Monday, November 15, 2010

Swagger Like Us: Boardwalk Empire's Costume Design


One major component of Boardwalk's stunning visual flair are the costumes, meticulously designed by the immensely talented John Dunn. Dunn's first cinematic foray into costume design was Martin Scorsese's New York Stories. He went on to design the incredible 70's and 80's style suits and dresses in the 1995 Scorsese Vegas epic Casino. More recently, he was nominated for an Emmy for his work on the pilot episode of the equally sartorially inclined series Mad Men (The Tudors ended up winning). While it seems the criteria employed by awards shows to pick their winners is never a representation of artistic merit (Mad Men got robbed), Dunn and his team are clearly a shoe-in for next year's awards race as the feat of dressing over 6000 actors and extras in 1920's period garb so flawlessly is just impossible to ignore. 

The suits and skirts of AMC's Mad Men

According to the Greenwood Encyclopedia of Clothing Through American History by Amy T Peterson et al, suits in the 1920's were slim fitting, more commonly three button and single breasted. They featured short wide lapels that closed high in the chest and featured either waist seams or darts to provide soft shaping and center back vents. Vests or waistcoats were single breasted, very fitted, closing high on the chest above the suit jacket closure, with five buttons. Vests or waistcoats for business suits rarely sported lapels. Trousers were slim fitting, with straight legs and cuffs. Nucky and Arnold Rothstein are often seen sporting detacheable collars, remnants from the previous decade. With improved manufacturing of shirts as well as the increasing use of home washing machines, they became obsolete by the end of the 1920's. Many of the characters also sport collar bars which help secure the collar and also elevate the knot of the tie giving a pleasing arc.

1920's Ad for Arrow Collars and Shirts
The clothing featured on Boardwalk is a combination of authentic American vintage and new custom tailored clothing, the latter of which are the bespoke suits worn by the male leads. These suits were constructed by Brooklyn master tailor and factory owner Martin Greenfield. While Greenfield does not make garments under his own label for those without special connections, his services are available via Brooks Brothers' made-to-measure program. He also produces garments for Neiman Marcus as well as NYC's rag & bone and Band of Outsiders.

Did you know: the tailor Ben and Cam had manufacture their sample denim in 
How to Make it in America was a homage to Martin Greenfield.

As discussed previously in this blog, the bespoke suit has been a fixture of gangster cinema since its inception during the 1930's Warner Brothers era. So much so that it has almost become a pre-requisite cliche. The fourth episode of Boardwalk features a scene in which Al Capone and Jimmy Darmody get fitted for their first custom tailored suits with newly earned money as they begin to ascend the organized crime ladder. This scene is a nod to the infamous fitting scene in The Public Enemy (1931) featuring James Cagney and Edward Woods (no, not that Ed Woods). Upon The Public Enemy's re-release in 1941, the iconic scene was cut due to the effeminate nature of the tailor being in direct violation of the newly established Hays Code

"We're businessmen, right? Gotta look the part."
The Public Enemy
You are what you wear in the boardwalk empire. Lucky Luciano and Jimmy are both enforcers who have yet to make their mark in organized crime. They do much of the dirty work and this is accentuated in their dress. In contrast to their superiors Nucky, Rothstein and Torio, the two henchmen retain "blue collar" workwear elements in their dress -- the materials of their suits are made of less refined woolens and both characters sport belted jackets. Belted jackets became popular in the 1920's and were inspired by the classic Norfolk hunting jacket. Belted backs were also the trademark of casual wear, something a younger, less refined individual would wear. The evolving design of Jimmy's clothing has mirrored the development of his character thus far. His first suit was a woolen flannel workwear number with a belted jacket. His second suit, a bespoke blue check three piece, retained the half-belted back. His third suit, presumably also bespoke, is even more refined featuring gunmetal grey wool, three buttons with rolled lapels and a ticket pocket no less. However, the half-belted back remains. I would be willing to wager that in upcoming episodes (or seasons) of Boardwalk we will see the workwear aspects of Jimmy and Lucky's wardrobe disappear entirely. In a real life quote Lucky Luciano said of his mentor Arnold Rothstein: "He taught me how to dress... how to use knives and forks and things like that at the dinner table, about holdin’ a door open for a girl. If Arnold had lived a little longer, he could’ve made me pretty elegant."

Jimmy first flannel suit featured a belted suit jacket.

Jimmy's second suit.

Jimmy the third returns home, doule intact.

