Tuesday, February 14, 2017

The Man Behind the Gun (1953)

Director: Felix E. Feist                                      Writers: John Twist & Robert Buckner
Film Score: David Buttolph                               Cinematography: Bert Glennon
Starring: Randolph Scott, Patrice Wymore, Roy Roberts and Philip Carey

The Man Behind the Gun is definitely lesser Randolph Scott. Part of the reason is that he doesn’t play a cowboy, and the stage-bound sets don’t do him any favors either. But the real problem is a story that just isn’t that interesting. Robert Buckner had written some big-budget films for Warners in the 1940s but he only came up with the story, leaving mid-level writer John Twist to do the screenplay. Unfortunately the film really undermines Scott’s western persona, the honest cowboy who gets caught up in something ugly and has to save others or himself. Here he plays an undercover military man who is looking for trouble. And the killing he does is pretty mater of fact and comes a little to easily for comfort. When he is finally forced to reveal himself he turns into a stern taskmaster at the fort and is rather unlikable. The only thing that makes any sense is that the studio was attempting to capitalize on the success of the John Ford--John Wayne vehicle She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, in which Duke plays a cavalry officer. But the two films are light years apart. Director Felix E. Feist is not an artist, but he’s not a hack either. He spent most of his early career making short films at the studio and his later career in television. But he did make a couple of interesting films in the fifties, one the adaptation of the Curt Siodmak novel Donovan’s Brain, and the other the Kirk Douglas vehicle The Big Trees.

The film begins with Randolph Scott in San Francisco working undercover, as he gets off a boat to head south to Los Angeles. Before he does, he kills two men in the street and teams up with former soldiers Dick Wesson and Alan Hale Jr. The trip south is like a miniature version of John Ford’s Stagecoach, with senator Roy Roberts who wants all of California to be a state, rival senator Morris Ankrum who wants southern California to be a slave state, schoolmarm Patrice Wymore, villain Anthony Caruso, and Scott pretending to be a schoolmaster. When Caruso shows off his gun to everyone, Scott secretly takes out the bullets. Then Caruso tries to rob everyone aboard and Scott gets the drop on him. Once in L.A., he hands over the criminals to soldier Philip Carey, who puts them in jail. It turns out Ankrum is in control of the water rights and gouging everyone, but one night in the town’s big dance hall he’s shot dead. Scott tries to get information from the dance hall singer Lina Romay about who the man in charge of everything is, the murder of Ankrum, the illegal guns he found in the basement of the dance hall, the new owner of the water rights, but she learns that he is really an army Major and he’s forced to reveal himself. Scott believes that Carey is part of the conspiracy and at the same time he tries to woo his girl, Patrice Wymore. But the whole thing becomes more and more convoluted as the movie goes on, at the same time that Scott’s character becomes lest and less interesting.

The other major character in the film is Robert Cabal as real-life desperado Joaquin Murietta. He had come from Mexico to California in 1849, but it wasn’t long before he was killed by rangers four years later. In this film he’s a young kid working for Anthony Caruso and when Scott out foxes the villain on the stagecoach he lets Cabal go. From then on he works both sides of the fence, getting information for and giving protection to Scott. In terms of acting, no one really stands out. Roy Roberts is a familiar face in the years before he turned exclusively to television. But there are also moments when he looks a little too much like Scott and it can be confusing. Dick Wesson and Alan Hale Jr. acquit themselves well, but Philip Carey is pedestrian at best. The real find is Patrice Wymore, who is absolutely gorgeous. She shows some real grit at the end of the picture and one wishes she could have had more of an opportunity to display her talents. No one really has that chance because the cast is so big and the story so intricate that none of the actors has enough screen time to enable them to develop any anything close to character and wind up being more types than real people. Even Scott, because of the changing nature of his character, isn’t really consistent, and so the ending seems a bit forced. For fans of Randolph Scott, The Man Behind the Gun definitely has something to offer. For everybody else, there are hundreds of fifties westerns that are better than this.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Help! (1965)

Director: Richard Lester                                   Writers: Marc Behm & Charles Wood
Film Score: Ken Thorne                                   Cinematography: David Watkin
Starring: The Beatles, Leo McKern, Eleanor Bron and Roy Kinnear

While the Beatles’ A Hard Day's Night was something of a pseudo documentary in black and white, Help! was a full-fledged motion picture in living color. Unfortunately, that was the only interesting thing about the film. Dick Lester, who had directed the earlier film, was given a bigger budget and the group wanted to spend every penny by going to Austria and the Caribbean, but where the film really fails is the screenplay. Marc Behn had been successful with the independent Cary Grant vehicle Charade two years earlier, while co-writer Charles Wood had only written for television to that point. And while Wood had a long and distinguished career in Britain, there wasn’t a lot he could do with this story. While the Beatles are the nominal stars of the film, they really don’t have a lot to do other than run around doing silly things. Everyone in the group admitted that they were stoned most of the time, and so that probably didn’t help to make them put a lot of effort into their performances. The rather thin story is simply an excuse for a series of gags of rather dubious quality and the nonsensical running around of the cast. The only part of the film that still holds up today are the music performances, and they are generally good. The one that has them goofing around in the snow is less so, but it’s easy to see why fans at the time were enamored of the film.

The film opens on a fictional far-Eastern temple, with Leo McKern about to make a human sacrifice. But he’s stopped when one of his acolytes, Eleanor Bron, sees that the victim isn’t wearing the sacrificial ring. As the worshipers begin looking for the ring it is suddenly seen on the hand of, who else but Ringo, as the opening credits begin with the Beatles singing the title song. The video is in black and white, and halfway through the reason becomes clear as darts begin to hit the drummer. McKern is watching them on film and throwing the darts, then decides to go after the ring. In London the four lads are seen going into adjoining houses, with no walls between inside. And that’s when the comedy, if it can even be called that, ensues. Lennon reads his own book on his sunken bed, Harrison has grass in his bedroom complete with a gardener, Starr has vending machines along one wall, and McCartney is seen playing a Wurlitzer organ that comes up out of the floor. All the while McKern and Bron try all kinds of convoluted ways to get the ring off of Ringo’s finger. Mercifully, the group plays another song to stop the lame attempt humor that permeates the film. While McKern and company make several attempts to chop off Ringo’s hand to get the ring, for some unknown reason Bron stops them. At the same time, scientists Roy Kinnear and Victor Spinetti are after it too. Finally the group learns that if he can’t get the ring off, he’ll have to be sacrificed, which leads to chases through the Alps and the Bahamas.

