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Married to the Movies — Mdino's Blog

THE INFORMER (1935)

Gypo Nolan (Victor McLaglen) is a shadow of a man. The first shot of John Ford’s THE INFORMER (1935) has the shadow of the hulking Irishman crawling up a wall on a foggy Irish evening during the great rebellion. He is a shadow because he has been “court marshaled” by the IRA and is now homeless and without a job. When he comes across a “Wanted” poster for old IRA buddy Frankie McPhillip (Wallace Ford), he angrily tears it off the wall. As Gypo makes his way down the darkened alley way, the poster carried by a gust of wind, wraps itself around his legs. He can’t break free. Eventually, it will be blown down the street, but we are haunted by the feeling that Gypo is about to do something he will regret (despite the merits of turning in a cold blooded killer). He meets his girlfriend Katie (Margot Grahame), on a corner of this same street. Poverty has forced her into prostitution. Everyone in the film is tormented by money – the lack of it and the desire to get some quickly. If she only had twenty-two pounds, she could, perhaps, escape to America with Gypo. It just so happens that twenty-two pounds is exactly the reward offered for Frankie’s arrest. We are now certain: Gypo will turn his friend and comrade over to the police.

But Gypo has a kind heart. He was thrown out of the IRA because he refused to kill a man marked for death by the Republicans. “Not in cold blood”, he explains to Frankie as they eat at a soup kitchen later in the film. He is just kind enough to help Katie find escape, but hungry enough to turn in an old friend.

Frankie is concerned about his mother, as are all Irish-Catholic boys. He has not seen her since he first went on the lam – and she must be so worried. Coppers and British soldiers are everywhere, having an oppressive effect on the occupied citizenry of Ireland. When Gypo approaches the police station, he raises his hands in the air. “No weapon here” he seems to be telling the constabulary, and this is a standard action taken by all Irishmen as they approach British soldiers and the police – most of whom are loyal to the Crown.

After betraying Frankie to the powers that be, Gypo sits by a loudly ticking clock in the police station, his head bowed. Ford’s low angle here emphasizes Gypo’s shame, and as this scene dissolves to Mrs. Mcphillip’s kitchen clock (also ticking loudly), the high angle seems to imply impending doom for Frankie. His time on earth is ticking away. Gypo leaves the police station by the back door, barbed wire visible in the foreground. Both men will soon be trapped. A blind man (D’Arcy Corrigan), who has been standing outside the police station, follows Gypo down the street – a symbol of his conscience and (as the filmmakers see it) his own moral blindness. Frankie sneaks into his Mother’s house by the kitchen entrance, and is joyfully greeted by his Mother (Una O’Connor) and his sister, Mary (Heather Angel). But that clock is still ticking.

Frankie is killed in the ensuing shootout as police surround Mrs. McPhillip’s home, and the sad disintegration of what remains of Gypo’s life begins. Alcohol facilitates this fall. Booze is prominent throughout and Gypo imbibes every chance he gets. When he meets Katie at an eatery, a bottle of whiskey separates them in the frame, dividing the screen in two. Strong drink will literally come between them. When Gypo is called to the hideout of Dan Gallagher (Preston Foster) the IRA head, and ordered to find the informer (and possibly be reinstated as a member in good standing) the men stand around a table set with bottles of alcohol and shot glasses. Gypo helps himself to the spirits and grows increasingly inebriated as the scene goes on. The broad comedy is accentuated when Gypo, given the ultimatum/offer, does what amounts to a “spit take” in amazement. Drunk out of his mind, he fingers a fellow named Mulligan (Donald Meek) as the informer, hatching an absurd story about Frankie impregnating Mulligan’s sister, creating the motive for betrayal. After Gypo leaves the hideout, one of Gallagher’s men reveals his suspicions that he is the informer.

Becoming more and more paranoid (and with good reason), Gypo spends his reward money on booze, on a handout for the blind man (who is still following him), on fish and chips for a crowd that dubs him “King Gypo” after he assaults a cop in his haze and – most movingly – on an English woman who needs money to get back to London. The last two episodes are especially ironic, considering the Irish hatred at the time for the Crown and all things English (fish and chips was a popular English meal at the time). The suspicious IRA men have been following him, watching – and counting the money as he spends it.

