Friday, August 3, 2018

THE WORLD, THE FLESH AND THE DEVIL - CRITERION CHANNEL

“In Christian theology, the world, the flesh, and the devil are often traditionally described as the three enemies of the soul.” - via Wikipedia


THE WORLD

A nuclear event has occurred and wiped the Earth of humanity. Ralph, a sanitation worker who was underground when the disaster went down, emerges from the sewers to find he just may be the last man alive. Empty buildings, abandoned cars, not a trace of a single living soul. Ralph hits the road and heads to New York, which he finds just as empty. But then, the big city is all his now.

Or is it?


Released in 1959, when the reality of the atomic bomb was still relatively fresh and before post-apocalyptic movies weren’t, The World, The Flesh and the Devil is a fascinating genre piece, an extended Twilight Zone written and directed by Ranald MacDougall, the scribe behind Mildred Pierce and The Breaking Point. The source of the nuclear meltdown is not given much explanation, making the film apolitical in regards to that topic; rather, this is a story more concerned with human politics than the global kind. The World, The Flesh and the Devil is a daring, frank examination of people at their most basic.

It’s also a time capsule of 1950s New York City in all its splendor. Cinematographer Harold J. Marzorati makes the most of the empty Big Apple to show us just how immense and glorious the architecture is--and how small Ralph appears within it. I can’t think of another film except Cameron Crowe’s Vanilla Sky that pulled off scenes where New York was this empty. Had MacDougall chosen to shoot The World, The Flesh and the Devil in an average town, the impact would have been lessened, the catastrophe would not have come across with equal power. The same men who built these awe-inspiring skyscrapers also built the bombs that wiped out their inhabitants.


THE FLESH

You guessed it: Ralph is not alone. Running time on The World, The Flesh and the Devil is just over 90 minutes, and there is one person for each 30 minute chunk. Ralph is on his own for the first third, but he meets Sarah a half hour in. Then, for the final 30, Benson is on hand. With each addition, Ralph adjusts and tries to make life work, but he can’t escape the color of his skin.

You see, Ralph is African American. He is played by the singer Harry Belafonte, star of Carmen Jones and Uptown Saturday Night, and soon to be seen in theaters again in Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman. Filmed during the early years of the Civil Rights Movement, The World, The Flesh and the Devil doesn’t show us the aftermath of a society that has progressed beyond hatred and prejudice, but rather one that was been halted while the turmoil is still raging. So, when Ralph meets Sarah (Inger Stevens, Hang 'Em High), he is very much aware of the lingering dangers that would befall a black man spending time alone with a white woman. He is glad for the company--the first 1/3 of the film is him trying to keep himself amused, not too dissimilar from the first episode of the Will Forte sitcom Last Man on Earth--but not yet trusting of the new status quo.

This theme is not played as subtext, either. There is an amazing scene between Belafonte and Stevens where she cajoles him into cutting her hair despite his insistence he doesn’t have the proper skill and his ingrained, societal fear of touching her. He is nervous and a little humiliated and also angry that she can’t see what he sees. She gets upset, he loses his cool, and he calls her out on all of it, telling her that were they back in the pre-apocalypse version of the world, they wouldn’t even know one another, their lives would be so far apart. She doesn’t want to believe it, she wants to trust what she is feeling right now, but then, that’s also white liberal näiveté at its finest.

Yet, credit to Inger Stevens, she really sells it. There isn’t a false note from her, even as things grow more complicated. Her gaze is always distracted by Ralph, and her face always pained by his failure to believe her genuine feelings.


THE DEVIL

I suppose in one way you can say that the devil is Benson (Mel Ferrer, Elena and Her Men), the white man who comes to town by boat, and whom Ralph nurses back to health. His easygoing attitude and quick settling into enjoying the amenities Ralph has worked so hard to provide--electricity and running water among them--do smack of white privilege. Doesn’t matter how nice Benson is, Ralph’s suspicion is understandable. A famous exchange from the picture is when Benson says, “I have nothing against negroes,” and Ralph pointedly replies, “That’s white of you.”

What’s isn’t understandable, though--and what’s crazy for a film of the 1950s--is how Ralph literally pushes Sarah at Benson, insisting they be together, and Benson taking seriously the option that Sarah might choose otherwise. Which, compared to how Ralph doesn’t consider her choice at all, does put Benson one up on his rival. Their eventual showdown isn’t a black/white thing, however, it’s more of a man thing. It’s male posturing, and neither of them is a hero, even if Benson does cross the line into violence first. Man is the devil to man regardless of flesh.

How The World, The Flesh and the Devil resolves itself may be its most progressive stroke, with images of a black hand joined in a white hand, and bygones being bygones. As Rhianna might say, these three find love in a hopeless place. It’s a resolution that feels earned, a well-deserved optimism in the face of relatable cynicism.


Criterion has dropped The World, The Flesh and the Devil on their streaming channel, and it’s one of those movies that I can’t believe I hadn’t seen sooner. It’s worth watching the intro by Barry Jenkins, writer and director of Moonlight, who details his random discovery of the film on TCM. I put it next to Larry Peerce’s 1967 juvenile delinquent story The Incident as New York films that use genre premises to tell us something about the human condition, and that should be much better known and screened way more often than they are.


Thursday, August 2, 2018

PASSAGE TO MARSEILLE - FILMSTRUCK

This review was originally published in 2006 as part of a piece on the second Humphrey Bogart Signature Collection.


As Across the Pacific [review] was a bit of a reunion of the principles from The Maltese Falcon [review], this fantastic wartime picture brings together many of the players from Casablanca: Bogart, Peter Lorre, Sydney Greenstreet, Claude Rains, and director Michael Curtiz.

