Movies Are My Wife

Married to the Movies — Mdino's Blog

THE BICYCLE THIEF (1948)

The simplicity of most cinematic realist movements has always been deceptive. From the Italian neo-realists of the 1940s to the British “angry young man” or “kitchen sink” school and the Brazilian “cinema novo” or “new cinema” approach of the 1960s, there has been an overriding concern with the lives of ordinary people at the expense of what many feel are the contrivances of Hollywood plotting and technique. But this austerity has not muted the power of many of the works created by the immensely talented filmmakers involved. Of course, the Brazilian directors (especially Glauber Rocha) were heavily influenced by Godard, which often led to a more flamboyant visual and structural filmmaking, but with the same commitment to the “class struggle.” No film successfully conveyed the trials of the ordinary man more than Italy’s THE BICYCLE THIEF (1948), a most moving collaboration between director Vittorio de Sica and the film’s main screenwriter, Cesaré Zavattini. Enacted by a cast of non professionals and shot on location in the streets of Rome among that city’s impoverished denizens, this simple film is of grand historic significance. It inspired most of the movements and filmmakers mentioned above and remains a fitting testament to the all-encompassing reach of the human spirit.

Family man Antonio Ricci (Lamberto Maggiorani) is lucky enough to get a job in a world where such things are hard to attain. All he needs to start work as a poster hanger is a bicycle to get around the big city. However, he had pawned his bike to feed his family just days before landing the coveted employment. His wife Maria (Leanella Carell) takes the family bedclothes to the same pawn shop in order to obtain enough money to get the bike out of hock. The bicycle now in his possession, Antonio proudly starts work the next morning. While he is busy hanging a movie poster (of Rita Hayworth – a startling contrast to his drab life) a young man makes off with Antonio’s only means of transportation. But not before he snares a good look at the culprit. Since lack of action would mean both the loss of his cherished job and the end of his ability to feed his family, Antonio, accompanied by his young son, Bruno (Enzo Staiola), sets off on an epic quest to find his stolen bike.

Antonio’s pride in his new job is illustrated with a few master strokes. At first he cannot believe his luck. “My God, a job!” he exclaims upon first learning of his good fortune. He is overjoyed that all employees of the poster company have their own lockers. Pointing his out to Maria, he says “see how big it is!” and follows this with “and there’s the overtime!” He is especially impressed with the uniform, particularly the cap. He informs Maria that he has found her work as well: She will have to take in the cap which is slightly too large. Antonio’s boss is just as excited, telling the new employee on his first day “See, Ricci, to do this job you must be very intelligent, have a good eye and work fast!”

These are concrete traits of which a man can truly boast, and Antonio likes to think of himself as firmly grounded in reality. When Maria visits a Psychic (Ida Bracci Dorati) to thank her for providing her family with hope, Antonio scoffs at what he calls “nonsense…stupidity.” And he is no friendlier towards organized religion. He and Bruno encounter an old man who may be able to lead them to the thief, but the elderly gent wanting no part of it, escapes to a mission, followed by father and son. Once inside, Antonio is approached by a woman who gives him a Bible tract. Without even looking at it, he crumples it up and discards it on the floor. There is only time for the here and now – the problem at hand.

Like many Italians before and since, Antonio distrusts authority and especially the police. Maria tells him he resembles a “cop” when he first places the cap on his head. He pretends to slap and rough her up over this insult, before planting a gentle kiss on her. The feigned anger is just a joke on Antonio’s part, but this is also a telling moment, as we often speak truths when kidding around. And cops are everywhere in the film, playing prominent roles throughout. Most interestingly, on a couple of occasions as Antonio threatens to call a policeman when someone impedes his search. Threatening a person with arrest is an acceptable action when things don’t go our way – even in a society unfriendly to the police. And the depictions of the police here are often harsh, such as when Antonio reports the theft to the police chief and receives treatment that is brutish at best. The chief tells him directly to “look for it yourself”, explaining he has more important things on his plate. “Nothing, just a bicycle”, he tells another cop who enquires about the case. Almost as ubiquitous as the police are the children that inhabit the landscape of post-war Italy. In any society, children are the most cruelly afflicted with the circumstances of that world. The child who plays an accordion as Antonio is given a lesson in poster hanging, is chased away by the novice’s boss. Antonio’s own son means the world to him, yet this central relationship is not without blemishes, as we see when Bruno is told to “shut up” by his Father, who even slaps the boy at one point. This child – at once so precious and vulnerable yet so worldly – is the kind of child produced by years of a war fought in his own land. He complains that the pawn shop may have dented the bike: “Who knows how they take care of them. They don’t pay for the repairs.” Later, when the search begins, it is Bruno who knows the exact make of the bike and the frame number. This information comes in handy when Antonio’s friend Baiocco (Gino Saltamerenda) tells them the bike has almost certainly been dismantled for sale on the black market. Baiocco takes the pair to an outdoor bazaar of sorts, where such items are sold. As Antonio walks along countless rows of tables, perusing hundreds of gears, chains, wheels and tires, we feel as though his life has been dismantled and scattered before him in pieces. But Antonio and Bruno must be strong for each other.

When Antonio and his son finally encounter the teen-aged thief, they harass him until he suffers an epileptic seizure. There is an icy irony in that this sickly youth may need the bicycle even more than Antonio. “Instead of insults, you should give my boy a job!” his Mother cries. Chased away by the thief’s neighbors, Antonio is left in an even more desperate state. It is here that we discover the meaning of the film’s original Italian title: BICYCLE THIEVES. As Antonio and Bruno sit dejected on a curb outside a soccer stadium, and endless sea of bicycles speed past them. Accompanied by the sounds of the soccer fans roaring their approval, Antonio gives into temptation and, after sending Bruno home, steals a bike parked down the street. The owner, his friends and several others, chase the second of the film’s bicycle thieves, finally catching him as Bruno (who was too late for the streetcar) sobs “Papa.” In another moment of irony, the owner shows more compassion than Antonio had shown the first thief. “Be thankful he didn’t have you arrested” one man remarks. A second bystander then delivers the film’s final line and, perhaps, its ultimate message: “And you can thank God.” We are left to wonder if Antonio will take the man’s advice. Realizing his son has witnessed the entire degrading incident, Antonio joins hands with Bruno. Both close to tears, they walk home disappearing into the crowd.

THE BICYCLE THIEF is a quintessential example of a fortunate meeting of minds. In this case the Christian Vittorio de Sica and the Marxist Cesaré Zavattini, frequent collaborators. Marxism is represented by the film’s preoccupation with class struggles and Christianity finds its ultimate expression in its theme of forgiveness and brotherly compassion. After sixty-five years these concerns have never been more simply or beautifully depicted in film.

