9th 04 - 2013 | 23 comments »

Taxi! (1932)

Director: Roy Del Ruth

James Cagney Blogathon

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

This post is part of the James Cagney Blogathon hosted by The Movie Projector.

There aren’t many actors with as defined and recognizable a screen persona as James Cagney. From his eccentric dancing in Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942) to his maniacal boast “Made it, Ma. Top of the world,” from White Heat (1949) and his star-making turn as Tom Powers in The Public Enemy (1930), which contained his most indelible moment—shoving half a grapefruit into Mae Clarke’s kisser—Cagney stands out like the genius performer he was to even the most casual film fan. Many people are familiar with the line “You dirty rat,” a stand-by for impressionists doing their best to imitate Cagney. That line, always misquoted, was actually “You dirty, yellow-bellied rat,” and it came from the film under consideration here, Taxi! The film is fairly typical fare from Warner Bros.: action-packed, urban, socially conscious, a scrappy central love affair between the lead performers, a comic secondary love affair between two character actors. Yet it has some interesting characteristics well worth closer examination: the toolbox of acting techniques Cagney developed from real life, the Irish-Jewish connection so common in the early decades of cinematic history, and scenes that harken back to the days before moving pictures talked.

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The story of Taxi! borrows from Harold Lloyd’s Speedy (1928), but instead of the consolidation of New York’s street cars, Taxi! concerns itself with the attempt of a taxicab company to drive independent cabbies out of business. As befits the pre-Code 1930s, Taxi! is more violent. In Speedy, the streetcar company merely tries to make Pop Dillon break his city contract by missing a day’s run, whereas Consolidated Cab, under orders from strong-arm boss Buck Gerard (David Landau), actually wrecks rival cabs—the film’s opening scene shows a metal worker fitting a Consolidated cab with steel beams under the wheel fenders to use as battering rams. Taxi! is also more topical, with Cagney’s character Matt Nolan preaching violent retaliation to an assembly of independent cabbies against the pleas to negotiate union-style terms by Sue Riley (Loretta Young), the daughter of a cabbie (Guy Kibbee) who went to prison for shooting the man who wrecked his cab. The fireworks of disagreement fan the attraction between Sue and Matt, and the two eventually marry.

What is so interesting about Taxi! is that it presents the complete Cagney: the tough guy, the lover, the dancer, and the mime. The latter isn’t something one necessarily thinks of when reviewing Cagney’s career, but his dancer’s background makes him a great physical actor. Director Roy Del Ruth, a silent film veteran, enjoys focusing on the wordless chemistry between Matt and Sue. Early on, Sue runs up the steep stairway to the elevated train, away from Matt, his friend Skeets (George E. Stone), and his brother Danny (Ray Cooke). The camera focuses on the backs of her legs, her stocking seams pointing toward parts more interesting, until Skeets finally says what our eyes have told us, “She’s got a great set of pins!”

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When Sue and Matt have a fight, a pantomime routine brings them back together. Matt throws his hat through Sue’s open door. She looks at the name in the hat band and signals to her friend Ruby (Leila Bennett) with just a nod that she will see him. Matt comes in. Sue turns away, as Matt silently cajoles. When they break their silence, Sue says something rude to Matt. He grabs her by the neck, puts a fist near her face and says, “If I thought you meant it,” and then kisses her. The last gesture was taken straight from Cagney’s father, one of many appropriations the actor would make from people he observed.

Perhaps to contrast the elegant simplicity of these gestures, Ruby is a chatterbox with one of the world’s most annoying voices. Methinks Del Ruth was making a bit of a comment on the annoyance of shooting with sound. Nonetheless, the director knew how to use sound economically to great effect. In a scene of two cars motoring urgently toward the hideout of Gerard—one bearing Matt to kill him for murdering Danny and the other carrying Sue, racing to try to prevent it—all we hear are the different pitches of the car engines in quick cross-cutting that builds to the film’s climax.

