Monday, February 20, 2017

THE TREE OF WOODEN CLOGS - #854


Criterion fans know the name Ermanno Olmi from his excellent Neorealist films, Il posto [review] and I fidanzati [review], small dramas set in then-modern times (1961 and 1962) that are elegant, personal, and focused. And if that, like me, is all you know, then his Palm d’Or-winning The Tree of Wooden Clogs may be a bit of a surprise. Released in 1978, this three-hour-plus drama is modestly epic in scope, more open in approach, and yet surprisingly just as engaged with the personal.

Set in Italy's Bergamo province at the tail of the 19th Century, The Tree of Wooden Clogs tells a season in the life of a farming village. At the time, peasants lived as sharecroppers on a wealthy landlord's estate, working his fields, keeping 1/3 of what they produced, giving the rest to him (see also Bertollucci’s 1900 [review] for a similar scenario). The farmers shared one community building, four or five families per, individual tribes within a larger conglomerate. As his narrative progresses, Olmi dips in and out of different families in one particular dwelling, mining their collective stories. There is the young man looking to woo his neighbor's daughter, or the old timer looking to beat the others to the tomato harvest, and the various wives and mothers keeping their children in clean clothes and nourishment. Each action is individual, but it also adds to the whole. No one family, no patch of land, is an island. Or, to change metaphors, The Tree of Wooden Clogs is a tapestry, and each singular weave somehow ties back to the center, and you don't see the full tableau until you step back and take it all in.


The closest thing we have to a central family is the clan whose challenges give The Tree of Wooden Clogs its name. This incident is a small story embedded in the whole. The family’s young son, Minek, is a bit of a prodigy, and the parish priest insists his father send him to school, even if it is a four-mile walk each way. On one such trek, the same day his baby brother is born, the child breaks one of his clogs. His kindly father doesn't scold him or make a fuss. Instead, he sneaks out into the night and cuts a chunk of wood from a tree alongside the road. It's unclear whether he takes to this task quietly so as not to disturb the boy's mother, still recuperating from the birthing, or because he's taking the wood without clearing it with the landlord. All we feel is there is something momentous and heavy in the act, especially as he begins his carving while the rest of his family says their evening prayers. Is this plea to the heavens to be his absolution?

This is how connected everything is--religion, birth, survival. Within the relatively short period--short in the context of an existence, at least, because make no mistake, this is a long movie--we see the full circle of life. Crops are grown, animals slaughtered, children born. We see only a small sliver of the other side, a brief peek into the landowner's life. We see how faith holds sway, even when impractical. We also catch a glimpse of political tides to come. But as large as the land and the sky and the whole of the world may appear, it's still the little things that matter. The simple pleasures.


Olmi applies the Neorealist method to great effect. Like Roberto Rossellini did with the Sicilian fishermen for Stromboli [review], or even Michael Powell and the Scotsmen on The Edge of the World, the director worked with the real people of the Bergamo region, even having them speak in their native Bergamasque. The landscape of The Tree of Wooden Clogs is not populated by actors, but the actual citizenry of the world Olmi is capturing. Yet, they still are actors, aren't they, since they live in the now while dressing up to play their ancestors in front of a camera. Such is the illusion, and so powerful the effect, you'll be forgiven for how often you'll forget you are not watching a documentary. The details are real, and often not for the squeamish (if you've never seen a goose or pig butchered...), and the script so absent of point-A/point-B plotting, the final cut has the feeling of real life, not a cinematic construction. Like life, it can be a bit of a haul to reach the end, but hopefully we’ll all find both tasks worth it. (Though I’m not holding out much hope for this living business...)


The span of The Tree of Wooden Clogs only grows macro in its third hour, when the young couple we’ve watched court one another gets married and goes off on their honeymoon. Traveling with them, we see nearby townships, and people beyond the landlord’s property line. These new elements almost seem cartoonish by comparison, so used have we come to the quiet life within the farm. The honeymoon itself passes without much fanfare--at least until the newlyweds return home and, immediately after, other narrative threads finally start to pay off--some good, and some bad. I suppose it’s up to each viewer to divine where Olmi is coming down in terms of the divine and its relation to what happens to the peasants, or what that also says about the nature of small community. A sad fate befalls Minek’s family, one that is swift and without recourse. As neighbor turns away from neighbor and relies on prayer rather than intervening, I found myself caught between my empathy for their resorting to their faith due to a need for some kind of explanation of why life is cruel and my more visceral reaction. I can’t help but think they are using religion to sidestep their responsibility toward their fellow man, and that this is perhaps why the cycle of the wealthy oppressing the poor continues. (“I’ve got mine, let God take care of the rest.) One could surmise this is why Olmi includes glimpse of the socialist revolution on the rise. Certainly nothing happens on screen in The Tree of Wooden Clogs by accident, given that the director, in the truest auteur fashion, is credited with script, photography, and editing. Just as the hands of the farmers draw riches from the land, Olmi’s hands draw out this mis-en-scene. Soil has never been so beautiful, and yet so daunting. Soft and brown when giving life, dark and muddy as the day grows hard.


