Movies Are My Wife

Married to the Movies — Mdino's Blog

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.

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

THE HITCH-HIKER (1953)

Ida Lupino was an actress before she became a director, but her roots don’t show. You might think she would be a filmmaker preoccupied with performance at the expense of pictorial designs. As it happens, she proves herself quite adept at the visualization process in THE HITCH-HIKER (1953), one of six films the British born Lupino made as just about the only female director in Hollywood during the 1950s. Most of her films were overheated melodramas which she frequently co-wrote as well as directed. If her writing did not always match her clever visuals, she should at least be congratulated for surviving in these capacities in male dominated Hollywood.

In THE HITCH-HIKER, Gilbert Bowen (Frank Lovejoy) and Roy Collins (Edmond O’Brien) are on a fishing trip through Mexico, when they pick up a hitch-hiker whose car has run out of gas. But Emmett Myers (William Talman) is actually a serial killer who has murdered several drivers unlucky enough to offer him a helping hand. A few minutes into this drive the wanted man pulls a gun and lays out his plan: His captives will drive him south to San Rosalia, where he will catch a ferry to freedom. If they try anything, they will die.

The film begins with a montage of the killings, punctuated by a woman’s scream. This is one of the few appearances of a female character (though we never see her face) in a film heavy with testosterone. How odd – considering the gender of the director, who also co-wrote the screenplay (with Collier Young). Gilbert and Roy’s first encounter with Myers is memorably ominous as the silhouette of his hand, thumb extended, looms in the foreground on a dark desert evening. Soon he is worming his way into their subconscious by calling attention to the class differences between the two men. Upon discovering their professions (Gilbert is a draftsmen and Roy owns a garage) the oily villain says to Gilbert “That makes you smarter.” elsewhere, he plays on this alleged difference: “You’re the smart guy” he barks, handing Gilbert a map. Myers is ill at ease with Gilbert’s status, castigating him for speaking Spanish to a gas station attendant, “I don’t speak Mexican!” he growls. He tries again to drive a wedge between the two men in a brilliant scene involving a game of target practice. Having found one of the rifles they intended to use for hunting, Myers uses his own gun to force Gilbert to shoot a tin can out of Roy’s hand at 50 paces. He sadistically instructs Roy to hold the can closer and closer to his face before commanding Gilbert to fire. Lupino uses a clever subjective shot to heighten the suspense as we, in the audience, seem to be holding the rifle.

Another sublime, though perhaps more subtle visual touch, comes as the men drive on, listening to radio reports from the States, of the police search. Myers has a dead, partially paralyzed right eye and his good eye seems to glow menacingly as the sun shines through the car window. A weird, comic moment comes as the men bunk down for the night. Gilbert and Roy are wrapped tightly in their sleeping bags with only their heads popping out from the top of the bundles. Myers leans against a tree holding his ever-present gun on the helpless men, with Lupino’s sleeping bag imagery acting as a symbolic comment on their entrapment.

The only female character of note appears when the three men stop at a small grocery store to pick up supplies. A little girl playing with a doll annoys Myers making it necessary for Gilbert to come to her defense. Woman are peripheral in this world, always thought about, even discussed but almost never seen, and the female character with the most significant role in the drama is a small child. In OUTRAGE (1950) Lupino depicted a woman at the mercy of a man, and the rape victim in that film becomes undone by the trauma. Interesting…

Gilbert’s expensive watch becomes a symbol of privilege to Myers. “You always had it good so you’re soft”, he says admiring the wristwatch. It also becomes a symbol of the kind of love Myers has never known, when he discovers the timepiece was a gift to Gilbert. It is obvious that Myers is intimidated by Gilbert, but it is gas stations – a representation of Roy’s profession, that haunt him. A service station figures most prominently when Gilbert purposely leaves his wedding ring at a station as a clue to the police who are closing in. And the ring being left behind seems to represent Gilbert’s heartache at being separated from his wife, a yearning Myers will never understand.