Passage to Marseille is a real surprise. Screenwriters Casey Robinson and Jack Moffit, adapting a novel by Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall, have created a complex story about the Free French Air Corps, a squadron of French patriots who escaped the Nazi-occupied country to carry out operations from a secret base in England. The tale is constructed as a series of narratives within the main plot. A reporter visits the farm where the squadron sets up shop, hiding their planes in barns and their equipment under haystacks. Captain Freycinet (Rains) begins to explain to him how the group came to be, but instead he veers off into an off-the-record story about five soldiers who he encountered while sailing the ocean on his way to Marseille with supplies. The boat picked up a canoe full of men who, as it turns out, are convicts who escaped from Devil's Island to enlist in the French army to fight off the Nazis. The men explain to Freycinet how they came to their predicament, and the story of their escape also includes the story of Jean Matrac (Bogart), the leader of this small band who had been a crusading reporter in France in the period before the war when the Germans were starting to move in. For daring to speak out against his country's capitulation to foreign powers, he was sent to the prison colony on trumped-up charges, forced to leave his new wife (Michéle Morgan, The Fallen Idol [review]) and the ideals he once held dear.


By the time Matrac ends up on the boat returning to France, he has lost faith in his nation and is lying when he says he is willing to fight for it. Through attacks by the self-important French officer Major Duval (Greenstreet) and a Nazi fighter plane, Matrac rediscovers what made his patriotism so important. Before they reach Marseille, however, the crew learns that the Nazis have taken over the country and so divert their course to England rather than give the enemy their cargo. This takes us back to the farm and the reporter, and an ending that is cynically realistic while stoking the flames of patriotic pride.

Passage to Marseille is an awesome film. Curtiz has complete control of his production, never losing his audience no matter how far into the flashbacks he goes. Bogart is hard-edged while also being heroic, and his now familiar compatriots back him up excellently. Lorre displays particular relish as the pickpocket Marius, slyly fetishizing his own crimes while staying true to the bond between his fellow escapees. The action scenes on the boat are exciting and violent, and the hidden headquarters of the Free French Air Corps is cleverly put together. Passage to Marseille naturally doesn't rate as high as its more famous predecessor, but it does prove that Curtiz and Bogart could beat the odds and capture lightning together more than once.



Wednesday, August 1, 2018

ACTION IN THE NORTH ATLANTIC - FILMSTRUCK

This review was originally published in 2006 as part of a piece on the second Humphrey Bogart Signature Collection.


This Lloyd Bacon (It Happens Every Spring) picture doesn't waste any time getting started. A Merchant Marine ship carrying fuel for overseas troops is attacked by a German submarine. Jumping through fire and dodging explosions, the men of the ship make their way to the lifeboats. Led by Captain Jarvis (Raymond Massey, Arsenic & Old Lace) and Lt. Joe Rossi (Humphrey Bogart, In a Lonely Place [review]), most of them get out alive. As their ship sinks and the ocean burns, the U-Boat turns on them, destroying their lifeboat and forcing them to float on a bare raft for a week and a half. That's a long time to think about getting your vengeance.

The survivors aren't back on dry land very long before they receive a new assignment. Only one of them, Pulaski (Dane Clark, Destination Tokyo), even thinks of staying home, but once the other guys get through browbeating him, he gladly accepts his duty. It's up to the Merchant Marines to make sure the rest of the fighting forces get their weapons, so if guys like Pulaski pull out, who will take care of business? The crew's new cruiser, The Sea Witch, is loaded up with planes and other equipment, and they now also have a Navy gunner crew to provide protection. The freighter joins an international convoy of ships on their way to Russia for added muscle, but the journey will be fraught with peril and eventually the Witch will be on its own, squaring off with a Nazi U-boat so the old crew can exact its revenge for their lost mates.


Action in the North Atlantic has two major things going for it. The first is the camaraderie of the men. Scenes down below deck between the sailors provide moments of lightness. The crew plays cards and ribs one another. Alan Hale, known for his regular roles as Errol Flyn's sidekick, is particularly funny as Boats, a womanizer who goes to sea to escape his alimony payments. Bogart is the definite star, however. In what is his usual turn, Rossi begins the picture as a man who is only in it for himself. Yet, after the tragedy, he ends up marrying a pretty saloon singer (Julie Bishop, Northern Pursuit) and realigning his priorities. Though he insists he doesn't ever want to captain his own ship, as he is not fond of responsibility, viewers will know right away exactly what is going to happen to Joe: he's going to prove he has more mettle than he gave himself credit for.

The second major attribute of Action in the North Atlantic is the battle scenes. Special effects shots are spliced together with documentary footage of real boats and planes. Though I'm sure some models were used, Bacon has shot the movie so that it's not obvious what is real and what is not. The action is exciting, and some of the death scenes, particularly down in the submarines, are harrowing. The tension and danger of the fighting makes the rush to Russia all the more electrifying.


Tuesday, July 31, 2018

ALL THROUGH THE NIGHT - FILMSTRUCK

This review was originally published in 2006 as part of a piece on the second Humphrey Bogart Signature Collection.


In the wartime send-up All Through the Night, Humphrey Bogart plays Gloves, a too-cool gangster with his hands in everyone's cheesecake. When his favorite baker goes missing, Gloves' mother (Jane Darwell, The Devil & Daniel Webster) gets worried and asks her baby boy to investigate. Before he knows it, Gloves is up to his neck in murders and Nazis.

Directed by Vincent Sherman (The Damned Don't Cry), All Through the Night gets a little too rah-rah in its second half, when the normally selfish Gloves joins the war effort and gets all of his underworld pals to join in, but the movie stays fun thanks to a relentless comedic pace and a tremendous supporting cast. Gloves' crew is massive with comic legends like Phil Silver, Jackie Gleason, and William Demarest. The bad guys are also as bad as the crooks are funny. The two main Nazis are played by Bogart's future Casablanca co-stars Peter Lorre and Conrad Veidt. The climax, with Bogie stopping Veidt from blowing up a docked battleship in the New York harbor, is definitely over the top, but it's still a blast, both literally and figuratively.



