Tuesday, November 15, 2005

The Whitest Noir: The Strip

The Strip (1951) is one of those anonymous genre pics, one of those last gasping breaths as the studio system began to crumble. This one is a murder mystery—hardly a noir—but unlike many of its brethren, this movie was unable to overcome the conventions and trivialities of its genre.

A flimsy frame begins the narrative: a dead man and a woman on the verge of death are discovered in a woman’s apartment. Stanley (Mickey Rooney), the woman’s (Janie) former lover, and the man’s (Sonny) former employee, is pulled into the police station to confess. If this sounds familiar, it’s because it was already done in Murder My Sweet (1944), and probably a dozen other films that same decade.

Stanley takes us back to his first day in California, where Sonny runs him off the road. Sonny, as it turns out, is a high profile mobster who takes a liking to Rooney and hires him to run the rackets. After a year, however, Stanley gets a shot at his dream—playing drums in a jazz band—and signs off. He takes the new job in a Sunset Strip club run by Fluff (a wonderful, piano-playing William Demarest) in order to pursue the love interest of the picture, Janie, a “dancer” in Fluff’s club. (Think a Sunday matinee-friendly Constance Towers from The Naked Kiss [1964].) Janie, however, yearns to be a Hollywood starlet, so Stanley hooks her up with Sonny. Yeah—as expected, Sonny and Janie hit it off and Stanley is jealous.

The real kicker of the picture, however, is what Stanley does. He reveals to Janie that Sonny is a mobster. Christ almighty! What a surprise. Well, to Janie it is. As if the picture hadn’t been falling apart at the threads already, here the dog really runs with the thread. What Sunset Strip “dancer” looking to break into Hollywood wouldn’t be aware of the mob connections? And, secondly, what guy, after running the rackets for a whole year, would be as naïve and idealistic as Stanley? Mickey Rooney hardly looks the role of a gangster. In fact, the whole relationship between him and Janie is more reminiscent of his partnership with Judy Garland than it is the lurid romance of a Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray.

As much as nostalgia like Happy Days (1974-1984) and American Graffiti (1973) try to romanticize the naiveté of the 1950s, films like Clash by Night (1952) and Kiss Me Deadly (1955), who present characters equally fatalistic as sadistic, will constantly remind viewers that not every story was so innocent. This is one reason by The Strip feels so unnecessarily dated: the bright lights shine brighter than ever, and there is nothing noir to dim them whatsoever. The character relationships are more fitting to a small suburban setting, where Johnnie loves Suzie, who really loves Jamie, who is a small-time hood (whose major vice is a couple beers). In the end, of course, Suzie realizes her mistake and runs back to Johnnie, where the two of them propagate in the safety of their own home. (Such is the ending of The Strip, as well.) It’s disappointing that The Strip never develops the motivations beyond such meager plot points.

The saving graces to the film are the performances of Louis Armstrong, Jack Teagarden and Earl Hines: they’re the house band at Fluff’s. The film graciously allows them to step out and play a few tunes with such rare artistry: most house bands in movies are never allowed the space to develop anything beyond background music. Scarring the music, however, is Mickey Rooney, once more. His drumming (whoever dubbed them) is abrasively loud and untasteful: it really kills the vibe.

The story never brings the frame full circle: the film ends with Sonny being murdered in his apartment, whereas the introduction shows him in Janie’s. Really, such a mistake is the final straw in such a barnyard of oversights.

1 comment:

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