Soon Gypo and Mulligan find themselves dragged off to a Republican trial. Mary, who is in love with Gallagher, is the only woman attending. And he is there. The man who has “seen” so much – the blind man. Freaking out upon spotting the blind man, Gypo once again points to Mulligan who is exonerated by his faith in God:It seems he was at prayer in a chapel when Frankie was betrayed. And his only sister has lived in Boston for years. All of the money Gypo has spent is recalled by the men who followed him. It comes to twenty-two pounds. He breaks under the pressure and confesses. The men draw straws to decide on Gypo’s executioner. He escapes to Katie’s home, but not before taking a slug in the back. Katie goes to Gallagher and begs for him to call off the execution. There is none of the mercy showed by Gypo when he was called on to kill. Katie gives away Gypo’s location, and after another gun battle in which Gypo is grievously wounded, he escapes to the church. Staggering down the aisle, he falls before Mrs. McPhillip who is kneeling in prayer at the foot of a large crucifix. Gathering enough strength, he then kneels before Frankie’s Mother and the cross and begs forgiveness from her and – it appears – Christ. She does forgive him in an emotional exchange that marks the highlights of the careers of McLaglen (his performance garnered him an Oscar) and O’Connor. In his final moments, he has atoned for his sins by submitting to the two pillars of Irish-Catholic life – Motherhood and the church. Triumphant, he stands with his arms outstretched as if he were Christ on the cross. “Frankie, Your Mother forgives me!” This physical gesture and the fact that he addresses the cross as he says this implies that both Frankie and Gypo are Christ-like figures themselves, with all the suffering of the world on their shoulders. And now there is peace for both of them as Gypo falls dead before the crucifix.

If the film has a real flaw it is that this somber spiritual drama veers too often into broad comedy, creating an incongruous atmosphere. But THE INFORMER met the needs of depression era audiences – the need for an occassional laugh, and to observe the lives of people who were even worse off than themselves.

CREDITS: Produced and Directed by John Ford. Written by Dudley Nichols. Based on a story by Liam O’Flaherty. Photographed by Joseph H. August. Edited by George Hively. Music by Max Steiner. With: Victor McLaglen, Margot Grahame, Heather Angel, Preston Foster, Wallace Ford, Una O’Connor, Donald Meek, D’Arcy Corrigan and Francis Ford.

June 19, 2013 Posted by | "the troubles", 1930's cinema, classic cinema, film directors, film drama | , , , , , , , , , , , , | 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

SCANDAL AT SCOURIE (1953)

Prejudice became a popular subject for Hollywood movies with the “social realism” movement that emerged following world war II.  Inspired by the twin thrusts of Italian neo-realism and a desire to explore America’s own racial problems after a war against imperialism and fascism, the movement produced several thought-provoking films.  Directors and producers such as Elia Kazan (PINKY, GENTLEMAN’S AGREEMENT), Stanley Kramer (HOME OF THE BRAVE) and Joseph L. Mankiewicz (NO WAY OUT) seemed to be engrossed in a national guilt trip.  Understandably so, considering our sorry record of racial and anti-Semitic injustice.  Throughout much of our history Catholic/Protestant relations (in some regions of the country) were almost as bad as relations between blacks and whites and Jews and gentiles.  With this in mind, a film set in Canada during the nineteenth century caught my attention when I noticed it in the listings for Turner Classic Movies.  From roughly the same era as the films listed above, SCANDAL AT SCOURIE (1953) interested me because it is one of the few American pictures to tackle the Catholic/Protestant divide and because it is set in Canada.  Since it is a period film, director Jean Negulesco and writers Norman Corwin, Leonard Spigelgass and Karl Tunberg, are more concerned with whimsy than social comment. 

In turn of the century Quebec, a Catholic orphanage burns down facilitating the need to place the children in new homes.  Along with the other little ones, Patsy (Donna Corcoran) is placed on a train bound for Ontario by Sister Josephine (Agnes Moorhead).  Patsy carries along her pet goldfish named Harold, in a jar of water.  We are well aware that Harold will be some sort of symbol or metaphor, and since Patsy named him after the hymn “Hark The Herold Angels sing”, we are clued in that he will serve as a guardian angel for the child, as well as providing a mirror of her own experiences.  Trying to find a new home for the fish, Patsy plans to set him free in a pond by the Scourie, Ontario train station.  However, she meets Vicky McChesney (Greer Garson), who, immediately taken by Patsy’s charms, decides to adopt her, giving the youngster and her fish a new home.  A Protestant, Vicky is certain her husband Patrick (Walter Pidgeon) will be as charmed as she is, and dismisses any possibility he will be put off by a cross cultural adoption.  The audience agrees with her, since he and Patsy already share a connection through their first names.  After the initial misgivings of Mr. McChesney, the family is formed and the new parents give Harold a model castle for his jar, just as they have, in a sense, given Patsy a storybook home. 