"My God! You look like a gangster!" Angela Darmody does her best impression of Henry Hill's mom.
Lucky's half-belted back.
Over the last few years, classic 1920's American heritage workwear has become a major driving force in men's fashion. A prime example is the clothing of New York based Japanese designer Daiki Suzuki and his award winning Engineered Garments label, which he founded in 2005. He also co-founded and served as creative director for Woolrich Woolen Mills, a more fashion oriented sublabel of the classic Woolrich brand (est 1830). He has since left Woolen Mills and appointed Mark McNairy as creative director beginning Fall Winter 2011. These revived looks have even trickled down to more mainstream brands (read: affordable) such as LL Bean with their new Signature collection, which offers somewhat "safer" interpretations.


The revival of American heritage clothing as evidenced in
 the 2010 Fall Winter collection of Woolrich Woolen Mills.
The silhouette, half-belted back and elbow patches are a throwback
to the workwear of the roaring twenties.

Eli Thompson in his distinguished Sherrif's Uniform.
Ashfield Jacket from Engineered Garments' 2010 Fall Winter collection.
In an interview with Esquire, John Dunn described his approach in designing suits for characters hailing from the three different cities featured in Boardwalk:
The Atlantic City people are a fashion-forward people, because they want to present themselves in a flashy way to say "I'm the top dog" with their clothing. But it's also a seaside setting. So despite the fact that most of the people there were working class, there was also this element of great wealth in a summer situation. I would say I probably did a lighter palette in Atlantic City and more colorful.
New York was much more serious and elegant. We did really cutting-edge tailoring for Arnold Rothstein. Lucky Luciano, I would say, is trying to be elegant but he's not there yet. Part of the story is that Arnold Rothstein takes the rough edges off of Lucky and he becomes quite a well-dressed man, but at this point he still makes a few mistakes. So his wardrobe is a little more crass and will become more elegant as the series progresses. 
For Chicago, I wanted to have a real old-world connection of darker colors — just a more Italian, European feeling of the old country. These people were tied a little more closely to the people coming in from Europe, and Italy probably most specifically.
New York Style.
Chicago Old World Elegance.
Atlantic City Swagger.
It seems Philly's working class hoods were not worth mention.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Boardwalk Empire Pilot Recap


From its opening few frames, the pilot episode of Boardwalk Empire is characteristically Scorsese. It opens with a fittingly anachronistic iris-in effect, a nod to the silent films of the 1920's. He has employed this effect in many of his films, from Casino to The Departed. The episode begins with a teaser of its climactic scene - another cinematic device characteristically Scorsese. Reminiscent of his last film Shutter Island, the episode also begins on the sea. It's a smuggled shipment of Canadian Club whiskey and it's a deal that's about to go awry. Two masked assailants jack the cargo, shotguns in hand.

 

Fast forward (or rewind rather) to the next scene, a very important one at that, where the three principal characters of the series are introduced. First is Enoch "Nucky" Thompson, based on real life Enoch "Nucky" Johnson. Thompson is not an Irish name but we'll forgive Mr. Winter and Mr. Scorsese for their artistic license as they chose to change his name as to not constrain the fate of the fictionalized character with historical fact (woodchipper, anyone?). However, having read the novel, a few things about the "real" Nucky are still intact. For one, Nucky Johnson always wore a red carnation on his suit lapel and was always impeccably dressed. More on the real Nucky in a future blog post. A lot of criticism has been made on the casting of Steve Buscemi as Nucky, claiming that he is not believable as a gangster. First and foremost, Nucky Johnson was not a gangster nor a mob boss, he was a crooked politician. And who better than Steve Buscemi to play a well read and weaselly Republican?


Kelly Macdonald plays a fictitious character, Irish immigrant Margaret Schroeder. Her meeting with Nucky in his lavish office inside the Ritz later in this episode is taken from the opening paragraphs of the novel. Mary Ill was the name of the real life woman depicted in the novel's prologue, a woman who was active in local politics and charities. Kelly Macdonald is best known for her role as the underage seductress in Danny Boyle's Transpotting, and some of you may remember her as Josh Brolin's hillbilly wife in No Country for Old Men with an aversion to coinflips.