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Del Ruth had a sophisticated approach to his material that favored realism even while giving audiences what they wanted. He knew how to position the camera to show Cagney in all his fury, shooting him straight on with the pitiless look in his eyes the public craved. He shot a musical number, but avoided the usual production number obviousness that might have come from fellow director Mervyn LeRoy by making it a nightclub act and cross-cutting with Matt and Sue canoodling at a table as they celebrate their marriage earlier in the day. He also inserts a dance contest where Sue and Matt lose to a young woman and her dance partner (George Raft, in his screen debut), offering a bit of music while establishing Matt’s hot temper, which will drive a wedge between him and Sue and lead to tragedy.

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In an unusual tip of the hat to realism, an early scene has Matt listening to a Jew speak in Yiddish to an uncomprehending Irish cop. Cagney went to school with Jews and was fluent in the language. When he cuts in to the conversation and susses out what the man wants, he says to the man in Yiddish, “Did you think I was a gentile?” and replies to the cop’s skeptical question, “Nolan! What part of Ireland did you come from?” with a Yiddish-inflected, “Delancey Street,” a street Jews settled when they came to New York. At the time this film was made, Jews and Irish shared a similar experience as working-class immigrants who were near the lowest rung of American society, and as such, they were often paired in movies to suggest a social milieu audiences would identify immediately. With a plot built around the plight of the independent worker in a society that was fixed to favor big business, this suggestion of working-class solidarity would have driven home the social message with the subtlety that distinguishes this film and makes it relevant today. There is even a divorce to wrestle with.

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Cagney and Young are a very attractive couple who run hot and cold with believable intensity. Any actress who can hold her own with Cagney has my respect, but in fact, Young was making pictures before Cagney ever set foot on a sound stage (she has a cameo in Her Wild Oat [1927]). Some of my favorite character actors, like Guy Kibbee and David Landau, turn in affecting performances, and there is even a treat for fans of The Public Enemy. Matt and Sue double-date with Ruby and Skeets to see “Her Hour of Love,” a dummy film starring Donald Cook, who lost the part of Tom Powers to Cagney, settling for the part of Tom’s brother instead. When Sue praises Cook’s romantic technique, Cagney bests him again by giving Sue a passionate kiss that would curl anyone’s toes. The whole scene is a bit of a commercial for Warner Bros. (they also advertise John Barrymore’s The Mad Genius [1932] with a poster and a bit of dialogue) and a vintage bit of insider referencing for cinephiles that I adored.

James Cagney has a huge body of work, but for me, his work in the ’30s is unparalleled. The roiling social conditions, the frontier aspects of working with sound for the first time, and the pre-Code freedom filmmakers took full advantage of make many ’30s films unique treasures. Taxi! is one of them.


22nd 02 - 2009 | 8 comments »

The Organizer (I Compagni, 1963)

Director/Coscreenwriter: Mario Monicelli

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

One of the Oscar-nominated films this year, The Reader, shows the horrible consequences illiteracy can have on the lives of those who cannot read, causing its female protagonist to make a morally repugnant choice to keep her shameful deficit a secret. The Organizer is another film in which illiteracy plays a very large role, but shame isn’t something its victims feel; rather, the shame is largely on a society that exploits them by keeping them so exhausted that they haven’t got the energy to learn and so poor that they can’t wait to leave school and start earning some money.

The film, which takes place in the late 1890s, deals with the struggle of textile workers in Turin to improve their working conditions and wages. Under the opening credits, workers are heard singing a rousing labor song, “Marcia della cinghia” (“March of the strap”). Among them is Omero (Franco Ciolli), a young man of about 18, who has had to chop through ice to get water to pour from a pitcher into a scrub basin; after testing the water with his finger, he decides to skip washing before he sets off for a 14-hour shift at the factory.