Yet, for the filmmaker to add any editorial or exposition would be to betray his motivating conceit. The Tree of Wooden Clogs is meant to be an observation, not an explanation. It’s a morality play without a coda. The staging, the lighting, everything is as natural and real as is possible in the confines of a motion picture construct. The camera itself seems to disappear in the crowd. The light is never brighter than the hazy grays the sun provides. The visual story is limited to what the eye can see, the same way it would be were this a newsreel. Olmi doesn’t dress the set, he doesn’t call attention to the design of his shots, he doesn’t zoom emphatically. His approach is as straightforward and quaint as the daily life he is chronicling. It’s also as intimate, and therein he finds his truth. From the supplements accompanying the movie on this disc, especially the British television special from 1981, we hear how the film was inspired by stories the Olmi’s grandmother told him about her life, and so we can see that the director’s exacting methods are born of a personal pride. He is reaching back into his own history, digging for the roots that would eventually put him on his own two feet and lead him here.


This disc provided by the Criterion Collection for purposes of review.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

CAMERAPERSON - #853


After 25 years of filming other people’s lives--and other people’s films--documentary cinematographer Kirsten Johnson tackles the subject of herself. But not in a conventional mode. Cameraperson does not flip the lens around and capture the filmmaker out on her day-to-day. Instead, Johnson has assembled raw footage from various movies she’s shot, ranging from America-centric political tales like Citzenfour [review] and Fahrenheit 9/11 to studies of strife in foreign lands like Pray the Devil Back to Hell. Mixed in are the occasional home movies: scenes of her twin children, her mother when she was suffering from Alzheimer’s, and her father soldiering on. The result is something akin to a selection of The Qatsi Trilogy, but on a more human scale and driven by one point of view.


In the first six minutes, Cameraperson sets up its scope. We move from a shepherd driving his sheep in Bosnia to a lightning storm halfway across the world; backstage at a boxing match in Brooklyn to a medical clinic in Nigeria. While seemingly unrelated, as Johnson assembles her collage, parallels and patterns emerge. Since a lot of the material is fairly heavy--some of the source films are about ethnic cleansing and rape--much of what comes together ends up being about human mortality and death, but bubbling just underneath is also a celebration of life. Even as she has to let her mother go, Johnson keeps returning to Nigeria, watching a dedicated midwife help a late-born twin take his first breaths. As a mother of twins herself, I am sure the emotional weight is not lost on Johnson. What is this balance between two lives, where one sibling comes first and the other must struggle to emerge? Duality plays a strong role throughout: the boy with one good eye and one bad eye explaining his injury is particularly effective in conveying Johnson’s message. The seen and the unseen, the two sides of the camera.


It’s not just the narratives that start to come into view, however, but the titular cameraperson, as well. Since these are unedited takes, we witness Johnson setting up her shots, and also her blowing them. We hear her planning her next move, asking for clarification, or simply letting her guard down to talk to a boxing coach or ask a soldier for some watermelon. Perhaps the most endearing detail is in the credits sequence, when she sneezes while watching the storm roll in, and her sneezing shakes the camera. There is much here to dissect about the act of cinematic observation, and the right to observe. French philosopher Jacques Derrida, in an outtake from the 2002 Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering film Derrida, provides Johnson with a perfect moment. With her gaze so focused, he wonders, does she see much at all? He likens her to the philosopher who fell down a well because he was too busy looking up at the stars to spot the hole.

Of course, the answer is that Johnson sees plenty. Perhaps more than most. Cameraperson is testament to that. Though documentaries are supposed to be objective, Cameraperson reveals that they still require empathy and engagement. That’s why all these scenes remain important to Johnson, why she can’t let them go. What she has captured on film is now as much her as her home and family. She lives through the work, and there is no need for her to say more, or show more, about the woman pressing record.


Naturally, the presentation for Cameraperson puts most of its attention on the thesis of the film and the thinking behind it. There are two exclusive programs exploring how it was put together and grappling with larger moviemaking questions. There is also excerpts from talks Kirsten Johnson made at festivals. Picture quality is excellent on the Blu-ray, and the 5.1 audio is exceptional. For a film that you wouldn’t expect to have a particularly robust soundtrack, kudos for all the little details emerging in the back speakers throughout the movie.