But Patrick is an important member of the community, serving as “Reeve” or Mayor of the town, as well as holding other important positions.  When a political opponent (Philip Ober), who also happens to be a newspaper editor, publishes an editorial suggesting Patrick has adopted Patsy in an effort to buy votes from the Catholic population, tensions rise.  Questioned at a campaign rally about the rumor, Patrick proceeds to pound the curious fellow into the dirt.  We then dissolve to a shot of schoolboys in a violent tussle, with the filmmakers suggesting that such inter faith squabbles are childish.  Since the very first shot of the film is of a small bridge over a pond, we are secure in our belief that everyone will come together.  Indeed, the climactic scene takes place on this very bridge, but the film has a few more melodramatic turns before getting us there.  Nothing, however, that is too involving, as this is a generally feckless film with little emotional hold on its audience.  Matters are not helped by the utilization of a ridiculous sound effect every time Harold is shown.  And several supposedly light-hearted moments prove embarrassing. 

Canada has a reputation as a “kinder, gentler nation” (Phil Donahue’s words) among American intellectuals and Canadians themselves.  However accurate this assessment, one thing is certain: A significant amount of cruelty exists in all populations, across all borders.  Though rather inexpertly explored in SCANDAL AT SCOURIE, this is an undeniable fact of life.                       

CREDITS: Produced by Edwin H. Knopf. Directed by Jean Negulesco. Written by Norman Corwin, Leonard Spigelgass and Karl Tunberg. Photographed by Robert Planck. Music by Daniele Amfitheatrof. With: Greer Garson, Walter Pidgeon, Donna Corcoran, Agnes Moorehead, Philip Ober.

May 28, 2013 Posted by | 1950s cinema, American Film, film directors, films about prejudice | , , , , , , , , , , | 1 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

BAND OF OUTSIDERS (1964)

“The Americans are good at story telling.  The French are not.”  Holding such a sentiment did not prevent  Jean-Luc Godard from attempting his own takes on genre films – a favorite staple of American directors since the founding days of cinema in the United States.  In fact, the early years of Godard’s career (the late 50’s to the early 60s) revealed a director very much involved in an Americanesque phase.  One of the best films to come from this period is BAND OF OUTSIDERS (French, 1964) starring his wife at the time, Anna Karina.  But this is a Jean-Luc Godard genre film, after all, which means that the picture is virtually plotless and functions mainly as a platform for the “new wave” icon to explore some of his favorite authors, directors, actors and cultural figures. 

Meeting in an English language class, Odile (Karina), Arthur (Claude Brasseur) and Franz (Sami Frey) plan to steal tens of thousands of francs from Odile’s rich Aunt (Louisa Colpeyn), with whom she lives in a palatial mansion.  The money actually (can’t really say “belongs”) to the mysterious Mr. Stolz, the Aunts lover, who also lives at the estate.  He came into the money  through tax evasion, and is a symbol of the corrupt capitalist, getting rich while refusing to pay his fair share.  He is a sort of McGuffin in that he is never shown, but is the reason the plot is put into motion. 

But it is Godard’s cultural and artistic obsessions that get the most attention.  The film begins with a flashing montage of the three principals’ faces accompanied by Michel Legrand’s silent movie style music and the final credit on-screen is “Directed by Jean-Luc Cinéma Godard”.  Arthur and Franz may be named in honor of “B” picture star Arthur Franz, and the two constantly enact shootouts from gangster movies.  They remark that Odile has “soft skin”,  possibly a plug for Francois Truffaut’s movie of that name, released the same year as BAND OF OUTSIDERS.  Godard’s idols from the other arts are also mentioned.  Franz is a fanatic for books and in English class the instructor (Danièle Girard) points out that it is not important to know how to say “where is the bathroom”.  It is however, essential to know how to spell “Thomas Hardy”.  Lengthy readings are given of Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet”, as Arthur passes love notes to Odile.  After this, it is back to film commentary.  At the end of class a student asks “How do you say ‘big one million dollar film?'”, an allusion to Godard’s distaste for big budget commercial cinema.  Later, when Arthur asks Odile for a date, he playfully places his closed fist on her chin, pretending to sock her, like so many gangster and private eye movie tough guys.  Arthur wears a Humphrey Bogart style overcoat throughout the film, as does Franz.  The three are frequently seen “bogarting” cigarettes and often pass a pork pie hat between them.  Arthur constantly speaks of Odile possibly “betraying” him, as if he believes in the film noir cliché of the duplicitous femme fatale.  And – horrors – Odile remarks at one point “I hate cinema!  I hate theater!  I love nature!” as though there is something unnatural about the filmed image and performance.