Close-up, repetitive images of the shivering looms interspersed with workers tending to the turning gears, pushing gigantic metal spindles along the shop floor, and pushing fabric through sewing machines are scored by the screeching and drumming of the machines in action. Workers are given a mere half hour for lunch (in Italy!) and then answer the whistle to return to work. Nearing 8 p.m. and the end of their work day, workers nod at their posts. A sudden howl of pain has workers rush to one machine where Pietrino (Antonio di Silvio) works to free his ensnared hand. At the hospital, several of his coworkers take up a collection to help while he is recuperating from amputation. A Sicilian worker merely makes a “phsst” sound through his teeth when asked to contribute. The workers complain about all of the industrial accidents caused by the long hours, then hurry home, complaining about the sleep they’ve lost that night attending to their friend.

A group of workers meet the next day and decide to protest by blowing the whistle one hour early. The men and women, most notably the powerfully built Pautasso (Folco Lulli) and the equally powerfully built Adele (Gabriella Giorgelli), write their names on a piece of paper. The name drawn will be the one who sneaks up to blow the whistle. When the name is drawn, it is merely an “X.” “Who signed with an X?” Four men raise their hands. Pautasso shrugs and says, “I’ll do it.” Unfortunately, at 7:30 pm, the foreman comes to the boiler room, causing the workers who agreed to shut down the machines to keep them running when Pautasso blows the whistle. With the machines moving, the rest of the workers stay where they are. Pautasso is caught and suspended for two weeks.

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After work, as Pautasso storms out of the manager’s office with his daughter Maria (Edda Ferronao) in tow, stopping only to throw rocks at his “comrades,” a train pulls up. A bearded, ragged man evades a railroad conductor, and drops from the car in which he has stolen a ride. He goes to see his colleague Maestro di Meo (François Périer), a grade-school teacher in town who tries to teach the illiterate adults in Turin to read and write in the evening. Di Meo puts up Professor Sinigaglia (Marcello Mastrioanni) in a backroom. The next day, the still-disgruntled workers meet to form a committee to deal with the factory managers. Instead of leaving work early, they decide to go in one hour later. Sinigaglia joins the group when young Raoul (Renato Salvatori) proclaims skepticism at their chances of success against the bosses. Sinigaglia agrees with Raoul that they should not risk failure for so little, and agitates them to go on strike. So begins a month-long action that will see two of the workers die—one in an attempt to keep poor, unemployed men from another town from scabbing their jobs, the other in a march on the factory to demand their rights—and more collections taken on their behalf, racist-laced anger at the Sicilian who asks to go back to work melt when they see how incredibly poor he and his family are, and a new union organizer made.

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Monicelli, best known worldwide for his comic caper Big Deal on Madonna Street, has a deft hand for both the fine details and broad strokes of comedy and uses them to flesh out a story that in other hands has been told with tragic seriousness. Mastrioanni’s character is chronically hungry. Right after his first appearance, he is seen spotting and grabbing hold of a sandwich one of the workers has left on a table. The worker comes back to retrieve the sandwich—when he sees it in the professor’s hands, his friendliness melts away and, glaring, he confiscates it from the sheepish organizer and stares back suspiciously at him as he climbs the stairs to the street. In another scene, a streetwalker named Niobe (Annie Girardot) takes pity on the professor, who has had to flee from his billet in Raoul’s apartment to avoid arrest, and tells him he can stay at her place. We watch the professor eye her as she removes her clothes behind a curtain and washes. When she settles into her big brass bed and eyes him in his long johns on a hard window seat, she hardly has the words out to invite him into her bed before he dashes to her side.

The factory owner is another piece of work. Obviously inspired by Mr. Potter from It’s a Wonderful Life, he revels in his own nastiness, hitting his blindfolded, piñata-seeking granddaughter with his cane as he whizzes past her in his wheelchair to whine to his managers about the money he is losing to the strike. He invites them to join the birthday party, then reconsiders when he sees they’re not dressed properly. As he slams out of the room, the nonplussed managers merely look down at their suits.