CREDITS: Produced by Giuseppe Amato. Directed by Vittorio de Sica. Written by Cesaré Zavattini, Vittorio de Sica, Suso D’Amico, Oreste Biancoli, Adolfo Franci and Gerardo Guerrieri. Based on the novel by Luigi Bartolini. Photographed by Carlo Montuori. Edited by Eraldo Da Roma. Art Direction by Antonio Traverso. Music by Alessandro Cicognini. WITH: Lamberto Maggiorani, Enzo Staiola, Lianella Carell, Gino Saltamerenda, Vittorio Antonucci and Ida Bracci Dorati.

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September 18, 2013 Posted by | 1940s cinema, film directors, ITALIAN CINEMA, neo-realism, screenwriters | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

THE MAN WHO CAME TO DINNER (1941)

You would never know from watching it, but the screenplay for THE MAN WHO CAME TO DINNER (1941) was written by two of the men who penned CASABLANCA (1942). That was the job of a good studio contract writer – to adapt to your material and serve the producer, while working in a number of genres and styles. The scenarists in question – brothers Philip and Julius Epstein – were as skillful at the task as anyone during the golden age of the Hollywood studio system. With films like ARSENIC AND OLD LACE (1944) and MR. SKEFFINGTON (also 1944), the team more than proved their mettle. Also a fine example of a studio employee was the film’s director, William Keighley. Making films in a breathtaking variety of genres, he frequently displayed a smooth, elegant technique, rewarding to audiences. But he was no “auteur”. He never developed a personal vision like Ford or Hitchcock and was content with serving his studio bosses – men such as Hal Wallis, production executive at Warner Brothers for many years, and executive producer of THE MAN WHO CAME TO DINNER, a near perfect example of studio run efficiency. All the various departments (acting, producing, writing, directing, photography, art, music and editing) work together to create a delightful unified whole. It may have been an assembly line, but it produced a number of Cadillacs.

As part of an effort to garner support for his lecture series, Sheridan Whiteside (Monty Woolley), a famous writer and critic, agrees to have dinner at the home of the Stanleys, an Ohio family made up of Father Ernest (Grant Mitchell), Mother Daisy (Billie Burke), daughter June (Elizabeth Fraser) and son Richard (Russell Aims). The incredibly snooty and rude Whiteside insults Mr. and Mrs. Stanley when they meet him at the train station, proving how boorish east coast snobs can be when dealing with the denizens of “fly over” country. It is enough to make you believe in Karma when the elitist boob slips on the icy steps of the Stanley home, fracturing his hip. But it is the host family doing most of the suffering when they are stuck with Whiteside as a most unpleasant house guest during his convalescence.

Whiteside’s personality is skillfully illustrated from the very start with a few colorful stokes. At the station, an awestruck Mrs. Stanley asks him two questions: How was his trip and will he indeed be having dinner with her family? His reply to the first query? “Charming. I killed a woman in the next compartment. She asked me to lunch!” This after he pretends to be a Frenchmen in order to avoid speaking to them. His secretary, Maggie (Bette Davis) sums things up to him succinctly: “You have one advantage over everybody else in the world. You never had to meet Mr. Sheridan Whiteside!” But there is a hint of thawing to come in his handsome tipping of a black porter.

Whiteside’s inflated view of himself is seconded by many of his hangers-on in the show business, newspaper, literary and political worlds. Even Winston Churchill calls to wish him well, causing Mrs. Stanley to gush “Winston Churchill – on our telephone!” But even his most committed fans joke about his influence. A line in a newspaper article about his accident reads “Christmas may be postponed this year!”

Once hunkered down in his new digs, Whiteside refers to the Stanley home as a “moldy mortuary” and the elegant library he will be working in as a “drafty sewer.” The joke here is that this home is actually a lush mansion, as Mr. Stanley runs a successful munitions factory. Whiteside cordons off parts of the house for his own use and demands that the family members come and go by the back entrance. All of this serves the purpose of making his gradual warming more tantalizing, and for this reason THE MAN WHO CAME TO DINNER is set during a particularly nasty and frigid mid-western winter. When Whiteside is drawn into the lives of aspiring photographer Richard and love-sick June and her beau Sandy (Charles Drake) the setting is the plush living room next to an inviting fireplace and its cozy, comfortable fire. This imagery is offset by the depiction of a world seemingly cloaked in ice. Whiteside’s close friend – visiting actress Lorraine Sheldon (Ann Sheridan) – even covers herself with “ice” (read that jewelry) and sports a snowflake broach. She is in town – at the behest of Whiteside – to foil Maggie’s intention of marrying hunky newspaperman and playwright Bert Jefferson (Richard Travis). It seems Maggie has plans to abandon her old boss and dedicate herself to her new husband, if she can snag him. Lorraine’s mission is to preoccupy Bert with plans to produce his new play and keep his mind off of Maggie.

For all its humor, the film contains a remarkably dark view of marriage: When Bert takes Maggie to the Railway Express Agency to pick up a yuletide gift he has purchased for her, there is an unusual conversation with the man at the mail center. He is gifting his wife with a pipe this Holiday season. Says Bert: “That’s not very sensible.” The man replies, “It’s as sensible as the vacuum cleaner she’s giving me!” There is more of this cynicism, as it happens that Bert’s gift is a charm bracelet made up of previously sold trinkets and engraved with the sentiments of long forgotten lovers from the past. These begin well enough with “a fair lady” but end on what Maggie and Bert agree is a pretty grim note: “iron bars a cage.” Eventually this dark view extends to all family life, including a macabre aside involving Ernest’s crazy sister Harriet (Ruth Vivian) who, it turns out, murdered her parents with an ax a quarter of a century earlier.

There are many in jokes on hand for pop culture enthusiasts of that long ago era, as well as those of today who may have a historical bent. First, the character of Sheridan Whiteside is patterned after Alexander Woollcott, a well-known crusty malcontent columnist and critic. Whiteside’s friends, Beverly Carlton (Reginald Gardiner) and “Banjo” (Jimmy Durante) represent Noel Coward and Harpo Marx respectively. These little touches add a delicious layer to THE MAN WHO CAME TO DINNER. As one who has not seen the play by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart, it is difficult to know where Kaufman/Hart leave off and the Epstein brothers begin. One thing is clear: These were four talented guys involved in a studio system that has often been maligned, but at its best produced some of the most entertaining movies ever made.