Saturday, July 28, 2018

A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH - #939


Man, I’ve been waiting a long time for A Matter of Life and Death to get the Criterion treatment. If there ever was a movie to deserve its own spine number, this is it.

Released in 1946, A Matter of Life and Death is a post-war fable made just after the war had ended, when the rebuilding had only just begun. The concoction of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, also known as The Archers, their movies sometimes described as Disney for adults, A Matter of Life and Death is their most original production, spawned fully from their own imaginations as writers, directors, and producers.


A Matter of Life and Death stars David Niven as Peter Carter, an RAF officer who, at the beginning of the film, is in the process of crashing his bomber following what must have been a pretty nasty firefight. His crew has all escaped, except for his communications officer, who lies dead in his lap. Carter does not have a parachute, and as he tells June (Kim Hunter, A Streetcar Named Desire, the American soldier on the other end of the radio, he’d rather jump to his death than burn in a crash. The two share a moment, knowing it’s meant to be his last.


Only it isn’t. Instead, Peter washes up on the English coast. Cut to Heaven with a capital H, where they are waiting for him to arrive. The aforementioned communications man, Bob (Robert Coote, Scaramouche), has even delayed procuring his own angels wings, knowing his pal is due any moment. When this particular soul fails to materialize, it’s an unprecedented glitch in the system. The French conductor (Marius Goring, The Red Shoes [review]) meant to ferry him through the pearly gates missed Peter in the English fog. Luckily, retrieving him should be easy. Peter Carter was just lucky enough to receive an extra day of life. No harm, no foul.

Except, as fate would have it, in those intervening hours, Peter found June, and the pair fell in love. Peter insists it’s not fair for him to have to let that go, as he’d never have known such romance had the celestial world not screwed up. Peter demands his day in court, the chance to appeal his own death. Divine justice being what it is, Heaven agrees.


A Matter of Life and Death is split between two worlds: reality and...well, Powell and Pressburger don’t put too fine a point on it. I call it Heaven, but there is no mention of Christianity or Jesus, and the filmmakers take a rather cheeky, almost subversive approach to establishing their particular afterlife. This is a movie, after all, that opens with a view of the universe and an explanation of what each cosmic illumination represents delivered via an unseen narrator--one who implies he lives on Earth, too, and doesn’t claim to be a supreme being. His intro isn’t exactly a direct path to the mystical realm, unless we choose to accept science and religion as one. That said, A Matter of Life and Death pulls a reverse Wizard of Oz in that the Earth-based sequences are in color, and the afterlife sequences are black-and-white. If one rides the lengthy stairway to heaven, the film is monochrome; coming back down, even with heavenly bodies in tow, Technicolor!

This choice alone would suggest that the Archers consider the real world and its concerns to be the more important. In fact, they kind of lean away from the afterlife as being a fantastical environment, instead suggesting it is just one big administrative bureau. All of this is less a critique on religion, though, than it is a device to encourage us to question whether Peter Carter is hallucinating the whole thing. On Earth, he is prone to headaches and, of course, sounds a bit crazy when he tells June what he believes is going on. She enlists the help of Dr. Reeves (Roger Livesey, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp [review]), a neurologist. Reeves is a man of science, but one that also enjoys poetry, and the closest to a God-like figure we get in A Matter of Life and Death, in so much as he sees all from his attic, which is outfitted with a 360° viewer that lets him look across the entirety of their village, allowing him to diagnose the problems of his subjects from afar. Livesey gives a spirited performance, projecting a natural optimism, and showing the good doctor as capable of adapting to anything, eager as he is to figure the whole thing out. Reeves quickly diagnoses Peter, believing him to have a rare neurological condition that so disrupts the senses, it only stands to reason he thinks these visions of another world to be real. Every part of his body says so.


A Matter of Life and Death offers no absolute stance on what we should believe, it champions no one internal truth. Peter goes on trial and has his day in Heavenly court, but is that really happening, or is the eventual verdict a product of the surgical operation he is undergoing on the ground? Narratively, I’d argue that the only proof we need is that the story regularly leaves the main character, so unless his brain is even writing the chapters of the story he is not supposed to be privy to, the other side is really looking to take him as their own.


As with all Powell and Pressburger films, A Matter of Life and Death is a visual treat. The large stairway to Heaven has the cosmos as its backdrop and statues of famous figures from history as decoration. Heaven itself is a space-age design, all curves and clean surfaces, well ahead of the space age. Gorgeous matte paintings and elaborate models are used to give the wide view of paradise. Cinematographer Jack Cardiff (Pandora and the Flying Dutchman [review]; subject of Cameraman [review]) gives the black-and-white sequences a sort of internal glow, as if it is suffused with light; alternately, he makes the earthbound scenes bright and colorful, creating the exaggerated reality that is the Archers’ stock in trade.


For all its heavier questions--including a debate about the virtues of freedom, and how they manifest differently and sometimes the same in both Britain and America--A Matter of Life and Death is another of P&P’s fantabulous fairy tales, full of romances and comic touches. (The arrival of a crew of American pilots to check into the hereafter is a particularly funny aside; likewise, the dig at James Cagney in the Midsummer Night’s Dream rehearsal on the military base.) It’s an enchanting mystery, more movie magic than genuine mysticism, and perhaps one of the best examples of how cinema can transcend the everyday. I saw it for the first time some two decades ago, during a revival and restoration championed by Martin Scorsese, knowing very little going in. Needless to say, I was mesmerized. Back then, I was watching it on a big screen with an audience, and I have since seen it on the smaller screen with friends and now on my own, and the change in venues by no means diminishes how spectacular A Matter of Life and Death really is. In fact, this current high-def restoration may be the most magical its every appeared. It’s an essential purchase, and so good I wouldn’t have blamed Criterion if they had waited to release it so it could have been #1000 rather than #939...but I’m glad they didn’t.