Though he began by belittling Roy, it becomes clear that Myers feels a strange connection to this blue-collar working class hostage. In an effort to fool the police as they get closer, the two men exchange cloths late in the film (at Myer’s command). But Myers is a lone wolf who resents Gilbert’s relationship with Roy. He mocks them suggesting that at least one of them could have escaped had they not worried so much about each other. The relationships between men are at the heart of this film by a woman director, and she handles the task with aplomb – at least visually. Her screenplay unfortunately displays a certain lack of imagination at times. Despite its perfunctory nature it serves a purpose as a clothesline on which Ida Lupino hangs her themes and pictorial ideas, making for an entertaining low-budget thriller.

CREDITS: Produced by Collier Young. Directed by Ida Lupino. Screenplay by Ida Lupino and Collier Young. Adaptation by Robert Joseph. Photographed by Nicholas Musaraca. Music by Leith Stevens. Edited by Douglas Stewart. With: Frank Lovejoy, Edmond O’Brien, William Talman, Jose Torvay, Sam Hayes, Wendel Niles, Jean Del Val, Clark Howat.

July 3, 2013 Posted by | 1950s cinema, film directors, film drama, independent film, suspense films | , , , , , , , | 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 MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE (1962)

In 1962 the world was at war.  It was not a traditional war but one just as syphilitic.  Communism was spreading in Eastern Europe and Southeast Asia and many Americans were gripped by fear – some of it irrational.  Some of it…  It was in this environment that the novelist Richard Condon created THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE.  When film director John Frankenheimer and screenwriter George Axelrod adapted the book into a film, some felt its more extreme elements smacked of paranoia.  Left wing critics were appalled at the suggestion that the extreme left was as dangerous as the extreme right, and particularly offended by the notion that reactionary movements could be used by radical anti-American forces to take over the United States. 

Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey) returns home from the Korean war as a medal of honor recipient.  His mother (Angela Lansbury) and stepfather, Senator John Iselin (James Gregory) are caricatures of extreme right wing zealots – the Senator being clearly modeled on Joe McCarthy.  Major Ben Marco (Frank Sinatra), a friend of Shaw’s and a member of his unit in Korea, is haunted by nightmares of their war experiences.  These dreams depict brainwashing sessions at the hands of the Chinese and Soviets.  The procedures are conducted in a garden party milieu attended by elderly American women and are observed by military personnel from the communist countries.  The brainwashing is conducted by the rotund Dr. Yen Lo (Khigh Dhiegh) who frequently transforms into an older white woman.  He/she is, at first discussing horticulture.  Seated next to the speaker are Shaw and Marco as well as several other soldiers.  The speech grows menacing as Shaw is commanded to strangle a fellow soldier and shoot another.  Blood splatters on a picture of Joseph Stalin, Frankenheimer making his statement about the Soviet dictator’s bloody reign.  In this weird spectacle the Communists use a quintessentially American event (the garden party) to burrow into the mind of Shaw and the filmmakers equate the fragility of flowers with the delicate, sensitive human mind, which can be pulled apart petal by petal.  At the blast of the gun, Marco wakes up screaming. 

Soon other members of the squad are having the same dream, including an African American, Al Melvin (James Edwards).  America’s deficiency as a society are not glossed over by Frankenheimer and his team.  In Melvin’s version of the dream, all the woman are black, reflecting the country’s racial segregation of the time.  But there is a hopeful note: The Psychiatrist who helps Marco sort things out is a black man. 

The vices of capitalism and American consumerism are satirized right from the start of THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE, as we first meet members of Shaw’s unit as they carouse in a Korean brothel.  Prostitution is often used in Communist countries as an example of the supposed ugliness of pure capitalism.  The digs continue:  Shaw is taken (in a brainwashed state) to a secret Soviet facility in the U.S. that is housed in a rest home for wealthy alcoholics.  The connection between the rich and excess is inescapable.  Yen Lo himself makes several references to stateside advertising campaigns of the time:  “Tastes good like a cigarette should” he says with a sinister grin while offering a comrade a smoke.  And he remarks while leaving the scene, “I have an afternoon at Macy’s ahead of me.”  As Senator Iselin tries to decide on the exact number of communists in the Department of Defense, he comes upon “57” while pounding the bottom of a Heinz ketchup bottle!  Later at a costume ball held by “Mother”, a large American flag made of caviar, is greedily devoured by party goers.  Even American political idols take their licks:  Everywhere in Iselin’s home we see pictures and statues of Abraham Lincoln.  At the party Iselin is dressed as Lincoln.  There is a lamp made from a bust of “the great emancipator”, the shade doubling as an outsized stove pipe hat!  Could this be Frankenheimer’s statement about America’s own Soviet style “cult of personality”, and the overinfation of “Honest Abe’s” reputation? 

