Then and Now
“History never repeats itself but it rhymes.”
A tempestuous age has fallen upon us: civic protests, peaceful and otherwise, are on the rise, the partisan lines are further dividing, and the state of democracy is routinely called into question; the societal upshot of all this is best symbolized by a seemingly omnipresent disillusionment permeating our present everyday. Amid such turmoil, it’s easy to neglect the importance of art, as well as the reflective nature it can have on our lives. Sure, the current state of affairs is influencing many forms of pop-art and culture — ex. Melissa McCarthy’s riotous take on White House Press Secretary, Sean Spicer, on SNL — but what about art of the past, particularly from that most popular of 20th-Century arts, the movies?
One might suspect that, in this time of doubt and despondency, all we need is a good laugh, or an escape to the realm of the fantastic. Sure, that’s fine and dandy, but isn’t it more beneficial, even, dare I say, uplifting to be reminded that these fits of socio-political upheaval occur in cycles. After all, our grandparents and great-grandparents had their fair share of wallowing around in a collective muck, desperately holding on even when prospects of hope appear nonexistent. What is happening now has occurred prior and, unfortunately, will likely happen again.
Cyril Endfield’s independently-produced 1950 noir, Try and Get Me! (formerly titled The Sound of Fury), adapted by Jo Pagano from his novel “The Condemned”, which was inspired by a 1933 lynching case, offers one of the more despairing, even venomous, portraits of American society, particularly that of Postwar working class life in (White) suburbia. Enter Howard Tyler, played by noir stalwart Frank Lovejoy, an out-of-work Army veteran whose recent efforts to gain employment have routinely failed. It’s just his luck that he should, by chance, meet Jerry Slocum (Lloyd Bridges), a fellow Army veteran and full-time sleaze ball whose impishly charismatic exterior hints at the psychopathic impulses brimming underneath. Charmed by Slocum’s demeanor and in need of work, Howard quickly finds himself engaged in a series of petty robberies, leading to more ambitious criminal excursions such as kidnapping and, eventually, murder. (And that’s just the first act!)
Sustained by a streak of pessimism and offering few truly empathetic characters, Endfield’s Try and Get Me! showcases some of the angriest commercial filmmaking in post-war Hollywood cinema. Replete with blistering jabs at the class divide, consumer culture, yellow journalism, and McCarthy-era hysteria, noir has rarely cut so close to the Modern bone. Even Howard’s trajectory foregoes the traditional character arc wherein betterment gradually befalls a downtrodden protagonist; we meet him near the bottom and, aided by crime and alcoholism, watch him further tarnish his life and family. It’s not for lack of trying to do the right thing. Howard loves his wife and son, and early monetary gain yields a showering of gifts and nonessentials; this is a time, after all, when owning a television set was a sign of status. All this doesn’t last, however, as murder leads to guilt, and Lovejoy’s performance morphs from quiet stoicism to jittery physicality; he literally tries to wipe the grime off his face, developing an emblematic psychological gesture in the process. One could ultimately say that Howard’s road to hell was paved with the best of intentions.
Try and Get Me! surely embodies noir in terms of its ethos, but doesn’t necessarily utilize the cycle’s visual attributes in toto; you get your high-contrast B&W photography, but Endfield’s camera-style, while not necessarily docu-realist ala. The Naked City, is earthier and less expressionistic, toning down the graphic lighting schemes popularized by cinematographers John Alton (Raw Deal, T-Men, The Big Combo) and Nicholas Musaraca (Cat People, Stranger on the Third Floor, Out of the Past). (This could be explained by the fact that much of the film’s action occurs in the daytime.) In fact, Endfield and cinematographer Guy Roe reserve their deployment of noir’s chief visual tropes —chiaroscuro lighting; deep focus photography; extreme camera angles; long shadows — for only a handful of scenes, notably the brutal murder and, late in the film, a sequence wherein Jerry and Howard, imprisoned, overhear a mob of citizens roaring outside. But, perhaps, the most dizzying and dazzling foray into formal expressionism transpires amid the narrative centerpiece, shot mostly from canted angles, in which Howard and Jerry, accompanied by two ladies, go out to a nightclub for drinks. Here, the skewed visual perspective doubles-down, functioning not just as a shorthand for Howard’s drunken stupor but for the movie’s entire outlook, envisioning a world out of balance and rapidly descending to mere chaos.
If there’s a noteworthy shortcoming here, and it’s certainly egregious, one only needs to zero in on the European fringe character of Dr. Vido Simone (Renzo Cesana), a holier-than-thou émigré whose raison d’être amounts to little more than serving as a mouthpiece for screenwriter Pagano’s ideological motives. Some critics have observed the character’s extraneous nature, but most fail to communicate his ruinous influence on the drama. While his appearances are brief, Dr. Simone’s long-winded, explicative sermons, which delineate level-headed sociological observations, nonetheless, zap the dramatic beats in scenes of their subtextual juices, rendering the whole stale, lacking the necessary underpinnings to fuel the surface drama; it’s as if Pagano felt the viewers couldn’t read between the lines, prompting him to simply do the audience’s homework for them. He even grants Dr. Simone, via. omniscient voiceover no less, the movie’s final lines, which are a wet blanket on top of playing like a comedian who forgot he already stated his punchline.
Try and Get Me! concludes in utter chaos, as the townsfolk shed their decency, convene outside the police station, and give way to mob mentality. The sequence is masterfully orchestrated, a horrifying examination of society run amok, starkly realized in a non-fussy realist style, granted extra visual heft by some effective newsreel-style handheld camerawork. Indeed, the lynching case behind this film inspired famed German director Fritz Lang fourteen years prior when he investigated America’s social ills in Fury, a bitter portrait of American society being poisoned by its worst impulses, which was deeply informed by the director’s fleeing from Nazi Germany. While Lang’s film is superior, Endfield’s, flaws and all, seems timelier, more evocative of the today’s social disillusionment. It’s even more defeatist than Lang’s outing, vilifying mob mentality, as well as the libelous media which sparked it, while refusing to pity Howard or let him off the hook in any way, shape, or form. Like Lang, however, Endfield, too, would soon find himself in exile, as HUAC would declare him a Communist, relegate his name to the Blacklist, thus forcing Endfield to relocate to the U.K. where he would live out the rest of his days.
Sixty-three years ago this month, Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s finger-pointing practices were at their most favorable, representing one of the darkest hours of American History. While we persist and evolve, history seems destined rhyme. The cinema can’t solve our problems, be they social, political, or personal, but what it can offer are hidden insights into how we can deal with them. A movie, like any art, is informed by the culture and time which brought it into being; even the most basic genre film exists as an expression of the politics, as well as the socio-cultural anxieties, of its day. They’re “pieces of time”, as James Stewart once observed. Remember the past, don’t neglect it. We possess the power, as well as the history, to learn from our mistakes. Even when fate causes the pendulum to swing back, it’s important we keep moving forward.
Cyril Endfield’s Try and Get Me! is, legally, unstreamable, while Fritz Lang’s Fury is available to watch on Amazon Instant Video, iTunes, Filmstruck, and various other streaming platforms.
You can support Philly film culture (as well as a small business) by renting both on DVD from Viva Video in Ardmore, the Philadelphia’s area’s video rental boutique. The Fury DVD sports an informative commentary track featuring director Peter Bogdanovich, as well as interview excerpts with Fritz Lang spliced in for good measure. While Olive Films’ Try and Get Me! release features no supplementary material, a gorgeous, high bit-rate transfer is supplied, making this a more than worthwhile rental. Supplements and commentary for Fury are unavailable via streaming platforms.