The film was generally given positive reviews at the time, and there is a certain type of British comedy film of the period that the film can be considered part of. The original version of The Italian Job is one example of this kind of comedy, which doesn’t really translate to modern audiences at all. Part of the idea for the film sends up the James Bond films, which United Artists owned, but much of the action failed to capitalize on that connection. Leo McKern does about as well as could have been done with the script he was given. Eleanor Bron, who was supposed to be the Bond girl of the film, was great to look at but her motivation was a bit muddy. Even after she had saved her sister from sacrifice she continues to rescue Ringo. And as nonsensical as McKern and his followers are, Roy Kinnear and Victor Spinetti make an already confusing plot even more incomprehensible. But then, that was probably the point. Contemporary audiences seemed to enjoy simply seeing the Fab Four in anything. And the film was highly influential, as it provided the template for the Monkees television show and their subsequent success in the U.S. Ultimately, robbing the Beatles of their true persona--the primary element that made A Hard Day's Night such a successful film in its own right--is what really nullifies whatever potential Help! had as a film. As a piece of Beatles paraphernalia it’s actually quite endearing. As a piece of art, however, it fails miserably.

Monday, February 6, 2017

Altered States (1980)

Director: Ken Russell                                        Writer: Paddy Chayefsky
Film Score: John Corigliano                             Cinematography: Jordan Cronenweth
Starring: William Hurt, Blair Brown, Bob Balaban and Charles Haid

Though Altered States was released in 1980, it is very much steeped in a mid-seventies ethos. One only has two look at two Blair Brown films to see the monumental difference. Everything about this film feels as if it was produced in 1973, from the special effects and lighting to the film stock and the direction. Yet her very next film, Continental Divide with John Belushi, feels as if it could have been made in 1990. But perhaps that is the point. The film begins in 1967, and deals with the kind of exploration of consciousness that began with people like Timothy Leary and Carlos Castaneda. In the film William Hurt plays a psychologist studying schizophrenia, and at the same time he is doing studies on his own with a sensory depravation tank to study altered states of consciousness on volunteer students and eventually himself. Bob Balaban plays his research assistant, and Blair Brown is an anthropology doctoral student who falls in bed and in love with him. Hurt’s interest in his studies center on religion and religious symbolism in human consciousness, and some of his hallucinations are about his dead father and his rejection of religion. Before she goes off for a summer of fieldwork in Africa Brown pressures him to marry her as they will both be teaching at Harvard in the coming fall. Hurt, who is strange by all accounts, agrees.

Flash forward seven years and the couple has two kids and are about to divorce. His latest theory is that the atoms that make up the human brain are as old as the planet and therefore are the repository of millions of years of memory, and that somehow religious experience was born of those memories. He heads to Mexico to see if he can find a way into those pre-historical memories to hopefully find a purpose to life that religion can’t answer and never could have. Thaao Penghlis, who makes one of his few film appearances from before he became completely subsumed by daytime television, is his guide. Once there he takes a native drug and hallucinates again, and though disappointed, takes it back with him to Boston. Balaban worries that the drug is building up in his system, in his brain, and tries to get their mutual friend, psychiatrist Charles Haid, to help him stop his experiments. But they continue, and the crux of the film turns on Hurt’s belief that he is actually reverting physically to an earlier state of human existence when he is in the tank, and then actually does. That’s by far the most interesting part of the film, as it then changes from a psychotropic hallucination picture to a pseudo-werewolf film. The special effects, by makeup artist Rick Baker, in that part of the film are fantastic, far better than the hallucination sequences in the rest of it.

Surprisingly, the weakest part of the film is the screenplay by Paddy Chayefsky, who won several Oscars for his screenwriting. Ultimately, it just doesn’t make a lot of sense and seems more self-indulgent than entertaining. Apparently director Ken Russell sort of hijacked the production and kept the writer off the set, but it’s difficult to believe that even had Chayefsky achieved what he wanted to with the picture that it would have been any better. Sci-fi fans have embraced it over the years for it’s 2001-like visual sequences, but again, those seem really just and excuse for trying out visual effects rather than anything that has to do with narrative. The film was nominated for a couple of Oscars, for sound and the score but didn’t win. A few familiar character actors appear in bit parts, John Larrouquette as an x-ray tech, and George Gaynes as a radiologist, and Drew Barrymore as one of Hurt and Brown’s young daughters in her film debut. In the end the philosophical nature of the story simply doesn’t translate to the screen, while the more impressive physical regression isn’t explored in any kind of satisfying detail, leaving the viewer with little to really take away from the experience. As a result, Altered States is little more than a cinematic curiosity.

The Sting (1973)

Director: George Roy Hill                                  Writer: David S. Ward
Film Score: Marvin Hamlish, Scott Joplin         Cinematography: Robert Surtees
Starring: Paul Newman, Robert Redford, Robert Shaw and Charles Durning

The Sting is, quite simply, one of the greatest films of all time. Everything works in the picture, from the acting to the story to the photography to the music. Even the costumes in the picture were designed by the great Edith Head. This is one time when a film’s Academy Award for best picture is unarguable. One of the more creative and entertaining aspects of the film is that not only are the characters being swindled on the screen, but the audience continually finds themselves fooled as well. The effect is utterly delightful. The film opens with a sepia toned Universal logo from 1936, the time period in which the film is set. Behind the opening credits, beautiful Norman Rockwell type paintings that will also introduce each act of the film, is the unmistakable piano music of Scott Joplin. It’s difficult to imagine a time when “The Entertainer” wasn’t immediately recognizable, but Joplin’s ragtime music had been mostly forgotten when Marvin Hamlish decided it would the perfect accompaniment to the story even though it’s from a different time period. As the music speeds up and adds instruments the principal cast is shown in scenes from the film. As the rest of the credits finish, over a scene from a painting of the Depression, suddenly the painting comes to life in Joliet, Illinois, just outside of Chicago.