In a controversial twist Iselin and “Mother” are revealed to be Soviet spies involved in the brainwashing.  They order Shaw to assassinate the liberal Senator Jordan ( John McGiver), who stands in the way of their plans.  When he shoots Jordan, the Senator is holding a carton of milk which the bullet passes through.  Milk pulses out like a geyser of blood and this is indeed a wonderfully cheeky way for a milquetoast liberal to die.  There is an interesting aside concerning Jordan who has a inordinate dislike for snakes, a metaphor for his attitude toward the political establishment. 

There is also a fascinating treatment of the female characters in the film: The three are blond all American girl (or housewife) types.  Marco’s girlfriend “Rosie” (Janet Leigh) and Shaw’s new bride “Jocie” Jordan, (the Senator’s daughter –  Leslie Parrish) are given rhyming names.  Rosie (although she prefers “Jennie” for Eugenie Rose) is linked by name to the fragility of flowers referenced in the brainwashing scenes.  And “Mother” is as romantically inclined as Rosie and Jocie – in a kinky disturbing way: When she reveals the ultimate plan to her son, she closes her polemic by giving him a passionate, oedipal kiss on the lips!

In THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE the theme of memory and its importance in the lives of human beings is beautifully developed by Frankenheimer.  Particularly during flashbacks, the director utilizes very lengthy dissolves to express the lingering effects of broken relationships on the mind and spirit.  Along with the brainwashing scenes, these moments demonstrate John Frankenheimer’s ability to traverse the intracacies of the human mind.    

CREDITS: Directed by John Frankenheimer.  Produced by Howard W. Koch.  Written by George Axelrod.  Based on the novel by Richard Condon.  Photographed by Lionel Lindon.  Music by David Amram.  Edited by Ferris Webster.  With Frank Sinatra, Laurence Harvey, Janet Leigh, Angela Lansbury, James Gregory, Leslie Parrish, John McGiver, Khigh Dhiegh. 

      

March 19, 2013 Posted by | 1960's cinema, film directors, John Frankenheimer, suspense films | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

HITCHCOCK’S MARNIE (1964)

With his 1964 production of MARNIE, Alfred Hitchcock was treading on dangerous ground.  He had just come off a string of masterpieces beginning with STRANGERS ON A TRAIN (1951) and culminating with THE BIRDS (1963).  He and the world wondered:  Would he follow these films with a worthy successor?  Hitchcock answered this question by creating a film that confused many and disappointed most.  It seemed he had wasted his time with what was regarded as an insipid and ersatz soap opera.  Insipid because of a general lack of suspense in comparison to his recent work.  Ersatz considering the awful painted backdrops and fuzzy rear projections scattered throughout the film.  Partly because of contradictory statements by Hitchcock himself, critics years after the initial release began debating the director’s symbolic intent if any, behind these backdrops and process shots.  Needless to say, a cottage industry has sprung up analyzing the film, with critics bending over backwards to make excuses for the film’s shortcomings.   Undeniably,  many of these interpretations have merit, while others may be examples of wishful thinking by some of Hitch’s more ardent admirers.