Of particular note in the extras, though, is Kirsten Johnson’s 2015 short documentary The Above. Beginning with a U.S. Army blimp that has been floating over Kabul since 2009, the function of which is classified, the director takes different vantage points around the city to simulate what such a device might see. She also uses on-the-ground shots to show the ubiquity of the blimp and juxtaposes that with images of an identical blimp hovering over Maine, allegedly as a missile detection device. It’s interesting how differently one reacts to seeing this stationary object flanked by a Christian church and the stars and stripes.


This disc was provided by the Criterion Collection for purposes of review.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

THE KID WITH A BIKE - #646


There’s a scene near the very end of The Kid With aBike where the titular kid, Cyril (Thomas Doret), is riding side by side with his unexpected guardian, Samantha (Cécile de France, Mesrine [review], The Young Pope), and he asks her what gear she is pedaling in. Samantha has no idea, and only can guess looking at the gauges and levers on the handlebars. Her ignorance amuses the boy.

It also reminds me of my own biking experiences. Near the end of junior high, a few years before I could drive, I was given a ten-speed bike. It was probably nine speeds too many. No one ever explained to me what the different gears meant, much less how to shift into them. I found a setting where I could pedal comfortably, and then never touched the gears again.


The anecdote itself is completely irrelevant to examining this 2011 film from Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, and yet it is also everything. The pleasure of watching The Kid With a Bike [also on Filmstruck] and, in fact, all Dardenne films is the attention to personal details. Everything that happens matters to the person it happens to, and the specificity is exactly why audiences around the world, be they in the Dardenne Brothers’ native Belgium or here in the United States, identify with their stories. It’s the bigger things that separate us, and the day-to-day that proves we are all basically the same.

I don’t identify with the love of the bike that the kid has, but I identify with his willful ignorance, his refusal to let go of an idea. In this case, that his father, Guy (Dardennes-regular Jérémie Renier, Summer Hours [review]), will come back and take him out of the group home and put their lives back together. The bike becomes a symbol of that. Cyril’s father would have never gone away without giving him his beloved bike. When Samantha brings it to him and tells him she had bought it off someone who bought it from Cyril’s dad, the boy refuses to believe her.


We should all hope for angels in our life like Samantha. She only meets Cyril by chance, while going to an appointment in a medical clinic in the building where Cyril’s father was last known to live. The boy runs away from school and goes there looking for Guy, and when they try to drag him back, he literally grabs on to Samantha and won’t let go. What this sparks in her, we’ll never know. A Good Samaritan streak? A motherly instinct? Samantha agrees to take Cyril on the weekends, which proves tougher than expected when he falls in with a bad crowd. But then, Samantha is tougher than just about anybody. She stands up to the boy’s father and makes him relate his own bad news; she dumps her boyfriend when he delivers her an ultimatum about her new ward; she refuses to give up on the kid even after he’s stepped over a very dangerous line. Cécile de France is a remarkably versatile actor. In any role, be it the gangster’s moll or the public relations woman or the simple hairdresser looking for love, she is always present in the moment. She’s one of those performers that each time you see her, she seems transformed, sending you scrambling to IMDB to see why she looks familiar.


Watching The Kid With a Bike, you’ll want to knock some sense into Cyril more than once. Hell, not only because he refuses to listen, but after the second time his bike gets stolen because he didn’t lock it up, you just want to smack him upsdie the head. (I joked the movie could alternately be called The Persuasive Argument For My Vasectomy.) I don’t know where the Dardennes found Thomas Doret, but he’s excellent. The young actor has a laser-like focus and maintains his mission at all times. Cyril will not be dissuaded.

It’s nearly impossible to not think of Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves [review] when examining The Kid With a Bike. It’s not just the father/son story revolving around a two-wheeler, but also the fact that moral questions are raised over the need for the bike. Cyril faces a choice, and though less motivated by self-preservation than the desperate man of De Sica’s film, to a young mind it would be just as important. Wes (Egon Di Mateo), the Fagin of Samantha’s neighborhood, offers him the kind of masculine reinforcement that Cyril seeks, and so he makes doing bad look very good. And hell, if you can’t trust your father to come through the way he’s supposed to, common rules no longer seem valid.


Additionally, the Dardennes work in a similar style to De Sica. The young actor, the real locations, the simple plot, the lack of melodrama--this 2011 Belgian film is very much in line with the 1948 Italian film’s aesthetics. Collaborating as usual with cinematographer Alain Marcoen, the Dardennes make no move that calls attention to itself. There are no tricky shots, no daring overheads, they maintain a grounded vantage point, which ultimately proves to be more immersive than some glossier fictional efforts, in that The Kid With a Bike is far more persuasive as a believable narrative. It is being lived, not choreographed.

