Friday, November 16, 2007

Killer of Sheep (1977)

Written & Directed by: Charles Burnett
Starring: Henry Gayle Sanders, Kaycee Moore

Black & White, 83 minutes

Grade: A

Here is a movie in which nothing really happens. There are no action scenes, no nudity, no significant violence to speak of, and certainly no explosions or special effects. What, you still need another reason to watch it? How about this one: Killer of Sheep is everything that Hollywood has never had the balls to attempt. It is a quiet, contemplative experience that slowly seeps into your bones, filling you with warmth and heartache. Shot over the course of a year and costing roughly $10,000, Charles Burnett's debut film was actually his graduate thesis for UCLA, never receiving a proper theatrical release until this year for its thirtieth anniversary. It's about time.

Henry Gayle Sanders plays Stan, a bored, tired, and worn down individual who wants nothing more than a decent job and a chance to get ahead in life. He has a wife (Kaycee Moore) who is a bit sexually repressed, and a couple kids who run around and raise hell. Residing in the Watts district of Los Angeles, Stan doesn't have a lot of opportunities. He runs himself ragged working at a slaughterhouse (hence the film's title), he suffers from insomnia, and he can't reciprocate his wife's caressing touch when the two of them slow dance. Stan would obviously be treated as a pathetic figure in a Hollywood production, but Burnett keeps it real. Stan isn't pathetic at all; he's just one of us: a victim of all that society doesn't have to offer.

The beauty of Burnett's direction is that he doesn't feel the need to hammer all this down our throats. He takes a step back, and just observes. Images of poetic simplicity flow in a strange sort of rhythm (helped a lot by a wonderful soundtrack), tha verges on being hypnotic. Children play in the alleys, throwing rocks and bottles at each other. Stan cashes his check and goes with a buddy to barter for an engine to complete an old car they've been working on. Stan's son sits down at the kitchen table and covers his cereal in sugar. Men herd sheep to their death. There is no real narrative thrust to Burnett's film, and there doesn't need to be one, because watching it is kind of like looking in the mirror. Burnett's gift -beside the fact that he portrays African-Americans in a way that no other filmmaker ever has- is that he has an eye for the mundane. He avoids the spectacular and focuses on the banal, everyday routines that people go through, which means that Sheep is that rare work of art that is entirely devoid of clichés.

This is a film that is so ambitiously different than everything else I've seen, that it had to be made by a young individual, albeit one who must have been mature beyond his years. The film opens with a father scolding his son:

"You are not a child anymore. You, soon, will be a goddamn man."

The film ends with Dinah Washington's rich, soulful voice:

"Today you're young, too soon you're old."

Burnett is now in his sixties, but his film remains fresh and youthful. For any film lover, young or old, it's a rite of passage.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Night of the Demon (1957)

a.k.a. Curse of the Demon
Directed by: Jacques Tourneur
Written by: Charles Bennett, Hal E. Chester
Starring: Dana Andrews, Peggy Cummins, Niall MacGinnis

Black & White, 95 minutes

Grade: A

In the past, I've been a tad bit harsh on the films of Jacques Tourneur. You'll often find that many under-appreciated directors will garner a certain following of critics and movie buffs that do nothing but rant and rave about how good the filmmaker was, and how influential his films are. This is certainly the case with Tourneur, and so, when I watch one of his films, I am often disappointed. It's not really Tourneur's fault, it's mine for having such high expectations. Through the years I've read how his work with producer Val Lewton, which resulted in films like Cat People and I Walked with a Zombie, was so groundbreaking and scary. Those films weren't groundbreaking or scary, they were simply solid films that did a lot with a little, and rose above the usual B movie aesthetics. I've also read, many times, about how Out of the Past was the greatest noir film. This is not the case. Once again, Out of the Past is a tightly constructed movie that happens to incorporate every noir trademark there is. To call it the greatest of all noir would be to diminish the impact of Otto Preminger's Laura and Billy Wilder's Double Indemnity, which would be a grave mistake. So, feeling that I owed Tourneur something, at least another shot, I picked up Night of the Demon, a lesser known (in America anyway) horror film he made in 1957. And wouldn't you know it, I absolutely loved it.

Opening on images of Stonehenge, with a voice over narration that speaks of ancient runes and the power to summon the demons of hell, the film sucks the viewer in immediately. The mood is set, and Clifton Parker's eerie score begins to kick into high gear. A few moments later, Tourneur throws the viewer inside the car of a sweaty, panic-stricken professor named Harrington. He's fleeing someone, or something, but what, we don't know. He pulls up to a mansion in the country, vacates the car, and rushes to ring the doorbell. Inside, he speaks with a man named Karswell, and the two proceed with a very cryptic conversation. Harrington is now begging Karswell to stop what he has created, to call it off. Karswell assures Harrington that he will do what he can, and that everything will work itself out. Harrington, breathing a sigh of relief, exits the house, heading for his automobile, when out of the forest comes a puff of smoke, then a light. "It's in the trees! It's coming!" Harrington shouts at the top of his lungs, and then we see what has terrified him so: a giant, fire-breathing beast. It approaches Harrington, and then tears him to bits. Enter Dr. John Holden (Dana Andrews), American psychiatrist, resident skeptic, and expert myth debunker. He's halfway across the Atlantic in an airplane, on a mission to visit Professor Harrington, and to assist in an investigation on Karswell and his devil cult. Holden's plane touches down, and he gets the bad news about Harrington. Unable to let things go, Holden-joining forces with Harringon's niece, Joanna (Peggy Cummins)-continues with the inquiry into Karswell. This has Karswell feeling a bit perturbed, so he does what any good Warlock/Sorcerer/Dr. Strange would do, he puts a curse on Holden, predicting that he will die, just like Harrington did, in three days time. Being the nonbeliever that he is, Holden pays no attention to Karswell's mumblings, but then things start to get creepy, and it looks like Karswell's prediction may come true. But then an unlikely source of help comes in the form of Karswell's own mother. Is it too late? Is Holden's time at an end? Can they stop the hellish demon? You'll be quite surprised at the result when Tourneur brings the tension to a head on board a train car in the film's masterful finale.

The great thing about Tourneur is that when he shows up to play ball, he is a master of atmosphere and suspense. This is evident all throughout Night of the Demon, most notably in a startling seance sequence that practically lays the foundation for a similar scene in Poltergeist. The medium calls forth spirits from the dead, including Harrington, speaking in their voices, warning Holden of the dangers that lie ahead. Spooky stuff. Tourneur and his cinematographer Ted Scaife revel in chiaroscuro lighting that hides the real threats in the shadows, causing the audience to lean a little closer, to look a little harder at way may be lurking just out of view. The one exception is the monster, which is nothing short of ridiculous. At times, it reminded of Godzilla riding a tricycle, but truth be told, the monster isn't around all that much, and what there is of him was added to the picture despite Tourneur's protests. He knew it was better to tell than to show, and if he had had his way, the film would be a flat out masterpiece. In the end, though, Tourneur does come out on top. His talent is never in doubt, and the film holds up very well today.

Helping Tourneur tremendously, the cast never approaches cheesiness. The material could easily slip into the realm of the silly and the fantastic, but they keep straight faces, holding the audience in check. Peggy Cummins is solid as Joanna, a character that is equally worrisome and aggressive. Tourneur was never a director who let his female characters fall into the background or sit on the sidelines. His women were strong and maternal, and Cummins falls right in line. Niall MacGinnis has a ball with Karnswell, a demanding character, because he has to be able to frighten others while managing to retain his wit and charm. Obviously based on Aleister Crowley, Karnswell is the type of guy who can control the weather at will, summon power from Satan, and still do basic magic tricks for the local kids at a Halloween party. Through all of this craziness, Andrews is the audience's rock as Holden. One of the great, underrated actors of his generation, Andrews had a range that was incredible. He would leave an impression no matter what, whether he was doing minor work in films like The Ox-Bow Incident and Ball of Fire, or whether he was part of the main objective, the way he was in Laura and The Best Years of Our Lives. He's not well remembered today, mostly because he did a lot of B movies, like this one, but I've never seen him be anything less than superb. Here he has the task of showing us a man who is nearly infallible in his beliefs, but, slowly, he has to show us the gears of doubt and realization turning in his head. He succeeds. Holden is a man who has faith in the "touchable," and the "seeable," but the science that he has so resolutely fallen back on in the past is withering away, and without it, he is lost. It's a blast to watch Andrews squirm around, desperately searching for something to latch onto, something to rescue him from his nightmare.

You, however, won't want to be rescued from the spell that this film casts. Night of the Demon is a breathtaking, fast moving piece of work that really gets under your skin. It's a minor film in America's cinematic history, but it was a huge success in Britain, where it was funded and filmed. Stateside, it was truncated and released as Curse of the Demon, but the DVD restores both the American and British prints, proving, once again, how stupid Hollywood can be. This is one of those very rare films that can please modern horror fans as well as those who love the classics of yore. Tourneur, unlike Holden, was a true believer. After viewing this film, you will be too.

