Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Portland Exposé

So I recently got my hands on a copy of Portland Exposé, a cheesy grade-Z crime pic from 1957. It combines two of my favorite topics on this blog: local history, and awful, awful movies. The thing was actually filmed here, at least in part -- and as everyone knows, basically all movies filmed here are horrendous. It's pretty much a law of nature, but that's a subject for another post. Stumptown Confidential has a bunch of stills here and here, and there's a fun local review of the thing at Duck Duck Book Trying to figure out exactly where the thing was filmed is half the fun (including the top photo, which I'll get to in a bit.) Making fun of the movie is the other half. And the movie really is fun, at least in a so-bad-it's-good way.

The film is one half of a double-feature disc titled Forgotten Noir Vol. 1 (which Netflix has here), and once you see it, you'll understand why it was forgotten. And don't think it just hasn't aged well; the NY Times reviewed it when it came out, and the reviewer was highly unimpressed.

Movie Gangster HQ, NW 11th & Davis

You might be wondering why Hollywood set the movie here, back in an era when our fair city was even more obscure than it is now. Seems there was a highly colorful corruption scandal here back in the 50's, as depicted in Phil Stanford's book Portland Confidential. (slabtown chronicle has more on the book here). Yes, it was an era of hard-drinking tough guys in fedoras, gun molls, crooked cops, the mob, the whole deal. We had it all, and half a century on it's pretty much impossible not to romanticize the whole thing. Anyway, the movie came out on the heels of the scandal, just in time to cash in on our city's fleeting notoriety. The plot isn't related to the actual scandal, though, except for the location and the mob angle. Everything else is the invention of the screenwriter's fevered, yet oddly prudish, imagination.

The executive summary version of our story: Our hero is a humble innkeeper, and he and his family have an establishment somewhere on the outskirts of our fair city. Everything seems idyllic and peaceful until organized crime moves in. They offer our hero a deal he can't refuse, and overnight the inn becomes quite the popular night spot. He's not happy, but he's making tons of money. But then, an icky henchman takes a liking to our hero's underaged daughter, and it's payback time. He takes what is apparently a middle-management job in the crime syndicate. They run just like a proper 50's business: Everyone wears a suit, and the accounting department keeps meticulous records, which is convenient. But little do the evildoers know that our hero is actually in cahoots with the G-men. He's going around taping conversations like mad, using a huge tape recorder he hides under his suit. This can't go on for long without being discovered, and it doesn't. But just when the baddies are about to do unspeakable things to our hero and his daughter, the G-men burst in, there's a nice big fistfight, and Public Order is restored once again. The End!

But this doesn't really do the film justice. For that, we'll need the traditional bullet-points-o-crap format:
  • One important lesson we learn from the film: It's a slippery, slippery slope into the clutches of the mob, and it all starts with pinball. No, seriously, it does. Bear with me here. Sure, you start out thinking you're dealing with a reputable pinball dealer, but sooner or later the mob horns in on his turf, and then you belong to them. Pinball is fine for the kiddies, as we all know, but it has a vague corrupting influence on grownups who play. No, really, it's a 100% totally true scientific fact. Ask anyone.
  • Since pinball turns responsible adults into amoral gambling fiends, from there it's a short step to slot machines, and once you've got slot machines all hell breaks loose: Drinking, dancing, carousing... At this point it just seems like the mob has a better idea of how to run a fun nightclub than our hero does. Oh, but they have bigger plans. Hookers, dope, guns, "illegal surgery", the whole deal. And once you've got that first pinball machine, there'll be no stopping any of it, so be warned!
  • You'd think that as popular as pinball apparently was back then, they could've found actors who knew how to pretend they were playing. But noooo. Someone really ought to have explained what those little buttons on the sides were for.
  • The old lady freaking out when she wins at the slot machine is a real hoot, too, shrieking and grabbing coins off the floor. I think we're supposed to gasp at the utter depravity of it all. You know, because only depraved people are happy when they win stuff. I gather that's the message we're supposed to get from this shot. I'm not entirely sure.
  • A lot of the main characters in the movie are so old for their parts it's almost surreal. The teenage daughter looks about 28, and her allegedly clean-cut fraternity boyfriend looks about 40. And the mom looks about 60.
  • A striking thing is what they leave out of the litany of lurid sins: Nobody suggests there's anything wrong with letting your customers get completely soused and then drive home in gigantic V8-powered sedans with knobby little tires and no seat belts or other modern safety equipment. And when the daughter's boyfriend decides she must be "easy" because her dad owns a popular night spot, everyone laughs off the attempted date rape as an innocent misunderstanding. Oh, and everyone smokes, of course. That goes without saying.
  • On the other hand, in 2007 just about every bar in town has slot machines, in their modern "video slots" incarnation. And every last one of them is owned and operated by the state. We all have a patriotic duty to go down to the local watering hole and drop a couple of twenties on the video slots, to help keep the state solvent for another year. Although many of us continue to neglect our patriotic duties, present company included. I just don't see the attraction, myself.
  • At one point there's a speech by a heroic labor union leader(!) who says the rank and file oppose all this organized crime business, and it's time to root it out. He even helps direct the police crackdown on the baddies, which is unusual given what little I know about the normal police chain of command. I guess this character's presence is supposed to combat the prejudices of the day, when in the public eye the unions were all a bunch of crooks and commies. This is one of the movie's rare attempts to be broad-minded, so I figured I ought to at least mention it.
  • There's a guy in the movie who's the big boss in town, the capo de capos, who we only ever see from behind, talking on the phone. For all the movie's pious moralizing, it goes to great lengths to give the baddies a certain mystique. Kids, do you want to grow up to be our sour-faced hero, proprietor of the No Fun Cafe way out in the boonies, or do you want to be Mr. Big?
  • Did I mention the huge tape recorder yet? We're talking almost shoebox-sized here, and somehow our hero hides it under his suit. Suits were baggy in those days, I guess. Not only is the recorder really freakin' gigantic, our hero couldn't be less discreet about recording people. He's got this microphone on a cord he whips out and waves around when he thinks the baddies aren't looking. Naturally that's how he gets caught.
  • Frank Gorshin's character is really, really, really creepy. Surprisingly so for a movie of this age. When the other baddies off him for being a liability, you kind of want to cheer them on. Sadly, it's no longer possible for gangsters to dispose of unwanted persons by dumping them on the railroad tracks near Union Station. The area's full of upscale condos now. Someone would be bound to hear the commotion.
  • The airport scenes don't look anything like the present-day airport. My guess is that we're seeing the old terminal that sat off of Marine Drive. I understand it's still in use today, strictly for cargo. On the other hand, the "new" terminal has been remodeled and expanded so many times that anything left from 1957 would be unrecognizable.
  • The high-class madam our hero picks up at the airport seems like someone's grandma, and isn't very scary at all. When she explains her hopes to have a proper, classy operation, with all educated girls and no "dipsos" or "hopheads", it almost sounds like a civic improvement program, at least by the standards of the day. If the movie's to be believed, even the crooks of the day were quite a judgmental lot. There were unwritten, informal, but very rigid rules to the game, and the rules were strictly enforced. Laws on the books, not so much. Everyone agreed on what constituted "vice" and tut-tutted about it constantly, but at the same time society was happy to tolerate a bit of naughtiness here and there, so long as it stayed within certain boundaries. "Vice" never poked its head out of the back alleys, and polite society averted its eyes, and people seemed to be content with the hypocrisy for decades on end.