Capitalism, another Godard obsession, is attacked in sharp fashion.  Early in the film, Odile is asked how she plans to explain leaving the house for so long a time to her domineering Aunt.  “I’ll  tell her I’m going shopping”, is her reply.  An innocuous sounding statement, perhaps, but knowing Godard’s hatreds (a key one being consumerism) it must be interpreted as anything but.  In a diner, Odile orders a Coca-Cola – reminding us of Godard’s famous description of the 60’s generation as “children of Marx and Coca-Cola” – fascinated by Marxism but prey to all the capitalist vices.  When discussing the planned robbery, Arthur remarks “better to be rich and happy than poor and unhappy.”  This equating of money with happiness is an attitude the filmmaker must find incomprehensible. 

The power of advertising is decried as a newspaper ad for make-up announces “It’s not just your looks, but your happiness.”  All news and advertising media are seen as a servant of capitalism, polluting us with constant stimuli (visuals and sound), all saying “buy this, think that.”  It apparently has Godard’s head swimming and late in the film Odile challenges Arthur and Franz to go without speaking for an entire minute.  As they attempt this feat, all sounds from the noisy diner – voices, music etc. –  disappear from the soundtrack.  It is an eerie touch and needless to say, one of them cracks before the minute is up.  Modern man, it seems, needs constant distractions. 

Godard plays off traditional romance films and even has Arthur and Odile take a trip to the subway – the bowels of the earth, and Arthur states bluntly that love talk is “crap”.  Something else of interest happens in the subway: The couple see a man seated on the train holding a small white box.  Arthur remarks that the blank expression on his face could be interpreted in wildly differing ways depending on what you imagine to be in the box.  If he is holding a Teddy bear, the expression could be sublime.  If he is holding a stick of dynamite the look may be sinister.  This conversation is a reworking of the Lev Kuleshov film editing experiments conducted in the early years of the Soviet Union, where the same shot of an old man is intercut with different images, as seen from his point of view.  Depending on what he is viewing, his expression will be interpreted in different ways by the audience.  Astute fellows, Godard and Kuleshov. 

The distancing techniques of playwright Bertolt Brecht are employed as Odile sings a mournful ditty while staring directly into the camera.  The song is about the common plight of all people, as she sees it – loneliness.  The use of singing and addressing the audience serve to remind us that we are watching a film.  As such Godard is saying “This is only a movie.  Do not become so involved with the plot, and instead focus on what is being said.”  And the message is an important one, as repeated by Franz at the end of the film.  Speaking to Odile he states, “Isn’t it strange how people never form a whole?  Always remaining separate.”  Thus the title is fully explained: We are all outsiders, 

With Arthur killed in the robbery and no money to speak of, Franz and Odile head off to their futures together – and one last dig at “papa’s cinema”, as the narrator describes a “Technicolor, CinemaScope” film to follow of their adventures.  The narrator is Jean-Luc Godard himself, a wise choice to tell the story of one mans obsessions, hatreds and passions. 

CREDITS: Directed by Jean-Luc Godard.  Based on the novel FOOLS’ GOLD by Dolores Hitchens. Cinematography by Raoul Coutard.  Music by Michel Legrand.  With: Anna Karina, Claude Brasseur, Sami Frey, Danièle Girard, Louisa Colpeyn.                             

April 30, 2013 Posted by | 1960's cinema, film directors, French "new wave", French cinema | , , , , , | Leave a comment

fast, cheap & out of control (1997)

Errol morris’ existential documentary “fast, cheap & out of control” (1997) often has the feel of a fellini movie – with its big top scenes and nino rota style music score by caleb sampson.  But if the “circus of life” attitude is prevalent throughout, it is tempered by a somewhat somber mood concerning the human condition.  Somber, perhaps because there is a belief held by some of those interviewed for the film, in the inevitable decline of humanity.  Maybe this is the reason the films’s title and the names of the principal humans involved are all presented in lower case letters.   Well, maybe…

Fast, cheap & out of control, examines the lives and work of four men, all of whom are involved in vocations that are admirably unique.  They are, in order of their first appearances in the film, dave hoover, a wild animal trainer, george mendonca, a topiary gardener, ray mendez, and expert on the naked mole rat and rodney brooks, a robot maker.  Emerging from the exploration of these wildly disparate careers, is the theme of life, human and animal, real and artificial. 

Mendez and brooks began their careers with a fascination for insects – brooks for how they moved and mendez particularly interested in their societal structures.    Brooks as a young man loved to build computers, then became enthralled with the world of robots.  Even after entering a career as a robot maker, he was startled to see one of his creations actually move.  He was responsible for the movement, after all, but was never-the-less intoxicated by the belief that he somehow created a form of life. 