Monday, July 16, 2007

The Bitter Tea of General Yen (1933)

Directed by: Frank Capra
Written by: Edward E. Paramore, Jr.
Starring: Barbara Stanwyck, Nils Asther

Black & White, 88 minutes

Grade: B+

One hundred years ago today, Barbara Stanwyck was born. She was an odd beauty, with a slightly owl like face and disproportionate nose, but one look at her and you were entranced. Her performances were graceful, commanding, sexual, and natural. Stanwyck didn't announce her presence the way Joan Crawford or Bette Davis would, she never shouted for attention, she would simply invite the viewer in with her good looks, and keep them there with her talent. Some of her films (Stella Dallas, The Lady Eve, Double Indemnity) are well remembered today, but most of them have gotten lost in the shuffle. One such film is Frank Capra's The Bitter Tea of General Yen. For Capra, the film was nothing more than an attempt to earn an Oscar, for Stanwyck, it would be the major turning point in her career, pushing her towards better roles in bigger films.

When we think of Capra today, we're immediately reminded of the populist Americana that infused such classics as Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and It's a Wonderful Life, but in the early '30's, Capra was desperately trying to prove himself as a major player. His films were fairly successful, and he was the one reliably consistent filmmaker that Columbia Pictures could lay claim to. His frustration at not receiving any nominations for American Madness spurred Capra to make, in Columbia head Harry Cohn's words, "arty junk," the kind of films that usually win awards. To achieve his goal, Capra chose a tragic romance set in an exotic location, and as his actress and proxy for the audience, he chose Stanwyck. It was their third film together, and probably their best, but it was atypical for both of them. There is a good deal of sensitivity present here, a dreamy, melodramatic overcast that lends the film a haunting quality that sticks in your mind.

Stanwyck plays Megan Davis, a New England gal, newly arrived in Shanghai to marry an American born doctor/missionary, who has devoted his work to saving orphans that are left behind in the midst of civil war. Megan and her husband-to-be go on a last minute rescue mission to get six abandoned children to safety, putting their wedding on hold. The streets of Shanghai are full of violence as riots tear the city apart. The crowd separates Megan and her lover, and eventually she gets knocked cold by a blow to the head in an attempt to find safe ground. When she awakes, she is in a train car, a Chinese woman looks over her, and a mysterious man stands in the shadows. He is General Yen (Nils Asther), an infamous Chinese warlord, known for his savagery and unwillingness to compromise. Taken to Yen's palace hideaway, and held against her will, Megan adamantly refuses Yen's romantic advances. But at night she dreams of Yen coming to her rescue and taking her into his arms. She sees his brutality, evident in the firing squad that executes prisoners in the courtyard outside her bedroom window, yet she also sees an intelligent individual that believes in the traditions and history of his homeland. As far as politics and religion are concerned, they have no common meeting ground, but they are both opinionated, passionate people, unafraid to express how they feel about given situations. When one of his servants betrays Yen, Megan begs him to reconsider the execution, to be merciful one time in his life. Yen gives in to Megan's wishes, and places the servant's life in Megan's hands, making the servant her responsibility. Asked why he does so, Yen replies, "I'm going to convert a missionary," and in a way, he does. The servant continues to leak information on Yen, information that brings about his downfall. His soldiers leave him, his followers flee, he is alone, broken, a vague shadow of his former self. Megan, realizing her mistake, tries to console Yen, apologizing for the damage that she has caused. For Yen, however, it is too late, his love and admiration for the American woman has made him blind to the customs that he has followed for so long. He has no honor left, and in his mind, there is only one way to resolve the situation.

The portrayal of a love between an Asian man and an American woman was considered pretty risqué back in 1933, and the commercial failure of the film is proof of the matter, but while the film may seem tame today, it should be commended for it's attempt to shatter such a taboo topic. Capra is respectful of the material and it's setting, as he would be four years later with Lost Horizon, and he is sure to point out how ridiculous and unfair it can be for the people of one nation to try and force it's beliefs and customs on the people of another. It's easy to think of Yen as the bad guy, because in essence he does kidnap Megan, but it is she that is the real villain of the story. Her ignorance and naiveté ruin Yen. She doesn't mean to do so, but that doesn't change the fact that their lives alter for the worse because of it. Capra was a faithful subscriber to the belief of "The American Dream," but what made him unique, what made him special, was the fact that he was smart enough to realize that dream, at times, could impose on the dreams of others, belittling their aspirations in the process.

While Capra does a good job in what is rather unexplored territory for him (images of terror of bloodshed were not usually his forte), it is Stanwyck that keeps the viewer in tune with the film. She is at her most seductive here, and her performance goes through almost every emotional response imaginable. She is strong yet vulnerable, caring yet firm, faithful to her lover yet undeniably intrigued by Yen. Her character makes bad decisions that lead to fatal results, but we forgive her, as does Yen. Her beauty is staggering, almost suffocating, and Joseph Walker's cinematography makes the most of it. Shooting through hazy filters, Walker creates a very serene, almost surreal atmosphere that is both intoxicating and inviting. His camera loves Stanwyck, and she owns every frame that she's in. Nils Asther, born in Denmark and raised in Sweden, is surprisingly convincing as Yen. It's a difficult character, just as difficult as Stanwyck's, and he is able to convey all the complexities and unconventional characteristics in such an odd romantic leading role. Stanwyck often has the ability to overshadow even the greatest of actors ( look at Henry Fonda in The Lady Eve), but Asther is up to task. He is another good actor that is all but forgotten today.

Even though it wouldn't garner Capra the Oscar he was looking for (a year later he would make Oscar history with the better, but completely different It Happened One Night), The Bitter Tea of General Yen is a good film. It's not particularly great, but it is mature and memorable, and it's worth watching for Stanwyck. The film has it's followers (German wunderkind Rainer Werner Fassbinder paid homage with one of his greatest achievements, The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant) , some of which have called it Capra's greatest work. Obviously, I disagree. There are few films greater than It's a Wonderful Life, and this is not one of them. But if you can find it (it's not on DVD), watch it. There aren't many treasures in cinema that can rival the presence of Barbara Stanwyck. Happy Birthday, Barbara, you were one of a kind. On July 16, 1907, God must have been smiling when you came into the world. One hundred years later, film lovers everywhere still smile at the joy you bring them. Thank you.

Monday, July 9, 2007

A Woman Under the Influence (1974)

Written & Directed by: John Cassavetes
Starring: Gena Rowlands, Peter Falk

Color, 155 minutes

Grade: A+

John Cassavetes. Anyone who loves cinema, whether they've seen his films or not, knows the name. His reputation has established him, quite rightly, as the father of independent cinema in America. As an actor he was notorious for hating directors and taking roles simply for the money. As a writer/director, he is famous for the way that he pushed actors, audiences, and himself to new heights. While watching one of his films you become immediately aware that you have never seen anything quite like it, and that you are in the hands of a man who lived and breathed cinema. Personally, I've always considered myself a modest fan of his work; I liked Shadows, I saw the talent and unique spirit in Faces even though I felt the film was more than a bit dated, and I was won over by the low key, character driven narrative in The Killing of a Chinese Bookie. Now I've just seen 1974's A Woman Under the Influence, and it's finally become apparent to me just how much of a genius this man was, for it is this film that encapsulates everything that Cassavetes stood for as a filmmaker. One of the greatest films of the 1970's, A Woman Under the Influence is a masterpiece of personal filmmaking.

The story focuses on Nick and Mabel Longhetti, played by Peter Falk and Gena Rowlands (Cassavetes' wife and most frequent collaborator), a married couple living in Los Angeles. Nick is a construction supervisor; Mabel stays at home to care for their three children. As the film opens, we see Nick and his coworkers leaving work. They stop to get a quick beer before heading home, but while sitting there, a phone call comes through telling them they have to work a double shift. Nick gets on the telephone and begins shouting. "I have an unbreakable date," he says forcefully, "with my wife." Nick continues to shout over the receiver for a few more minutes before hanging up. His coworkers applaud his performance and thank him for telling off the boss. They all finish their drinks, and get back on the road to start another long shift. At home, Mabel is unaware that Nick will be late coming home. She's getting the children ready for a stay with their grandmother (Lady Rowlands, Gena's mother). The children rush out the door, piling, one by one, into grandma's car. Mabel, frantically hopping around on one foot, packs the kids' things into the trunk, yelling at everyone to hurry up and be careful. Once everything is ready to go, Mabel lectures and scolds her mother for a good three minutes about keeping the kids safe. "I don't want you to be chickenshit and not calling me," Mabel shouts at her mother. That's normally not a very effective way to get a message across to someone who carried you in her womb for nine months, but grandma quietly nods in agreement. Mabel kisses the kids and waves them off, then rushes back into the house to prepare for an evening with her husband. Nick, however, is nervous about calling Mabel, afraid of what she'll do when she hears the bad news. A coworker comforts Nick, but then makes the mistake of calling Mabel crazy. "Mabel's not crazy," Nick says unconvincingly, "she's unusual." Taking a few moments to muster up the courage, Nick proceeds with the phone call. To his surprise, Mabel isn't upset, she doesn't scream, she doesn't argue, she just tells Nick that everything is alright. The phone conversation ends, Nick goes to work, and Mabel heads out for a night on the town.