James Sloyan is a money runner for the mob. After picking up a payment he runs into Robert Earl Jones being attacked in an alley. Robert Redford shows up and the two help him chase away mugger Jack Kehoe. But Jones can’t walk and he needs to deliver some money. Sloyan volunteers and Redford shows him where to hide it in his pants, but tells him he should hide all his money. When Sloyan rounds the corner with the cash he plans on keeping it, but it’s not until he’s in a cab that he realizes it’s his money that’s been stolen. Later, Redford takes his girl out that night and blows all of his share gambling. Mob boss Robert Shaw learns about the theft and orders Jones and Redford’s murder. When Redford learns from vice cop Charles Durning that the money they stole was mob money, he tries to warn Jones but he gets there too late and his partner is already dead. So Redford seeks out Paul Newman, a big-time con artist, to help him take down Shaw to get revenge for Jones’ death. He’s holed up at a brothel run by Eileen Brennan, and is aided by inside men Ray Walston, Harold Gould and John Heffernan. Through all the planning Redford is on the lookout for Shaw’s men, and Durning is on his tail too. They decide to get in on a rigged poker game that Shaw plays on the train from New York to Chicago, then get him caught up in a rigged horse racing scheme that he won’t be able to resist because he wants so badly to get even with Newman who humiliated him during the poker game.

Of course the bare-bones plot is just the beginning, there is also an entire sub-plot con--actually two--going on at the same time that catch the audience up and fool them. In fact, David Ward’s screenplay began as a story of confidence men and the original idea for the project had him directing. But some time later George Roy Hill became attached to it, and having directed the two stars together five years earlier in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid it didn’t take much arm-twisting to get them both onboard. He did two weeks of rehearsal with the entire cast, and it became clear to the actors that because of his meticulous nature and his enthusiasm, that it was going to be a great film. Nearly every aspect of the confidence men’s world had been researched by Ward and put into the screenplay, and Hill was able to bring that world to life on the screen. In addition to the four stars, the cast of character actors is particularly good. Ray Walston and Eileen Brennan, in particular, are marvelous, and actors like Harold Gould and Dana Elcar really rise above their television work to the benefit of the production. Composer and pianist Marvin Hamlish was actually criticized for the use of ragtime because it was from a different time period than the Depression, but Hill, a pianist himself, was enamored of it and Joplin’s music lifted the film to another level of artistry entirely.

The film was nominated for ten Academy Awards and took home seven of them, all of them absolutely well deserved. In addition to best picture, David Ward won for his brilliant screenplay, which is where it all began. Obviously George Roy Hill won for best direction, expertly bringing all of the elements together on the screen in a cohesive whole. Marvin Hamlish won for his adaptation of Joplin’s music, which is as much a part of the success of the film as the actors or director. Edith Head won again--her last of eight Oscars--for the costume design, as did the team of Henry Bumstead and James W. Payne, the production designers who created and dressed the sets with historical accuracy. And finally William Reynolds won an award for editing, which was very good, especially in the unique transitions he used. One of the ironies of the film is that Robert Shaw wanted a lead actor credit, with his name beside Newman and Redford’s. If he hadn’t, it’s almost sure that he would have won a supporting actor Oscar as well. And yet because he strained the ligaments in his knee before shooting began, he had been willing to bow out of the role. But Hill decided to use the limp and it became part of his character. The Sting is one of the all-time great caper films in cinema history and one of Hollywood’s all-time great movies in any genre.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

U-571 (2000)

Director: Jonathan Mostow                              Writers: Jonathan Mostow & Sam Montgomery
Film Score: Richard Marvin                              Cinematography: Oliver Wood
Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Bill Paxton, Harvey Keitel and David Keith

Sixteen years after Wolfgang Peterson filmed the definitive World War Two German submarine picture in Das Boot, and a decade after the Cold War variation hit the screens with The Hunt for Red October, science-fiction writer-director Jonathan Mostow decided to take the genre in his own direction with U-571. This time the crew of a U.S. submarine is out to capture an Enigma machine from a disabled German U-Boat, with the goal of being able to break the Nazi code. The film took some criticism right off the bat because the British were primarily responsible for obtaining the Enigma machines. The U.S. didn’t capture one until 1944. On the opposite side, the scene showing the Germans killing survivors of the ship was another falsehood in that both Axis and Allied subs never took on prisoners, and the Germans only did that once. Nevertheless, audiences were receptive because it is an exciting film. The screenplay, by Mostow and fellow screenwriters Sam Montgomery and David Ayer, isn’t the most inventive and at times it even becomes cartoonish, but the cast is strong and they play it straight and for the most part it works. There’s a noticeable lack of production values on the scenes ashore, which gives it the look of a TV movie from the eighties, but that was probably to save money for the computer graphics that work well on the rest of the film at sea. The film even took home an Academy Award for best sound editing.

The film begins with text telling the reader that in 1942, the Allies were virtually helpless against German submarines as they hadn’t yet cracked the German U-Boat code. A Nazi sub captain Thomas Kretschmann takes aim at a ship and shoots a torpedo that breaks its back. But no sooner do they celebrate than they discover a destroyer bearing down on them from behind and depth charges force the damaged sub to the surface. In the U.S. an angry lieutenant Matthew McConaughey has been turned for his own sub command by captain Bill Paxton because he thinks he isn’t ready. Chief petty officer Harvey Keitel is aware of the situation but there’s nothing he can do. Orders have come down for some kind of secret operation in which the U.S. sub has been made to look like a German one, and men are put onboard who can speak and write in German. Marine major David Keith is there to lead the mission, to pose as a resupply boat sent to aid Kretshmann’s ship, and capture the enigma machine without the Germans knowing about it. They arrive there twelve hours ahead of the real ship, and the commando team takes two rafts over to the U-Boat. They kill the topside crew and manage to get inside. Keith finds the Enigma machine, and only loses a couple of men. They send the German prisoners over first, get everything on the rafts, light the explosives on the German sub and head for their own.