CREDITS: Produced by Jack Saper and Jerry Wald. Directed by William Keighley. Written by Philip G. and Julius J. Epstein. Based on the play by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart. Photography by Tony Gaudio. Music by Frederick Hollander. Edited by Jack Killifer. Art direction by Robert Haas. WITH: Monty Woolley, Bette Davis, Ann Sheridan, Grant Mitchell, Billie Burke, Richard Travis, Elizabeth Fraser, Russell Arms, Reginald Gardiner, Jimmy Durante, Ruth Vivian, Mary Wickes, Edwin Stanley, Betty Roadman, Charles Drake, George Barbier, Nanette Vallon and John Ridgely.

September 11, 2013 Posted by | 1940s cinema, American Films of the 1940s, film comedy, film directors, films based on plays, screenwriters | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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

HIS GIRL FRIDAY (1940)

Howard Hawks’ production of HIS GIRL FRIDAY (1940) is a slap happy mixture of 1930s screwball comedy and a Warner Brothers social conscience film from the same decade. It also looks forward to the social realist dramas of the late 40s and early 50s. The film is a remake of Lewis Milestone’s THE FRONT PAGE (1931) utilizing one of the screenwriters of that film, Charles Lederer. Both films were based on the play “The Front Page” by Charles MacArthur and Ben Hecht. HIS GIRL FRIDAY underwent some gender bending, changing the main character of “Hildy Johnson” into a beautiful woman, and transforming the film – in a roundabout way – into a different sort of love story than the one originally envisioned.

In HIS GIRL FRIDAY Walter Burns (Cary Grant), a morally corrupt newspaper editor, wants his ex-wife and former ace reporter, Hildy Johnson (Rosalind Russell) to come back to work for his paper. Burns – for the purpose of selling papers – has taken up the cause of Earl Williams (John Qualen) who is about to be executed for the murder of a cop. He may or may not be innocent by reason of insanity. Hildy was Burns’ best writer, and he is convinced her writing skills will get Williams the reprieve he desperately needs. And Burns desperately needs the reprieve – you guessed it – to sell more papers.

The gender bending of HIS GIRL FRIDAY goes beyond the switcheroo with the main character. Walter Burns constantly refers to Hildy in masculine terms. When trying to convince her to come back to work for him, he implores “You’re a newspaperman!” Since Burns claims he was drunk when he proposed marriage, he scolds her for accepting with “If you’d have been a gentlemen you’d have forgotten all about it!” Hildy is engaged to Bruce Baldwin (Ralph Bellamy) because he treats her “like a woman” and says sappy things such as “Even ten minutes is a long time to be away from you.” She eats it up. Though Burns gives her the “one of the guys” treatment most of the time, he is not above occasionally treating her like a child, inviting her to sit on his knee after delivering this loo loo: “Theres’s a lamp burning in a window for you, right here.” Refusing, she responds with “I jumped out that window a long time ago.”

Though she seems to desire the delicate female treatment, a hint of her inner fire is displayed in lines such as the above (which also prefigures a suicide leap by a secondary character) and also in her wardrobe. Throughout the film she wears bold striped designs while her ex-husband is seen in conservative grey suits. And her husband to be is a buttoned down guy as well – an insurance salesman who is looked down upon by her ex. In fact Bruce is viewed by Burns as so milquetoast that the editor grabs the handle of the insurance man’s umbrella, shaking it instead of his hand, on their first meeting. The umbrella, like the goloshes he wears, signify to Burns (and us) that Bruce is a bit of a sissy, who doesn’t fully exist without the conveniences of modern life. And he may be right about the whimp factor. When the three principles go to dinner, Bruce (who is not paying attention) accidentally sits in Burns’ lap! And Bruce is mixed up in other ways: When defending his profession, he ridiculously states “We don’t help people much when they’re alive – but when they’re dead – that’s what counts!” Even stranger, Bruce plans to take his mother on the couple’s honeymoon and he and Hildy intend to live with Mother after the nuptials.

The cynicism about the insurance industry is mild compared to what the filmmakers unleash on the newspaper business. Before and after taking the job (Burns buys a hefty life insurance policy in order to persuade her) Hildy makes clear her distaste for her profession. When her fellow reporters fabricate salacious stories about Molly Malloy (Helen Mack) and Earl Williams (she brought flowers to his cell after being touched by his plight) Molly bursts into tears, shouting “They’re not even human!” Hildy responds with “I know, they’re newspaper men!” Perhaps Hildy’s disgust at being treated like a man stems from the fact that all the reporters she has encountered throughout her career happen to be men. As the Earl Williams story progresses she is more and more seduced by her old life and career and becomes much more like the man Burns has always admired. After Earl’s escape from the police station, with cops and everyone else in hot pursuit, she chases down the Warden (Pat West) and literally tackles him in the street to get the story. This is perhaps the funniest scene in the film and the one most evocative of 1930s screwball comedies, including Hawks’ own BRINGING UP BABY. On a darker order, gallows are being built outside the press room. The “Gentlemen of the press” as Hildy sarcastically calls them, are doing their best to see Williams hang. The symbolism is obvious.

And then there are the politicians…and the Doctors who analyze Williams for the state…and everyone else in the bureaucracy. They all come in for cynical dissection. The politicians manipulate Williams’ fate for their own political purposes, with the Governor (whom we never see) being a fan of “red menace” conspiracy theories and the Mayor (Clarence Kolb) issuing a “shoot to kill” order against Williams to further his reelection bid. The Sheriff (Gene Lockhart) announces excitedly “I have the tickets for the hanging here boys!” as he enters the press room, as though the state sponsored murder were a stage show. The Sheriff and Psychiatrist (Edwin Maxwell) discuss banalities in front of Earl Williams, ignoring him completely. When the poor man objects, the shrink offers a half-hearted apology:”I’m awfully sorry, Mr. Williams. I forgot you were there.”

There are countless witty touches and inside jokes scattered throughout the film. Feigning heartbreak (though he truly loves Hildy) Burns dabs at his eyes with a handkerchief saying “Maybe she’ll think of me after I’m gone”, then gently taps Bruce on the shoulder to make sure he will not miss this piece of finely tuned choreography. Near the end of the film Burns refers to a nefarious character named “Archie Leach”, which is Cary Grant’s real name.

Despite these light touches HIS GIRL FRIDAY remains a most cynical piece of film history. It is to newspaper professions what Billy Wilder’s SUNSET BOULEVARD (1950) is to the movie business. This is perhaps the reason Wilder himself chose to do yet a third version of the film in 1974, under the play’s original title. A fourth version – by the way – called SWITCHING CHANNELS was made in 1988 updating the story to the television era and using the gender make up of HIS GIRL FRIDAY.