In a bar, Mabel meets a man named Garson Cross (affectionately played by O.G. Dunn). He buys her a drink, and the two go back to her place. She's visibly drunk and she begins to fight him off, but Cassavetes effectively cuts quickly to the next morning, with Mabel lying in bed, and Cross wandering around the house. "Nick," she screams while rushing into the bathroom, slamming the door behind her. Cross, bewildered, follows her and yells at her through the door. She rushes out of the bathroom and speaks to Cross as if nothing unusual has taken place, in fact, she refers to him as Nick. The real Nick, however, is on his way home, and he's brought along his coworkers for a late dinner/early breakfast. The workers pile through the door of the Longhetti house, and the audience notices that there is no sign of Garson Cross. Did he leave on his own? Did Mabel kick him out? Does this sort of thing happen quite often? Is Mabel even aware of it? Cassavetes keeps us in the dark, he doesn't spoon feed us. He keeps the attention on Mabel's interaction with Nick's coworkers. She introduces herself to them, slowly shaking each hand. She knows some of these men, she remembers them. Others tell her that they've met in the past, one even says he had dinner there only two weeks ago. "I remember your wife," Mabel says, "but I don't remember you." Nick's coworkers know that Mabel is a little kooky and they try to be respectful, but it becomes increasingly difficult for them not to laugh. Nick does his best to take it in stride, but at times he blows his top. During the meal, Mabel begins to ask some of the men if they want to dance. Each man refuses while throwing a glance at Nick. Mabel does her best to persuade them, to no avail. She gets in their faces, even complimenting one of the men on his handsome face. Nick, finally having enough, shouts at her. "Get your ass down," he screams at her, and the table begins to clear out. The men say thank you to both Mabel and Nick, and then leave.

This spaghetti scene takes place very early, but it is essential to the film's success. The scene is a microcosm of this couple's entire relationship. Mabel is a friendly person who tries to be nice and welcoming of everyone, but she becomes too much to handle. Calling her crazy wouldn't be accurate, she's just too frenetic, she gets lost in her own head. She says weird things, but she doesn't mean any harm. She mumbles to herself, but it's almost as if too many thoughts are running through her mind at one time and when she reaches out to latch onto to one of them, she finds it impossible to process. Nick obviously loves her, and understands her. Cassavetes proves this to us by cutting back and forth from her exasperated expressions to his reassuring nods and winks. Unfortunately, Nick, like anyone, has his breaking point, and when breached, he explodes. He tolerates as much as he can, but he's always beat out by his own temper. In this one, seemingly simple scene, Cassavetes manages to give us the entire history of this relationship.

After the spaghetti breakfast, the film pushes on rather quickly. Nick takes his mother (Katherine Cassavetes, John's mom) to the doctor, Mabel waits for her children at the bus stop, shouting at people to tell her the time of day. She brings the children home, and has a party for them, inviting a few local kids to come and play. Mr. Jensen (Mario Gallo) brings the kids over, and after witnessing Mabel's unusual personality, decides to take his children home. Unfortunately for him, Mabel has sent the children to find some costumes and play dress up. Jensen is in the process of getting his children dressed when Nick returns, his mother in tow. Nick, seeing his daughter running around naked, becomes angry and rushes upstairs to find Mabel. She's there, of course, but so is Mr. Jensesn, struggling with his children. Nick blows his lid, slaps Mabel, and gets into a fight with Jensen. With Jensen and his children gone, Nick nurses his bloody lip, and calls the doctor to come over and try to figure out what's going on with Mabel. She's uncannily calm, though, acting normal, and then the doctor shows up, sending her into a fit. Nick tries to keep her calm, but his mother throws fuel onto the fire. Yelling at the doctor to give Mabel a shot, Nick's mother is certainly not helping matters. Nick does his best, but he gives in to his mother, and after Mabel finally has her meltdown, disintegrating into tears, the doctor gives her an injection and informs her that she will be committed to an institution.

This first half is so incredibly wrenching that we wonder if there is any hope in this story at all. Cassavetes will never give us an easy way out, but he's not a pessimist. We see Nick struggle to be a good father, but he seems to forget that his children are still children. At the beach, he shouts at them, almost forcing them to play and have a good time. In the bed of a truck, he opens a six-pack and lets the children pass a can around. The audience gets the feeling that maybe it's Nick that should have been committed, not Mabel. She may have had a few screws loose, but she never put anyone in danger, she never hurt a soul. Eventually, six months later, Mabel does return home, noticeably changed by her treatment. She tells stories of shock therapy, but her family refuses to listen. She's home, that's all that matters. Nick, however, is not content. He wants the old Mabel. He wants the way she used to sputter at people, the way she would flick her thumb. He wants to listen to her broken, unintelligible sentences; he wants to see her hop around energetically, yelling at everyone to "have fun." He misses these things, and he realizes he was wrong to send her away. He loved her the way she was, warts and all, and after a heartbreaking climax, Cassavetes finds a way to leave his audience on a high note. In a film full of shouting, Cassavetes leads his characters, and audience, to a quiet, reflective place that puts everything into perspective.

Cassavetes' films always featured a high caliber of acting, and this one is no exception. Rowland's, even today, is unable to give a bad performance, but her work here is a landmark. Cassavetes gives her the role of a lifetime, and she nails it. She's a force of nature, and Mabel's breakdown is one of the most compelling scenes that I've ever witnessed. But with all the heaps of praise that have been thrown at Rowlands for her performance, Falk often gets the short end of the stick. Always a consummate professional, Falk has a special way of keeping audiences glued to their seats. Whether he was playing Columbo, doing great character work like he does here, or even playing an angelic version of himself in Wim Wenders' masterful Wings of Desire, Falk is always at the top of his game. In many ways, he has the harder role here. It's easy for audiences to hate his character, and he knows this, so he makes sure we see the understanding in his face, the love in his eyes. Nick is an asshole, sure, but he's not a horrible person. Because of his anger, the film is often seen as a kind of feminist parable, but it is inaccurate to try to peg it as such. Pretend that the title of the film is A Man Under Pressure, and the film takes on an entirely different meaning.

The fact is that Nick and Mabel are right for each other. As individuals, they are impossible, but together, they complete each other. Each one makes up for the others flaws, and they are able to function. They love their children, and they love each other. It may not be a perfect situation, but somehow it works. In Nick's care, the children get drunk, but when Mabel is around, the parents work as a unit, and they are able to keep each other in check. It doesn't take a genius to raise a child, nor does it necessarily take what we consider to be "sane" individuals, it takes love and understanding. Once you have that, the rest, no matter how unlikely, seems to fall into place. Cassavetes knew this and one wonders how much of this material comes from his own life. It's not out of convenience that he cast his mother and mother-in-law, it's not an accident that Nick and Mabel have three children (Cassavetes and Rowland did also). Cassavetes, contrary to popular belief, was not that improvisational, his words, his characters, and his actions were all very deliberate. Maybe he was a man under the influence of the powers of cinema, and maybe it took Rowlands to understand him. They had a love that was as unbreakable as Nick and Mabel's, and it boiled over into their work. This is their crowning achievement.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

if... (1968)

Directed by: Lindsay Anderson
Written by: David Sherwin, John Howlett
Starring: Malcolm McDowell, David Wood, Richard Warwick

Color/Black & White, 112 minutes

Rated R (originally X)

Grade: A-

"Wisdom is the principal thing: therefore get wisdom: and with all thy getting, get understanding."
-Proverbs 4:7

So opens this bizarre film, and a fitting opening it is. For the past two days I've been letting if... stew around in my mind. I didn't want to write about it yet, I couldn't get my head around it. I didn't want to lay down a judgment too early, because my reaction to the film ran the gamut from being tickled pink, to being shocked outright, to being forced to scratch my head in bewilderment. Did that just happen? Is it just a dream maybe? I thought that guy was dead, what's he doing talking in a bureau drawer? These were just some of the questions running through my mind while viewing this film. I can only assume that I'm not the only one who has had these thoughts during if..., it is nothing if not difficult, it is anything but ordinary, it is simply unforgettable.

As the film begins, we see students beginning a new term at a typical British public school (that's the equivalent of a private school in America). From the first frames, we understand director Lindsay Anderson's hatred for the school system (he shot on location at his alma mater). There is a hierarchy at work here, the prefects (or "whips") force the first years (known as "scum") to do their bidding. Not five minutes into the film, we witness a whip imposing his authority by telling a scum to "warm up a lavatory seat for me, I'll be ready in five minutes." The scum walk reluctantly to "the sweat room," a place filled with desks where the students keep the bulk of their personal belongings, including the magazine cut outs that litter the walls. The foreshadowing comes alive here, as we see Alberto Korda's infamous portrait of Che Guevara. As the audience is beginning to get the gist of things,a mysterious figure enters the building, dressed head to toe in black, his face covered with a scarf. The students know him instantly, "Hallo, Mick!" we hear in the halls. The mysterious Mick gets rid of his luggage and heads to a room. He peers into a mirror, slowly unraveling the scarf. We see a young man's reflection, a hauntingly youthful face that is blemished with a neatly trimmed mustache. He stares at himself for a moment, his wild eyes flaring, and then grabs a razor to erase his rebellion for the time being. This unforgettable face, of course, belongs to Malcolm McDowell, and it is here, that the film begins to center around his character. Mick Travis is the ultimate rebel, the quintessential hardass. He's James Dean to the fucking extreme. He's apathetic, amoral, very intelligent, and in possession of a violent mind. He spouts such notable quotes as; "When do we live, that's what I want to know," and "One man can change the world with a bullet in the right place." He steals a motorcycle, bangs a waitress in a roadside diner, and pushes the whips too far. It's not long until Mick and his two flunkies (droogs?) are beaten, one by one, with a cane. The flunkies get off easy, they're hit only four times, it's Mick that the prefects go to town on, laying the cane across his backside at least eight times, if not more (to be honest, I lost count). Mick takes it in stride, letting his anarchic feelings boil to the surface, until he finds a stash of machine guns and grenades in an attic. The next day, while students, teachers, and family members are attending the graduation service, Mick leads his cronies to the rooftops, waiting to shower the crowd with an explosion of fire and blood.