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


Saturday, July 21, 2018

SELECTED SHORTS IV: ANIMATION EDITION - CRITERION CHANNEL

The Criterion Channel, in addition to hosting a plethora of feature films, also has a varied collection of short films--live action, animated, fiction, documentary; comedy and drama; silent and talkies.

Since this will post while I am attending this year’s San Diego Comic-Con International, I decided to select this month’s films according to an appropriate theme. Namely, all of these shorts are animated.


Old Man (2012; United States; 6 minutes): Director Leah Shore takes a recorded phone call between author Marlin Marynick and an imprisoned Charles Manson and brings it to life via a mish-mash of animation styles. The technique is impressive, but the intent is questionable. These morphing images defang the malice and sick ideas inherent in Manson’s rant, which may be the point, but it doesn’t sit well with me to see his ramblings treated as if they were a piece of innocuous found audio or an internet meme. The lack of editorialization more or less suggests that he’s a harmless old coot and his stream of consciousness is at best humorous and at worst normal. Which may be overthinking it, but that’s my impression nonetheless. 

The short is accompanied by a 5-minute introduction by the director, which failed to change my mind. While Shore does give some insight into her own creative process and explains how she stitched this six minutes together from hours of interviews, it also reveals a lack of insight into the source material and a strange divorcement from everything loaded into the Manson persona. Art for art’s sake is fine, but callous kitsch is just lazy.


Call of Cuteness (2017; Germany; 4 minutes): Brenda Lien uses a tiled animation style to spotlight our obsession with cats and the memes their opportunistic owners spawn before moving into more grotesque areas that call into question just what the hell we are doing to these animals. Both alluring and unsettling, it’s just the right kind of media consumption indictment, not entirely what it critiques, but just enough that, when it’s all said and done, we feel like a pile of garbage for so easily being drawn in.


Pussy (2016; Poland; 9 minutes): This one is not about cats. But it does have a vagina that detaches itself from its owner and becomes sentient. I was disturbed by it, but I don’t think director Renata Gasiorowska intended me to be. Which probably says enough and maybe I should just stop right here....


Begone Dull Care (1949; Canada; 8 minutes): Set to the jazz of the Oscar Peterson Trio, this abstract animated film from Norman McLaren and Evelyn Lambart is a joyous explosion of sound and color. Bending lines, morphing shapes, the texture and groove of film itself dances to the rhythm, bringing improvisational modern art together with two of the most popular art forms of the time--film and music. A delightful confectionary.


Asparagus (1979; USA; 18 minutes): Suzan Pitt’s animated experiment was often paired with David Lynch’s Eraserhead in its early years, the two playing art houses together as a dual course for adventurous filmgoers.

The colorful visuals perfectly bring to life late 1970s psychedelia, looking like an underground comic strip animated by a Monty Python-era Terry Gilliam. Pictorially stream of conscious, Pitt’s narrative is made up of images melting and transforming into the next thing. It is both mind-bending and sexual, with the image of the asparagus plant itself serving as a proxy for both male and female sex organs.


Edmond Was a Donkey (2012; Croatia; 15 minutes): An office prank inspires an outsider to reject the conformity of his co-workers and embrace what makes him different; in this case, his desire to have the simple, contemplative life of a donkey. Franck Dion’s 3D modeling has the feel of a modern storybook, making the surreal seem solid. Edmond’s journey is one of perception. Is he sick? Is he crazy? Or does he just know more than everyone else. The ending is appropriately ambiguous in some ways, but also allows the viewer to feel a sense of satisfaction by leaning in favor of Edmond getting his wish.

Thursday, July 19, 2018

MIDNIGHT COWBOY - #925


Midnight Cowboy is a movie about identity and denial, but it’s primarily a movie about failed expectations, how those first two things being in confusion fosters false hope for people looking for a way out. For a way to be themselves. From Joe Buck’s first hustle in New York--he expected to be paid, she expected a younger man to see her obvious beauty (provided she’s not a con woman looking to hustle him back)--to the finale and the trip to Florida, nothing turns out as the characters would choose to believe.

Released in 1969, Midnight Cowboy caused quite a stir. Its frank views of homosexuality and New York street life earned it the first ever X-rating. It’s hard to see now what all the fuss was about, this movie is surprisingly tame by today’s standards, but even as the controversy dims, the actual character drama remains as sharp as ever. Written by one-time blacklisted screenwriter Waldo Salt (Blast of Silence [review], Serpico) and helmed by British director John Schlesinger (Billy Liar [review], Sunday Bloody Sunday), Midnight Cowboy is a film that dares to be human, making no apologies for its characters’ foibles--something that always scandalizes those who might otherwise be inclined to look at those who are different as “less than.”


Though essentially a New York story, Midnight Cowboy not only ends in Florida, but it starts in Texas. That’s where the dumb-but-handsome Joe Buck (Jon Voight, Coming Home) hails from. He is heading to the Big Apple to make his way in the world, but also to bury some bad memories. His life comes to us in a series of increasingly surreal flashbacks, including being exposed to sex at an early age, abandonment, and later, assault and arrest. When he arrives at his destination, decked out in a fancy western shirt, fringe jacket, and hat, he looks more like a movie serial version of a cowboy than a legit frontiersman and, as he soon discovers, has chosen to present himself in a way that appeals more to gay men than the wealthy women he hoped to bed. After a series of mishaps and downright screw-ups, Joe Buck has no bucks. He’s broke. The resultant desperation leads him back to “Ratso” Rizzo (Dustin Hoffman, The Graduate [review]; Tootsie [review]), the grifter who screwed him the most. Probably fearing a beating from the big guy more than displaying any real contrition or compassion, Ratso helps him out. They start pulling cons together, making quite a pair--the short and sickly dark-haired Ratso, with his club foot and rodent-like vocal patterns, and the deceptively squeaky-clean beefcake Joe Buck. No reason to look twice when they walk down the road, not at all!