CREDITS: Produced and Directed by Howard Hawks. Written by Charles Lederer. Based on the play THE FRONT PAGE by Charles MacArthur and Ben Hecht. Photography by Joseph Walker. Music by Sydney Cutner. Edited by Gene Havlik. WITH: Cary Grant, Rosalind Russell, Ralph Bellamy, Gene Lockhart, Clarence Kolb, John Qualen, Abner Biberman, Helen Mack, Ernest Truex, Cliff Edwards, Porter Hall, Roscoe Karns, Regis Toomey, Billy Gilbert, Pat West, Alma Kruger, Edwin Maxwell.

July 10, 2013 Posted by | 1940s cinema, film comedy, film directors, screenwriters | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

THE KID (1921)

THE KID (1921) is Charlie Chaplin’s first real feature. He had previously appeared in Mack Sennett’s full length 1914 production of TILLIE’S PUNCTURED ROMANCE, but only in a supporting role. With THE KID, Chaplin was in complete control. He wrote it, directed it and played the lead role – that of his soon to be legendary “tramp” character. Developed during a series of shorts at Essanay and then Mutual Studios, the tramp was allowed full flowering in this First National Studios release. With its mixture of whimsy and heartbreak, THE KID gave audiences a richer version of the profoundly impoverished yet elegant little man who through it all sported a three-piece (though shabby) suit and a proper bowler hat. And his walking stick was always on hand to add a regal touch.

As the film begins, an unwed woman (Edna Purviance) has just given birth to a baby boy, and feeling hopeless, wanders the streets in a daze with her newborn. Chaplin emphasizes her internal struggle by cutting to a statue of Christ carrying his cross. This, the first of the film’s many spiritual references, infuses the audience with a sense of the unfortunate woman’s desperation. Desiring to give her child a better life, she leaves him in the backseat of a car in a wealthy neighborhood. But the car is stolen by a couple of thugs, who discovering the foundling, deposit him in an alley. The child has now been abandoned twice and the cruelty of existence is masterfully depicted by Chaplin. Also depicted is life’s serendipity as the next person to come along is the little tramp. Upon discovering the child, he places him along side another baby in a carriage being pushed by a matronly woman who happens down the same alley. Of course the woman balks and the tramp is left with an unwanted companion. But not before he himself tries to abandon the child – several times. He even contemplates leaving the baby in a sewer grate! Along the way he is followed by a cop who complicates his predicament considerably. These complications reveal a wicked playfulness in Chaplin and a frightful pragmatism in the tramp. Clearly, this is a deeper character than we may have previously believed.

Finding a note tucked in the baby’s blanket, the tramp is touched by the mother’s plea for a loving home for her boy. Making the best of things, he takes the baby home to his hovel and is soon a caring adopted father. A title card reveals a passage of five years and that poverty-stricken mother is now a famous stage star. The baby is now a five-year old “kid” whom the tramp calls “John” (Jackie Coogan). Chaplin’s universal compassion is nicely displayed in a scene involving another “kid” – a small black child making a delivery of sumptuous roses to the actress following a triumphant opening night. Touched by the urchin, the mother/actress shows an egalitarian kindness in her generous tipping of the boy. He smiles broadly and happily makes his exit. This sweet little vignette is at odds with so many other depictions of black Americans in the motion pictures of this era. These “Topsy” type characters, often portrayed by white actors in black face, must have been anathema to Chaplin, who as an Englishmen, was unfamiliar with America’s peculiar racial caste system of the early twentieth century.

Later this charitable woman visits the slum on a typical mission of mercy, finding herself holding a neighborhood woman’s baby while sitting on the front “stoop” of the tramp’s home. As she gazes longingly at the child, her own son sits behind her on the doorstep. This haunting moment concludes as the actress unwittingly hands her son a small toy and an apple. She is then on her way to touch other lives. Simply beautiful…

On another trip to the ghetto, the mother, who has befriended John, discovers he is ill. The tramp calls a doctor on her advice. When the physician (Jules Hanft) learns that John has never been legally adopted, the tramp shows him the mother’s note from so long ago. The doctor contacts the “Orphan Asylum” personnel who come to take the child. This gives Chaplin the opportunity to attack the cold, impersonal bureaucracy of government entities. The asylum is represented by two men: a snobbish dapper looking fellow who is clearly the boss, and his driver. The man in charge – dressed to the nines and chomping a no doubt expensive cigar – refuses to look at the lowly tramp or address him directly. “Ask him how old the child is” he tells the driver, among other commands.

When the men try to take John, a comical fight ensues in which the bureaucrat is reduced to a disheveled mess – being knocked down more than a peg or two. However, a cop arrives and the tramp is soon overpowered. John is placed in the bed of the asylum truck like so much garbage, as he pleads to God and cries out for his father. He is whisked away as the tramp scurries through a window, just out of the cop’s grasp. Climbing along the rooftops, he follows the truck, finally leaping onto the back of the truck to save the boy and escape to a flophouse. Because of a nebby proprietor who wants to collect a reward, the boy is taken away to the police while the tramp sleeps. He soon awakens however, and begins a frantic search for his son.

The mother wanting to know if John has recovered from his illness, returns to the tramp’s home just as the doctor is passing by. Unaware of her true identity, he shows her the note she left with the child five years before. She now knows the truth. Mother and child are soon reunited at the police station. But the tramp still searches…He returns home and finding the door locked, falls asleep on the door step – and dreams a silly dream. It is all about angels and innocence and love and how chaos is introduced to the natural order by Satan – or as a title card warns – “Sin creeps in.” Roses are everywhere in this dream. They line the houses and sidewalks and instantly remind us of the black child presenting the roses to the unwed mother turned actress. Carefree, the tramp flies through the air on giant wings in a visualization of the exhilaration of love – romantic and familial. The flight is also a surreal take on the tramps earlier flight over the rooftops to save his child. Highly comical, this dream scene is also potently moving – especially when a cop arrives to shoot the tramp in mid-flight causing him to fall dead on his doorstep. The image of the broken man laying in a crumpled heap at his door is amazingly shocking coming as it does at the end of such frivolity. It is also a perfect symbolic recreation of the many times cops have interrupted his relationship with John. The cop shakes the fallen angel in an attempt to revive him. Chaplin then dissolves to the same cop waking the sleeping tramp and taking him away in his police car. But he doesn’t arrest him. Instead he takes him to the front door of the actress’s mansion where he is warmly greeted by mother and child. John leaps into his arms as the cop roars with approving laughter at the sight of this heartwarming reunion. The cop leaves and the little tramp is invited inside.

