18th 05 - 2012 | 7 comments »

Suspicion (1941)

For the Love of Film: The Film Preservation Blogathon III

Director: Alfred Hitchcock

By Paroma Chatterjee

Welcome guest blogger Roma Chatterjee.

“Let me go! Let me go!” screams Lina right at the beginning of the radio play, Suspicion, made barely a year after the film. No introduction, no lead-up to the characters, no sense of place; just a woman shouting frantically at her assailant.

If the play darts straight to its point without wasting a minute, the film saunters along, gazing at the flowers, humming a tune, until it is surprised (repeatedly) by dark shadows on its ambles. We meet Lina and Johnny on a train, at a hunt, at Lina’s house, and on the way to a church, until we get to those climactic words, “Let me go! Let me go!” The first 15 minutes or so of the film read suspiciously like a drawing – room comedy. The characters make small talk, pose for a local photographer, flirt on their way to church until, without the slightest warning, we cut to the top of a hill where a man and a woman seemingly struggle for dear life. Articles of clothing fly off, one after the other, and the fact that none of them denude the woman in the least, takes away nothing from the unexpected violence of the scene. The music, chirpily bucolic until this moment, soars and sustains its pitch, a suitable analogue to the height of the hill, and the goings-on on top of it.

Barely a minute later – nay, less – the struggle is over. The man teases the woman with talk (again, of the small variety). We are back in the realm of light comedy. There is an infinitesimal moment when the comic threatens to shade into something more richly erotic a la Hitchcock, when Lina says that Johnny “need not touch” her “ucipital mapilary”, but the moment is undone no sooner than it begins. Johnny blithely messes with (and messes up) Lina’s hair, and that is that.

Why would Hitchcock, for whom every scene counted, insert such ostensibly superfluous business in this film? Oh, one could argue that each moment, no matter how inconsequential, only adds yet another nuance to Johnny’s superbly insouciant amorality, that each scene goes toward heightening the layers of suspicion that surround and threaten to overwhelm Lina in the second half. And yet the gravity of the “light” episodes in Suspicion are still worth some thought. In no other picture did Hitchcock extend these as much. No other work of his, to my mind, teeters so precariously on the line between mild comedy and full-blown drama.

And, I suggest, that that is part of the very suspense generated by Suspicion. This suspense does not simply consist of us, the audience, wondering with Lina how much farther Johnny will go – whether he’ll cross the milestone from cheating at cards to mercenary seduction, from confidence-trick(st)-ing to embezzlement, from embezzlement to murder. It is also the audience wondering when the cinematic codes capturing each of those misdemeanours will shift, when a melody played by an orchestra will become a tune, whistled nonchalantly – and with a touch of menace – by a feckless young man, when a bland churchyard peopled by worthy parishioners will transform itself into a windswept hill with a couple, fiercely locked, at its summit.

Suspicion reiterates this effect constantly. In the process, it triggers off suspense even in those arenas of life that do not, on the surface, seem to merit it. Right up until Lina elopes with Johnny, suspense resides in whether Johnny will ever call Lina again, if he’ll ever write to her (remark the scene in which Lina keeps asking the postmistress if there’s a letter for her, if it has been misplaced), if he even remembers her. Suspense animates, if in a rather more humorous vein, the story Johnny will come up with to explain the disappearance of those priceless chairs that are Lina’s family heirlooms. There is an interesting and surely deliberate resemblance between this scene and an earlier one in Lina’s father’s study, when Lina and Johnny run away from the ball. When they kiss, the camera moves from their left profile all the way to their right. It doesn’t envelope the lovers completely; it merely offers us both sides of that osculatory exchange. It is the only prolonged kiss between the two in the entire film – a strange phenomenon, as Lina is passionately in love with Johnny in every sense of that word, and Hitch was certainly not one to shy away from exploring erotic obsession. But this picture doesn’t delve deep in that sphere.

There’s a point to that lone, long kiss, nonetheless. When his foolishly amiable friend Beak, goads Johnny into telling him and Lina what happened to those chairs, Johnnie is shown moving from the mantelpiece on the right in a half-sphere toward the left, behind the sofa. It is the other half of the sphere described by the camera during their kiss, its delayed counterpart, if you will. In both cases, Lina and Johnny are accompanied by a third person, even though the dramatic content of the scene involves just the two of them. (In the case of the kiss, they are constantly surveyed by the portrait of Lina’s father in full military regalia.) As Johnny moves, the audience can literally see him trying to decide whether to evade the question of the chairs altogether or whether to come up with a lie so thumpingly good as to be applauded as the truth. This is the cross Johnny bears throughout the picture – he is continuously being put on the spot as a performer. Being a good liar takes skill and patience, after all, for his story must convince.

If Johnny’s persuasive powers (including his innate charm) are constantly put to the test against Lina’s burgeoning suspicions, then Lina herself is measured against her doubts. How well does she bear up under them? What does an ever-thickening mist of suspicion literally do to a person?

In Lina’s case, one cannot help but notice that for all her inner anguish, she looks better for them. Clothes, especially female apparel, was stuff that Hitchcock took seriously. In the second half of Suspicion, Lina looks every bit the belle of the ball. Her clothes get darker (she is in mourning for her father), and her figure is more pronounced. Her evening dress when she puts together the word, “M-U-R-D-E-R-E-R”, is magnificent – simple, sophisticated, and with a very low, very elegant neck. I was tempted to ask upon my fourth or fifth viewing whether Lina deliberately made up this fantasy of a scoundrel-spouse precisely so it would enhance her attractions. It is almost as though Hitch is suggesting that suspense – living with it, responding to its shadows – can make us sexier! Not a bad campaigning point for one whose livelihood was based on it.

And speaking of sexy, what are we to make of the fact that Lina wears reading glasses? This certainly doesn’t impede Johnny from flirting with her, though she hastily tears them off when he shows up at her house. All through the narrative, when she must read a telegram, a newspaper, or a letter, Lina looks at the piece of paper, adjusts its distance somewhat, then fumbles for her glasses. The few seconds that it takes for Lina’s sense of vision to come through, clear and unobstructed, correspond to the sudden changes of register from the comic to the dramatic that punctuate the entire picture. A telegram turns out to be an entirely unexpected missive from Johnny that draws Lina out of the depths of depression into ecstatic expectancy; an innocuous newspaper sows the seeds of suspicion that Johnny murdered Beaky; a mundane letter from the insurance company convinces Lina that she will be Johnny’s next victim. The reading glasses thus become instruments signaling a series of vital changes in the narrative, never mind if some of the changes they effect are erroneous perceptions on Lina’s part.

Which brings me to the final coup of the film: the ride in the car when Lina fears that Johnny will somehow push her over the precipice. (As a friend of mine commented, the “chaser” and self-proclaimed “chase-ee” occupy the same space and the same shot here, quite cozily, even though one of them is terrified out of her wits). When it comes to these sweeping vistas – the top of the hill, the steep drop to the sea below, the winding roads – Lina doesn’t require her glasses. She isn’t called upon to read anything, though she does, insistently and maniacally. She spins her own narrative parallel to the one that is being played out, reading the various signs her life with Johnny have thrown at her. The original ending, of course, revealed that Lina’s made-up narrative coincided perfectly with the “real-life” narrative, that Johnnie was indeed a merry ladykiller. Although the ending of Suspicion as we know it today is a let-down, I’d suggest that in one (albeit feeble) way, it maintains a marvelous spring of tension: it carries Lina’s obsessive “reading” to the point where she manages, for a few moments, to force the “real life” story to coincide with the one in her head. She actually almost falls out of the car, with no help from Johnny.

What follows are the weakest moments of an otherwise quite brilliant and unexpected narrative. Can the “happy ending” be attributed to yet another twist of the plot? Can we read it as the “ever-after” for Lina and Johnny, the two basking in mutual trust and assistance for the rest of their lives? Or is this a brief hiatus that will transmute into another series of suspicions?

I prefer to believe it is the latter.

3rd 04 - 2012 | 15 comments »

Playing by Different Rules: Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray

By Marilyn Ferdinand

Through the years, Hollywood has given audiences a fair number of great acting teams. Bogey and Bacall, Tracy and Hepburn, Laurel and Hardy, Martin and Lewis are among the duos cinephiles follow, relishing each collaboration and seeking to be completists by watching all of a team’s work. This past weekend, I had the opportunity to watch three of the four films that comprise the oeuvre of a pair of actors who were not really a team, but who left their indelible mark on movie history.

Versatile actress Barbara Stanwyck, an elite among elites who won the universal admiration of costars, directors, film critics, and moviegoers alike, and lesser light Fred MacMurray, a Paramount contract actor who would go on to become one of America’s most beloved TV dads in “My Three Sons” and a Disney family film regular, put together quite a hat trick. The first film, Remember the Night (1940), directed by Mitchell Leisen, is a screwball comedy crossed with a women’s film in which Stanwyck plays a habitual thief whose vulnerability is unearthed by MacMurray’s honest and true prosecutor who aims to put her in prison. In a strange twist of . . . something, their next pairing saw Stanwyck and MacMurray create two of cinema’s most memorably rotten characters in arguably the most iconic film noir of all time, Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity (1944). Finally, Douglas Sirk’s There’s Always Tomorrow (1956) has the pair fight their longing to be together for the sake of preserving MacMurray’s marriage and family life. The progression of this pairing is a classic study in how social attitudes and directorial points of view can take the same two actors and create three very distinct films—the opposite of the predictable product audiences demand from Hollywood teams—that still remain true to the lead personalities involved.

Remember the Night is an unconventional romance whose superficial position—that people are basically good at heart and will behave decently if they are treated with kindness—is undermined by the unsettling undercurrent of economic want and the unnatural hatred of a mother for her daughter. Stanwyck’s character, Lee Leander, is about to be acquitted for a crime she committed when ace prosecutor John Sargent (MacMurray) finds a way to get the case continued until after the Christmas and New Year’s holidays. We are saved from a miscarriage of justice with this trick, but John can’t help being decent to his quarry and bails Lee out of jail. This isn’t exactly a kindness, however, as she is homeless. Her crime was an attempt to keep a roof over her head, something the prosecutor with enough money to have a live-in manservant couldn’t imagine when he made his grand gesture, despite his line of work. Finding out that Lee is from his home state of Indiana and hasn’t seen her mother in years, John offers to take her there for a visit as he drives home to see his family for the holidays.

The script, written by Preston Sturges, packs a lot of irresistible comedy into the film, including MacMurray trying to squeeze some milk from a cow into a thermos bottle. But then Leisen, whose homosexuality had given him more than a grazing acquaintance with psychoanalysis and the stigma of being a social outcast, brings Lee’s mother into the picture. A more cold-blooded portrayal of a rejecting mother is hard to imagine. The cure for Lee’s emotional pain is a big dose of rural warmth and nostalgia. It’s clear that John just wants an old-fashioned girl, and when Lee is corseted and costumed in a turn-of-the-century pinafore and enormous hair bow for a barn dance, she completes the process of revirgination and becomes a fit woman for John to love. After a talking-to from John’s mother (Beulah Bondi doing Ma Bailey again) about how John has worked too hard to get where he is to throw it away for love of Lee, Lee accepts her fate. She walks willingly to prison at the end of their Indiana idyll to keep his prosecutorial rectitude intact and return to him cleansed of her sin by accepting her punishment. Under Leisen’s direction, the sacrifices of love are given a shocking dignity, confounding a Sturges-style happy ending that resolves the plot without reforming the characters. Importantly, the women who surround John save him from himself, an interesting thread of male passivity running through the Stanwyck-MacMurray films.

Billy Wilder’s noir classic couldn’t be more different from Leisen’s in tone, nor Stanwyck and MacMurray’s characters more despicable. Wilder and his coscreenwriter Raymond Chandler created types with no past and no future—now is the only thing that matters to them. Stanwyck’s Phyllis Dietrichson isn’t in need of money or driven compulsively to crime by some hurt in her past. She’s mean, greedy, and murderous just because. But, of course, there is a strong psychological schema to the film, just as there was with Remember the Night. MacMurray’s patsy, Walter Neff, the stereotypically unctuous insurance salesman who only wanted to renew an auto policy and ended up dead, was caught in the spider’s web of his malevolent anima. Wilder ensures from our first look at Stanwyck that there’s no doubt about her intentions—wearing nothing but a towel and a knowing smile, she slips on some clothes and clicks down the long staircase to Walter, an ID anklet hugging her leg like a link in Jacob Marley’s chains.

Walter Neff isn’t just in thrall to his negative anima. Caught in a strangely close relationship with insurance investigator Barton Keyes, played by Edward G. Robinson, he is driven by an Oedipal urge to outsmart his “father” by plotting the murder of Phyllis’ husband in a way that will pay double on an accident policy he sells to Phyllis. The audience can plainly see, however, that he hasn’t a prayer of getting away with it. Neff has no real agency of his own. He’s brash enough to lay his cards on the table with Phyllis in a scene with the clipped, crackling dialogue for which this film is justly famous, and he’s got no problem killing a man even the audience can’t like. But his essential immaturity makes it impossible for him to stand for anything. Faced with a choice to go “straight down the line” with Phyllis or follow in his “father’s” footsteps, he balks at both and ends up destroying himself.

Wilder’s view of humanity is essentially jaundiced. A fugitive from Hitler’s Germany, he had seen the irrational rise up in Europe and spent the better part of his career exposing the world to its own grotesqueness. His transformation of an actor known for his nice-guy roles into a fatuous thug is as perverse as his glorification of pro-Nazi aviator Charles Lindberg in The Spirit of St. Louis (1957). Wilder, the ultimate manipulator, takes the same psychological approach to his material as Leisen did, but sends his characters over the cliff.

Stanwyck and MacMurray’s final collaboration, There’s Always Tomorrow, is a film in which women take the strongest hand against the hapless male lead, toy manufacturer Clifford Groves. Groves has been left by the side of the road, as his wife of 20 years, played by Joan Bennett, dedicates herself completely to her home and children. It seems to Cliff that he was just a means to this end, and when a former employee—childless, divorced, fashion designer Norma Vale—comes back to town and looks him up, he’s ripe for a change.

Of course, Norma loved him in vain way back when, and like many people in midlife who aren’t where they thought they would be, she looks to the past to see if she can make the road fork in a different direction. After some hesitation, she’s reconciled to being a home wrecker, that is, until Cliff’s two older children beg her to give him up—which she does in a “mother knows best” kind of way. Cliff returns to his corner, telling his wife that she knows him better than he knows himself, an unconscious victim of the Babbitty kind of conformism the 50s demanded.

Sirk delivers another one of his meaty melodramas with an underlying heart and purpose. As is the norm with women’s films, Stanwyck is front and center, and we are meant to identify with her torment over not realizing the “right” of every woman to a home and children. Indeed, Bennett voices this sentiment as she tells Cliff that she feels sorry for Norma. When Norma is shown jetting back to her independent life, her profound sorrow is difficult to watch, and yet, isn’t this film just more 50s propaganda about a woman’s place? Women, the audience for which this film was made, were being sold the party line, and the relative powerlessness of the men in these films gave women some sense of control and authority when they were being kicked back into the kitchen following their necessary duty in the wartime workforce.

Yet Sirk doesn’t let the triumphantly traditional woman off the hook that easily. Bennett’s character is so smug that she doesn’t see, can’t even imagine, that the attractive woman her husband invites into their home for dinner could possibly be a rival. Ann (Pat Crowley), the girlfriend of Cliff’s oldest son Vinnie (William Reynolds), breaks with him because he suspects his father of having an affair. It is she who is utterly naive, buying the party line of the happy family with its upstanding patriarch who can do no wrong; and again, Vinnie starts fluffing the pillows in his move-in-ready corner by giving in to Ann’s fantasy of love, and receives her condescending compliment, “long pants at last.”

In each of these films, Stanwyck is the architect of MacMurray’s plan of action. Would it be fair to say that another actress might not have brought the authority to stand at center stage and compel her leading man in so many directions, or that MacMurray’s good-guy type lacked the authority to match her blow for blow, the way Tracy could with Hepburn? Despite the very different points of view of all three of the talented directors involved, something immutably human in the art of acting puts each of their efforts in a more realistic perspective.

28th 08 - 2011 | 2 comments »

Slattery’s Hurricane (1949)

Director: André de Toth

By Marilyn Ferdinand

 A torrent of windswept rain is now smashing against our windows and outside the water is filling the streets, and the wind is intensifying, swaying power wires and trees. Miraculously we still have power, but I fear for a cessation as the eye of the storm is predicted in about four or five hours. Few if any cars are on the streets, with only police sirens heard in the distance. It’s a real sight to behold. So far the sewers are holding up. We have three leaks in the house, and have strategically placed plastic containers to gather the water. I just applied plastic packing tape on the front windows in the kitchen and living room to guard against glass splattering. Weather forecasters are saying, however, that the storm has lost a bit of its severity by staying on land, but warn against anyone letting their guard down.

Film blogger from Wonders in the Dark, frequent FonF commenter, and good friend Sam Juliano sent this dispatch from the front as Hurricane Irene has New Yorkers and New Jerseyites hunkering down for an unaccustomed bit of weather. Facebook is all abuzz with hurricane talk and FB friend Lesley Gaspar asked for suggestions of hurricane movies to watch while waiting out the storm. Slattery’s Hurricane came immediately to mind.

Slattery’s Hurricane is a noirish kind of film in plotting and casting. It establishes a self-reproachful voiceover narration by Will Slattery (Richard Widmark) as he reviews the selfish, stupid moves he made in the previous few weeks as he flies an airplane into a Category 1 hurricane. A naval airman during WWII who was busted out of the Navy for disobeying orders so that he could sink an enemy vessel, Slattery has lived for money and the moment as a private pilot for Miami “candy” (drug) distributor A.J. Milne (Walter Kingsford). Like many a great noir antihero, Slattery’s past comes back to haunt him in the form of former flame Aggie (hot-as-hell Linda Darnell), married to Will’s buddy “Hobbie” Hobson (hunky John Russell), when the old Navy pals run into each other on a Miami street and later have dinner.

Hobbie is still with the Navy, attached to their meteorology division, and he takes Will up on a mission and right into the eye of a hurricane to show Will what he does. Will returns the favor by taking Hobbie and a reluctant Aggie up in the plane he flies for Milne; his stunts, meant to impress Aggie, frighten her instead, and they head back to the Milne estate where Will is reprimanded by Milne’s nervous partner Gregory (Joe De Santis). Dolores Grieves (Veronica Lake), Milne’s secretary and Will’s girl of the moment, senses that Will and Aggie seem to know each other, but lets it go. Will doesn’t. Will and Aggie arrange to keep bumping into each other until the initially resistant Aggie responds to Will’s declaration of undying love with passion. The affair is back on.

Fortunately, De Toth’s strategy to skirt the Hays Office keeps this adulterous affair off the screen, and we are left with a very exciting “man against the elements” feature. The film is a wonder in the way it depicts what storm trackers did in the days before satellite radar could paint an accurate location for a hurricane and make landfall predictions to aid evacuation efforts—fly planes into the eye of the storm and have them send back coordinates. The sequence in which Hobbie and his crew take Will through each step of their work is fascinating, and the airplane interior shudders and creaks believably in the heavy weather; a process shot of the cloud wall of the eye is breathtaking to contemplate. Just as with Day of the Outlaw, De Toth makes great use of real locations to lend atmosphere. The tropical exteriors in Florida and the Caribbean, with their cloud-filled skies and strong breezes, lend the elemental force the film needs, and the drug-running sequences resonate with what we know about the illicit drug trade in that part of the world.

The opening sequence jumps us right into the action, as we see Will, already fighting the building wind, walk onto Milne’s estate, punch out another one of Milne’s employees when he tries to stop Will from taking the plane, and take off. Hobbie and his commander (Gary Merrill) threaten Will by radio with a courtmartial (Will has been cleared and reinstated as a reservist by the Navy and given a medal for his bravery), but the stubborn Will insists they use him for storm tracking as long as he’s up there—he wants to die doing something good. This sequence is almost a mirror of the climax of Howard Hawks’ Ceiling Zero, but audiences in 1949 were not in the mood for any downer endings after a world war, and the film suffers as a consequence.

More problematic is Will’s shift from Aggie back to Dolores at the close. Will has treated Dolores like a convenience—it’s clear that even if Aggie hadn’t come back into the picture, Dolores was little more than a placeholder. Bold for 1949, Dolores is a drug addict (“Please Mr. Milne, I’m sick, I’m very sick,” she says in a moment of upset); later, she shoots up (off camera) and ODs at the naval base when she sees Will and Aggie together after Will’s award ceremony. Will’s guilt is how the script has him discover his deeper feelings for Dolores, but I just didn’t buy it. When he says repeatedly that he never got Aggie out of his system—and when you compare the two women—there’s no question that he’s telling the truth. Aggie is gorgeous and alive, whereas Dolores is mousey and a walking shadow. De Toth and his wife Lake, who was actually addicted to drugs and alcohol, wanted to break her out of her femme fatale roles. While she is heartbreaking and shows how brave an actress she is in this film, the script doesn’t offer the kind of support needed to really change her image; she needed a complete break from noir for that. Slattery’s Hurricane was her last picture for a major studio. After one more film, an independently made Western called Stronghold (1951) and two no-budget horror films, her big-screen career was over.

Widmark gives a tour de force performance with energy to burn. We don’t need the voiceover to tell us that Will is scared, that his impulsiveness has him close to the edge. In a scene where Gregory demands what he took from Milne when the drug boss died of a heart attack on the plane, you can practically see Widmark calculate his odds if he lies to them about having the drugs. In a film shot today, we’d see a gunfight; in Slattery’s Hurricane, we see a man who knows he’s not quite smart or strong enough to rob a drug smuggler and get away with it. It’s a shame that crime has gotten so stupid in the movies today. If you look at it objectively, his guilt-driven daredevil routine is 90 percent suicide attempt, as his odds of having a successful mission are close to nil and his exposure of the drug smuggling ring might never have come had his failing radio truly gone dead. In honor of his success, the naval mission is called “Slattery’s Hurricane,” but this “hero” really never stopped being a heel.

6th 07 - 2011 | 5 comments »

Odd Man Out (1947)

Director: Carol Reed

By Marilyn Ferdinand

In life and art, the blackest of humor has always been a part of the Irish sensibility. Although the lace-curtain Irish have fought for respectability against the more anarchic elements that surface regularly from the Irish collective unconscious, their own rioting at the premiere of John M. Synge’s patricidal and immodest Playboy of the Western World shows a nature that simply won’t be denied. Odd Man Out provides another unflattering portrait of the Irish, mixed with the noble image they tend to have of themselves and their struggles. In the end, only love proves honest, if not entirely honorable.