Modern audiences will have an easy time seeing through this partnership. There is a lot more going on below the surface, past the mutual parasitism and bickering. Ratso’s constant railing against homosexuals suggests a man who protests too much, and while Joe Buck’s confusion about his own sexuality is likely for real, his new friend draws out some kind of empathy. The two men alternately take care of one another. When Ratso’s street smarts prove poor medicine for his failing health, Joe Buck becomes caretaker. Sure, if you wanted to, you could see it as just two men finding a mutual benefit with one another in rough times, but that’s ignoring a lot of signs and signals.


But again, let’s talk about expectations. What is it that Joe and Ratso expect from each other? It’s easy to see what Joe wants from each of his johns, and also how they in turn can’t allow themselves to follow through--be it Bob Balaban’s young student who becomes ill after going down on Joe in a movie theater (and seems to want a beating), or the older man (Barnard Hughes) that can’t even get that far (and gets a beating). It’s also clear how Brenda Vacarro’s party girl Shirley expects Joe to be an animal in bed and ravish her, only to have to take matters into her own hands and savage him instead. We also see how Ratso dreams of a better life where he is healthy and respected, and Joe is his best friend. (My favorite detail is how Ratso is so beloved by old women in those dreams. And how he is celebrated for his the cooking Joe previously criticized harshly.)


The expectation of Joe and Ratso as friends, however, is not so obvious. It takes a bit more reading between the lines. If you watch, you’ll note that their big arguments come when one slights the other--Ratso making fun of Joe’s clothes, Joe denigrating him for the winter coat Ratso stole for him--the way would-be lovers might react when they aren’t getting the proper notice from their respective objects of desire. There’s a lot of hurt and self-recrimination in there, especially in Ratso, who tears himself down by proxy. Credit where it’s due to Hoffman, who makes the oily little creep so easy to empathize with. The look on his face in the scene where he stands across the street and watches Joe try to pull a job in a women-only hotel is heartbreaking. There’s a real sense of relief when it doesn’t work out and Joe is tossed out the door. Ratso grabs him and runs him away from danger, his turn to be the protector.

As integral as they are to Midnight Cowboy, especially as they give Richardson the means to make explicit all the things that can’t be said, the pervasive dream sequences are a little dated. The psychedelic quick cuts predate Nicholas Roeg, and are about as effective, looking more ragged than controlled. (Also, shades of Ken Russell’s Tommy, particularly in Ratso’s Florida fantasy.) Though, full disclosure, I am primed not to like dream sequences, even when they are daydreams. And as a crutch, some of Joe Buck’s exhumed memories seem a little convenient and obvious. More effective to me are Richardson and cameraman Adam Holender’s on-the-street shots of New York--oh, that famous image of Joe Buck walking in the crowd, his hat high above all others!--and the way editor Hugh A. Robertson assembles the images, working with the singer Harry Nilsson, composerJohn Barry, and harmonica player Toots Thielemans’ music in a way that also prefigures MTV. The montage creates a dizzying effect akin to being a rube in the big city.


Which is what we are. Rubes. Our “innocent” laughter as the naïve Joe Buck that wanders onto 42nd Street at the start feels a little mean spirited and even dirty at the end, as we watch that same innocence drain from his eyes. And here is where Voight shines as an actor, because even as it’s clear that those eyes have seen too much, the actor also communicates that for all the distance he has traveled, the cowboy is still as lost as he ever was.


Monday, July 16, 2018

THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT - CRITERION CHANNEL


I’ll admit, until the Criterion Channel paired Wes Craven’s 1972 debut The Last House on the Left with Ingmar Bergman masterpiece The Virgin Spring, I had no idea it was a remake of the Swedish original. Upon learning this, the fact that one of the more influential touchstones in modern horror had been inspired by an allegorical art-house flick suitably intrigued, and I had to give it a try.

The Last House on the Left firmly positions itself between the radical culture of the 1960s and the more straight-laced older generation that would have never allowed such a film to be made and likely still railed against it once it was. Craven at once indicts and satirizes both sides of the divide, while maybe tipping his hand toward the establishment just a teensy bit. He may not approve of all the old folks’ choices, but they at least still had a moral center and can get shit done.

Mari (Sandra Cassell) is the young daughter of an upper middle-class couple. When she and her friend Phyllis (Lucy Grantham) want to go see a rock concert, the parental units aren’t exactly for it, but given that it’s Mari’s birthday, they decide to extend her the trust and let her go out on her own.


Big mistake. On the way, the girls stop to buy some marijuana from the wrong dude. Junior (Marc Sheffler) is really procuring the girls for a trio of fugitives looking to get their murderous jollies. They kidnap the girls and eventually take them to the woods, where they intend to rape and kill them. Ironically, they do so just down the hill from where Mari lives, and where her parents wait with a birthday cake for a party she will never attend. So close, and yet...not.

Craven’s production is a ragged affair, shot on a shoestring and featuring mostly untrained actors. This lends The Last House on the Left a griminess that helps the horror by offsetting some of the writer/director’s more indulgent elements. Namely, the ineffective police officers who serve as comic relief in a movie that maybe shouldn’t be going for laughs. Especially since their presence in the story never really pays off.

Far better are the characters the writer/director takes seriously. He has three main bad guys--David Hess, Fred Lincoln, and Jeramie Rain--all of whom manage a distinct menace, each different from the rest, but all serving their purpose. They very nearly step over the line into broad caricature, but Craven grounds his actors in their particular kinks--Hess’ Krug is a brute, Lincoln’s Weasel is a knife-wielding sadist, and Rain’s Sadie is just plain crazy. The true MVP of The Last House on the Left, however, is Grantham, who as the more worldly best friend tries to steer the violence away from her innocent pal. It’s a smart, tough performance, and one that rings true.


