Saturday, May 09, 2020

On Dangerous Ground: Thieves Highway (1949), They Live By Night (1948)

“Ontology! I’m just
   telling you a story
   about this projector, that’s all.”

                   Edward Dorn, Gunslinger, 
                   Book II

Thieves Highway (director, Jules Dassin, 
screenplay by A.I. Bezzerides, 1949)

Straight outta anywhere but here, the old man 
sharecropping a suburban kitchen, disfigured,
yet crooning now that it's over and everything 
once was might be again. Though not likely.
Yet all things virtuous, a future daughter-in-law 
too waspish to be true. And even a legless prole 
deserves to drink from that cup of trickle down 
drivel, his life sipped from neither wine nor 
oranges, but Big Valley apples juiced by way 
of Santa Rosa. Though suffering from a case 
of immigrant labour amidst vines of a war-
weary victory garden, his son has done his bet, 
so can flex those patriarchal muscles, rough-
riding the old man's battered truck to Frisco, 
where delicious hooker, with a seductive 
accent and dockside wherewithal, awaits him. 
Where lurks the dreaded middle-man, scamming 
neophytes, without just desserts or even brakes, 
compounding a profit margin out of cigar smoke 
and thin air. Clichés ripped to shreds, for patriotic 
naifs, squandered in world where peace is simply 
war by another means, warped by market forces 
and heavy traffic. Where carts upend all things 
criminal, every road is dead end or dangerous 
curve, every apple, perfectly rotten, upended, 
spilling fear onto the highway, in a pre-TV world 
already global in its take-what-you-can intensity.   

They Live By Night (director, Nicholas Ray, 
screenplay, Charles Schnee, 1948)

The inevitable, unlikely to be so black and 
white, or romanticBut at 16 cents gallon, 
you could drive all night, as far as the eye 
could blink, and then some, all the while 
espousing healthy disregard for more than 
you could shake J. Edgar's shrivelled stick at. 
Doing hard time in Hollywood, Anderson's 
soft-sell proletarianism was fair game, purchased 
by Quick Millions at Paramount for $500. Then
Blood Money, hedging the rights and script to 
RKO for ten grand. It was wartime, and the 
odious Breen detested stick-up man T-Dub's 
insistence that bankers, politicians, and police 
are just "thieves like us." A sense of honour 
amongst... they rarely deserve. As they tangoed 
amongst the tombstones, New Deal radio-man 
Nick Ray was said to have alchemy in his blood.  
Pacifying the enemy, retitling it, Little Red 
Wagon, then I’m a Stranger Here Myself, before 
enforcing his democratic instincts. And the 
soundtrack, collage of the era’s music and 
radio dramas, around which the film would 
revolve, reduced to snippets and an atmospheric 
love story, summed up in the caption: "This boy 
and this girl were never properly introduced to 
the world we live in." What world would that be? 
And who amongst us has...Not Anderson. 
Grafting, at $30 per week as Fort Worth 
journalist, requested money should the film be 
successful, was tersely rejected by Hugheswith 
only function and drift his future. Twenty-five 
years later, Altman restored the title, but neither 
the flaws nor the lyricism. Reaching into 
the past, so near the future, too soon, but so 
far away. Even if these days, regardless of the 
world, no one, near enough, would even bother.