Johnny McQueen (James Mason) is the head of an unnamed organization no one could fail to recognize as the Irish Republican Army (IRA). He has barely paused to take a breath following his release after a long stretch in prison before getting back to business, meeting with his compatriots at the Belfast home of Kathleen Sullivan (Kathleen Ryan) to plan a payroll robbery to help fund the organization. Guns are issued, and as Pat (Cyril Cusack) brandishes his buoyantly, Johnny scolds him not to be quick to use it. Johnny’s second in command, Dennis (Robert Beatty), urges him to sit out the robbery, observing that he seems shaky. Kathleen, who is in love with Johnny, agrees with Dennis, but Johnny feels that he needs to assert his command and that his rightful place is alongside those taking the risks.

Johnny and his three co-conspirators walk into the mill they plan to rob and empty the contents of the office safe into their valises. As they make their way down a hall, the alarm sounds. As the others exit and hop into the getaway car, Johnny is momentarily dazzled by the sunlight. A guard catches up with them and wrestles with Johnny, shooting him in the shoulder. Johnny draws his weapon, kills the guard, and is dragged alongside the car by two of his men as Pat speeds away. Pat takes a sharp turn, and Johnny is flung free of the car. As Pat argues with his comrades about his fears of capture if he backs the car up to rescue their fallen leader—making his argument legitimate by wasting oodles of time—Johnny staggers to his feet and disappears around a corner.

Johnny’s gang exemplifies the opposite of the discipline and loyalty that would have characterized the IRA when Johnny and Dennis were coming up. Dennis is aghast that the gang left Johnny behind, but it’s clear that Pat was only thinking of himself. Pat’s lies to Dennis about why Johnny didn’t make it back with them forces Dennis into the streets to find his comrade.

Johnny evades capture when Dennis, having located him, lures the cops away by pretending to be the injured Johnny and rather carelessly sacrificing his own freedom by punching a couple of cops on a crowded bus. Johnny gets past a roadblock in a hansom cab that the police searched earlier. The cabbie (Joseph Tomelty), astonished to see Johnny in his cab, settles him into a washtub discarded in a dump on the edge of town. There Johnny sits, ridiculous, with snow falling around him, until a ratty little man named Shell (F. J. McCormick) finds him and contemplates whether to turn him in to the police to collect the sizeable reward on his head or negotiate with Father Tom (W. G. Fay), the priest the Catholic community turns to when looking out for their own best interests.

At this point, the story veers sharply from the IRA story and transforms into a strange burlesque in which Johnny becomes almost incidental, serving merely as the catalyst by which we view the Irish character as it is constellated by a talented and varied cast. Shell favors amusing, elliptical blarney to communicate his insider information, for example, bringing one of his pet birds to Father Tom and using it to allude to his discovery of Johnny in the washtub. He goes from planning to claim the £50,000 reward to agreeing to come to terms with the priest, though it’s pretty clear that he’ll probably get nothing but a florid thank-you. Is he inept? A fool? A patriot? McCormick dances with the highly literate dialogue provided by F. L. Green, screenwriter and author of the novel on which the film is based, and transforms Shell into a Beckett character, waiting for his ship to come in, yet seeming to conspire to ensure that it won’t.

The other half of this Godot pair is the iconic mad artist, here named Lukey and played broadly by Robert Newton. Lukey lives in the same tenement as Shell and waylays him whenever possible to pose for endless hours as a model for a series of Christ paintings. When he finds out that Shell has a lead on Johnny, Lukey is overcome with the idea of being able to paint the eyes of a dying man. The machinations that get Johnny out of a private booth in the Crown Bar (shot on location in Belfast) and in front of Lukey are too absurd to detail here. The stereotypical Irish thirst for booze and brawling takes the spotlight as Johnny hallucinates the heads of people he’s spoken with during the day in the bubbles of beer spilled on his table.

The outside world is a mixed bag that Reed carefully locates with his set decoration in the various strata of Belfast society. Two women trained in first aid during the war come to Johnny’s aid, and bring him into their thoroughly bourgeois home. Their goodness won’t allow them to turn him in, but they disapprove of him and don’t want to be mixed up in his criminality. War profiteer and vice lord Maudie (Beryl Measor), on the other hand, lives in a resplendently tacky home that has its own phone booth. Maudie is a Mother Courage knock-off—not so far from Reed’s most famous character, Harry Lime—selling Pat and his comrade out to protect her interests with the police. In this sense, what goes around comes around for the selfish and stupid Pat.

You couldn’t ask for a better-looking, more atmospheric film than Odd Man Out. Many noirish elements, including deep shadows, nighttime exteriors, shooting down stairwells, skewed camera angles, cages, and bars mark Johnny as a trapped animal. During Johnny’s fevered meanderings through Belfast, director Carol Reed treats us to frightening and absurd hallucinations, like the aforementioned, surreal “bubble heads,” but more poignantly, Johnny’s hallucination of his jailor as he hides in the air raid shelter and imagines it is his cell. We come to understand Johnny better from his imaginary conversation with this jailor than in many of the real-world interactions he has.

James Mason emphasizes his character’s weakness, not strength, his foolishness, not his resolve. Johnny’s self-defeating pride, his wavering commitment to armed resistance to achieve a united Ireland while failing to take his own advice to Pat, his offhandedness about Kathleen’s love, and his relative passivity as he’s passed around like a hot potato by wary locals make him less a Christlike figure than a pawn, an idea.

But it’s not that he doesn’t have a prayer—in fact, Kathleen intends to escort him to Father Tom while they wait for a boat that will take them to freedom. Of course, the symbolism of the boat signals death (one is reminded of James Mason on another boat—a cursed ship in Pandora and the Flying Dutchman), and Kathleen provides an angel’s love to escort him beyond life to a place where she can protect him for all eternity. Kathleen seems to be the moral center of this film because of the purity of her love that seems very motherly (is she chaste as well?), but the life of the guard Johnny killed means nothing to her in the grand scheme of her devotion.

Most of the characters in this film seem quite childish. In an early scene, a group of children are playing soccer in the street when their ball lands at the feet of a grown man. Instead of passing it back to them, he kicks it as hard as he can in the opposite direction—a nice device that eventually will lead to Dennis’ discovery of Johnny, but also a needlessly mean and infantile reaction from the man. Late in the film, Johnny quotes a famous line he learned from Father Tom: “When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.” Ironically, Johnny’s pangs of adult conscience and an awareness of mature feelings for Kathleen are only awakened when he is at his most helpless and dependent—in the last hours of his life, after he learned he had killed a man. Odd Man Out is an Irish tragedy indeed.

29th 06 - 2011 | 3 comments »

Kenneth Anger: Films from the Magic Lantern Cycle, 1947-1981

Fireworks (1947) / Puce Moment (1949) / Rabbit’s Moon (1950) / Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome (1954) / Scorpio Rising (1964) / Kustom Kar Kommandos (1965) / Invocation of My Demon Brother (1969) / Lucifer Rising (1971-81)

By Roderick Heath

The first context in which I ever heard of Kenneth Anger was probably the same as most people, if they know him at all: as the author of the two Hollywood Babylon books that digest the gossip Anger heard growing up in the fringes of the film world, to expose the mythology and seamy underbelly of Old Hollywood. But Anger’s true metier was making a steady stream of experimental, surrealistic movies, commencing in his teens in the early 1940s, struggling through the ’50s, and finally finding an audience in the adventurous-minded ’60s. When Anger screened his breakthrough work Scorpio Rising (1964), it was the subject of much litigation. But it proved a potent inspiration for young filmmakers and brought Anger a squad of famous fans and collaborators in the counterculture era. Anger, assertively homosexual when it was far from kosher and willing to tackle the matter in his films through allusive, but unmistakable terms, counts as one of the inventors of modern queer aesthetics, as well as a vital contributor to cinema culture in general. Anger’s films represent different levels of realised ambition. With their often perverse, always striking cavalcades of associate images, Anger’s films come across as, and were certainly designed to be, broadcasts from the outer precincts of American society and the modern psyche, looking back to an unattainable pagan past and detecting the codified ways in which primal instincts infuse and distort the contemporary world.

Anger, born Kenneth William Anglemyer in 1927, began his involvement with cinema as a child, so his own personal legend has it, appearing (so he says) as one of the nymphs in Max Reinhardt and William Dieterle’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1935), a film that had an effect on Anger’s later cinematic style and interests. He started making films as a kid, but considered his career to have started with Who Has Been Rocking My Dreamboat (1941), featuring several touches, like sped-up footage and dubbed-over pop music, that would become signature traits.

His first really defining work is considered to be Fireworks (1947), a striking homoerotic parable that reveals the depths of Anger’s early debts to Luis Buñuel, to whom he pays explicit tribute by recreating his cigarette-smoking pose in Un Chien Andalou (1929), and to Jean Cocteau, from whom he borrowed an interest in totems and transformations. But there’s also a violently, vividly original aspect to Fireworks, which commences with a single young man (Anger) lolling in his room, fingering a photograph of himself being carried by a hulking sailor, with a sculpture of a hand with smashed fingers sitting on his table. Phallic jokes recur: at one point, the young man seems to have an erection under his sheet, but he brushes away the cloth and finds to his disappointment it’s just a statuette; later the sailor unbuttons his fly to reveal a sparking rocket. The young man ventures out into the night, obviously hoping for a pick-up, but instead he encounters a formidable gang of sailors, including the sailor from the photo, armed with rude weapons found on the street.

Anger cleverly obfuscates exactly what happens to his hero except for impressions of something dreadfully violent yet also searingly erotic, in offering visions of his twisted, assaulted body from obtuse angles in a visually brutal experience. His eye are gouged, his upside-down mouth yaws wide in screams; white fluid, which many have thought to be metaphorical semen, pouring on his body, and, most incredibly, a hand holding a broken bottle neck, grazing the shattered edge over his belly, before Anger cuts to hideous shot of flesh being peeled open by determined hands, only to find a wavering compass within the carrion. The images are charged with carnal viciousness, but also metaphorically communicate the discovery of inner nature through acts on the body both pleasurable and aggressive. The young man, seemingly torn to pieces, is then returned to his room, with the sailor from the photo appearing amusingly with a tacky Christmas tree on his head and a candle on a stick that sets fire to the young man’s masturbatory collection of photos: the Christ myth reinterpreted as heroic gay romance mediated by chintzy, five-and-dime-store religious paraphernalia. The final image of the two men lying together and the fingers returned to the statue is an emblem of phallic restoration. Coming from the time it does, Fireworks pulses not just with obvious gay interest, but also a psychic awareness of a strange new age—the compass within the flesh has a science-fiction quality to it in its fusion of man and machine, as well as body-horror, and the bleak, otherworldly visions of the outside world have a post-apocalyptic aspect. If it’s one of Anger’s most easily decoded works, it’s also one that possesses eerie, transformative, memorable power. It also got Anger prosecuted for the first time, but the Supreme Court of California finally judged the film to be art.

Anger spent most of his young life in Los Angeles, surrounded by movie industry people, listening to the gossip of the city’s gay community and communing with the ghosts of the already distant days of the great silent stars and the ideals of glamour that had fostered the city’s prosperity. And yet that age had been suppressed in a welter of shame for its outsized, amoral grandiosity, in pointed contrast to the grubby, castrated contemporary scene Anger had tried to portray in Fireworks. Whilst Anger gained the material for Hollywood Babylon from this background, he also absorbed something more mutable, an evanescent mystique he tried to articulate in a film he never finished. The film intended to capture the ghosts of the departed inhabitants of the colossal movie mansions littering Hollywood (Billy Wilder would, of course, get around to his more literal treatment of this subject in 1951’s Sunset Blvd.). Anger did, however, complete one scene, which he finally turned into the short Puce Moment. As it stands, it’s a study in trying on nostalgic glamour, as a vampy young flapper sorts through her dresses and lounges amidst fragments of upscale bohemian décor, in seething shadows and colour that imbue the images with a flavour in slight tension with the stylization. One part animated ’20s Vogue photo spread, one part hazy nostalgia dream, this fillip sees Anger embracing a familiar camp-informed fondness for celebrating the apparel of haute couture femininity, albeit charged with a sense of mystery altogether rarer.

Anger left the U.S. in 1950, moving to Paris, to live with some blacklisted friends, partly at the behest of Jean Cocteau, who liked Fireworks. Anger repeatedly began and had to abandon films in the ’50s, including one that was supposed to be a fantasia on the life of the occultist and pansexual deviant Cardinal d’Este, of which, again, only one scene was completed, later shown as Eaux d’Artifice. Another unfinished project, which eventually the saw the light as Rabbit’s Moon, retold a Japanese myth of a man who falls in love with the moon, where a magical rabbit lives, and was enacted by members of the Commedia del’Arte, André Soubeyran, Nadine Valence, and Claude Revenant in the traditional guises of Pierrot, Pierrette, and Harlequin. Harlequin distracts Pierrot from his pure worship of the moon, to which he repeatedly stretches his arms, pulsating in repetitious shots with secretive energy, by dangling Pierrette before him. But Harlequin then snatches her away, leaving Pierrot to be ministered to by two nymphs (shades of A Midsummer Night’s Dream) with the consolations of music and a mirror, and then is pointed to the path to join his rabbit love. In the last image, the rabbit sits in the midst of the forest, and Pierrot plummets to the earth, having presumably tried, and failed, to climb to the moon. Puce Moment and Rabbit’s Moon form fragments of colourful, but frustrating and opaque ambition from Anger.

Anger had begun to cordon off his own area in the avant garde, however, in his fascination with cultural detritus and iconography—a form of fetishism which, both overt and subtle, throbs beneath such retro imagery. He struggled through the ’50s and early ’60s to make more movies, with only one inarguably completed, signal film to show for it: Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome. This film was inspired by a party given by some friends for which the theme was “come as your madness.” Anger, impressed with the results, decided to make a movie of the event transformed into a mystical spectacle. Here Anger expanded upon another interest important to his art: his life-long fascination with Aleister Crowley and pagan religion, especially Crowley’s personal creed, Thelema. (Anger subsequently made a documentary film with his friend Alfred Kinsey that looked into Crowley’s Abbey of Thélème in Palermo.) Built around the theme of a celebratory pageant in a lustrous palace from Coleridge’s “Kublai Khan,” Pleasure Dome depicts a number of pagan gods gathering together in the palace of a multitudinous titan, alternately garbed as Shiva, Osiris, and Nero, initially glimpsed swallowing jewels,and played by former silent film actor and dancer Samson De Brier. His guests include a pantheon of fascinating counterculture figures. The writer Anaïs Nin appears as Astarte, wearing a bird cage around her face. Anger’s friend and fellow pioneer in alternative cinema, Curtis Harrington, plays a servant based on Cesare from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919). Margaret Cameron, the wife of a Crowley acolyte who would later play the mysterious Greek witch in Harrington’s Night Tide (1961), appears as Kali, rendered as a fiery-crowned über-femme. Pan turns up, accepting the gift of fire Kali gives him so that she can light her cigarette from his palm, before he conjures Aphrodite (Joan Whitney) from the flames.

As with many of Anger’s, images in the film seem wrung out of some collective unconscious, and also strike like the dark inverse of ’50s religious and historical epics with all their themes turned inside out, celebrating victorious, fertile paganism and anarchic antimoralism. Anger wildly superimposes the gods’ faces against cabalistic emblems, including the Eye of Horus, a constantly recurring motif in Anger’s later films, as is shots from silent movies, here with visions of Babylonian worship and calamity out of an Italian peplum film from 1911: glimpses of the god as Osiris, with Isis (Katy Kadell) suppliant before him, clearly evoke a silent film style with sepia tint, make-up, and gesture-acting. It’s all scored to Leos Janacek’s “Gagliotic Mass.” Characters, religions, genders all merge into each other, masks within masks revealed, but the film has a faintly visible narrative, as a beautiful young man amongst the guests is clawed by an orgiastic crowd like Orpheus assaulted by the Bacchantes. This sacrifice to the perpetuation of natural rhythms and archaic ritual also evokes the assault in Fireworks, as the imagery proliferates in an ecstatic fury. The whole thing, on one level, is a camp tribute to a kind of vanished heyday of high-society decadence, as well as the ambition of Crowley to turn Judeo-Christian European society’s mores and myth-history inside out. Anger perhaps succeeds better with images than any cant could accomplish: his pictures tear the fabric of reality, religion, mythology, sexuality, and character to pieces, and then glue them back together in any form he sees fit. In doing so, Anger created one of the founding documents of psychedelic and camp aesthetics.

Anger struggled for quite a few years after this, writing Hollywood Babylon and publishing it in France chiefly to raise funds, and attempting to shoot a film version of Pauline Reage’s The Story of O. But it wasn’t until he made Scorpio Rising that he made a proper comeback. He moved away from the historic artifice of his ‘50s works to explore a more contemporary fetish, celebrating the paraphernalia of motorcyclists, overlaid with pop music. In doing so, Anger discovered aspects of popular culture that practically no one else had recognised before, discerning the latent fetishism and delirious eroticism in the music, the homoeroticism in the macho excess of the leather-clad motorcyclists—the gone-wrong sons of the queer-bashing sailors of Fireworks. Divided into several acts, Scorpio Rising commences with languorous sequences of young men obsessively repairing, tending, and reconstructing motorcycles, the mechanisms of the machines explicitly defined as love objects by the songs playing. One young cyclist lounges in bed reading comics before finally, indolently, piecing together his biker uniform and venturing out into the night. By now familiar Anger motifs recur, but in a newly confrontational style, as wayside denizens, bohemian effuse, and gay corsairs congregate to party whilst his iconic biker Scorpio (Bruce Byron) is conflated with Jesus, glimpsed in excerpts from an old silent film, and Hitler, waving a Nazi flag like a barbarian priest summoning armies of the night to orgy and rampage.

Anger described the film as “Thanatos in chrome, black leather, and bursting jeans,” his letter bomb to contemporary American culture. Amongst other things, the film perhaps proved Anger the most original and intelligent user of associative montage since Eisenstein, synthesising a series of connections between religion, sex, subcultural obsession, mechanics, and politics. Anger’s unfinished, ill-fated follow-up, Kustom Kar Kommandos, indicates with its title his ongoing thesis. A capped, cigarette-smoking, blonde-haired death’s head winks at the audience repeatedly in Scorpio Rising, evoking old VD posters as well as medieval folk-myth, having pushed the sex-death association to a limit. His method of reconstructing inanimate objects as eroticised things through careful lighting and dreamy photography segues into shots of bared chests fringed by leather, signalling Anger’s developing refusal to approach gay imagery so obliquely, leading to swiftly glimpsed sadomasochistic abuse, like a whip-scarred ass and a man being held down, again evoking Fireworks, with fluid being poured on his buttocks. The sexuality and fury of Scorpio Rising is encoded in its structure, rising from the languorous sensuality and indulgent observations of the early scenes into a hyperkinetic montage driving towards a deadly pile-up, with the red revolving lamp of an ambulance the inevitable last image.

Scorpio Rising courted controversy, and got it in spades, finally being banned by an all-female jury. The ban was later overturned, and Anger became a counterculture hero. He started hanging out with famous freaks like Mick Jagger and Marianne Faithfull, who would both make substantial contributions to two of his most important later works, Jagger composing a score for Invocation of My Demon Brother and Faithfull appearing in Lucifer Rising. Much the same as Anger’s early works had looked back with some nostalgia to an earlier period of subcultural revolt associated with Crowley, so, too, his own films are fascinating records in image and idea of another era. Anger’s adoption by the age he helped to create, ironically, brought him into close contact with some of the forces he’d been attacking in his films.

With Invocation of My Demon Brother, he returned to familiar structural motifs, commencing as he had done with Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome and would again in Lucifer Rising, with a figure who seems to possess powers of magic or, at least, prophetic talent awakening. In this case it’s a white-haired man with a demonic aspect, looking about a room full of naked male houris and conjuring visions where they grapple, conjoin, meld into beasts of many backs. Freaky youths smoke a joint from a skull-shaped holder, and Anger himself plays a ranting priest of Thelema waving the Nazi flag and stalking around his psychedelic temple performing rites, as footage of U.S. soldiers in Vietnam swerves into the burning of a dead black cat in a funeral, footage of Satanic Church founder Anton LaVey, and, as a kind of grace note, hippies performing a gentler rite that concludes with a charred figure holding a sign that reads: “Zap – you’re pregnant – that’s witchcraft.” That closing message literalises the sensibility that runs through Anger’s films, the inextricability in his eyes of mysticism from corporeal sensation and the cycles of creation and death. Bodies writhe with symbols projected on them, including a swastika seemingly reclaimed for its original mystical roots.

As such, the final few moments of Invocation suggest an antistrophe from the malefic swirl of much of the film, the most frenetic and evil-feeling of Anger’s works, with its bolder homoeroticism shading into a portrait of a world of disintegrating substance. Anger had tapped into something dark within the period that would be acted out by a true-life, ranting, Nazi-flag-idolising priest of destruction, Charles Manson. And, indeed, one man who appears in the film, Bobby Beausoleil, went on to be convicted and now sits in prison, as one of Manson’s clan of killers. Anger had chosen Beausoleil a few years earlier to appear in his project Lucifer Rising, but by the time of Invocation, which was culled from footage originally intended for the Lucifer Rising project, Beausoleil and Anger had ceased to be friends. Beausoleil instead drifted close to Manson and killed Gary Hinman for Manson. Such a tragic, disturbing subsequent chain of events solidifies the impression of Invocation being Anger’s most acutely tuned reportage from the cultural fringe. Eventually, in spite of Beausoleil’s incarceration, Anger made peace with him. He commissioned Beausoleil to write the impressive score for Lucifer Rising, which Anger pieced together over the next few years, after tossing out a score written by Jimmy Page, who appears in the film briefly, after a row.

Fittingly, Lucifer Rising, in spite of its name, betrays creativity on Anger’s part that’s generally more positive-feeling, more spiritually searching, if no more literal or free of menace. Beausoleil later reported that Anger’s idea was indeed to construct an antithesis to the death-worship of Scorpio Rising. Anger even builds a visual joke out of that contrast, countering how Scorpio Rising’s title was spelt out as metal sequins on a leather jacket, with “Lucifer Rising” appearing as colourful letters on the back of Lucifer’s robe. A Von Danikenesque idea caps off the film that links Anger’s primal, mythical figures with glowing flying saucers. But the film commences with shots of volcanic lava and protoplasmic creation, before a bare-breasted Isis (Myriam Gibril) overseas the birth and growth of crocodiles and salutes the arrival of Osiris (filmmaker Donald Cammell) at the Temple of Karnak, the pair stirring up storms. This is the pair whose “Aeons” are supposed to have passed, according to Thelemic lore, and they’re waiting for the time of Horus. Meanwhile, Lucifer (Leslie Huggins), whom Anger had insisted be played by a young rebellious type, awakens in a mysterious palace, seats himself upon a throne, and claims a blood sacrifice, spearing from on high a young woman. Drenched in blood, he has to bathe. Faithfull appears as a woman, identified as Lilith, the rebellious female demon from Kabbalah lore, who rises from a hollowed, stone resting place by the light of the moon and travels to perform invocations to her male counterpart, Lucifer, in front of the Sphinx and pyramids. Seemingly rejuvenated, or possibly in an earlier time, she follows the path of torch-carrying worshippers to the Externsteine in Germany, naturally-formed stone pillars that have long been a site of pagan and then Christian religious rituals. Lilith seems to penetrate the magic abode of Lucifer.

