Saturday, February 24, 2018

TOM JONES - #910

Released in 1973, the film adaptation of Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones is a ribald comedy of social standing. A decidedly British tale, it has a touch of farce, and a little post-modern cheek. Directed by Tony Richardson (A Taste of Honey [review]) from a script by John Osborne--who also wrote the Richardson-helmed Look Back In Anger--the film today appears to be an advance scout for cinema to come. Its raucous, profane humor tested boundaries of decorum, presenting sex as a fun activity indulged in by anyone but the notoriously dull.

Albert Finney stars as the titular Jones, a child abandoned to a rich landowner (George Devine) that raises the boy as his own. Social mores being what they were, most of the aristocrat’s noble neighbors looked down on the decision, believing a bastard child to be predestined for trouble.

And they weren’t half wrong. The grown-up Tom Jones is a rulebreaker and a scoundrel, but good-natured in his bad activity. He loves women, including the farm girl Molly (Diane Cilento, The Wicker Man [review]). Who Tom really has his heart set on, though, is Sophie (Susannah York, Tunes of Glory), beautiful daughter of the wealthy Squire Western (Hugh Griffith, The Canterbury Tales [review]). Despite enjoying Tom’s lively company himself, the Squire sees different things for his daughter, and when he is sucked into a scheme led by Tom’s dull adopted brother Bilfil (David Warner, Time Bandits), the old man manages to get Tom banished. At the same time, Sophie has run away, and the two would-be lovers make their way into the world separately at the same time.

Tom’s adventures, of course, lead him to trouble. He tussles with drunk soldiers, sleeps with lusty wives, and ultimately ends up in London, where he eventually meets his greatest match (Joan Greenwood, The Importance of Being Earnest [review]) and his greatest misfortune--that is, before things are set right again.

Tom Jones is frank and honest about the debauchery within its narrative, even as it informs the viewer that the camera is going to shy away from showing what a man and a woman might get up to, tweaking the nose of the censors, cutting the shot just as the getting is good. Of course, as with a horror movie that keeps its frights out of frame, such diversions only stoke the imagination--and makes the filmmakers more clever. Tom Jones’ most famous scene is between Finney and Joyce Redman (Olivier’s Othello) where the pair seduce each other by lustily devouring a multi-course dinner, the foley artists working overtime to record every crunch and slurp. In more a more lax era, they would have ruined it by jumping to the dirty deed itself, but here, it’s all about the unbroken gaze of the two ravenous lovers.

Richardson imbues Tom Jones with a playful visual style, including sped-up sequences that are pure British camp, a bit Benny Hill, a bit Carry On, dressed in trappings from the silent era. His quick cutting keeps pace with Finney’s full-steam-ahead performance, and both Finney and eventually Redman are allowed quick glances to the camera, a bit of a wink to make sure that the audience is in on the joke.

That said, Tom Jones also feels a little shaggy. Its farcical elements aren’t nearly as energized as one would hope, and its transgressions are no longer as naughty as they probably once seemed. It’s a fun affair, but also kind of unremarkable, carried mostly by Finney’s never wavering commitment.
For this new edition, Criterion is offering a marvelous restoration of the film, working from a 4K master. The movie comes on two discs, one featuring the original 1963 theatrical version, and the other housing Richardson’s 1989 director’s cut. Surprisingly, for once, the director’s cut is actually shorter than the original. Longtime fans might notice the nips and tucks here and there that removed about seven minutes from the running time, but the casual viewer would be hard-pressed to notice. I’d recommend first-timers following Richardson’s lead and watching his final version.

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

Wednesday, February 21, 2018


This review was originally written for in 2014: 

I wasn't actually familiar with the meaning of "separate tables" before watching this movie. As it turns out, it refers to a perk of a live-in hotel, where the dining room boasts individual tables where guests can eat on their own rather than the big group tables that they might be forced to share at other resorts or boarding houses. It is at once a symbol of independence and isolation. In Delbert Mann's adaptation of Terence Rattigan's play, the space between can mean everything. It can be as wide as a canyon or just a small step, a simple "good morning" away.

Released in 1958, Separate Tables features a phenomenal ensemble cast. Though David Niven (Pink Panther, Casino Royale [reviews]) won an Oscar for Actor in a Leading Role (and Wendy Hiller for Supporting Actress), one would be hard pressed to single out any one star here. In reality, the original play was split in two itself, and the stories of Major Pollack (Niven) and the drunken writer John Malcolm (Burt Lancaster, Brute Force [review]) were presented as two distinct but conjoined one acts, often with the same actors in both roles.

In this case, Rattigan (The Browning Version) and co-screenwriter John Gay (Sometimes a Great Notion) have intertwined the tales, crafting the Beauregard Hotel as a place where everyone is all up in each other's business. The tables may be separate, but the gossip is shared. The Major is a longtime resident who presents himself as a stoic war hero while harboring strange peccadilloes. He has a good friendship and possible romantic flirtation with the timid Sybil (Deborah Kerr, Black Narcissus [review]), who is at the hotel with her overbearing mother (Gladys Cooper, Now, Voyager). It's the busybody older lady who causes trouble for the Major when she discovers he has been convicted for lewd conduct on a train. The soldier's image crumbles under the scrutiny.