Michael Pitt, with his electrifying performance as the Princeton educated and war hardened enforcer Jimmy Darmody, is being propelled into stardom after only a few episodes. His character is almost purely fictional, but perhaps very loosely based on one of Nucky Johnson's real-life assistants, Jimmy Boyd. After Nucky's reign of Atlantic City, Jimmy became the right hand man of his successor, Frank "Hap" Farley. It was actually Jimmy Boyd's wife Marie, at the time in charge of the Atlantic City Library reference desk, who got Boardwalk Empire author Nelson Johnson a breakthrough in writing his novel in 1982.

on the boardwalk...
The Public Enemy (1931)
Paddy Ryan in The Public Enemy
The series begins on the night Prohibition was enacted. On our first glipse of the Atlantic City Boardwalk, it is filled with a a franctic mob scavenging for all the alcohol they possibly can before the stroke of midnight. This scene, and particularly the shot of the couple pushing a baby carriage full of booze, is a nod to the 1931 film The Public Enemy. Directed by William A. Wellman, The Public Enemy is a veritable classic of the American Gangster genre and is also one of Martin Scorsese's favorites. Another reference to The Public Enemy occurs during the dinner scene in Babette's Supper Club where Nucky convinces his skeptical Republican officials that Prohibition is their key to endless fortune. He announces that Jimmy will be the newly appointed senior county clerk Paddy Ryan's man friday. Paddy Ryan is the name of the gang leader and bootlegger in The Public Enemy.



The pilot contains all of the Scorsese signature devices: the long tracking shots, slow motion, quick edits and freeze frame. The episode was edited by Canadian Sidney Wolinsky, but something tells me Scorsese had a heavy hand in the editing process as it was quite reminiscent of his previous cinematic works and I almost expected to see Thelma Schoonmaker's name in the credits.


Scorsese aside, the excellent writing of The Sopranos' Terence Winter shines. The one liners and comedic flavour of The Sopranos is very much present in Boardwalk. One example of the genius and depth of Winter's writing occurs during an exchange between Nucky and Polish bootlegger Mickey Cusick.

Mickey 
Enough with the bohunk cracks. Name's Doyle now.

Nucky
What?

Mickey
I changed it. I ain't Mickey Cusick no more.

Nucky
Who's after you?

Mickey
Nobody.

Nucky
Then why Doyle?

Mickey
Sounds better's all.

Nucky
A rose by any other name...

Mickey
What's that supposed to mean?

Nucky
Read a fuckin' book.

"A rose by any other name" obviously comes from the iconic exchange between Romeo and Juliet, but  Shakespeare was also making reference to the foul smell of the Rose Theatre, a rival to his own Globe Theatre. The Rose had the reputation of not having adequate sanitary conditions. Mickey Cusick is a less than flattering portrayal of real life Camden beer baron Michael Cusick. Cusick changed his last name to "Duffy" so he could blend in with the Irish dominated underworld and disguise his Polish roots. He would later expand to Philadelphia, muscling out Italian and Jewish gangs in a bloody turf war. He was murdered in 1931 as the remaining Italian and Jewish mobs united to successfully challenge his reign.


One interesting piece of true Atlantic City history described in the novel and featured in the pilot is the twice daily catch on the boardwalk pier. Brilliantly used as a narrative device during the episode's denouement, it was one of AC's premier tourist attractions, run by "Captain" John Lake Young and dubbed "Young's Million Dollar Pier."
Wearing knickers, and old sweater and cap, he was a wiry and weathered, red-faced man with sparkling blue eyes, reminiscent of a leprechaun. As he lowered the net to the floor of the pier, Young went into his routine of identifying the sea animals he had caught. It was an animated performance that mesmerized his customers. He was able to name as many as 48 species and bluffed on the ones he couldn't. With a little luck, there might be a shark or a horseshoe crab, which always excited the crowd. They went away thrilled, likely to return on their next visit to Atlantic City. Young was the resort's answer to P.T. Barnum. He had his finger on the pulse of his times. The Captain knew his customers and gave them what they wanted. The people who came to town on the cut-rate excursions had simple tastes. They wanted a high time at a bargain rate -- something to tell the folks about when they got home.
 Boardwalk Empire, Chapter 2: The Grand Illusion, p19.



Boardwalk Empire: The Birth, High Times, and Corruption of Atlantic City by Nelson Johnson


So I'm 6 weeks behind on Boardwalk recaps, but they're on their way. I won't be doing traditional episode summaries as there are dozens of blogs that do this (better), but I will try to point out scenes and references of interest that haven't already been covered. If you love the series, the non-fiction novel that it's based on is essential reading. Nelson Johnson (no relation to Nucky Johnson, the basis for Boardwalk's protagonist Nucky Thompson) has a new novel out entitled Northside: African Americans and the Creation of Atlantic City, which is next on my to-read list.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

A Colt is My Passport (1967)