Organizer%205.jpgThe community of workers is large, and Monicelli finds room to tell more than a few stories. While he highlights some families, the sense of shared fates is strong, particularly in the seemingly endless collections they take. When the striking textile workers steal coal from an idle coal car, the professor tries to persuade the railroad workers to strike in solidarity. His request is refused with the remark, “I’m letting them steal coal, aren’t I?” Nobody can really afford to be without work, yet as we learn early, “hands don’t grow back.” Mastrioanni’s character represents idealism, but based on a very real need that simply could not go unanswered. Education, as well, is given a lot of attention in the film, with Omero beating up his underperforming younger brother for wanting to quit school and join him in the factory. “I’d rather kill you than see you do what I do,” he says, a desperate statement that shows how deadly serious this often light film really is.

In fact, The Organizer reveals many familiar patterns of labor films, and in that vein, distances the audience from deep pain by creating slightly shallow characterizations. The idea, I think, behind this common genre strategy is to allow viewers to project themselves into the masses of workers, deliberately emphasizing in Brechtian style a movement over individuality. It is the problem of a few individuals who want to keep the good life for themselves that creates the misery of the many, and labor films seek to put these facts in high relief. It may be a bit detrimental to the cause, however, to allow audiences to skim the depth of despair and avoid truly mourning the loss of good men and women to poor working conditions and craven capitalists who value their property over human life.

In addition to the many wonderful comic/tragic performances of which Mastrioanni’s is only one, composer Carlo Rustichelli lends his considerable gifts to this film, punctuating the score with the types of comic moments for which he is known, particularly in his work with Pietro Germi. His tempos and Monicelli’s lively mise-en-scène keep this somewhat complex film humming with energy. His “Marcia della cinghia” is superb—I’d be surprised if it weren’t sung at labor rallies now as a legitimate populist march of solidarity.

Mario Monicelli has made buckets of movies, his most recent in 2006. Eric Rohmer announced his retirement this year, and he’s five years younger than Monicelli. Here’s hoping Monicelli will buck the “trend” and give us more films like The Organizer.


14th 03 - 2007 | no comment »

Boxcar Bertha (1971)

Martin Scorsese: A Retrospective in Words

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By Roderick Heath

Yes, as through this world I’ve wandered, I’ve seen lots of funny men
Some will rob you with a six-gun and some with a fountain pen,
And as through your life you travel, yes as through your life you roam,
You will never seen an outlaw drive a family from their home.
“Pretty Boy Floyd” – Woody Guthrie

“Congratulations!” John Cassavetes cried to erstwhile former employee and fan Martin Scorsese after viewing his second feature, Boxcar Bertha, “You’ve spent a year of your life making shit!”

Shit? No, not at all. It’s almost worthy of the declaration, “Scorsese and Corman, Together At Last!” Roger Corman was one of the top four or five creative forces in American cinema at a time when the studios were brontosaurs collapsing under their own weight. Many talents—Francis Coppola, Peter Bogdanovich, Nicholas Roeg, Robert Towne, Monte Hellman—passed through Cormanville on the way to Tinseltown. Corman handed Scorsese $600,000 and a simple equation: give skin, have artistic freedom. Hell yes, Marty said. The film is most memorable to many for the Playboy photo spread it yielded. Letting Barbara Hershey wear a gold belly chain for a sex scene in a Depression-era ruin is pretty dumb.