George mendonca, it could be said, is a creator of life as well – specializing in huge animals sculpted from bushes.  A haunting shot, near the start of the film, features a giraffe seen from a low angle, darkened skies pouring down rain.  Stunningly photographed by robert richardson, the “green animal” seems just in time to board Noah’s ark.  This may be seen by some as a strangely apocalyptic image for such a beautiful film, but as we will see, an appropriate one. 

If the men seem exceptionally nerdy, human bonding is seen as essential as told in the story of dave hoover’s developing relationship with a childhood heroe –  lion tamer and “B” picture star, Clyde Beatty.  First introduced to lion taming by beatty’s films, hoover later met his idol in the air force and the two became friends. 

Although all four of these intriguing gentleman are given roughly equal screen time, it soon becomes clear that the circus milieu of hoover’s profession will act as the major metaphor.  As a microcosm of life, it is rarely surpassed.  Fellini was well aware of this and so is errol morris.  Every variety of humans is found here, as well as a startling array of animals.  Morris frequently places commentary by all four subjects over circus footage.  We see images of balancing acts – a man balancing a glass of water on his forehead, dogs balancing on a spinning wheel and women atop large rubber balls.  Life, it would appear is seen by the filmmaker as, indeed, a balancing act – for man and beast alike.  As hoover and mendez attest, we learn by trial and error.  Hoover even had a near death experience in his act, when a lion’s claw got tangled in the band of his wristwatch.  The lesson learned by hoover?  Never wear a watch again – at least not while dealing with man-eating animals.   

According to rodney brooks, evolution is as important in the creation of robots, as he feels it is in man’s.  “Inside the human brain is a reptile brain.  Inside a reptile brain is a fish brain.”  All life is connected – even artificial life, which he sees as an evolutionary extension of man – and the final exalting level of man’s journey.  In a surreal piece of stock footage, we see a man walking a robot on a leash.  The leash won’t be necessary for long.  But george mendonca has a conflicting view, explaining in-depth why hand shears are superior to electric shears.  It is the human touch that makes them so effective. 

Despite this, man is always learning.  As rodney brooks points out, “I seek to understand life by building something lifelike.”  And ray mendez explains that people come to his mole rat exhibits to “find themselves in another social animal, to find common ground.”  And much common ground there is.  Mendez discusses how mole rats are always able to “find the alien in their midst”, sensing by smell (these weird little animals like to roll around in their own feces and urine) which rat may be a newcomer, and behaving with the mandatory scorn.  Hoover feels lions are very conscious beings, always “scheming” , he reports.  Mendez believes the source of stability for all living things is the fear of death.  It keeps us, for the most part, in line.  But there are differences as well.  He states that mole rats are forced to separate the sick and dying from the heard.  By contrast, when the chips are down, humans “culturally let everybody die.”  There is an undeniable air of the poetic, as morris follows these words with a shot of empty shoes at the foot of a circus net. 

The title is explained when brooks discusses a theory that thousands of tiny robots could be used to explore other planets.  Such robots would be “fast, cheap and out of control,”  With many robots, the loss of one or two would be less damaging to the mission.  These comments are accompanied by shots of World War II paratroopers leaping from planes, and are followed by mendez describing how “soldiers” protect the mole rat nest. 

As with all forms of life, keeping animal sculptures (and the plants that form them) alive is a constant battle.  There are heavy storms that weigh them down and, of course, insects.  It may all begin and end with insects – or insect like robots. 

A final note of philosophy comes from ray mendez: “Only in captivity can an animal get to reach old age.”  This may say more about the human condition than anything else in the film.  Eventually,  death is the ultimate fate of all living things, except perhaps, those that are artificially created.  As rodney brooks suggests, all carbon based forms of life may be on their way out.  Stock footage from old clyde beatty serials, shows volcanoes erupting and earthquakes rattling the planet.  After this we are shown a circus clown being chased by a skeleton.  But there is hope for the continued existence of mankind, according to morris, who uses footage of beatty emerging from the ruins with a small boy and other examples of trembling humanity.

The final image is of george mendonca, umbrella in hand, walking through his topiary garden as a steady rain falls on him and his creations.  Errol morris may believe, not in the decline of man, but in what he would probably refer to as man’s proper place in the chain of life.   This is not an apocalyptic rain after all, but rather one conducive to life – in all its forms.

CREDITS: Directed by errol morris. Photographed by robert richardson. Music by caleb sampson. With: dave hoover, george mendonca, ray mendez, rodney brooks.            