A surprising subtext to THE KID is Chaplin’s apparent belief in (or at least respect for the belief in) the saving power of faith. Along with the opening shot of Christ the film also gives us scenes of the main characters saying “Grace” and praying before bedtime. The mother quotes from the Bible and of course, there is the harrowing brief prayer in the back of that asylum truck. Throughout, Chaplin shows a respect for faith that would be scoffed at by most modern filmmakers.

Also notable is the film’s visual style. Told almost entirely without title cards, THE KID finds its greatest pictorial acumen in a procession of witty pantomimes that are as surprising as they are funny. The best example of this is the blanket scene. As the tramp awakens one morning, the audience is made aware of a large hole in his blanket. He slides under the bed cloths, his head momentarily disappearing then popping up through the hole. The odd little man stands, letting the blanket fall around him like a poncho! All dressed for breakfast, he makes his happy way to the table. With moments like this in his films, it is no wonder that Charlie Chaplin would soon become, in the words of actor and close friend Norman Lloyd, “not only the most famous actor in the world but the most famous man in the world.”

CREDITS: Produced, Written and Directed by Charlie Chaplin. Photographed by Roland Totheroh. Edited by Charlie Chaplin. Music for later rerelease by Charlie Chaplin. With: Charlie Chaplin, Edna Purviance, Jackie Coogan, Jules Hanft, Jackie Coogan Sr.

June 26, 2013 Posted by | classic cinema, film comedy, film directors, film editors, screenwriters, silent film | , , , , | Leave a comment

DUEL (1971)

Steven Spielberg’s DUEL (1971) is a Western of sorts. If this is not obvious early on, it becomes clear in a climactic battle when David Mann (Dennis Weaver) fastens his car seat belt as though he were a Western hero strapping on a six-shooter. He even has the Western accent to go along with it. DUEL is also the study of someone very much in doubt about his own manhood, and the character’s last name is an ironic play on this fear. This amazing thriller about a crazed trucker pursuing a business man as he drives through the ultimate seventies landscape – a barren California desert – was originally made for television, but received such critical acclaim that it was eventually released in theaters. Along with the incredible suspense, Spielberg and screenwriter Richard Matheson pile layer upon layer of meaning onto this deceptively simple story, creating a film of rare depth – especially considering its humble TV origins.

The film begins with a subjective shot from David’s point of view as he backs his car out of the garage and drives down a suburban street. He makes his way through the city listening to mundane radio commercials about hemorrhoids, among other things, which occasionally break up the monotonous drone of a sports reporter. Heading out on a business trip, he soon finds his way to the desert and we get our first glimpse of David. He is an ordinary Joe – a seventies guy – and soon another seventies guy calls a radio talk show and complains about his census forms. The question “Are you the head of the family?” especially perplexes the man. He feels emasculated by his wife and it seems, the modern woman. We soon discover that David is facing an emasculation of his own. Castrated by his wife and his boring business man career, he will eventually find himself “back in the jungle” and longing for these things. And then, as he drives on, he encounters the truck. It is a rusty old oil tanker – a remnant of a bygone era – with the warning “Flammable” printed on the back in peeling paint. David makes the mistake of passing the truck, enraging its driver, whom we never see. This sets the stage for the movie long pursuit – the Duel. The truck follows David as he pulls into a gas station/laundry matt. It is here that we discover David is an extension of his car, as he removes his glasses to clean them, just as the attendant (Tim Herbert) cleans the windshield of his car. The truck driver does not exist outside of his truck and the ultimate expression of ones manhood is often his “wheels”. All we can see of the trucker is his hands on the steering wheel and on the one occasion when he does leave his truck , the audience (and David) can only see his macho cowboy boots.

When David brushes off the attendant’s advice to replace his radiator hose, the man responds with “You’re the boss.” “Not in my house, I’m not!” is David’s response. Later as he talks with his wife (Jacqueline Scott) on a pay phone, a woman enters with her laundry. She opens the washing machine, framing David in the door’s window. It is a perfect image of a whipped man. The conversation here is important as well, as David apologizes to his wife for not confronting a man who groped her at a party the night before. David will have to do something – something big – to make up for his lapse of manliness.

Back on the road, after he realizes the trucker’s murderous intent, David stupidly eggs him on by attempting to pass him again. After one successful maneuver, David hoots like a little kid, rejoicing while slapping his steering wheel. It is a matter of pride for his bruised male ego. When we get a good look at the side of David’s car, we see that it is a Valiant. Part cowboy, part knight in shinning armor, David will eventually redeem himself.

The truck, as it happens, is not only an extension of its driver but may also serve as an extension of David’s psyche – the incarnation of some childhood nightmare – like Moby Dick to Captain Ahab. The rusted orange color of the tanker matches the orange color of David’s car. Spielberg often gives us close-ups of the truck’s headlights and corresponding close-ups of Davids eyes, peering out from behind tinted glasses.

There is a third character amongst all this auto erotica – a freight train that pops up throughout the film. Like the trucker, the engineer is never shown, and he is blissfully unaware of the horror taking place. The most frightening use of this third character has the truck attempting to ram David’s car into the path of the train as David is stopped at a railroad crossing. Later, the truck blows its horn in recognition of the locomotive, which returns the gesture with a friendly blast of its own horn.

The final showdown is like a Marshal Dillon shoot out. After a harrowing ride to the summit of a hill with his radiator hose busted (the truck closing in), David comes up with a brilliant plan: He jams his brief case against the gas pedal causing his nearly destroyed car to ram the truck head on after he has jumped clear. In a fiery ball of flames the truck careens off a cliff into the ravine below. David has used a symbol of his emasculation to take down his foe. The truck tumbles in slow motion – groaning and weeping all the way to the bottom. Four years later Spielberg would revisit this technique in the final shots of the exploded shark in JAWS as it makes its way to the bottom of the ocean.

Along with the layers of meaning, Spielberg provides several bravura directorial touches: These include brilliant follow shots, fish eye lenses,”Dutch” angles, extensive use of subjective camera, and highly impressive shots with the camera circling the car and truck in in one swoop, as they make their way along the desert highway. There are jump cuts, a neat use of close-ups and a beautiful shot in which the camera curls down and across a cowboy’s boot to the tip of the toe. With all this taken into account, it is the school bus scene that is perhaps the most impressive of the film’s many highlights. Momentarily thinking himself free of the madman trucker, David stops to help a bus driver (Lou Frizzell) and children, whose bus has stalled. While struggling to give the bus a push with his car, he spies the truck in the distance, stopped in a darkened tunnel. As if possessed, the tanker’s headlights are suddenly illuminated like a pair of glowing demonic eyes. The truck is alive.