Craven himself tiptoes up to the edge of exploitation in this picture, catering to the grindhouse and drive-in crowds while still trying to adhere to something more substantial. He doesn’t play the assaults as sexy, nor does he linger on the victims’ naked bodies. In a way, his use of the setting--particularly the lake where both girls meet their fate--and contemporary music that celebrates the outlaws reminds me of Sam Peckinpah, specifically Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid. One could even compare the loaded gender politics that often make Peckinpah a bit harder to grapple with.

That all said, The Last House on the Left hasn’t really aged that well. Its queasy shocks don’t quite shock anymore, and Craven never captures the gravitas of his source. The last act turn where the parents have their revenge heats up the proceedings by a couple of degrees, but that’s actually because Craven unleashes a bit more of his gonzo instincts. The talent and the vision is there, it’s just going to require a little more experience and even a little more budget to fully mature.



Saturday, June 30, 2018

CAT PEOPLE - #833

Is simplicity best

Or simply the easiest?

The narrowest path

Is always the holiest

So walk on barefoot for me

Suffer some misery

If you want my love
                 - Martin L. Gore, “Judas


It’s kind of nuts how well that opening verse from Depeche Mode’s 1993 album track “Judas” so fits what is going on with director Jacques Tourneur (Out of the Past) and producer Val Lewton’s 1942 black-and-white horror film Cat People. It’s not just thematically accurate, but it’s also descriptive of the aesthetic technique. Cat People is about as unfussy a film as there has ever been. It’s the perfect example of how a filmmaker can effectively stoke the audience imagination by showing less, rather than more.

But it all starts with a script, and DeWitt Bodeen’s screenplay is itself spare. There isn’t much plot here. A young man meets a young woman at the zoo, and a romance is ignited. Oliver (Kent Smith) is intrigued by the pretty lass who is sketching cats outside the panther cage. Played by French movie star Simone Simon (La bête humaine [review], La ronde [review]), Irena is a strange girl, a Serbian immigrant who clings to folklore from the old country. Specifically, that once upon a time her people were vanquished by a righteous King, and those who escaped his wrath scattered across the world, their wickedness taking feline form. Even after they are married, Irena keeps Oliver at arm’s length, believing should they so much as kiss, she will transform into a leopard and tear her husband apart.


At first Oliver indulges these fantasies, but once he starts to worry she is taking these fables too seriously, he connects Irena with Dr. Judd (Tom Conway), who doesn’t believe these supernatural tales, but may not be on the up-and-up, either. And adding to this love quadrangle is Oliver’s co-worker Alice (Jane Randolph), that annoying sort of do-gooder who tamps down her own desires to make sure that the man she wants does what is right. Too bad she didn’t figure for the complicated, sociopathic emotional range of a jealous kitten.

Much of Cat People smolders slowly. In the early stages of their union, Irena’s wild stories don’t carry much threat. That’s because Tourneur withholds anything that would concretely suggest her claims are more than delusion. He ties the revelations of Irena’s truth to her jealousy. The more heated she gets about Alice, the closer we get to seeing her claws come out. In many ways, this little monster movie is a modern stalker story, the good guy unable to shake the troubled woman, and she strikes out at the one who would replace her.


Yet, that in itself is maybe too simple a reading. For as little as goes on above the surface, plenty can be gleaned from what lies underneath. Bubbling through all of this is a commentary on puritanical values, and particularly how they affect young women. Irena’s fear of her own sexuality is only warranted if her beliefs turn out to be true, but she has good reason to be scared of the masculine sex, and her fighting back against Dr. Judd is inarguably a justified defense. Here is a man in a position of trust who betrays the social contract. In the #metoo era, many might also gravitate to the fact that Irena is not believed, and that prevents her from finding a less deadly solution or obtaining real help. Wrapped up in all this, we can see a certain xenophobia, as well: Irena is different, and perhaps if she had embraced a more modern American lifestyle and been more like Alice, she’d be more comfortable in her own skin. Which is somewhat contrary to the beliefs of the time, but Hollywood was always progressive in its morals.


Good horror should be malleable in this way and stay relevant to contemporary issues, but I suspect Tourneur and Lewton were less high-minded than all that. Their primary focus was more likely just to scare filmgoers, and they seized upon relatable primal urges to create a vehicle for that. Most of the frights here are more unnerving than terrifying--though there is one pretty good jump scare, where the orchestra provides a screechy sound effect when the bus pulls in to pick up a nervous Alice*--but that’s okay. Tourneur is experimenting with the horror of the things that exist just beyond the reach of our senses--the things we can’t see, but think we do; the things we aren’t sure we hear. One of the most effective scenes is when Judd gets his comeuppance. Irena’s transformation happens entirely off-screen, but the doctor’s reaction tells us all we need to know--even if once again we only think we know what he is seeing. The tussle itself appears merely as shadows cast on walls, including one with a mural of a menacing panther (lest we forget, Irena is a cat!). We hear more than we see. Same with the earlier scene when Alice is at the pool. The echoes of her screams are more chilling than anything that might jump into the water with her.

It’s underkill, not overkill. It’s simplicity. Compare how light on its feet this Cat People is to Paul Schrader’s overdone, moronic 1980s remake for a quick object lesson in why less is more.


Or skip Schrader altogether and go with something more akin to a middle ground: the 1944 “sequel” The Curse of the Cat People, recently re-released on Blu-ray by Kino. In terms of follow-ups, Curse is in the vein of The Bride of Frankenstein for how it expands on the original and becomes its own weird thing. We can chalk some of that up to the movie originally being intended as a stand-alone feature with no connection to Cat People at all. It only morphed into a second entry in a series when Cat People became so successful.

Pretty much everyone except Tourneur returns for The Curse of the Cat People. Gunther V. Fritsch originally took charge of the director’s chair but himself was replaced by Robert Wise (The Day the Earth Stood Still, West Side Story). The new story features Jane and Oliver as the concerned parents of a young daughter, Amy (Ann Carter), who lives more in her imagination than she does in the real world. There is further cause for worry when Amy befriends the disturbed neighborhood dowager (Julia Dean) and starts talking to an imaginary friend that just so happens to be Irena.