Here the images lose all intelligibility as magi seem to congregate, and visions zip past with urgency and threat. Swooping tracking shots describe mysterious vignettes, like people with covered faces shuffling cards, Page reading an ancient tablet and regarding a photo of Crowley, and images of slow-motion explosion evoking the finale of Zabriskie Point (1970) in celebrating disintegration fantasy. Anger reappears ostensibly as the same Magus appearing in Invocation of My Demon Brother, performing rites in showers of sparks and stirring the seas to rise. Lucifer concocts apocalyptic magic and gets a birthday cake. Lilith seems anguished by having smashed a table, cries into a blood-stained scarf, and crushes a dried flower she seems to have meant to present to Lucifer. But they’re reunited at Karnak, and this time, a living lotus passes on to Isis, as she and Osiris watch spaceships arrive. In spite of the arcane symbolism and trippy pseudo-myth, it’s hard to escape the feeling that Anger was making films about the act of creativity itself, his whirling incantations resembling the feverish labour that must have gone into these films. In any event, they form awesome, ludicrous, brilliant sprawls of imagery. Anger’s DNA flows like an underground river through much contemporary American cinema, including the films of John Waters, Martin Scorsese, David Lynch, and Gus Van Sant, and virtually every pseudo-surreal music-video director, like Tarsem Singh, from the late ’80s on.

31st 05 - 2011 | 10 comments »

They Were Expendable (1945)

Director: John Ford

By Marilyn Ferdinand

Memorial Day tends to bring out the tennis elbow in everyone. Flags are waved especially hard as though to fan away the stench of death the day represents. Once you’ve seen, as I have, a graveyard as endless as the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial at Omaha Beach, Memorial Day loses its heroic luster.

Nonetheless, war does make a certain kind of hero out of ordinary men and women—the kind who recognize their common humanity with people they don’t know and do what they can to act with compassion in the face of insanity. They Were Expendable is a war movie that takes viewers into the experience of war, but not to satisfy a need for vicarious thrills or glory. If anything, They Were Expendable shows us just how little we understand of the experience of those living and working in combat zones, how ideals and ambition often get lost in just trying to see the next day, and how confusing and uncertain the outcomes of battles and entire wars themselves really are. John Ford, an eminently humanist filmmaker, handles an enormous cast and confusing story that takes place over a large geographic area just about as well as any director who ever lived. That he resented doing this picture because it pulled him off active military service during World War II never upstages the emotional truth in the film.

Naval Lt. John “Brick” Brickley (Robert Montgomery) commands a small fleet of patrol torpedo (PT) boats—swift craft that launch torpedoes off their decks—at Manila Bay in the Philippines. Brick believes strongly in the value of the boats because they can intercept large destroyers and aircraft carriers with greater speed and lower risk that larger naval vessels. He parades his boats in front of Navy brass, who commend him on their maneuverability but think they are too slight for warfare. After this disappointment, his second in command, Lt. “Rusty” Ryan (John Wayne), decides that PT boats are not the ticket to furthering his naval career, and sits at the bar of the officers club writing to request a transfer while the rest of the Clark Field personnel enjoy dinner and dancing. An announcement comes in that the Japanese have attacked Pearl Harbor and that all military personnel are to report to their posts immediately. Rusty crumples up his letter and heads to the harbor to await instructions.

Reflecting the prevailing attitude about the boats, one is assigned to patrol the harbor on a fixed schedule and one is made available to carry messages among the various island command posts. However, when enemy aircraft that are spotted in three deadly perfect V formations, the PT boats move into action. The gunners bring down three planes, lose one boat, and return to a base that has been completely pulverized. Little about the rest of the film proceeds in an orderly fashion. The boats and their crews move from base to base, engage enemy ships and airplanes, get bombed, lost, and beached, break down, get fixed up, and lose crew members to death and reassignment to army battalions badly outmanned by the Japanese.

War films rely heavily on action sequences, and They Were Expendable has its share, though far fewer than might have been expected. Footage of real PT boats firing their torpedoes and the missiles moving underwater is edited in with accurate continuity with the action Ford films with a sure hand. Unfortunately, heavy reliance on process shots, staged explosions that look staged, and stunt planes that don’t quite crash before a burst of flames issues from behind some palm trees mar the realism. However, the model ships the PT boats take out are seen far in the distance, which helps reestablish the illusion of reality.

It is in the less demonstrative scenes that reveal character where They Were Expendable excels brilliantly. For example, when the grumbling PT crews find out the alert they thought was a drill is the real thing, they scramble out the door, including “Squarehead” Larson (Harry Tenbrook), the cook, who hurriedly takes his pot of soup off the stove and throws a towel over the biscuit dough he was mixing. When the PT boats are assigned to take Gen. Douglas MacArthur to a protected airfield to be transported to Australia, one of the crewmen asks for his autograph, much to Rusty’s disgust. Ford also cast several teenagers as the kids who decided to make the Navy a career. I can’t remember ever seeing a war film in which combatants this young are part of the action, and where they are allowed to be scared.

Then there is nurse Sandy Davyss (Donna Reed), the only woman with a speaking part in the film. She is shown working on assembly-line surgery to care for 200 casualties from Bataan. Her face is subdued with concentration and repressed horror at what she is seeing; indeed, her entire performance is filled with the cares of the world, even her flirtatious scenes with Wayne, who meets her when he enters her infirmary suffering from blood poisoning. When she and Rusty say good-bye when he calls her to tell her he is shipping out, the conversation they know might be their last is plain-spoken: they had a “swell time,” and “it was nice,” and then two generals commandeer their phone line abruptly, and that’s that. There is no reunion at the end of the film; Sandy, stationed on Bataan when it fell to the Japanese, could be in hiding, dead, captured—nobody knows or will know. And when Rusty and his small band of surviving crew members go into a bar after burying two of their men and hear about the fall of Bataan from a San Francisco-based radio announcer, the looks on their faces say, “What am I doing here? How did I get from my sane, normal life to this hot, dirty place halfway around a world in flames?” And they are enlisted men, not draftees!

The film is helped enormously by Ford’s experiences making documentaries for the Navy during World War II. His familiarity with the rhythms and details of daily life for combatants and support personnel helps make a bit of sense out of the chaos; yet, he doesn’t hesitate to leave viewers in the dark about all the details. I watched this film twice in two days, thinking I’d get a better handle on the movements of the PT crews around the Philippine islands. I didn’t. When one missing crew show up after a long period, I had no idea where they had been, what island any of them were on, or how the lucky black cat that adopted the crew survived the loss of the boat. A comment Brick makes during horse trading for torpedoes about who played Tess in Tess of the D’Urbervilles in 1932, and “Does your crew know?” went over my head until I caught the crucial words “at the naval academy” during my second viewing. This scene hints at the secrets known between servicemen and women and how supplies and equipment moved outside of official channels through just such forms of blackmail.

Robert Montgomery brings a matter-of-factness to his role, again aided by his having served on a PT boat. He grits his teeth and follows orders, even when they mean leaving what’s left of his crew behind when he and Rusty are ordered to fly to Australia to strategize ways to find a larger role for PT boats in the war. And what of those men? We’ve been treated to highly inappropriate patriotic music throughout the film—the studio and the Navy intended the film to be a morale booster—including the playing of “Shenandoah” (?) as a civilian nicknamed Dad (Russell Simpson) who repairs boats prepares to stand his ground against the Japanese. We get more uplifting heroics from the crummy score, but Ford knows better. The men limp down a beach as the sun sets. Where are they going? What will they do? They’ve been abandoned like everyone else on the island, and while they fought their fear heroically and tried to do their job, they’ll probably die far from the home they seem to be fighting for.

15th 05 - 2011 | 6 comments »

Went the Day Well? (1942)

Director: Alberto Cavalcanti

By Roderick Heath

World War II is rightly regarded as a renaissance period for British cinema. A rare mixture of necessity, duty, urgency, and cramped invention stimulated British filmmakers like Michael Powell, Carol Reed, David Lean, Humphrey Jennings, Anthony Asquith, and many others to create ambitious, dramatic, and relevant cinema with a new sense of purpose. Long virtually forgotten, Alberto Cavalcanti’s Went the Day Well? was a film I had only heard trumpeted by the English critic Leslie Halliwell before it recently made Time Out magazine’s list of the 100 best British films of all time. It well deserves disinterment and admiration. Cavalcanti, a Brazilian-born director with leftist allegiances, had made experimental and avant-garde films in France in the 1920s, and then moved to Britain to work on documentaries with the famous film unit run by John Grierson. He graduated to making features, including the excellent Nicholas Nickelby (1948), which can stand up with Lean’s concurrent Dickens adaptations, and the two best chapters in the otherwise overrated Dead of Night (1945), before his wandering and his politics saw him edge off the mainstream map again.

Went the Day Well?, based on a short story by Graham Greene, is very much a product of the wartime atmosphere, portraying the potential for grit and resistance in the average English community in the face of intimidation and violence. Yet in a way, it’s also timeless, a perfect blueprint not only for something suspiciously similar like John Sturges’ The Eagle Has Landed (1977), but also for any action thriller where everyday people take on invading villains, with echoes through Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs (1971) to Red Dawn (1984) to Die Hard (1988) and beyond. Went the Day Well? (the title comes from an epitaph by John Maxwell Edmonds) also shares some characteristics with some other good British movies of the period, like Asquith’s We Dive at Dawn (1942) and Reed’s The Way Ahead (1944), by depicting utterly ordinary people suddenly elevated into heroic roles by dint of necessity. Cavalcanti’s film is, however, a speculative fiction about the enemy coming right to the doorstep. The atmosphere he presents in the small, pacific village of Bramley End is very similar to what Powell and Pressburger captured for their A Canterbury Tale (1944), but whereas the latent communal strength of the latter film’s locale was chiefly spiritual, here it’s very literal.

The film commences with an interesting hook: using a first-person camera, Cavalcanti enters and explores the town, and comes upon church warder Charles Sims (Mervyn Johns) at what’s supposed to be some time after the war. Sims addresses the camera as if it’s an interested tourist, points out a gravestone marked with German names, and commences to tell the “famous” story behind them. Flashback to some time during the war, as a detachment of soldiers arrives in Bramley End, seemingly an ordinary group of sappers looking to ready the defences of the village in case of invasion. But they are, in fact, a force of Germans chosen because they speak English and can pass amongst them, some better than others, including their commander, “Major Hammond” (Basil Sydney), really Kommandant Orlter, and “Lt. Maxwell,” actually Jung (David Farrar).

The opening scenes carefully, but seemingly casually, lay out the persons and personas of the villagers as the strangers come into their midst: Hefty, cheery, local post office manager and telephone exchange operator Mr. Collins (Muriel George) and her shopgirl Daisy (Patricia Hayes); young sailor Tom Sturry (Frank Lawton) and his bride-to-be Peggy (Elizabeth Allan), a member of the Land Army along with Ivy Dawking (Thora Hird), charged with delivering milk in the locality; and hale, bossy lady of the local manor, Mrs. Fraser (Marie Lohr), who gets miffed when she finds out the local vicar, Ashton (C.V. France), and his spinster daughter Nora (Valerie Taylor) have beaten her to the trump of billeting the detachment’s CO. Nora has a secret crush on Oliver Wilsford (Leslie Banks), the commander of the local Home Guard, who liaises between the soldiers and the townsfolk, and, with his fellow Home Guard officer Harry Drew (Ellis Irving) from the next village of Upton, shows them the layout of the town’s defences. Of the town’s troupe of evacuee children, George Truscott (Harry Fowler) is the most accomplished scamp, having made friends with Bill Purvis (Edward Rigby), the accomplished local poacher. These characters and many others all have a part to play in the oncoming battle.

Signs of the hidden beastliness of the strangers are discernible, as when a glowering radio operator, catching George fiddling with his equipment, grabs him by the ears and wrenches them, and when one gets confused over landmarks in Manchester, where he says he comes from. But no one quite notices until Collins loses a telegram she’s supposed to deliver to Mrs. Fraser and finds the soldiers have been using it to score their card game on; when Mrs. Collins gets it to Mrs. Fraser, Nora recognises the soldiers’ numbers are written in the continental style. Later, when George nosily pokes through Hammond’s belongings, he finds a bar of Viennese chocolate. Nora, alarmed, goes to tell Wilsford, not knowing that he’s the agent guiding the invaders.

The unassuming realism and homey portraits of the village life, intriguingly tweaked by the social changes necessitated by war are, of course, necessary to ground such a drama—the general absence of young men and the women taking their place in keeping the gears of the society turning; the Home Guard warriors taking time out from doing their delivery rounds; the blurring of class boundaries in the collective effort. Went the Day Well? was produced by Michael Balcon for Ealing Studios, the company that went on to make the canonical series of low-key comedies, and Went the Day Well? feels almost like a rough draft for those, that is, if the cast of The Titfield Thunderbolt or Whiskey Galore! were abruptly tossed into Saving Private Ryan. The screenplay, by Angus MacPhail, makes their interactions and quirks familiar and charming without being too forced and stereotyped; indeed, the film takes some delight in undermining the stereotypical roles which the people, especially Nora, seem faintly, uncomfortably aware of inhabiting, or generating a shock when they suddenly behave in fashions contrary to that character. True to Cavalcanti’s socially progressive bent, he’s interested not just in the need to defend a settled order, but also in the transformative capacities and secret strength of ordinary people working together. There’s none of the subtlety to the Germans that there is in Powell and Pressburger’s not-dissimilar The 49th Parallel (1941), apart from Jung and the decision to kill children. But really they’re the great unknowable Other; they could be aliens.

Whilst there’s a lot of patriotic sentiment in the characters and their reasons for taking a stand, it’s subdued to a terse, survivalist necessity, as the English respond to intrusion and bullying with a feral force beyond imagining. The film also has a real claim to being, amongst other things, a true early feminist work in context, as the ladies of the village get stuck in to warfare, murder, and espionage with grit and competence. For contemporary filmmakers who congratulate themselves for sticking a gun in a chick’s hand and calling it empowerment, here’s someone who did it long before you. When Nora’s keen attention provokes Wilsford, it precipitates the Germans showing their hand earlier than they planned, waiting as they are for a general invasion. The locals are rounded up into the village hall, where the gloves come off. Vicar Ashton, appalled and refusing to obey Orlter, tries to ring the church bell—the signal to the Home Guard of parachutists—and gets a bullet in the back.

Having to keep their presence secret for two more days until the invasion starts, the Germans allow some of the townsfolk to go about their business under supervision, and they begin a tragicomic campaign of trying to get word to the people who pass through the village. Peggy and Ivy paint messages on the bottom of eggs they give to a young newspaper boy. Mrs. Fraser tries to sneak a note into the overcoat of her chirpy chanteuse sister who passes through on the way to a performance: she finishes up using the paper to jam her rattling car-door window. The evacuee kids are rounded up and kept in Mrs. Fraser’s manor, but George sneaks out and makes contact with Purvis, who is only convinced of the veracity of George’s story when a few bullets smack into a tree by his head. As is often a theme in these sorts of dramas, the traits of the characters which seem oddball and individual, from young George’s scampering, to Purvis’s asocial knowledge of all the secret paths through the woods, to Mrs. Fraser’s proprietorial sensibility towards the town and Nora’s repressed, heightened awareness, become weapons in the war.

The really startling quality of Went the Day Well? is in the potency and pointedness of its violence; whilst, in deference to the censorship of the time, there’s little actual gore on screen, the viciousness of what does happen is certainly not as aseptic as it often was in lesser war films, and indeed still packs a wallop, as the bodies piles up,and likeable characters are killed off with unsentimental rapidity. The Germans ambush the local Home Guard, blasting them off their bicycles and shooting the wounded in the back with revolvers. In a simply amazing moment, Mrs. Collins, treating the German charged with keeping an eye on her and the exchange to a meal, abruptly tosses a pot of pepper in his face and then wallops him in the face with a hatchet. Desperately trying to contact the exchange in the next town, she’s ignored by the gossiping girls there, and before they answer her, another German arrives and bayonets her. Purvis dies in a hail of bullets trying to cover George’s escape after taking out a German with his shotgun, and even the kid catches a bullet in the leg and squirms away in the mud. Mrs. Fraser, to stop the other evacuee kids being killed by a hand grenade, snatches it up and dives through a doorway; she’s blown to pieces, but saves the children. Ivy and Peggy, wielding arms with aplomb, propose keeping score of the Germans they shoot. The film possesses a kind of heady emotional heft under the stiff upper lip resolve, building to a head most brilliantly when Nora, knowing that Wilsford is a traitor, a fact he’s managed to keep hidden and to undermine the actions of the others, calmly takes a loaded revolver from the arsenal Tom has assembled, marches downstairs through the manor, and fills the villain with lead.

It’s not just amazing this stuff got by the British censors, who were notoriously fusty (they banned all horror films for the length of the war), but fascinating how much the film revels in the dreaded, apocalyptic spectacle of warfare erupting in England and consuming its populace. The film is both reassuring in the sense that it aimed to depict a scenario in which the difficulty in conquering Britain would be in the individualistic determination of its citizens, and also deeply disturbing in suggesting the way violence lingered so omnipresent in the age that its actual eruption might have been considered a relief. On at least one level, it’s almost less an entertainment than a training film, Cavalcanti emphasises the physical effort the English characters have to muster to overcome their humanist instinct, but also the determination they display once engaged, as displayed by Mrs. Collins as she fights a sobbing fit after killing the German, but resolute to make the vital telephone call that will bring rescue. The evolution of Nora, who seems at first a kind of Celia Johnson-esque sufferer, into a punitive assassin, both plays on and subverts that image of resilient formality, racking up the payment for a betrayal on both the personal and political levels. This hits a hysterical note that resounds elsewhere, most literally when Daisy momentarily gives in to a fit of blind frenzy after seeing Tom and his father (Norman Pierce) kill two Germans in front of her. There are more than hints of the expressive avant-gardist Cavalcanti had been in the bristling scenes of explosive violence and the portrayals of emotion and action clashing fiercely. It’s apparent on a tactile level in the suddenly rupturing of placid, almost bland shots in the character interactions and the quietly revelatory, documentary-like explications of the village geography, with sudden, intense displays of furious cutting, ultra-close-ups of pain-distorted faces and thrashing limbs, and swooping motion in and out of the frame.

There’s humour to alleviate the ferocity, particularly in the reaction of the children, who seem less fazed by invasion than the adults, and the excruciatingly chirpy song “Cherry Ripe” is as amusingly employed here as in Night of the Demon (1957), sung by Mrs. Fraser’s sister as she obliviously trundles to and from the captive town. The excellent cast works in harmony throughout; it’s amusing to note that Lawton and Allan, playing partners here, had played mother and son in George Cukor’s David Copperfield (1935). Tension ratchets up to impressive degrees in the finale as the villagers are forced into action when, after an escape attempt, Jung announces the occupiers will shoot five children in the morning for punishment. That proves a real mistake, as a core guard of the Sturrys, Ivy, Peggy, Sims, and some others manage to overpower and outwit their guards and fortify the manor house. The Germans planned to use that house themselves, necessitating an assault on the manor as real British soldiers close in, precipitating a battle to the death. Nora’s killing of the traitor in their midst as he tries to open up the house to the Germans only temporarily keeps the enemy from literally invading the living room, and the heroes, anticipating perhaps their children in If… (1968), rain death upon their enemies to the last bullet. It’s an exhilarating and hair-raising end to a masterpiece of its kind, but it also proves that an inspiring film can be alarming as well.

1st 05 - 2011 | 9 comments »

Captain from Castile (1947)

Director: Henry King

By Roderick Heath

Henry King was a director who evolved with movies from the silent era to sound and then the threshold of Hollywood’s first great decline. As with many luminaries of that heyday of studio filmmaking, his last few films, including neutered adaptations of Hemingway and Fitzgerald, were a flat end to a good career. Nevertheless, King made some of the best, most substantial Hollywood films of the 1940s, including The Song of Bernadette (1942), A Bell for Adano (1945), and his masterpiece Twelve O’Clock High (1949), movies in which he mustered a spacious, sober, humanistic intensity worthy of William Wyler and George Stevens. He benefited especially from collaborating with 20th Century Fox titan Darryl F. Zanuck, taking the hefty, detailed productions Zanuck could set in motion and turning them into excellent cinema. Captain from Castile stands apart in that run of good films for being an attempt to revive, in a rigorous, grown-up fashion befitting the more muscular, realistic postwar mood, the period melodrama and the swashbuckler, genres that had lost traction during WWII. The film is also worth attention for being just about the only English-language film of note to deal with one of history’s most pivotal incidents: the conquest of Mexico by Hernando Cortez. Sporting an unusually strong lead performance by Tyrone Power, it’s a minor gem of high Hollywood’s Technicolor filmmaking.

Power plays Pedro De Vargas, a privileged, but decent young caballero in 16th century Spain who, when out riding one day, meets his oily neighbour De Silva (John Sutton), a bigwig in the local Inquisition (or, as it’s inaccurately called here, the “Santa Hermandad,” the Spanish rural police of the time). A slave of De Silva’s, whom he was trying to force to convert to Christianity, has escaped, and Pedro decides to help, utilising his superior hunting skills to track the slave. He finds, however, that the slave is Coatl (Jay Silverheels), a kidnapped Aztec prince he knows and likes, and instead of handing him, over gives him money to help him make his escape. Power also helps a young woman, Catana Perez (Jean Peters, making her film debut as a last-minute replacement for Linda Darnell), who is harassed by some of De Silva’s goons. Pedro takes her back to the tavern where she works, and meets Juan Garcia (Lee J. Cobb), a recently returned colonial who’s grown rich in Cuba and is now seeking to extricate his mother from the clutches of the Inquisition. Pedro himself falls foul of the Inquisition, as De Silva, infuriated at Pedro’s interference with business, has the entire De Vargas family arrested, including his respected former soldier father (Antonio Moreno) and his 12-year-old sister (Dolly Arriaga). De Silva has the girl tortured, and she dies, earning De Silva one of film history’s most memorably lethal stares from Power.