Seen today, in the light of the massacres at Columbine and Virginia Tech, if... has become sadly prophetic and almost unbearably relevant. In 1968, however, Anderson presented the film as a precautionary tale, hence the title. Obviously inspired by Jean Vigo's Zero for Conduct, Anderson keeps us on our toes by constantly shifting gears. Scenes fluctuate from color to black and white (apparently due to budgetary restraints), and weird things seem to be happening all the time. While some scenes can border on the mundane, others will shift easily between hilarity and horror. A teacher smacks a student hard in the back of his head, and then moves two desks down the aisle to slide his hand down the shirt of another student to grab his nipple. Students have their genitals examined by a nurse who just stares. Prefects discuss a certain scum because he's blond and has a pretty face, or more bluntly "their type." One of Mick's friends performs gymnastics while a scum stares with erotic fascination. Mick fires a dart gun at pictures of lions, naked women and celebrities, and while getting up to retrieve the darts, the camera, in medium shot, lingers on a photo of Lenin placed directly above Mick's headboard. We can never know for sure if certain scenes are real, but we do know that it's possible, and that in itself is frightening enough.

Through all these surreal trappings, McDowell guides the audience. From the moment he appears on screen, he fascinates us. This was his first film, and had he done no others, we would still remember him today. He is perfection in this role, 24 playing 16 or so, and he breathes for this character. He may not be a good guy, but the audience identifies with him, and as much as I hate to say it, cheers for him as well. It is one of the most compelling performances that I've ever seen, and it should come as no surprise that it was this role that brought him to Kubrick's attention. There are undeniable similarities between Mick Travis and Alex de Large. Both are non-conformists, both are violent, both are sexually aggressive, and both share a love for music. It wouldn't be presumptuous to say that if...'s screenwriters, David Sherwin and John Howlett, were very aware of Burgess and borrowed elements of his work, but if... is a more mysterious work. It gets under your skin, screws up your head, and never gives you the easy way out.

Lindsay Anderson was one of the leaders of the British New Wave, and many consider this film to be one of the most controversial, and greatest, films ever made in Britain. I agree with that statement, and I'll add that this film is much more accomplished and refined than the more revolutionary films that came out of America around the same time. We got Dennis Hopper, Bob Rafelson, and Monte Hellman, and, to be honest, after seeing this, I would trade the three of them for one Lindsay Anderson. His film is mature, challenging, and demanding. It doesn't rely on the more trippy existentialism that America was reveling in at the time. On top of all that, this film is positively loaded with talent. Miroslav Ondricek was responsible for the brilliant cinematography here, and he would go on to shoot Forman's Amadeus, among others. Future director Stephen Frears (The Queen) was Anderson's assistant director, while the great Chris Menges, who would photograph The Killing Fields, lends a hand as one of the camera operators. The talent was real, and many of them would return for two very loose sequels: O Lucky Man! and Britannia Hospital.

This picture may be too British for many American's to get the full impact of it, but it's influence has carried through the ages. Do you notice the similarity between the name of Mick Travis and a certain protagonist in a Paul Schrader/Martin Scorsese collaboration that would come a few years down the line? Some parts may seem a bit antiquated to us nowadays, but by the third act, that all goes away as the film takes on more resonance. Anderson has his cake and eats it too; he's able to stick it to both the education system and the students. This is a dark, uncompromising picture that puts your mind to work, and sets your temper on fire. In other words, it is essential viewing.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Man of the West (1958)

Directed by: Anthony Mann
Written by: Reginald Rose
Starring: Gary Cooper, Lee J. Cobb, Julie London

Color, 100 minutes

Grade: C+

Tony, baby, where did our love go? You burned me, friend, burned me bad this time around. I watched all five of the westerns you made with Jimmy Stewart, and I was in love. I was singing your praises to everyone, hell I even denounced Kirk Douglas for replacing you with Kubrick on Spartacus, and I love Kubrick. It was a bold stance on my part, but, you know, I didn't mind, because I believed in you. What went wrong here, pal? You got Gary Cooper, he's cool, I like him, he was Mr. Deeds, he was Will Kane, you know? You're working in CinemaScope, which is perfect for your vistas and landscapes and all that good stuff. Forgive my anger, but I just feel a little betrayed. I mean, Godard named this the best film of '58. The best film in a year that included Touch of Evil and Vertigo!! On top of that, he compared your work to Henri Matisse, which, you know, I'm not going to pick a fight with Godard or anything, but, come on, that's quite a leap. Maybe my expectations were too high, maybe it's a fault on my end, but I'm pissed regardless.

The problem, first of all, is there's no thrust to your story. Link Jones (Cooper) is a man with a violent past who has reformed his ways, and is now taking a train to find a teacher for the new school his town is building. There, he runs into a con-man named Sam Beasley (Arthur O'Connell) and singer/worldly woman Billie Ellis (Julie London), who just happen to take a liking to him. When the train is ambushed, the three of them have to high tail it cross country, and end up coming to the only house around for miles. And who happens to live there? None other than Dock Tobin (Lee J. Cobb), Jones' uncle and former partner in crime, and his flunkies. Don't tell me. They're not going to try and coerce Jones into helping them rob another bank or something like that, are they? Yep, they sure. But first, of course, they have to light a fire under Jones' ass by shooting Beasley, and forcing Billie to strip. Now, you think Jones would go off the deep end, but what does he do? He takes it easy, and continues to play it cool. That is, of course, until we get to the bank and all hell breaks loose resulting in Billie's rape and a pile of dead bodies.

Now, your other westerns were never exactly plot heavy, but they had great performances. This shit here is all over the place. Cooper is one of the most boring heroes that I've ever seen. He mumbles too much, he plods around, and he doesn't seem like any sort of hardened criminal. We know he used to be a badass because everybody keeps reminding us, but we don't ever see it in his eyes. Stewart had the intensity for this kind of a role. He could let it all register on his face, but Cooper's not that good. He needs more to go on, and you don't give it to him, Tony. Maybe you were pissed because Stewart bailed on you, but you could have tried a little harder here. As bad as Cooper is, Cobb takes the cake. First of all, he's about ten years younger than Cooper is, and it's noticeable. There's not a chance in hell that he could pass for Cooper's uncle. I could overlook this, and maybe even forget it, if Cobb's performance was strong enough, but it's not. He chews up every piece of scenery that he comes in contact with, yelling in unintelligible tongues that make his dialogue indecipherable. This is a good actor's worst performance. For shame. London and O'Connell are minor annoyances, but minor enough to drag the film down that much further.

Now, I will throw you a bone here and there. Your eye has always been phenomenal, and you make the most of the dark interiors of the cabin and the wide open ghost town at the end. You've always been known for the way your landscapes reflect the psychological makeup of your characters, it's just too bad that your cast here doesn't have the ability to accurately display said emotions. I've never doubted your talent as a stylist, and the film was worth viewing for this reason alone. Unfortunately, you can't dig your way of this mess enough for me to enjoy it.

I don't get this screenplay. Is it supposed to be existential or reflective or something like that. I guess it could be, if one were to cut it a lot of slack. The symbolism is too much, though, even for a western. Link could be a cool name, but not when it stands for something. It's like Neo, I wouldn't necessarily name my kid that or anything, but it sounds cool, it's when you give it some kind of deeper subtext that you ruin it. What is it, a "link" between the old west and the new days of trains and high tech machinery, a "link" between the old violent ways when everybody carried a revolver and the new, more peaceful times? I admit, it's fairly clever, but it gets old. Blame it Zelda if you want to, but I think I have a strong case here.

Maybe I shouldn't be so hard on you. After all, you have provided me with some of the best westerns that I've ever seen, and some of the best work in Jimmy Stewart's career. We've had a long relationship, and I guess now that I think about it, this is first real spat. You're really not a bad guy, you certainly better than most of your contemporaries, and I do think you deserve more credit. Maybe when this film finally gets a DVD release I'll consider watching it again, with subtitle so I can tell what the hell's being said. Now that I've gotten it out of my system, let's just never mention it again. I'm angry, to be sure, but I'll cool off, and until then, Tony, I'll let Smokey's words sum up how I'm feeling at the moment: "I don't like you, but I love you."