Once upon a time when I was editing the Kitchen Sink-style comics of British cartoonist Andi Watson, we received a review that contended “nothing happened” in an issue. Of course, this was not true, we could outline many emotional twists and turns in the comic book, many actual events that the characters had to contend with. It just was lacking in “action.” As Andi quipped, just because someone didn’t get punched, it doesn’t mean nothing happened. And while there is violence in The Kid With a Bike, it is story driven, not plot driven, which is a big difference. Some might say the core scenario is very little to hang an entire film on, but the Dardennes make something grand from it.


One last anecdote that came to mind while watching The Kid With a Bike: when I was in grade school I had a brown Huffy that I was pretty keen on. That is, until I got to school and was ridiculed because it had a banana seat and no crossbar on the handle. I was told this made it a girl’s bike.  A girl’s bike befitting a boy with a girl’s name, I guess. While I didn’t come to blows with any of the kids the way that Cyril did (at least not over the bike), it did still come to represent a kind of rebellion for me--I rode it regardless of others’ taunts--and provided my personal freedom. I could go all over town on it, much faster and with more ease than on two feet. In other words, it could get me away from those other boys whom I didn’t want to hang out with anyway. Looking back, I guess it did carry a comparable power to the bike in the movie. It maybe wasn’t about my father’s love, but then, ultimately that’s not what Cyril’s represents. It’s about having a vehicle to be who we are and get us to where we feel safe.



Sunday, January 22, 2017

FOX AND HIS FRIENDS - #851


In 1975, the writer/director Rainer Werner Fassbinder applied his finely honed sense of Sirkian melodrama to Fox and His Friends, a small story that encompasses class, ambition, and, at its root, a need to be loved. Fassbinder himself played the lovably dopey Fox, a one-time carnie whose continual insistence that he’d win the lottery finally comes true, cashing him in for 500,000 deutschmarks on the same day his boss and lover was sent to jail for tax evasion. Ironic, as one of the men gets money from the government, the other is busted for not putting his in.

That day, Fox also meets Max (Karlheinz Böhm, Peeping Tom), a wealthy antiques dealer. The two size each other up in at a public restroom in a silent scene full of secret gestures, meaningful looks, and a test or two. It’s masterfully choreographed, almost like something out of Bresson’s Pickpocket. Max has come along at just the right moment, introducing his new lover to a social group befitting his newfound riches. Max’s friends are disdainful at first, seeing their coupling as lewd and Fox himself as a rube. He also has a bit of a rough allure--a bad boy, if you will--so soon one of the men gives in to his lust. Eugen (Peter Chatel, The Merchant of Four Seasons) takes Fox home, and the former con man has no trouble seducing and dominating his conquest. It’s only after the fling becomes something serious that the dynamic changes.


Eugen’s family is going broke. Their bookbinding business is heading for bankruptcy, and the son sees only one way to bail his judgmental father out. He asks Fox to loan them some money, with promises of equity when the loan is paid off. As audience members, we see almost immediately that not all is as it seems with this plan, but poor trusting Fox, so eager to be accepted, and so afraid that Eugen will think he’s stupid, signs the deal without admitting he doesn’t truly understand it. It’s the final shift of power, the con man becomes the conned, making Eugen free to criticize and humiliate his lower-class boyfriend all he wants. His most insidious habit is how he corrects Fox’s etiquette. “If you’re looking for the dessert fork,” he begins, seeing Fox eating a pastry with his hands, and then ends by pointing out that it’s on the left of his plate. He couches his recriminations with a sharp dig, giving the pretense that he’s repeating something Fox already knows. Self-aware mansplaining. (It reminds me of Michael Sheen’s equally infuriating “um, actually” behavior toward Rachel McAdams in Midnight in Paris [review].)


Fox and His Friends is pleasantly simple, with big emotions but few dramatic sweeps to match. Fassbinder approaches everything gently, including his own performance. Rather than play Fox in broad strokes, he goes low-key. Fox is not very bright and surprisingly naïve, but not in a way that inspires laughter from the audience. Instead, as Eugen chips away at Fox’s swagger and reveals the kind-hearted simpleton underneath, we only gain more empathy for the well-meaning bumbler. We wish he’d do better, and would smack him upside the head if we could, but outside of some ostentatious purchases that bite him on the ass later, most of his financial loss comes from wanting to please his lover. His generosity is genuine, and also equal opportunity. One of their worst quarrels occurs when Eugen objects to Fox giving a loan to Klaus (Karl Scheydt, The American Soldier), his carnie boss, when he is released from jail. How hypocritical that Eugen’s anger is because he believes Fox will never see that money again. Fox trusts Klaus will pay him back, and regardless of that, you have to help your friends. Their other terrible fight comes in Morocco, when they look to pick up another man. It’s a strange and nuanced disagreement, hinging on a dual offense: Fox being hurt that he’s not enough, and also disgusted that Eugen doesn’t act with more authority in making it happen. You want this, so be a man and take it.