April 23, 2013 Posted by | 1990s cinema, American Film, documentary, film directors | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1935)

BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1935) begins with a witty prologue featuring Mary Shelley (Elsa Lanchester), Percy Shelley (Douglas Walton), Lord Byron (Gavin Gordon) and a very portentous thunderstorm. This device is used by director James Whale and screenwriters William Hurlbut and John Balderston to tell the story of FRANKENSTEIN as presented in the first film. This is not only a good way to inform those who never saw FRANKENSTEIN (1931), but is also a perfect opportunity for some very bright and ironic humor. We are told the author of the original novel is afraid of lightning and that she is faint of heart. Lord Byron expresses amazement that such a gentle soul could have written a novel as horrific as FRANKENSTEIN. And then this delicate lady, who sits doing needlepoint while a thunderstorm rages, pricks her finger. She lets out a gentle yelp as she leaps to her feet, with Byron and Percy helping to steady her. The men stand on each side of Mary, her arms outstretched toward them, as they grasp her hands. This moment provides the first of three such connecting images that appear throughout this marvelous sequel. The belief in the alleged fragility of femininity is celebrated and gently mocked at various points in a film rich with visual gems and stark metaphors exploring sexual relationships, religion and family life.

The new story gets off to a spooky start where FRANKENSTEIN ended: a burned out mill at which the monster (Boris Karloff) was supposedly dispatched. The “fiend” however, is still alive and he facilitates a reunion of sorts for a family from the fist film. He does so by murdering little Maria’s parents (Reginald Barlow and Mary Gordon), who have come to the mill to be certain the creature that murdered their daughter is truly dead. This reunion is an example of Whale’s “family values” however weird, and the next scene features DR. Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive) being returned to his castle (having survived the mill encounter with his monster), his fiance waiting at the door in her wedding gown. This is the night they were to be married and Elizabeth (Valerie Hobson) is understandably unnerved. In a reprisal of the shot from the prologue, she is steadied by two attendants as she shakily walks through the cavernous set as designed by Charles D. Hall. This will be her home soon, as she and Henry are about to start a family. Elizabeth is not happy with the way things are starting out and she speaks with trepidation, telling her bed ridden husband-to-be of a “spirit” she fears will take him away. Immediately DR. Pretorius (Ernest Thesiger) arrives on a matter of “grave” importance. It seems the bad Doctor has an itch to collaborate with Henry in creating a mate for the monster. Pretorius quotes the Bible to explain his strange familial yearning on the monster’s behalf: “Male and female he created them” and “Be fruitful and multiply.” He invites Henry to his bungalow where he displays the fruits of his own experiments: tiny people kept in jars – the Doctor having trouble achieving the right size for his creations. Whale is at his bitchiest here spoofing earlier films. One of the little people bears a strong resemblance to Henry the VIII while another is modeled on the monarch’s wife Anne. Charles Laughton and Elsa Lanchester had recently starred in THE PRIVATE LIFE OF HENRY VIII. Everyone is fair game for Whale’s good-natured ribbing – including the co-star of his current film and her own husband. Despite this enchanting presentation, Henry Frankenstein, who wants nothing further to do with monsters, is unwilling to go along with Pretorius’ plans.

The monster, having his own troubles, is pursued by a mob. Whale’s treatment of this scene and the ones that follow is as wild and iconoclastic as anything found in even the most avant-garde cinema. The monster is captured and tied to a log, his hands above him. He is hoisted vertically into the air before being loaded onto a horse-drawn cart. Whale’s staging makes it perfectly clear: this is a crucifixion, with a most unlikely Christ figure at its center. The monster is taken to a jail cell and chained to what looks like an electric chair. He screams out in agony as the chains, attached to large spikes, are pounded into the ground. He soon escapes his tomb-like confines and later stumbles his way into a cemetery where he overturns religious statues, including one of a Bishop. The town’s people, little more than brutes, are the Pharisees in this new passion play. The sacrifice, who has already risen from the dead (in Frankenstein’s lab) finds refuge in a meeting with a blind hermit (O.P. Heggie – in a heartfelt performance). In the man’s cabin, they reenact the Last Supper, by sharing bread and wine over a small table. All of this is presided over by a crucifix above the hermit’s bed. Both the monster and the blind man are despised by men. When two vigilantes come upon the cabin and see the monster and the hermit together, the first man (John Carradine) remarks “He’s blind!” followed by the second man’s exclamation “He isn’t human!” Though the second man is actually referring to the monster, the two lines are placed together in this way to suggest a reference to the hermit. Like the monster, he is considered less than human – he is not completely “whole”, because of his affliction. In the ensuing struggle, the cabin catches fire, frightening the monster, causing him to escape into the night.

