Movies Are My Wife

Married to the Movies — Mdino's Blog

WISE BLOOD (1979)

Made toward the end of his career, John Huston’s WISE BLOOD (1979) is one of the iconic (and iconoclastic) director’s oddest films. A master at adapting what were often unfilmable novels, Huston crafted a rewarding version of Flannery O’Connor’s idiosyncratic depiction of Southern religiosity. But the film is offbeat to a fault, with segues into broad farce that are not always successful. And some parts of the movie are just plain weird…

Hazel Motes (Brad Dourif) returns angry and embittered from the Vietnam war to his small Southern hometown. He finds his house abandoned and the rest of the town in much the same condition. He has an overwhelming need to “do some things I ain’t never done before.” Exactly what, he has no idea – but these “things” will be monumental. Too big for this one horse town that has only a few more people than it does horses. The town having fallen on hard times, most of the citizens, it seems, have moved on to the nearest big city and Hazel decides to do the same. During his first day in the city he encounters an allegedly blind street preacher named Asa Hawks (Harry Dean Stanton) and his daughter Sabbath Lily (Amy Wright) distributing Bible tracts. Hazel has now found his calling – but with a peculiar bent all his own. As he tells a cab driver “I don’t believe in anything”, so it is fitting that the religion he establishes will be called “The Church of Truth Without Jesus Christ Crucified.” The story of this neo religious/atheistic experiment and its troubled founder constitute the remainder of the film, with all its amusements – and at times – horrors. Interwoven with this story is a major theme that is skillfully explored by O’Connor, Huston and his screenwriters Benedict and Michael Fitzgerald: Religion as a primal urge. This is not necessarily the same as the belief that faith is primitive – the domain of the unsophisticated. “Primal” is defined as “the first in time”; “original.” The filmmakers seem to be saying that the desire to know God has been with mankind since the beginning. Perhaps we were primitive, but the desire was and remains sublime. A similar theme would be developed in another film written by Benedict Fitzgerald: Mel Gibson’s THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST (2004).

Religion rules in the South: An opening montage treats us to various spiritually themed placards. Even a Dairy Queen has a “Jesus Saves” message on its sign. John Huston acknowledges his warm respect for what he feels are the simpler aspects of Southern living by including in the opening montage some misspellings, even presenting his own name in the credits as “JHON” Huston. Condescending? I don’t think so, though it must be pointed out that the belief that people south of the Mason Dixon line are poor spellers who utilize bad grammar, is silly and wrong-headed.

Upon returning home, Hazel visits the small family plot behind his childhood abode, stopping at the headstone of his Grandfather (John Huston), a fiery evangelical preacher. The epitaph reads “Gone to become an angle”, with the word angel obviously misspelled. But the decision of the WISE BLOOD creators to use a misspelling of this nature may serve as a double meaning of sorts. Many fake preachers everywhere are indeed working an “angle” – a disingenuous con. Apparently Hazel’s Grandfather was one of them.

On the train to the big city, Hazel meets a proper Southern Belle and proceeds to improperly offend her. “I reckon you think you been redeemed”, he snarls. The woman answers in the affirmative, annoying Hazel. After the train arrives at its destination, he finds what at the moment he believes to be true redemption, by visiting a prostitute named Leora Watts, whose name and address he takes from the station bathroom wall. The theme of sexuality as redemptive is aided immeasurably by the type of home Huston chooses for Leora’s residence: A small, wood building that could easily serve as the little church in the wildwood! As Hazel tells Asa on their first meeting “What do I need Jesus for? I got Leora Watts!”

In this city of what must have seemed to Hazel as endless possibilities, he soon meets Enoch Emory (Dan Shor), an eighteen year old – also new in town – who claims to “see signs…I know things I ain’t never learned.” Young Enoch calls this ability “wise blood”, prompting Hazel to think the teen is nuts. Of course, he will become the new religion’s first and only true disciple.

The two powerful drives – sex and religion – are combined in a neat flashback to Hazel’s childhood and his Grandfather’s tent revival show, as the young Hazel struggles to get up high enough to see into a coffin the old man uses as a prop for the service. Inside the casket lies a beautiful (and very much alive) young woman wearing nothing but underwear, fish net stockings and pasties. The Grandfather’s sermon warns of death as the wages of sexual sin. The flashback is in the form of a dream and Hazel wakes up in bed next to Leora.