DUEL may well be Steven Spielberg’s most cinematic film. SAVING PRIVATE RYAN is more harrowing because of its scenes of war carnage. SCHINDLER’S LIST is his most important, due to its subject matter. But this little TVer is his most visual, as well as one of his most multi-layered works. I envy those who have had the opportunity to see the film in a theater, where this most meticulously crafted master-piece has always belonged.

CREDITS: DIRECTED BY STEVEN SPIELBERG. WRITTEN BY RICHARD MATHESON. PHOTOGRAPHED BY JACK A. MARTA. EDITED BY FRANK MORRISS. MUSIC BY BILLY GOLDENBERG. WITH: DENNIS WEAVER, JACQUELINE SCOTT, LOU FRIZZELL, TIM HERBERT, LUCILLE BENSON, AMY DOUGLASS, ALEXANDER LOCKWOOD.

June 12, 2013 Posted by | 1970s cinema, film directors, screenwriters, suspense films, TV movies | , , , , , , | 1 Comment

CROSSFIRE (1947)

Last week’s film dealt with inter group tensions in a very slight way.  This week, I have decided to explore a movie that is along similar lines, but with some meat on its bones.  It is a sinewy film in every respect, about anti-Semitism, called CROSSFIRE.  Edward Dmytryk’s work from 1947 follows a group of soldiers, just home from war, who are involved (in various ways) in the beating death of a middle-aged Jewish man.  Montgomery or “Monty” (Robert Ryan) considers himself the alpha dog.  He viciously brow beats some of the other soldiers and anyone else he feels is beneath him – especially Jews.  Keeley (Robert Mitchum) is an intelligent, well read man with a cynical streak about the military.  Floyd (Steve Brodie) is a nervous sort, and this trait will eventually cost him his life.  Leroy (William Phipps) is a quiet Southern boy from Tennessee.  And there is Mitchell (George Cooper), a sensitive artist who was seen leaving a bar with the victim, Samuels (Sam Levene), and becomes the main suspect in his killing. Eventually Monty, Mitchell and Floyd wind up in Samuels’ apartment, where the former helps himself to the host’s liquor.  Soon all three soldiers are drunk, leading to the inevitable tragedy.  We suspect Monty – who calls Samuels “Jew boy” – right from the beginning and we are eventually proven correct.  An embittered police detective named Finlay (Robert Young) sets a trap for the arrogant creep with Leroy’s help, exonerating Mitchell. 

Among the many fascinating aspects of this incredibly moving and suspenseful film, is the way Dmytryk and screenwriter John Paxton play against audience’s expectations, smashing stereotypes.  Leroy, the southerner, is shown to be a caring individual and not the crazed bigot of so many Hollywood hot-house depictions of the South.  In fact, he himself is the victim of Monty’s ugliest taunts and it is especially satisfying when he helps bring the killer down.  The Jewish Samuels (given a special depth by Levene’s sensitive performance) is a man who can involve himself in Mitchell’s problems with loneliness, because he truly cares about the returning veteran.  He is an insightful, kind and cultured man whose apartment is adorned with small ceramic busts, perhaps of classical music composers.  He is anything but a Shylock, and makes the most enlightened statements of the film when he comments on the pent-up hatred of so many soldiers after fighting a war against hate, and no longer having an outlet for their anger.  This frustration is a central theme of the film and finds its expression in the constant drinking depicted, slowly burning cigarettes, a coffee pot boiling over and in a most ferocious act of violence – the brutal murder of a man who only wanted to help.  This Jewish man’s killing is the ultimate irony considering the fact that the beast who kills him has just returned from a war fought against a regime that murdered six million Jews.  Also ironically, Samuels is known by a shortened version of his last name – “Sammy” – just as Montgomery is known as “Monty”. 

There is a jaundiced eye cast on soldiers and the military, especially by a man who is a soldier himself – Keeley.  Early in the film he tells Finlay “Soldiers go crawling or they go crazy” and “Soldiers don’t have anywhere to go unless you tell them.”  Monty is a career soldier who looks down on “citizen soldiers”, and at times seems obsessed with the military.  He assumes that the Jewish Samuels has avoided the draft (he is proven wrong in the end) and especially hates him because of this.  There are admirable military traits depicted, however: In a spirit of comradery, Mitchell”s fellow soldiers pull together to help him out of his jam and – once again flying in the face of stereotype – this man who has spent the last several years killing for uncle Sam, is a dedicated artist.  But hanging over everything is Keeley’s cynicism.  Only at the film’s conclusion, after Monty is brought to justice, does Keeley use the word “soldier” with pride.  “How about a cup of coffee, soldier?”, he asks Leroy. 

Above all CROSSFIRE is a film about outsiders.  Leroy is a rural Southerner in the big city.  Mitchell is the lonely artist.  “Ginny” (Gloria Grahame), the girl Mitchell picks up in a gin joint (the one place she belongs as her name is associated with her place of employment) is a poor girl from Wilkes-Barre Pennsylvania.  Keeley is the soldier who doesn’t really belong soldiering.  Monty is a hater at odds with a changing world.  And above all, the ultimate outsider, the Jewish man Samuels.  Even Finlay, the cop, is an outsider.  “Nobody likes cops” he tells a disapproving Ginny.  But he has class: Everyone else chain smokes cigarettes while he is a pipe man. 