In MARNIE, Hitchcock and screenwriter Jay Presson Allen explore the life of a compulsive thief: The gorgeous though hopelessly frigid Marnie Edgar (“Tippi” Hedren).  Her mode of operation is as follows: She steals large sums of money from her employers, changes her identity and moves onto the next job (and theft) in another city.  When Marnie takes a job in the office of a publishing company, she does not realize that her new employer, Mark Rutland (Sean Connery) remembers her from a past stint working for a tax consultant firm, where he was a client.  After she robs his company, Mark blackmails her into marriage in an attempt to play psychiatrist, and uncover the reason for her compulsion.  In the process he discovers her pathological fear of sex and its connection to her obsession with theft.  Indeed the theme of theft as sex and sex as theft is one frequently explored by Hitchcock, most elegantly in TO CATCH A THIEF (1955).  In MARNIE the theme is seized upon by Hitchcock with a relish that is almost gleeful, as Marnie certainly experiences a sexual rush from her crimes.  Added to this is the honeymoon rape of Marnie by Mark, a man who is not used to sexual rejection.  He literally steals her virginity and Hitchcock’s own sexual kinks are on display, much to a psychologically inclined critic’s fascination.  This troubling scene, as concocted by Winston Graham, the author of the original novel on which the film is based, led to original screenwriter Evan Hunter leaving the project in a state of dismay.

Also intensely explored is Mark’s fascination with zoology and his view of Marnie as a “wild thing” that needs to be tamed.  “I’ve caught a wild one this time!” he says, practically smacking his lips.  Of course, she is certainly not sexually wild, but is viewed as “wild” in that she is beyond the control of a man.   Frankly, Marnie is referred to by men in animalistic terms, several times throughout the film.  Beside Mark’s statements, her first employer, Mr. Strutt (Martin Gabel) describes her to the police as having “good teeth”, a term often used in describing race horses.  There is also a hilarious moment at a racetrack, as a former employer (Milton Selzer) spies on Marnie through a rolled up newspaper.  A crowd of men behind him, looking in the same direction, and ostensibly enjoying the race, jump to their feet, shouting excitedly.  It is almost as though they are cheering for the gorgeous Marnie as well as the horses.  And Marnie loves horses.  She is frequently shown riding her horse “Forio” and  a fox hunt  features prominently as both a metaphor for the central situation and as a catalyst for the film’s denouement.  The unfettered sexuality of a beautiful woman on horseback is compared to the thrill Marnie experiences in her thefts.  After she robs Mark’s safe, she removes her shoes to avoid detection.  When Mark surprises her with Forio, the beloved stallion Marnie has not seen in months, she once again removes her shoes before mounting the horse.  It is here that we encounter the problematic rear projections.  Some critics maintain that the out of focus process shots used for Marnie’s riding scenes (and a similarly phony looking painted backdrop outside her Mother’s home) are symbolic of the young woman’s ultimate lack of fulfilment in pursuits that are meant to offer her peace and resolution.  In other words, the pleasures they offer are unreal.   Such interpretations should be left to the individual viewer.  As for me, I remain unconvinced.  As for Hitchcock, he has offered conflicting statements about this film and his work in general: “It was just a crummy piece of scene painting.” and “We must get deeper into things.”

In the final scene, we discover that Marnies’s Mother (Louise Latham) was a prostitute and that, as a child, Marnie killed one of the visiting Johns, precipitating a life long hatred of sex for both women.  The thefts, supposedly, were a replacement for Marnie’s sexual energies (the theft of sex?) and the journey for the troubled couple is just beginning.  Since he is as sick as Marnie (“A man wants to sleep with a thief because she’s a thief”, says Hitchcock, and there is that disturbing rape, of course) the singing of the children outside the mother’s house of “Mother, Mother, I am ill, send for the Doctor over the hill” applies as much to Mark as to his wife.  There will have to be much healing ahead for both, as one of Alfred Hitchcock’s most open-ended films fades to black.

CREDITS: Directed and Produced by Alfred Hitchcock.  Screenplay by Jay Presson Allen.  Based on the novel by Winston Graham.  Photographed by Robert Burks.  Edited by George Tomasini.  Music by Bernard Herrmann.  With “Tippi” Hedren, Sean Connery, Dianne Baker, Martin Gable, Louise Latham, Milton Selzer, Mariette Hartley and Alan Napier.

March 11, 2013 Posted by | 1960's cinema, Alfred Hitchcock, film directors, JAY PRESSON ALLEN, suspense films | , , , , , , | Leave a comment