The twist comes when Paxton spots a torpedo heading for the U.S. sub and it explodes dead center. The U.S. ship and all the prisoners are gone, leaving the commando team to scramble first to keep the explosives from going off, and then prepare for the arrival of the real German sub. Suddenly McConaughey has his command. The one thing they have going for them in enemy waters is that they apparently are the enemy. But initially, the biggest threats come from within, first McConaughey’s inexperience, and second from the panic of seaman Erik Palladino--think Bill Paxton in Aliens. The acting is uneven overall, with some of the younger actors on the weak end. McConaughey is the center of the picture and carries it well. Both Paxton and Keith make a minimal impact, but Harvey Keitel was a good choice for McConaughey’s second. Thomas Kretschmann, in one of his earlier films, is exceptional, and one wishes he could have had more screen time. Other familiar faces are Jon Bon Jovi and Jake Weber, and Matthew Settle from Band of Brothers. How the film is received is going to depend on the viewer. Those seeking authenticity will definitely be disappointed and should steer clear. Those able to take it for what it is, a completely fictionalized version of actual events, will be able to enjoy it. And for those looking for action and little else, U-571 is a decent historical thrill ride.

Saturday, February 4, 2017

The Lincoln Lawyer (2011)

Director: Brad Furman                                     Writer: John Romano
Film Score: Cliff Martinez                                Cinematography: Lukas Ettlin
Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Marisa Tomei, Ryan Phillippe and William H. Macy

This is one of those instances where a really great mystery novel transfers seamlessly to the screen. It also helps that it has a star-studded cast. The Lincoln Lawyer is a well-filmed, well-acted, well-written film that satisfies on nearly every level of viewing experience. And that’s not something that can often be said about a film. Director Brad Furman has an affinity for L.A., which comes through in his choice of projects, and while his other films have proved disappointing everything came together in this piece in a way that he had to be extremely happy with. The story is based on the novel by Michael Connelly, which was the first spin-off from his regular detective novels, and he was equally happy with the film. Though it didn’t receive rave reviews, audiences have been mostly positive. This was the second film in which Matthew McConaughey plays a lawyer, the first being John Grisham’s legal thriller A Time to Kill from 1996. In both films his character goes through a learning curve that is impressive to watch. And that’s what makes this film so great. The characterizations are particularly good and so the film doesn’t have to rely completely on plot. Plus, the cinematography is edgy without being off-putting, and the music uses a bit of rap without being intrusive.

The film opens with hot-shot lawyer Matthew McConaughey in his office: his vintage Lincoln Town Car driven by chauffer Laurence Mason. Unlike most lawyers who try to pretend different, he only cares about money. When court clerk John Leguizamo tells him about the rich Ryan Phillippe who has been arrested for assault on a prostitute, it’s easy money in the bank for McConaughey. On the other side of the aisle in the courthouse is the lawyer’s ex-wife, Marisa Tomei, and the two have a surprisingly good relationship, which stems from their mutual love for their daughter. He also has a crack investigator, William H. Macy, who thinks Phillippe is guilty but does a good job of trying to find the truth. Meanwhile cop Michael Paré has a grudge against McConaughey for getting killers out of prison on technicalities, as does assistant D.A. Josh Lucas who would like nothing better than to sandbag the hot shot and put him in his place. Of course Phillippe begins by lying to McConaughey, and eventually the lawyer sees a connection with a murder case in which he advised Michael Peña to plead guilty because he didn’t have a case. It doesn’t take long for McConaughey to realize that Phillippe hired him in order to have all of the evidence of the connection covered under attorney-client privilege, leaving him protected from the first murder. How McConaughey attempts to get justice for everyone involved, while Phillippe tries to do the opposite, is incredibly suspenseful.

Matthew McConaughey is simply marvelous, as both the slick hustler and later in the film when he becomes haunted by his own hubris. And Marisa Tomei is equally impressive as his gorgeous ex-wife. They play off each other brilliantly and have great onscreen chemistry. William H. Macy is also wonderful as the street-wise investigator, as is Josh Logan as the overconfident prosecutor who gets played by McConaughey. In addition to a great principal cast, there are a bunch of great supporting roles. Besides the delightful appearances of Michael Paré, John Leguizamo and Michael Peña, Brian Cranson plays a homicide detective that McConaughey can’t stand, while Bob Gunton plays Phillippe’s family lawyer. The great Shea Whigham puts in an appearance as a jailhouse snitch, a year into his impressive run on Boardwalk Empire, while Frances Fisher does a great job of replicating a 40s noir type mother. Nevertheless, even with all of that talent, it’s difficult to not to lay the success of the film on a terrific story, adapted by screenwriter John Romano, and some confident direction by Brad Furman. Because the majority of the film takes pace during the day and the humor in the story, it’s something of the flip side to a film like Collateral’s dark depiction of L.A. at night. Though perhaps not a great work of art, The Lincoln Lawyer is great cinema and well worth seeking out.

Friday, February 3, 2017

A Most Wanted Man (2014)

Director: Anton Corbijn                                    Writer: Andrew Bovell
Film Score: Herbert Grönemeyer                    Cinematography: Benoît Delhomme
Starring: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Nina Hoss, Grigoriy Dobrygin and Daniel Brühl

The death of Philip Seymour Hoffman is still a tough one to get over, especially considering how much great work he was doing at the time. And things were only going to get better. He was consistently appearing in better films, like this one, and was on track to becoming one of the greatest actors of the new century. A Most Wanted Man is an espionage thriller based on the novel by John le Carré and the question of the film’s popularity, or lack thereof, is an interesting one. While it has fairly high ratings on sites like Imdb, it’s clear that many viewers found it boring: code for not enough explosions and car chases. But the thing to remember is that this is not Jason Borne or Luc Besson, this is a spy movie, right out of the seventies. This is a character study, as the two sides move the chess pieces on the board in an attempt to outsmart the other. The plot, while not particularly inventive, is certainly intriguing as Hoffman is not only up against the other side, he’s also up against his own side. In the middle of the film Hoffman makes an interesting point, that arresting and killing the middle men are never going to solve the problem unless they let those middle men lead them to the people in charge. But the police and the U.S. government are just too impatient--or incompetent--to allow that. This is the foundation for the twist that comes at the end of the film.

