Film Noir – Palm Springs 2015
I was fortunate enough to attend the Arthur Lyons Film Noir Festival in Palm Springs, organized by Alan K. Rode and held at the Camelot Theater in Palm Springs. None of the twelve showings were sellouts, but all were well attended. The audience was enthusiastic, and both novices and mavens had a good time. Most of the attendees seemed to be locals, but some had traveled from as far away as Toronto. Lovers of film noir would consider this money well spent. The all access pass was $125.
The movies were introduced by either Alan Rode, Foster Hirsch, or the “Czar of Noir” himself, Eddie Muller. All three gentlemen did an excellent job of providing helpful information about the films, and all three hung around in the lobby between shows to chat with audience members. Copies of books by the featured guests (more discussion to follow) were available in the lobby.
I’ll break this diary into segments so that the entries don’t run too long.
The festival began on Thursday night with the only post-1950s film, MILLER’S CROSSING (1990). How well this film has held up. More viewers get the Coen Brothers’ sensibility now than was the case back then. I remembered liking the film pretty well when it was released, finding it a bit violent for my taste, but feeling uncertain about the gay villain, although clearly there was nothing homophobic about the Coens’ treatment of the theme. This time around, what I liked about the movie was just about everything, though it’s around the limits of how much violence I can take.
The screenplay is so brilliantly written that it’s almost beyond praise. The directing and the editing never distract from the dialogue, the gestures, and the expressions on the actors’ faces. This is the opposite of using routine camera set-ups; the camera is deliberately placed to maximize the impact of the dialogue and the actors. Gabriel Byrne is an actor I often find cold and unsympathetic, but that works to his advantage here. He may not be very likable, but he is a solid performer. Albert Finney is cast effectively as his boss. Marcia Gay Harden projects more softness and vulnerability than the dialogue suggests, but this may be a good thing.
However, for me three supporting performances stand out even more: Jon Polito as Gaspar, the rival gangster to Finney; tall, thin, stone-faced J.E. Freeman as Eddie Dane, his second in command; and John Turturro as Bernie, the small-time bookie whose actions set the plot in motion. Too bad Steve Buscemi doesn’t have more scenes as Mink, the druggy underling who’s the center of an unlikely but altogether wonderful (for the viewer, that is) triangle between Bernie and the Dane.
After the showing, which was enthusiastically received, Alan Rode interviewed a special guest: Jon Polito himself, who said he hadn’t seen the movie on the big screen in eighteen years, and that he loved seeing himself that big. Polito said he was asked to read for Eddie Dane. (This seemed impossible after just watching J.E. Freeman own the role of the Dane as much as anyone has ever owned any movie part, but the Coens didn’t have our advantage of hindsight.) Polito wanted to play Gaspar and wasn’t interested in reading for Dane. They didn’t ask him to read for Gaspar, having envisioned an older man, so he went off to do an arc on Miami Vice and some stage work.
Then he was invited to read for Gaspar. He had been given the first scene to prepare. If you haven’t seen the film in a while, it opens with a long monologue by Gaspar about the importance of ethics. When Polito acted the first scene to the first break in it, they asked him to step outside, then called him back in to read the whole part cold.
The opening scene was originally filmed in one long shot, like the first scene of THE GODFATHER, but the rushes showed that this did not work. The long speech had natural breaks, so they used cuts, and this worked. Polito said his long speech was so well-written that it was easy to memorize.
Polito had no scenes with Turturro, Buscemi, or Marcia Gay Harden, but he and Marcia had rapport on the set. It was the first big break for both of them. She had tried film with little success, then gone back to NYU for her Master’s degree. She was concerned that Gabriel Byrne seemed distant, but Polito thinks this was deliberate on Byrne’s part to help establish the needed distance between their characters on screen. Byrne and Finney hit it off immediately, with much Irish drinking and many Irish drinking stories.
The big scene which resolves matters between Gaspar and the Dane took only four or five hours to film. Alan Rode commented that Joel Coen doesn’t expose a lot of film. (I’ll add that MILLER’S CROSSING has the look of a film which is storyboarded, not pulled together in the editing room.)
Polito had worked for a year on Broadway (c. 1984) in DEATH OF A SALESMAN with Dustin Hoffman and Kate Reid. At the time Polito weighed only about 155 lbs. This production was filmed. Hoffman helped him with film acting, telling him not to be too aware of the camera but to include the camera as part of the audience. Kate Reid also helped him generally with acting.
Gaspar gave Jon Polito the look that has made him identifiable for the rest of his career: the weight, the thin mustache. Today he looks very much like he did on screen in 1990, and now is probably the age the Coens had in mind for Gaspar. As a boy he loved Warner Brothers films and their character actors in particular. He specifically mentioned Sydney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre, Ted De Corsia, and Charles McGraw as favorites.
Polito won an acting scholarship to Villanova. At the time the students were concentrating on internal work, but a British director there (unnamed) helped him play larger and more externally. Obviously this prepared him for playing Gaspar.
In response to a question from Rode, Polito said that he did not think being openly gay hurt his career as a character actor, though he was refused an opportunity to read for one role because he was gay; someone from the producer’s office actually told his agent that over the phone. His agent said that was against the law, but was told the producer still didn’t want him. J.E. Freeman was also openly gay, and fought back against the police at demonstrations in San Francisco.
There was also some discussion of TV shows Polito was on; my notes are incomplete because I was unfamiliar with those shows.