Luckily, in his plan to get his mother out, Garcia has bought a job as a turnkey in the local prison; Garcia’s mother has died before she was scheduled to be burnt at the stake, so he helps the De Vargas clan escape instead. Just before the appointed hour for the breakout, De Silva comes to demand a confession from Pedro in his cell, but Pedro’s been smuggled a sword by Cobb. After a speedy duel, he delivers a mighty comeuppance: he fools De Silva into renouncing God before running him through. A thunderous horseback chase follows as the family and their helpmates, including Catana, who’s smitten with Pedro, flee across country. Forced to separate into two groups, with the others heading to Italy, Pedro, Garcia, and Catana make it to a seaside port. They decide to sail to Cuba, and join up with the expedition Cortez is planning. Once signed on with Cortez (Cesar Romero), Pedro encounters the expedition’s appointed priest, Father Romero (Thomas Gomez), and confesses what he did to De Silva. Romero gives him the penance of having to pray for De Silva’s soul, and tears up the arrest warrant sent out by the Inquisition. But as Cortez’s expedition penetrates the Mexican interior and wars with the natives, Pedro gets a shock when De Silva turns up. Having recovered from his sword wound, he’s been sent as an emissary to make peace between the Spanish authorities and Cortez and set up a branch of the Inquisition in the New World.

Captain from Castile was based on a noble doorstop of a bestseller by Samuel Shellabarger. It shares aspects with other films based on such popular tomes, like Mervyn LeRoy’s Anthony Adverse (1936) and Otto Preminger’s Forever Amber (1947: in fact, Linda Darnell jumped ship to star in that), in straining to include the huge, incident-packed sweep of that brand of florid pulp. This attempt results in some narrative diffuseness, sheering off the novel’s last act in favour of an interesting in medias res conclusion depicting Cortez and his by now multinational, conglomerate army of followers marching on the island capital of Tenochtitlan. Captain from Castile was, of course, made some 20 years before the revisionist strand of cinematic history gained traction, and the historical events here are painted in the legendary, rhetorically triumphant terms classic Hollywood was fond of. Nonetheless, the film doesn’t mince many words about Cortez’s motives as a greedy adventurer and presents an interesting portrait of the man, played with wit as well as bravado by Romero. Cortez is offered as something of an historical used car salesman in cavalier’s clothing, using a beaming demeanour and professional veneer to conceal his awareness of how far out on a limb he is. He bluffs both his Spanish masters and the Aztecs as he convinces his men with the argument not to accept the bribes of gold the natives offer when the whole caboodle can be gained. His most memorable scene comes when threatened with the wrath of the Aztec gods by a prince, he has a canon pound an idol, and asks whose wrath the prince thinks could be worse.

Real incidents of Cortez’s adventure are woven with some finesse into the narrative, and the film’s opening scrawl proudly announces that it was shot in many of the real locations through which Cortez moved. Cortez’s lover and translator, La Malinche or Malina (Estela Inda), the slave who is often depicted as both mother of Mexican culture (and one of Cortez’s sons), and also the model of the phrase “Malinchista,” akin to Quisling or Benedict Arnold to denote a disloyal Mexican, is glimpsed as an exotically dressed, Pocahontas-like icon of cultural bridging. In one of the film’s more cunning, colourful incidents, Pedro is assigned to watch over some treasure, handed over to the Spanish, stowed in the peak of a pyramid. That structure proves, in a pure Indiana Jones moment, to be riddled with secret passages through which some of Cortez’s rebellious men manage to make off with the treasure whilst Pedro’s distracted by a drunk and violent Garcia. Told by Cortez to find the treasure or be hung, Pedro tracks the thieves on board one of the expedition’s ships. After recapturing the loot, undoing the rebels, and being gravely injured in the process, Pedro is promoted to captain, hence the title, and this is also the cause of Cortez deciding to burn his fleet rather than risk a repeat.

As Cortez’s army drives deeper inland, Pedro has to hole up in the village of Cholulu with the advance guard whilst Cortez doubles back to fight a battle. The town becomes a kind of frontier not just of empire, but also of the spirit and history, as Pedro encounters Coatl again, restored to his homeland and rank, who pointedly asks Pedro why he’s invading Mexico and what value the religious polarisation the white man is bringing has. Whilst the battle Pedro and Coatl have with De Silva is arch melodrama, it also prefigures a theme about the first severing point of the Old World from its certainties. Paracutin, the famous volcano which grew out of a farmer’s field, was still in eruption at the time of the film’s production, and King made sure to make use of this extraordinary example of nature as art director, including its plumes of smoke in as many shots as possible. Towards the end, as Cortez musters military might, Father Romero brings together a congregation of Spaniards and Aztecs in front of the rough-hewn crucifix he’s set up, delivering a sermon that serves as an institution of a New World religion, whilst in the background volcanic smoke imbues the frame with an apocalyptic lustre. It’s a moment that manages to be spiritually engaging whilst avoiding piety, as well as framed and visualised with the keenness of a Renaissance painting. The variegation repeats in the very last shot of Tenochtitlan bathed in streams of golden sunlight like the promised land itself at the end of DeMille’s The Ten Commandments (1956) but also with the heavy cloud looming, as if the whole world’s on a tipping point between the great and the tragic.

Whilst it encompasses themes of substance, then, Captain from Castile is still 90 percent rollicking tall tale in the straightforward, old-school mould. King, however, avoids action except for the central set-piece escape from prison; he’s really more interested in atmosphere, and in the intense ambient emotion that hovers about Pedro and his rage at De Silva, a rage that’s easily empathetic thanks to Sutton’s terrifically arrogant performance. It’s interesting that the usual revenge plot, which has easily identifiable echoes in modern movies like Gladiator (2000), is essentially ditched less than halfway through. What develops when De Silva turns up in the New World is decidedly off-beat, as Pedro struggles to contain his hate and obey Romero’s prescription. In an early scene, when Pedro visits Luisa De Carvajal (Barbara Lawrence), his lady fair, it’s in a garden that’s a swooning feast of blossoms, an image that is an encapsulation of a romantic, chivalric past the film begins immediately and steadily to deconstruct, laying bare class and religious injustice as central to the way the Old World works. Luisa’s father, a marquis, (George Zucco) is a supposed friend of Pedro’s father, but won’t aid them when the Inquisition comes knocking and promptly marries Luisa to De Silva once Pedro’s out of the picture. Once in the New World, romance blossoms between Pedro and Catana, who’s anxious that her low-class status can never erase Luisa in his heart, and gets the expedition’s surgeon and astrologer Botello (Alan Mowbray at his most dissolute) to sell her a love charm. After she and Pedro dance in the inevitable flamenco scene, with both actors scorchingly sexy, Pedro suddenly erupts in fiery passion for her and Luisa freaks out, afraid she’s bought his love unfairly. Peters is surprisingly deft in her debut performance, long before Howard Hughes ruined her.

There are interesting undercurrents, too, in Cobb’s role as Garcia, who warns Pedro early in the film that he turns murderous when he’s drunk and so stays clear of the booze. When the treasure thieves get him liquored up, Garcia’s ranting makes it clear that the cause of his madness is his rage at the Inquisition, and when De Silva turns up, it’s revealed that Garcia actually strangled his mother in the prison to save her from a hideous death. “We talk of gold, but maybe we mean something else,” Garcia states vaguely, pointing to the film’s underlying theme. In the end, someone strangles De Silva in his tent after he’s had a heated exchange with Pedro, who is immediately arrested and sentenced to be hung. The killer is actually Coatl, eking out some revenge of his own, and he confesses to the murder in time to save Pedro. But as Cortez enters to tell Pedro of his good fortune, Catana, who has been waiting with Pedro and thinking Cortez has come to perform the execution, stabs Pedro in the chest to save him from the ignominious death. I thought that would have been a brilliant end, but it’s quickly revealed that Pedro’s not mortally wounded, and when he recovers, the expedition continues on to its destined end. That last-minute hesitation from ironic tragedy underlines the film’s failure in the end to work up enough narrative confidence and originality to make it build the mythical drive of the greatest screen adventure-melodramas.

The screenplay, written by Lamar Trotti, who also produced under Zanuck’s aegis, is spotted with some gilded clichés, including variations on “It’s too quiet!” and “I wish the drums would stop!”, and the finale is a bit rushed in detail—what happens to Coatl is oddly left by the wayside. But Captain from Castile is thoroughly worthwhile for anyone who likes their adventure high, villains villainous, history dubious, and heroes hot. It’s also a must for Technicolor fetishists, thanks to the work of DPs Arthur E. Arling and Charles G. Clarke, who render locations in the cinematic equivalent of illuminated manuscript.

31st 03 - 2011 | 4 comments »

Railroaded! (1947)

Director: Anthony Mann

By Marilyn Ferdinand

There are often great pleasures in the programmatic films churned out by Hollywood’s independent film studios. Like Roger Corman’s productions, many of these movies gave future cinematic titans experience and chances to experiment. Such a film is Railroaded!, a fairly routine crime drama made by Poverty Row’s Producers Releasing Corporation that flirts with being a full-blown film noir thanks to the edgy direction of Anthony Mann and his cinematographer Guy Roe and the obsessive performances of John Ireland and Jane Randolph.

We start in noir country—a nightscape of a city street lined with bright theatre marquees. The camera moves down the street and swoops down to a close-up of a shop window advertising “Clara Calhoun: Your House of Beauty.” The door opens to Clara herself (Jane Randolph) ushering a happy patron with a new coif out with hopes that she gets home safely. The remark was meant to flatter the patron, but it has portends of a tragedy soon to befall the shop.

Clara runs an illegal bookie operation in the back room of her shop. After she closes up, she and her assistant Marie (Peggy Converse) start counting the take. Marie goes to the front of the shop to lock up, and Clara opens and closes the back door three times to signal two men in a laundry truck. They enter the shop to steal the gambling money. At the same time, a policeman patrolling the street hears Marie scream and shoots into the shop. He hits one of the robbers, but is killed by the other. The two men flee, with the unharmed man, Duke Martin (John Ireland), abandoning the truck and his badly injured partner, Cowie Kowalski (Keefe Brasselle), in front of a doctor’s office. Clara and Duke, lovers and conspirators, bemoan their bad luck but begin their campaign to frame the owner of the truck, Steve Ryan (Ed Kelly), as the gunman who killed the cop.

The film has a fairly standard plot that moves through Steve’s arrest by Det. Mickey Ferguson (Hugh Beaumont), Ferguson’s growing suspicion that Steve is innocent, and his progress at uncovering and apprehending the real murderer and making time with Steve’s beautiful sister Rosie (Sheila Ryan). Among the complications are Rosie’s independent attempt to find the killer, which causes her to cozy up to Martin; Martin’s growing paranoia about anyone who could tie him to the murder and his greed for the money his employer, Jackland Ainsworth (Roy Gordon), makes off the entire bookmaking operation. The final showdown between Martin and Ferguson, with Rosie as the damsel in distress, plays just as expected, as does the closing clinch between Ferguson and Rosie.

It is the bizarre and atmospheric elements in this film that make it more of a standout than its filmic brethren. The robbery has some lurid, adrenaline-inducing moments that raise it above its unpromising beginning. Martin, wearing a Navy scarf belonging to Steve, pushes Marie into the beauty salon, where he intends to rob the cash register as Cowie bags the money from the book operation. A hand rattling door knobs proves to be the unlucky cop, O’Hara, who we soon see in full approaching the salon. His shadow plays against the window, warning Martin and causing him to raise his shotgun and walk toward Marie, warning her not to scream. Mann directs the camera to look straight up the gun barrel, cutting to close-ups of Marie as she backs away and does exactly—and inevitably—what she is told not to do. The menace of the scene almost had me doing the same.

Another crazy, erotic scene occurs when Rosie goes to Clara’s apartment and confronts her, sure she lied when she identified Steve as the killer. Martin is in the apartment, but hides behind some curtains. Accusations and tempers start to fly, and soon we find ourselves in an extended cat fight, with the two women shaking and hitting each other, falling over couches, knocking over lamps, and eventually landing on the floor for the obligatory hair pulling. Martin, like we, watch this fight with a voyeuristic excitement. Rosie eventually stands up and leaves, having gotten denials from Clara, but also the location where Marie has gotten a new job. Clara’s revelation of this information and Martin’s awakened sexual interest in Rosie will cause him to turn on Clara and have her seeking solace in booze.

Ireland and Randolph easily walk away with this film. Ireland plays a psychotic killer and abuser of women with an ingratiating hardness that is fascinating to watch. We just know he’s going to kill everyone he can! Randolph is just as hard and cynical at the beginning of the film; she projects an insolent toughness, and her set-up of the robbery is carefully calibrated. She can’t be shaken from her identification of Steve as the killer, but Martin’s changed attitude toward her turns her into a desperate neurotic who knows she’s suddenly become expendable. Clara goes to a nearby shop to phone Ferguson and take him up on his offer of protection, but Martin has spotted her and crept up on her on the sly. While she stands in the phone booth, too nervous to notice Martin has cracked it slightly to listen in, the cuts between their faces ramp up the tension. The pathos of Clara looking behind her as she walks home to meet Ferguson is rather touching, since Martin is already waiting for her there and certainly intends to kill her.

By contrast, Sheila Ryan seems like a high school girl trying to act tough, and, well, Hugh Beaumont was born to play Ward Cleaver, not a romantic and rugged cop in a proto-noir. They have no chemistry and nothing interesting to say. Check out this dialogue, symptomatic of most of the script:

Criminologist: You know, there are only two kinds of animals that make war on their own kind – rats and men… and men are supposed to be able to think.

Mickey Ferguson: I think you’ve got something there, Doc.

Zzzzzz. And dig those crazy shoulder pads—they fairly mesmerized me with their outrageous awfulness.

I was quite taken, however, with several actors in small roles. Kelly has a great face, and his character is no pushover. He protests his innocence, but expresses cynicism about the wheels of justice. It was good to see a suspect with some balls. Ainsworth’s girlfriend Wilma, unfortunately uncredited, quite reminded me of Claire Trevor. She sits in smug obedience to her keeper in the first scene in which she appears; in the second, however, she’s full of insolence and insults toward the man. In another scene with an interesting walk-on, Martin has agreed to pay a wino to take the fall for the robbery, getting Steve off the hook. The wino, also uncredited, repeats by rote the story he is supposed to tell the police, as though the thought of having money to buy as much alcohol as he wants brought his mind into focus. Neither of these characters has a real role to play in the plot, but as in most great B-films, and especially noir, these small touches add atmosphere that pays big dividends.

In this film, although the police want to get someone to pay for killing one of their own, they expressly state that they don’t want to convict an innocent man. Despite the noirish lighting and truly bizarre set pieces, the lines of good and evil are far too carefully drawn to make this a true noir. In a few years, noir would blossom fully, and cops would be as rotten as robbers. In the meantime, however, Railroaded! provides a crucial and entertaining link in the development of a future noir master, Anthony Mann.

23rd 03 - 2011 | 7 comments »

Ivan the Terrible, Parts I & II (Ivan Groznyy, 1944; Ivan Groznyy: Skaz vtoroy – Boyarskiy zagovor, 1958)

Directors: Sergei Eisenstein, M. Filimonova

By Roderick Heath

The creation myth for Sergei Eisenstein’s final work is as vast in scale and resonance as any epic movie. Like most other Soviet filmmakers, Eisenstein was forced to flee east during the German invasion and near-capture of Moscow during World War II. Away from the capital, Eisenstein, whose relationship with the state and Stalin had gone through many rollercoaster switchbacks, had been ostracised when his initially successful Alexander Nevsky (1938) had been embarrassedly put away following the Non-Aggression Pact with Nazi Germany, and then rehabilitated after Operation Barbarossa. Eisenstein struck upon the idea of making a film about one of classical Russia’s most controversial figures: Tsar Ivan IV, the self-declared first “Tsar of All Russia,” whose nickname “Groznyy” (usually translated as “Terrible”) encompassed the awe-inspiring and fearsome figure he remained in the Russian memory. Stalin himself made no secret of his admiration and emulation of the man, and this helped Eisenstein get the project off the ground. The result was another of many fiascos that plagued Eisenstein: the second part of the proposed trilogy was shelved and left unseen for more than a decade, well after Eisenstein had died at only 50 years of age. Eisenstein’s film, whether deliberately or not, commences as an expressionist panegyric to ruthlessly strong leadership and curdles steadily into an hysterically gothic, insidious portrait of power corrupting. Ivan’s reign of blood, enforced by his cabal of loyal bodyguards, the Oprichniki, bore too potent a resemblance to Stalin’s purges and the horrors wreaked by the NKVD.

The actual film moves beyond the dead-ahead narrative simplicity of Alexander Nevsky, whilst pushing Eisenstein’s interest in stylising his cinema to the point where it started to resemble Wagner’s ideal of the “total work of art,” encompassing not only drama and visual artistry, but also music and a quality akin to dance, mime, and opera in the acting styles. During his stay in Mexico, Eisenstein’s friends Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo had encouraged him to regard his movies as “moving frescoes,” a phrase which describes much of Ivan the Terrible perfectly.

The first film commences with young Grand Prince of Muscovy Ivan being crowned with splendid pomp as the Tsar of the new super-state and declaring his nation as the third and enduring Rome. Ivan’s openly announced plan is to break the power of the aristocratic boyars, whose in-fighting and factional cynicism he blames not only for the deaths of his parents, but for keeping Russia from achieving unity against its enemies. His young fiancée Anastasia Romonova (Lyudmila Tselikovskaya) comes from a family that seems to be behind him, but Ivan’s friends are still few. At his wedding feast, one of Ivan’s friends, Prince Andrei Kurbsky (Mikhail Nazvanov) still tries to woo Anastasia, his former flame, and another, Fyodor Kolychev (Andrei Abrikosov), announces he’s going to avoid the inevitable power struggle by becoming a monk. The feast is interrupted by infuriated common folk, led by hulking Aleksei Basmanov (Amvrosi Buchma) and the chained, seer-like Nikolai (Vsevolod Pudovkin), who threaten to kill Ivan if he doesn’t follow through on his promise to break the boyars. To everyone’s surprise Ivan blesses Basmanov and repeats his vow.

Ivan faces many formidable opponents, but the most formidable is his own aunt, the fiendishly glowering boyarina Efrosinia Staritskaya (Serafima Birman), who wants to place her own simpleton son Vladimir (Pavel Kadochnikov) on the throne. Even neighbouring Kazan Khanate declares war on him, but Ivan, with Kurbsky as his general, musters a great military force and conquers Kazan instead. The potential power of a united Russia is confirmed, but Ivan falls ill while returning from the war, and the boyars, with Staritskaya leading, refuse to swear allegiance to Ivan’s infant son. Only Kurbsky emerges from this smelling like a rose, because while trying yet again to seduce Anastasia, he hears of Ivan’s recovery and so makes the pledge to the young prince. This pleases Ivan, who sends him off to war in the west against the Polish and Livonians, who are conspiring to stifle Russia’s trade with England. But Kurbsky, after losing a battle, goes over to the enemy, and Staritskaya sets out to assassinate Anastasia because her attachment to Ivan keeps her relatives in check. She tricks Ivan into letting her drink from a poisoned cup. After Anastasia dies, Ivan is convinced by his chief henchman Malyuta (Mikhail Zharov), Aleksei Basmanov, and Alexei’s son Fyodor (Mikhail Kuznetsov) to confederate a force of commoner supporters who will become totally loyal to him. Ivan does so, creating the Oprichnina, and then leaves Moscow for a small town to wait for the people to demand his return.

Eisenstein had moved a long way from Socialist Realism, as well as the mostly efficient, but rather stagy style then dominant in most western national cinemas. His work here is a constant flow of synergistic illustrations in which the actors are as angular and bristling as the set details and props. Eisenstein never meant, of course, for Ivan the Terrible to be his final, summary work, but that’s what it became, and it’s interesting that the film stands at a nexus, filled with allusions not only to the historical past, but also to cinematic past. It references silent film expressionism, particularly Paul Leni’s Waxworks (1924, the last episode of which was a similar fantasia on Ivan), and Josef von Sternberg’s The Scarlet Empress (1934) throughout in the sheer organic tangle of the historical Russia on display. The amusing casting of Pudovkin, one of Eisenstein’s greatest colleagues/rivals of the silent era, adds to this impression. Yet it’s also a forward-looking work, newly sophisticated in the blending of Eisenstein’s belief in a symphonic, constantly flowing imagism and the techniques of sound cinema. Where Alexander Nevsky needed its Prokofiev score much more than it needed dialogue, here the anti-realistic dramatic exchanges are nonetheless important. The next generation of Russian directors like Andrei Tarkovsky and Sergei Paradjanov would build upon Ivan the Terrible’s precepts for constructing a totally immersive kind of cinema.

Eisenstein had become interested in kabuki theatre when visiting Japan in the late ’20s, and that experience bore fruit here in the intense, highly formalised gesturing and precisely choreographed movements and expressions of the acting. Such an element is easy to mischaracterise: within these theoretically stifling parameters the actors are still good, and Cherkasov pulls off the difficult demands made on his performance with fixity of purpose in uniting disparate and original approaches to filmic drama, particularly as his Ivan deepens from self-righteous crusader to sardonic, mocking ogre. But it’s also a long way from traditional realism. The architecture throughout the film’s elaborate set design subordinates humans to the caprices of space or the lack of it, like the many low doors that require the actors to bow to get through, and the Escher-like, criss-crossing stairwells and passages where nothing is either truly private or expansively free. Ivan the Terrible takes the historical remoteness and Byzantine atmosphere of dread and deceit as licence to paint the setting as a primal and psychologically manifest expression of a corrupt and dangerous world.

Initially, however, Eisenstein’s film enshrines a vision of Ivan that is idealised and idolising, and geopolitical resonances are easily and aptly mined. Ivan, first glimpsed as a fresh, energetic man in his prime who declares he’s going to take on the world and win with a young man’s self-conviction, is feted as a hero standing up for his nation and his subjects against entrenched aristocratic interests. He declares his plans whilst still in the cathedral, to the shock and outrage of both the boyars and the church, to tax everyone, maintain a standing army, and secure domestic control over seaports and trade routes currently controlled by other nations. Foreign envoys watch and peevishly predict his failure in his reforms and mock his pretensions to being Tsar of all Russia, except for a bespectacled Pole who notes, “If he’s strong enough, all will agree.”