Philip Seymour Hoffman plays a German counter-terrorist agent in Hamburg, Germany. He gets on the trail of a recent arrival, Grigoriy Dobrygin, who has climbed out of the sea and is walking around the city in a gray hoodie. Helping Hoffman are fellow agents Daniel Brühl, and assistant Nina Hoss. As he tracks Dobrygin’s movements he begins to get heat from the police, who want to pick him up. But Hoffman knows the man is much more valuable for who he can lead them to than what his is himself. At the same time the team is also following a famous Muslim leader Homayoun Ershadi, who they believe is laundering terrorist money in Cyprus. Eventually Robin Wright is called in by the U.S. Embassy to find out why they aren’t arresting Dobrygin. But when she hears what he has to say, she backs Hoffman and the police give him three days to find out something before they arrest him themselves. The people Dobrygin is staying with ask lawyer Rachel McAdams to come and talk to him. He says he’s been tortured by the Russians and she wants to know if he’s seeking asylum. He won’t say, but gives her the name of banker Willem Dafoe to contact while Hoffman’s team discover he’s the son of a dead Russian general. Apparently the father left a large sum of money in Dafoe’s bank and Dobrygin wants to get at it. At that point it doesn’t take much of a leap to believe that Ershadi’s presence in Germany has something to do with moving the money into terrorist hands.

The most obvious flaw of the film is that it positively begs for a European cast. Philip Seymour Hoffman struggles with the German accent, though half the time he sounds as if he’s trying to do Irish. Rachel McAdams is simply out of her element, one moment with passable German and the next sounding like a Valley girl. And then there’s Willem Dafoe, who sounds he’s trying to do a British accent and failing miserably. It’s quite a mess. The only explanation is that the Americans were needed in order to ensure an American audience--in other words, box office dollars--for the film. Hoffman was praised for his performance, and most felt it was a fitting way for him to go out, a powerful character study in which he was the primary figure. And as far as that goes, it should have been enough. Rachel McAdams and Willem Dafoe only drag the whole thing down, when it didn’t have to be that way. Nina Hoss shows how good European actors could have been. Daniel Brühl was also a great choice, but he barely had any screen time. On the technical side, the film is solid in every way. The photography by Benoît Delhomme is gorgeous, and director Anton Corbijn’s choices are equally good, especially in the way he integrates the modern structures of the government buildings with the actors. The film score by Herbert Grönemeyer is subtly appropriate. Ultimately, A Most Wanted Man is an effective suspense film that is marred by the inclusion of American actors in what is essentially a European story.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

In the Heat of the Night (1967)

Director: Norman Jewison                                Writer: Stirling Silliphant
Film Score: Quincy Jones                                Cinematography: Haskell Wexler
Starring: Sidney Poitier, Rod Steiger, Warren Oates and Lee Grant

In 1963 Sidney Poitier won the Academy Award for best actor in Lilies of the Field. It was the first time a black actor had won an Oscar for anything in twenty-five years. But clearly this was a token, as the Academy wouldn’t see fit to do it again for another twenty years when Lou Gossett Jr. won a supporting actor Oscar for An Officer and a Gentleman in 1982. In the meantime, however, Poitier continued to star in powerful dramas like In the Heat of the Night that pointedly dealt with the black experience in America and the struggle blacks face every day to be afforded the same respect and dignity that whites give to each other as a matter of course. And looked at in that light it’s not surprising at all that the Academy ignored him during the rest of the sixties. The story began as a novel by John Ball from two years earlier that won an Edgar Award for best first novel. The idea is a brilliant one, a white police officer and a black one working together in the South almost against their wills, especially as it’s set against the Civil Rights movement of the mid-sixties. It’s easy to see why it struck a chord with audiences and went on to be nominated for seven Oscars and won five, including best picture of 1967 and best screenplay for Stirling Silliphant’s adaptation. Of course Sidney Poitier was completely ignored by the Academy. They would let him win for portraying a black man helping nuns to build a church, but not for playing a black man standing up for his rights as a human being in the American South.

The film begins with the unmistakable voice of Ray Charles singing the title song. A train pulls into a sleepy Southern town in Mississippi and deposits Sidney Poitier at the station. At the diner across town police officer Warren Oates is just finishing supper, but when he heads back out in his cruiser he finds Jack Teter dead in a downtown alley. Later a gum-chewing Rod Steiger shows up to take over the crime scene. Oates is sent out to check the train station and when he finds Poitier he arrests him immediately. Of course the cops try to intimidate him, and his refusal to be scared makes Steiger reconsider him ever so slightly. But he’s really taken aback when he learns that Poitier is a police officer in Philadelphia. The first good thing that happens is Steiger chews out Oates for not questioning Poitier, and after a call to his chief everything is straightened out. Except that when Steiger finds out he’s the number one homicide detective in the city, he actually floats the idea that maybe Poitier can help solve their murder for them. Against his better judgment--and since his train doesn’t leave until noon the next day--Poitier decides to do it. But that’s just the beginning of the hostilities. Poitier is used to acting like a cop, not a cowed black man in the Jim Crow South, and Steiger chafes at having to defend him. Even when Steiger wants him to quit the case, Poitier won’t back down.

It’s actually an interesting case that isn’t solved very easily. But the longer Poitier stays around, the more hidden Southern indiscretions he winds up uncovering, and he’s in a place where people are not going to sit still for a black man uncovering their secrets even with Steiger’s protection. There are two standout moments in the film, one obvious and the other less so. The first one is early on when Steiger gets irritated because he has a suspect and Poitier says he’s innocent. So when Steiger tries to make fun of his first name and asks what they call him up in Philadelphia he says, “They call me Mr. Tibbs.” The line is so good that it was used for the title of the misguided sequel three years later. The second comes near the end of the film when the two are over at Steiger’s house, and for a moment they forget that they’re enemies, just talking the way cops will. When Steiger talks about being lonely, and Poitier commiserates with him, suddenly Steiger frowns and says, “Don’t get smart, black boy. No pity, thank you.” In a time honored code of the South, blacks are not allowed to feel sorry for whites because it would mean that they are lower than blacks in some way. No matter how poor off a white person is, they still have to be seen in their own minds as better than blacks.

