Saturday, December 3, 2011

East Side, West Side (1949)

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It seems a bit much posting on another Stanwyck movie again, but this one is really worth a look. First of all, it's got some amazing performances. I've only seen James Mason in Lolita and North by Northwest and Van Heflin in The Prowler and Act of Violence, but I'm boldly putting them up there among my favorite actors—especially after seeing East Side, West Side.

James Mason oozes that oily persona that's as charming as it is repulsive, in part because the script wisely runs counter to his somewhat off-putting style. He's almost too suave, which makes him seem rather cold and distant, yet his memory for his wife's quirks and their times together softens and humanizes him. Mason's performance, along with the writing vivify his character in a way that makes him seem too good and, at the same time, too flawed. He can't stay away from Isabelle, but he's too honest to hide it for long.

There's a brutal honesty to this picture that extend beyond Mason's defeated frankness. Ava Gardner, by her own admission is admittedly low—even pointedly telling Mason she's always been that way. Even Van Heflin doesn't dance around the issue. The whole movie is surprisingly straight-shooting. This isn't to say the writing simplifies the human experience by removing subtlety or depth, because it does quite the opposite. Heflin's plainspoken, worldly admission to Stanwyck shows remarkable maturity that sidesteps the typical wide-eyed adoration that plagues lesser movies. By contrast, Gardner's honesty is played as a calculated move. With Mason, she's like a cat playing with her prey; she speaks to see what effect it has, deliberately throwing wrenches into the machine.

The movie feels unusually fresh, even by today's standards. The ending is disillusioned and unfulfilling, instead adopting the middle-ground of two extremes. I hesitate to call it noir, but it certainly flirts with it. The straight honesty of this picture seems fitting of director Mervyn Leroy (Three on a Match, I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang, and Gold Diggers of 1933), but I'd be shortchanging the writers if I ignored them. At any rate, it's a movie well worth the time.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Annie Oakley (1935)

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I'm in the midst of a Barbara Stanwyck binge, and you'd be hard pressed to find an actress this good anywhere. Her sheer range has been lauded to death, yet there are indeed few that can match her versatility; among other stars of the classic era, I could only nominate Ida Lupino as a serious contender. In short, lots of Stanwyck movies = happy classic movie fan.

When going on these actor marathons, it's important to make the distinction between a bad Stanwyck movie and a bad movie with Stanwyck. Suffice to say, there are very few (if any) bad Stanwyck movies; she's invariably worth watching even if the crew around her haven't a clue what they're doing. Seeing bad movies with your favorite stars comes with the territory, and things like The Bride Wore Boots might make you wonder whether the writers had a clue what comedy was supposed to do.

I therefore feel the need to give Annie Oakley a hearty shout-out, because it's the genuine article. While not unpopular, it deserves more loving. When it's not pointedly trying to show how progressive it is, it feels surprisingly fresh and sidesteps the obvious cliches. The rivalry between Toby and Annie is largely subdued and it's knowingly depicted as a farce—with a wink for good measure. The rivalry between Jeff and Toby, too, is mostly understated to the point of avoiding the usual conflict altogether. The movie doesn't stack the deck, either; there pretty much isn't a distasteful character to be had. This gives a poignancy and depth to characters that we would normally be forced to hate. A few dubious comical moments aside, this is a very good hour and a half.

The movie's fault, as I've mentioned, is its deliberate attempt to be modern. Ironically, the picture is at its most anachronistic when it's deliberately trying not to be. Unlike Gone with the Wind, its modernity feels forced and not an organic part of the world its creating. It's probably unavoidable, but you can probably feel 1935 peeking through when Toby learns his challenger is a woman. The more obvious look-how-far-we've-come moments thankfully don't overstay their welcome.

Stanwyck plays the role honest, and it's actually one of her less remarkable. But, she makes the performance fit the movie, rather than sticking out; her plainspoken, almost casual demeanor makes her easy to like. It's nice to see Annie Oakley as a person we can relate to, not one for us to idolize, since most biopics (Gandhi) give the latter impression.

Other Stanwyck shout-outs:

Baby Face (1933)

The Furies (1950) - saw it a while ago, but this is the kind of tough role she was born for.

All I Desire (1953) and There's Always Tomorrow (1956) - Douglas Sirk is growing on me, and these are pretty consistent with the only other one I've seen from him—Written on the Wind.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Pre-Code Blues

Lately—meaning for the past year—I've really been prioritizing movies from Hollywood's classic era. Admittedly, this started from the rather childish realization that I've seen way more movies from this past decade than from either the 30s, 40s, 50s, or 60s (the statistics-whore in me remembers 5 times as many from the current decade compared to any other). At any rate, it's been worthwhile drowning myself in the Golden Age and moving beyond the obvious canon. I'm still not quite there, but the greatest joy comes in finding those hidden gems and masterpieces that leave me wondering why they're not more popular. A short list includes The Hard Way, A Letter to Three Wives, Unfaithfully Yours, Strange Impersonation, The Hitchhiker, and Sudden Fear. None of these are terribly esoteric, but for me, they're deserving of the same attention bestowed on Casablanca, Gone with the Wind, or Citizen Kane.

At any rate, I'm now a bit richer in the Pre-Code department, having ingested Universal and Warner Brothers' samplers of the era. The movies come from the Forbidden Hollywood DVDs by WB and the Pre-Code collection from Universal. What's immediately noticeable about these pictures is their sense of freedom; it's weird how stuffy the Code era movies seem now. Their sleaziness isn't the main draw, not for me, at least. I'm much more interested by the almost alien standards they're governed by when compared to movies a few years later. Look at a movie Female and it feels so progressive. Even 30 years later, the gender roles in movies like Goldfinger seem antiquated by comparison, although James Bond has, and probably always will be, in the crosshairs of feminism.

These movies really just make me wonder how different the motion picture industry would be during the 40s and 50s had the Code not been implemented. My guess is much of it might be the same, but I'd imagine the diversity would have to be richer. And who knows: we might've gotten Bonnie and Clyde 20 years sooner. I have a tough time imagining that the Code didn't have some kind of setback, but at the same time, I don't think it's worth dwelling on the hypothetical. The Code, for better or worse, existed and was enforced, and some of my favorite movies come from that time.

I'm fond of the Pre-Codes, but at the same time, a bit of reining in might've helped. For every Baby Face, there was a Red-Headed Woman, and for every amazing Barbara Stanwyck, there was a cringe-worthy Toby Wing. The point is, I don't think sleaze is what made the Pre-Codes great. Baby Face had even more self-prostitution than Red-Headed Woman, but the difference lies in attitude. In Baby Face, Stanwyck actually lures men in whereas Jean Harlow seems more like she's capturing them by force. It's the difference between an intelligent, sexy woman and an air-head slut. I'm being a bit sloppy, but here's a list of all the Pre-Codes I've gotten to in these DVDs:

Baby Face
Waterloo Bridge
Red-Headed Woman
The Divorcee
A Free Soul
Three on a Match
Female
Night Nurse
Other Men's Women
The Purchase Price
Frisco Jenny
Midnight Mary
Heroes for Sale
Wild Boys of the Road
The Cheat
Merrily We Go to Hell
Hot Saturday
Torch Singer
Murder at the Vanities
Search for Beauty

I'd recommend any of these; even the ones I don't like are worth seeing simply because of their value as cultural artifacts. My favorite of all these is probably Three on a Match. The movie is kind of a deliberate defiance of what the Code stood for. It's the well-raised valedictorian that screws up in the end and the reformatory alumnus ends up with a redeemed life. To me, this is a movie built on the realization that upbringing is not some kind of measuring stick that determines the kind of life we'll live. Yes, there are good students that end up with good lives, but there are probably plenty that end up shit's creek. The movie just doesn't seem pigeonholed at all and it doesn't feel driven by any phony agendas. It exists to tell a story, and it tells it extremely well.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Fury (1936)

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You could make the argument that, by the end, Fritz Lang's Fury pulls its punches, but I think that's a rather shallow assessment of what this movie does. Murderous intent is still murderous intent, regardless of the outcome. These normal, everyday people came together and decided to execute a man based upon their flimsy rumor mongering. That he managed to survive is irrelevant. The uninhibited hate people show for others they've never even met gets at the heart of what the movie does so well—reveal the maliciousness existing within us all.

Watching the trial, I admit a satisfaction seeing the defendants proven guilty—especially the footage proving their participation in the crime. My own reactions are not free from reproach, and what's more, they aren't so different from the mob mentality in the picture. This makes me wonder if I would've behaved any differently from anyone else in the mob—not just the 22 on trial, but the witnesses and bystanders as well. Pleading guilty or not guilty is irrelevant; the common denominator is humanity's overpowering self-interest.

As Joe comes forth at the end, it is, as he says, for himself that he does so. This isn't some selfless act he's performing; he's saving these people so he doesn't have to live with having killed them through the law. Interestingly, this shows how incorrect it would be to see justice as synonymous with truth; justice is not some all-seeing power—if anything, it's blind. The great weakness of the justice system, that no one wants to admit, is how utterly fallible the whole thing is. The system is under the trust that people have the decency to tell the truth, but it's so easy to lie.

Fury is an extremely pessimistic movie that undermines the trust we place in basic, human decency. The emphasis people place on Joe's innocence or the "happy" ending shows, to me at least, a shallowness of interpretation and too much concern with overall outcomes. To call the ending "happy" is a failure to understand the motives of the characters, instead placing too much emphasis on the overall results—just because nobody dies doesn't mean no harm was done.

Monday, August 1, 2011

On Charles Chaplin

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It's taken me long enough, but I've finally seen Monsieur Verdoux and Limelight. That rounds out all the Chaplin movies skulking on my shelf for the past two years. The completist in me will eventually track down A Woman in Paris and A King in New York, but for now, I'm content to digest these new findings. I actually haven't seen a single of his shorts, but again, I'm in no hurry.

These final two—along with The Great Dictator—work on a different level than the silents, not technically, but more in their rhythm and tone. My impression of Chaplin is colored by the first pictures I saw from him—Modern Times, The Gold Rush, and City Lights, in that order. I saw those when I was quite stressed, and I suppose they're what make me ascribe Chaplin with that cure-for-depression sort of value. Really, though, I think those movies are where Chaplin is at his most fluid level—unabashedly sentimental human comedy with just a touch of political undercurrent. Those movies have blood flowing through them that makes them feel alive; they have a love of life through good and bad.

Of all the Chaplin movies I've seen, The Great Dictator stands as the most stagnant. This is hardly to say I dislike it, just that by comparison, it seems more awkward than the earlier ones—like Chaplin still hasn't acclimatized to the sound era. Nevertheless, it's arguably his most passionate work, and you can really see Chaplin's nationalism shining through as he satirizes Hitler's speech foibles. Yet Chaplin comes across as an impassioned, yet overly verbose speaker; it's his spirit more than his technique that I admire. I think his capabilities are much improved in Monsieur Verdoux, and maybe those seven feature-less years were worth it.

Monsieur Verdoux is a vast improvement over The Great Dictator, and is filled with macabre humor that'd put Kubrick to shame (as if that was really difficult). The Shadow-of-a-Doubt-esque premise allows Chaplin to exercise his abilities against his usual type, yet I wouldn't say his new character Verdoux is a diametric opposite. It seems more an evolution of the lovable tramp, because Chaplin's still inspiring our sympathy; he's just added to the complexity of his usual sentimentality. I still see artifacts of The Great Dictator here—namely Chaplin's overly verbose preaching—but the wicked, cinematic criticisms towards Verdoux's victims make up for it.

Limelight continues in Monsieur Verdoux's footsteps of dramatizing its ideas rather than resorting to the Great Dictator's soapbox. Indeed, I almost want to call it Chaplin's best movie if only because of the simple, gentle nakedness of it all. The female leads in his movies, to me, always seem a bit of a self-indulgence on Chaplin's part, but I think he handles it with greater maturity here. His Romantic chivalry is still here in all its glory, but it feels more realistic in Limelight. There's such a poignancy here that, dare I say, it even puts City Lights to shame. It's a lot of little things, like how he wants to be the inspiring voice for Terry, yet he's afraid to reveal his dismal "comeback" performance. Or that almost-too-hard slap to shake her stage fright; it's as endearing as it is startling. The caring beneath that nonchalant, almost indifferent shrug isn't hard to find, yet you can see why Calvero puts up a front. It wouldn't be fair for Terry to tie herself to someone of his age and would the few years of happiness be worth it?

I can't decide where to place these last two. Certainly, both are superior to The Great Dictator. But how can I compare such vastly different works? I've always put Modern Times and The Gold Rush near the top with City Lights not far behind. Arguably, I'd probably be in the mood for the earlier silent types more frequently, but Monsieur Verdoux stands as an excellent plunge into new territory, and I don't think there could be a more perfect adieu to stardom than Limelight.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Film Noir List as of 6-19-11

So it's come to this; I'm making lists. I kind of dislike the idea, but it allows me to catalogue what I like most about the style that is film noir (or whatever else I plan on listing). It's nothing more than a way to organize my thoughts. I'll update this list whenever I see fit, and there are actually about 30 more on my complete list that I haven't gotten to putting here.

I was fairly generous in defining film noir, to the extent that I don't consider it a genre. Hence, you will see Victorian-era Hangover Square rank higher than seedy crime drama-ish Double Indemnity. I generally adhere to the 1941-1959 era, however there are exceptions. No way am I an "expert," nor do I really want to be one. This list is merely a tool for organization.

I view film noir more as a stylistic choice than a genre, so what I look for are those movies that work on an emotional, visceral level. Summarizing in a single sentence what I like about film noir is a futile exercise, but I generally gravitate towards movies where characters we like are thrown into a bad situation. Anything that reflects the post-WWII milieu—often through the eyes of a veteran—is welcome, so long as it retains that emotional pull.

Since emotion is my guide, I find myself favoring something like Leave Her to Heaven over Murder, My Sweet. I really don't feel like detectives, blackmail, bribery, adultery, or whatever might be regarded as characteristic of film noir is really what makes the style worth watching. For me, these things are merely framing devices; what a movie is "about" is irrelevant; what matters the most to me is how well a movie is able to make me feel for its characters and absorb me in its atmosphere.

Here we go!

Night and the City:

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Undiluted noir at its very finest, it’s a marvel to watch. Here, Richard Widmark manages to achieve a rare balance of sleaze and charm that only he can do. Jules Dassin’s heroes are often so ambitious, in an almost admirable sort of way, with the romantic notion that they can make it by their own rules. Yet their defiant spirit is their undoing, both spiritually and pragmatically. Harry Fabian cheats those who care for him and is willing to use any means to get ahead, with a nonchalant disregard for who he might hurt. The world of realism he chose to defy strips him of his Icarusian wings. The ending is perfect, in a sympathy-for-the-devil sort of way that humanizes the slimeball in his desperate, last-ditch bid for repentence.

In a Lonely Place:

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My second favorite Bogart performance, but easily his most complex. Nevermind the whodunit angle, which doesn’t seem much of a concern. If anything, the murder seems more like a pretext to explore Dixon’s surprisingly violent tendencies. The focus of the picture—and its great strength, I think—lies in seeing Bogart’s propensities for violence as a constant undercurrent that threaten to undo the happiness he finds with Laurel. Her placating influence isn’t enough to override her fears of the man she loves. This dichotomy of fear and love charge the picture with uncertainty—an element that is undeniably noir.

Ace in the Hole:

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Wilder takes aim at, well, pretty much everyone. I can’t think of another movie that better implicates the general public with a sadistic urge so openly and directly. Sure, Hitchcock did it in Psycho, but he was subversive by comparison. Ace in the Hole isn’t exactly subtle, taking the public’s recreational obsession with one man’s misery and comparing it to cannabilism. Mountain of the Seven Vultures? Yes, that does have a ring to it.

Out of the Past:

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I really wish Jane Greer had more starring roles. For me, there has never been a more complete example of what a femme fatale does. The archetype is too often simplified as an unbelievably beautiful, yet dangerous, woman men fall for. What makes Jane Greer’s Moffat special is her incredible likeability. Seeing her walk on the beach “like school’s out” gives her an air of innocence that’s very endearing.

Leave Her to Heaven:

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Proof that film noir is neither a genre nor a silly checklist of ingredients. Like a noose, the fear and uncertainty that inform Leave Her to Heaven tighten slowly but surely. Without any straight villain to point the finger at, the picture has an oddly disatisfying conclusion. Blaming it on insanity provides a cold comfort, I suppose, but the fact remains that these horrible crimes were commited by a woman with no malcontent; she did them out of some misguided notion of love. What makes this movie such an unsettling experience that firmly cements it in the world of noir is this brilliant juxtaposition of serene beauty with the cold, almost mechanical progression of violence.

Laura:

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The infatuation with an image. Laura’s a movie with a curious version of the femme fatale archetype, forcing us to broaden our vision of what the term even means. Without Laura, there would of course be no murder, but it’s as if she as a person isn’t the cause, but rather her image that serves as a catalyst.

Nightmare Alley:

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In some ways, a spiritual sibling of Night and the City. Both have an ambitious young man willing to do anything to climb his way to the top. Harry and Stanton eventually find themselves losing to even bigger and more vicious crooks than themselves. Yet, I’d be cautious in drawing too many comparisons because they are ultimately different movies. Nightmare Alley’s brilliance lies drawing a very likeable portrait of the carnival troupe as a sort of family and contrasting this with the unintended consequences of Stanton’s selfish ambitions.

Fallen Angel:

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Linda Darnell is one of the most photogenic of Hollywood’s classic era, and combined with Preminger’s crisp photography, Fallen Angel is one of the prettiest noirs to look at. Beautiful contrast, both visually and thematically, helps create an alluring atmosphere filled with all of noir’s usual suspects. Two things people kill for—sex and money—are manifested separately into the fiery-yet-poor waitress and the bland-but-wealthy heiress. Darnell seems to be killed off a lot in her movies, but considering how bright and ferocious her screen presence is, maybe it’s understandable. Dana Andrews is a favorite; I really appreciate that calm fa├žade he projects because it allows him to be quite versatile in what emotions he hides beneath the surface.

They Drive by Night:

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Arguably not a full-fledged noir, but I’m willing to accept it as such, considering how ridiculously good Lupino is. Her Lana, married to a rich, older man while physically repulsed by him seems a blueprint for the femme fatales to come. The woman driven by self-preservation is a staple of film noir, perhaps reflecting a changing attitude in America at the time. They Drive by Night seems ahead of its time in this regard.

Side Street:

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Very much like Mann’s Desperate in how it achieves its noir vibe. Farley Granger is so relatable; he’s a regular Joe just trying to make things better for his family. Tempted by an easy score, he’s pulled into the seedy crimeworld. This almost sounds like Hitchcock, but it isn’t. It lacks the exhilaration and humor of the big guy, instead focusing sympathetically on an everyman’s plight. What I like about the noir style is how readily it implants the seed of guilt into a person; Granger’s likeability comes from how believable his intentions are.

Sunset Blvd.:

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Utterly unique as a noir, but with an atmosphere that reeks of the style. I’ve grown to be very sympathetic towards Norma; she’s kind of like a puppy dog. Joe’s less likeable, but his motivation is understandable. He’s like her personal gigolo, exchanging his company for materialism and security. Like so many film noir, there isn’t really a single malevolent person. If we’re to point the finger anywhere, I suppose it’s the Hollywood milieu itself, in which self-gain comes before anything else.

The Set-Up:

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Like Sunset Blvd. the aging celebrity is thrown to the wolves; Stoker’s reached his expiration date, so his sleazy manager tries to squeeze whatever dough he can out of the waning boxer. Yet Stoker has an almost Dassinian quality to him—a defiant spirit that is eventually crushed by those he opposes. Male castration has perhaps never been captured in such a swift, brutal, and elegant manner.

On Dangerous Ground:

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It’s been some while since I’ve seen this, but the score remains crisp and merciless in my mind after all these years. The anger coursing through Ryan is arguably the best rendition of a noir-cop. This movie, like In a Lonely Place, has a striking contrast between violence and tenderness that create both a fear of, and for, the protagonist.

Force of Evil:

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John Garfield’s amazing here, but I love the pride that his brother has as a small-time crook. Sure, they’re both thieves but there’s something admirable about Leo’s unwillingness to sell his soul completely.

The Postman Always Rings Twice:

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I like this more than its heavy-hitting older sibling Double Indemnity. I think the kind of noir I like the most is one that inspires a degree of sympathy (or at least empathy) with even the worst of scoundrels, and I find Wilder’s movie entertaining, but his characters too coolly stylized. I think John Garfield and Lana Turner’s characters feel more human because their actions don’t feel as polished; they make mistakes and they panic; they don’t feel like professionals, nor do I think they should. The older man/younger woman dyad also feels better developed which, for me, is always a plus.

The Third Man:

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In many ways, a slap in the face to the wide-eyed Romantic American. Probably the most successful noir to fuse post-War realism with expressionist drama. I generally find those documentary-style police procedural noirs rather dry. The Third Man brilliantly manages to capture that realistic feel while dramatizing its ideas, rather than simply telling us. Visually, there is perhaps no other noir that surpasses it.

The Hitch-hiker:

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Fear. Tension. Helplessness. The threats to our innocence; it’s all there. This is actually the only Lupino directed movie I’ve seen but I love it. This is a lean movie lacking the convolutions we normally see, but stylistically, it works. I’m partial to those noirs that emphasizes a couple of regular Joes falling out of their comfortable lives because I think it says a lot about the style. Try not to cringe during the William Tell scene.

Pickup on South Street:

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This has a rather unglamorous style to it that, like its characters, retains a likability and humanity. It’s a lot of little touches, like Widmark’s dinky little rivershack or that he cools his beers in the Drink or Jean Peters’ raspy voice or that her name is Candy. There’s a very worldly feel to these characters; they know they don’t lead the most honorable of lives, but they have a certain pride that ennobles them.

Hangover Square:

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Not noir as we usually see it, but I think the fear of violence lurking within the benign is very, very well done. This is one that’s probably best to simply see, partly because I wouldn’t want to anger the spoiler-police.

Kiss of Death:

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Mature is very likable here because in spite of his actions, his motivation is very relatable; all he wants to do is have a safe life for his family. It’s not something I feel needs to be expounded upon because it works on a very emotional level, even for film noir.

Dark Passage:

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I’m actually not too sure what to say, but it’s very, very entertaining, to say the least. I suppose the fascination lies in seeing how much Bacall trusts a man she doesn’t even know. Again, it’s that sympathy-for-the-[apparent]-devil.

Night of the Hunter:

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Unusually morbid for its time, I guess it’s no surprise Laughton didn’t survive as a Hollywood director. One of those movies that has entered filmic iconography, to the point that scenes are instantly recognizable even if you haven’t seen it before. Mitchum’s creep factor is off the charts; he’s relentless in this picture—the very essence of a threat to innocence.

The Prowler:

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I really need to see more Van Heflin movies, but between this and Act of Violence, the man definitely deserves a place as one of noir’s finest actors. The brilliance of the movie is in not having a villainous character, only villainous tendencies lurking within. Heflin’s actions are amoral, but a part of me still roots for him with Evelyn Keyes over her nearly nonexistant husband. Like Postman, here’s another instance of a tryst between a young, virile man and a woman behind the back of her wealthy, yet physically lacking, old husband.

Private Hell 36:

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Odd placing this behind The Prowler, since both have cops thinking they can get away with anything. Ida Lupino, if not my favorite actress, probably stands as one of Hollywood’s most versatile; she always gives it her all, no matter how bad the movie is, it seems. This story feels surprisingly modern and it never feels like its dragging its weight; everything shown has significance, thematically.

The Big Sleep:

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You know, I really don’t feel like commenting on these Bogie-Bacall noirs is necessary. They’re just really good.

Act of Violence:

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Absolutely brilliant, and maybe it deserves to be higher. Guilt is a staple of film noir, and and instilling it into a WWII vet like Heflin’s character reminds us of the heavy influence the war had on Hollywood stylistically. While this might make these movies seem more like “message” pictures (and some of them are), it speaks more broadly to the way the medium itself reflects the society that created it.

Scarlet Street:

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Edward G. Robinson wearing a flowery apron... 'nuff said? Probably not, but this is probably my favorite Fritz Lang movie. With the possible exception of M, we probably haven't held such sympathy for a murderer.


Thursday, May 19, 2011

Anime, oh Anime

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I've been increasingly absorbed in the style of anime, and I must stress I consider it a style. It's been called both a genre and a medium, neither of which I find accurate. It's far too broad to be a genre, but it's not special enough to be a medium of its own. Like film noir, I find anime most appropriately considered as a stylistic choice within a medium.

The nice thing about the television series format is that the longer running time can really be a blessing. Whereas films generally need more focus and efficiency, a series can devote a whole episode to a single character. You see this a lot in Cowboy Bebop, Gunslinger Girl, or Evangelion, and I find it offers greater flexibility in how a character is portrayed. Like all other television, that runtime can also be a problem; shows like Naruto can spend half a season's episodes on a single, tedious fight. I'm all for long runtimes, but it's too easy to fall into the trap of "hooking" the audience.

The "hook" is really my problem with the entire television medium because it places too much emphasis on what happens next (AKA, the plot). I've never put much stock in plot, unlike so many others, because I feel doing so sets us up for disappointment; what actually transpires almost never lives up to the hype. It leads to a series having a bewilderingly large number of [mostly unnecessary] episodes, as if the writers weren't really sure when to stop. Generally, I find the 26-ish episode format just about right.

In regards to subs or dubs, I'll watch either, but by default I choose dubs. I understand subtitles are generally more accurate, but I've never understood how people can find this better if the dubbing is also well done. If you speak English, your ear is trained to pick up on phonemes and inflections in that tongue. As Truffaut told Hitchcock: You automatically lose 10% of the picture through subtitles. However many times I've seen Rules of the Game, I'd probably see it differently if I could understand French. It's an unfortunate compromise, but the nice thing about a good anime dub—and most these days are very good—is you needn't worry about the mouths not matching up... It's an animation!

I've definitely focused on television series and the odd thing is I've only seen a handful of Miyazaki movies: Howl's, Totoro, and Nausicaa. I should probably see them all, but I'm in no hurry. I seem to prefer the episodic format to the film-ic format. As much as I hate the idea of lists, I think I'll put one together soon. The top-tiers might look like:

Baccano!
Full Metal Panic!
Gunslinger Girl
Planetes
Cowboy Bebop

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Border Incident (1949)

Border Incident

There's an image in Border Incident that's a near perfect representation of the senses endemic to noir; it's a moment that illustrates a world overwhelmed by helplessness, in which any victory is soured by the messy, casualty-laden path it must take. That image, in which agent Pablo Rodriguez watches powerlessly as his fellow U.S. agent Jack Bearnes is executed beneath a tractor, is the moment in which any illusions of succeeding unscathed are lost; any hope of a glorious abolition of illegal smuggling and abuse of migrant workers is destroyed along with Bearnes.

Yet, as crucial as this moment is, it isn't the turning point; it's another nail in the coffin—the first of many scenes showing a world tearing at the seams. The real moment when things start falling apart is much quieter; it occurs when one of McGraw's thugs gives the cops tailing him the slip. The impotence of the law is immediately apparent as the thug zips his motorcycle across train tracks and plowed fields, leaving the police unable to follow and save the day.

Indeed, it seems that by the end, the police have had precious little to do with apprehending the criminals. The reinforcements, with their black-and-whites and professional uniforms are latecomers to the climactic battle; they are mere witnesses to the struggle and narrow victory of the brazeros. The final fight seems void of the glory and satisfaction of beating criminals, and instead feels awkward and slight.

The movie begins with a certain optimism, in which Pablo and Jack have a more glorious conclusion in mind. At their briefing, they joke and reminisce about the good ol' days, and seem sure of their abilities to carry out the job cleanly and effectively. They stand for the system; for law and order; and for the belief in basic decency. For much of the picture, this stalwart optimism remains intact. When Pablo visits Jack imprisoned in the water tower, it still feels like they're going to pull off an amazing liberation for the brazeros and bring the smuggling crooks to justice. Yet we can go farther than that. Even as Jack is about to be executed, there's the sense that Pablo must be getting ready for a spectacular rescue. As McGraw inches the tractor bit by bit to the struggling Bearnes, I kept thinking: "alright Pablo, hurry up and get on with it; your pal won't wait forever." The horror is in realizing that Pablo is unable to do anything to save his friend and that all he can do is watch.

Noir is characterized by many things, and assigning a single attribute or word to define it would be a gross oversimplification. Nevertheless, the last 30 minutes or so of Border Incident seem relentless in proving a point so fundamental to noir: we're heavily informed by helplessness and desperation. Even a scene that would normally seem a reprieve is instead used to exacerbate the sense that corruption exists all around us. The end—and victory—at last seems at hand as Pablo makes a call to the government, bringing in the cavalry. Yet whatever grand victory at hand seems dashed when it turns out Pablo has just walked into McGraw's gun-toting wife. Even our perception that she's some understanding homesteader is off.

So many of our expectations are broken by this movie that, by the end, the narrator's documentarian wrap of the situation seems incongruous; it's like it doesn't even belong here. Nor do the awards given to Pablo and posthumously to Jack. They're obligatory—a final, if subtle, jab at the administration's petty and ineffective role in the mission. Indeed, the more fitting summary to the movie's sensibilities lies in the final battle. Pablo and the brazeros, up against the rocks, manage to salvage whatever they can from a plan that has gone completely wrong.

Noir is a progenitor of our post-War sensibilities; it provides an outlet for expressing our fear that corruption wins, and that any victory against it must be a pyrrhic one. The odds seem more and more stacked against the good guys as Border Incident hurtles to the finish like a runaway train.

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Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Lust for Gold (1949)

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Lust for Gold is pretty frustrating to watch, because there's a brilliant, gutsy movie wrapped in a lot of unfortunate fluff. Like The Searchers, there are parts that just don't work and kill the rhythm of the movie. What annoys me is that it's so close to being a great film, and has the makings of a perfect one. Yet it bogs itself down in so much emotionless, derivative, and ultimately unnecessary storytelling that what results is an exceptional 50 minute tale surrounded by 40 minutes I'd rather not watch. The movie tells its story through a flashback, and the problem with this is it's not very economical, especially with a medium like film.

Lust for Gold starts with about 20 minutes of Jacob Walz's grandson searching for a gold mine he, uh, "discovered." What we learn is that Jacob was never the good, wholesome prospector his grandson believed, but stole and murdered his way to riches. The problem with the movie's storytelling is that all the sudden, it has to develop additional characters from several time periods which just gobbles up more time than it should. In film, time is an extremely precious commodity and needs to be managed effectively, unless you want an unnecessarily long and boring picture. Jacob's grandson just isn't that interesting and he's constantly associating himself with his grandfather; he seems too entitled to the gold mine. This makes him into a bit of a snob, and the voiceover doesn't really let us empathize with him, but makes it soundlike he's reading a dry police procedural.

Where this film works is in telling the story of Jacob. Disregarding the grandson portions and considering Jacob's story alone, the movie becomes an embittered tale of greed and heartbreak; the overall tone of this story seems as much like a morally bleak film noir as it does a western. Many of the best westerns plunge into the murky depths of a world where there is no line between right and wrong. Perhaps westerns works so well this way because they are such a primal setting, where law and order still struggle to tame the land.

Jacob is almost perfectly archetypal of the noir hero. He's so haggard when we first see him, it's difficult to actually see Glenn Ford beneath the role. He's not exactly admirable either, as his idea of a good time is scaring little girls with a gun. By the time he gets the gold, he's bumped off the people who led him there and shot his partner in the back. Gold does that to people, doesn't it? He goes back to town to cash in, where all the sudden everyone is abuzz trying to figure out where he got it all. Up until this point, there's no real complexity in his character and his only human quality is his, um, lust for gold. He's greedy and secretive, no different than our old friend Fred C. Dobbs.

Then he meets Julia, and here is where we start seeing some texture and depth brushed into his character beyond greed and murder. Julia, of course, wants to get out of her crappy bakery with her crappy husband, and Jacob is a chance to escape. Whether Julia really loves him is harder to say, in part because Ida Lupino plays her so close to the chest. Lupino makes it clear she doesn't love her husband, but whether she wants to leave because of Jacob or the money is up in the air. She flip-flops so much that by the time she's on the mountaintop begging Dutch to believe her, his doubt and heartbreak overwhelm his real desire: he really does want to believe her.

For Dutch, Julia is the only person in town who doesn't seem to care about the gold. From his point of view, he sees a kind woman taking care of him when the rest of the town took him for a greedy drunk with money. There's that moment when he thanks her in German and when she responds in the same tongue, it's like a light's gone on in his head. In any foreign country, but especially America, I think there's something that touches the heart when you discover a fellow countryman who speaks your native tongue, especially where you least expect it. Dutch has been alone until this point; to the town, he's separate from them—the man with a lot of gold. When he speaks with Julia in German, I think this marks something of a turning point. All the sudden, he no longer cares about the gold but this woman who might possibly be his soul mate. For her, he'll do anything; he'll buy all her bread and throw it away to some kid; he'll clean himself up. When he arrives at her house, groomed and clean-shaven, he's almost unrecognizable with his former self. It was at this point that I said to myself: Aha! There's our Glenn Ford! Once he falls for Julia, I think there's a kind of schoolboy innocence about him; he seems transformed—almost tame.

A movie like Lust for Gold goes to show that many of the differences between westerns and film noir are almost purely superficial; the thematic undertones are often strikingly similar, if not identical. Julia, as a kind of femme fatale, gives Dutch something to work for; she gives his life a purpose. To him, she's something beautiful amidst the jeering townsfolk only interested in his gold. So when he discovers she's really no different than the others, that stability she seems to offer just vanishes. In the finale of Jacob's story—which, for me, should be the finale of the movie—the bottom literally falls out; an earthquake makes it impossible to recover the gold or the life he envisioned with Julia.

Lust for Gold has so much going for it, that it's especially frustrating to see it with all its shortcomings. The movie comes so damn close to being on the highest level that it's almost painful to see Jacob's grandson with his bland voiceover drag down an otherwise superb drama. For all its problems, Lust for Gold should be seen.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Love Crazy (1941)

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Including all the Thin Man movies, I'm now 11 Loy-Powell movies richer; I'm a fan. Not since Astaire-Rogers have I been this smitten with a pair of superstars. What else I've seen includes the five movies available in Warner's TCM Spotlight collection: Manhattan Melodrama, Evelyn Prentice, Double Wedding, I Love You Again, and Love Crazy. There's not a bad one in the bunch, but I recommend watching them in that order, because I think that's how I'd rank them, from least to best. Manhattan Melodrama and Evelyn Prentice are good dramas with characters that are easy to care for—with the former having Clark Gable to boot—and while Powell and Loy are excellent, the Warner box says it right: comedies are their mainstay. Which brings me to Love Crazy, a delightful screwball that, dare I say, may be one of the best comedies out there.

I always seem to have problems with comedies. Maybe I'm too picky, but I feel like comedies must be hard to make, since I rarely find one that doesn't require me to force out a chuckle; it seems so hard to find one where you're actually stifling back laughs and struggling to breath. In fact, as I sit here trying to think of a comedy that's had me in stitches, I find I can't recall any at the moment*. What does come to mind are those comedies that, while funny, aren't shall I say, laugh out loud funny. I always think of Some Like It Hot or Dr. Strangelove—classic comedies that are fun and amusing, but nevertheless fail to make me laugh out loud beyond an admittedly forced chuckle. With Dr. Strangelove, it's really only George C. Scott that makes me come close; I think Strangelove is of the intellectual kind of humor. It's a black comedy where you need to know what's going on and be in on the joke; it's a bit too pessimistic and knowing. I guess you could say Dr. Strangelove makes me laugh from the brain, not the gut.

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*I've thought of two: Modern Times and City Lights; the boxing scene in the latter—perfect.

As much as I like watching all the middle-aged male idiots panic in Dr. Strangelove, it's not really my idea of comedy. Or rather, it's not comedy from the gut, like Chaplin movies are. Enter Love Crazy, an aptly titled, perfectly crazy movie that doesn't hold back. The basic premise is William Powell and Myrna Loy are happily married until Loy believes Powell has cheated on her with an ex-girlfriend. Loy files for divorce, and Powell pretends to be insane to delay the proceedings.

I think what makes Love Crazy so funny is that it commits to going over the top—something we should expect from any screwball. There are so many I-can't-believe-that-just-happened moments and there isn't a scene that falls flat. Too often, I find a comedy just runs out of steam, but Love Crazy keeps the momentum going, partly because it doesn't bog itself down in sentimentality. William Powell really keeps things moving, and the premise gives him plenty of opportunities to do so. As soon as we hear he can stave off the divorce by acting crazy, we know we're in for a treat. Letting an actor do this brings to mind the old kid-in-the-candy-store adage. Powell has a kind of carte blanche to become as zany as he wants and to disregard acting realistic. Granted, he's still tied to the script and the character, but he's got more flexibility in how he expresses himself.

The funniest moments, I think, are when we see Powell's character trying to convince all the psychiatrists that he's not crazy; he only wants the judge to think he's crazy, not the whole world. Anybody familiar with psychology is well aware of how sticky the insanity label is: suddenly, every action, no matter how normal or abnormal is a characteristic of the patient's insanity. The movie kind of thumbs its nose at this. Indeed, Powell and Loy are probably the most sensible people; they know Powell's antics aren't signs of insanity.

And Powell's antics are the highlight of the movie, whether it's freeing guests' top hats into the pool or scurrying around his own apartment building hiding from the police in a Ms. Doubtfiresque getup. Of course, it's a joy to see Myrna Loy engaging in equally hair-brained schemes like trying to teach her husband a lesson by kissing a total stranger. That stranger, Ward Willoughby (Jack Carson), figures prominently later on as a second love interest. Carson does a fine job of being someone we thoroughly dislike and it's a delight to see him mistaken for a patient because of his, uh, air bow-and-arrowing.

Love Crazy, to me, is pure comedy; it's unadulterated by heavy sentimentality or inhibition. Above all, it consistently commits to making us laugh. I could go on, but Love Crazy isn't a movie that demands or even wants analysis. Simply, it's a movie to be delighted by for an hour and a half. It shouldn't be missed.

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