In order to force Henry to participate in his plan, Pretorius has the monster kidnap Elizabeth and hold her hostage. Henry complies. This creation scene is a classic of suspense as well as a fascinating exploration of man’s relationship to his woman. As Henry waits for the return of Elizabeth, the monster waits, just as anxiously, for his new mate. Both the Doctor and his creation are nervous grooms on their wedding nights and we are reminded of another Bible passage: “It is not good for man to be alone.” Franz Waxman’s delicious music score is aided by a beating drum, representing the heart of the new creation, and also the excitement and longing felt by both the first creation and his creator. Just in time a lovely thunderstorm (recalling the prologue) arrives to assist the two scientists in their quest. Henry, at first unwilling, is by now completely wrapped up in the project exclaiming “She’s alive!” as the experiment reaches fruition. Of course, this exclamation could also signify Henry’s elation at realizing Elizabeth will also live.

When the mate is unveiled she is revealed to be none other than Elsa Lanchester, our Mary Shelley from the prologue. Like Mary the new creature is a depiction, in her own way, of classic femininity who needs the Doctors to steady her as she takes her first uncertain steps. This is the third such image in the film, as the story, beginning and ending with a thunderstorm, comes full circle. “The bride of Frankenstein!” Pretorius proudly announces. This could be a joke targeting those who have always incorrectly referred to the monster using his maker’s name. Or could it be that she really is Frankenstein’s bride? Henry has so much invested in the project by this time, that he and his new creation could be seen as one in marriage. In fact, almost the same could be said of his relationship to the first creation – the monster being Frankenstein’s alter ego. This is, after all, a film heavily inspired by the Germans, who have a well known doppelganger obsession. Of course, Pretorious and the bride are linked as well through the crazy hairstyles they share. Horrified by her mate (as many women in arranged marriages are), she recoils in disgust. “She hate me – like others!” the monster says, tears pouring down his cheeks and filling his voice. In this and his final line “We belong dead!” Boris Karloff reveals himself to be an actor able to elicit depths of emotion from the most unlikely of characters.

After allowing Henry and Elizabeth to flee to safety, this broken soul reaches for “the lever” blowing himself, his new bride and Pretorius to bits. But for the other lovers – a very different fate: Henry and his bride-to-be embrace as they watch the castle explode from a distance. The heartbeat from that Franz Waxman score fades out with the rest of the film and though we may agree with Leslie Halliwell’s assertion that BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN is “At once the best of the [Universal Studios] horror films and a gentle mocking of them.”, it is apparent that James Whale and his writers were also concerned with more serious themes – deadly serious. Just think of Maria and her parents.

CREDITS: Directed by James Whale. Written by William Hurlbut and John Balderston, from the book FRANKENSTEIN by Mary Shelley. Photographed by John Mescall. Production design by Charles D. Hall. Edited by Ted Kent. Music by Franz Waxman. With Boris Karloff, Colin Clive, Valerie Hobson, Ernest Thesiger, Elsa Lanchester, O.P. Heggie, Una O’connor, Dwight Frye, Gavin Gordon and Douglas Walton.

April 16, 2013 Posted by | 1930's cinema, horror films, sequels | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

FANTASIA 2000

Walt Disney always wanted to bring classical music to the masses.  His goal was to marry it with powerful visuals, creating a synthesis of movies and music.  In 1940 he did just that with the ambitious production FANTASIA.  The combination of abstract filmmaking early in the movie with a more linear approach in its later reels, was well received by audiences and critics – eventually.  Many at first, weren’t sure what to make of this unique film.  However, with repeated re-issues, viewers caught on, and Disney won new respect from cineastes.  But he wasn’t satisfied.  From the beginning he intended for FANTASIA to be periodically updated and re-released with new material as well as select sequences from the original.  His ultimate dream was finally realized in 1999 with FANTASIA 2000.  None too successfully, in the minds of many, who saw it as a pale imitation.  I – for the most part – disagree, as will be explained in the following. 

With James Levine and the Chicago Symphony filling in for Leopold Stokowski, the first piece presented is Beethoven’s fifth symphony.  As in the first film’s opening with “Toccata and Fugue in D Minor”, this is an abstract visual feast.  Here geometric shapes take flight and eventually come to gether to form a flock of butterflies advancing toward sunbeams in the sky.  This brief excerpt is introduced using the same film clip that was utilized in the first film to present the Bach inspired piece.  The connection is obvious, as both are inspired by the designs of avant-garde filmmaker and painter Oskar Fischinger.  In fact, Fischinger was hired by Disney to design the “Toccata” segment though Uncle Walt was concerned that the visuals were too abstract.  As a result, they were adapted by Disney artists into a format that the German master renounced. 