The only characters that the director goes big with are Fox’s belligerent, alcoholic sister (Christiane Maybach) and Fox’s friends at the gay bar, who come with their best “girl, please” sashay. Even more than 40 years later, Fassbinder’s depiction of the gay lifestyle still feels surprisingly fresh. That’s because rather than making Fox and Friends a movie about being homosexual, it’s just a movie with homosexuals in it. In fact, Fox and Friends is completely lacking in heterosexual expression. The only straight couple we see is Eugen’s parents, and they are past the demonstrative stage of their relationship.

But it’s not just the culture that Fassbinder treats matter of factly, it’s the whole of the film. He and cinematographer Michael Ballhaus (Broadcast News [review], The Last Temptation of Christ) don’t aim for the bright Technicolor of the 1950s pictures Fassbinder emulates; rather, they take a rather unadorned approach, something that brings to mind the Dardennes more than it does Sirk. It gives everything the feeling of real life, of actual existences observed. What happens to the characters never happens because of their sexuality, nor are they being punished for it when things go wrong. When LGBTQ advocates talk about representation in cinema and other entertainment, Fox and His Friends is just the kind of thing they mean: a movie where they just exist like anyone else. Fassbinder pointed the way forever ago, it’s time more started following his direction.


This disc was provided by the Criterion Collection for purposes of review.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

SOMETHING WILD (1961) - #850


Jack Garfein is a name more people need to know. A survivor of the Holocaust, Garfein immigrated to the United States from Czechoslovakia, joining the famed Actors Studio and training as a theater director, working alongside Elia Kazan and with actors as storied as James Dean, Marlon Brando, and eventually Ben Gazzara, who starred in Garfein’s first movie, the disquieting, insightful The Strange One [review]. These details and much more are revealed in the fascinating interview with film critic Kim Morgan on Criterion’s new release of Garfein’s second--and last--motion picture, 1961’s uniquely powerful Something Wild.

Something Wild is a challenging movie, both by today’s standards and certainly by the standards of the early 1960s. Following a typically stupendous Saul Bass title sequence, the movie--scripted by Garfein and Alex Karmel, based on Karmel’s novel--introduces Mary Ann (Carroll Baker, star of Baby Doll and Garfein’s then-wife), a New York college student on her way home. When passing through the park, she is attacked and raped. Upon returning to the house where she lives with her mother and stepfather, Mary Ann finds she can’t really return to normal life, and so she breaks from it, leaving school and family. Garfein presents a single poignant image: a pile of textbooks left on a bench, and Mary Ann walking away. She gets an apartment and a sales clerk job and tries for a new life.


What’s interesting about following Mary Ann is how everything about her journey is on the exterior. The girl never expresses herself, we can only intuit how she feels from behavior. Following the physical assault, she reacts to everything physical, every encounter, in her world. A crowded subway train triggers her memory, and she can’t remain confined. Every man she meets is a potential threat; every woman seems to want to pimp her out. Baker says little throughout the movie--in fact, much of the first half hour is completely dialogue-free--but she doesn’t really have to. The actress finds a fragile balance. Mary Ann is numb, and yet she still feels. In her effort to not project what is going on inside her, Baker ends up showing the audience everything. The performer is simultaneously withholding and naked.

Even if this were all there was to Something Wild (which it should be said bears no relation to the Jonathan Demme film of the same name [review]), that would be enough. It would still be a moving portrait of a woman dealing with trauma. That Garfein builds in a mid-film twist, however, means there is also much more to unpack. After the women at her work haze her, Mary Ann decides that it’s all too much and tries to commit suicide. A passerby stops her before she can jump off the bridge. The seeming Good Samaritan, Mike (Ralph Meeker, Kiss Me Deadly [review]), takes the distraught woman home, and lets her sleep it off. Only, as Mary Ann comes back to herself, she realizes that she’s locked in Mike’s basement apartment. He has decided that she owes him something for saving her life and keeps her imprisoned with the hope that Mary Ann will fall in love with him.