Hazel purchases a used car that he envisions as a sign of the new church’s vitality. As he states later “Nobody with a good car needs to be justified.” But the vehicle – all he can afford – is hopelessly dilapidated. It does, however, get him to a museum where an excited Enoch shows him (and us) the central primal symbol in the film: A small Egyptian mummy. Enoch is enraptured by the ancient little man. When Hazel preaches about the need for “a new Jesus” – one that is “all man, without blood to waste” the delusional young man steals the dried up mummy from the museum in order to present it to Hazel as the new Messiah…

Her Father revealed as a fake, Sabbath moves in with Hazel, a man she desperately wants. She lustfully refers to him as “King of the Beasts”. We then cut to a van traversing the streets of the city, advertising “Gonga the Great Jungle Monarch” and the opportunity to shake hands with the gorilla star (Allan A. Apone in a gloriously cheesy gorilla suit) as a promotion for his new movie. The movie business is made up of hucksters too.

Sabbath is on hand to receive the package from Enoch, with instructions to hand it over to Hazel as soon as possible. This leads to one of the most disturbing images in the film, as she stands before Hazel wearing a black veil and cradling the withered little corpse in Madonna and child fashion. Appalled, Hazel destroys the mummy, and Sabbath reveals she may know more about the new evangelist than even he does, stating “You don’t want nothin but Jesus!” Since Hazel actually scolded Asa earlier for not trying to save his (Hazel’s) soul, Sabbath may be correct in her assessment.

When a con man named Hoover Shoates (Ned Beatty) teams up with a fellow he calls the “preacher” (William Hickey) essentially pilfering the “Church without Christ” concept with the sole purpose of making money, Hazel is outraged. His church may be many things, but it is no con. It is a heartfelt expression of his philosophy. To Hazel, the Shoates church is the real sacrilege. He confronts”preacher” and expresses his contempt: “How come you say you don’t believe in what you do?”, he asks, realizing the man is probably a Christian despite his church’s mantra. When the frightened and intimidated man rushes down the street, Hazel drives after him, running him over. As he dies the “preacher” confesses his sins to Hazel who now functions as a demented version of a Catholic priest. This tragic figure’s last words are “Jesus…Jesus…help me.” To Hazel Motes the worst thing of all is a man who is not true to himself.

In an effort to combat his loneliness, Enoch steals the Gonga gorilla suit, hoping it will help him to meet people. After scaring off an elderly couple he laments “I only wanted to shake hands.” We in the audience experience a mixture of amusement and melancholy as we remember his earlier complaint that he has been in town for two months and still doesn’t know anyone. Fear of loneliness is primal at its core.

Attempting to leave town after the murder, Hazel has serious car trouble, attracting a cop who requests he exit the vehicle. Realizing his dream of a new religion is coming to an end, Hazel watches in amazement as the cop, with a single well placed kick to the back bumper, sends the car meandering down a long grade and splashing into a pond. Just as he felt the need to “do something” after coming home from the war, he now must do something else – something bigger – something real, in order “to pay”. Asa, early in his career, cooked up a stunt along the same lines as what Hazel will actually do in earnest. To atone – perhaps for his own sins, perhaps for the sins of con men like Asa and the “preacher” – Hazel performs a perverse sacrifice. Another lonely soul – his landlady (Mary Nell Santacroce) – proposes marriage, pleading “The world is an empty place, Mr. Motes…If we don’t help each other, there’s nobody to help us.” This may be the key message of the film. The primal expressions – religion, sex and companionship – are all part of an effort to beat back the beast of loneliness. We were created to need one another.

CREDITS: Produced by Kathy and Michael Fitzgerald. Directed by John Huston. Written by Benedict and Michael Fitzgerald. Based on the novel by Flannery O’Connor. Photographed by Gerry Fisher. Edited by Roberto Silvi. Music by Alex North. WITH: Brad Dourif, Dan Shor, Harry Dean Stanton, Amy Wright, Ned Beatty, William Hickey, Mary Nell Santacroce, John Huston, Marvin Sapps, Betty Lou Groover, John Tyndall, Richard Earle, J.L.Parker, Herb Kossover and Allan A. Apone as Gonga.