With the Beethoven segment, we see themes and concepts that will run throughout the film, in less absolute forms.  The butterflies in particular and the hand of nature in general, as well as the shafts of light that break through the clouds, may represent a yearning of the spirit to roam and explore freely – the higher aspirations of the soul. 

The next clip is introduced by comedian Steve Martin and violinist Itzhak Perlman – in retrospect a bad idea – as are the other celebrity appearances, many laced with unsuccessful humor.  The piece is “The Pines of Rome” by Respighi, and it features beautiful, dreamlike animation of whales frolicking among glaciers and the now required shafts of light peeking through the clouds.  The water imagery is also impressive, here as it is in the rest of the film.  Like the butterflies in the first segment, the whales take flight and make their pilgrimage to the sun and sky. 

Quincy Jones brings us a lyrical moment featuring Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue”.  The animation is based on the art of cartoonist Al Hirschfeld and tells the story of New Yorkers during the depression.  It also features a gravitation towards the light as it’s final shot – this time the white lights of broadway as a construction worker realizes his dream to become a famous musician.  Gershwin and Hirschfeld – two New york icons – are served nicely. 

Up next, Bette Midler introduces “Piano Concerto # 2” by Shostakovich, and a computer animated version of Hans Christian Anderson’s “The Steadfast Tin Soldier”.  A tiny soldier courts a ballerina figurine and is thwarted my a menacing Jack in the box.  The soldier finds himself cast into a sewer, with still more water imagery.  He makes his way to the ocean (yet more!) where he is eaten by a fish which is caught by a fisherman who finds him inside.  The sequence ends with the soldier reunited with his ballerina love, a shaft of light shinning down on them.  Even fragile toys and figurines have yearnings. 

James Earl Jones gives us Camille Saint-Saens “Carnival of the Animals” and a bauble featuring flamingos horsing around with a yo-yo, creating havoc.  It is without doubt the films lightest vignette – a celebration of pure silliness – but with the requisite shafts of light and water imagery.  Longing, after all, can be a joyous experience. 

Magicians Penn and Teller introduce the films holdover from the original FANTASIA – Dukas’ “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” and its famous setpiece of Mickey Mouse (with the aid of bewitched broomsticks) inadvertently swamping the Sorcerer’s home with torrents of water.  Sunbeams are always peaking through the doors and windows and of course, there is that giant butterfly conjured in the Sorcerer’s smoke.  Thematically, this is an excellent choice for the new film, as well as being the best sequence in both the original and sequel. 

You may not be expecting animals marching onto Noah’s ark as James Levine introduces Edward Elgar’s “Pomp and Circumstance” – but that is exactly what you get.  This charming episode combines all the previous imagery of the film – water, shafts of light, animals – into a strangely moving story of Donald Duck coordinating the boarding of the animals for Noah.  Donald fears his beloved Daisy has been left behind, culminating in a touching reunion. 

As life, death and renewal are the themes of Noah’s ark, these metaphysical events are also the main thrust of the film’s final segment: Stravinsky’s “The Firebird” introduced by Angela Lansbury.  Spiritual longing and rebirth are once again represented through  symbolism – especially an imposing Elk, which breathes on an icicle at winter’s end, causing it to melt, droplets of water falling to the ground.  The seminal drops give birth to a lovely maiden who further replenishes the earth only to face off against an erupting volcano – the “firebird”  of the title.  Once again the landscape is devastated, leading to rebirth. 

The astounding power of nature is the overall message of FANTASIA 2000.  If the original film celebrated christianity (take note of the final “Ave Maria” segment) this newer work exalts mother nature – unabashedly so.  I will leave it to the reader to decide the merits of this choice by the filmmakers.  But it can safely be said that this is a film for a new era.  While the establishment does not care for its artistic aspects, they certainly approve of the new religion.  Things have changed since Walt’s day.    

CREDITS: Produced by Donald W. Ernst.  Executive Producer: Roy Disney.  Directors (in order of their segments): Pixote Hunt. Hendel Butoy. Eric Goldberg. Hendel Butoy. Eric Goldberg. James Algar. Francis Glebas. Gaetan Brizzi, Paul Brizzi.  Music Director: James Levine.  Production Design by Pixote Hunt.  Hosts: Steve Martin, Itzhak Perlman, Quincy Jones, Bette Midler, James Earl Jones, Penn and Teller, James Levine, Angela Lansbury.                

April 9, 2013 Posted by | ANIMATION FILMS, classic cinema, musicals | , , , , , | Leave a comment