Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Port of New York

"Hey, do you want to make a deal?" ~Bob Dylan

One of the things that set Dylan apart when he emerged on the scene was his grittiness. At a time when the airwaves were alive with sweet little love ditties and cheery faced folk singers, Dylan approached subjects too nakedly and unsettling. This line, "Hey, do you want to make a deal," from Like a Rolling Stone has a context. It's cold. Like the scene in Ironweed where Streep, reduced to being a street tramp, has to produce a sexual favor to get a needed place to sleep out of the cold... in an abandoned car. It'ugly, but it is an indignity experienced by women on a near daily basis in this world.

Film noir was a style of Hollywood film in the 40's and 50's that sought to expose and exploit that dark side of life. Themes were ambiguous, often not pretty, and occasionally considered scandalous. I just finished watching Port of New York, a movie about smuggling drugs into the Big Apple. Yul Brynner stars as the lead bad guy, the top of the food chain. Ever smooth, careful, calculating and ruthless. He's even got hair.

An old fashioned black and white, the film opens with a narrative along the lines of the Dragnet television show, something akin to "This is the city." The narrator has that serious deadpan, no funny business approach, implying a serious topic is being discussed. In this instance, narcotics being smuggled into New York through its ports. It's a good B-movie for entertainment value, but what a contrast to films on this same theme to films of a more recent vintage. All good guys and bad guys are in suits and ties. You never see anything related to the effects of the drugs themselves. When the final sting occurs, what a small quantity of dope to be getting in such a lather about. The entire shipment was in a satchel.

French Connection with Gene Hackman broke new ground for earthiness and realism. Same theme, intensely different.

But today's drug trade films really bump it up. American Gangster with Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe shows the whole drug scene with such vividness it blinds. Blow, with Johnny Depp, likewise shows a full panorama and puts the drug world into a perspective. Yes, there is glamour for some but at great expense in human suffering. Customers of the drug dealers are harrowingly desperate. One must have a cold ruthlessness in the heart to be a player in that game.

Which leads us to Anton Chigurh, the ultimate personification of evil, and relentless pursuer in No Country For Old Men. A brute? Not quite the right word. Disturbing? Definitely. He is a by-product of the times and someone you don't want to mess with. I've encountered his kind a few times, people with no conscious, dangerous and unpredictable. You meet these people when you're somewhere you don't belong. And they are out there.

For a "dark" movie, Port of New York was pretty clean and easy, a short, tight little package of 82 minutes. Like Scorcese's The Departed, the plot involves placing a cop in the inner circle of the gang that controls the ports. It's hard to get too emotionally entangled in the film because it is more about plot than character, unlike Gangster where you actually feel empathic toward both Crowe and Washington because you understand their motivations, understand where they were each coming from.

What's your favorite in the oldie from Hollywood's film noir school? Double Indemnity is a classic that still holds. I had a friend who liked D.O.A. What about you?


Anonymous said...

Double Imdemnity is definitely one of them. I'd like to throw Strangers on a Train or Notorious into the Film Noir category, and choose them as well. How about The Third Man? Maltese Falcon? My top choices would probably be
1. Strangers on a Train
2. Notorious
3. Double Indemnity
4. The Third Man
5. Maltese Falcon

Honorable Mention:
Sunset Boulevard
Touch of Evil

ENNYMAN said...

Strangers on a Train never fails for me. Notorious is good and The Third Man is a favorite of mine as well. The last time I watch Maltese Falcon I felt it didn't hold up as well for me, but then again I had just finished reading the book.

Touch of Evil is definitely classic for many of its elements and for some reason I believed it was one of my top ten Favorites, thoguh when I checked here I found I was wrong... nevertheless, thanks for the suggestions.

Oh, and Sunset Boulevard... hmm. It is a classic, but I have never been able to finish it in about four or five tries... Maybe I need to give it another shot sometime.