Ivan is painted as the man willing to do anything to ensure the unity of his nation as the only way it can stand up to the invasions of other countries. This point is proven quickly when the envoys from Kazan come to declare war on Muscovy, and the delegate gives Ivan the gift of a knife with which to commit honourable suicide. Ivan instead reacts with exultation at the challenge, eager to prove the potency of his new super-state. When the band of furious common folk, led by Nikolai, invade the palace wanting to clobber boyar heads, Ivan comes to meet them and promises them that criminals trying to stir up panic by falsifying bad omens in the populace will be caught and executed, a promise that impresses them. “We will crush sedition, eliminate the treason!” Ivan declares in repeated variations, and even on the battlefield he’s being warned against the potential treachery of boyars, seeming to justify Stalin’s paranoid purges of the Red Army. A subplot invokes Ivan’s efforts to trade with England, sending envoys to tell the English to send their ships into the White Sea to Archangelsk, both a true historical detail and a neat echo of the convoy supply route between Britain and Russia still running when the first film was released. Ivan’s retreat from Moscow and subsequent restoration resemble that flight from Moscow by Stalin, Eisenstein, and the government when the Nazis reached the city’s suburbs.

Gold coins poured on Ivan at his coronation prove to be the first line of a narrative rhyme, for later, dishes are filled with coins by soldiers marching to war with Kazan, to be collected after battle to accurately count the dead: such is the precise totemic reflection of Ivan’s power over the people and theirs over him. The subsequent siege sees Kurbsky stringing up Mongol prisoners on the Russian barricades, the arrows fired by their brethren in the city killing the pinioned captives, before the sapping under the city results in a colossal mine blowing a hole in the fortifying wall. When Ivan falls ill after capturing Kazan, he begs the boyar grandees to swear allegiance to his son while sprawled weak and disoriented on the floor and pleading with physically helpless. but emotionally powerful despair. Their stone-faced gloating makes clear just how much he’s alienated them; Ivan’s determination leaves him increasingly isolated and lacking people he can trust, losing first Kurbsky, and then his wife, a lack he sets out to correct by forming the Oprichnina.

Ivan even begs Fyodor Kolychev to return to civic life and take over as Metropolitan of Moscow, but even he proves more an enemy than friend, as he lets his boyar relatives talk him into trying to curb Ivan’s power with his religious authority. When Kolychev tries this, Ivan ruefully declares, “From now on, I shall be exactly what you call me—terrible!” The general tone of the film is increasingly dark and twisted, played out quite literally in the acting styles, in the perpetual glower of Staritskaya and Ivan’s hawkish, increasingly gargoyle-like appearance, his swooping, bowing, and hunched-over stances. Yet there is still humour in the film, particularly in Eisenstein’s wittily framed, visual puns and dense, Brueghel-esque shots. Ivan’s European coronation guests, reacting in outrage to his plans, have great, frilled collars that fill the screen and seem to interlock, a wall of impressive, yet easily demolished starched cloth. The King of Poland’s court possesses a chessboard floor upon which the knights and bishops and pawns pose. At Ivan and Anastasia’s wedding, the camera peers directly down the length of the table as the guests strike their cups together over the rows of identical candelabra. Mulyata, to unnerve the boyars, stalks about the palace literally peeling his eye to remind all and sundry that he’s always on the lookout.

Interestingly, however, whilst the first part is generally regarded as the best, I found it merely a cheque that Eisenstein wrote and then cashed with the second part. Part II – The Boyar Conspiracy sees the rush of pageant-like, sprawling historical detail give way to only a relative few, almost operatic key scenes, and the flat, declarative, dramatic pitch of the first part likewise resolves into something more subtle and emotionally penetrating. I suspect the Ivan the Terrible diptych had a large influence on how Francis Coppola conceptualised the first two The Godfather films for the screen, for those gangster films follow a similar arc in setting up Michael Corleone as a self-justifying antihero, and then slowly revising the portrait into that of a craven, self-deluding monster. The second episode alters the meaning of the film considerably, as the characters and their different viewpoints become more substantial, and Ivan alters from posturing hero to sardonic, mean-spirited tyrant. The boyars likewise cease to be a mere implacable mass of impediments: the moral quandary of Kolychev is given credence as he tries to curb Ivan’s power and save lives. When the two clash in church before an audience of boyars, a piece of religious theatre plays out with children acting out a parable about the King of Babylon who would have executed three Israelites if not for an angel’s intervention, a part Kolychev is called on to play; the parable is pointed enough to make children watching realise Ivan is the wicked king. There’s a tacit acknowledgement here of the power of smuggled messages in drama that hints why the film’s portrayal of Ivan is being revised. Small wonder Stalin was so furious at Eisenstein the second time around.

In Part II, Ivan is still mourning Anastasia’s death, and, realising that she was poisoned and that Staritskaya was almost certainly responsible, faces a crisis that violates one of his few remaining ideals, the untouchable nature of the royal family. Similarly, he gives Kolychev permission to retain power over him in condemning people for the sake of retaining at least one nominal friendship, but this decision provokes another crisis: Ivan can’t be seen to be accountable. Instead, he lets the Basmanovs and Malyuta talk him into letting the Oprichniki off the leash. They scour the royal palace, drag out the boyars who had resisted paying his war tax or otherwise interfered with their plans, and slice their heads off. As this is happening, Ivan contorts in conscientious anxiety, but when he comes out and sees the dead bodies, he bows to them, crosses himself, and declares, “Not nearly enough!” Meanwhile the boyarina’s attachment to her dimwit son, whose high cheekbones and large eyes make him look more than a little like a cross-dressing Marlene Dietrich, is portrayed as blending peculiar, discomforting impulses. One supposes initially that Staritskaya wants to put her son forward as Tsar because she can control him easily, but it also proves to be because she worships her twit of a lad. She cradles him comfortingly and sings a lullaby about a beaver being killed to provide him with clothing for his coronation, a display of maternal care that’s more than a little perverse and disquieting, least of all in how power, violence, and child-rearing have become inextricable in her psyche.

The portraits of a Vladimir as a man who can’t really grow up and a mother who’s all-controlling counterpoint a long flashback in which Ivan recounts to Kolychev his own childhood: he saw his mother die from poison and grew up surrounded by boyars who manipulated him and ran the state for him, until he finally rebelled and confirmed his own power by having a bullying minister dragged away. This tale lends psychologically deterministic weight to the portrait of Ivan, and also elucidates how his idealism is tempered by a constant, vengeful hatred that all too easily leaks out to infect his entire political life.

With Anastasia dead, he essentially marries his bodyguards. This peculiar relationship culminates in the film’s greatest scene (shot in colour), a bizarre, florid, homoerotic banquet sequence during which the Oprichniki dance in drunken hysterics, led by Fyodor Basmanov clad in drag, and sing a childish song about chopping off heads. Here, Sergei Prokofiev’s score cuts loose in dizzying, raucous strains as the Oprichniki stamp feet and clap hands in rows and fling themselves about in breathtakingly energetic kazatchok moves. It’s clear that Ivan has created a kind of morbidly erotic cult in his followers. When Vladimir drunkenly warns Ivan about an assassination attempt awaiting him when he leaves the banquet to attend to morning prayers, Ivan, instead of being grateful, mockingly dresses his guileless cousin in his own royal vestments, and then sends him out in his place to be stabbed to death by the lurking assassin. Staritskaya rushes out to crow over what she imagines is her defeated foe’s body, only for Ivan to strut out unharmed. The boyarina gathers up her son’s body and starts singing the same lullaby to him. Ivan won’t touch her, and even has the malicious gall to free the assassin, for he has “killed our greatest enemy.” He’s Ivan the Terrible, and he’s also a real stinker.

16th 01 - 2011 | 12 comments »

Criss Cross (1949)

Director: Robert Siodmak

By Marilyn Ferdinand

This past Friday, the hubby and I had the great good fortune of being welcomed as guests of the “Czar of Noir” Eddie Muller to a screening of Robert Siodmak’s ripping film noir Criss Cross, shown as a part of the Winter Nights series of noir and neo-noir films at the Indianapolis Museum of Art. After a blessedly snow-free drive south and a quick run through some of the museum—including a not-so-quick examination of their special exhibit on photojournalist WeeGee—we joined a packed crowd in the comfortable Toby theatre to listen to native Californian Eddie’s amazement that so many people would come out on a (not very) cold night to listen to him and see Criss Cross.

He needn’t have been surprised. The habits of cold-weather dwellers aside, both he and Criss Cross did not disappoint. Eddie talked about the noir style, influenced by the German diaspora to Hollywood that included director Siodmak; the discovery by the French of these uncharacteristically downbeat American films of the 1940s and ’50s that had not been exported during the war years; and the contributions to Criss Cross of William Bowers, the witty, often uncredited writer every producer in Hollywood wanted to “touch” their scripts made for an interesting introduction to the film. A lively and lengthy Q&A session held after the film revealed even more of interest, including what a huge star the now nearly forgotten Dan Duryea was, how the protagonist in the source book was described as ugly—a far cry from the matinee-idol looks of Burt Lancaster—and (never fear) a plug for the For the Love of Film (Noir) blogathon prompted when Eddie started talking about the restoration of films for the big screen.

Of course, the main event was the film itself. Boasting a cast that includes not only Lancaster and Duryea, but also Yvonne De Carlo and the unmistakable character actor Percy Helton, a score by Miklós Rózsa, and the primal rhythms of the Esy Morales Latin band, Criss Cross has everything a cinephile could want and more. The film opens with a aerial shot that swoops down on a nightclub parking lot, where a couple in full embrace are caught in the headlights of a car. The woman, Anna (De Carlo), promises the man, Steve Thompson (Lancaster), that when it’s all over, they will be together forever, the way it was always meant to be. Anna moves into the club, where the heart-quickening music of Morales and his band entertains a stuffed room of dancers and drinkers moving in choreographed chaos across the smoke-filled dance floor. Anna is questioned by her suspicious husband, a criminal named Slim Dundee (Duryea), and accompanies him into a back room where his gang is throwing a going-away party for the couple, who are moving from Los Angeles to Detroit.

Thompson (Lancaster) comes into the club searching for Dundee. He is intercepted by his friend, Pete Ramirez (Stephen McNally), a detective with the LAPD, who tries to dissuade him from breaking into Dundee’s party. Undaunted, Thompson disappears behind the closed door, and soon, a waiter informs Ramirez that Dundee has pulled a knife on Thompson. Eager to put Dundee behind bars before he can slip off to Detroit, Ramirez moves. Too late. Dundee has already dropped the knife; Thompson refuses to press charges, and without cooperating witnesses, Ramirez must admit defeat. When the two men and the members of Dundee’s gang move into an alley to cool off, we learn the fight was staged. The gang and Thompson are actually planning to pull a payroll heist on the company Thompson works for, and the ruse is part of the scheme to succeed at this exceedingly difficult job. Thompson, rueful about the bedfellows he made, thinks about the cause of it all—Anna, his ex-wife. We spend most of the rest of the film in flashback, beginning with Thompson’s return to Los Angeles after months bumming around the country following his divorce from Anna, and his acknowledgment that he came back because he just couldn’t get Anna out of his system.

Siodmak sets up the fatal attraction of Anna and Steve with an iconic scene that captures the essence of the femme fatale. Steve goes back to the night club, a place he and Anna frequented during their contentious marriage, and catches sight of her on the dance floor. The Morales band is playing a number that is almost completely rhythmic, with the only melody coming from a single flute playing a short burst from time to time—an exotic, hypnotic riff. Siodmak and his cinematographer Franz Planer show close-ups of Anna’s face, as she dips, spins, and pulses her shoulders to the music. They intercut these close-ups with close-ups of Steve as he watches her with rapt attention, thus pulling us with Steve under Anna’s spell.

The pair don’t immediately pick up where they left off. Anna is dating Dundee and merely asks Steve to call her some time. Their sizzling mutual attraction escapes no one’s attention; both Dundee and Ramirez want to keep Steve away from Anna. When they start seeing each other again, Ramirez goes behind Steve’s back and warns Anna that he’ll put her behind bars for something or other if she doesn’t stay away from Steve, a rotten ploy that sends her into Dundee’s arms. That would have been the end of it except for that cruel twist of fate that always plagues noir antiheroes—Steve catches sight of Anna in Union Station, wrapped in furs and a long face. She and Steve arrange to meet, and she reveals how Ramirez busted them up and how Dundee beats her, showing him the bruises to back up her story. When Dundee catches the two of them together, Steve spontaneously invents the idea of the payroll heist to keep Dundee from attacking Anna after he’s left. They develop a plan, and the film returns to the present, where the robbery and its aftermath make up the final act of the film.

At 88 minutes, Criss Cross is a fairly short film. But it is so packed with great supporting characters and inventive cinematography and location shooting that it feels much more expansive. Small parts, like Helton’s weasely bartender and a lush (Joan Miller) who seems permanently affixed to the end of the bar, don’t do anything to advance the plot; they simply provide the wonderful color that makes this film such a knockout. A special treat is seeing an uncredited, very young Tony Curtis dancing with De Carlo in the scene described above. Every noir fan’s favorite Los Angeles location, Bunker Hill, gets a great workout in this film. Brilliant is a scene where the conspirators look up an alcoholic crime mastermind (Alan Napier) in a Bunker Hill dive, bribing him with open credit at a liquor store in exchange for a fool-proof plan, with the Angels Flight funicular attactively framed in the window in the background. Cuts in and out, showing more sleeping bodies with each cut, mark the passage of time in the all-night planning session.

There isn’t a filmmaker alive who doesn’t like chance meetings happening when a figure moves out of the way to give the main characters a clear view of each other. Siodmak and Planer are no exception, but the way they move Anna and Steve through the crowds at Union Station builds tension until the clerk behind the standalone cigarette counter bends down to get Steve a pack, revealing Anna turning away from the information counter. The voiceover shows Steve’s pain at the fateful series of events that led to this reveal, the if-onlys that could have prevented it. Fat chance in noir, we want to scream at the screen.

The heist itself builds our fear, as the elderly guard Pop’s (Griff Barnett) case of the jitters has us hoping he won’t be killed if the gang screws up—which, of course, they must. The set-up is ingenious, with the gang using tear gas to disable bystanders and cover their actions. When Steve realizes that he, too, has been set up, his grappling with a thug wearing a gas mask seems like something out of science fiction. Losing at this crap game, being called a hero in the newspapers in a heist that got Pop killed, seems to seal his fate. Lancaster’s fear of the inevitable, something he feels he deserves, is heightened when he is left alone in his hospital room, helplessly attached to a traction device that shows him up to be the marionette of all the lowlifes with whom he’s gotten hopelessly entangled.

Seeing this film on the big screen was a major treat. Planer’s expressionistic camerawork is monumentally more impressive than it was during a home viewing. The chance to meet Eddie and participate in the Q&A was an extra bonus, but sharing the movie with other people and chatting about it afterwards is a communal experience I always crave and enjoy. Have a look at this terrific film and please remember to participate in our blogathon February 14-21 to raise money to restore The Sound of Fury (aka, Try and Get Me), another great film that can only improve when it’s ready to be seen as it was intended—larger than life, in crisp black and white.

20th 11 - 2010 | no comment »

Women of the Night (Yoru no onnatachi, 1948)

Director: Kenji Mizoguchi

By Roderick Heath

Women of the Night, a panoramic drama of the shattered society of Japan after decades of repressive government and the grim final months of World War II, perhaps represents a turning point for the later career of Kenji Mizoguchi. The director, as well as attempting like all of his industry colleagues to rebuild Japanese cinema as a commercial and artistic brand, began seeking new spiritual and emotional paradigms and aesthetic qualities distinct in some regards from his pre-war films. The casual brilliance of those earlier films, with their cosmopolitan themes, question-mark resolutions, and succinct, epigrammatic stories, gives way here to something at once more declarative and expansive in vision: presented amongst the Eclipse series “Mizoguchi’s Fallen Women,” it points towards Mizoguchi’s great last film Street of Shame (1956). Whilst perhaps the least aesthetically coherent of the four films in that collection, it’s also the most overtly powerful in its simultaneous compassion and hard-earned transcendence, at odds with a devastated and inhumane landscape in which all pretence to community and mutual responsibility has been nullified and the relations of the powerful to the weak have achieved a quotidian extremity.

An irony of Mizoguchi’s life was that he was a rootless man who often took refuge amongst geishas, throwing into fascinating relief his constant refrain of worrying about the lot of women who took that line of work, or the less privileged one of prostitution nominally beneath it, because he was implicit in the power disparity he portrayed with such acid intensity. But he had also been deeply affected by he fact that his own sister had been sold as a geisha when he was a boy. The world of Women of the Night, an adaptation of a novel by Eijirô Hisaita, has lost the shape it had in pre-war works like Naniwa Elegy and Sisters of the Gion (both 1936). Everyone’s fair game now in a world in which vital loved ones have vanished, some to return, some forever. Fusako Owada (Kinuyo Tanaka) deals with both, having waited years to learn of her husband’s fate, living in the slums and resisting the suggestions of the woman who buys and sells clothing that she take up prostitution to provide for her consumptive baby son. She learns of her husband’s death from Kuriyama (Mitsuo Nagata), the owner of the trading firm he used to work for. Some months later, she encounters her sister Natsuko (Sanae Takasugi), who had gone to live in Korea as a colonist, where she was raped during the evacuation, and now works as a taxi dancer at a nightclub. Natsuko moves in with Fusako, who’s since landed a secretarial job at Kuriyama’s company, but whose son has died.

The sisters’ momentary prosperity and harmony are broken when it becomes apparent that Kuriyama is romancing both of them. Fusako, enraged, walks away from sister and lover and determines to become a streetwalker. Meanwhile Fusako’s sister-in-law, the still-adolescent Kumiko (Tomie Tsunoda), decides to leave home but stays in the slum and is dominated by her self-pitying brother, a black marketeer. But Kumiko, excruciatingly naïve, is take in by Kiyoshi, a petty thief who’s posing as a caring student. He fools her into coming back to the restaurant he and other young refuse use as an HQ, where he pours liquor into her, rapes her, and lets the young tarts from his gang strip her of her clothes: they offer her the choice of joining their number or going back home half-naked. Meanwhile, Natsuko, upon learning that Fusako’s been spotted amongst streetwalkers, goes to search her out and gets netted in a police raid. Natsuko encounters the embittered Fusako in a combination prison and VD clinic; Fusako soon breaks out on her own, whilst Natsuko is freed when Kuriyama comes to collect her. But he takes no responsibility for the baby and is soon imprisoned for smuggling morphine, stripping Natusko of support.

Copies of this film available in the West had some 20 minutes cut out, and this accounts for some abrupt continuity leaps and emphasises a somewhat episodic quality in the story. Women of the Night is also melodramatic by Mizoguchi’s standards, and in many ways it anticipates works like On The Waterfront (1954)—particularly in the finale—that used melodrama in service of social portraiture. Mizoguchi handles his exciting moments with hypnotic, yet rigorously simple flare: Fusako smuggling an illegal stock of morphine away from Kuriyama’s warehouse under the nose of investigating police; her later escape from the VD centre, hastily utilising an old bed and her belt to scale the barbed wire; Kumiko’s increasingly dreadful encounter with Kiyoshi and his gang; the final Calvary-like struggle between camps of prostitutes. But it’s also a tough, expressive, and deeply paradoxical film, like his later Sanshô the Bailiff (1954), an odyssey through degradation and a drama of family ties that are strained and warped, but finally not broken. The sisters fight to hold onto what little self-direction they possess. After learning of her betrayal by Kuriyama, Fusako tries to give her prostitution the veneer of revenge against men, knowing full well she’ll soon be a carrier of disease. Kumiko’s decision to join the waifs who just assaulted her possesses the same illusion of empowerment. When Natusko finishes up in jail with Fusako, she’s confident she’ll be released as soon as she undergoes a medical test, but the doctors find that Kuriyama has made her pregnant and also infected her with syphilis.

Mizoguchi claimed William Wyler as an influence on his cinema, and the deep-focus framing in his film does evoke that, although Mizoguchi’s own particular aesthetic developed more or less concurrently with Wyler’s. Either way, the deep-focus work is particularly revealing in scenes that invert the dramatic focus, like that in which Kuriyama eyes Fusako with appraising interest from the background whilst she stands in fumbling grief in the foreground, and later when Fusako’s son has convulsions, Mizoguchi keeps his camera outside the house, Fusako’s desperate reaction within distant and hopeless as the men in the foreground go racing off to fetch aid. This technique gave him a way of easing up on his usual exhausting long takes whilst retaining a fluidic, integrated mise-en-scène, as well as giving his dramatic style an ironic distance. The overall structure also bears similarity to John Ford’s adaptation of The Grapes of Wrath (1940), for Mizoguchi was also a Ford fan. The progress of the sisters towards finding temporary refuge and safety with a home for women run by conscientious men that offers shelter and food in exchange for labour echoes the way the Joads finally find the government farm in Ford’s film. Simultaneously, in its rigorous honesty, blasted imagery and vital humanism, Mizoguchi’s film certainly seems part of the post-War neorealist movement; indeed, his effortless fusion of the artistic and urgent sentiment is easily the equal of, and possibly superior to, what even the best of the neorealists were accomplishing at the time.

Mizoguchi charts the steady downfall of the sisters with remorseless logic, whilst also confirming how (comparatively) easy options consistently give way to bottomless pits. The extended scene of Kumiko’s degradation is rare in its concise nastiness: the way Kiyoshi forces drink down her throat and then eyes her like a cat does a chicken when it comes time to deflower her, and her own utterly clueless state afterwards, unsure whether she’s been loved or murdered after a fashion. The relationship between the sisters is the linchpin of the film, blending love and resentment, fear, and anger. Particularly fascinating in the way they alternate attitudes, Fusako and Natsuko take turns as the bitter, vengeful, self-destructive party, rebelling by assaulting their own bodies, their only remaining vessels for expressing hate. They evoke the sibling protagonists in Sisters of the Gion, but that film’s clean divide between the cynic and the idealist has been rendered much more blurred, inevitably, by a calamity that’s absorbed everyone. Fusako’s initial retreat into prostitution as her repudiation of dominance gives way to her attempts to drag a drunken and suicidal Natusko to the women’s refuge from the apartment Kuriyama left her with, but which she can’t afford. I love the moment when Fusako, trying to get Natsuko to cease her drunken lolling, strips the cigarette from her sister’s mouth, jams it in her own, and then manhandles her off the floor. Mizoguchi’s actresses smoke like those in modern films use guns. Equally amusing and acerbic is the scene in the VD centre when a representative of a “purity society” lectures a doctor on the virtues the women are missing out on and the collected whores lend their choral disdain of a ludicrous voice of morality and responsibility that echoes more concertedly and urgently from the doctors at the women’s refuge, with true moral weight but still without understanding that some things are unavoidable.