The Bigamist (1953)

Directed by: Ida Lupino
Written by: Collier Young
Starring: Joan Fontaine, Ida Lupino, Edmond O'Brien

Black & White, 80 minutes

Grade: C-

Back in the 1940's, Ida Lupino was "the poor man's Bette Davis (her words not mine)," but as such she managed to work with directors like Michael Curtiz, Raoul Walsh, and Nicholas Ray, and she was even able to snag lead billing over Humphrey Bogart in High Sierra. Quite impressive for such a B level actress. At the end of the '40's she became fed up with the studio system, and decided to put her talents behind the camera, one of the few women at the time to do so, or should I say, be able to. Working closely with her ex-husband Collier Young, Lupino focused on serious minded issues, such as rape and adultery, and managed to construct a small handful of films that have seemingly faded from the memories of critics and film buffs around the world. I can't exactly speak about her other directorial outings, but if The Bigamist is any indication as to what else she has to offer, it's not hard to see why. This is a banal, muddled, self-conscious mess of a film that isn't even worth viewing, let alone remembering.

Our story focuses on traveling salesman Harry Graham (Edmond O'Brien), the bigamist of the title. As the film opens, Harry and Eve (the lovely Joan Fontaine), his wife of eight years, are trying to adopt a child. The process is going well, and all looks to be peaches and cream for the Grahams until Mr. Jordan (Edmund Gwenn), the head of the adoption agency, informs them that their personal lives are now subject to the utmost amount of scrutiny, right down to the smallest detail. Now, anyone with the smallest notion of adopting a child knows this fact, but somehow it slips Harry's mind, and he's more than a little flustered about it. The music swells, the camera pushes in on Harry's face, and we get the overwhelming feeling that this guy is tangled up in some bad business. Harry attempts to play it cool, but Jordan isn't having it, he's let a child go to a bad set of parents before, and he isn't about to make the same mistake twice. Harry heads out of San Francisco for a business venture in Los Angeles with Jordan snapping at his heels. Jordan pokes his nose around town, asking questions, and he finally catches Harry's scent. He finds Harry residing in a small house that just happens to have a baby wailing in one of the bedrooms. Caught red handed, Harry relays his story to Jordan, and us, through flashback. We get all the sordid details about how Harry, traveling between San Fran and L.A. so much, became increasingly lonely, and accidentally fell in love with a waitress named Phyllis (Lupino). Their sideline romance eventually results in an accidental marriage, and accidental child. Having neither the balls, nor the common decency, nor even the dignity to tell either woman about the other, he now faces a quagmire. Will he somehow fix the problems he's caused? Will he essentially ruin the lives of everyone involved? Will you care either way? I sure as hell didn't.

Screenwriter/producer Collier Young takes what could be a deeply observational treatise on what drives people astray and ruins it by giving us one-dimensional characters that we couldn't possibly care about, and to make matters worse, he makes pitiful excuses for their actions, and then betrays himself by resorting to speechifying at the end of the film. Seeing as how Young divorced Lupino so he could marry Fontaine only a year before this film was released, one gets the sense that he's doing his best to try and justify his own personal actions. The fact that both women agreed to work on this film says more about their own friendship than it does about Young's attempt to make things right, and it shows in their performances. To be honest, I would probably watch an episode of Grey's Anatomy if Joan Fontaine were in it, so I obviously think that she's always worth watching. Lupino, however, is an actress that I've never really cared much for, but her performance here is solid. O'Brien has the hardest time, mostly because Harry is such a hapless loser and you're never interested in anything that happens to him, and it's hard to believe that one woman would fall for him, let alone two, but his acting is sincere enough for me to go easy on him.

With such an acceptable level of acting, Young's soppy writing could have taken a backseat had a solid filmmaker at the helm. Sadly, Lupino botches her chance; her direction is all over the map. At times, she'll play a scene for the highest melodramatic quotient, and at other times she'll treat everything in such a relaxed manner, you wonder if she ran out to grab a smoke and just continued to let the cameras roll. Her timing is off, her pacing is excruciatingly slow, and she doesn't know whether to punch the accelerator or hit the brakes or to just let it all fly of the rails. It's sloppy filmmaking at best, and at times it borders on amateurishness.

Mediocre talent aside, one must commend Lupino for finding a way to carve a path in a, continually, male dominated occupation. She was only the second woman admitted into the Director's Guild and her career behind the camera would continue through the years, mostly in television shows like The Twilight Zone and Alfred Hitchcock Presents. Nonetheless, my admiration for her doesn't change my opinion of her talent. Her films may have been a bit daring in her day, but in the today's world, they suffer from what I call The Hal Ashby/Warren Beatty Syndrome; when a film becomes dated and often a pain to sit through. As a director, she's nothing to write home about, but she deserves to be remembered for breaking the mold, and as watershed for Hollywood, then and now.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Ace in the Hole (1951)

a.k.a. The Big Carnival

Directed by: Billy Wilder
Written by: Walter Newman, Lesser Samuels, Billy Wilder
Starring: Kirk Douglas, Jan Sterling

Black & White, 111 minutes

Grade: A+

It's hard to believe that a filmmaker of Billy Wilder's stature would have a film that has went largely unseen by the general public for over fifty years, but, unfortunately, it's true. Ace in the Hole, Wilder's follow up to Sunset Blvd., was a critical and commercial disaster when released in 1951, and since then it has found it's way to television only a few times. In 2002 it got a theatrical re-release, and finally, in July, it will make it's first appearance on home video courtesy of a royal treatment by The Criterion Collection. It has been worth the wait. Ace in the Hole is the harshest, most brutal, most uncompromising film ever released by Hollywood. It is every bit as memorable and accomplished as anything Wilder ever achieved, including Blvd. and Double Indemnity. To call it a masterpiece would be a gross understatement, it is simply one of the greatest films that I have ever seen, and I can't wait to watch it again.

With all the venom that Wilder spewed at Hollywood in Blvd., he outdoes himself here. His teeth are clenched, his fists are up, and he's out for blood but this time his target is mass media, as represented by newspaperman Chuck Tatum (Kirk Douglas). We first meet this monstrous son of a bitch as he's driving through Albuquerque, New Mexico. Tatum stops by the local paper, The Albuquerque Sun-Bulletin, to ask for a job. "How would you like to make $200,"he asks boss man Mr. Boot (Porter Hall) "I'm a $250 a day reporter, you can have me for $50." Tatum has been fired from eleven major newspapers, and he's proud of it. "If there's no news, I'll go out and bite a dog," and you can be damn sure that he means it. Boot, against his better judgment, hires Tatum, for $60 a day no less, and after a year in such a Podunk little town, Tatum is starting to stir crazy. He throws a fit that he can't get chopped chicken liver and garlic pickles. He starts a rant about how much he misses New York, and he shouts at a coworker, a frail old lady, "You know who Yogi Berra is?" She replies, "Yogi? It's a sort of religion isn't it?" Mr. Boot, fed up with the griping, sends Tatum on a special, out of town assignment; to cover a rattlesnake hunt. Tatum accepts what he can get and, along with his photographer Herbie (Bob Arthur), makes his way out of town.

They decide to stop at a gas station, and after finding the place deserted, except for a lady muttering prayers in Spanish, the two begin to snoop around. A police siren blares down the highway and turns towards the Indian Cliff Dwellings. There is a man by the name of Leo Minosa (a heartbreaking Richard Benedict) caught under a pile of rocks 250 feet in, and Tatum sees stars. This is his big break, his Charles Lindbergh, his Floyd Collins, his Pulitzer Prize. He fearlessly heads into the dwellings, locates Minosa, and turns on the charm. Tatum promises Minosa that he'll do everything in his power to get him out, and Minosa believes him. Outside, however, Tatum manipulates everyone and everything, including local law enforcement and Minosa's wife Lorraine (Jan Sterling), to spin the story his way. He convinces the head engineer to alter his plans, keeping Minosa trapped for days longer than necessary. He essentially creates a circus, both figuratively and literally. Tourists and media groups pour in by the hundreds, and to capitalize on the spectacle, a carnival comes to town and sets up shop. Lorraine who, with her husband, owns the only gas station/restaurant for miles around is on to Tatum's scheme, but she doesn't mind. She hates her husband, and, due to his misfortune, is making money hand over fist, and after the frenzy comes to a halt, she plans to blow town and head for New York. Tatum talks up his co-conspirators, promising them riches and fame and all the great things that can come from this story. Herbie, skeptical at first, tells Tatum; "I don't like the looks of it, Chuck." Tatum, cocksure from birth, responds; "I don't either, fan. But I like the odds." It's too bad he forgot about the wild card, that ace in the hole, the one Wilder keeps up his sleeve until the astonishing third act when everything goes downhill, after all, as Tatum himself would say, "Good news is no news."

Wilder had a true knack for casting, it's apparent in all his work. Here, he achieves a miracle. Kirk Douglas, now mostly remembered because he is Spartacus, and because he's Michael's Dad, is phenomenal as Tatum. He's not even acting here, he is devouring scenes left and right. His performance is wild, manic, violent, and enthralling to watch. He doesn't just speak Wilder's trademark witty dialogue, he savors it, chews on it, lets it sit there until the right moment when he just cuts loose. Watch the look in his eyes, his enjoyment when he confronts the other big league reporters. They plead to Chuck, who most of them know personally, trying to get him to let them in on the scoop. "We're all buddies in the same boat," one of them shouts. "I'm in the boat, you're in the water," Chuck bites at him, "Now let's see you swim, buddies. Along with Vincente Minnelli's The Bad and the Beautiful and Stanley Kubrick's Paths of Glory, this film calls for a complete reconsideration of Douglas' worth as an actor. Neglected for decades, Douglas' talent will be seen quite differently as this film finds more and more viewers over the years to come.