    And then the hippies came along a few years later and upended the apple cart. No wonder the older generation hated them so much.
  • Although now in 2007, being a "hophead" is perfectly legal in Oregon, so long as you have a note from your doctor and an official state ID card. We want the program to be respectable, so it isn't quite PC to say that we have the hippies to thank for it, but we do. Admit it.
  • The bridge and phone booth scenes (go check the Stumptown Confidential stills) look like the Stark St. bridge over the Sandy at Troutdale, and west-side approach to the bridge. But that's a wild guess. I don't think there's a phone booth there anymore. Actually you won't find a phone booth much of anywhere anymore.
  • And about that top photo. It's of what I think was the baddies' lair in the movie, since there aren't a lot of buildings that style around here. It's at NW 11th & Davis, and although it's just a parking garage at present, it's right in the middle of a hugely desirable part of the ultra-upscale Pearl District. The Brewery Blocks are right next door, including the new theater in the old Armory building, and a bunch of top-tier chain stores. Powell's is about a block away. Our sleek Euro-licious streetcar has a couple of stops right nearby. The whole area is besieged with affluent shoppers and smug gazillionaire locals and their darling weimaraners. And everything's all so squeaky clean and glossy. Spend a few short minutes in the area and you'll start to miss those sleazy, film noir-ish days of yore.

    (Ok, more likely you'll miss the idea of those days. I suspect that life in the "wide-open" Portland of 50's could get pretty nasty, brutish, and short if you happened to know the wrong people. People weren't in the business just for the cars and broads and snappy suits.)


Anonymous said...

Thanks for the linking. As far as Portland movies, I thought it couldn't get any worse than "The Hunted." Then I watched [mostly with the fast-forward on] "Dancing with Danger," a noir flick shot here in 1994. I have a high tolerance for bad cinema, but this was a real stinker.

Anonymous said...

I guess you like perpetuating all stereotypes and couldn't resist slamming the Pearl District, just like so many other people who for some reason don't like change. You seem to prefer that this neighborhood remained an empty train yard with empty warehouses, drug dealers, and prostitutes. You seem to relish in that fantasy but you don’t realize just how bad and undesirable that fantasy is in reality.

Thanks for joining the ranks of the unoriginal that permeate this city in trashing a district that the rest of the country views as a model of urban renewal. Bravo.

brx0 said...

Ok, Anonymous, take a deeeep breath. Breathe. That's better.

As far as I know, a little gentle satire never hurt anyone.

I remember the area back before it went upscale. The area was a complete dump, and nobody's arguing we should go back to that. I thought I made that point abundantly clear. Reread the last paragraph of the piece again. (Speaking of movies, "Drugstore Cowboy" contains a lot of interesting shots of the Pearl, circa 1989.)

But as much of an improvement as it is, the place can get pretty silly sometimes, and a little eye-rolling is inevitable now and then. In most cities, people take that in stride. Nobody in New York goes around arguing that people shouldn't ever poke fun at the Upper West Side or the Hamptons. You don't see people in LA saying that wisecracks about Rodeo Drive will cause the end of the world. What does it say about us as a city if we can't take a joke now and then?

For what it's worth, I live in a downtown (but non-Pearl) high rise, and I work in the area, and I do a good bit of shopping at Whole Foods. So I've spent more time than most people observing the Pearl, and the place just never ceases to amuse.

Also, all of the weimaraners I've ever met have been very nice dogs.