A Colt is My Passport is a 1967 film directed by Takashi Nomura. It is the most popular and acclaimed film that came out of the Nikkatsu Action movement. Nikkatsu, Japan's oldest movie studio at 98 years young, is best known for the high budget pink films (also referred to as roman pornos) it produced in the 70's and 80's. With the growing popularity of television during those times, Nikkatsu resorted to these soft-core exploitation films to attract crowds and make ends meet. During the 60's, as most studios were producing yakuza and samurai films, Nikkatsu released a series of film noirs heavily inspired by French New Wave and American gangster films. I was lucky enough to catch the Canadian premiere of Colt, a mere 40 years or so after it was released, at the 2008 Fantasia Film Festival to a sold out crowd. It was a unique experience witnessing such a rare yet classic film in its full 35mm glory - so rare that the curator was triggering the freshly translated subtitles manually on his laptop as they were being projected over the 35mm print. It has since been released on DVD in North America by the Criterion sublabel Eclipse as part of a wonderful box set of Nikkatsu Action pictures.


Colt was shot in stunning black and white with cinematography by Shigeyoshi Mine. Mine also worked on Seijun Suzuki's Tokyo Drifter and Gate of Flesh, as well as Ko Nakahira's extremely controversial 1956 classic Crazed Fruit. The lead actor is silicone-enhanced Jo Shishido, best known for his roles as yakuza hitmen, the most famous being in Suzuki's Branded to Kill. In his 2005 inteview with Midnight Eye, Shishido comments on his bizarre decision to have his cheeks fattened: "At first I just played a naïve young boy role. It wasn't my most successful period. Then I had some problems on the set. After that I spent about 3 months without work. Then I decided to change my face. I had plastic surgery to fatten up my cheeks. I then got a lot of work playing gangsters and heavies. I was Killer Joe (Koroshiya Jo)." 

Jo Shishido underwent chipmunk-cheek augmentation surgery in 1957

The films opens with the same kind of music you would hear opening a Tarantino film: a Morricone-esque Spaghetti Western tune with a Japanese tinge. The film is accented with bursts of cool jazz throughout; a nod to French New Wave. The score was composed by Harumi Ibe, who also scored the Suzuki & Shishido freight train Detective Bureau 2-3: Go to Hell Bastards!



The plot is fairly simple. Shishido and his sidekick Shun, played by Jerry Fujio, are hired to assassinate a yakuza boss only to be double crossed by their employers. One of the most memorable scenes early on the film is a dialogue-free meeting between Shishido's character Kimamura and the soon-to-be rival hitman. The hitmen size each other up as they flex their gangster bravado at the shooting range without uttering a single word.

Sartorially-inclined rival hitman played by Kojiro Kusanagi

Much like the other films presented on this blog, gangster sartorial fetishism very much a central component of this film's aesthetic. Every underworld character in the film sports a tailored suit with pocket square. Who you are is really how you dress: the only characters to sport three-button three piece suits in the film are ironically the two hitmen. The yakuza bosses have peak lapels on their jackets. Shishido dons the same pristine three piece suit for the entire film, no matter how gritty the action becomes. One can only wonder how many they ruined during the shoot.

linen pocket squares are a must in Nomura's underworld

dynomite!

A central theme in this film and in the majority of yakuza pictures is the code of honor amongst thieves and criminals. This theme dates back to the bushido of the samurai in chanbara films from 1920's and onwards. The yakuza's jingi code of honor inspired French New Wave director Jean-Pierre Melville and is also a central theme in many of his gangster pictures, Le Samourai being a prime example. In the 1970's, a new breed of bleek, realistic and violent yakuza pictures emerged with Kinji Fukasaku's Battles Without Honor and HumanityBattles is the first of an epic modern yakuza pentalogy dubbed The Yakuza Papers (also available as an incredible boxset). These films ushered in a new movement of films dealing with the post WWII yakuza and his lack of the idealized chivalry depicted previously. 

Shishido and Fujio

A Colt is My Passport ends with a climactic shootout in a barren landfill, emulating the classic Spaghetti Western Mexican-standoff in the desert. It begins suddenly and proceeds with violent frenetic pace, just as Kimamura begins to be distracted by a fly while he awaits the rival gangsters. The camera zooms out of Shishido's iconic bloated face and he begins to crack a coy smile for a split second before the killing starts, the first and only time he smiles during the entire film. Out of the 170 films Shishido made with Nikkatsu, A Colt is My Passport is said to be his favorite. 





Saturday, October 16, 2010

Le Doulos (1962)


Le Doulos is a film noir directed by the master of 60's French crime cinema, Jean-Pierre Melville. Melville is regarded as the spiritual father of French New Wave cinema. You may recall his cameo role as the novelist in Jean-Luc Godard's Breathless, a film for which he also served as a consultant. The revolutionary use of the jump cut in Breathless, which became characteristic of the New Wave style, was Melville's idea. Furthermore, the technique was not conceived as an artistic device, but simply as a method of reducing the film's running time. It was created during the editing process and Godard had never envisioned the technique during the shooting process. 


