Sunday, August 10, 2014

Blackmail by television


A weirdly prescient attack on the mediaand the masses that consume itthat cuts right to the bone, but never forgets to provide the chills and thrills that selfsame audience so desperately craves.

Directed by Jack Arnold
Written by Robert Blees and Leonard Lee (based on the novel by Max Ehlrich)
With John Forsythe (Don Newell), Edward G. Robinson (Henry Hayes), Kathleen Hughes (Paula Ranier), and Marcia Henderson (Louise Newell)

Spoiler alert: moderate—however, the opening shot is so great that merely discussing it constitutes a severe spoiler; so if you have any interest in cool movies, watch The Glass Web... for the opening shot must be discussed.

We begin in the midst of desolation, with no sign of civilization but a long-abandoned mineshaft and the car pulled up next to it.  A man and a woman get outwe become aware, through her complaining, that she is his wife.  She demands to know what's so important about this hole in the ground.  When she turns toward the car in disgust, he tells her why, with two bullets in the back, and one more in the chest just to make sure she understood.

"The Glass Web does not mess around!" you think, and you're hooked right from shot number onebut that shot keeps on going.  You realize it's pulling out, revealing a camera, a set, a crew...

Fuck you, Brian De Palma!

The show's over, says the announcer, but come back next week for the thrilling conclusionuntil then, dear viewer, this is the kind of cigarette you need to smoke.

If you ever needed proof that Hollywood just hates television, and once hated it even more, look no further than The Glass Web, a movie whose very title declares the insidious design TV has spun to snare you.  Of course, Hollywood hates Hollywood too, as it well should.  If you listen to the movies, and I do, the whole entertainment industry is a moral cesspool that will swallow you, soul and all, if you only let it.

You should smoke Colonials.

Case in point: Don Newell, writer for the up-and-coming true-story police procedural Crime of the Week, a show so violent I doubt it could have been on TV in 1953.  He's assisted in his endeavors by his colleague, Crime's researcher, a former policeman named Henry Hayes.  Henry prides himself on "the details," and despises Don for getting those details wrong, episode after episode.  Both have been caught in a web themselves, and the same web: the one woven by the would-be black widow of our picture, an "actress... occasionally," a "model... occasionally," one Mrs. Paula Ranier (separated).

She's blackmailing Don, having kept evidence of their affair in order to extort cash out of him, lest she inform his trusting, loving wife.  And she's using Henry to further her career, which should come as a surprise to no one, given that Paula is Kathleen Hughes and Henry is Edward G. Robinson.  Yet for him it is, and when his jealousy comes to outweigh his usefulness, she lets him know exactly where he rates.  He strangles herand this isn't a surprise to us, but the corpse that Don finds a few minutes later when he arrives to buy her silence is certainly a shock to him.

Don is not, however, above taking advantage of the situation, and he steals back the souvenir she stole from him: a tag with his name on it.  His wife had sewn it into the waistband of his pyjamasnot unlike how a mother might do for her little boy, but only reasonably if she had more than one of them.

On his way out he's seen, he's accosted by floozies, and he loses the nametag in his confusion and panic.  And so begins our wrong man thriller.

And in a stridently stylish way, at that.  I looked it up to be sure, but I really didn't have to, because it's obvious that Jack Arnold got confused for a moment and thought he was making It Came From Outer Space again.  The difference is that the former film, a far-out sci-fi movie, was a somewhat more appropriate choice for exhibition in stereoscopic 3D.

Don't adjust your set, viewer.

The Glass Web probably wasn't the very first to use 3D in a hugely ridiculous manner, but it may have been the very first movie where it is impossible to believe anyone in a creative position over the filmrather than a coldly commercial onemight have thought for a moment that 3D was a good fit with its material.

(Counterpoint: these rad opening credits:)

(Opinions may differ.)

In any event, other parts of the film proper may have used 3D a bit more subtlywho knows?but Web's offensively obvious three-dimensional centerpiece can't be missed even rendered on a flat plane.  Don walks the cold, unforgiving streets of L.A., sure that the police will find his nametag, but now unable to retrieve it.  The sequence is initially extremely well-constructed, the first leg of it coming close to genuinely dangerous stuntwork; and at first blush it is mightily effective.  Don, in a state of pure oblivion thanks to his plight, steps off the curb, without even glancing at the moving work van that screeches to a halt just in time to avoid hitting him.  Its ladder spills forward, close enough to very nearly scrape the camera's lens.