That’s partly because the alternatives can be degrading: staying at the women’s refuge is harder work and because there’s a rigorous dog-eat-dog truth to the world of the prostitutes themselves. Whilst there may be honour amongst thieves, there’s precious little amongst these hookers, who are regimented by the toughest and most psychopathic into turf-controlling gangs. When she’s first brought to the VD centre, Natusko is immediately set upon by the toughest ladies, who demand respect. Mizoguchi’s contempt for men who use women as a playground and then spurn them, and, worse, judge them, is condensed into the figure of Kuruyama, who’s as crooked as a corkscrew and yet maintains the most upright of affectations. But he’s implicated with the failure of an entire social philosophy and form of government that’s led to ruination. And Mizoguchi also offers ironies. The devastating scene in which Natusko gives birth to a still-born baby on the floor at the refuge presages the statement of one of the managers in trying to make the hardened floozies understand what’s at stake, “Life in all its beauty struggles to be born.” The men here have been rendered more maternal than the women.

In the delirious final scene, Fusako is horrified to be reunited with Kumiko when she’s caught and roughed up by the gang Fusako works with. Fusako is so shocked and outraged to find the ludicrously young girl is also a prostitute that she unleashes a flurry of anger and pain on Kumiko, slapping her in rage whilst screaming implorements and threats, love and rage in a remarkable confluence. “Give birth to a monster!” Fusako screams, meaning babies malformed by syphilis, but also invoking the perversion of common humanity: “Feel yourself rot inside and out!” Fusako’s subsequent determination to take Kumiko home and to stay there with her sees her bundled up and furiously beaten by a queen bee who wields a whip with hysterical rage: life on the edge is driving everyone mad, and a kind of nadir is reached in this scene that purposefully evokes a crucifixion image—the scene takes place in a bombed-out lot next to a Christian church, a stained-glass Madonna above it all.

It’s here that Women of the Night turns almost surreal in its cruel intensity, and anticipates the deeply fetishised, amoral turn that a lot of Japanese filmmakers would push at the end of the ’60s in portraying humanity’s capacity for baseness. But the spirituality offered by the religious imagery, couched in Christian terms possibly designed to please Occupation authorities also seems linked to both Mizoguchi’s love for such transcendental Christian writing as that of Dostoyevsky and Leo Tolstoy, whose works he had adapted at the start of his career, and to his later Zen and Confucian themes in Ugetsu Monogatari (1953) and Sanshô the Bailiff, strive to synthesise a new sense of the ideals that sustain people through loss and horror. The spectacle of Fusako’s beating has, like Christ’s suffering, a positive effect: the watching whores who tackle and suppress the tyrants rediscover a shared sense of humanity, and the exhausted women lie sprawled afterwards like the wounded survivors of the war their mostly dead menfolk just fought, giving Fusako and Kumiko the chance to get away. It’s a bizarrely breathtaking end to a deeply compelling film, and one that asks as many questions as it answers. Fusako and Kumiko will go back home, but the future that awaits them there is still one that’s deadly to the foolish and the weak. l

20th 08 - 2010 | 17 comments »

The Mortal Storm (1940)

Director: Frank Borzage

By Marilyn Ferdinand

The other afternoon, the hubby and I lunched at The Foundation, a vegetarian restaurant near Vancouver’s Antique Row. In addition to serving up great fare, the proprietors of the restaurant also offer inspiration. Looking like fortunes pulled from giant fortune cookies, quotes decorate the restaurant’s walls, including one from the great Illinois statesman, Adlai Stevenson II, that stared me in the face throughout my meal:

I consider a free society to be a society where it is safe to be unpopular.

Stevenson, of course, was rather unpopular with American voters of the 1950s, who thought his intellectual gifts, liberal ideals, and religious vagueness were suspicious and more than a little effete—twice they chose retired General Dwight D. Eisenhower as their president over Stevenson. I sometimes wonder how the course of history might have been changed had Stevenson outranked Joseph McCarthy and others of his ilk with more than a little sympathy for fascism.

The powerful anti-Nazi film The Mortal Storm was a rare show of strength from the Hollywood that later would be brought to its knees by McCarthy. At a time when the major studios were avoiding the subject, MGM took a stand. Hitler was peculiarly adept at understanding the power of seditious art; much to his annoyance, his “show trial” of “degenerate art” touring Germany was wildly popular. Not one to make that same mistake twice, after viewing The Mortal Storm, he banned all MGM films from screening in Germany.

It’s not hard to see why this film would have incensed him or any other good Nazi. While it exposed audiences to the truth of Nazi Germany in hopes of rousing them to action, modern audiences can only look at the film with a sense of foreboding as the happy and honorable Roth family is corralled and then strangled by the forces of madness.

Viktor Roth (Frank Morgan) awakens on his 60th birthday to the felicitations of his wife Amelie (Irene Roth), daughter Freya (Margaret Sullavan), young son Rudi (Gene Reynolds), and grown stepsons Erich and Otto von Rohn (William T. Orr and Robert Stack). Viktor, a professor of biology, heads off to work and drops several hints about his special day, only to be ignored by his colleagues. Crestfallen, he walks into his lecture hall to the resounding applause and stamping of feet of his students, his family, and his colleagues. Student Fritz Marberg (Robert Young) and long-time family friend Martin Breitner (James Stewart) present him with an engraved trophy of the torchbearer. Initially annoyed at believing his birthday to have been forgotten, Viktor melts into gratitude and gives a heartfelt speech of admiration for his students and colleagues.

The family holds a celebratory dinner that night and Fritz brashly announces that he and Freya are engaged, though Freya has not yet consented. Just then, the Roth’s maid Marta (Esther Dale) comes in with word that Hitler has been made Germany’s chancellor. Fritz, Erich, and Otto run to the next room to listen to the news on the radio; they are ecstatic. Amelie is worried because Viktor is a Jew, but Viktor simply prays that Hitler will govern Germany with wisdom. Martin’s mood, initially darkened by Freya’s engagement, grows positively black with the news of Hitler’s ascendancy. The fissures we see in this family scene grow over the course of the film, as Fritz, Erich, and Otto join the Nazi Party, Martin helps a Jewish schoolteacher escape to Austria and becomes a fugitive himself, Viktor is arrested and killed for being a Jew and teaching facts that contradict Hitler’s notions of a master race of Aryans, and Freya is detained for trying to take Viktor’s last manuscript out of the country.

Frank Borzage was the logical—and only—choice to direct this film. He had made two previous films on the rise of the Nazis, Little Man, What Now? (1933) and Three Comrades (1938), while no other director came near the topic. But aside from his familiarity with the subject matter, Borzage—a director with a “touch” as personal and romantic as Ernst Lubitsch’s, but with deeper undertones—makes the downfall of this family a personal tragedy that has universal meaning. The fracture between the Roths and the von Rohns and Fritz isn’t as clean as is often found in other such films. Fritz really loves Freya and is torn first by his ideals and then, when those are betrayed, by his sense of duty; when Freya breaks with him, his pain and longing at seeing her underscore every scene. Erich and Otto feel genuine love for Viktor, who has been a real father to them, but get ground up in the Nazi machine so that their individuality is nearly lost; only Otto, the younger of the two, sees the folly that has been set in motion. Dale is perfect as the maid who turns on the Roths without much reluctance—as a member of the serving class, one certainly resentful of a perceived Jewish wealth and power, her happiness at the rise of Hitler and the emotionless way she leaves her job of 10 years rings tragically true.

The complex of emotions the great Margaret Sullavan brought to her craft are on full display here. Her embarrassment at Fritz’s announcement of their engagement is tinged with anger, her attempt at clinging to her affection for him an inward struggle, her dawning realization of the depth of her love for family friend Martin as gradual as it would be in real life. Stewart isn’t given much room to do more than a short version of his aw-shucks good-guy routine, but my interest in his performance was deepened by the knowledge that he tried to enlist in the U.S. Army in 1940 and finally met the physical requirements in 1941. He really meant what he said in this film and put his life on the line to help people like the one he played here.

For me, Frank Morgan’s performance is the most heartbreaking. Although he was well-versed at playing kindly, sentimental roles, Viktor has an edge that, say, his Wizard of Oz never would have. There is nothing accidental about Viktor’s courageous actions. He refuses to teach anything other than what science has discovered, and shows up the caretaker at his university, whose limp “Heil Hitler” to a colleague is self-reproach enough. He says, “I’ve never prized safety, Erich, either for myself or my children. I prized courage.”

Borzage also could film action. As they attempt to ski to freedom in Austria, Freya and Martin are chased down a mountainside by a Nazi platoon led by Fritz. Recalling a more carefree ski they had early in the film, the irony and desperation of this scene keep one breathless with fear. The simple crumpling of one body far in the distance (which one is it?) after the platoon takes aim and fires is nauseatingly real.

The Mortal Storm is an exceedingly difficult film to watch. The attention to detail, the true performances, the inexorable rhythms of tragedy create an urgency that certainly must have been the aim of Borzage and his cast and crew. An important film in many ways in the careers of all those involved, it is the rare film that sends a message with a delicacy and artistry that any film enthusiast can appreciate.

1st 06 - 2010 | 6 comments »

Brute Force (1947)

Director: Jules Dassin

By Marilyn Ferdinand

The 1940s were an interesting time for motion pictures. The first half of the decade was given over to patriotic fare and escapist entertainment to aid the morale of a nation embroiled in World War II. In the aftermath of the war, as revelations of the depth of the horror in Europe and the Far East came home with the battle-scarred men, the movies took a turn to the dark side. Proto-noir films like Detour presaged the coming paranoia of the 1950s, and films like The Best Years of Our Lives and Gentleman’s Agreement were frank about postwar realities like housing shortages, scarce jobs, a growing awareness of bigotry, and veterans broken in body, mind, and spirit. Brute Force teamed Jules Dassin, a master of crime films, and Richard Brooks, a screenwriter whose uncompromising gaze filled theatres with such forceful fare as Key Largo, Blackboard Jungle, and Elmer Gantry, for a look at postwar crime and punishment. While adhering to the Production Code dictum that crime must not pay, Brooks and Dassin took a sharp detour from the early 1940s notion of clearly defined good and evil and punished both the convicted criminals and their lawless jailors, reflecting the shadow of the concentration camp on American psyches.

Brute Force centers its action on the convicts of cell R17 in Westgate Penitentiary, which is headed by career bureaucrat Warden Barnes (Roman Bohnen) but run by a cop named Munsey (Hume Cronyn), whose slight body and soft-spoken manner belie his ruthlessness and ambition. When we first enter the cellblock, inmates are looking out their barred windows at a long car and saying their good-byes to one of the inmates. His stretch is up all right, but only because a hole 6 feet deep is waiting for him on the outside. Munsey had the older convict work in the dreaded drain pipe, where many convicts find illness and death.

As the car pulls away, a couple of guards escort an inmate who was absent from roll call that morning, Joe Collins (Burt Lancaster), back to R17. He has spent 10 days in the hole for carrying a shiv. The prison grapevine has fingered Wilson (James O’Rear) as the source of the planted weapon, and preparations are underway to see that he gets his. Despite Wilson’s petition for leniency to inmate power broker Gallagher (Charles Bickford), the instruction “Wilson, 10:30” gets passed around. Collins manages to be in Dr. Walters’ (Art Smith) office when Wilson is cornered in the prison license-plate shop by cons with blow torches and forced into the punch press in a scene of desperate brutality. Wilson is only one of the inmates whose death can be traced back to Munsey, who ordered him to plant the shiv on Collins. The captain has forced dozens of inmates to bend to his will, or take the consequences. One of the occupants of R17 will become his next victim, the warden will bend to a new get-tough policy handed down from on high or lose his job, and cancelled parole hearings prompt Collins, his cellmates, and even the compromise-oriented Gallagher to hatch an escape plan.

Brute Force has an interesting, if occasionally stylistically jarring device for taking us inside the lives of some of the cellmates. We flash back with them to the women they left on the outside and learn a little about their crimes. Tom Lister (Whit Bissell) feared his beautiful wife Cora (Ella Raines) would leave him because he was barely scraping by as a lowly accountant. By juggling the books, he was able to embezzle enough money to buy her the fur coat she’d always wanted, but police sirens interrupted their happy moment. Collins is worried about his wife Ruth (Anne Blyth), who he learns from his lawyer is not getting a cancer operation because she won’t act without him at her side. Collins’ flashback shows him stopping to see Ruth, a paraplegic, before pulling that “one last job” that does all crooks in in the movies. The most entertaining flashback is provided by Spencer (John Hoyt), a con artist who got conned by a beautiful blonde named Flossie (Anita Colby) in a Runyon-esque short story of pithy grace. Soldier (Howard Duff, in his impressive screen debut) just wants to get back to Italy, where he hopes his girl Gina (Yvonne de Carlo) is waiting for him—sadly, his flashback shows Gina shooting her own father to protect Soldier, and she is probably in jail herself.

It is in the prison where this film is most compelling. The grind of a convict’s daily life is shown in a bleak fullness that seems real. The prison is severely overcrowded, with six or seven men in a cell. The food served up in the mess hall looks fit to hang wallpaper, not eat. The oppressiveness of the surroundings is beautifully captured in the art direction of John DeCuir and Bernard Herzbrun: the barbed wire, the guns, the medieval drawbridge to the outside that only lets men out when they’ve finished their sentence, died, or are going to work in the drain pipe. While it doesn’t match the cruel conditions of Caspar Wrede’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, that film was made in the harsh winter of northern Norway. For a set-bound Hollywood production, Brute Force does a very good job.

Dassin puts the pedal to the metal when Munsey goes about uncovering Collins’ plan. He scores a rubber-hose beating of one of Gallagher’s men with the uber-mensch strains of Wagner, a decided contrast with the tasteful undertones of film scorer Miklos Rozsa. Cronyn conducts this beating shirtless, revealing some toned muscle on his formerly unimposing form and visually suggesting the physical ideal of the Third Reich. It’s a bit over the top for a scene that would have been just as effective by focusing on the stiff rubber hose and the steadily more battered face of Munsey’s victim, but cutaways to the cringing guards outside of Munsey’s office create a nice indirect source of unease.

Lancaster, in only his second screen role, capably ushers in the new breed of physical, downscale leading men to come. Character actor Jack Overman plays a punch-drunk boxer in R17 so poignantly that he made me want to see more of him. Bickford doesn’t have a lot to do, but he’s authoritative doing it. Art Smith has the philosopher’s role in this film, and he plays it to the hilt. A drunk who has reached the end of the line working at the prison (did the prison drive him to drink or did drink limit his options to prison work?) he sees through Munsey’s plan to become warden and mocks his ambitions. He doesn’t wonder, as another character does, why men try prison breaks even though they are doomed to failure. The conditions under which the prisoners live say it all, and the film refers to real prison breaks that had been tried at San Quentin and other U.S. facilities. Interestingly, virtually all of the prisoners are Irish; the only other ethnic type called out in the script is a Caribbean inmate nicknamed Calypso (Sir Lancelot), whose off-the-cuff songs describe actions in the story. Prisons would never be this white again.

The climax of the film, of course, is the prison break attempt. It’s action-packed, thrilling, and very, very cruel. A mob of cons in the prison yard swarm guards and await their chance. It never comes, but the vision of a restless population of men must have shook postwar America by the nape of the neck. Dassin’s politics, evident in this film, proved sadly prophetic. The repression that came in the following decade forced him to flee the United States to escape the Hollywood blacklist so he could keep turning out great films like Brute Force.

6th 11 - 2008 | 1 comment »

Famous Firsts: Citizen Kane (1941)

Debut film of: Orson Welles, writer and director


By Roderick Heath

Note: This essay was composed for academic purposes, in commentary on the proposition by Laura Mulvey that “Citizen Kane explicitly invites us to figure out its puzzle but it also constantly frustrates that desire.”

Citizen Kane begins at the end—the death of its eponymous character uttering a word that becomes the object of retrospective investigation. The attempts to understand Charles Foster Kane and his life will be fractured, and Thompson, the journalist attempting to parse the meaning of his dying word, “Rosebud,” never achieves his objective. His failure reflects his realisation of an idea the film has laid out in great detail—that such words as news, truth, biography, history, and remembering, are infinitely flexible, influenced by perspective, time, character, and purpose. Whilst the audience is finally presented with a solution to the puzzle, it returns the arc in a complete reversal to the opening, still “a situation of total ambiguity,” as one of Welles canniest critics, Joseph McBride, put it in 1972.

Susan Alexander Kane’s love of arranging jigsaw puzzles presents the central metaphor—the story resembles such a puzzle. Pieces are disarranged, and one must place them together to construct the full picture. And yet there is not a sense of intellectual and emotional triumph over the unknown and confused. This fragmentation of the traditional holism of narrative is mediated not merely through linear, but also stylistic, displacement. The film evokes familiar genres, but renders them incomplete, warping traditional shape, thereby serving to make us ponder the purposes genres are put to and the traditions they are supposed to service. “The endurance of relatively stable genres is sometimes assumed to by symptomatic of institutionalised inertia, aesthetic stasis and a more general lack of desire for change,” as Negus and Pickering summed it up neatly in their 2004 volume Creativity, Communication and Cultural Value. Perhaps nowhere was this suspicion held to be more accurate than of classic Hollywood.

It can be broadly observed that the detective genre, to which the Rosebud search could belong, or the heroic-journalist genre, in which Thompson, Kane, and Leland could all be traditional characters, generally posit the idea that the truth will out. The clue will be found, crime unearthed. As Julian Symons described it in his landmark 1972 study of the detective genre, Bloody Murder: From the Detective Story to the Crime Novel, the shape of social and moral order will be reinforced for the pleasure of those “who have a stake in the permanence of the existing social system.” But in Kane, such certainties are conscientiously erased. Generic quotes in Kane both interrogate, and also utilise, the ideas encoded in these genres.


The film begins with the mood of a horror movie—Xanadu, a wonderland in the newsreel, but here a prematurely decaying castle fit for Dracula. Why the appropriation of gothic style? The gothic genre’s familiar dead castles and haunted mansions are traps for rancid memory, cultural detritus, and the devolution of the consciousness. We encounter all these things in this “monument to himself.” Xanadu and its trove of art and craft, its chasms of ego-cocooning space, are both godlike and oppressive. This is reminiscent of films with haunted house settings. Take the description in Phil Hardy’s Encyclopedia of the Horror Movie of Kubrick’s The Shining, probably the greatest modern example of the genre but highly reliant on its classic tropes, with its “twinning of opposites” for a “tortured ego” in such a “space trap”—exactly the same atmosphere Welles conjures for Xanadu. Likewise, Susan’s wraithlike appearance at the end of her opera tour renders her looking much like a vampire’s victim. Again, Kane borrows a generic motif, but there is no monster here, only a dying old man haunted by memory, undermining the motif.


Still, we never “meet” Charles Foster Kane. We encounter versions of him in biographies and anecdotes, observe his possessions, his dwelling place, signifying the absence of a being. In the newsreel, such men as Thatcher and the labour advocate describe him as both a communist and a fascist, presented as binary opposites in popular discourse. Kane is reinvented even in life according to the needs of others. His wealth, prestige, his sheer scale as an entity not only invite this, but seem to demand it; there is too much of Kane and his world to account in one version.

The dreamlike prologue is followed hard by its stylistic opposite, the News on the March newsreel, which serves vitally important functions. It lays out the agreed facts of Kane’s life, and the audience can access this information during the leaps in period and perspective that pepper the film. We know where each “piece” fits in. It also establishes a thematic schism. The stylisation of the prologue evokes the threat of an unspoken truth, which the newsreel editor, Ralston, senses. The gap between the expressionist dread of the prologue and News on the March seems the distance between artifice and documentation. But this distinction is already rendered hazy. News on the March is supposedly truth unadorned, but is characterised by melodramatic voiceovers, musical cues, and pat title cards. Aspects of Kane’s life are grouped together in the reel to create distinct dramatic acts, bestowing symmetry on Kane’s story, first evoking awe, mystery, exoticism (the tour of Xanadu), epic excitement (Kane’s rise, the expanse of his empire), then, decline and punishment for hubris (associating the collapse of his political career and marriage with his business decline, despite their unrelated causes). The film identifies the news as just another genre, with its own clichés, collusions, and reductions.


Ralston insists that Thompson cross the distance between journalism and art, to find the key to Kane’s personality, which will give life to this story they wish to conjure. News on the March exemplifies a process that Kane himself set in motion—the dramatisation of news and the manipulation and selective reading of facts. Kane’s propensity for inventing truth, as in whipping up fervour for the Spanish-American war, eventually meets its match as Boss Gettys and the newspapers impugn his private life, a distortion that becomes accepted fact. Kane is totally beaten by his own invention. News as narrative, then, is inextricable with mythology, especially political mythology. Kane invents villains—trust magnates, the potential murderer of a missing girl, the Spanish—to embody certain concepts: the betrayal of the working man, the vulnerability of femininity and the home, the manifest destiny of the United States. This could be described as exactly what genre does—create arcs of cause and effect, and manifestations of ideas, which will then be triumphant or repressed, depending on their nature. Thompson sets about his boss’s glibly conceived mission to deduce the meaning of Rosebud and thus give the newsreel a dramatic fullness through psychological insight. Thompson’s search, however, like the newsreel, skims around the edges of Kane’s life, probing friends, business partners, and his ex-wife in pressing closer to a kind of truth, but then coming up against an invisible barrier—the lack of a heart to the mystery.


The narrators of Kane may promise a sought-after veracity, but they, too, frame their accounts with slants of preconception. Each lends a kind of coherent shape and essential pitch to their experiences, whilst shutting out other interpretations. Susan, an innocent, perceives herself as the entrapped plaything of a dark prince, enclosed by seemingly arbitrary decisions of will. Hers is a gothic fairytale of girlhood. Leland, an intellectual and a drama critic to boot, assays his recollections as a cautionary tale, complete with observed themes and critical speeches (“That’s all he really wanted out of life, was love. That’s Charlie’s story, how he lost it.”) extrapolated from Kane’s character and experience. Bernstein, who is never associated with any woman except for the passing illusion of perfect beauty decades in the past, is a nostalgic, a hero-worshipper. Susan is a victim. Bernstein is an idealiser. Leland is, as McBride called him, a “romantic … (who) feels and remembers all of the emotional extremes which the other characters are prone to remember only selectively.” And yet Leland has own blind spots.

David Thomson contended in 1996 that “it was Welles’ way later in life to say that, early on with Kane, they had played with a Rashomon-like idea—that of different versions of one central fact, leaving us uncertain of what happened. But they let go gradually, and it was replaced with the overall perspective of all the reports being voices in Kane’s head.” Be this as it may, though the flashbacks might then be called “accurate,” nonetheless, they are still shaped by perspective, by the egos and prejudices offered by the narrators. These people, like the news, select the relevant facts from any experience. There is the consistent theme of the things we miss in concentrating on our interests, actions and objects that are misinterpreted or unnoticed. Rosebud is the singular example of it, yet it is a motif throughout the film.