Melville had an interesting take on French New Wave, a movement which served as a major inspiration for pretty much all the great directors who came after. In a 1963 interview published in L'avant scene du cinema, he states: "I've said time and again that the 'New Wave' is an economical way to make films and nothing more. There is no such thing as the "New Wave Style." If there was one, it would purely and simply be the Godard style. Well, we all know that the Godard style, like Pasteur's anti-rabies vaccine, was due to chance."

Jean-Paul Belmondo rose to overnight stardom with Breathless


Le Doulos begins as Marice Faugel, played by Serge Reggiani, completes a prison bid (don't all great gangster movies start like this?). He is hungry for revenge and for new work. He is put on to a safe cracking burglary job and borrows some equipment from his friend, Silien (played by Breathless star and Godard muse Jean-Paul Belmondo), who is rumored to be a snitch. A series of double crosses ensue, culminating in a spectacular Rashomon-esque narrative twist 90 minutes into the 2 hour film. For the film's duration, it is unclear who the protagonist is (Serge or Silien?) and for the final 30 minutes, it is unclear who the doulos is.

Serge Reggiani as Marice Faugel

Monique Hennessy as Thérèse

Melville drew inspiration from the American gangster pictures of the mid 1930's, an era of film he believed to be an unsurmountable pinnacle: "Without the American cinema of those years, which I loved and still love with a passion, I wouldn't be making movies, and I would have never made Le Doulos. This is particularly discernible in my sets: note that there are no French-style windows in Le Doulos, only sash windows with Venetian blinds, like the ones you find in American life and movies. The same goes for the telephone booth in the Metro station, and even more so, the office at police headquarters where the interrogation is held, which is a faithful copy of the set in Mamoulian's City Streets. Similarly, there are no scenes in a Parisian-style bistro, but in the kind of bar you might find on Second or Third Avenue Manhattan. Note that these details are sufficiently concealed so as not to jolt French audiences. I'm not out to disorient the audience at any price. What's important is that it comes under the spell of this uncharacteristic setting, without being aware of it. This charm, this fascination, is purely cinematic. This was deliberate."


As the opening title sequence explains, Doulos refers to the wearer of a "doule," which is slang for "hat." In the underworld it was slang for "police informant" and it references the hat worn by policemen, back when gangsters hadn't started sporting them yet. The concept of the Doulos also serves as a metaphor for all of Melville's gangster pictures and the "sartorial fetishism" he attached to the persona of the gangster in his films. All the gangsters in his films wear double-breasted trench coats and hats. They are also often wearing black suits with skinny black ties under their trench coats: "I attach great importance to the sartorial fetish. In my films, a man's clothes have paramount importance, sadly, because what a woman wears matters less. When there's an actress to be clothed, my assistant sees to it. It stimulates me a lot less. The hero in my films noirs is always an armed hero. He always carries a gun. An armed hero is almost a soldier; he wears a uniform. An armed man is different from other men and I assure you that he's a man who tends to wear a hat. I'm talking about movies here, but a man who fires a gun with a hat on his head is far more impressive than a bare-headed man. Wearing a hat somewhat balances the gun in his hand. It comes with the uniform."





The sartorial fetishism employed by Melville to capture the essence of his characters has trickled down to gangster pictures all over the world and from each decade since. Hong Kong gangster pictures of the 80's and early 90's, particularly those of John Woo, are heavily indebted to Melville. John Woo's The Killer was inspired by Melville's Le Samourai. The black suits and skinny ties sported by Quentin Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs and Jules and Vincent in Pulp Fiction are also a nod to Melville (not mention Reservoir Dogs being pretty much a rip-off of Hong Kong director Ringo Lam's 1987 film City on Fire). The Coen brothers' 1990 prohibition era gangster film Miller's Crossing is said to be a homage to Le Doulos.

sartorial fetishism in Reservoir Dogs (1992)

John Woo's A Better Tomorrow II (1987)

Much like the rest of Melville's filmography, Le Doulos is shot primarily at night, in the shadows, and in artificially lit indoor locations. Melville considered the use of darkness and shadows in his films to be one of the few innovations of his time over the classics of the 1930's. The technological advancement of film stock gave filmmakers the ability to shoot low light scenes with better clarity. Apparently this darkness mirrored his own life: "At home, I keep everything shuttered during the day. Not so much as a single ray of sunshine gets into my bedroom. It’s the ultimate in claustrophobia. Or else it’s a desire to be at the movies all the time."