Garfein crafts an uncomfortable narrative. Mike’s actions are disturbing, and yet Garfein holds back any explicit sexual threat for a time, making it unclear exactly what the man wants, as his thinking is muddled by alcohol and his own white knight complex. The director uses restraint in drawing both the attack at the start of Something Wild and Mike’s slow breaking down of his victim, leaving us to fill in some blanks, and never once being exploitative. Meeker manages to slowly twist his average Joe into a real creep, but avoids straying into cartoon villainy. For her role in their dynamic, Baker lets her anger bubble up, finally unleashing the grief and the pain in her own defense. It’s not just about physically fighting back, though, she is also strategic. Mary Ann tries to work out Mike’s angles, tries to disavow him of any notion that she’ll ever be the love of his life. In her efforts, we at last see Mary Ann as a true survivor. She can fight back in a way she could not during the initial assault, even if the results are questionable.

All of this is revealed without much ostentation. Garfein and cinematographer Eugen Schüfftan (People on Sunday [review], Eyes Without a Face) keep an even hand and a steady eye. All the exteriors of Something Wild were shot on location, and so Schüfftan captures New York as a particular time and place--and yet the city somehow also bends around Mary Ann, becoming almost like a dreamscape that she walks through unhindered. The black-and-white is lovely, and the restoration on this Blu-ray, while imperfect, is still exceptional, maintaining the genuine look of the original celluloid.


In the final scenes of Something Wild, the film takes some unexpected twists I will leave you to discover and interpret on your own. Yet, I will also point you again to the special feature with the filmmaker and Kim Morgan, as Garfein reveals his own intentions of the ending. His explanation may challenge your perceptions even more. His empathy as a storyteller allows him to see Mary Ann’s experience in ways that many of us may not if we accept everything at face value or filter it through our own prism.

In addition to the piece with Morgan (perhaps the director's biggest champion), Criterion also includes one of Garfein’s acting lectures, some background on the Actors Studio, and a new interview with Carroll Baker.

Something Wild is an essential release, reintroducing an unfairly ignored film to today’s audiences. Now, who do we have to petition to get Criterion to follow this up with a Blu-ray of The Strange One?


This disc was provided by the Criterion Collection for purposes of review.


Monday, January 9, 2017

HIS GIRL FRIDAY/THE FRONT PAGE - #849


I love Rosalind Russell. Her range as a spot-on comic performer is amazing. Compare two of her most famous roles, Mrs. Howard Fowler in George Cukor’s The Women and Hildy Johnston in Howard Hawks’ His Girl Friday. Both are smart performances, invigorated by Russell’s sharp verbal delivery, but there is a great physical difference. Fowler is loud, gawky, a bit camp; Hildy is poised, assured, and direct. If you weren’t paying attention, you might not catch that they are the same actress. Yet, both performances are very, very funny.

In His Girl Friday, it helps that Russell gets to play off Cary Grant. As Walter Burns, Grant delivers one of his best performances, as well, playing the opportunistic newspaper editor as an arch trickster, stiff-backed but playful, and deep down hiding a true heart.


Because, you see, in this 1940 adaptation of Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur’s play The Front Page, Charles Lederer (Ride the Pink Horse) has the ingenious idea of changing Hildy’s gender from a man to a woman and adding a marriage and divorce to Hildy and Walter’s relationship. Watch the more traditional rendering included in this set, Lewis Milestone’s 1931 version of The Front Page, and you’ll see what a difference this makes. In the original, Walter is working purely out of business concerns. He and Hildy have a professional friendship, but one man trying to stop another from getting married and quitting his job doesn’t quite have the weight of an ex-husband trying to do the same with his one-time wife. In His Girl Friday, Walter doesn’t just want Hildy to keep writing for the newspaper, he wants to reconcile their relationship. He’s losing her twice over.


Beyond that, the plot is essentially the same. Hildy Johnson, one of the best reporters in town, is looking to get married and get out, partially fed up with the slave-driving schemes of his/her no-good boss, Walter Burns. Just as Hildy is leaving, a big story is about to have a major development. Earl Williams (Joel Qualen, Anatomy of a Murder [review]) is due to be hung for murdering a policeman--a crime he can’t quite explain. The mayor and the sheriff (Clarence Kolb and Gene Lockhart) have cloaked Earl in a communist uniform and are using him for political gain; others think Earl is not necessarily in his right mind and deserves a reprieve. On the eve of his execution, Earl escapes, causing a madcap manhunt that Hildy can’t help but get tied up in--partially because Walter is pulling every puppet string, con, and bribe he can to keep her around.