August 28, 2013 Posted by | 1970s cinema, Christianity in film, comedy/dramas, film directors, Religion in film, screenwriters | , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

STRAW DOGS (2011)

With his production of STRAW DOGS (2011) director and writer Rod Lurie takes the Sam Peckinpah original out of its English setting and drops it into the middle of the Mississippi marsh lands. The message of the Peckinpah version was that violence exists everywhere, even in the most bucolic settings, while Lurie seems at times to be saying nothing more than the old stereotypical canard “rednecks are crazy.” The isolated Cornish village that was supposed to be mathematician David Sumner’s refuge from the violence of America, becomes “Blackwater Mississippi”, a rural Southern town where Hollywood writer David Sumner (James Marsden) can get away to work on his new screenplay. The opportunity arises for Sumner and his actress wife Amy (Kate Bosworth) when she inherits her recently deceased Father’s run down farm-house. The fact that he is writing about the Battle of Stalingrad, one of the most violent confrontations of World War II, proves portentous in the extreme, as you will soon discover… Upon returning to the town she dismisses as “Backwater”, Amy is interrupted by old boyfriend Charlie (A very sinister Alexander Skarsgard) as she and David have lunch at “Blacky’s” diner. He runs a construction company facilitating David’s decision to hire him and his crew to renovate the home. If not for mistakes like this, we would be without many of the classic dramas and thrillers we have been so fond of over the years. Not that this new version is a classic by any means, but its scenes of animal killing, rape and an especially graphic climactic blood-letting have the power necessary to keep audiences interested and, dare I say, delighted. Also fascinating is the development of several themes which take the heat off of our Southern brethren, whose culture comes in for an otherwise furious shellacking by Lurie. One of these themes is the animalistic nature of all mankind, the ultimate proof of which is found in the fact that audiences enjoy violence such as the above. Of course, most of these themes were developed in the first film, and Lurie, at best, can be credited with adding a few different twists.

One of the first images of the film is of Charlie and his crew/hunting party reflected in the dying eye of a deer as the kill shot is administered. later, when Charlie is reflected in David’s sunglasses, we realize the timid screenwriter will eventually be the hunted – and the hunter – like the animal in all of us. Both men proudly display their trophies. A shot of the aforementioned deer’s antlers decorating the front of Charlie’s truck is followed by a close-up of a jaguar hood ornament on David’s fancy sports car. The arrogance of the two men will lead to a head on collision…Soon there are shots from Amy’s point of view of a church as the car speeds along, followed by shots of high school football players marching along the side of the road. Hunting, football and religion are seen as the pillars of southern American life and they are the motivation behind much of what follows in STRAW DOGS.

The people of Blackwater clearly resent the pampered Hollywood hot-shot. When David attempts to pay a waitress with a credit card she balks, explaining, “We only take cash. You know, stuff poor people use for money.” It is at this same bar and grill that the couple first encounter “Coach” Tom Heddon (James Woods), a drunken mess of a man and the ex coach of the local high school football team. He is insanely possessive of his teen-aged daughter Janice (Willa Holland). Above all, he is filled with blind hatred – especially for Jeremy Niles (Dominic Purcell) – a mentally challenged man he obsessively believes to be a threat to Janice. In a fight with the bartender “Coach” shatters a glass of beer – cutting himself. He literally has blood on his hands, a hint of what is to come. Also a foreshadowing are the guns, animal trophies and bear traps that decorate Amy’s childhood home – the home she now shares with her husband. David is truly the odd man out, even listening to classical music while everyone else is obsessed with southern blues and country songs. One of Charlie’s crew is even heard asking another worker “Who would you rather have sex with, Hank Williams or Johnny Cash?” While working on the house, Charlie cranks up the country songs to drown out the sound of David’s classical record. Charlie is dominant. He will take David’s woman. And David, who is teaching Amy the fundamentals of chess, attempts to seduce her by rubbing chess pieces over her body. He is no match for the alpha animal Charlie – not yet. The crew of “rednecks” go hunting every chance they get – and David? He prefers a more genteel pursuit: He skips rope. All the men wear hunting boots except David who sports effeminate brown and white saddle shoes. Perhaps most damning of all is David’s disdain for organized religion. Invited to a “preach and play” – a church service before the big game – David grows disgusted with the fire and brimstone theology of the Pastor (Richard Folmer). He walks out in the middle of the sermon angering Charlie. Did it get him angry enough to kill Amy’s cat? Perhaps in an effort to find out, David accompanies Charlie and his crew on a hunting trip. Soon Charlie and the others lose David in the woods, with Amy’s ex making his way back to the Sumner home. It is here that Charlie rapes Amy. There is much cross cutting between David killing a deer (the motivation for this sudden shift in the mild-mannered writer’s temperament is not adequately explained) and the rape of his wife. Soon Norman (Rhys Coiro), one of Charlie’s beastly crewman, enters and has his turn with Amy. Extreme close-ups of David’s hands as they caress the deer carcass, are intercut with Norman’s hands groping his traumatized victim. During this rape, a bluesy version of “Release Me” is heard on the record player. (Notice it is not a CD player – this is the “backward” south, after all.) The beast has indeed been released. As the men leave, Norman’s gun passes in the foreground of the shot. The men have been hunting a human, in the stalking and raping of Amy, who strangely, never informs David of her ordeal. Bt this is just the most ferocious attack in the film up to this point. The consummate orgy of brutality is still to come.