As good as Sidney Poitier is, and he is tremendous, Rod Steiger is magnificent as the redneck police chief who gradually has to concede that Poitier is good at his job and not only the equal but the better of his small police department. As a result, Steiger won an Oscar for his performance. Lee Grant, in a very small role, is the dead man’s wife and she was fortunate to be given such a realistic part instead of the clichéd writing that is usually foisted upon this type of character. William Schallert shows up as the mayor, and an impossibly young Matt Clark makes a surprise appearance later on. In the early seventies there were some incredibly good film scores for crime dramas that utilized soul and jazz music, but this isn’t one of them. Quincy Jones was ahead of the curve, perhaps, but even sixties scores like Bullitt by Lalo Schifrin were much better than this. Had he stayed with the blues sensibility that opened the film it could have been great, but as it stands the pre-Shaft music is lackluster by comparison. The two songs by Ray Charles are the only really memorable tunes. Other Oscars went to the sound design team and to Harold Ashby for his editing of the picture. But In the Heat of the Night will always be remembered best for capturing a particular time in this country’s social history, and offering the promise of hope amid the harsh realities of oppression.

Singin' in the Rain (1952)

Director: Stanley Donen & Gene Kelly             Writers: Betty Comden & Adolph Green
Film Score: Lennie Hayton                               Cinematography: Harold Rosson
Starring: Gene Kelly, Debbie Reynolds, Donald O’Connor and Jean Hagen

One of the great shocks of watching Universal’s The Old Dark House from 1932 is when Melvyn Douglas, on the way to said house in a rain storm, starts crooning “Singin’ in the Rain.” But while the film of the same name wasn’t released until twenty years later, the song is originally from the MGM musical, The Hollywood Review of 1929. This makes sense because Singin’ in the Rain is set in the late twenties as Hollywood was converting from silent to sound films. The new musical sends up the whole studio system and--except for a lengthy, self-indulgent dance number by Gene Kelly at the end--it is an absolutely perfect screen musical. The film is the brainchild of MGM producer Arthur Freed who began working on musicals at the studio in 1929, and all of the songs were either written by him, and Nacio Herb Brown, or had been used in one of the many musicals he had worked on over the years. The production also used existing sets where they could, and costumes already in wardrobe, which fit perfectly with the film’s storyline. Nevertheless, as with most of MGM’s musicals there were cost overruns, especially filming the dance numbers. While the film wasn’t a huge hit at the time, it was a success, making a profit for the studio after going half a million dollars over budget in the course of production. All four principals do a tremendous job and while there were discussions about other to work with Kelly during pre-production, it’s difficult to imagine anyone else in those roles.

The credits open on Gene Kelly, Debbie Reynolds and Donald O’Connor singing the title song in yellow rain slickers and umbrellas behind the opening credits. The film proper begins at a grand premiere of the new silent film by movie stars Gene Kelly and Jean Hagen. Gossip columnist Madge Blake asks Kelly to tell his story and his studio publicity recitation is a wonderfully ironic counterpoint to the actual visuals. The vaudeville song and dance routine of “Fit as a Fiddle” is particularly good. He and O’Connor come to Hollywood with O’Connor playing piano and Kelly doing stunt work, then the studio head puts him in a leading role opposite Hagen. On stage after the premier one thing becomes clear, Kelly won’t let her get in a word edgewise. The reason: she has a horrible speaking voice. Trying to escape fans after the show, Kelly winds up in the car of Debbie Reynolds and she accidentally insults him by saying he’s not a real actor. But the tables turn at a party he attends when she is one of the dancers that comes out of a giant cake. Later, when studio head Millard Mitchell finds out The Jazz Singer has been a huge hit, he wants to convert Kelly and Hagen’s newest film to sound, but with disastrous consequences because of Jean Hagen’s voice and Kelly’s inability to act. The finished product at the sneak preview is one of the funniest moments in the picture. It’s not until O’Connor comes up with the idea of dubbing Hagen’s footage with Reynolds’ voice that it saves the picture--but also unleashes some unintended consequences.

The film does an excellent job of emulating the style of films of the period, the dress and the studio system in particular--Gene Kelly even looks like John Gilbert with his big grin--and the dancing and musical numbers throughout are impressive. Donald O’Connor’s set piece “Make ‘em Laugh,” Gene Kelly’s solo on the title number, as well as the trio doing “Good Morning” are all classic routines of the cinema musical. And the tap routine by Kelly and O’Connor on “Moses” is also outstanding. The only flaws in the picture are when Kelly tries to be too self-consciously artistic. One example is the song “You Were Meant for Me” when he is trying to tell Reynolds how much he likes her in the empty studio, dancing together with nothing but lights on a wooden floor. But at least that song fits in with the plot. When Kelly and O’Connor cook up an idea in the office of Millard Mitchell to change the new film into a modern musical, the endless dance sequence of “Broadway Melody” with Cyd Charisse is pure torture to watch because it is completely out of context and relates to nothing else in the picture. It’s as much of a non sequitur in the film as it is in the onscreen movie they’re making. That aside, however, there’s nothing to complain about in the film. Like a lot of films recognized as classics today, it wasn’t considered so at the time, and the film was only nominated for two Oscars, one for the performance of Jean Hagen and the other for Lennie Hayton’s film score.

The A List essay by Judy Gerstel begins on exactly the right note: “Only a curmudgeonly wet blanket couldn’t love Singin’ in the Rain.” She also goes on to say that there is something “slyly subversive” about the picture, which also rings true. Critic Jacqueline T. Lynch has gone so far as to connect the film with Sunset Boulevard from two years earlier in the way that they both deal with the end of the silent era though in very different ways, while Gertsel also sees it as a negative image of All About Eve from the same year. Gerstel begins with a bit of the historical background before getting to the real reason for the film’s success: Gene Kelly. He not only starred and choreographed the picture; he received co-director credit along with Stanley Donen. But she also accurately assesses the impact that Donald O’Connor has, saying that he nearly steals the show, and how perfect Debbie Reynolds is as an opposite type to the glamorous “movie star” Gene Hagen. Thematically, Gertsel sees the film as pulling the veil back on the illusion that is Hollywood, everything from the wardrobe of the stars at the premiere, to Kelly’s fabrication of his background, to the dubbing of Hagen’s voice by Reynolds, and yet at the same time being able to “still seduce us with that very artifice.” It’s a nice summation of what makes Singin’ in the Rain such an enduring classic and for many--myself included--the quintessential Hollywood musical.