Leland only remembers Susan’s debut in terms of what happened to him. The actual performance, for him, is a throwaway joke, a sideshow of Kane’s egotism. Susan recalls the awfulness of performing to people, including the prominently contemptuous Leland, who despised her. In his own account, Leland is a moral hero; in Susan’s, he’s a self-satisfied boor. Susan cannot know the import of the letter Leland sends to Kane, seeing it only as a message from a loathsome man. It has context and meaning for us, but not to Susan. Her estranged viewpoint renders the delivery of the torn check and the Declaration of Principles anything but the crushing moral gesture Leland intended.


Likewise, Susan remembers the sad triumph of leaving Kane, where Raymond sees its aftermath. As with Leland’s letter, this detached sequence presents a fulfillment of other scenes, but removed from the direct flow of consequence. We intuit Kane’s destruction of Susan’s belongings as a condemnation of the futility of objects, and a desperate riposte for an answer to the accusation Susan had made: “You never give me anything I really care about.” His stumbling across the snow globe finally resolves the embarrassing spectacle of destruction because it reminds him of an object, a belonging, a time in life that had an actual, emotional value for him. This means nothing to Raymond, but everything to the protagonists.

The nature of the puzzle, then, changes for each person. Susan’s jigsaws present the journalists, with their love of simplification, and the audience, with our love of neat resolution, with a happy metaphor. Thompson comes to deny the importance of a missing piece, realising that only the whole of Kane’s life is its explanation, and only the man who lived it could articulate it. The film finally slips their perspective and offers an omniscient revelation, which, if David Thomson’s reading is correct, is Kane himself offering the revelation of Rosebud. In terms of technique, it’s a bald rejection of perspective, a final reflex towards the godlike narrators of classical fiction.


Is Rosebud merely the longing for a lost Eden of childhood with its manifold promise? The sled is not an unheralded revelation. It’s part of a signal legend of Kane’s, as we know from when the Congressman taunts Thatcher in the newsreel about being hit with it. It is not merely a sentimental symbol for Kane—it’s the instrument with which he attempts to ward off the fate that ultimately entraps him. Money enables his genius, and yet also cocoons him from becoming a proper, self-actualising human; he theorises, “If I hadn’t been very rich, I might have been a really great man.” Considering how Kane seemed as hemmed in by circumstance as he was a definer of them, and the way he perceives himself as perpetually embattled—“That’s when you’ve got to fight ’em,” he advises Susan when she wants to surrender—it’s easy to see Rosebud not merely as a longing for lost youth but also for the spirit that comes in battling adversity. This spirit has entirely ebbed by the time he signs control of his companies back over to Thatcher’s bank, a scene of his utter defeat in his war with the monolithic world of money and purposeless profit Thatcher ushered him into so many years earlier. The fact that Rosebud still has multiple meanings as a symbol is once again a denial of simple resolution, part of what McBride called the “constant ironic undercutting of the audience’s search for a solution.”


Such meditations invest the film’s “attack on the acquisitive society” (as Welles described it for Cahiers du Cinema in 1966) with force beyond simple political morality. It’s an enquiry into the degree to which any human is shaped by circumstance, and left unshaped, into free will itself. The discovery of Rosebud intensifies the patterns we have observed. We consider other missing pieces. What impact did the death of Kane’s son, along with Emily, in a car crash, have upon him? This presents a gaping hole in the narrative, a private matter only Kane could speak of.

The ability to tell and shape a story is finally associated with power over the perception and thinking of others. Kane’s and the newsreel company’s manipulations are unified with notions of political might, wealth, and influence. Equally, the fragmentation of story, the self-conscious assault on the totality of narrative and the recognition of perspective, is an intrinsically subversive act by virtue of denying power to the shapers, giving power instead to the receptive interpreter. If the completeness of generic narrative reinforces certain social and moral precepts, the rejection of such completeness, whilst still embracing the idea that the metaphors of genre have value, critiques the shape they bestow on reality.


The revelation of Rosebud is, then, a final reclamation of Kane’s story for Kane himself, as well as a conduit for our sympathy, if not our understanding. Rosebud reminds us that for all the tales told about him, his innermost self was only communicated to others in enigmatic flashes. From Thatcher’s recollection of “I always gagged on that silver spoon,” to “Rosebud” itself, his mind was his last domain, unknown and unknowable to others. This is the true impact of the refrain of the “No Trespassing” sign; the mysteries of Xanadu and Rosebud have been supplanted by the impossibility of knowing a man’s inner life, a realm beyond the reach of the power of others, to steal from and reshape.


26th 09 - 2008 | 9 comments »

Hellzapoppin (1941)

Director: H. C. Potter


By Marilyn Ferdinand

Fans of Hollywood films that veer into the zany and absurd frequently cite films by the Keystone Kops and the Marx Brothers for the early years, and then skip forward to people like Mel Brooks and Jim Carrey. In between, we had at least a couple of doozies that I can think of: one seemingly drug-induced Busby Berkeley film, The Gang’s All Here (1943), and the one under consideration here, Hellzapoppin. The comedy team responsible for making Hellzapoppin a hit on Broadway was composed of Ole Olsen and Chic Johnson, vaudevillians who knocked around theatres, radio, and a few unsuccessful movies until they struck gold with this off-the-hook revue some people call “kitchen sink” comedy for its haphazard mixing of anything and everything.

The stage version of Hellzapoppin was a plotless collection of improvisation, blue humor, sketch and blackout comedy, sight gags, music, gunshots from Olsen and Johnson’s ever-present starter’s guns, and rummaging around in the audience. Although critics panned its low-brow humor, audiences kept coming back for more, keeping the show running for 1,404 performances, a new Broadway record. Universal optioned the show, intending to translate it faithfully to the screen. Naturally, more conservative heads prevailed and tacked a plot on. Even so, by repeatedly breaking the fourth wall and creating non sequiturs galore, the creative team of Hellzapoppin managed a successful subversion of the filmic form.


The film begins on a stage—a theatrical stage or a sound stage?—presumably as the members of the Hellzapoppin cast are assembling their acts. Devils work in the bowels of hell and swing around the stage as a “Hellzapoppin” theme song is performed. It’s a pretty exciting opening.

It becomes clear that Hellzapoppin is moving from a Broadway theatre to a Hollywood soundstage, as scenery and props are being inventoried for the move. Olsen displays an item he says is Napoleon’s skull. (Olsen and Johnson had a thing about Napoleon.) In response, Johnson counters with a small skull, which he says is “the skull of Napoleon when he was a child.” Johnson remarks on a sled making its way out, “I thought they burned that,” and then the word “Rosebud” comes into view. A delivery man (Frank Darien) comes through with a small tree in a pot calling for Mrs. Jones; of course, this bit will bleed from the “stage” to the movie proper as the tree gets larger and larger, and Darien shows up in more and more outrageous delivery vehicles, including a kitelike contraption. This portion of the movie clearly is the stage play.


Soon, a producer shows up and argues that you can’t have a movie without a plot. He brings in screenwriter Harry Selby (Elisha Cook Jr.) who deadpans his “pitch” as a television-sized screen introduces the elements of the plot he has written—a wealthy girl named Kitty (Jane Frazee) who nurses a love for theatrical producer named Jeff (Robert Paige), who fights his feelings for her because he hasn’t enough money to get married and she’s engaged to his pal Woody (Lewis Howard). The girl yearns to be on the stage so, because she’s fabulously wealthy, the director of the picture (Richard Lane) says, naturally she’s built a huge stage on the grounds of her estate.


The proposed story with already-shot footage is being projected by Olsen’s cousin Louie (Shemp Howard), who has invited a healthy-sized woman up to his projection booth. Olsen and Johnson ask whether the film has any sound, and when Louie switches it on, the film opens up, with Olsen and Johnson appearing on Kitty’s estate.


Martha Raye lends her energy to the proceedings as Kitty’s goofy, man-hungry friend Betty. She takes possession of a block of ice that has been delivered to the estate, which is populated by the cast and crew of a stage show Jeff is previewing for a Broadway producer to help him strike it and declare himself to Kitty. At the same time, a fake Russian count (Mischa Auer) has heard that a fabulously wealthy woman has just arrived. When he asks who she is, he is pointed toward a woman “with all the ice,” referring to the obscenity of diamonds the woman is wearing. Just then, the woman moves, and the count sees Betty holding the block of ice. Naturally, his pursuit of her, discovery of her true identity, and her pursuit of him last throughout the film.

hellzapoppin%201.jpgThe plot is predictable, and Jeff’s show, which caps off the film, is disappointing, even though Olsen and Johnson do their best to ruin it in a strange attempt to ruin his future in order to save him from Kitty, who they think is a Jezebel, yada, yada, yada. What does work in this part of the film is the translation of the play’s audience participation to a movie audience. During a love song, title cards are transposed onto the scene that say “Stinky Miller, your mother wants you home.” They appear periodically, getting more insistent. Finally, Kitty and Jeff stop singing and directly address Stinky. A silhouette of a boy moves across the screen. “That’s a good boy,” says Kitty before resuming her song.

Cousin Louie’s camera movements provide additional intrigue, as he seems to be the cameraman filming the movie and trains his gaze on some bathing beauties when he should be following Olsen and Johnson as they walk. In another sequence, the film slips its sprockets, leaving a black bar at the bottom of the screen. The actors push down to reframe the film, but then the film slips too far, and the bar appears at the top. Disembodied hands reach up and push upward.

Hellzapoppin has one additional distinction. It has what many consider the best lindy hop ever filmed. I agree; see what you think.

Olsen and Johnson never duplicated the success of Hellzapoppin and have become a footnote in entertainment history. However, at least one heir to their comic tradition paid them homage. In a fictional town where everyone is named Johnson, one character is named Olsen Johnson. The film, of course, is Blazing Saddles. Mel Brooks knew exactly what he owed to Ole and Chic.

8th 08 - 2008 | 7 comments »

Famous Firsts: Red River (1948)

Focusing on the debut feature work of famous, and infamous, figures of film


Director: Howard Hawks
Debut film of: Montgomery Clift, actor

By Roderick Heath

A young actor first appears on the screen in Red River, listening with a kind of wide-eyed, excited, but strictly measured attention. It’s Montgomery Clift, a wonder boy fresh from a Broadway splash, suddenly thrust into cowboy gear and standing between two other actors, John Wayne and Walter Brennan, constituting a trio of actors it’s almost impossible to find more diverse. Star-making debut performances, where a fresh talent arrives immediately and permanently in a leading role, like Clift here, or Marlon Brando in The Men, or Katharine Hepburn’s in A Bill of Divorcement, don’t come along so often these days. That’s largely because the kind of career momentum actors might build up on, say, the Broadway stage and transfer directly to the screen, or the careful grooming by an industry sponsor, is nonexistent now; almost every actor has done a spot of TV or film work in building a career. Even for Clift, there were some wrinkles in his swift promotion to screen stardom. Red River, his first feature starring role, was filmed in 1946, but held back from release for nearly two years. So the public at large first saw him in Fred Zinnemann’s 1948 film The Search.


Red River needs little introduction as one of the cinema’s great Westerns, a frontier myth easily described as a variation on Mutiny on the Bounty reset on the range. However, as was director Hawks’ way, the drama is essentially a study of the intricacies of human relationships and the essential ambiguity of morality as it meshes with character. In this way, the tyrannical captain of the great cattle drive, Thomas Dunston (John Wayne), is not a cardboard figure of sadistic power, but a haunted, embittered patriarch whose ever-greater efforts to hold onto his dream see it slip further and further away. It’s only saved by his adopted son, Matthew Garth (Clift), who risks his neck and a prickly kind of love with the older man to save it for all of them, their surrogate grandfather Groot Nadine (Walter Brennan), and the men who entrust them with their lives and livelihoods. Matthew and Dunston come into conflict when Matthew intervenes to save the lives of men Dunston wants to hang for trying to bail out on his great, desperate quest.

It’s hard not read subtext into Red River. Hawks’ films are generally typified as being about men doing manly things, idealizing masculine codes of behavior espousing stoic taciturnity and economy of emotion, virtually verboten in modern pop culture. Yet Hawks loved to explore ambiguities in such behavior. Men who had flunked the code, like Richard Barthelmess in Only Angels Have Wings, could yet live up to it; other men, who seem to exemplify it, end up flunking badly, like Dunston here. Then there is, of course, the famous Hawksian lady, here embodied with steely verve by Joanne Dru as Tess Millay, a dancer hooked up with a wagon train of gamblers and prostitutes heading to set up a proto-Vegas, and also by Fen (Coleen Gray), as the lady love Dunston loses early in the film.


The central clash of characters between Dunston and Matthew drives the entire film, though so much of its visual rhetoric seems merely to be about shifting cattle across the land. It’s vital because the question of the film is this: though this is man’s work, and the country a man’s country, what kind of man is the best at fulfilling this near-Homeric quest? A repetition in the narrative places Dunston and Matthew in their respective, divided positions. Both meet their true loves in wagon trains (which move east to west, whereas the cattle drive moves south to north). But Dunston walks away from the train, only to see it and his lady burn. Dunston thus turns his back on the steady march of civilization, and heads out into the wilderness without women or laws or religion or comfort to forge an empire in the Texas plains. His kind is needed to begin this great project, this American range. Matthew rides to the rescue of another wagon train that is under attack by Indians, and saves Tess in the process of rescuing the fruits of Dunston’s labor from himself. This is the crucial gap. Dunston is a destroyer, a quick draw pioneer who leaves behind civilization and womankind. Matthew’s kind is needed to complete the quest.

Hawks seems to have played on the fact that he cast a gay actor (or at least, acknowledging the fact he’s an awfully pretty one) in Matthew’s tangled relations with Dunston. Their relationship is mostly like that of a vengeful father who loves his son but wants him to grow up in the “right” way as his kind of authoritarian patriarch, independent and remote. And yet he casts Matthew, with his youth and beauty, as the closest thing to a woman in his life. He establishes these warring impulses, this sickly confusion of masculine and feminine qualities, by giving Matthew Fen’s wristband, not as a sexual surrogate, but as an emotional one. Nonetheless, Dunston ultimately casts Matthew in a feminine role and imbues him with a more complex identity fundamentally at odds with his own that he can’t stand when it makes itself apparent. The film makes a bold and valid point, that Dunston’s hyper-macho behavior, supposedly hard-headed and naturally effective, is, in fact, defined by hysteria, a wild, stunting refusal to regard human or natural concerns with acceptance.

Hawks seems to have been acutely aware of Clift’s new kind of energy. Replace him in the part with a more traditional male presence like Gregory Peck or Wayne himself 10 years earlier, and a lot of the film would instantly start seeming ridiculous. The film’s gay—or, more precisely, bi—subtext asserts itself when Matthew compares guns and shooting styles with Cherry Vallance (John Ireland), a more macho man but with a strikingly effeminate name, to Groot’s prediction that “that pair are certain to tangle some day.” Perhaps they do, but not in the fashion Groot means. Cherry becomes Matthew’s stalwart supporter, helping his coup against Dunston and later trying to intervene in their final clash; his being swatted aside almost casually by Dunston is reminiscent of wicked homophobic patriarch Patrick McGoohan hurling his son’s gay lover out the window in Braveheart.

But Cherry is also a transitory companion for Matthew. Cherry splits up the double act when he goes searching for womankind, and instead ends up digging up one for Matthew. Later, it’s Cherry whom Tess relies on to learn about the man who taunts and intrigues her. If Tess, the Hawksian woman, combines a dose of masculinity with her femininity and creates an ideal, so, too, does Matthew prove that a man with a large dash of the feminine is equally ideal. His concern for others, his willingness to explore the road less traveled, his breadth of emotional reach make him a better, braver leader of men than Dunston in the end, when what is required is not the man who smashes and shoots and digs.

Clift developed a core persona in his starring roles as a man of febrile intelligence, passive manners, ill-fitting emotional and social status, possessed of civility and a hazy type of ambition. Because of this persona, he is presumed to be weak by the he-men, but when he finally fights back, he proves to have an iron character. This broadly fits his characters here and in I Confess, From Here to Eternity, The Young Lions, and Raintree County. His acting style later became striking for his capacity to portray high emotion subtly, as if he’s slicing off pieces of his soul one by one and feeding them into his art, at its height in A Place in the Sun and Judgment at Nuremburg. This force of will strains to crack that beautiful face, and after it was marred in his car accident, he became even more volatile as a portrayer of neurotics, shivering wrecks, and hurting, conscientious men.


“No, no you won’t.”

In Red River, he maintains the same cool taciturnity as the rest of the cast, except in his wide, intrigued eyes, receptive as radar dishes, soaking up detail, registering alternately amused, appalled, incensed, and finally unblinking in facing up to Dunston’s wrath. When he responds to Dunston’s plan to hang three deserters, “No, no you won’t,” he reads the line without melodrama or scowling, but with a clear, simple diction, establishing that he has reached a point of basic refusal. Indeed, Clift’s performance is largely defined by its stillness, his becalmed face and naturalistic postures. He does not mould his body and face to the demands of the screen, like Wayne with his adamantine grace, or to highlight the individuality of his character, like twitchy, rubber-faced Brennan, but rather to express the inner stylings of Matthew’s mind. His performance wells from within, requiring us to intuit his thinking and feeling. Although he was preceded in Hollywood by John Garfield and William Holden, Clift was the first of the vanguard Method actors to alter the energy of the cinema screen. To some extent, though, Clift also updates the fundamental approach of Gary Cooper, who also used stillness and intuition in his acting.


The film builds to a finale that is controversial in its swing from thunderous tension to comic anticlimax, as Dunston, on the warpath, cuts down Cherry and proceeds to taunt Matthew, every inch the alpha male set on abusing the girly-man usurper. Matthew is happy to remain passive when there’s a chance of them actually killing each other in the course of Dunston’s hysteria. Dunston instead starts to beat him. Matthew puts up with this for a while, until, finally, he hits back, with such startling force Dunston pitches back goggle-eyed and wide-mouthed. They begin pummeling each other until Tess breaks up their brawl by firing a gun in the dirt between them, angrily calling for an end to the spectacle. Groot delights in Matthew’s finally proving his grit to Dunston, but Tess recognizes he’s been drawn into playing Dunston’s game; she subverts their hyped-up masculinity by forcing both men to bow before a strong woman, and realize their differences are fundamentally childish. In this regard, the climax is perfect.


14th 07 - 2008 | no comment »

Famous Firsts: The Verdict (1946)

Focusing on the debut feature work of famous, and infamous, figures of film

Debut film of: Don Siegel, director


By Roderick Heath

A tale of a vigilante policeman that begins with the peal of a church bell—this could describe Dirty Harry (1971), the biggest hit of Don Siegel’s career. And yet it also describes The Verdict, Siegel’s directorial gambit of 25 years earlier.

Siegel had been for many years the top editor at Warner Bros, contributing his superb montages to films like The Roaring Twenties (1939) and Across the Pacific (1942). As Siegel put it: “I actually shot more footage for Warner Brothers than any of their highly touted directors, but when I went to Jack Warner and said I wanted to be a director…He said ‘Look, I can get directors a dime a dozen. But who am I going to get to do the action sequences, the inserts, and the montages?’ So I said, ‘Fine, pay me what you pay the directors, and I’ll carry on doing that stuff for you.’”

After a couple of shorts and a lot of patience, he finally got to helm a vehicle for one of Hollywood’s strangest, and yet most entertaining, double acts: Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet, who had proven their star worth without Humphrey Bogart in two terrific films, The Mask of Dimitrios (1944) and Three Strangers (1946). The Verdict is Victorian era, and right from the brilliant opening shot where Siegel’s camera swoops in on the tower where the bell tolls in Newgate Prison’s chapel tower for a condemned man on a fog-wreathed night, it’s easy to spot his talent. As well as establishing Siegel’s visual fondness for vertiginous heights and angles, the shot also anticipates one in Dirty Harry in which Siegel’s camera swoops upwards dizzyingly from Harry Callahan’s (Clint Eastwood) torture of Scorpio (Andy Robinson) in the centre of a football field; both shots entwine the sometimes cruel and salutary nature of a thirst for justice with godlike perspective.

The condemned man here is Harris, convicted for the murder of social scion Hannah Kendall. The man who convicted him, Supt. George Grodman (Greenstreet), meditates on the ironies of a profession where success means taking a man’s life: “I have no personal feelings. We are only instruments of justice, like the court that condemns.” But Grodman is in for a nasty shock. Called in by his superior (Holmes Herbert) at Scotland Yard, Grodman learns from his chief rival—the ambitious, supercilious Supt. Buckley (George Coulouris)—that he has proven Harris’ innocence. Scandal erupts and tars the Yard’s competence, and Grodman is forced to retire. The case haunts him, not just because of Harris’ fate, but also because the murder victim’s nephew, Arthur Kendall (Morton Lowry), is his next-door neighbor and friend. Grodman sets out to write an account of his career.

Grodman’s best friend, artist and bon vivant Victor Emmric (Lorre), attempts to cheer him up by throwing him a birthday party, inviting Kendall and another next-door neighbor, liberal MP Clive Russell (Paul Cavanaugh). The pairing of Kendall and Russell is disastrous. Russell detests Kendall who, as a mine owner, exploits and degrades the men who are Russell’s constituents. Russell threatens to silence him once and for all when Kendall promises to pressure him with the identity of his secret mistress. Kendall, not a popular man this night, also argues with his girlfriend, singer Lottie Rawson (Joan Lorring), before settling down to bed. The next day, Kendall doesn’t answer the knock at his door by his batty, smitten landlady, Mrs. Benson (Rosalind Ivan), and she runs next door to fetch Grodman. He busts through Kendall’s door, and warns Mrs. Benson not to look…


It is assumed that whoever killed the aunt returned for the nephew. Buckley leads the investigation, and casts his unctuous suspicion on everyone. The case is baffling, as there’s no explanation for how the killer got out of the locked room—even a burglar (Clyde Cook) can’t work out a method. Grodman is hugely amused by Buckley’s floundering, and he and Victor begin a little sleuthing, chiefly an excuse for Victor to romance Lottie.

Lottie is suspect when she attempts to retrieve a valuable watch fob she gave to Kendall, and is caught by Buckley. Attempts to locate the fob prove fruitless until it’s suggested it was buried with Kendall, prompting his exhumation. Lottie is released when the fob is found, but is now stalked by a shadowy presence assailing her with warnings not to talk about Russell and his mistress. But Lottie has already blabbed about that to Buckley.

