Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Cinematic snackfare

There are countless unwritten rules in film: Blood must be the color of raspberry syrup; Christopher Walken must be cast in the role of Christopher Walken; every Nic Cage movie must have a 'Nic Cage Freakout Scene'; any movie that uses the intro to Norman Greenbaum's 'Spirit in the Sky' as music in its preview will suck and . . . the film must be at least 90 minutes long. Like the first two rules listed, it was not always this way (and in those cases, it needn't be either: blood is rarely that dark and Walken was once capable of playing a straight character). There was a time when movies regularly ran below 90 minutes, sometimes waaaaay below.

These days, a film that clocks in at 60 or even 70 minutes would be labeled a short, but as the movies I'm about to detail will show, it is possible to make a feature film without going to far past an hour. When watching one of these wonderfully brief movies, you don't find yourself looking at your watch wondering when it will end, rather you gaze at your watch and wonder just how they're going to wrap up everything in the next 10 minutes. Here are my picks for the best of the brief:

The Unknown (1927, 63 minutes)
Tod Browning was the Tim Burton or David Cronenberg of the early years of film. Freaks was made over 70 years ago and is still unnerving. The Unknown is a perfect title for a movie that is quite unlike anything else. In an era that oddly saw many movies made about clowns (see He Who Gets Slapped, Laugh Clown Laugh -- also with Lon Chaney), this is the most bizarre -- following an 'armless' performer (Chaney) who uses his feet to throw knives and sees an opportunity in fellow performer Joan Crawford, who just happens to fear being touched by men. But the macabre truth is that Chaney's character is actually a murderer on the run who has disguised himself in the circus and definitely does have arms -- but in an attempt to show his love for Crawford -- has them amputated. As with the best silent movies, 'The Unknown' has a perpetual dream-like quality to it

6000 Enemies (1939, 62 minutes)
Yes, this flawed-but-entertaining Walter Pidgeon movie checks in at a scant 62 minutes, which was very short in the talkie era. 6000 Enemies takes on a familiar plot, which had been told many times at the time in Hollywood and perfected in James Cagney's Each Dawn I Die: the tale of the wrong guy in prison. In the case of 'Each Dawn I Die,' Cagney plays a railroaded journalist, while Pidgeon portrays a D.A. What made '6000 Enemies' an average movie in its day makes it all the more watchable today. Made during the 'production code' era of Hollywood when studios -- particularly MGM -- went out of their way to make 'clean' movies. For example, Pidgeon's character is sent to prison and surrounded by thousands of criminals he sent there, but the worst they can think up to get back at him is yelling insults like 'the jury rests!' and sometimes shooting him rude stares. What's more, after the D.A. proves his mettle in a prison boxing match, the cons are more than happy to accept him as a friend. This could have easily been a very poor 2-hour movie, but as a 60-minute blazer it's nearly comical watching a 20-minute climactic courtroom scene shoved into a 20-second montage, or how the primary villain is seen in only two brief scenes.

The Public Enemy (1931, 83 minutes)
Though it is the longest by far in this crop, The Public Enemy makes the cut simply because it packs an overflowing plot (the life and death of a criminal) into such a tidy package. This is what made James Cagney, the pint-sized big mouth tough guy (i.e. the first Joe Pesci), a legitimate star. 'The Public Enemy' is best known as 'the grapefruit movie,' because of a scene when Cagney's character grows ever frustrated with his dame, so he grabs the nearest object -- a grapefruit -- and shoves it in her face (and yes, this was also parodied by The Simpsons, in Brother From the Same Planet). Cagney plays a young hood who grows to be a bootlegging baron, which clashes with his straight-laced brother -- especially when he serves his family a keg on the dinner table. 'The Public Enemy' would not really be classified as a mob movie today, rather it is closer to gangsploitation movies like Menace II Society, following a good kid who goes bad.

The Narrow Margin (1952, 71 minutes)
I saved this for last, because The Narrow Margin is a true filet mignon film (i.e. not a damn ounce of fat on it). This unforgettable noir thriller sets a torrid pace from the start and doesn't let up. Detective Walter Brown (the lantern-jawed, gravel-throated Charles McGraw) has problems: his mission is to transport a key mob witness crosscountry on a train, but his partner was just murdered, his cargo is an anxious and thankless dame, and in between fighting off an inquisitive tike, a mysterious fat man and his own nerves, he has to somehow make it through the trip while a mob hitman is onboard wanting blood. Watching this again, I could not help myself from singing 'Train Kept a Rollin' in my head (the Aerosmith version of course), but Steven Tyler never had lines in his song such as 'nobody likes a fatman except his grocer and his tailer' or 'this case is headed straight for the cemetery.' It seems impossible that 'The Narrow Margin' could jam this many shady characters and switcheroos into 71 minutes. Whenever I hear someone say they don't like any black and white movies, this is the one I pop in.

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