Monday, January 2, 2017

Footsteps in the Dark (1941)

Director: Lloyd Bacon                                       Writers: Lester Cole & John Wexley
Film Score: Friedrich Hollaender                      Cinematography: Ernest Haller
Starring: Errol Flynn, Brenda Marshall, Ralph Bellamy and Alan Hale

A welcome bit of whimsy from Warner Brothers and their star swashbuckler Errol Flynn, Footsteps in the Dark is a comedic murder mystery that tries to capture something of the success of The Thin Man. Of course it fails miserably, but it is still an entertaining frolic. The story is a complicated mix of clues and gags without any real suspects, which is probably its biggest weakness. It began as a German play entitled Kazenzugen by Lazlo Fodor, which was then translated into English by Bernard Merivale and had various titles, including Blondie White as well as the title of the film. Warner Brothers purchased the rights in 1937 and it was originally going to feature Edward G. Robinson, as the star had recently made a couple of comedies like A Slight Case of Murder that were similar in spirit to this. But by the time the film was ready to go before the cameras Robinson was already committed to doing The Sea Wolf. At the same time Errol Flynn, who had appeared in seven historical dramas in a row, wanted desperately to do something different and so he was assigned to the film. Flynn was happy about the change, and there was even talk of a sequel, but the audience wasn’t and the film failed at the box office. The reviews at the time were mixed, though most critics clearly understood that while it was not great cinema that there was plenty to enjoy about the film if the viewer doesn’t take it too seriously.

The film begins with Errol Flynn sneaking into a house late one night. But it turns out it’s his own house and he climbs in bed next to sleeping wife Brenda Marshall. The next morning at breakfast the papers are advertising a bestselling murder mystery called, what else, Footsteps in the Dark. Flynn’s mother-in-law, Lucile Watson, think’s the book is a scandal. The family lawyer, Grant Mitchell, comes over and it turns out Watson is suing the publisher of the novel for slander because the characters are all thinly veiled versions of all the people in their social circle. Flynn wholeheartedly agrees, but on the way to work at his job as a wealthy investment counselor he tells Mitchell to stop the suit while extolling the virtues of deception. He puts in a perfunctory appearance at his office then has his driver, Allen Jenkins, swap cars at a garage and take him to a suburban house where he sets to work writing about the society people he lives and works among. Clearly, he is the author of Footsteps in the Dark. But then Noel Madison comes to his office one day, subtly implying that he wants Flynn to fence stolen diamonds for him under the cover of his work, and also suggesting that he knows about Flynn’s writing as a way to coerce him. At the same time the captain of the homicide squad, Alan Hale, who is a friend but knows Flynn only as the writer, goes on the radio at the behest of Watson to knock the book, which might cut into sales.

Hale’s point is that real detective work is much more scientific, and when a report comes in about a dead man found on a yacht, detective William Frawley dares Flynn to come and see them at work. The coroner thinks the man drank himself to death, but once Flynn confirms the victim is Noel Madison he knows it’s murder. Now all he has to do is prove it. His only clues are Madison’s secretive servant, Turhan Bey, and a blonde burlesque performer, Lee Patrick. Ralph Bellamy plays the dentist who gives Patrick her alibi. At the same time his mother-in-law hires private detective Roscoe Karns to spy on him. The film is a rather awkward attempt at comedy, though in the end it seems to work and one wishes Flynn had had the opportunity to make more films in the series and become more comfortable in the role. In this outing Flynn is too urbane to play the character in the way someone like William Powell would have. But when looked at in another way the film is almost better because of it. There’s something charming about Flynn’s awkward attempt to pretend he’s a Texas oilman, and the lies he tells to his wife and mother-in-law. The amateurishness actually makes his performance seem more realistic. In addition to the rest of the tremendous character work by all of the above, Gary Owen also appears as a witness in the case, and Frank Faylen plays a taxi driver, no doubt a warm-up for his role in It’s a Wonderful Life. For fans of Flynn the film is essential, for everyone else Footsteps in the Dark is flawed but fun.

Sunday, January 1, 2017

The Life of Emile Zola (1937)

Director: William Dieterle                                  Writers: Norman Reilly Raine & Heinz Herald
Film Score: Max Steiner                                   Cinematography: Tony Gaudio
Starring: Paul Muni, Gloria Holden, Henry O’Neill and Joseph Schildkraut

The winner of the Academy Award for best picture of 1937 went to The Life of Emile Zola, another in a string of films that attempted to deal with the increasing restriction of freedom in Nazi Germany. The second half of the film deals with the Dreyfuss Affair in France at the end of the nineteenth century, in which a Jewish officer was convicted on treason simply because of his religion. Thus, the criticisms that the title character wields in the name of freedom could just as easily be transferred to Germany in the years before World War Two. Nevertheless, the episode was an embarrassment to the French and so the film was not seen in that country until the early fifties. The complicated writing credits are due to the fact that everyone who had written anything on the Dreyfuss Affair at the time came out of the woodwork to accuse Warner Brothers of plagiarism, and the studio responded by purchasing the rights to all of those works by three authors. As a result, Heinz Herald and Geza Herczeg earned Oscars, along with screenwriter Norman Reilly Raine, for their play about Dreyfuss. Apparently Bette Davis expressed interest in playing the character of Nana, but since the part was so small the studio turned her down. Paul Muni was fresh off of his success in The Story of Louis Pasteur and so the part was a natural. Interestingly, while Joseph Schildkraut has a very small part as Dreyfuss he was given the Academy Award for best supporting actor, though this would be his last film at Warners.

The film begins in Paris, in 1862. Paul Muni as Zola and Vladimir Sokoloff as the painter Cezanne are starving artists sharing a flat together, and Gloria Holden is Muni’s fiancée. After he gets a job at a book publisher, he gets married and begins publishing his novels. But almost immediately the government wants to ban them as being offensive and he gets fired. Soon he begins writing about the injustices he sees all around him, police corruption, lack of protection for poor citizens, rampant crime. Then he meets prostitute Erin O’Brien-Moore and uses her life story as the basis for his novel Nana, which becomes a huge bestseller, and his publisher John Litel is pleased to give him a royalty check that gets the writer out of poverty. Then the Franco-Prussuan war impoverishes all of France, the author writes the book Downfall to expose the truth about the war. The general staff demands he be punished in retaliation, but Muni continues to write book after book criticizing the flaws in French society, and becomes a rich man in the process. When a letter is sent to the German attaché in Paris from the home of Robert Barrat as Count Esterhazy, it is stolen and shown to the French high command. The letter appears to be a list of secret military documents and it works its way up the chain of command beginning with Louis Calhern and finally the Minister of war Gilbert Emery who suddenly decides that since Joseph Schildkraut, as Alfred Dreyfus, is a Jew, he must be the traitor.

