Sunday, April 06, 2008

Noir: Hollywoodland, Hornet, and Javier

I suspect that my fascination with film noir iconography originated from watching the '60's TV series THE GREEN HORNET at a tender age. I'm sure I did not see the Hornet in its initial run (1966-1967), since I was only one to two years old at the time. More likely a local station picked it up as syndicated reruns and ran it. But I was a big Hornet fan as a little kid. My parents would buy me some of the GH merchandise that was still left on the store shelves. (The series was put out by the same producers as the '60's BATMAN show, which was one of the biggest merchandising successes ever; and the producers entered into numerous licenses for the Hornet, convinced lightning would strike twice. It didn't.) In particular, I had a bendy-toy figure of the Hornet, which I would periodically lose, and raise a ruckus until my parents got me a new one.

A couple of days ago, I watched one of the early episodes of THE GREEN HORNET, "The Silent Gun," on a cable station. The series is best remembered today mostly as the American debut of Bruce Lee, who brought a catlike grace to his portrayal of the Hornet's sidekick Kato. (And everytime Lee springs into action on the show, you can't tear your eyes off him; he looks almost superhuman in his movement.) But what stuck with me was the scenes in which the producers sunk a little bit of money into shooting beautifully lit nighttime sequences, with the Black Beauty (the Hornet's big, nasty American car)tearing around rain-slick city streets, its green headlights reflected in puddles.

Of course, the reason the producers spent money on those shots was because the series made extensive use of stock footage. The sequences would be repeated whenever they wanted to set a bit of mood while getting the story from point A to point B. Most location shots, especially later in the series, used outrageously bad day-for-night effects. (In one, the establishing shot featured the Black Beauty driving down PCH, somewhere around Pacific Palisades, with the sun high in the sky. Cut to the Hornet in the back of the car, the windows around him black with night, as he tells Kato, "It's almost midnight." Uh-huh.)

Nevertheless, the show was, in my memory, the slickest piece of film noir ever made for television; and I've always thought that if onewere to become a crime-fighting mystery man, there's worse ways to roll than Britt Reid's approach: dress to the nines; play-act as a gangster; travel in a stunning car; and have Bruce Lee cover your back.

What brought these thoughts to mind was my back-to-back viewing last week of two recent noir movies: HOLLYWOODLAND, the biopic about the complicated life and death of Superman actor George Reeves; and NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN, the Coen Brothers' multi-Oscar winning meditation on implacable pursuit and death under the hot Texas sun.

HOLLYWOODLAND was pretty good, although the movie was far more engaging when telling the true story of Reeves than when depicting the framing device, the fictional/composite story of private detective Adrien Brody as he seeks the truth of Reeves's fate while dealing with the shambles of his own life. Perhaps the truth (augmented and concentrated) is more compelling than any fiction the screenwriter could come up with.

NCFOM, while nominally in the same genre as HOLLYWOODLAND, was far, far superior in quality. The Coen brothers grab your attention from the first frame, and won't let you look away, no matter how grim and horrifying events become -- and they become quite grim and horrifying indeed. The film is one of those few ones that reads like a novel (perhaps the result of following its source material closely, although I haven't read the book and am not in a position to judge): It does not follow predictible paths, but every path it follows feels right and fits into the overall rhythm of the piece. Furthermore, despite being lean on both dialogue and background music, whenever the movie concentrates on Josh Brolin as resourceful prey Moss or Javier Bardem as even-more-resourceful force of nature Chigurh, you can tell nearly every thought that goes through their heads -- even when their facial expressions barely flicker. It was excellent moviemaking -- though I'm still amazed that so many Academy members were enchanted with so nasty a film.


Mike Barer said...

Watching Green Hornet as an adult, I noticed that it took itself far too seriously. The audience who watch Pow! Zap! on Batman, where not prepped for the the Hornets intricate plot twists.

Danny Barer said...

I think part of the problem you mention is that THE GREEN HORNET was a 30-minute show. With only about 18 minutes (after subtracting opening and closing titles and commercials) to wedge in both the complex plots and the action scenes (not to mention all the perpetually-reused footage), there was little room to fit in characterization, let alone humor. BATMAN's first two seasons consisted of hour-long episodes -- albeit split into half-hours. No wonder the half-hour TV drama is extinct.

Mike Barer said...

It may have been a case that one series was more adaptable to TV, in this case Batman.
Hornet had no distinguishable villains, or relatable characters.