Russell becomes the chief suspect, and his refusal to divulge the name of his lady friend entraps him. Meanwhile, Victor’s suspicions are closer to home, and he searches Grodman’s apartment. When the stalking presence tries to enter Victor’s bedroom, he takes a shot at it. Russell is tried, and sentenced to death. Grodman convinces Russell to let him track down his mistress, the estranged wife of a Lord, and convince her to confirm his alibi. Grodman pursues her all over France, only to catch up with her at her funeral.

With all avenues of saving Russell from the gallows exhausted, Grodman triumphantly confesses to the murder. Having realized that Kendall killed his own aunt for her money, and then used Grodman in setting up Harris for the fall, and with no way of proving it, Grodman took justice into his own hands. He used many contrivances designed to muddy the waters and fool Buckley as much as possible, but won’t let Russell pay the price for his acts.


Siegel handles the stringent production expertly, slathering the action in fog and shadow. With some terrific actors, Siegel conjures the kind of ripping yarn that’s a pure pleasure to watch. Even the awful Cockney accents of the bit players add cheesy fun. Siegel replies to the evidently low budget with an economic, but technically accomplished style, with expressionistic camera angles, careful lighting (witness the ghoulish delight that is the exhumation scene), and inventive model work (as in the opening shot) to conjure an elegantly bogus Victorian London that looks like the one you imagine when reading a Sherlock Holmes story. Indeed, The Verdict was based on a novel, The Big Bow Mystery, by Victorian writer Israel Zangwill. Zangwill’s novel was a social satire and riff on the detective genre that was already cliché-ridden. Siegel and screenwriter Peter Milne toy with the novel’s elements to give it a more individual moral imperative. The murder victim is changed from an orator of leftist values into a filthy example of capitalist evil, and the progressive, Russell, is the pillar of conflicted conscience whose life must be saved. Grodman’s actions and motivations have been altered to make his crime utterly sympathetic.

But it’s the detail of Grodman’s ironic status as both avenger and murderer that proves Siegel was fascinated by the idea of breaking the law in a heinous fashion to achieve justice, which casts Dirty Harry, still often regarded merely as a sop to reactionaries, in a different light. Harsh reversals of moral expectation and identification are a Siegel trademark—witness the people who have to fear and kill their own neighbors in Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), the schoolgirls who are far more dangerous to the soldier than he is to them in The Beguiled (1969), or the criminals who gain our empathy in Escape From Alcatraz (1979). Many Siegel heroes are criminals, bastards, or not what they appear to be. He took that last device to an extreme in Body Snatchers, but also including heroic figures like Robert Mitchum’s army officer pretending to be a gangster in The Big Steal (1949) and Shirley MacLaine’s whore-dressed-as-a-nun in Two Mules for Sister Sara (1971).

The Verdict is a transitional film. It straddles genres that were running out of puff in post-war Hollywood—the crisp, quaint mystery yarn with an Anglophile bent, Charlie Chan, Sherlock Holmes, Mr. Moto, Philo Vance, The Falcon, The Saint, and all the other detective franchises and one-offs and the Universal-style gothic chiller. The Verdict pays homage to these, whilst, simultaneously, the harder, dark-drenched, morally ambivalent noir genre was taking grip. Siegel toys with the structure, sympathies, and style of The Verdict to make it count as a noir work; though the first two-thirds of the film are fun in the Holmesian tradition, the last third in which Grodman’s efforts to save Russell gain in grim urgency, take it to another level.


Siegel observed of Greenstreet and Lorre, who work together so well on screen they seemed to have been doing it for decades, that they actually had very different work habits: “If you changed so much as a comma, Sydney was upset…He wanted to get his cues down to the word, and studied his part very carefully. On the other hand, not only didn’t Peter study, but he would come on the set as if he didn’t even know what studio he was in.” The Verdict riffs on their screen personas. It’s fun seeing Lorre play a party animal and ladies’ man, but Victor is also incurably morbid, crowing, when Kendall’s body is exhumed that “I’ve always had an unconscious desire to see a grave opened, especially at night!”and complaining, in illustrating Grodman’s book, “I’ve done three stabbings in a row! How about a nice juicy strangling?” The film uses Lorre’s real-life hobby of sketch art creatively. And there’s a recurring gag where Grodman remarks on Buckley’s attempts to fill Grodman’s britches, emphasizing the capacious girth of Greenstreet’s posterior. Backing them up is Coulouris, always a joy at playing slimy arrogance. One weak link is Lorring’s lousy accent.

It’s far from being a great or perfect film. It’s weighed down by standard touches, like clumsy comic relief and the ever-tiresome staple of the shoehorned song-and-dance number, here a “racy” song performed by Lottie, in a “Royal Music Hall,” which looks more like a bad theater restaurant. Although it portends many of the themes and interests of Siegel’s career, in other ways, its retro, studio-bound class is at odds with the style the director would develop. With The Big Steal, Siegel dragged the noir film out on location and kept it there, leading to the stark, utterly modern stylishness Siegel had mastered by the time of Coogan’s Bluff (1969) and Dirty Harry. But The Verdict is a delightful melodrama and the sort of film that stands for what Old Hollywood at its best was all about.


2nd 07 - 2008 | 10 comments »

Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942)

Director: Michael Curtiz


By Marilyn Ferdinand

My mother thanks you, my father thanks you, my sister thanks you, and I thank you.


So ended the popular vaudeville act of The Four Cohans, who entertained audiences across the country with their singing, dancing, and clowning around in the late 1800s. So, too, did those words burn into my impressionable adolescent brain and remain with me to this day as perhaps the most memorable line of that traditional 4th of July movie, Yankee Doodle Dandy. It’s not Independence Day yet, and Yankee Doodle Dandy is now only a traditional offering on Turner Classic Movies, but I’d like to put this movie out there for consideration by a new generation of film buffs, particularly those who might like to get a handle on films of the 40s, a rich and often misunderstood era.

James%20edit.JPGJames Cagney won his only Best Actor Oscar for his portrayal of showbiz phenomenon George M. Cohan. Did he deserve it? Compared with the other nominees (Ronald Colman in Random Harvest, Gary Cooper in Pride of the Yankees, Walter Pidgeon in Mrs. Miniver, and Monty Woolley in The Pied Piper), I’d say that he probably did. Cornball and boisterous he was indeed, but that is exactly how Cohan was always described. Cagney was also charged with that special something he always got when he had the rare opportunity to perform in his favorite kind of film—a musical. Here was the intensity he brought to his gangsters—Tom Powers, Cody Garrett, Martin Snyder—in service of a tour de force performance of pure joy. His singing (not so hot, but expressive), his dancing (eccentric and strange to modern eyes, but masterfully entertaining and done in Cohan’s style), and, of course, his acting, which could turn from bravado to playful to soulful in just the right measure, all came together like a force of nature to tell perhaps the ultimate showbiz story.


The film opens in 1940, recounting the historic awarding of the Congressional Medal of Honor to Cohan for writing the patriotic song “Over There,” an unofficial fight song for military men who fought in World War I and then in World War II. Cohan, the ultimate flag waver, is intimidated as he follows the Negro footman (the frequently working but often uncredited Clinton Rosemund) up a winding staircase to meet President Roosevelt (voice of Art Gilmore). In broad tones, with his back to the camera, Roosevelt reminisces about The Four Cohans, and Cohan launches into a full-blown flashback, with voiceovers from time to time to connect the scenes.


We go all the way back to George’s father, Jerry (Walter Huston), on stage and waiting to hear word about his wife Nellie (Rosemary DeCamp), who is in labor. When the baby who would grow up to be George M. arrives, Jerry rushes through a 4th of July parade to Nellie’s bedside. Jerry suggests they name him George Washington, but must settle for George Michael. An unironic shot of baby George shows him with an American flag in his tiny fist.

We move swiftly through the birth of George’s sister Josie, who, grown-up, is played by Cagney’s real sister, Jeanne Cagney; stints on the vaudeville stage; and on to a production of “Peck’s Bad Boy,” with young George (Henry Blair) as star. George’s ego gets the better of him backstage when the Cohans get word that an important scout for a top vaudeville circuit wants to speak with them. He offers them a contract, but George fouls up the deal. He receives a spanking (“here’s a part without any talent”) after Nellie warns Jerry not to hit him in the mouth (“he has to sing”) or the hands (“he has to play the violin”).


The Cohans appear in a regional play, with George in white beard and wig playing his mother’s father. An 18-year-old girl named Mary (Joan Leslie) comes backstage to ask the advice of the wizened professional. She thinks she has talent and demonstrates her dancing abilities to George, who playfully gives her contradictory advice about her dancing style and then assures a beautiful chorine who sticks her head into his dressing room that their date for the evening is on. Mary, confused, asks if she’s his granddaughter. George replies, “Well, I do have to make up older than I really am,” and starts peeling off his whiskers and erasing his greasepaint wrinkles. When he pulls off his wig, Mary screams. He drops the wig to the floor, stomps on it, and says, “Got it.” Mary becomes part of the Cohan troupe.


George has begun writing plays. Our introduction to Cohan’s long-time partner Sam Harris (Richard Whorf) is a humorous meeting in the offices of theatrical agents Dietz & Goff (George Tobias and Chester Chute). Harris is trying to sell them a melodrama with Indians and flames and stampeding horses. George is pitching “Fifty Miles from Boston,” with Mary along to sing “Harrigan.” Dietz & Goff don’t like either of them. Both budding playwrights go separately to a tavern to drown their sorrows. Harris tries another pitch to German theatre angel Schwab (S.Z. Sakall). Schwab says he wants pretty dancing girls. George, overhearing their conversation, pretends that Harris is his partner and tells him Dietz & Goff may be interested in his musical. Schwab, disconcerted that Harris has been sitting on a musical, asks, “Why is Dietz’s wife’s money better than my wife’s money?” With a covert introduction and a handshake, Cohan & Harris is born, with one hit after another backed by the creative team. This scene is pure hokum and very far from the truth about the formation of the team, but it is extremely well-written and performed with the razor-sharp comic timing Cagney perfected with Pat O’Brien in Boy Meets Girl (1938) and Joan Blondell in Footlight Parade (1933).

Yankee%20templeton.gifCohan moves on to court Broadway star Fay Templeton (the marvelous Irene Manning) to headline his new musical. Templeton’s agent is urging her to hitch her wagon to the hottest thing on Broadway, but Templeton finds Cohan too vulgar for her refined image. When Cohan comes to call on her, she openly scorns him, but is won over by a song he wrote while she was on stage, “Forty-Five Minutes from Broadway,” which becomes the name of the show. She debuts the song “Mary, It’s a Grand Old Name,” in the show, while the real Mary, now Cohan’s wife and for whom the song supposedly was written, watches adoringly from her theatre box.

In 1904, Cohan opens the musical “Little Johnny Jones.” I think it’s interesting what a critic of the time says of this musical:

At the Providence Opera House last evening George M. Cohan, one of “the Four,” with a good-sized company, began a week’s engagement in his latest musical offense, “Little Johnny Jones.” The production still has “four Cohans,” although Josephine has deserted the fold. Father and mother are still with the show and so is Ethel Levey, who is Mrs. George M. in private life. The combination shows its familiar styles of varied talents neither better or worse than when last seen in this city and the entertainment is about of the usual Cohan standard, although there are features in this offering that have never been seen on any stage before. The extremely large audience present left no doubt as to its hearty approval of the whole affair. The applause was frequent and there were curtain calls and a speech by the “author actor.” All of which was in sad contrast to the comparatively slim and indifferent greeting extended to Miss Eleanor Robson, week before last, as well as to many of the previous attractions of marked artistic merit.

Now take a look at the Warner Bros version of this musical offense.

Certainly, we can see the cornball to which the reviewer objected, but this is a magnificent entertainment made even moreso by Cagney’s cocksure charisma.

The dramatic moments in the film are generally fine, though Leslie and Cagney generate all the fire of a wet match. Even a wholesome musical ought to make marriage look like a pleasure, not something you retire to. Some moments, however, are quite poignant. For example, Josie and George talk at the family farm, and Josie tells him she is getting married and retiring. This scene actually took place between Jeanne and James, who were a vaudeville team, and thus, there is a personal note that I find moving. In another scene, George, walking alongside some soldiers getting ready to ship out during World War II, is chided for not singing their marching song: “Don’t you remember it?” “Seems to me I do,” he answers, and joins in singing “Over There.” Most moving of all is when George rushes to his father’s death bed. His father is delirious, talking about the early days of the act, and George plays along. When Jerry finally expires, George tries to say the act’s closing line, “My mother thanks you…” but breaks down into tears. He’s the only one of the Four Cohans left.

The flag waving goes into overdrive for the final musical number that ends the film, “You’re a Grand Old Flag,” from “George Washington, Jr.,” ensuring the kind of show-stopping pleasure Cohan always loved to give the crowds. I’m a pretty well-developed cynic when it comes to patriotism, but the dedicated craft of all of those involved in creating Yankee Doodle Dandy never fails to put a smile on my face. I’m sure that in an America embroiled in war, this film, like so many others made at this time, helped ease the pain of parted loved ones, wartime rationing, and social uncertainty. James Cagney holds nothing back in portraying an American patriot who wasn’t afraid to wear his heart on his sleeve. Give it a try. You just might feel a little bit better about America afterward.

19th 06 - 2008 | 2 comments »

Famous Firsts: Sanshiro Sugata (Judo Story, 1943)

Focusing on the debut feature work of famous, and infamous, figures of film

Debut film of: Akira Kurosawa, writer and director


By Roderick Heath

Before he made Sanshiro Sugata, Akira Kurosawa (1910-1998) worked for years as an assistant director and screenwriter. He worked on several projects where, he later reported, he had been left to his own devices in getting them completed. We could consider that he essentially directed these films—including Uma (1941)—himself. Nevertheless, Sanshiro Sugata was the first completed feature film to carry the credit “Directed by Akira Kurosawa.” Sanshiro Sugata has a compact energy and sense of form that establishes a cinematic intelligence far above the ordinary. It portrays, in an immature and limited fashion, the images, ideas, and emotions that will recur in complex and nuanced ways throughout Kurosawa’s career. Released when WWII was still raging, it was edited by nearly 20 minutes after the occupation, and the excised sequences only exist in very ragged form. Based on a popular novel by Tsuneo Tomita that would have a half-dozen other adaptations in the next 50 years, Sanshiro Sugata feels like a foundation text not just for Kurosawa’s career, but also for the whole genre of Asian martial arts movies. You know the drill—impulsive student learns from stern master how to master himself, as the means by which he transcends from try-hard to great warrior. A vast swathe of genre filmmaking, from Star Wars to The Karate Kid, owes a big something to this film.


The film is set in the 1890s. Sanshiro, embodied by the appealingly average-looking Susumu Fujita, wants to become a martial arts master. He comes to the seedy Jujutsu school run by Monma, who lounges about with his indolent, aggressive students, incensed by the rumored superiority of the new fighting style of Shudokan Judo practised by Sensei Yano (Denjirô Ôkôchi). Monma leads his students to attack Yano on the street. Cornering him on the bank of the canal, the students all end up pitched into the water, and Monma finishes up pinioned and ashamed. Worshipful of a new hero, Sanshiro volunteers to wheel Yano to his school in a deserted rickshaw.


Time passes, and we rediscover Sanshiro showing off his new Judo skills, beating up street toughs and Sumo wrestlers. Yano is angry at this thuggish display, Sanshiro, now shamed, throws himself into the muddy pond next to Yano’s house, angrily declaring his intention to die. “Go ahead and die, then!” Yano shouts. Sanshiro spends the rest of the night clinging to a rotten stake in the centre of the pond, where, in studying a flower, he realises the fragile nature of human existence and essence of a transcendental world-view, which gives him the self-insight to abase himself before Yano.

That’s the kind of pseudo-mystic jive we’re so familiar with in the genre and that Kurosawa portrays vividly, even though it’s cornball. Kurosawa would entirely toss out such claptrap from his later films. Kurosawa’s heroes usually have utterly corporeal talents, mixed with large dashes of guile; they generally prevail against enemies because they’re smarter. Even in his action films, Kurosawa usually had little time for the unrealistic. Fair enough. If, say, Errol Flynn’s Robin Hood had made it clear his amazing archery skills were thanks to “God-power,” audiences would have been wetting themselves with laughter.

More typical of Kurosawa is the subsequent development of Sanshiro becoming a great, but reluctant warrior. When he is let back in from the cold of Yano’s displeasure, he is chosen to fight in an exhibition match between his school and Monma’s, with future employment in training police officers at stake. He throws Monma against a wall, killing him and causing Monma’s daughter to attempt to stab him later. Such prowess attracts the dour attention of the Ryoi Shinto School, in the shape of star student Gennosuke Higaki (Ryunosuke Tsukigata), a dapper, gimlet-eyed gent who, as one student says, resembles a large snake. Higaki is eager to fight Sanshiro. But Sanshiro’s next fight is to be against Higaki’s sensei, the recovering alcoholic Murai, played by an actor who would become one of Kurosawa’s fondest faces, Takashi Shimura. Standing amidst this fraught trio is Murai’s pious daughter Sayo (Yukiko Todoroki), scared of the obnoxiously attentive Higaki, protective of her dissolute father, and attracted to Sanshiro. Sanshiro is tortured by the idea that he might kill Murai.

It’s here that the film’s only note of wartime propaganda is struck, when the school’s priest (Kokuten Kodo) admonishes Sanshiro for his reluctance, reminding him that his duty to the school demands he fight Murai and that this will be a truly selfless act. This “duty, right or wrong” moment conflicts with the texture of the film and with Kurosawa’s oeuvre, but then he only made Sanshiro Sugata after having several projects knocked back by the wartime censors. Sanshiro is, however, one of Kurosawa’s familiar, conscientious, all-too-human heroes. In combat with Murai, Sanshiro is nearly brought down by the elder sensei’s skill, but finally he gains the upper hand, the valiant older man rising agonisingly to his feet repeatedly only to suffer another violent toss, before conceding.


But Murai doesn’t die. As he recovers, he gets Sayo to invite Sanshiro to their house, and Sanshiro becomes a friend. When Higaki finds him at their house, he promptly challenges Sanshiro to a duel to the death. Their confrontation is staged on a reed-clad hillside during a strong windstorm. Higaki nearly topples Sanshiro, but Sanshiro, remembering the flower (flower power!), resurges and defeats Higaki. A brief coda follows, where Yano and the priest discuss the fact that Higaki has reformed and forgiven Sanshiro, and that Sanshiro has decided to travel. On the train leaving town, Sanshiro promises Sayo that he will return.

Although the story of Sanshiro Sugata is generic and familiar, it’s a vivid experience—swift and entertaining. Many debut films suffer from imbalance as budding directorial talents test out their ideas without much thought for the overall texture of the film, but Kurosawa barely puts a foot wrong. As in his later work, his close-ups are carefully thought out and sparingly employed. Perhaps the most memorable shot in the film is of Munmo’s daughter, having just seen her father die, staring implacably at the camera, her grief and madness registering as the tiniest muscular twitches. Kurosawa’s background as a landscape painter is always apparent in the way he frames his actors in relationship to the environment, interested not just in their faces but in the behaviour of their whole bodies. The core action scenes are developed in a continuum of intensity. The poise of his camera makes Yano’s early victory over Munmo’s jujutsu brats look effortless; to Sanshiro’s eye, there is no indication of the draining physical and spiritual force required. Later, Sanshiro’s fight with Murai is filled with close-ups of their sweating brows as they engage in a deathly dance, each balanced on a knife-edge between defeat and loss. Finally, when Sanshiro and Higaki battle, the whole earth seems to explode into fractious elements.

Kurosawa’s intense, almost pantheistic relationship to nature as a reflector and counterbalance to humanity is strikingly nascent. As he would do so often later, atmospheric touches overtly or subtly set the tone of scenes—from the insects incessantly chirping in the background when Yano castigates Sanshiro, to the breeze that underscores the hollow-hearted, alien Higaki’s entry into Murai’s house, and finally, to the epic winds and racing clouds of the final elemental clash of the two men—not between good and evil, exactly, but between the humbled, humane, and responsible, and the dictatorial, arrogant, and grasping.


Kurosawa would rarely offer hissable villains like Higaki. His villains tend to be either foolish, or so collectively ill-defined as to be nearly abstract symbols of tribulation, or shaded reflections of the heroes. Higaki is the man in himself Sanshiro has defeated. Higaki’s introduction is so utterly splendid—his umbrella handle enters the film before him, tapping Sanshiro’s shoulder—that his eventual unmasking as a cardboard-thin opponent emphasises the limitations of straight genre for Kurosawa’s strength of style. It’s another possible indicator of when it was made that Higaki dresses like an English gentleman, complete with bowler hat, where Sanshiro wears traditional dress.


In many regards the later film that best displays Kurosawa’s growth from this point is Sanjuro (1965), one his few straight genre films of later years, a funnier, but also angrier film than Sanshiro Sugata. Toshiro Mifune’s title character and Tatsuya Nakadai’s villain represent a similar conflict, virtually separate to the rest of the plot—that of men who see too much of themselves in each other. Mifune’s victory releases not joy, but a sickening welter of blood and the ronin’s self-disgust and disavowal of a violent path. Such dark duality is also a consistent motif, particularly in female characters, clearly present here in the mirror of Munmo’s burning-eyed daughter and Sayo, and Sanshiro’s fear that he will turn one into the other if he kills her father, too.

Kurosawa’s distrust of violence—concurrent with his fascination with it—and love of humanity is ultimately confirmed by the sentiment of Sanshiro and Murai’s friendship and Higaki’s late alteration. Sanshiro is defined as much as the Seven Samurai by his learned determination to use his gifts to fight for a value, and for other people, rather than for self-aggrandisement. And it work for Sanshiro, as he apparently converts Higaki. Although naïve, it’s still a fascinating message for a Japanese film of 1943.

All of that said, there isn’t much more of the dramatic and character richness of Kurosawa’s later work. Sayo is a regulation, radiantly submissive female far from the pithy heroines of The Hidden Fortress and Sanjuro, although it might be fair to say she anticipates the cosmically forgiving Lady Sué of Ran. Yano is a stock, wise Yoda figure. Higaki a bad guy for barely any more reason than the fact that he acts creepy.

More superficially, familiar stylistic flourishes are present. When Sanshiro is showing off on the streets, Kurosawa likewise shows off, with a series of mirroring crane shots descending down to the street level, showing crowds back away from the attacking Sanshiro as he races forward and picks out men to beat up. This kind of physical-force camera work would later have a profound effect on directors like Godard and Scorsese; likewise, his small dash of slow motion—when Munmo dies, a panel falls like a gentle petal from the wall onto the dead man’s back. Like the device’s similar use in the early stages of The Seven Samurai, it emphasises a sudden, sad realisation of the nature of death in what has been, up until now, a game. Sanshiro Sugata is a truly enlightening sketch of so much that was to come.


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