His Girl Friday is famous for its impressive pace. Hawks reportedly set out to shoot two pages of script for each minute of film--double the rate of most movies. To do so he took out all the pauses, having one line of dialogue immediately follow another, sometimes letting his actors step on each other’s final words just to keep it moving. The result is a comedy that zips by. Words become akin to action, a good line packing as much of a wallop as a sock in the jaw. This gives the whole of His Girl Friday an unprecedented verve, and also invigorates the character interaction. Walter is fast-thinking and fast-talking, but Hildy is always faster, always a step ahead, unraveling his plots, even as he circles back around and draws her in.


Also noteworthy is the banter between the cynical journalists that hang out in the prison pressroom covering the execution for rival papers. This is one area where Milestone outshines Hawks. Not only was the earlier director more interested in the reporters’ verbal jousting, but the dialogue in his version had a more jagged edge, thanks to pre-Code freedoms. There is no sugarcoating of the issues in The Front Page: race, politics, and sex are referenced directly. Likewise, the older script shines a more satirical light on the reporters. Adapted by Bartlett Cormack (Fury), with additional dialogue by Lederer,  this The Front Page shows the reporters each putting their own spin on the story, a round-robin of false reporting and straight-up embellishment that is hilarious on its face, though also a bit scary if we consider the current distrust of the media. It’s our living nightmare--facts really don’t matter, it’s all about the point of view of each particular outlet.


In the 1931 movie, Walter is played by Adolphe Menjou (Paths of Glory [review]), playing off his sophisticated image, a low-society capitalist in a high-society suit. His sparring partner is Pat O’Brien (Knute Rockney All American). O’Brien plays Hildy as a man’s man who loves chasing a good story and can’t get enough of scooping everyone else. It makes him the best at what he does--a distinction they thankfully didn’t remove when handing the role to Rosalind Russell. It’s refreshing seeing a woman on the screen who is better than all the men in a field they are supposed to own. His Girl Friday also subverts the notion that a lady should give up such a life and settle down with a good man. In both films, Hildy doesn’t seem to really be chasing a suburban existence or even love; the most important factor in their decision is sticking it to Walter and proving him wrong when he says they can’t. (Though, I should note a discussion I had with a co-worker who thought Hildy in His Girl Friday was working against a certain sexism where all the men in her life, including her nice-guy fiancé, insisted she didn’t know what she really wanted.)



And Hawks doesn’t blow that in His Girl Friday by tacking on a romantic finish. If we see Grant and Russell as two peas in a pod, it’s just that: they are perfect for each other, and will carry on doing what they do best together. It’s funny that Milestone ends his film with an end title that implies we could see more from Menjou and O’Brien as Burns and Johnson, because if ever there was a duo ripe for a Thin Man-style string of sequels, it would have been Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell.
In addition to crisp restorations of both His Girl Friday and The Front Page, this double-disc set comes with two different radio performances of The Front Page, one of His Girl Friday, and a bunch of archival materials from different eras. It should also be noted that this restoration of The Front Page works from a print that maintains Lewis Milestone’s preferred cut, and not the international version that has circulated for many years.

All in all, these dueling adaptations make for a remarkably entertaining double feature. You could watch them back-to-back without tiring of the story. Both play on their own charms enough, you’ll be unable to resist playing along.


The images here are taken from an earlier standard-definition DVD and not the Blu-ray under consideration. This disc provided by the Criterion Collection for purposes of review.


Tuesday, January 3, 2017

THE ASPHALT JUNGLE - #847


Sterling Hayden may be the king of film noir endings. The bitter and tragic finish of The Killing has often been bandied about as the quintessential noir finale, but there is a strong case to be made for the closing of The Asphalt Jungle. It’s brutal, and yet bucolic; the bad man mere feet from salvation, on a farm, surrounded by curious horses, before succumbing to the inevitable. Hayden’s tough guy, Dix Handley, is a victim of his own drive. He nearly had the film noir safe haven of a good woman and a rural retreat, but like so many others, Dix can’t outrun fate. He ends up flat out in the dirt.


The Asphalt Jungle is John Huston’s 1950 heist film. He directed and co-wrote with Ben Maddow, whom he also worked with on The Unforgiven [review]. Maddow would shortly after be blacklisted and find much of his influential work, including scripts for Johnny Guitar and The Wild One [review], credited to another scribe. Their joint script tells the story of a small band of crooks looking to make a big score.  A notorious criminal planner, Doc Riedenschneider (Sam Jaffe, The Scarlet Empress), knows where and how to get a million dollars worth of jewels. Backed by the double-crossing lawyer Alonzo Emmerich (Louis Calhern, Notorious [review]), Doc puts together a four-man crew, including Hayden’s Dix, a driver (James Whitmore), and a safe cracker (Anthony Caruso). Naturally, Doc’s job works on paper, but unforeseen wrinkles prove to make the aftermath of the crime more difficult than anticipated.