You can't see this on TV, losers!

This moment is all the more jarring if you didn't know Web was a 3D movie, but it's wonderfully bracing all the same... and it is undermined and then undermined some more, as shit continually gets tossed at the screen and just barely misses Don's noggin.  It doesn't help a bit that the rest is not nearly as dangerous, and the one that's even close is done with an editing trick rather than expert in-camera timing.  But it does regain somethingnot dignity, no, but some ineffable qualityas it goes on so stultifyingly long that it becomes some kind of dark, unfunny, but acknowledged joke.

This strange trip to the third dimension over with, we now return to our program already in progress.  Paula's scummy husband is booked for the murder, but Henry has an abiding suspicion and soon comes to know that Don was the other (other) man.  Henry takes a page out of his victim's book: Henry suggests that Don leave town, and leave Henry the plum head writer gig on Crime of the Week, or he'll pin this murder on Donand make sure it sticks.

Hollywood stalwart that he was, it's no surprise that Robinson makes a phenomenal villain.  Web makes him the dark mirror of the obsessive-compulsive hero-antagonist he played in Double Indemnity, just as focused, but morally bankrupt, and cooler in temperament.  As Henry explains how it's going to be, he appears to take no notice at all that his rival has driven him to a sheer cliff and is coming up behind him even as he speaks, seeming to be aware of nothing but the beautiful vista of the sea.  But a moment before Don can muster the nerve to push, he turns his head just slightly, and says with both indulgence and contempt:

"I wouldn't try it, Don.  It wouldn't get you anywhere."

The trivialization of real-world depravity for the screen is less scathed in Web than it is boiled alive.  Henry pushes the execs to take on the murder of their own employee as their next episodeit's just what they need to get their sponsor to renew!  Each man writes a script about the crime they took such an intimate part in.  Henry is naturally enthusiastic at the prospect, Don is naturally wracked with nerves, but then...

The Glass Web was not terribly well-received in '53, and is barely even recalled today, but I don't see why.  Yes, even the fan can concede it's not as tightly-wound as it could possibly beif I were searching for a criticism, it'd be easy to determine that it takes a while to really get going, but usually we call these putative longueurs "character development."  And perhaps Forsythe isn't the platonic ideal of a wrong manhis fluster could use a little work, his hardboiled narration moresobut he's certainly better than competent.  Hughes is, it's true, nearly cartoonish in her role as the vamp, but the vamp is almost necessarily half-cartoon anyway.  Paula Ranier is surely none the worse for the breadth of Hughes' performance.

Sometimes a broad's performance is called for.

But from its opening gambit to its perfect climax, Web is an exceptionally good thriller.  Beyond that it's a hell of a mean-spirited film, and I mean that in the best possible way.  Unfortunately, it has not yet joined the ranks of classics recognized and resurrected for our modern age.  It hasn't even been given the pitiful redemption of a DVD release.  And though this does mean we may enjoy it through whatever means we have without guilt, it also means that it's a movie that has simply never gotten its due.

It's a great film: not just a very good thriller, but a substantial satire.  Web follows the superb, also once-forgotten, but now-remembered Ace in the Hole, adding another nail to the crucifixion of what Billy Wilder called "the human interest."  It even anticipates Elio Petri's Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion a little bit, in its thriller construction and darkly parodic aims, albeit targeting the nasty, unremitting prurience of American culture, rather than something a little easier to pin down like neo-fascism.  Certainly, it prefigures Network.  I can reference films as far downstream as Wag the Dog and The Truman Show, if I've got to.

If it also ultimately becomes the thing it rails against, right down to its surly exploitation of its own 3D production, that just means that its blade is fittingly double-edged.  In the end, fact and fiction collide and combine under stagelights in The Glass Web's tense, cleverly resolved finale.

Who will live?  Who will die? 

Well, tune in, and find out.

Score:  8/10

P.S.:  This is a Jack Arnold bonus review!  I watched the film for a bit of deeper research into Arnold's career, and was more than pleasantly surprised.  Thus this is a companion of sorts to The Monolith Monsters, although honestly Monolith is more like an appendix to this.

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