When Janice goes missing, “Coach”, Charlie and the crew set out to essentially lynch Jeremy, who has taken refuge with the Sumners, setting the stage for the final flood of crimson. This gang, the most repulsive southern villains since DELIVERANCE (and I must also give a nod to that most disgusting of stereotypical icons, Leatherface), besiege the Sumner home to satiate their blood lust. But the beast has also been released in David. As the siege begins, he plays the recording of “Release Me” that was used by Norman and Charlie to add ambience to their horrific rape of Amy. David will now do any act of violence to protect his homestead – much to the displeasure of Amy who begs her husband to turn Jeremy over to the mob. This is a most pronounced irony, of course, because earlier she castigated David for not stepping in to defend Jeremy as he was assaulted by a drunken and delusional “Coach” at a barbecue. He is finally the man you always wanted Amy – savor it. One by one, David dispatches the invaders in the most unimaginably gruesome ways. “I got’em all”, he proudly declares, as the bodies lay scattered about the house. As in the first film, David’s glasses represent the fragile nature of his persona and also mankind’s tenuous hold on civilization. It is after his glasses are shattered that David commits his most violent act. The preacher’s apocalyptic sermon has finally been enacted and fulfilled. The first film ends with David taking the character on which Jeremy is based, home to his family. As the remake ends, we are not even sure of what has become of Jeremy, as if he was not that important in what has just happened. The violence, it seems, was just an animalistic explosion.

Though the Sam Peckinpah version is superior, this new incarnation is not without its pleasures – mainly because there is a little bit of blood lust in all of us. There is a certain kick – a charge we get – from unrelieved mayhem. It is the nature of the beast.

CREDITS: Produced by Marc Frydman. Written and Directed by Rod Lurie. Based on the novel “The Siege of Trencher’s Farm” by Gordon Williams. Photographed by Alik Sakharov. Production Design by Tony Fanning. Edited by Sarah Boyd. Music by Larry Groupe. WITH: James Marsden, Kate Bosworth, Alexander Skarsgard, James Woods, Dominic Purcell, Rhys Coiro, Billy Lush, Laz Alonzo, Willa Holland, Walton Coggins, Drew Powell, Tim Smith and Richard Folmer.

August 14, 2013 Posted by | 21st century film, film directors, film drama, screenwriters, suspense films, violence themed films | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

THE BIG SLEEP (1946)

THE BIG SLEEP (1946) isn’t the best film noir ever made, but it certainly is one of the funniest. The Howard Hawks production based on the Raymond Chandler novel is stuffed with hilarious one liners and near perfect performances – especially from Humphrey Bogart as iconic detective Phillip Marlowe. Bogart and co-star Lauren Bacall had previously teamed up with Hawks to creat TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT (1944), and that film was so successful they decided to collaborate once again. Good idea… For the most part. THE BIG SLEEP is an exciting breakneck ride with a labyrinth plot that causes the head to spin – perhaps a bit too much. For this is not so much a feeling of vertigo with all its inherent, though strange, pleasures, but more of an outright confusion, relieved by the laughs, excitement and romantic subplot. This confusion seems to have its roots in Chandler’s book, rather than in the screenplay by William Faulkner, Leigh Brackett and Jules Furthman. As they adapted the novel, Hawks and his team were lost as to the identity of one of the murderers. When they contacted Chandler to find out who killed the chauffeur, they were amazed to discover that the original author himself had no idea!