Boxcar Bertha is indeed an extraordinarily sensual film, though I’m not referring to eyefuls of Hershey (her best performance, light years from her later, mannered drip). Scorsese composed 500 storyboards preparing the film and shot on location. Despite the low budget he conjures a delicious feel for time and place, a quality of light, a world that positively reeks of morning dew, coal smoke, lovers’ flesh, fresh-cut wood. One of the post-Bonnie & Clyde wave of Depression-exploit flicks (see Big Bad Mama, The Grissom Gang) but one with more than bullet-riddled flappers on its mind. The epic anthropologist of Gangs of New York lurks here, digging into a past of labor wars, gambling, prostitution, racism, of grim survival located just on the edge of a collective memory. “Just what are these Reds, anyway?’ Bertha asks, quoting Tom Joad. The movies have a longer memory than society. Rather than being based on a pulp novel or tabloid hero, the film is adapted from the testimony of a real Bertha, as recounted in Ben L. Reitman’s oral history Sisters of the Road.
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Bertha’s the auburn-haired, dress-bursting peach of a daughter of a barnstorming crop duster. In the pre-title sequence, he’s sent aloft in a rickety plane by unscrupulous capitalist types. A bunch of workmen, including perpetually cop-dodging labor leader Big Bill Shelly (David Carradine, warming up for Woody Guthrie), and her pal, blues-blowing man-mountain Von Morton (Bernie Casey), watch with her in grief as Daddy crashes, and immediately start pummeling the men who have caused his death. Bertha wanders the highways and byways looking for a way to survive without becoming a prostitute. She’s in love with Bill—their unions are always sexually explosive (hello, skin)—but because he’s constantly pursued by strike breakers, they never can stay together.
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The one place Bill is safe is giving speeches. In an hilarious scene, he points out two “McIvers,” aka, railroad-employed private detectives (Victor Argo and David Osterhout, who resemble a malevolent Laurel and Hardy), to his crowd of attentive strikers, ordering them to beat the pair up. “Bullshit!” the McIvers blurt before bolting. Vengeance is theirs. When the strikers are jailed by redneck cops and Von is bullied, the prisoners start fighting back. They take the cops easily, but the McIvers calmly march in with shotguns and randomly blow holes in the rioters until the jail is a sea of carnage.

Bertha, still rambling, encounters a tight-lipped gambler who, the moment he opens his mouth, blows his identity as an exiled Noo Yawker. This is Rake Brown (Barry Primus), who might as well be Joey from Who’s That Knocking On My Door?—whiny, fussy, sharp but comical, physically uncourageous, railroaded into foreign climes. Bertha coaches him in Southern elocution (“Mah dee-ah”) and poses as his elegant mistress, keeping opponents’ eyes on her figure rather than his cards. One game turns violent, and Bertha pops a guy with a derringer. Bertha and Rake spring Bill and Von from the clink, and the foursome find themselves described in the papers as a gang. Bill is stricken by the appellation. He’s a worker’s warrior, not a criminal, but when he learns even his union finds him persona non grata, he leads the foursome in a criminal war harrying capitalist institutions, most notably the Sartoris clan (cheeky Faulkner name-check) and its scion H. Buckram Sartoris (even cheekier, casting John Carradine, David’s father and the former Preacher Casey; the scene where David sticks him up and swaps Bible quotes is a film geek’s delight), raiding their trains and even a ritzy party.

Sartoris plots a trap, which they walk into. Rake, with chip on shoulder from being called a coward in the papers and being jilted by Bertha for Bill, refuses to surrender. The McIvers shoot him, giving Bertha a chance to make a break. On the chain gang, Bill is beaten and becomes ill. Bertha, hungry and desperate, takes up work in a brothel, where her clients include a glass-eating weirdo and a lonely guy who doesn’t want to sleep alone (Scorsese himself, plump and beardless, in his first cameo). One night, passing a blues joint, she hears a familiar wail.
Inside Bill%20crucified.bmpshe finds Von, who has been released. He reveals Bill has escaped. Von takes her to the shack where Bill is holed up, and she finds a gray-haired wreck of a man, ponderously penning radical tracts like a down-home Trotsky. Bertha stirs Bill back to passion, and Von leaves them alone. As they leave the shack, they are set upon by the McIvers and hillbilly thugs. As a final punishment for the offending rebel, they crucify Bill on the door of a boxcar, forcing Bertha to watch.

Ah, Marty, ever the Catholic fetishist. He is, however, drawing the vital link in image and theme with the pre-Moral Majority conjunction of the labor movement and Christian idealism, the folk-wisdom of Woody Guthrie’s Jesus Christ (and also Guthrie’s charitable outlaw Pretty Boy Floyd). Bertha is Scorsese’s most baldly pinko film. Its imagery anticipates the twin religious/historical imagery of Bob Dylan’s lyrics and anticipates, with its boxcar Jesus, Dylan’s “Idiot Wind.” The heroes of Boxcar Bertha, not as conflicted as later Scorsese protagonists, are a likable bunch of outsiders, all of whom embody a different perspective—pre-hippie radical Bill, pre-civil-rights black individualist Von, prefeminist wild child Bertha, and Rake, his unmacho, urbane self tragically stuck in Hicksville. The villains are likewise plainly villains.