At first Muni, fat and happy as a bestselling author, is completely uninterested in the case. The court-martial finds Schildkraut guilty, and he is exiled to Devil’s Island after a public humiliation. Later, French intelligence officer Henry O’Neill uncovers the truth, but the general staff insist on covering the whole thing up to hide their mistake. Schildkraut’s wife, Gale Sondergaard, won’t rest until her husband has been exonerated and she finally gets Muni back to his old form and he puts his reputation on the line for justice. Muni does a solid job, but it’s not really the part itself that makes the film great but the story. Nevertheless, he delivers an impressive closing speech during his trial. This was Gloria Holden’s first film after the successful Dracula’s Daughter at Universal the year before, playing one of the many wife characters that would populate the bulk of her career. Donald Crisp plays Muni’s lawyer to good effect, while Ralph Morgan appears as the commander of Paris. And Henry O’Neill does a splendid job as the one officer who tries to be honest. The film is directed well by William Dieterle, one of Warner’s stable of great directors, and he was nominated for an Oscar, as was Max Steiner for his film score--though in those days the award would have gone to the head of department instead of the actual composer. The film was nominated for nine Oscars and won three. The Life of Emile Zola contains a wealth of great character acting and is an uplifting story of social activism that still resonates with audiences today.

The Grand Illusion (1937)

Director: Jean Renoir                                        Writers: Charles Spaak & Jean Renoir
Film Score: Joseph Kosma                               Cinematography: Christian Matras
Starring: Jean Gabin, Pierre Fresnay, Marcel Dalio and Erich von Stroheim

Jean Renoir’s incredible anti-war film The Grand Illusion (La grande illusion) was thought to be lost in its original form, taken back to Germany by the Nazis and leaving the world with only butchered copies that were unable to convey the magic that the great director had originally captured on film. Fortunately the original negative was discovered in Munich in the late fifties and the film is now considered one of the greatest in cinematic history. Because the film is set during World War One, there is a natural impetus to compare it to All Quiet on the Western Front. But they are very different films and ultimately have very different messages. The story by Erich Maria Remarque is one of disillusionment, and while there is certainly some of that in Renoir’s film there is far more emphasis on relationships in all forms, whether they be between races, citizens of one country, or citizens of the world. In the earlier film the illusion is that of the glory of war. In the French film it is the illusion of separation between people. At the end of the film Marcel Dalio says to Jean Gabin that borders are all man-made. The implication is clear, so are all of humanity’s attempts to separate people and make them enemies. The only problem is we act on that illusion because we believe it is real.

The film begins with pilot Jean Gabin listening to a phonograph in a bar and planning on meeting his girlfriend later. But he’s told he needs to take an officer, Pierre Fresnay, to the front immediately. Fresnay want to check out some ambiguous images on an aerial recognizance photograph. In the very next scene, German pilot Erich von Stroheim comes in from just having shot down a plane and sends someone to go after the pilot to invite him to lunch. The pilot turns out to be Gabin, with Fresnay in tow. They sit down to eat with the German staff officers and the civility is incredibly comical. Later the two are transferred to a prisoner of war camp for officers, and the comedy continues inside the camp. While the Germans have no compunction about taking valuables from the prisoners, the French officers receive regular packages of food from France while the Germans are forced to eat what they can scrounge. Marcel Dalio gets the best parcels of all because his family is wealthy. Julien Carette was a comedic actor as a civilian, but the snobbish Fresnay doesn’t appreciate his humor. Later, Georges Péclet wants to know from Gabin if they can trust Frenay, because they are digging a tunnel.

One meaning of the title comes from the fact that this is 1914 and the war has barely begun. When Gabin tells Péclet that the war will be over before they get the tunnel finished, Péclet tells him he’s deluding himself. The bigger illusion, however, may be that they’ll ever escape at all. But by the end of the film it’s clear that it is the illusion of aristocracy that is really the subject of the film. As a war film, the story is tremendously influential. The film is the precursor to any number of serio-comic prison-break films, from The Great Escape and Stalag 17 in the 1950s, to Victory thirty years later. The men also insist on putting on a show, complete with costumes and men in drag, which prefigures Bridge on the River Kwai, as well as the singing of “La Marseillaise,” which infuriates the Germans just a it would in Casablanca. For announcing the news that the French had retaken one of their forts and inspiring the French officers to sing the anthem, Gabin finds himself in solitary confinement until it nearly drives him mad. But that’s nothing after he and the other officers find out that they have to move camps before the tunnel is done. As the war drags on they change camps several times. The last camp they are assigned to has, as its commandant, none other than Erich von Stroheim, and the parallels with The Great Escape become even more numerous. It’s a mountain fortress with thick, stone walls that defy escape. And still, they keep trying.

One of the many fascinating aspects of the film for American audiences is the class distinctions that are made throughout the film. Von Stroheim treats Frenay with great deference because of their shared nobility, the same thing that keeps Gabin from entirely trusting Frenay. For von Stroheim’s part, he understands that the old monarchical system will certainly be over when the war ends, but this doesn’t seem to bother Frenay. The production is outstanding, and the restored negative certainly makes it the equal of anything produced in Hollywood at the time. Director Jean Renoir likes to zoom in on his actors on occasion without cutting, and it is one of the few individual touches that can be noticed immediately. Of course the acting is magnificent. Jean Gabin is a force on the screen, natural and magnetic at the same time. Pierre Fresnay, while inspiring disdain, nevertheless acquits himself as a character with a moral center. And it’s always a pleasure to see the great Erich von Stroheim onscreen. Dita Parlo doesn’t appear until near the end of the film, but she is an important part of the story and she does a terrific job as well. The Grand Illusion certainly earns its reputation as one of the great films of all time, an influential and artistic film that is as compelling as it is beautiful to look at.