Private Detective Phillip Marlowe (Humphrey Bogart) is called to the home of “General” Sternwood (Charles Waldron) an elderly and sickly millionaire who lives with his two daughters, the teenaged Carmen (Martha Vickers) and her older sister Vivian (Lauren Bacall). Carmen is being blackmailed by a man named Geiger and the General wants to get to the bottom of it. Also of concern to the General is the disappearance of his friend and former employee Sean Regan. Marlowe’s investigation leads to a string of murders and an ever contorted plot and – at last – true love with Vivian.

Things happen so fast in THE BIG SLEEP, and with such increasing incoherence, that we soon decide the best thing to do is laugh when we can and enjoy the carnage. But there are also clever asides to a sort of playful thematic development. The General meets with Marlowe in a greenhouse where the detective sweats it out as the old man sits in a wheelchair under layers of blankets. Says the General “It’s too hot in here for any man who has any blood in his veins.” The elderly coot’s iciness runs through his entire family – especially Carmen. The greenhouse which wildly sprouts all manner of exotic plants and flowers is like a petri dish – as is the entire Sternwood home. Some wild things grow there! If in true noir fashion the women are especially wild, there is also an exotic aura surrounding the feminine mystique as depicted in the film. Geiger’s cottage is decorated with statues and figurines of female nudes and a large head of a Hindu goddess, which conceals a hidden camera. Everything about women is subterfuge in THE BIG SLEEP, and when Carmen is revealed as a murderer it seems totally logical.

There is also a subtle but elegant highlighting of pairs in the film. The opening credits end with a shot of two burning cigarettes resting in an ashtray – a foreshadowing of the Marlowe, Vivian hook up. When Marlowe leaves Eddie Mars’ (John Ridgely) gambling den, he is met simultaneously by two cigarette girls both there to deliver the news that Eddie’s good friend and frequent customer, Vivian, wishes to speak with him. The young girls at first stumble over each other’s words then share a laugh with Marlowe over the awkwardness of the situation. During the course of the movie Marlowe is beaten up twice – first by two thugs in an alley – then by a different pair of brutes in an auto repair barn. The film ends as it began – with a close-up of two cigarettes smoldering sensuously in an ash tray.

But the thing most people remember about THE BIG SLEEP is the dialogue – especially the banter between Marlowe and the film’s many femmes fatales. Vivian: “You’re a mess, aren’t you?” Marlowe: “I’m not very tall either. Next time I’ll come on stilts, wear a white tie, and carry a tennis racket.” Or try this exchange as they discuss sex in terms that satisfy the censor by using horse racing euphemisms. Marlowe: “I can’t tell until I see you over a distance of ground. You’ve got a touch of class but I don’t know how far you can go.” Vivian: “A lot depends on whose in the saddle!” Or this hilarious wower as a tied down Marlowe expresses concern about the imminent return of an infamous gangster: “He’ll beat my teeth out then kick me in the stomach for mumbling.”

Howard Hawks was one of the most versatile directors in Hollywood history. From the mid twenties until 1970’s RIO LOBO, Hawks mastered every imaginable genre. There were gangster films (SCARFACE), screwball comedies (BRINGING UP BABY), thrillers (THE BIG SLEEP), westerns (RED RIVER being the best remembered) and musicals (GENTLEMEN PREFER BLONDS). He even directed parts of a low-budget horror film (THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD – which he also produced) going uncredited for his work in that capacity. Hawks was not a stylistic virtuoso like Hitchcock or Orson Welles. His was a more subtle approach letting the actors and the scripts (on which he frequently collaborated) shine. But he was an innovator: During the 1930s he helped develop the use of overlapping dialogue several years before CITIZEN KANE. Above all he was a storyteller. And spellbinding stories they were – and remain to this day. With the exception of SCARFACE and its dated star performance by Paul Muni, Hawks’ films seem as fresh and potent today as the day they premiered. A fact of which any director could be proud.

CREDITS: Produced by Howard Hawks. Directed by Howard Hawks. Written by William Faulkner, Leigh Brackett and Jules Furthman. Based on the novel by Raymond Chandler. Photographed by Sid Hickox. Art Direction by Carl Weyl. Edited by Christian Nyby (who also directed most of THE THING). Music by Max Steiner. WITH: Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, Martha Vickers, John Ridgely, Dorothy Malone, Charles Waldron, Elisha Cooke Jr., Bob Steele, Regis Toomey and Louis Heydt.

August 7, 2013 Posted by | 1940s cinema, film directors, film drama, film noir | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment