Monday, July 21, 2014

Sands of Iwo Jima (1949)

Director: Allan Dwan                                       Writers: Harry Brown & James Edward Grant
Film Score: Victor Young                                Cinematography: Reggie Lanning
Starring: John Wayne, John Agar, Adele Mara and Forrest Tucker

A post-war film about battles during the Pacific Campaign, Sands of Iwo Jima is a film about a squad of men who wound up participating in the iconic photo of the flag raising that is the model for the Marine Corps War Memorial outside of Arlington Cemetery. The battle is also the subject of two recent films by Clint Eastwood. The first is Flags of Our Fathers, directed by Eastwood, about the men involved in the flag raising. The second is a Japanese film produced by Eastwood called Letters from Iwo Jima, about the Japanese solders on the island during the attack. One other modern rendering is the episode “Iwo Jima” from the HBO mini-series The Pacific. As expected from a film produced during this period, it’s a somewhat sanitized version of the battle, with an emphasis on the human relationships of the members of the squad rather than the realities of the fighting itself. The film was directed by Allan Dwan and uses actual war footage of the event, as well as featuring the three surviving members of the flag raising in brief cameo roles.

The film begins with Marine Corps replacements being sent to New Zealand in order to prepare for the next island invasion. John Wayne is the sergeant of one of the squads, in which only he and two other men survived Guadalcanal, one of which is the narrator of the story, Arthur Franz, and the other James Brown who is the only friend Wayne has. The personal drama is introduced right away because Forrest Tucker had served with Wayne in China, and also lost to him in the fleet boxing match. The other young replacements include John Agar, Richard Jaeckel and later, Martin Milner. Wayne begins by putting them through as much training as they can take, trying to teach them the tactics that will keep them alive in the island fighting they’ll be doing, but some of the men resent it. Tucker, obviously, but Agar is the son of a war hero killed in action and hates the military, only signing up because it was expected of him. But Wayne has his own checkered past. His wife left him before the war and took their son, and he drinks to forget. Ultimately, however, it the humanity of the men that comes through. Tucker saves Wayne from the shore patrol when he’s drunk, and Agar falls in love with Adele Mara and marries her.

The first objective for the Marines is Tarawa, a thin island that is essentially one long airstrip. Several of the squad members are injured, including Brown, while Tucker abandons two of the men so that he can drink coffee behind the lines, resulting in the death of Peter Coe. After a few weeks in Hawaii the men boarded the ships again, this time for the island of Iwo Jima. Bigger than Tarawa, it contains three airfields, but the only landing areas are surrounded on two sides by high ground, so it’s going to be a deadly battle. The Japanese have been living underground in tunnels, so the two months of bombardment have done little to diminish their resistance. John Wayne does his usual job of playing John Wayne, tough and tender and a born leader, and was acknowledged with an Academy Award nomination, along with Harry Brown for the screenplay, and two other technical nominations. Allan Dwan does a respectable job with the direction, and the film score by Victor Young makes frequent use of the “Marine Corps Hymn,” similar to what Max Steiner would do with the “Navy Fight Song” three years later in The Caine Mutiny. Sands of Iwo Jima is very much in the mold of the films made during the war. While showing some dissent among the soldiers it is still a patriotic war film that attempts to honor those who participated and reinforce the righteousness of the cause.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Naked Lunch (1991)

Director: David Cronenberg                              Writer: David Cronenberg
Film Score: Howard Shore                               Cinematography: Peter Suschitzky
Starring: Peter Weller, Judy Davis, Ian Holm and Roy Scheider

Based on the semi-autobiographical writings by William S. Burroughs, Naked Lunch is a surrealist effort by shock director David Cronenberg, and was the the last film in his peak period that began ten years earlier with Scanners. The book by Burroughs is a non-linear piece of writing that has little to do with the film. Cronenberg decided to combine the parts of the novel that dealt with the writing of it, with episodes from Burroughs life to come up with the narrative for the film. In some ways it presages the film Adaptation in the way that the film is only tangentially about the story itself and primarily about how the work was created. Cronenberg, of course, brings his customary psycho-sexual special effects to the proceedings in order to realize his vision, but by then he failed to really deliver the kind of jolt that he did when it was new. His previous film, Dead Ringers, appeared to mark the way forward for Cronenber but with this film it felt like a giant step backward. In the end, it would take yet another decade before his mainstream work found him a new audience.

The year is 1953 and Peter Weller is working as an exterminator. One day he runs out of roach powder on the job and gets chewed out by his boss. Later he meets with his friends, fellow writers Michael Zelniker and Nicholas Campbell, at a café and they hint that the problem could be a “domestic” one. Sure enough, he goes home to find his wife, Judy Davis, shooting up his roach powder and she gets him to join her. When he is picked up the next day by narcotic cops, he hallucinates that a foot-long bug is talking to him and orders him to kill his wife. He makes his escape, however, and tells Davis they’ve been discovered. Then goes to a doctor, Roy Scheider, to get help kicking the bug powder and he gives Weller ground up centipedes. When he goes home, he shoots up the centipede powder and then shoots Davis in the head killing her. At a bar, a giant alien sitting two stools down from him thinks he was just following orders. He wants Weller to type up a report for Interzone, and deliver it in person. When he meets Zelniker in a pawn shop it becomes clear that the talking insects and aliens, the centipede powder, everything is actually a drug-induced hallucination that he is living through, and we are experiencing it from Weller’s point of view.

The Interzone is a Middle-Eastern cityscape that Weller actually winds up writing in. Davis reappears along with Ian Holm, and even Zelniker and Campbell show up at one point to tell him that a publisher is interested in his book. But Weller is so deep into his drugs that he doesn’t remember writing any of it. Peter Weller does an exceptional job in a difficult role. He plays it straight, with a dry wit that really works with the material. His acceptance of the hallucinations allows the story to spin out without interrupting it with disbelief. His suspension, then, becomes the viewer’s suspension of disbelief. This is not one of the better roles for Judy Davis, however, though it is good to see her in anything. She spends most of her screen time drugged out and adds little to the plot. It is definitely Weller’s story. The great Roy Scheider has a couple of terrific cameos, as does one of my favorite actors, Michael Zelniker. Naked Lunch, despite its literary connection, seems really only something for Cronenberg fans of his classic period or those interested in the William S. Burroughs biography. It’s not gripping, and it’s not really even dramatic. It’s a stream of consciousness hallucination that never gets close to reaching its own literary aspirations.

The Entertainer (1960)

Director: Tony Richardson                                Writers: John Osborne & Nigel Kneale
Film Score: John Addison                                Cinematography: Oswald Morris
Starring: Laurence Olivier, Brenda de Banzie, Joan Plowright and Albert Finney

The Entertainer is a British attempt at the kind of realism that was sweeping Europe at the time. The film is a mix of character study, family drama, and generation gap messages that sets the viewer on edge, and never really lets them go. Laurence Olivier was nominated for an Oscar for his performance, and it is exquisite. He plays the role with a loose jointed impishness that is very different for him, a performer who was following in his father’s footsteps, but whose footsteps had already been passed by before he could get started. While the film makes the claim of “introducing” Joan Plowright, she had appeared in a couple of films previous to this. This was, however, Albert Finney’s first film. But where Finney’s part was brief, Plowright is the center of the film, and it’s through her eyes that we see much of what happens to this disintegrating family. And while the generation gap is set up in the London sequence that opens the show, it also makes a pointed appearance not only between Olivier and his children, and an unexpected one between Olivier and his father.

The film begins with Joan Plowright looking at the signs outside the theater where her father, Laurence Olivier is performing. Something of a music hall throwback, one passerby mentions that he can’t be very famous because he hasn’t seen him on television. Plowright works at a community center for disadvantaged kids, and her brother, Albert Finney is going off to fight in Egypt and immediately gets captured by the enemy. Olivier is broke, the show he’s in is failing, and yet he refuses to take life seriously. In fact, he’s out hustling to put a new show together, even though he doesn’t have the money. His angle is to get a young bathing beauty to fall in love with him so he can get her parents to put up the funds so that their daughters can be featured in the show. Meanwhile his second wife, Brenda de Banzie, knows about it and won’t stop talking about his dalliances. But Olivier may be taking this romance seriously. And with de Banzie going a little off the deep end things are beginning to unravel at home. Olivier’s father is disgraced by his son’s behavior, and Plowright finds herself caught in the middle of it all.

Director Tony Richardson has an interesting vision, and relies heavily on Dutch angles to indicate sub-textual conflict in the beginning of the film. This is especially prevalent when Plowright is with her boyfriend, Daniel Massey, in London. But this tapers off when she’s spending time with her family at the beach resort town where they live, and by the time they are seen in the theater together, and he has given up on his idea to go to Africa, the conflict seems resolved. One of the most impressive things about the film is the dialogue, especially within the family. John Osborne had adapted his own play, with the help of Nigel Kneale and it absolutely sings. John Addison’s film score is almost invisible, which is saying a lot. He manages to weave in fifties rock and roll in the London sequences with the music hall orchestra, military marches and the carnival music of the seashore town of Morecambe. For British audiences, the film symbolizes the decay of the Empire and their lowest ebb in the post-World War Two era.

Charles Taylor’s essay in The A List focuses on the character that Olivier plays. His theme song is “Why Should I Care” and, indeed, Archie Rice doesn’t care . . . about anything. He tells his daughter that his eyes are dead inside, that he’s dead inside, that he’s a shell of a man with nothing left. It’s a grim epitaph for a man who’s still alive. Taylor also does a nice job of pointing out the difference between Archie’s dad, played by Roger Livesey, who loved the crowd and whom the crowd loved in return, and Archie who has only contempt for them. The patriotic songs that Archie sings also represent the tired old England that refused to face reality, continuing to thrust themselves into military actions despite reluctance from the younger members of the commonwealth. One of the most telling moments is when Archie’s alone with the young woman he has seduced and rather than feeling grateful or victorious, he doesn’t feel at all. Olivier, had played the role on the stage and, while the music hall may have been dead, the theater and film industry in Britain was just beginning to make an enormous comeback, and The Entertainer was definitely a part of that early success.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Blue Velvet (1986)

Director: David Lynch                                       Writer: David Lynch
Film Score: Angelo Badalamenti                        Cinematography: Frederick Elmes
Starring: Kyle MacLachlan, Isabella Rossellini, Dennis Hopper and Laura Dern

I can remember vividly going to the theater with a friend of mine to see The World According to Garp when it was first released. When we came out of the theater we both looked at each other and said, “What the hell was that?” Well, that was nothing compared to the surreal experience of seeing David Lynch’s Blue Velvet for the first time a few years later. Talk about falling into the rabbit hole--or in this case I guess it would be the ear hole. At the time, that kind of surrealism could only be seen in European films, and this is reinforced by the use of Angelo Badalamenti’s film score on the soundtrack. But the violence and the psychotic behavior are even unique for Europe. As a result, the film did not do well in the eyes of critics. Lynch had had an interesting track record up to this point, with the unique Eraserhead promising great things to come, but failing miserably with Dune. Next, he went mainstream by directing The Elephant Man for Mel Brooks and received good reviews. At that point it was time for him to venture out on his own, with a screenplay he had been thinking about for over a decade and a style that was unlike any other American director at the time.

Lynch begins by establishing a picture postcard nineteen-fifties version of modern suburbia, with vivid primary colors, white picket fences, and Bobby Vinton crooning “Blue Velvet” in the background. Then, when an old man watering his lawn is stung by a bee and falls to the ground writhing in pain, Lynch pushes in on the grass, going deep underneath to the ground where beetles eat ferociously, their sound amplified to horrific proportions. Suddenly the scene snaps back to a sunny billboard welcoming all to Lumberton. This, then, is the theme of the film, that beneath the surface of placid suburbia lies death and perversion if you are unlucky enough to kick over the wrong rock. Kyle MacLachlan walks through the woods to see the old man, his father, in the hospital, and on his way back through the woods finds a human ear in the grass. He turns it over to a detective at the police department, but can’t get it out of his mind. Then he meets the detective’s daughter, Laura Dern, and the two strike up a friendship. She knows bits about her father’s cases and tells him the ear is related to a case involving a woman, Isabella Rossellini. So MacLachlan hits on the idea to break into her apartment to see what he can learn about her, but when Dennis Hopper enters the picture things take a turn for the surreal and MacLachlan’s life will never be the same.

This whole idea of the perfect American neighborhood as a mask that hides a demented reality is something that has been explored recently in quite a few films, from American Beauty to Pleasantville. But Blue Velvet was really the first. And though the film has been called a mystery, or a neo noir, that doesn’t really seem to be Lynch’s purpose. It’s pretty clear less than halfway in that Hopper has Rossellini’s husband and child held captive and that they will threaten to kill them both if she doesn’t do exactly what Hopper wants. The film revived Hopper’s career and, in a way, Lynch was like an early version of Quentin Tarantino, able to see things in actors who had been discarded by Hollywood and unafraid of shocking audiences with something completely out of left field. And Hopper’s performance is definitely that. In some ways this typecast him for the rest of his career, playing the kind of crazies he did in Speed. But nobody does it better. The other leads, MacLachlan, Rossellini and Dern do a respectable job and are actually believable. Everyone else seems to fit into that opening montage of artificiality, George Dickerson as the police detective, Hope Lange as Dern’s mother, and Dean Stockwell as . . . well, whatever he is. The only other actor of note is the wonderful Brad Dourif who has only a bit part as one of Hopper’s henchmen.

Gene Siskel, at the time, compared the film to Psycho, and there is a strong parallel. The evil behind the façade of the innocuous everyday life is definitely there. And the unexpected violence is also something that the film shares with Hitchcock’s horror film. Both films are also resolved by the curiosity of the characters who are compelled to learn the truth. The one other theory that works well is the Oedipal, with MacLachlan as the son, Rossellini as the mother, and Hopper as the father. But I see the relationship between MacLachlan and Rossellini differently. They are both using each other for the same reason, MacLachlan wants her because she represents this incredible mystery that he wants to be a part of, and Rossellini wants him because he represents the normalcy she has lost. The film was nominated for one Academy Award, David Lynch for best director, and while reviews were mixed at the time it has it has gradually shed its novelty with the coming of Tarantino and can be viewed with a bit more objectivity. Still, the film doesn’t have a lot of depth to it. The story and the characterizations, for all the posturing of the “mysterious,” are fairly superficial. Style over substance, in this instance, does not seem like an unfitting label. Blue Velvet was a shocking film at the time, and still retains a disturbing undercurrent. But it’s ultimately a product of its time and the waning of Lynch’s feature career demonstrates its shortcomings as much as anything in the film.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)

Director: Don Siegel                                         Writer: Daniel Mainwaring
Film Score: Carmen Dragon                              Cinematography: Ellsworth Fredericks
Starring: Kevin McCarthy, Dana Wynter, Carolyn Jones and Whit Bissell

Don Siegel’s Cold War allegory is one of only two films to make both The A List and The B List, the other being Night of the Living Dead. Simply put, Invasion of the Body Snatchers is the best science-fiction thriller to appear in the fifties, part film noir, part mystery, and suspenseful through and through. This makes sense, considering that screenwriter Daniel Mainwaring was responsible for one of the screen’s all time great noir films, Out of the Past. In this case his screenplay was based on the novel The Body Snatchers by Jack Finney, and the name was changed to avoid confusion with the Val Lewton film The Body Snatcher from the forties starring Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff. Finney’s novel had a much more optimistic ending, with the defiant Americans being too difficult for the space aliens to take over and ended with them flying away. In keeping with the times, the atomic age and the threat of Communism, Siegel’s film has a much darker ending. Poverty Row studio Monagram had recently made themselves over and were now calling the company Allied Artists, but their distribution was poor and it wasn’t until many years later that the film’s reputation began to grow.

The film begins with a prologue as the consummate fifties low-budget doctor, Whit Bissell, is being whisked to the hospital where the doctor there, Richard Deacon, asks him to take a look at Kevin McCarthy. A doctor himself, McCarthy is crazed with fear, but Bissell calms him down by asking him to tell what happened. The main story opens on the small California town of Santa Mira. McCarthy had come back early from a medical convention because his nurse, Jean Willes, said that so many people wanted to see him. But once in his office they had all apparently changed their minds. And while a few people in the town had been acting strangely, he didn’t put it together right away. Others were saying that people they knew were impostors somehow, which only made their behavior seem out of place. Virginia Christine is sure her uncle has changed, and young boy Bobby Clark says the same thing about his mother. McCarthy is dating the recently divorced Dana Wynter, and it’s not until the two of them visit Carolyn Jones and her husband, King Donovan, that they begin to make sense of what’s been happening. Donovan shows him an apparent corpse of a man who is in the process of transforming into Donovan himself. The incident nearly helps McCarthy figure out what’s really going on . . . but the aliens cover it up just in time.

It’s easy to see why the film has only continued to gain in its reputation over the years. First of all it’s well directed. Don Siegel would become much better known for his work with Clint Eastwood, but the skill set was already firmly in place. Even in a low-budget independent like this, his moving camera and shot selection are tremendous. The acting is also way above average. Many of the cast would go on to work in television, but they too possess skills that help make the tale believable. And that’s the best part of the film, that it’s an absolutely chilling story, and told in an incredibly effective way. There’s an economy to the plot that keeps things moving along briskly, pulling the viewer effortlessly into the paranoia of Kevin McCarthy. The prologue and epilogue that the studio forced producer Walter Wanger to use in the film is nothing new--producers forced Robert Wiene to do the same thing in 1919 in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari--but even with those additions the ending is still ambiguous and the tale frightening enough to overcome the manufactured optimism.

The A List entry by Robert Sklar is fairly innocuous. It gives a bit of background on the film and a brief synopsis. He does astutely address the film’s allegorical meanings, one of which is for the Communist scare that the government was promoting to keep the country in a war-like state. The film can also be seen as an allegory for the conformity that was sweeping the country in trying to keep dissent at a minimum. The one interesting interpretation he comes up with is that the emphasis on doctors and psychiatry relates to the increasingly drugged society that the country was becoming. Michael Sragow’s essay in The B List is much more entertaining, starting off with Don Siegel’s considerable ability to inject into what is essentially a programmer something that has transcended time and meager finances to become a classic of the genre. In fact, he calls the film “a textbook on turning infirmity into strength.” There is also a brief suggestion of the campiness of McCarthy and Wynter and their hip friends Jones and Donovan, which gives the film another interesting spin. Invasion of the Body Snatchers has what Sragow calls “the right stuff,” an impressive piece of film artistry that deserves the designation “classic.”

Captain Phillips (2013)

Director: Paul Greenglass                                Writer: Billy Ray
Film Score: Henry Jackman                             Cinematography: Barry Ackroyd
Starring: Tom Hanks, Barkhad Abdi, Chris Mulkey and Barkhad Abdirahman

Based on the true story of Captain Richard Phillips, who was abducted by Samolian pirates in 2009, Captain Phillips has a lot of suspense, but not much drama. In retrospect is easy to see why such an intense film did not garner more Oscar nominations and received no wins. Without any real story, the film lacks the kind of drama that goes along with that. The best analogy is probably the first Hanks film that really lifted him out of the kind of juvenile roles he became known for: Apollo 13. In that film it might be expected that there would be a lack of drama because everyone knows how it turns out. But the through story of the three astronauts and Kathleen Quinlan as Hank’s wife was incredibly dramatic. In this film, however, the contrast is too stark between Hanks and the members of his crew, and the band of pirates headed by Barkhad Abdi. Though the film tries to generate a relationship of sorts between the kidnapped mariner and the African pirates, the culture and language gap is far too wide, and their respective goals are too far apart to approach anything like understanding between the two.

The film begins with Tom Hanks at home with his wife, Catherine Keener. As he drives to the airport to begin his next voyage, they talk about their son and the inherent danger involved in his business. Yet he doesn’t tell her about an email he received that warns about pirates in the Indian Ocean. Checking out his container ship in Oman he takes extra precautions to make sure the ship is secure according to regulations. As they set out on their journey to Mombasa he is obviously nervous about the reports. His second in command, Michael Chernus, is solid in his support of the captain. Meanwhile, in Somalia, the warlords come into the village where Barkhad Abdi lives demanding that they capture another ship. Two groups are selected to go, one led by Abdi and another by Mohamed Ali. One day Hanks, still a bit on edge, orders a full attack drill. As they are a civilian ship, they can’t carry weapons. Instead they affix fire hoses all around the ship to hopefully swamp the smaller boats carrying the pirates. After the drill is over, however, something shows up on the radar. Both skiffs are after the ship. The U.S. military is too far away to help, so Hanks fakes a call that the pirates hear, which sends Ali back. But Abdi forges ahead, only stopping when his motor dies. While the crew is relieved that they have escaped, Hanks knows that they’ll be back. And they do return, this time with dire consequences.

The film addresses a lot of issues obliquely, and part of the power of the film lies in the fact that there seems to be no clear answers for any of these problems. The pirates who raid the ships get to keep none of the money, yet they continue to do it in order to avoid being killed by the warlords. They’re not driven by greed and so the usual enticements don’t work on them. The lack of even the most rudimentary weaponry for protection on the ships leaves them incredibly vulnerable, and yet if they do carry weapons they can be considered a war ship. Finally, it takes so much time for the U.S. military in the area to respond that it seems maddeningly ineffective protection for people so vulnerable. In one scene, reminiscent of one from Ridley Scott’s Alien, the workers on Hanks’ ship revolt and refuse to fight against the pirates because they’re civilians. It takes all of Hanks’ tact to point out to them that they have no choice because no one is coming to their rescue. Chris Mulkey leads the rank and file who run the engine room and does a terrific job. The four main Somali pirates are all very convincing. They speak some English and so they have the advantage over Hanks and his crew in terms of communication.

Director Paul Greenglass is best known for the second and third installments of the Bourne franchise with Matt Damon. But his best film is probably United 93, about the passengers during 9/11 who took over the plane and crashed it rather than let the terrorists hit their target. This film earned six Oscar nominations including best film, supporting actor for Abdi, and the screenplay by Billy Ray, but not for Hanks. And yet his brief scene at the end of the film is one of the best I’ve ever seen. I don’t think I’m giving anything away here, any more than it’s a spoiler to say that the Apollo 13 crew gets back safely. But we’ve all seen dozens of films that end with the protagonist sitting in the back of an ambulance, cops milling around, smoke in the background, and a sigh of relief by everyone that that’s over. But I’ve never seen a more realistic look at the kind of shock that must accompany a harrowing event like a kidnapping. Hanks is stupendous, but then so are the Navy personnel--actual Navy personnel Danielle Albert and Nathan Cobler--who are caring for him. It feels right. It feels true. It feels like something I’d never want to have to go through. Captain Phillips is an incredibly intense film. Not a lot of story and so not a lot of drama, but an incredibly realistic look at horrible problems for so many people that we don’t even think about.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)

Director: Robert Wise                                      Writer: Edmund H. North
Film Score: Bernard Herrmann                         Cinematography: Leo Tover
Starring: Michael Rennie, Patricia Neal, Hugh Marlowe and Sam Jaffe

One of the great science-fiction classics from the fifties, The Day the Earth Stood Still was part of a concerted effort by studios other than Universal to get into the genre during that decade. Impressive sci-fi films like Them! at Warner Brothers, The Thing from Another World at RKO and independent films like Invasion of the Body Snatchers flooded the market where, in the previous decade, Universal had dominated the horror film genre. The film is directed by Robert Wise, who began his career at RKO with Orson Welles before moving on to the Val Lewton horror unit, but he had his greatest successes the following decade with big budget musicals. The screenplay by Edmund North was based on a short story by Harry Bates called “Farewell to the Master” from 1940. Wise also brought onboard the great Bernard Herrmann to score the film. He had worked with the composer at RKO on the Orson Welles films and Herrmann did a tremendous job utilizing the theramin following composers like Miklós Rózsa on Spellbound and The Lost Weekend and Franz Waxman even earlier on the score for The Bride of Frankenstein.

The film begins with a UFO circling the Earth at 4,000 miles per hour. The military personnel of various countries are all tracking it and eventually it lands in Washington D.C. When the ship finally opens up, surrounded by U.S. military forces, a humanoid figure comes down the ramp telling the people he has come in peace. But when he takes something out of his space suit a nervous soldier shoots him. That’s when the giant robot emerges from the ship and destroys all of the military weapons with a laser coming from his helmet. Michael Rennie is the humanoid, named Klaatu, who wishes to speak with all the countries of the world because there is some danger to all life on Earth, and he doesn’t care about the political difficulties of his request. He heals himself in a day and then leaves the hospital without the knowledge of the military in order to go among the people to learn more about them. Renni finds a rooming house where Patricia Neal and her young son Billy Gray also live. Renni befriends Gray, and he asks the boy one day to take him to the Einstein equivalent in the film, Sam Jaffe, and he tells the scientist who he really is and what his mission is. Beings from other planets know that Earth is developing space ships. If they do, they’ll be able to shoot their atomic weapons at other planets and the rest of the galaxy will not allow it. Earth must stop, or be destroyed.

It’s a great premise and goes counter to every science-fiction film convention. The aliens are not evil, not set on destruction or conquest, but they are still far superior intellectually. The aliens never respond with violence unless attacked first. As with most sci-fi films of the fifties there is an atomic theme present. In this case it’s part of the story itself, a subtext of Mutual Assured Destruction involved in Klaatu’s final warning to Earth. The other sub-textual element is the Christ analogy. Screenwriter Edmund North added that to the original story in the hopes that it would remain subliminal. But the Breen Office caught onto it right away, which necessitated a few changes in the dialogue to make it clear that the aliens didn’t have the power to bestow life itself. While a lot of films from this period have a Communist scare subtext, this one really doesn’t. There are a couple of overt references at the dinner table at the boarding house, but that’s it.

What lifts the film above others in the genre from the time, beyond the unique story, is the acting. Michael Renni is terrific as the alien Klaatu. He’s tall and calm, learning from the people around him and not making stupid mistakes. As a superior intellect, he really demonstrates it here. Patricia Neal is also wonderful, and the hope that the two of them will get together, while utterly impossible, is one of the great undercurrents of the film. Hugh Marlowe, a poor man’s Richard Carlson, is the requisite jerk, dating Neal but all the time angling for what he can get out of Renni’s discovery. The great Sam Jaffe gets far too little screen time, unfortunately. He’s one of the great treasures of classic Hollywood cinema and every second of him is wonderful. Though it’s not the most exciting sci-fi film from the period, it has a certain elegance that is undeniable. The Day the Earth Stood Still remains a classic American film and one of the cornerstones of the science-fiction genre.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Johnny O'Clock (1947)

Director: Robert Rossen                                  Writer: Robert Rossen
Film Score: George Duning                              Cinematography: Burnett Guffey
Starring: Dick Powell, Evelyn Keyes, Lee J. Cobb and Thomas Gomez

After a solid career as a song and dance man during the Depression, Dick Powell remade himself as a noir tough guy in the post-war years, beginning with his breakout performance in Murder, My Sweet. That began a string of similar films for the actor, some of them much better than others. Johnny O’Clock, for Columbia, casts Powell as the bad guy, sort of, an amoral casino manager who’s only out for himself. This was the directorial debut for the great Robert Rossen, who also takes on the writing chores as well. The screenplay is from a story by Milton Holmes, who was also an associate producer on the picture. Rossen has a terrific cast. Along with Powell is the powerful Lee J. Cobb as the dedicated homicide detective. The distinctive character actor Thomas Gomez in onboard, as is the beautiful Evelyn Keyes. The other notable actor is Jeff Chandler in his first role, playing a bit part as one of Gomez’s hoods. This was also the first time that a film score by George Dunning earned him a screen credit, and he eventually moved on to a lengthy career as a second-tier film and television composer.

The film begins with Lee J. Cobb staring up at a clock in the street in front of a hotel. Once inside he flashes his badge at the desk clerk and then goes looking for Dick Powell. A professional gambler in town has been shot dead by police detective Jim Bannon. Powell runs a gambling club himself, and since Cobb thinks there’s something wrong with Bannon’s shooting he wants Powell to give him some evidence to put the dirty cop away. But Powell knows that Bannon works for his boss, and isn’t about to make a move yet. The club’s owner is Thomas Gomez and his girl is Ellen Drew. She used to have a relationship with Powell and would like to again, but he’s not moving on that either. While Gomez and Bannon are discussing a deal, Powell chats with hatcheck girl Nina Foch and tells her the bad news, that Bannon is done with her. The next morning the police fish Bannon’s suit coat out of the water, trace it back to Foch, and Cobb finds her dead in her apartment with the gas on, an apparent suicide. When her sister, Evelyn Keyes, comes to town, Powell tells her to forget about it and move on, but both Keyes and Cobb are looking for Bannon, who is missing and seems to be the only key to Foch’s death.

Though Rossen would go on to do some brilliant work, most notably in The Hustler with Paul Newman, this is not a great film. The weakness is decidedly the script. At some point the disparity between the action on the screen and what is coming out of the speakers is just too great, which is a shame. Everyone seems wasted in the picture, with dialogue that is just too insipid to be believable. I can see what Rossen was trying for, a poetic screenplay like something from Raymond Chandler or like Force of Evil a year later, which also costarred Thomas Gomez. But it’s not. The name of Powell’s character, Johnny O’Clock, feels like a contrivance. All of the characters remark on its oddness, but by the end of the film, when Evelyn Keyes is saying it in every other sentence, it feels like it should be part of a drinking game. Cobb goes for the same sort of hangdog determination he used in Boomerang, but the script just doesn’t support it. Powell comes off as almost comedic at times because the script lets him down in the same way. It’s too bad. The film looks good and has some wonderful actors, but the screenplay for Johnny O’Clock is just too weak to make it anything more than highly polished B movie.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Kiss of the Spider Woman (1985)

Director: Hector Babenco                                 Writer: Leonard Schrader
Film Score: John Neschling                              Cinematography: Rodolfo Sánchez
Starring: William Hurt, Raul Julia, Sonia Braga and José Lewgoy

Based on the novel by Argentinian author Manuel Puig and filmed by Brazilian--though Argentine born--director Hector Babenco, Kiss of the Spider Woman is a fascinating character study of two men in prison, fused with the movie within a movie that gives the film its title. I’ve always loved films that reference films themselves, from Singin’ in the Rain to The Artist. Babenco’s original choice to play the aging queen eventually played by William Hurt was Burt Lancaster. Lancaster surprised the entire production team by agreeing. Babenco wrote a screenplay in Portuguese, and then began to work with Leonard Schrader, the brother of Paul Schrader, on an English version. But Schrader was a slow, meticulous writer, and in his impatience Lancaster began working on a script himself. Meanwhile Raul Julia signed on instantly and was approved by Lancaster. Raul Julia’s agent was also William Hurt’s agent, however, and when Lancaster’s script called for a Some Like It Hot type transvestite in the lead role, he was dropped from the production. But it took Hurt and Julia agreeing to a percentage rather than a salary to allow the film to go ahead.

The story begins with William Hurt’s stilted dialogue, inside a South American jail cell. He’s talking about a movie, describing a woman, describing himself. As the camera pans across the jail cell there are photos and colorful clothing, cosmetics and colored towels, ironically mirroring his detailed description. Hurt wraps a towel around his head, wearing a flowered robe, a gay man unembarrassed by who he is even in captivity. Then the camera passes Raul Julia, lying in his bunk, face turned toward the wall, warning Hurt to stay away from erotic descriptions. Then the scene cuts to the sepia tones of the old movie Hurt is describing, Sonia Braga as the star. Julia is a political prisoner, badly beaten, and hasn’t the slightest interest in the film, but it helps to pass the time. Quickly, however, he discovers it’s a Nazi propaganda film about World War Two and the connection with his own fascist foes infuriates him. But as the relationship between the two men develops, the Nazi film takes on a symbolic role in the film that is quite unexpected. Sonia Braga not only plays the star of Hurt’s film, she also takes on the role of the woman Julia was in love with when he tells his story to Hurt.

The thing that always seemed strange to me about this film was the casting of William Hurt as the gay prisoner. While he’s never seemed the model of macho, he certainly doesn’t come off as a convincing gay, and yet he won the Oscar that year for actor in a leading role. He really is much more effective, however, when he’s not trying to be effeminate. Then there’s Raul Julia. Every time I see him onscreen it brings to mind the tragedy of his early death and the end of a brilliant career. There’s a real mystery behind his eyes that he brings to all his roles, a depth of character that is never shown but feels huge beneath the surface. Sonia Braga does some nice work as well, playing multiple parts. The Nazi film is heavily stylized, as it is meant to reflect not the actual film but Hurt’s remembrance of it. In the segment with Julia before his arrest, she is brooding and intense, very real. It’s a strange film, an independent film that was made before the independent film community even existed. Fascinating in a way, it’s not something I turn to often. For me, it’s a surreal fantasy of a film, even the jail sequences, that is like nothing else I’ve ever seen. Ultimately, Kiss of the Spider Woman transcends the time period in which it was made and provides a unique, one of a kind film experience.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Rope (1948)

Director: Alfred Hitccock                                 Writers: Arthur Laurents & Ben Hecht
Film Score: David Buttolph                              Cinematography: Joseph A. Valentine
Starring: James Stewart, John Dall, Farley Granger and Cedric Hardwicke

After Alfred Hitchcock’s string of successes in Hollywood during the 1940s, he had a lull in his career before gearing up for the brilliance of his late fifties classics. Of course, Rope is the famous one-take film in which Hitchcock make lengthy eight to ten minute takes and edited them together by having the actors step in front of the camera and fade out. He would then fade in with a fresh roll and resume as if no break in the action had taken place. One would think that this would draw more attention to itself than it does, what with almost no cuts at all. But the film flows surprisingly well, and has some great moments of suspense as a result. It’s generally considered one of the master’s lesser films, and the first time I watched it I was disappointed. But this recent viewing has given me new respect for the attempt and a new appreciation for the film in general. It’s an intimate film, based on the Leopold and Loeb case, and adapted from a 1929 stage play by none other than Hitchcock alum Hume Cronyn.

The film opens with the credits over a stationary shot from a roof down to the street below. It’s here that Hitch makes his cameo to get it out of the way early, as he would do the rest of his career. After the credits the camera pans up to closed blinds and the sound of a scream. The cut to the inside of the apartment was one of only a few that Hitch left in because projectionists in the theaters had to change reels. John Dall holds up Dick Hogan while Farley Granger finishes strangling him. When he is dead they deposit his body in a chest that sits in the front room of the apartment. Dall is thrilled, but almost immediately Granger is has regrets, which will become more acute as the night wears on. They are throwing a party for Hogan’s parents and his fiancée, and also among the guests is her former boyfriend Douglas Dick and the boys’ prep school headmaster Jimmy Stewart. The center of the story is the philosophy espoused by Stewart that some people should be allowed to murder others. He has no idea, however, that Dall and Granger have actually acted upon what he has merely considered a philosophical posture. As the party progresses, however, Granger begins falling apart and arouses the curiosity of an already suspicious Stewart.

Unlike most trailers for films, which simply use portions of the film to entice viewers, Hitchcock did something utterly unique. He begins the trailer in Central Park on a bench where Dick Hogan is talking to Joan Chandler about their engagement. It’s actually a wonderful sequence. But when he leaves to go to the party, Jimmy Stewart cuts in to tell the audience that’s the last time he was seen alive and the last time the audience will ever see him alive. It’s a wonderful preview to a less than stellar film. In the first place, unlike Dial M for Murder, which was also based on a stage play, Hitchcock’s voluntary limitations create a real claustrophobia because of the inability to leave the apartment or even cut to a different location. It’s incredibly impressive in an artistic sense, but also limits many of the entertainment possibilities of the piece because of it. The one terrific sequence is when the housekeeper, Edith Evanson, is clearing away the plates of food from the chest where Dall has decided to serve dinner from. As she goes back and forth to the kitchen the rest of the party continues off screen until, just as she is about to open the chest, Dall barely stops her in time.

Another consequence of the long takes is that the actors had to play their scenes almost as though it were a stage play. But they weren’t the only ones. Walls and furniture had to be moved out of the way and then replaced as the camera was wheeled silently across the set. While Hitchcock called the film an “experiment that didn’t work,” he wasn’t quite accurate. The experiment itself, with the long takes, certainly did work and is one of the main reasons for watching the film. It’s the story itself that didn’t really work for Hitchcock. There’s no real suspense, considering that if the body is found too quickly then the film is over. But the acting is pretty good. John Dall does a marvelous job and prefigures the work he would do two years later in Gun Crazy. Jimmy Stewart also does a nice job as a run up to one of Hitchcock’s greatest films, Rear Window. Farley Granger, while tremendous a few years later in Strangers on a Train for the director, is severely hampered by the script, which leaves him little to do but fall apart for ninety minutes. Cedric Hardwicke is also onboard as the dead boy’s father, but it’s a tiny role. Rope is not for casual fans of Hitchcock, but for those who can attenuate their expectations accordingly, it can be a rich cinematic experience.

The Gay Divorcee (1934)

Director: Mark Sandrich                                   Writers: George Marion Jr. & Dorothy Yost
Music: Cole Porter, Max Steiner                       Cinematography: David Abel
Starring: Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, Alice Brady and Edward Everett Horton

Unlike the Depression-era backstage musicals from Warner Brothers that featured production numbers by Busby Berkeley, RKO followed a different formula with their Astaire and Rogers pictures which typically took the form of a romantic comedy set to music and dance. The Gay Divorcee was the pair’s first starring feature, after appearing together in supporting roles in Flying Down to Rio. The film itself benefits from the freshness of being the first of the formula and features the song “Night and Day” by Cole Porter, as well as the Oscar winning song “The Continental.” The film was also nominated for best picture, as well as production design, sound recording, and Max Steiner’s film score. Like the Warner Brother’s films, the Astaire-Rogers pictures are typically built around a specific plot framework, and this one is no exception, with the pair is usually getting together in the middle of some sort of overseas travel.

This film begins at a cabaret in Paris, with a singing chorus line imploring the downtrodden audience to “Don’t Let it Bother You” while dancing with finger puppets. Edward Everett Horton and Fred Astaire are on their way to London and have forgotten their wallets on the train, forcing Astaire to dance for their dinner. Once in London Astaire meets Ginger Rogers who is there with her aunt, Alice Brady. He accidentally tears her dress and she leaves without telling him her name. But he is smitten. The next number usually takes place in Astaire’s apartment or hotel room and he sings about trying to find her while dancing a soft shoe. This time it’s a tap number on the fireplace hearth while getting dressed. When he finds her again, he proposes marriage, but then the audience learns that she’s already married and seeking a divorce. Brady, it turns out, knows Horton, and gets him to provide the legal advice to Rogers. By having her pretend to have an affair, he hopes that the husband will agree to divorce her. The final element of the formula is that Horton knows Rogers but doesn’t know she’s the one Astaire is in love with.

Though RKO was striving to develop its own unique musical style, the influence of the Busby Berkeley vehicles is still evident in the “parade of faces” sequence when Astaire begins his search for Rogers in the streets of London, as well as in the opening number with the French chorus girls and the “Let’s Knock Knees” number at the beach. Still, RKO’s formula remains dominant. The iconic dance number is Cole Porter’s “Night and Day.” The two really are extraordinary together. The different framing devices, from under a table or through Venetian blinds, also adds some nice variety to the number. Even though the film was based on a Cole Porter stage musical, that song is the only one of his to make it to the screen. The musical grand finale is “The Continental,” a nearly twenty minute song and dance number that was the first song to win an Academy Award. As a big finish it’s certainly nowhere near the Berkeley numbers in terms of spectacle, emphasizing the dance steps instead, but not trying to compete directly with the choreographer was also a wise choice.

The thing that makes the film so good is that it’s not overdone, the way much of the formula would be later. There’s a subtlety to the humor, as well as a judicious use of it, that is quite enjoyable. The one weak spot is the ethnic Italian stereotype played by Erik Rhodes. It’s over the top and excessive and a bit embarrassing, especially when he sings in the finale. Fortunately, he has a vey small role. There are also a couple of memorable supporting actors, the distinctive E.E. Clive plays a customs officer in London, and Betty Grable is the singer and dancer at the beach who wants to “knock knees” with Edward Everett Horton. It’s actually quite surprising to watch Horton try to sing and dance, something they wouldn’t force him to do in later films of the series. Though very different than what Warner Brothers or MGM was doing at the time, RKO hit on a formula and a couple of great dancing stars to help Americans get through the Depression. The Gay Divorcee is the opening chapter in a great series of musicals.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

On the Waterfront (1954)

Director: Elia Kazan                                        Writer: Budd Schulberg
Film Score: Leonard Bernstein                         Cinematography: Boris Kaufman
Starring: Marlon Brando, Rod Steiger, Lee J. Cobb and Eva Marie Saint

On the Waterfront is one of the all time great films, sporting a tremendous cast and a powerful screenplay and has become an iconic part of the cultural landscape of the 1950s. The film is also one of the few in Oscar history to sweep the top five awards, best film, director, actor, actress, and screenplay, with awards going to producer Sam Spiegel, director Elia Kazan, Marlon Brando, Eva Marie Saint, and screenwriter Budd Schulberg, though technically not an official sweep as Saint’s award was for a supporting role. In addition, the film won three more awards for cinematography, art direction, and film editing, as well as earning nominations for supporting actors Lee J. Cobb, Karl Malden, Rod Steiger and composer Leonard Bernstein. It’s one of the many films that appeared following the hearings by the House Un-American Activities Committee that stressed unity of workers against criminal enterprises that threatened to destroy their livelihood. It’s not a stretch, in this context, to see the mob bosses controlling the longshoremen as symbolic of the government’s interference into Hollywood by Joseph McCarthy.

The film begins on the waterfront itself, the men who control it emerging from a tiny shack, a gigantic ship in the background, accompanied by Leonard Bernstein’s jazz influenced opening. The men want Marlon Brando to get one of his friends to go up on the roof of his tenement so they can talk to him. When he’s pushed off, Brando has his first crisis of conscience. Eva Marie Saint is the dead boy’s sister and she’s shaken up by the experience and wants someone to pay. The kid worked on the docks, but was going to talk to the crime commission, something the mob couldn’t allow to happen. Lee J. Cobb is the head of the union, extorting money from the shippers to unload their cargo, money from his workers to get specific jobs, and silence from the neighborhood so that the men can keep their jobs. Brando is a former boxer, rather dimwitted, and a favorite of Cobb, while his brother is Rod Steiger, the money man in the operation. Karl Malden is the naive parish priest who attempts to help Saint and Martin Balsam is one of the detectives for the crime commission. When Brando is sent to spy on the disgruntled workers, he meets Saint and falls for her. This sets up an obvious conflict between Saint and her association with the unhappy workers and Brando’s mob connections.

The film is a character study of Brando and Saint, their mutual affection for each other as well as the forces that threaten to tear them apart. And the affection is none too subtle. When Brando is walking her home from the church he says that he’ll protect her from the guys who “have only one thing on their mind.” Then he asks if he can see her again, and when she asks him why . . . it’s clear he had the same thing on his mind. Likewise, she tells him that if she had been his teacher when he was a troubled youth she would have given him “a little more patience and kindness.” Returning home, her father is frantic for her to go back to school, but while she claims she’s staying to find her brother’s killer, it’s clear that she’s staying because of Brando. Though Brando’s emotional journey in the film takes him from a dim-witted pug to a self-determined individual, the foreshadowing of his confusion about the death of his friend is ever present.

One of the most impressive things about the film is the cast. Brando and Saint are terrific, youthful and energetic, though playing their innocence perhaps a bit too obviously. Lee J. Cobb is a fascinating character, throwing the money around to have everyone count it like he doesn’t care, but when it comes up short he humiliates and dismisses them. Rod Steiger is also terrific as Brando’s brother, conflicted in his own way between loyalty to Brando and Cobb. Karl Malden, oddly enough, is the weakest of the cast, even in his strongest moments he lacks the kind of force he showed in Hitchcock’s I Confess a year earlier. A magnificent supporting cast unfortunately has only bit parts: Martin Balsam, Pat Hingle, Fred Gwynne, Michael Gazzo and Scottie MacGregor. Leonard Bernstein’s score is very symphonic, which is to be expected, what is not is how much his music evokes Aaron Copeland in this context, which gives the film a very rural feeling in spite of the urban setting. That ruralness is expressed in the way that the film is about individuals and relationships rather than plot. It centers on Brando’s discovery of himself, but he is also reflective of all the longshoremen looking inside themselves to see if they have the strength to go up against the mob.

The A List essay by Robert Sklar emphasizes, naturally, the historical context of the film. Kazan and Schulberg both testified before HUAC and named names, as did Cobb. But where Cobb later regretted his decision, Kazan and Schulberg had no such qualms, and their association in their own minds with Brando’s decision in the film to testify remained rock solid. There’s also the influence of the method in terms of acting and directing and is one of the reasons the film has detractors. The fact is, whether method or not, it’s a bit difficult to tell if the method really makes much of a difference in the telling of the story, as method actors tend to be a bit too brooding and introspective anyway. Sklar also, naturally, mentions the iconic backseat conversation between Brando and Steiger and its memorable line, “I coulda been a contender.” The real oddity of the picture, and the thing that weakens it overall, is the indecision of the dockworkers to take over when they clearly have Cobb on the ropes. But in the end it’s a minor criticism. On the Waterfront is, and is destined to remain, a classic.