Wilder has always been a master of tone, and he continues that trend here. The film starts very funny, in a dark, sadistic sort of way, but Wilder slowly lets the humor drain from the proceedings. He doesn't yank the rug out, he just quietly tugs out, and one minute you look down and find your ass on a bare floor. He ditched longtime co-writer Charles Brackett before starting this film, but it's not a problem. The dialogue is as quotable as ever, the film moves at a breakneck speed, and his symbolism is nowhere near being subtle. He crams the film with every bitter idea that pops into his head (the rising admission prices day after day, the carnival trailers painted with the words S & M Amusement Services), and it's a blast to watch. This may be his most ambitious film, and his goals, and hatred, are reflected in Charles Lang, Jr.'s breathtaking cinematography that makes the most of the sun drenched vistas and the inner working of the cliff dwellings. The collaboration between the two results in this being Wilder's most confident work. There is a brutal, almost dirty feel to entire film, it gets in your gut and stays there.

Wilder often considered Ace in the Hole to be his greatest film, and he'll get no argument from me. As of this writing, I can think of few films that are as timely and relevant as this one. It feels fresh and contemporary, and not dated in the least. The decision to keep it underfoot for so many years will come as no surprise to anyone who watches it. It is a hateful film, brilliant in its mercilessness, and one gets the sense that Wilder had to know what was in store. Nonetheless, it took a considerable amount of gall for Wilder to make this film, and it's finally going to get the attention it deserves. Pick it up as soon as you can.

Wednesday, June 6, 2007

The Asphalt Jungle (1950)

Directed by: John Huston
Written by: Ben Maddow, John Huston, from the novel by W.R. Burnett
Starring: Sterling Hayden, Louis Calhern, Jean Hagen, Sam Jaffe

Black & White, 112 minutes

Grade: A

The basic plot for a heist film is always the same, the laying out of "the perfect plan," the assembling of a team of weathered crooks, the execution of the crime, and, of course, the fallout. You've seen it all so many times before that it is increasingly hard not to become jaded towards the genre, and you may find yourself shrugging off an old black and white picture from 1950, by saying "Well, it was probably good in it's time." John Huston's The Asphalt Jungle is a different kind of beast. Not only does it serve as the model of its kind, it is simply the best of its kind. Paced like one punch to the gut after another, it never stutters, never goes astray, and never threatens to slide off track. It finds its target, and scores a bullseye.

Doc Riedenschneider, a fantastic Sam Jaffe, is fresh out of prison. He happens to be getting on in years and he doesn't look particularly threatening, but he's smart as a whip, and he's spent his time behind bars mulling over the details of a heist to acquire a cool $500,000 in jewelry. He finds a kindred spirit in Cobby (Marc Lawrence), a small time bookie, with friends in low places. One of these friends is a corrupt lawyer by the name of Emmerich (Louis Calhern), a man who just might have the means to fund Doc's operation. However, to pull off the perfect crime, one needs the perfect crew, and Jungle has a genuine dream team of hardasses. Sterling Hayden leads the pack as Dix Handley, the "hooligan" with a love for everything equine, James Whitmore leaves a dinstinct impression as Gus, the hunchback restaurateur who moonlights as a "driver," and Anthony Caruso brings the levelheadedness as Louis, family man and expert "boxman (safecracker)." With such a top-notch crew, things couldn't possibly go wrong now, could they? If you don't think so, brother, you don't know John Huston. Emmerich is a snake, he is flat broke, and try as he might, he isn't getting help from his gold digging mistress (Marilyn Monroe, making the most out of her few minutes on screen). He intends to double cross the crew and catch a plane to Mexico, that is, of course, if the robbery goes well, which it doesn't. Bullets fly, some accidental, some not, but, in the end, everyone gets what they deserve, and, in true Huston fashion, Greed stands as the victor.

It has always been easy for a filmmaker to get up on a pedestal and share with us such infinite words of wisdom as "crime doesn't pay," or "payback's a bitch," and even though Huston can hammer this home as well as anybody, this is never what lingers in the memory after watching his work. It is the quiet time, the interaction between individuals, and their heartbreaking realizations that everything is going very, very wrong. The Asphalt Jungle is full of telling moments, Hayden reminiscing about riding his first horse, Caruso telling stories about his ill son, and, in the films most touching scene, Calhern taking the time to play cards with his wife (Dorothy Tree) after his refusal to do so only days beforehand. All of this subtle interplay makes for great juxtaposition with the films more exciting moments, notably the eleven-minute robbery sequence.

Huston's mise en scene here is a thing of beauty, and the camera work of Harold Rosson (Singin' in the Rain) makes every situation all the more real. The world of these characters is filled dank, dark, and smoky rooms, and it's all laid out in a serious, obsessively methodical manner. Huston and Rosson have a harsh, unblinking gaze from which no one is safe. George Boemler's editing makes the film as tight as possible, never allowing the audience a chance to breathe, and the score by Miklos Rozsa is appropriately paranoid, lending every glance over the shoulder an ample amount of dread.

This film has about all the talent required to construct a masterful exercise in suspense, but it's the screenplay that elevates it above its imitators. Huston was a great craftsman to be sure, but, like Billy Wilder, he was a writer first and foremost. Not many filmmakers would have the balls to adapt Hammett, Crane, Melville, and the word of God at various points in their careers, but Huston did, and he was always respectful of his material. He may not have always succeeded, but more often than not, he did. Here, he teams again with W.R. Burnett (the two made Humphrey Bogart a star in Raoul Walsh's High Sierra nine years earlier), and the result is a veritable study of action film existentialism. It has the patience to spread it's attention around, forcing the audience to truly understand where each and every single character is coming from, and where they hope to end up. Films of this type rarely hold up this well, but writing like this usually does.

It would be hard to imagine films like Heat, Inside Man, Ocean's Eleven, and especially The Killing, which stars Sterling Hayden as an extension of his character here, without The Asphalt Jungle. Even though you won't see it on any lists of the world's greatest films, it can be argued that few films have defined an entire genre the way this one has, and that is something to be admired. If you haven't had the pleasure of watching this great film, do not wait any longer. Believe me when I tell you, you'll be kicking yourself.

Only Angels Have Wings (1939)

Directed by: Howard Hawks
Written by: Jules Furthman
Starring: Cary Grant, Jean Arthur, Thomas Mitchell, Rita Hayworth

Black & White, 121 minutes

Grade: A+

Howard Hawks had made at least twenty films by the time he started work on Only Angels Have Wings, but it is safe to say that Wings would be the harbinger for what was to come in the next phase of his career. With this film, Hawks brings together all of the trademarks that he would be known for: camaraderie among men in dangerous situations or professions, whip-lash dialogue, tough women, and of course, the group sing-alongs that he would relish so much in To Have and Have Not. The film practically transformed his career, it was the first to have a definitive Hawksian feel, allowing him to delve into deeper and more personal projects such as Sergeant York, Red River, and Rio Bravo. However much of an effect that this film had on Hawks' career, it did just as much, if not more, for Cary Grant. It lifted Grant out of the realm of screwball comedy, and proved to the world that he could fare just as well in dramatic roles, paving the way for what he would accomplish with Hitchcock in Suspicion and most of all, Notorious.

Here, Grant plays Geoff Carter, a no- nonsense manager of an airmail service stationed in a small town in Columbia. Carter takes his work seriously, and expects the same from the other pilots in his crew. When a pilot in his company dies, he refuses to take the time to mourn, ("Who's Joe?"), and insists on getting back to work. He isn't easily distracted, not even by members of the opposite sex, but this being a Cary Grant film and all, you know that's about to change. Enter the ever-adorable Jean Arthur as Bonnie Lee, a piano player who is passing through town on her way back to Brooklyn. She knows a thing or two about Carter's type, but she is enticed regardless, even when he seems to brush her off. She finds a sympathetic ear in Kid Dabb (Thomas Mitchell), a fellow pilot and Carter's life long friend. Kid, however, has problems of his own: for starters, he's going blind, and to add insult to injury, the new kid in town is Bat Kilgallen (Richard Barthelmess), a disgraced pilot man who, years before, had bailed out of his plane, leaving his mechanic (Kid's younger brother) to die. If that ain't enough to make your head spin, Kilgallen's new wife comes in the form of Rita Hayworth, who, conveniently, just happens to be the vixen who scorned Carter in a past life. It all sounds very melodramatic, I know, but melodrama done this well can pass for high art in my book any day of the week.

Screenwriter Jules Furthman, working from a short story by former aviator Hawks, finds the underlying tenderness in the lives of these men, without ever sacrificing the excitement. As he and William Faulkner would do five years later in To Have and Have Not, Furthman gives the actors lines they can really chew on. Everybody gets their fair share, especially Arthur and Mitchell, whose rapport here matches their interactions the same year in Frank Capra's Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. It's Grant, though, that looms the largest, not only in physical stature, but also in talent. This is his movie, he knows it, and he makes damn sure we do as well.