Dramatically speaking, the plotting is poor, and the film chugs and rattles more than one of its vintage steam trains. Scenes, characters, and acts come and go with picaresque speed and scant logic. The idea of Bill and his band conducting a guerrilla war on big business is brilliant, but these scenes are fiddle-and-banjo hijinks staged for yucks. Marty was still having difficulty calibrating his style to a story; in spurts, the film has the lean and dangerous despair of classic noir, the wistful melancholy of Nicholas Ray, the knockabout grace of Preston Sturges, but too often it’s overstuffed with comedic chicanery and tonal uncertainty. The cray-zy comedy and harsh violence sit uneasily together.

Yet I prefer it to most of its rivals of the time, of which there were many—comedy-drama westerns and gangster flicks infused with Hippie Americana. It evokes the world of Guthrie’s songs more effectively even than the biopic Bound for Glory (1976). It possesses a lucidity about the period conflicts that Bonnie & Clyde elides. Boxcar Bertha combines folk-nostalgic whimsy and Depression misery in a more meaningful way than The Sting (1973). Scorsese already has a deft flexibility, delivering sex and violence within an oddball, vital film. He creates startling shots, including one scene where dozens of escaping chain-gang convicts flee through stacks of fresh-cut timber and another with Bill, in a fury, marching down the hall of an abandoned warehouse being pursued by Bertha and Rake, slanting light sun-dogging on the lens. These shots are not just technically impressive, but also create a beatific historical vision.
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It’s also Scorsese’s first film to really deal in violence. When guns fire, Scorsese amplifies the sound to the point where shotguns sound like cannons and blow bloody gouges in people. When someone gets hurt, you feel it. I’ve rarely been happier to see a bunch of bad guys shot than at the end of this one, and when Von returns, takes up one of the McIvers’ shotguns, and massacres the thugs as they smugly watch Bill’s crucifixion, it’s hard not to cheer. Scorsese’s staging establishes his career’s dichotomist view of violence. He can’t really see Von’s outrage as a triumph (especially as he’s too late to save Bill) and Von, judging by his baleful final expression, finds even justified violence degrading and soul-depleting. All the ethic of violent repression practiced by the McIvers and Sartoris has accomplished is brutalizing everyone. In storyboarding the crucifixion scene, Scorsese specified the nails that pierce Bill’s hands be seen protruding from the wood, smeared with blood, visceral but avoiding a Mel Gibson horror show; he would repeat the shot later in The Last Temptation of Christ.

Bertha is still Scorsese’s most unaffected and appealing heroine, bolstered by the script written by the husband-and-wife team of Joyce Hooper Corrington and John William Corrington. Bertha is partly a bawdy joke fit for the period—a country girl in a loose dress looking for adventure, a cliché slowly dismantled as Bertha watches the men she loves destroyed and is driven to selling herself. It’s clear why, with the sympathetic and successfully drawn women of his first three films (The Girl, Bertha, and Mean Streets‘Theresa), Scorsese was chosen to direct Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore. Solid were his credentials as a cinematic feminist, but Scorsese would lose that reputation when his women became as perverse as his men.

Cassavetes was right, however, when he told Scorsese to do something personal next. With greater skill and experience, Scorsese would return to the old neighborhood in Mean Streets. Pause a moment, though, to regard the final shot of Boxcar Bertha, one of my favorite shots of all time—simply accomplished, but starkly effective—as a distraught Bertha runs alongside the moving train (a dangerous and impressive physical feat from Hershey), trying to keep hold of the dangling Bill’s hand, until she is left behind in the setting sun amidst the railside rubbish.

So long it’s been good to know ya.


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