The “cat” aspect of Cat People is completely dropped for this realm of gothic childhood fantasy, but that doesn’t make The Curse of the Cat People any less compelling. The dilemma of a child who is at odds with the world around her being put into peril by both her fantastical indulgences and the adults who won’t believe her has an inherent tension that will keep you guessing what will happen, while also hoping it won’t all go wrong. Fritsch and Gunther have a more up-front style--does Elizabeth Russell chasing Amy up the staircase remind anyone else of Kathleen Byron coming unhinged in Black Narcissus [review]?--but that works here. This time, what is “unseen” is actually witnessed by the little girl, casting the doubters in a whole different light.


Criterion’s edition of Cat People features a great cover and interior poster by influential comics artist Bill Sienkiewicz. Fans of the TV show Legion tangentially know his work as he originally created the character with Chris Claremont. And their legendary run on the New Mutants comic series is an inspiration for the movie that should be out sometime in the next year or so. Sienkiewicz’s work changed how artists approached a comic book page, combining painting and digital in fascinating ways. Look for his Elektra: Assassin graphic novel with Frank Miller, his own Stay Toasters, or if you can find it, his Classics Illustrated version of Moby Dick.


* This effect of a scare coming from the arrival of an otherwise mundane object is known as a “Lewton bus,” and perhaps the most perfect use of it was in the episode of The Simpsons where the Psycho theme is being played by an orchestra riding public transport.


Wednesday, June 27, 2018

INSIDE DAISY CLOVER - FILMSTRUCK

This review was originally part of a larger piece covering the Natalie Wood Signature Collection and published in 2009.


Trading heavily on Natalie Wood's screen persona, the self-reflexive, strange, and oft-times surreal Inside Daisy Clover, is a fictional tale about a child star in the 1930s. Wood plays Daisy, a 15-year-old tomboy who lives with her senile old mother (Ruth Gordon) on the beach, selling forged autographed pictures of movie stars to passersby. Daisy is an angry, expressive young lass, prone to cigarettes, graffiti, shouts instead of whispers, and reacting to situations with her fists. She also dreams of being a singer, and she cuts a record at a fairground booth and sends it in to Swan Studios for their talent contest, thus changing her life.

Daisy is shuttled off to the movie lot in a limousine. Her mother believes it to be a hearse and warns her of accepting rides from strangers, but Daisy does not listen. She is looked over by studio head Raymond Swan (Christopher Plummer) and his wife (Katharine Bard) and given a screen test, a musical number about stardom and ambition (and the one time in the movie that Natalie Wood sings herself). Its lyrics foreshadow Daisy's oncoming success; in fact, both of the musical numbers in the movie, "You're Gonna Hear From Me" and "Circus is a Whacky World," both written by Andre and Dory Previn, work as funhouse mirrors, meta devices that break down the movie. By the time Daisy sings "Circus," she is a disillusioned star, the magic of Hollywood having been exposed to be as fraudulent as the forged photos she used to sell. Separated from her mother, married to a philandering leading man (Robert Redford) with a dirty secret, and generally turned into a cog in the machine, Daisy has been hoodwinked.


Inside Daisy Clover was made by the director/producer team of Robert Mulligan and Alan J. Pakula, who also made To Kill a Mockingbird and another Natalie Wood vehicle, Love with the Proper Stranger. As inside-Hollywood movies go, it's as savage as one might expect, the entertainment business loves to hoist itself on its own petard. In some ways, the mysterious tone of much of the back-lot action reminds me of F. Scott Fitzgerald's novel The Last Tycoon, though unlike that book or the Elia Kazan adaptation from the 1970s, or really any of the more famous moviemaking movies, Inside Daisy Clover lacks any sense of awe or wonderment in regards to how films are put together. Normally, the on-set re-creations are given a tantalizing surreality, life reimagined as giant spectacle. In this movie, Swan Studios--which is actually the Warners lot--is a dark and empty place. There are no huge crowds, and the few stage pieces we see are lonely and almost appear to be on their way to the junk heap, like the bizarre totem we see on a crane when Daisy first arrives. In this portrait of Hollywood, put together by writer Gavin Lambert (adapting his own novel), the heavy fugue of moviemaking is in inverse proportion to the joy the movies bring the world.

Wood spends as much time with reactions as she does action in this movie, if not more. As the center of attention, she sometimes draws more by standing back and observing. She's very good at it, her doe-eyes soaking up what everyone else is doing. They are relying on her even as they demand that she rely on them. It's an important distinction, as well, because as soon as Daisy is accepted by Swan, she stops acting on her own and starts doing what she is told--even Redford's character orders her around. In the final moments, Daisy is taking back her action. She's through taking orders.

Despite the promise and the larger issues at work here, Inside Daisy Clover doesn't entirely gel. Pakula and Mulligan are maybe trying a little too hard to be anti-everything, to be too unconventional, and the forced oddness creates a gulf between the film and its audience that is never fully traversed. Even so, it is a singular enough effort to warrant a look.

Sunday, June 24, 2018

OTHELLO - #870


Anton Corbijn made a music video for Joy Division’s “Atmosphere” back in 1988 that, whether he intended it or not, is reminsicent of the opening scenes from Orson Welles’ masterful 1950s adaptation of Shakespeare’s Othello. Which is an odd way to enter into an old, whispery black-and-white film, thoughts of one of Ian Curtis’ most doomy and gloomy songs hanging out in the back of my brain, but such it is. Welles was goth before goth. The sequence is a flash-forward to a funeral, all pomp and dark circumstance. The slanted angles are ominous, and they let you know this is not right, this should not be happening. The quick zoom on Iago in his cage is urgent, furious, frustrated--you know immediately that he’s the villain. He did this. It’s a crazy smart way to set up a story that the filmmaker can presume everyone knows. Because now you’re intrigued. You want to know who is dead and how that evil dude got stuck in that jail.