Has there ever been an actor as effortless as Cary Grant? He was the prototypical movie star. The way he walks, how he speaks, the manner in which he happens to stare, ever so slightly, at nothing in particular, or the way he smokes a cigarette as if he single handedly invented the habit, he owns every frame. No actor in world cinema commands one's attention the way he does, when he enters a scene, your eyes immediately focus on him, no matter how beautiful his costar happens to be. What always impressed me the most about Grant, however, were the layers of emotion he was able to convey with just a few glances. With Grant's characters, you always knew there was something more going on, he was always able to exist in a sort of invisible shell. Geoff Carter is charming, for sure, but at times, he can come off as a bit of a bastard. Deep down, though, you know that he is considerate, he is sensitive, and while Grant doesn't go as far as his more romantic about face in Notorious, we do catch a slight glimpse of it late in the film, when he gently, yet believably, lets a tear shine through. Pay attention kids, this is why movies were invented.

None of this would amount to a hill of beans without a sure hand at the wheel, and that's where Hawks comes into the picture. Hawks was never the most stylish of filmmakers, but he was among the most consistent, and he always knew when to pull the reigns. Paced like a soap opera, Wings throws you through every loop possible, with your emotions pushed to the breaking point. The aerial photography and action sequences can stack up to anything that Jerry Bruckheimer has been regurgitating for the last few decades, but it's what takes place on the ground that matters. In a Hawks film, a verbal exchange can be as threatening and dangerous as trying to land a plane on a plateau. Everything builds to a masterfully executed last flight that forces Kid and Kilgallen to work together, resulting in a seamless blend of excitement, tenderness, and tragedy.

Both Hawks and Grant would go on to better things, but they always felt comfortable together. This was their second film together, following Bringing up Baby in 1938, and they would work three more times. There was something real in their collaborations; they brought out the best in each other. As much as I love Grant's work with Hitchcock, Hawks always gave Grant more freedom, always allowed him to cut loose. Nothing ever seemed controlled or forced in their work together, it seemed natural, and it seemed true. They were a hell of a team, one for the ages.

Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Murder, My Sweet (1944)

Directed by: Edward Dmytryk
Written by: John Paxton, based on the novel Farewell, My Lovely by Raymond Chandler
Starring: Dick Powell, Claire Trevor, Anne Shirley

Black & White, 95 Minutes

Grade: B

Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe is one of those characters that never get old. He's the ultimate antihero, the quintessential hardass. He's tough, sarcastic, greedy, conniving, but he always to try and do the right thing. He has been played by just about everyone, from Humphrey Bogart to James Garner to Elliot Gould to Robert Mitchum, and many, many lesser actors. Chandler's favorite screen Marlowe, however, was Dick Powell in Edward Dmytryk's Murder, My Sweet. Powell, a star of musicals, found freedom in Marlowe. Freedom to take on more dramatic roles, and while he didn't necessarily find super-stardom, he did get the opportunity to spread his wings in films like Vincent Minnelli's excellent The Bad and The Beautiful. Nonetheless, his performance as Marlowe is quite good, even if he would be overshadowed two years later when Bogart played the character for keeps in Howard Hawks' adaptation of The Big Sleep.

After a bravura opening in which we see Marlowe, seated and blindfolded, being interrogated by the police on an accusation of murder, we are told the story through one long flashback. A man named Moose Malloy (Mike Mazurki) commissions Marlowe to find his old girlfriend Velma, whom he hasn't seen in eight years. Marlowe goes on the prowl, liquoring up old women to get the answers to his questions. Unfortunately, no one has ever heard of Velma, let alone seen her in the last eight years. While back at the office, our hero gets a visit from a man named Lindsay Marriott (Douglas Walton), who says he will give Marlowe $100 to accompany him in handing over an $8,000 ransom for a very valuable jade necklace. At the rendezvous point, Marlowe begins to snoop around and is suddenly blindsided by a spade to the back of his head. Hours later, he awakes to find Marriott dead. The next day he is approached by Ann Grayle (Anne Shirley), a young woman who lets it slip that her stepmother Helen (Claire Trevor) is the owner of the stolen necklace that got Marriott killed. Marlowe's interest is piqued and he begins inquiring as to the whereabouts of the necklace, meeting various shady characters, and escaping death numerous times in the process.

Chandler is known for his head spinning, convoluted plot, and this one is a real doozy. We get violence that seemingly comes out of nowhere, wild drug induced hallucinations, and a stepmother and daughter both vying for the affections of Marlowe. All the usual noir trademarks are here, flashbacks, voice-over narration, chiaroscuro lighting, sassy, hard boiled dialogue, and of course, the femme fatale, courtesy of the wickedly enticing Trevor. Director Dmytryk revels in this material, and he does what he can to make us forget the less than large budget that he had to work with. It's screenwriter John Paxton, however, that deserves the most credit, he is able to cut down the various plot points, find a mainline, and wrap it all up very nicely while always staying true to Chandler's tone and vision. It's a smart screenplay, and it does exactly what it should: it takes us on a roller coaster ride that surprises us at every turn, yet takes just enough time to let us catch our breath, without letting us think about the inconsistencies in the plot.

It's in the acting that film falters the most. Powell is good, not remarkable in any way, but good. He's a little goofy, he fumbles around a bit too much, he doesn't really know how to convincingly handle a gun, but he can take a beating in style. He always looks a little bewildered, but it's convincing when he comes out with the upper hand. He's a fun Marlowe, and it's a nice juxtaposition to what Bogart would accomplish. He may not carry the film as convincingly as better actors would in years later, but it's a kick to watch him try. The problem comes mostly in the supporting performances, Trevor, as mentioned earlier, is believable, but she has too little screen time. Shirley is cute enough for her role, but she has no dramatic weight whatsoever, and she falls flat in nearly every scene. Everyone else in the film is just a broad caricature, which isn't necessarily a bad thing, and it's quite common in noir, but you usually have a smoother, tougher hero to stand behind. Powell has his strengths, but making us root for him is not one of them.

Farewell, My Lovely was Chandler's second novel, but the first one adapted for the screen. Murder, My Sweet, the title was changed so audiences wouldn't think it was another Powell musical, was actually the second cinematic version, after 1942's cheapie The Falcon Takes Over. Of all the multiple film versions of Chandler's work, Sweet is generally considered to be the most faithful. This may be true, but that doesn't mean it's a great film. It serves more as a very interesting curio than a great cinematic work. It's not any one person's fault, it's just that not too many people can stand shoulder to shoulder with Bogart. I can't honestly say that Murder, My Sweet is worth a peek, but it is safe to say that Chandler/Marlowe fans may find something more valuable at work here. Personally speaking, though, the film is already fading from memory. Admirable effort to be sure and probably more so in its time, but you've seen it all done before, and done far better.

The Ox-Bow Incident (1943)

Directed by: William A. Wellman
Written by: Lamar Trotti, based on the novel by Walter Van Tilburg Clark
Starring: Henry Fonda, Dana Andrews, Anthony Quinn

Black & White, 75 minutes

Grade: A

A rancher is violently attacked and shot in the head. An angry mob forms, vehemently crying for blood. Three men stand accused of a crime they passionately deny. In recent years, William Wellman's The Ox-Bow Incident has been accused of being a product of it's time, flat and dated by today's standards. I can assure you, there are very few films from the 1940's that are as timely and relevant for the Reign of Dubya as this one (The Tipton Three anyone?).

Lamar Trotti's script intelligently focuses the action on two particular situations: the forming of the mob and the carrying out of the mob's will. At the center of this hysteria is (who else) Henry Fonda's Gil Carter. We see from the first frames that Carter is a man who means business. After tossing back a few shots of whiskey he beats the hell out of a man named Farnley (Marc Lawrence), who accuses him and his pal Art (Harry Morgan) of stealing cattle. A few moments later, a man rides into town and saying that a farmer named Kinkaid, a good friend of Farnley's, has been shot, and his cattle stolen. Farnley, still shaken from his fight with Carter, is understandably upset, and he calls for a posse to find the murderer. In spite of some opposition from a few prominent figures, the townspeople band together and hit the trail.

After riding half the night, the mob eventually comes across three men sleeping by a campfire. The three consist of a family man, played by Dana Andrews (Laura), a mysterious Mexican, played by Anthony Quinn (La Strada), and an old timer who can't even remember his name, played by Francis Ford ( brother of director John). They don't necessarily look like murderers, but they'll do. The mob begins to interrogate, and the men admit to having bought cattle from Kinkaid fairly recently. The problem is that they have no bill of sale. Quinn is discovered with Kinkaid's gun, but he swears he found it in the road. The majority of the mob is convinced the men are guilty, they were before they even found them, but there are a few who feel the men deserve a trial. Unfortunately, majority always seems to win, no matter how idiotic or wrong or misaligned they may be.

The strength of this film comes in its own ability not to conform. We aren't given a tidy, feel good ending. This film that takes aim at your gut, and it lands its fair share of blows. On top of that, our hero is not exactly heroic. Fonda has given us some of the noblest individuals in cinema. He's portrayed Abe Lincoln, Wyatt Earp, Clarence Darrow, Juror #8 in 12 Angry Men, and of course Tom Joad, but here he's a little aloof. He wants to do the right thing, but it's only when others make a stand that he follows suit. It's a brave performance, because the audience is waiting on him to rush in and convince the rest of the mob, but it doesn't happen. As disappointing as that may seem to some, it only elevates the film, adding more tension as a result of extreme realism.