The artistry of the film’s visual design is immense.  Virtually every scene takes place at night, in darkened rooms often lit by a single light.  Shadows are everywhere.  Only one scene takes place in the light of day: Finlay, in his office, discovering Monty’s guilt and his motive of anti-Semitism. Throughout light is used impressively, such as the moment when the detective tells of the motive behind the murder of his Irish Catholic Grandfather, one hundred years earlier. “He was a dirty Mick!” Finlay says, as he leans in close to the lamp on his desk, speaking in the words of the killer. Suddenly his face is illuminated harshly, accentuating his harsh words.
At times the power of the film is overwhelming. This is due in part to Roy Webb’s intense music score and J. Roy Hunt’s cinematography, the aforementioned low-key quality of which adds an extra layer of depth to John Paxton’s screenplay. Director Dmytryk’s startling use of camera angles is also aided immeasurably by Hunt’s lighting. All of this expertise is spectacularly on display in the scene of Floyd’s slow crack-up under the strain of knowing Monty’s deadly secret. As he disintegrates in front of Monty, it becomes obvious that the killer will kill again. Key elements in this scene are the performances of Steve Brodie and Robert Ryan. They are flawless, as are just about all of the portrayals in this exceptional film.
It is a sad side note to one of the best films of the forties, that it was a subject of controversy in 1947. It seems that Edward Dmytryk and producer Adrian Scott were duped by the communist party U.S.A. and became members earlier in their careers. Refusing to testify before the House Unamerican Activities Committee, both were given brief jail sentences. The director eventually agreed to testify and was allowed to go on with his career. Scott did not testify. His career was over.
CREDITS: Produced by Adrian Scott. Directed by Edward Dmytryk. Written by John Paxton. Based on the novel THE BRICK FOXHOLE by Richard Brooks (in which the victim was a homosexual, not a Jew). Photography by J. Roy Hunt. Edited by Harry Gerstad. Music by Roy Webb. With: Robert Ryan, Robert Mitchum, Robert Young, Steve Brodie, William Phipps, George Cooper, Sam Levene, Gloria Grahame.               

June 5, 2013 Posted by | 1940s cinema, film directors, films about prejudice, screenwriters, suspense films | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

THE SET-UP (1949)

When a filmmaker tries something different, it is often labeled a gimmick or a stunt.  So it was with Hitchcock’s ROPE (1948) and its continuous ten minute takes.  This was especially the case with Robert Montgomery’s LADY IN THE LAKE (1947) and its extensive use of the subjective camera.  Whatever the merits of these innovations, it is obvious that an infusion of new ideas – a new way of looking at things – is important from time to time, in cinema and any artistic pursuit.

THE SET-UP (1949) is a thrilling boxing picture presented in real-time – the innovation of director Robert Wise and screenwriter Art Cohn.  The film is seventy-two minutes long and the on-screen action takes place over seventy-two minutes in the lives of the characters.  We know this because the first shot after the opening credits is of a street corner clock telling us it is five minutes after nine.  The final shot of the film is of the same clock reading seventeen minutes after ten.  But before we get to this point we are lured into this busy evening scene, with people filing in and out of a bar called “Dreamland” and a sports complex named “Paradise City Arena.”  We are immediately aware that these names will be featured prominently and ironically in the film and we soon find out that this is a street where dreams are often crushed and the smokey atmosphere of these establishments are more closely related to hell than to heaven. 

It is fight night in Paradise City and we are whisked into the arena and introduced to a series of fascinating characters: A blind man (Archie Leonard) who has the action of the fights relayed to him by a friend who accompanies him.  An obese man (Dwight Martin) shoveling every imaginable food into his gaping mouth, waiting for the next burst of violence like he anticipates each bite of hot dog.  Another, older man who listens to a radio broadcast of a baseball game while eating up the fight action.  He is obviously a chronic gambler with bets on both sports.  There are also many woman, including one supposedly squeamish lady who refers to the last fight she attended by saying “I kept my hands over my eyes the whole time!” 

Across the street, in a seedy hotel room, is Bill “Stoker” Thompson (Robert Ryan) and his visiting girlfriend, Julie (Audrey Totter).  Stoker is a washed up fighter hoping for one big win so he can retire and open a cigar store or a beer joint.  Julie wants him to quit now.  But he has a fight scheduled for this evening.  He doesn’t know that his manager, Tiny (George Tobias) has agreed to have Stoker throw the fight in an unholy alliance with a local gangster, “Little Boy” (Alan Baxter).  Tiny, wishing to avoid upsetting Stoker, is not planning to reveal the scheme to him.  He is counting on the aging and inept hack to continue his losing ways naturally.  Big mistake…

Stoker’s dreams are always just out of his grasp – like the prizes in the claw game his trainer, Red (Percy Helton) seems obsessed with in the early scenes at an arcade.  He finds inspiration in the stories of other fighters, and then is horrified when they return from the ring pummeled and delirious.  Now he waits his turn and Julie has torn up her ticket.  He will go it alone.  A trainer named Gus (Wallace Ford) reads a “True Romance” type magazine called “Love” as he awaits the outcomes of the fights in the locker room.  We cannot help but think of Stoker’s situation.  Julie does indeed love him – and she hates boxing.  In the hotel, we discover that she avoids calling him by his boxing handle, and only refers to him as “Bill.”  To everyone else it is always “Stoker.” 

The fight world is presented as an atmosphere ripe with corruption, and it is not difficult to understand Tiny’s throwing the fight for money.  One trainer even cheats at solitaire!  When it comes time for Stoker’s match, the ring announcer’s words “Ladies and gentlemen” are met with boos from the crowd.  The fans are well aware that they are as corrupt as the game they celebrate. 

The scenes that follow are some of the most exciting in all of cinema.  They are also fascinating for their incisive depiction of the human comedy.  Stoker is not only battling his opponent “Tiger” Nelson (Hal Fieberling), but for the soul of everyone involved in this blood sport.  When Stoker’s eye is closed and bloodied, the blind man, hanging on every word of his companion and the announcer, screams out viciously “The other eye Nelson!  Close the other eye!”  As a blind man yearns for the blinding of another human being, the brutality becomes overwhelming. 

But Stoker fights back, causing Tiny to worry.  Between rounds, his manager begs Stoker to just “go the distance” and not to fight so passionately.  He feigns concern that his boxer may be injured.  As Stoker is implored to lay off, a barker can be heard in the background shouting “Get your cold beer here!”, reminding him and the audience of his dream.  He will fight on – with everything he has.  This is too much for Tiny who, during another break in the fighting, finally spills the beans to Stoker.  He comes out fighting harder than ever.  Proving everyone loves a winner, the blind man begins rooting for Stoker, who knocks out Nelson.  Tiny and Red beat it. 

