Upbeat Cynicism

what do you mean i lost my mind?

The Bloody Brood, 1959

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I’ll bet you didn’t know that Peter Falk was a badass.

This film was interesting, and would make an excellent companion piece to Roger Corman and Charles B. Griffith’s Bucket of Blood. They were produced the same year, a continent apart (Bucket in Los Angeles, Brood in Toronto), and both examine the beatnik life in a very critical way. But their approaches are different. Corman’s is the better movie, but this has the best single performance.

And let me make clear that this is a crime film, and not a horror film. I didn’t know that going in, but it made for a nice palate-cleanser considering how much horror I’ve gorged on this month, and how I still have a fair bit to work through.

The Bloody Brood begins with some very Saul Bass-style titles, with jazz playing under, very definitely pinning the film to its era. Then the story begins.

“The Digs” is a beatnik cafe, lorded over by Nico, a very reserved, very intelligent man in a decidedly non-beatnik suit. (In fact, there is only one stereotypical beatnik in the whole movie, and most of the other characters are remarkably well individuated.) Nico is played by young Peter Falk, and damn is he good. You will see no glimmer of Columbo here. He is cool, observant, and just about always in control. Falk underplays the role, using stillness to viscerally convey Nico’s intelligence and power.

In the opening scene, an old man enters the cafe and sells Nico a newspaper. As the old man is leaving, he collapses and seems to be having a heart attack. Everyone else in the cafe (including the owner, I think) asks Nico what they should do. He looks down on the old man, and says that they should enjoy the show, that a real death would be very entertaining, a “kick”. The old man struggles to say something, and Nico asks him what his last words will be, but he dies before he can get anything out. “Too late,” Nico says.

The next night, at a party, Nico tells the tale about the fine entertainment of the old man dying, and everyone seems quite amused. After that, he gets one of his friends aside, a TV director, and convinces him that they should commit a murder — “Death is the last great challenge to the creative mind.” A knock at the door to the apartment (whose owner is out of town) reveals a messenger boy trying to deliver a telegram. After he marks the telegram as “unable to deliver”, Nico invites him in. Seeing a voluptuous young lady inside, he allows himself to be convinced, and the door closes behind him.

The movie now shifts to Cliff, who gets a call from his brother. The messenger boy. Who is calling from a payphone, and who is in intense pain, and in fact drops dead during the call.

At the hospital, Cliff goes a few rounds with Officer McCloud, who initially tries not to tell the man how his little brother died. Eventually it becomes clear — bro ate a hamburger filled with ground glass, which ripped his guts apart.

Cliff then vows to avenge his brother, no matter what, and McCloud the cop pretty much helps him, unofficially, while warning him to be careful.

I don’t want to give away more of the story, because this one is actually good. The plot clips right along, and it never really gets boring. There are no idiot decisions made, either, nothing to serve the writer’s convenience. The only hiccup was in the final act, the last six or seven minutes, when it felt like a scene or two got skipped, leaving at least one offscreen event incredibly unclear (two characters who were supposed to have been killed show up, much the worse for wear, and factor into the climax).

The reason that this movie is inferior, story-wise, to Corman’s film, is that it starts with the assumption that bohemian life is inherently evil, or at least its participants are intensely naive and easily manipulated. The viewpoint character, after the opening sequences, is a complete “square” who has no interest in the lifestyle, and whose introduction to it is from the most prejudicial angle possible. (It killed his brother, after all.)

A Bucket of Blood, contrariwise, focused on Dick Miller’s nerdy cafe waiter, who was simply dying to find acceptance by the beatnik crowd. He wants in, and gets it almost by accident. His character’s position within the story was brilliant, laying bare everyone’s pretensions and blindnesses as the story proceeded. It asked some very interesting questions about not only the bohemian life, but about the nature of art, both in its creation and its critical reception.

The Bloody Brood, on the other hand, doesn’t really ask any interesting questions. The square who wanted into the alternative lifestyle, the lead girl, is a secondary character in the story, and she gets in and out of that lifestyle cleanly. Cliff has no interest at all in the lifestyle of people who mock his life without knowing a thing about him. Can’t blame him, but the story poses nothing interesting in a thematic sense. It’s a pretty straight crime picture, with the revenge element, and doesn’t take any chances, storywise.

Which is not to say that it’s bad. It’s not. And, technically, it is a more accomplished film than I remember Bucket being. The locations are populated well, the extras all seem like people in the scene, rather than performers. The camera work, while not ostentatious, is complex in a way you don’t expect in an obviously low-budget movie. The camera moves from medium to close up to wide in a single shot, and does that more than once, but it’s never flashy, it’s all in service of the story.

And, as I indicated above, Peter Falk’s performance is nothing short of amazing. He’s got the role where everybody in the film is supposed to follow him. Usually, with that kind of role, the performance doesn’t live up to the expectation. But here, the way Falk plays it, you never doubt for an instant that people would follow him. He is both monstrous and mesmerizing. It’s an impressive job.

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