Fonda, with his soul piercing eyes, had the uncanny ability to blend ferocity and humility with the utmost ease, and because of this he has a tendency to leave most of his co-stars in the shade, but Wellman gives all the actors equal attention. Dana Andrews is superb here, you feel for him as he pleads for his life, his eyes filled with tears. We see him writing a letter to his wife and children, and it's nothing short of heart wrenching. Jane Darwell (Ma Joad in The Grapes of Wrath) provides nice contrast as a hellraising old lady who only fuels the mob's fire. Anthony Quinn's performance is a little too wooden for my taste, but in his defense, his character is underdeveloped. All in all, though, it's Fonda who burns in the mind, and this is just another in a long line of performance that practically predated the Method movement that would become popular a decade later with the emergence of Brando, Clift, and Dean.

There is one plot point involving an old flame of Fonda's that halts the film by adding a melodramatic element that is entirely unnecessary, but Wellman and Trotti take time to include other substantial elements, such as an Army Major forcing his son to join the posse, and an African-American preacher whose own brother was lynched years before, that tie up very satisfactorily in the end. Wellman had a very small budget, and the film was shot entirely on soundstages, but Arthur Miller's stark photography does a great job in bringing 1885 Nevada to life, and in evoking the horror in these proceedings. Wellman's direction is tight and confined, and he never lets the camera get in the way of the story. He's smart enough to realize when he has a good thing going.

This film falls short of what it could have been, but for what it is, it's still worth your time. In fact, it should be required viewing, not only for fans of cinema, but for everyone. We can all learn a lesson here. The law may not always work, it may not always be quick, but it's there for a reason, unfortunately many of those responsible for the law tend to forget said reasons. Nearly 65 years after its release, the film still packs a punch. This may be good for us as viewers, but it's terrifying for us as citizens.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

The Wrong Man (1956)

Directed by: Alfred Hitchcock
Written by: Maxwell Anderson, Angus MacPhail
Starring: Henry Fonda, Vera Miles

Black & White, 105 minutes

Grade: A

Today, Alfred Hitchcock is considered such a meticulous craftsman and visual stylist that we often lose sight of the fact that he was also one of the most experimental of filmmakers. From the use of Salvador Dali's designs in Spellbound to the theatrical setup and long takes in Rope to the cheap, exploitive look in Psycho to the pioneering sound effects in The Birds, Hitchcock was always pushing audiences and himself to new heights. It was in 1956's The Wrong Man, that his experimentation would hit its zenith. In telling the true story of 'Manny' Balestrero (Fonda), Hitchcock pared his visual style down to the basics, giving the film an almost neorealist, semi-documentary approach. The result is one of Hitchcock's most frightening, and touching, films.

Balestrero is a jazz musician at a night club, a devout Catholic, and a good family man, but he's incredibly unlucky, and he just can't seem to catch a break. Unfortunately, things are only going to get worse. In order to pay for his wife's dental work, Balestrero decides to get the money by borrowing against her life insurance policy. While at the insurance office, an employee mistakes him for the man who has held her up at gunpoint on two separate occasions in the past. The police are contacted, and Balestrero is arrested. Interrogated for hours on end, fingerprinted, and forced to spend the night in jail, Balestrero is at his wits end. After some friends pool enough money together to post bail, Balestrero hires himself a lawyer (Anthony Quayle), and does his best to remember where he was on the days that the robberies took place. His wife Rose (Miles) is faithful, and she does her best to help, but the proceedings eventually begin to take their toll on her sanity. Balestrero is left with a balancing act, trying to juggle his wife's emotional stability while still trying to prove his innocence.

If Notorious is Hitchcock's most romantic film, I Confess his most personal, Vertigo his most subconscious, and Frenzy his most perverse, then The Wrong Man is easily his most realistic accomplishment. Cases of mistaken identity are present in much of his work, but here there are no crop dusters to dodge, no Mt. Rushmore to dangle from, there is only the terrifying realization that, unless a miracle happens, you are being put behind bars. Hitchcock knows that this fact is scary enough on its own, and he makes sure the visuals never call attention away from the story. The direction is simple and matter of fact, and there are only two or three instances (the camera going through a peephole in a jail cell door, a cracked mirror drawing a line through the middle of Fonda's reflection) that make it instantly recognizable as vintage Hitchcock.

Fonda, the great everyman, is fantastic in his performance. You can see the worry in his brow, the shock in his eyes, and the fear deep inside him when his lips tremble. Seeing Fonda play a nice guy is nothing new, but the casting is right, and he gets to the foundations of this character. Vera Miles, the biggest surprise here, is every bit as good as Fonda. We understand she is a loyal wife and mother, but Miles manages to convey something a little darker, and more mysterious. Is she driven mad simply because of the emotional strain, or because she actually begins to believe that her husband is guilty? Miles makes you wonder. While I've appreciated her performances in Psycho and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, I've never understood why she was Hitch's first choice for Madeleine/Judy in Vertigo. Now I know.

The Wrong Man is a tense, exciting, and fascinating film. It's not as highly regarded as many of Hitchcock's films, but it is just as essential. It proves, as if we didn't already know, that even though his films may not have always been as "groundbreaking" as some of his contemporaries', he was never to be outdone. He was filmmaker who welcomed change, and thrived on it, and this is precisely why his films are so endlessly fascinating. He may have never received an Oscar, but I defy you to show me a filmmaker whose work holds up as well as his.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Day of Wrath (1943)

Directed by: Carl Theodor Dreyer
Written by: Carl Th. Dreyer, based on the play Anne Pedersdotter by Hans Wiers-Jenssens
Starring: Lisbeth Movin, Preben Lerdorff Rye, Thorkild Roose

Black & White, 97 minutes, Danish

Grade: A-

"You asked if I ever wished you were dead. I have wished it hundreds of times."

These are the defining words of Carl Th. Dreyer's 1943 masterpiece Day of Wrath, a film of dark provocations that, like all of Dreyer's work, will haunt you the rest of your days. The story, set in 17th Century Denmark, concerns a very small town in which an elderly woman has been accused of witchcraft. The woman passionately denies the claim, and after hours of torture, she is burned at the stake. Before she dies, she curses her accusers, Reverend Absalon(Thorkild Roose) in particular, and tells them that they will all die for what they have done to her. The Reverend pays no mind to these words, he knows the ways in which people react to being burned alive, but it's what he doesn't know that just might bring the old lady's prophecy to pass. What he doesn't know is that his very young and newly acquired wife (Lisbeth Movin), is having an affair with his son (Preben Lerdorff) from a previous marriage. This affair will have ramifications that no one, except the recently departed old woman, could have predicted.

Carl Dreyer is, quite simply, one of the four or five greatest filmmakers to ever set foot on this planet. The reason for this, besides his masterful technical skill, was that he was utterly and completely uncompromising. During his sixty years as a filmmaker he made only fourteen films, and only five of them were made in sound. In my own personal opinion, I find Dreyer to be responsible for the greatest silent film of all time, 1928's The Passion of Joan of Arc (Buster Keaton's Sherlock, Jr. is a close second), one of the strangest and most uniquely atmospheric horror films I've ever seen, 1931's Vampyr, and what just has to be the definitive film ever to deal with the Christian faith, 1955's Ordet. Now, if you can get through these heaping piles of praise, let me say that Day of Wrath is the weakest Dreyer film that I've yet to watch. That being said, and Dreyer being who he is, it's still more powerful than most of the movies you'll ever be likely to come across in your lifetime.

The power in the film lies in the performances. Unlike any typical Hollywood production, Day of Wrath contains nothing resembling "acting." Dreyer was known for doing long takes, multiple times. He wanted to emotionally drain his performers until they were no longer acting, and Wrath follows in this tradition. The acting here is extremely naturalistic, as if these people were truly living out these situations, and Dreyer captures the burning intensity in each and every pair of eyes that comes in front of his camera. This intensity carries over to the audience, raising the level of tension to alarming heights. We aren't simply watching a movie here, we're seeing a filmed record of a terrifying time period in which seemingly no one was safe from persecution, and it all plays out on the faces of the performers. All of the stars of Hollywood out there making $20 million a movie could really learn a thing or two from watching acting like this. This is what acting should be.

There are no glaring flaws here. All of Dreyer's work is filled with exceptional photography, and Day of Wrath is no exception. Karl Andersson is the cinematographer here, and he fills the each frame with layers of shadow, letting only the smallest amount of light, and hope, shine through. Erik Aaes' art direction is spare, (the interior of a house, a torture chamber, the strictest confines of a church), yet entirely believable. The problem I have with the film is not the slow, deliberate pace that's common throughout all of Dreyer's work, but in the ending. Missing is the cathartic, emotional climax that made Joan of Arc and Ordet so special. The ending in Wrath is satisfying, but it doesn't tear at your soul in the trademark Dreyer way, and it is this reason only that the film strays from masterpiece status.

My one complaint aside, this film is still essential. Dreyer's influence can be found in many great filmmakers, but it is in Wrath that I see the foundations for some of Ingmar Bergman's greatest works. The dealings with the Reverend reminded me of Gunnar Bjornstrand's struggles in 1963's Winter Light, and the burning of the old woman had to lend some inspiration to the death of the child witch in 1957's The Seventh Seal, and like those two films, Wrath defies easy convention. It is a demanding, powerful, and thought provoking piece of work. Give in and let the film work you over. You will not regret it.