Cornered in an alley by Little Boy and his goons, Stoker is pounded into unconsciousness and has his hand smashed.  This fight is a natural extension of what goes on in the ring.  There is a jazz club adjacent to the alley and as the thugs wail on Stoker, Wise cuts to shadows on the alley wall of a swing band wailing away.  Both beat downs are the music of the night in Paradise City.  Later, he wakes up and staggers into the street.  The “Dreamland” sign is partially obscured by buildings and is distorted in such a way that it appears to say “I Dream.”  Julie arrives in time to cradle Stoker in her arms.  He reveals the whole sordid tale and states proudly “I won.”  And he has – not just the match – but his freedom.  The broken hand means nothing as he was planning on retiring anyway.  “We both won tonight”, says Julie.  In a beautiful crane shot, the camera pulls back to reveal that clock, once again.  Seventy two minutes have passed for Stoker and Julie as well as the audience.  This brief running time and real-time approach to the film makes for a more immediate, moving and suspenseful experience.  It has been a memorable night at the fights, indeed, for all concerned. 
CREDITS: Produced by Richard Goldstone. Directed by Robert Wise. Written by Art Cohn. Based on the poem (that’s right, poem!) by Joseph Moncure March. Photographed by Milton Krasner. Edited by Roland Gross. Music by Roy Webb. With: Robert Ryan, Audrey Totter, George Tobias, Alan Baxter, Percy Helton, Wallace Ford, Hal Fieberling, Archie Leonard, Dwight Martin.              

   

May 15, 2013 Posted by | 1940s cinema, boxing films, film directors, screenwriters | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

FOR YOUR CONSIDERATION (2006)

The Hollywood of FOR YOUR CONSIDERATION (2006) is a place where people are impossibly rude to one another when they are not being phony suck ups, executives make ridiculous “suggestions” that ruin the artistic intent of the filmmakers (however lame), and actors can’t remember the names of people on the crew while other actors become shoe salesmen when washed up.  It is peopled by emotional wrecks like Marilyn Hack (Catherine O’Hara), an aptly named alcoholic in waiting whose life is changed when a rumor is started that she may be nominated for an Oscar.  The film that may finally garner her the respect she has always craved is entitled “Home For Purim”, and it is just bad enough to be an academy award winner.  Set in the deep south during WWII, it concerns a Jewish family (complete with Gomer Pyle accents) perplexed when their daughter returns from war with a lesbian lover.  The rest of the cast and crew of this opus are as big a bunch of losers as Marilyn, with each and every one of them a “hack” in their own right.  Her co-star is Victor Allen Miller (Harry Shearer) whose most famous role up till now is as a foot long wiener in a commercial for kosher hot dogs.  The fact that he is also a kosher wiener (as the goofy head of the family) in “Home For Purim” reveals that type casting is alive and well in Hollywood.  The ham fest continues with Brian Chubb (Christopher Moynihan) and Callie Webb (indie film favorite Parker Posey), lovers who portray siblings in “Purim.”  Rachael Harris is the lesbian love interest in the film within a film.  Eugene Levy has a funny turn as Victor’s hopeless agent.  In a sly move, the director of FOR YOUR CONSIDERATION (Christopher Guest) also plays the director of the WWII saga.  He wrote the screenplay with Levy – the real screenplay – not the mess that is the basis for “Home For Purim.”  That one was written by Phillip Koontz (Bob Balaban) and Lane Iverson (Michael McKean), both superb as befuddled authors when the studio head (Ricky Gervais) suggests toning down the “Jewishness” of the film.  This guts the whole premise – so much so – that a new title is in order: “Home For Thanksgiving.” 

FOR YOUR CONSIDERATION is handled with the utmost wit and verve, making it a fine addition to the Guest/Levy comedy collaborations (all of which include many of the same cast members).  The dialogue is svelte and sharp and often lambasts anal retentive Hollywood: “Do you know how tight my aperture is right now?” asks a dismayed Director of Photography.  Publicist Corey Taft (John Michael Higgins) expresses his belief about performers by stating “Inside all actors there’s a tiger, a pig, an ass and a nightingale.  Which one will show up?”  There is still more wisdom, as demonstrated when producer Whitney Taylor Brown (Jennifer Coolidge) is asked by a reporter just exactly what it is a producer does.  Her answer boils down to “Pay for snacks.”  When make-up man Sandy Lane (Ed Begley JR.) refers to the Oscars as “the backbone of the industry”, Victor responds with “an industry known for not having a backbone.”   As a side note, the name “Sandy Lane” is wild in itself, since the character is gay and it could easily be taken as a play on “dirt road.” 

The satire almost always hits its mark.  Fred Willard, sporting an outrageous Mohawk style haircut, is perfect as a seedy “Entertainment Tonight” type reporter.  His abominable cruelty is only a slight exaggeration of heartless show business vultures going back to the “True Hollywood Stories” gossip magazines of the forties.  And he is oh so funny- and not just because of his hair.  In an interview with the cast, the clueless reporter fires off a string of non sequiturs delivered with such youthful verve, it is difficult to believe “Fernwood Tonight” was on the air over thirty years ago. 

The studio overseeing all this nonsense is called “Sunfish Classic”, probably a jab at “Sun Classics Pictures” – a notorious “B” studio of the 1970s. 

Soon the buzz gets around that Victor and Callie are also being considered for Oscar nods, and it is no wonder that everyone wants to be in show business.  Even the local weather girl does her report as a ventriloquist act with a gorilla hand puppet. 

The critics, as well (and perhaps especially) are seen as hopeless bafoons.  An Ebert and Siskel style review show features Don Lake and Michael Hitchcock as critics who constantly disagree to the point of viciousness and when they both like “Home For Thanksgiving” Lake is so overcome a string of spittle drips down his chin. 

But the anxiety of a possible Oscar takes its toll on Marilyn who flips her lid, changing her persona so completely, she is soon dressing and acting like a strung out hooker.  And when it is finally revealed that none of the three receives a nomination, the collective heartbreak is palpable.  The emotion of this scene is impressive, considering the “out there” comedy of the rest of the film.  Especially moving is O’Hara, and when, in the final moments, we find Marilyn working as an acting teacher, it is not surprising to find that she is still miserable, though trying to convince herself otherwise.  With a horrific Norma Desmond grin plastered on her face, she tells her students that she has finally gotten to that special place where she is “comfortable in my own skin.”  With the fade out comes the closing credits, a creepy, ironic recording of “Hooray for Hollywood”, and the realization that for all it’s crazy comedy FOR YOUR CONSIDERATION is one of the darkest films about Hollywood since SUNSET BOULEVARD.

CREDITS: Produced by Karen Murphy.  Directed by Christopher Guest.  Written by Christopher Guest and Eugene Levy.  Cinematography by Roberto Schaefer.  Edited by Robert Leighton.  Music by C.J. Vanston.  With: Catherine O’Hara, Harry Shearer, Christopher Moynihan, Parker Posey, Christopher Guest, Eugene Levy, Bob Balaban, Michael McKean, Ricky Gervaise, John Michael Higgins, Fred Willard, Jennifer Coolidge, Jane Lynch, Ed Begley JR.               

May 7, 2013 Posted by | 21st century film, film comedy, film directors, screenwriters | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment