Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Lust for Gold (1949)

lust for gold

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.