This Othello may be the least stagey film adaptation of Shakespeare ever made. Infamous in Welles lore for being shot over three years, with Welles pausing production to rush off and take bit parts in other movies to raise cash, and then returning to Italy to resume his work. Just look at those scenes once the story proper begins. The camera moves up and over the different levels of Venice, from the canals to the windows on the upper floors, then down spiral stairs chasing an angry mob carrying torches. It’s all inertia, all movement, and at the same time, there are indications of class represented via each player’s position in the construct. Later, there are spectacular fights and chases below ground. The violence in this movie is invigorated with the chaos of its production. So much so, in fact, that sometimes, ingeniously, the dizzying pursuits hide how the disparate pieces, shot months and even years apart, are stitched together. Welles never loses the plot--neither figuratively nor literally.

The balance of setting and the use of exterior vs. interior is also a reflection of the physical and the internal. Like in Roman Polanski’s Macbeth [review], the players are tiny in comparison to the architecture (though, I guess it should be that Polanski is like Welles). And to be fair, it’s petty concerns that set the tragedy of Othello in motion. For those who don’t know the story, Othello--played by Welles himself--is a general in the Venetian army. He is also a Moor--a term for Muslims living in the area in the middle ages--a fact that sets him apart from his comrades. When Othello elopes with Desdemona (Suzanne Cloutier), a politician’s daughter, eyebrows are raised. Othello’s lieutenant, the silver-tongued Iago (Micheál MacLiammóir), sees the opportunity for advancement and takes advantage of Othello’s position as an outsider, convincing him that Desdemona is cheating on him and setting everyone on a path of destruction.


Up until Welles made this film, the tradition was for white actors in the Othello role to wear blackface, a tradition Welles upholds--albeit not to the exaggerated fashion we tend to think of when we hear the term. The irony here is that despite such a regressive decision, Welles embraces the progressive subtext in the play. There is a fascinating racial commentary at work, particularly in how Othello and Desdemona defend their marriage to her father. And already, there is a suggestion that a black man must be even better than his white counterparts.

When we consider the dynamic between Othello and Desdemona, and the violent outcome of his suspicion, Shakespeare was ahead of his time in giving us a perfect portrait of toxic masculinity. Othello’s jealousy is fueled by pride. In his performance, Welles is deceptively two-note: repression of rage and rage. Yet, there is more to his control here; again, he is the black man who has to be better, who has to always show composure, even when the façade means he can’t have a reasonable discussion and ferret out the truth. As his foil, Iago is so matter-of-fact, eschewing the obvious mustache twirling and greasy machinations, pulling off his tricks by merely being present. There is a Zen koan about how water is the most powerful force in the known world because of how it gradually erodes rock; this is MacLiammóir’s Iago. His is not as sinister a performance as tends to be the norm with this, one of Shakespeare’s oiliest villains. MacLiammóir is more considered, passive-aggressive, almost as if he doesn’t care. There’s a hint of a sociopath in the portrayal, so little moves him.


While I am dazzled by the filmmaking overall, one downside of knowing Welles history and struggle is I am often too aware of his technique. My eyes drift from an actor to the artfully placed shadow on the wall, for instance, or to clock the depth of field, how close one element is and how far the other, seeing how expertly the shot was constructed. And, of course, there’s how many times you note that the dubbed voice of some bit player is Welles himself, making up for perceived bad performances or just poor sound due to shooting on the fly.  I suppose this isn’t really that tough a problem to have. There’s so much virtuosity in Welles’ mis-en-scene, one should never become immune to it. Just look at the construction and the edits when Othello returns home after first being incepted by Iago. The quick cuts and askew angles pull the whole thing together with such emotional kineticism, it’s like watching Eddie Van Halen play classical music on his guitar; you can’t help but notice that human hands should not be able to create art in that way.

In that scene, and throughout the film, Welles’ montage is about scale vs. intimacy. When Othello and Desdemona go to their marriage bed, they are rendered as just shadows on the wall, but their shadows are huge. We are at once with them and outside, but the marriage consummation casts a pall over everything else. Interestingly Iago is more intimate with Othello than even his wife. The framing gets tighter the deeper we get into his machinations. When Othello and Iago make their sinister pact, the close-ups are so tight, their conversation can’t even share a frame, they are too large within their individual screens. Then the next deal is made in a sauna, arguably a place where all are vulnerable, and where trust is meant to be at the utmost. I mean, where else do you go and get naked and perfectly relaxed around total strangers? (Answers neither requested nor required.)


It’s of no small significance that it’s in the sauna where Iago actually resorts to murder himself. Welles lights his eyes almost as if to give him a supervillain mask...or to suggest he’s enlightened? I mean, Iago has a curly white dog years ahead of James Bond villains popularizing cats, and decades ahead of Paris Hilton and other modern social scoundrels carrying around their pooches in purses. It also feels like 1950s shorthand for homosexuality, which could suggest much about Iago’s true motivations were we to take that onboard. His own love of Othello is even more forbidden than Othello’s love for Desdemona.


The most intimate moment in Welles’ Othello, however, is also the most  harrowing: the murder of Desdemona. The sheet Othello wraps over her face inadvertently highlights her whiteness, an intentional emphasis on her innocence, but also a horrific reminder of how black men are portrayed in the media. The last kiss between them, passed through the death shroud, appears more to suck out her final breath than connect her with her homicidal husband. It’s legitimately uncomfortable to watch. Immediately after, Othello imprisons himself, locking the door to their chambers, speaking to the crowd through bars--Welles visually shows his guilt before the character is ready to admit it. Or to modern eyes, we can divine that he knows this is the fate society has always imagined for him...

...and if there’s one thing Shakespeare’s tragic figures can’t escape, it’s fate.