Sweet Smell of Success — which I suppose was directed by an English person, anyway.”
“But written by two Americans. The dialogue in this one is amazingly pungent,” said Jones by way of amplification. There was to be a good deal more mutual amplification.
“It’s very good, and very hard,” Anderson continued. “The violence of the language is much more blunt than you’d ever expect of a movie from 1947. What’s that sound?”
“New York police sirens,” answered Jones abstractedly, as the whining from Broadway peaked and gradually died away. “Maybe we should clearly state that you’re in Paris and I’m in New York …”
“… and that we’re talking about a British film showing in Los Angeles.”
“After the war, there were a lot of very tough British movies set in the underworld,” Jones said, “like It Always Rains on Sunday and Brighton Rock — in fact, all three were made in 1947.”
“Brighton Rock is also brutal,” Anderson said with an audible tinge of excitement. “They’re unexpectedly cruel and frank in their language and violence — they don’t hold back.”
“For me, Trevor Howard gives They Made Me a Fugitive a special energy.”
“Yes, Trevor Howard is great,” agreed Anderson, “and so is the guy who plays Narcy. He’s wonderful. What’s his name?”
“Maybe since we’re on our computers, we can look it up.” An idle remark, which initiated a quiet cacophony of frantic transcontinental typing.
“Isn’t it incredible that there’s a gangster named Narcy, short for Narcissus?” asked Jones as his index finger hit the “return” key.
“That’s kind of one you want to steal,” said Anderson as his computer chimed. “Narcy is … Griffith Jones.”
“Who was also in … Olivier’s Henry V as the Earl of Salisbury. And whose real name is Griffiths Jones — hard to pronounce,” Jones said.
“Another thing that intrigued me about They Made Me a Fugitive was that it always seemed like it was going to veer into pure expressionism. Like Sally’s beating, for instance, done in a quick montage, which includes a distressed close-up, unusual for its time.”
“It’s shot by a German cameraman, isn’t it?”
“We’d better double-check the good old IMDb.” Another round of typing.
“He’s an Otto — but maybe he’s not German,” Anderson suggested. Jones suddenly remembered the menacing German women on The Darjeeling Limited. “That expressionist current of feeling combines with the location shooting and the type of story being told, the rawness of it all, to give the movie a documentary-ish flavor. It’s a strange combination. And the dialogue is so graphic and blunt.”
“Boy, is it ever. It’s like they were trying to outdo the Americans in the hard-boiled department.”
“But it’s also very literary — quite inventive and funny. They’re highly verbal characters.”
“So many gaudy, outlandish exchanges. I like the conversation between Narcy and the cop when they run into each other on Sally’s stairway,” Jones said, quoting: “ ‘How’s the undertaking business these days?’ says the cop. ‘Booming,’ says Narcy. ‘I wish I could interest you in one of our new models. And don’t forget to tell your friends.’ Like when the cop asks him if he can smell a rat — ‘I’ve got a cold. I can’t even smell you.’ Or: ‘Clem’ll get about as far as I could throw a dead elephant with one hand tied behind me back.’ ”
“Narcy has so many great lines, and line readings. I like when he says, ‘Curly’ll have to cock you one on your pretty coconut’ — and he tells one of his boys that if the girl makes any trouble, ‘Bash her face in.’ It’s not just hard-boiled, it’s kind of funny, and I think they meant it to be?”
“How about the old woman? ‘Watch out you don’t overdo it, Narcy. The cops’ll be out like hornets ’round a jam jar.’ ”
“I missed half of her dialogue,” admitted Anderson, “because it’s so fast and British.”
“It seems that Otto Heller was actually Czech,” Jones reported. “He did a lot of great work in color — Peeping Tom, Richard III, The Lady Killers. He also made one of the most incredible British films of the ’40s, The Queen of Spades.”
“This might be a good moment to mention how much They Made Me a Fugitive will benefit from restoration,” said Anderson, dutifully circling back to the topic at hand. “On the DVD, you can see how beautiful the black-and-white photography should be, and how much work is needed.”
“Some passages are in good shape, others less so. I can’t wait to see the restoration. Should we mention some of the other films in the series?”
“Well, there’s The Red Shoes.”
“Which might be the most stunning restoration I’ve ever seen.”
“And Bonjour Tristesse. And Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali, which is a masterpiece and probably his best known film.”
“There’s also Shadow of a Doubt by Hitchcock,” added Jones, “an impeccable movie with one of my favorite actresses, Teresa Wright.”
“And there’s Cloak and Dagger by Fritz Lang, with Gary Cooper.”
“As a scientist — curious idea.”
“Yes. In fact, I saw it with a physicist. Aren’t they trying to smuggle out a German scientist?”
“Yes. Strangely cast, but a striking film.”
“There’s Wild River by Kazan.”
“Which is a great film. It’s based on Kazan’s memories of going down South in the ’30s.”
“There’s The Big Combo by Joseph H. Lewis.”
“Shot by the legendary cinematographer John Alton.”
“With Richard Conte and Brian Donlevy.”
“And Earl Holliman and Lee Van Cleef as the two gay enforcers.”
“Anyway, it’s going to be a great series at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Starting Friday, October 8.”
“That’s right, Wes. And for more information, go to lacma.org.”
“The perfect ending.”
20TH ANNIVERSARY TRIBUTE TO THE FILM FOUNDATION | Oct. 8-30 | All screenings at LACMA’s Bing Theater, except Wild River (at the Samuel Goldwyn Theater) and Baby Doll (at the Billy Wilder Theater) | lacma.org