Huston spends a short, but meaningful amount of time on the theft. Thought not as meticulous in his details as, say, Jules Dassin in Rififi [review], there is a similar quiet methodology to how the director stages the crime. The crooks are professional, and so they move carefully, each doing their job as expected. Steel nerves are required as the explosion opening up the vault starts off a chain reaction of burglar alarms everywhere else on the street. With the cops distracted, the boys sneak out undetected, but the dead body they leave behind causes the hunt for them to intensify.


Structurally, The Asphalt Jungle is balanced out pretty evenly between the preamble to the heist, the heist itself, and the resulting escape and manhunt. It’s the opening bits that really set The Asphalt Jungle apart from other such films. Huston is interested in examining the day-to-day lives of the criminal underworld (the original tagline was “The City Under the City”). He approaches their activities with the same sober eye he might turn toward a workplace drama. These are guys just getting by, a slave to their habits, buried by their past choices, and living paycheck to paycheck, even if that next paycheck comes from their next crime. They work in a profession with its own jargon, hierarchy, and consequences. You could get “promoted” and jet to a tropical climate to spend your earnings, or you could get fired, heading off to jail or, worse, the morgue.


Dix is a man a bit down on his luck, a compulsive gambler who funds his habits with petty stick-ups. Yet, there is something solid about the gunman, something that inspires other people to trust him, including the troubled showgirl Doll (Jean Hagen, Singin’ in the Rain) or even Doc, who likes the way Dix stands up for himself. Hayden brings a fair balance of self-loathing and pride to the role. His physical presence says he reliable, yet his spirit seems about to topple at any moment, as if he were ill and holding back a fever. The actor seizes on a moral streak buried in the subtext of the screenplay. Dix takes his work seriously, and he is loyal to his friends. They stick out their neck for him, because he sticks out his neck for them. When writing up The Asphalt Jungle, no reviewer would ever call him the good guy, and yet, at least he stands for something. (Compare this to the troubled, besotted Hayden shown in the 1983 documentary, Pharos of Chaos, included here as a bonus feature. Or, at least, compare as much as you can stomach to watch. I only made it through an hour before turning it off, finding it exploitative and short on context.)

Another notable player in The Asphalt Jungle is Marilyn Monroe. She has two memorable scenes in the movie playing Emmerich’s sidepiece. Though still a couple of years from becoming a true leading lady, 1950 was pivotal for the starlet in that it brought her two of her most memorable bit parts: All About Eve and The Asphalt Jungle. Huston could not have cast the role of Angela any better, nor could he have taken greater advantage of Monroe’s natural gifts. Though on screen for a very short time, she is coquettish, judgmental, flirty, and emotional. She presents a seductive front, only to crumble under police pressure. Alluring, yet vulnerable. If only there had been a little bit of comedy, Marilyn could have displayed all of her wonderful talents.


In a way, Angela suffers the same kind of fate as the crooks, including her sugar daddy, in that her downfall springs from her individual desires. One by one, the police discover each member of the gang, all of whom somehow trip themselves up by letting their weaknesses get the better of them. It’s a payoff for all that time that Huston spent stitching their lives together. The fact they are individuals with their own concerns and their own peccadilloes means in some way they can be gotten to. As in many a noir, the one thing a man can’t escape is himself.


Huston straddles the line between noir and serious crime drama. He doesn’t rely heavily on the tropes of the genre, so much as he picks and chooses what he needs. This can be said for the visual storytelling as much as for the narrative storytelling. Working with director of photography Harold Rosson (The Docks of New York [review]), Huston plays around with his environment. His arrangement of characters in a frame can allow for them to appear small in a space that is much larger than them, or cramped in such a way to suggest it can barely contain them. Sometimes the crooks appear to be stacked on top of one another, other times, men who are at odds can appear to be separated by an illusory distance. Objects can loom. A clock in the extreme foreground reminds us that time is running out. The sky can appear so large as to be impossible.


Huston and Rosson indulge in impressionistic shadows when the story demands it--when the crooks escape in the sewer, or when Doc and Dix are trying  to sneak through town undetected--but otherwise the filmmakers approach the locale with a certain normalcy, letting the inkiness grow in a more natural sense, less exaggerated. This is a regular town, and a regular life can be had here. In other words, this Asphalt Jungle might be just across the street from where you live, meaning there is little separation between your life and theirs. “Normal” just happens to depend on your zip code.