The only one to fully stand-up for the Major is John, who has had his own fair share of troubles, including jail time related to a domestic violence charge. His past comes back to haunt him in the form of his ex-wife, Ann (Rita Hayworth, Gilda [review]). Her motives for showing up out of the blue are suspect, but her presence immediately causes havoc in John's life. He has been hiding away at the seaside lodge where he is in a loving affair with the the woman who runs the place (Hiller, Pygmalion [review]). It's almost as if Ann can sense that things are going John's way and is there to purposely knock him off course--though, even she is more complicated than that, more than a mere siren or femme fatale. There are hints that she maybe is addicted to sleeping pills, and as the story wears on, her own loneliness becomes evident.

Action and subplots nicely flow together. Mann (That Touch of Mink [review]) shows a deft control of the elements, and the film runs cleanly despite some tinkering by Lancaster and the studio in the final cut. Though we never go far from the Beauregard, there is some nice differentiation between the interior and exterior setting. Mann uses shots from the outside looking in to remind us of the loneliness and the solitude that such displaced people suffer. They are as separate from society at large as they are from each other. Charles Lang (Wait Until Dark) photographs Separate Table stylishly, using the changing weather and the different times of day to evoke the required moods.

Niven and Lancaster duke it out for supremacy in terms of who the real star is. Both have excellent screen presence, though their characters have completely different demeanors. John can be boorish whereas the Major goes from overly mannered to despondent. His admission of his past failings to Kerr's Sibyl is heartbreaking. Kerr is also quite excellent as the neurotic spinster. Only Hayworth seems underused here. Her iconic image does more to give Ann the kind of seductive allure that would drive a man like John crazy than anything in the script. The part seems underwritten.

Unsurprisingly, the various narrative strands pull apart and then come together again, weaving a tale where people are compelled to make a choice, either to do the right thing or carry on in the wrong. Separate Tables has an excellent finale where all these things are tied up nicely but without it being too clean or cloying.

Monday, February 19, 2018


An Actor’s Revenge opens and closes in a theater, bookending its vengeance tale with performance and placing the audience in a comfortable place that reminds us that this is entertainment and thus meant to be enjoyed a certain way. What lies in between fits the bill perfectly: a bonkers drama with ludicrous twists and audacious visuals. It is artifice at its purest, yet drama at its most sincere.

Writer/director Kon Ichikawa (The Makioka Sisters [review], Fires on the Plain [review]) has set his 1963 film, based on a novel by Otokichi Mikami, in the 1830s, at a time when life in Japan was difficult. The common people lived under the shogunate, and the economy was bad. Rice shortages caused unrest, becoming grist for the mill here as one component of the manipulative scheme put forth by Yuki (Kazua Hasegawa, Gate of Hell), a popular kabuki actor considered by many to be the finest female lead in all of Japan. Yes, this was a time when women’s parts were played by men, and not only does Yuki play a woman on stage, but for all intents and purposes, he remains androgynous in real life--dresses, make-up, speaking at a higher pitch. As with Satyajit Ray’s The Hero [review], the actor has an image to uphold.

At the start of the film, Yuki’s troupe is beginning a guest run in Edo. While on stage, the actor sees several familiar faces in the crowd, ones that chill him to the core. Watching from expensive box seats are men who drove Yuki’s parents to suicide. As we learn through Yuki’s internal monologue--expressed while still performing, the show must ever go on--he has been waiting his whole life for the chance to take his revenge on them. And so Yuki puts into motion an elaborate plot to drive the three merchants to madness and ultimately death, using the lead man’s daughter, Namiji (Ayako Wakao, Street of Shame [review]), as the entry point into their lives and homes. Namiji is smitten with Yuki, and Namiji is a woman of great influence, so all doors open.

The intrigue along this track develops over private conversations, with Yuki meeting with his three targets in their individual residences, working his way into their personal business, while also developing a genuine connection with Namiji. Meanwhile, outside, a collection of local thieves not only competes for fame in their province, but they also continuously cross paths with Yuki. They are both comic relief and a plot complication. The lady thief Ohatsu (Fujiko Yamamoto) falls for Yuki after he physically stops her from robbing Namiji. Another, Yamitaro, keeps watch from afar, enjoying how Yuki’s life is its own performance, how everything he does has a specific choreography. Hasegawa plays Yamitaro as well as Yuki, a dual role you may not notice on first viewing. That’s how good the actor is. It’s not just make-up and costume, but he creates distinct personas for each. Given that this was his 300th film, he certainly had plenty of time to hone his craft.

It’s the juxtaposition of these two characters where the artifice and the reality truly come together in An Actor’s Revenge. Ichikawa is interested not just in the parts people play in their actual lives, but in how they present themselves to others--and likewise how he can present these things to the film-going audience. An Actor’s Revenge relies heavily on style and staging. Nighttime scenes are set against solid black, with no discernible backgrounds. When Namiji loses her way, she is found on a similarly empty plain, shrouded in fog. Yuki’s plot against his enemies is essentially a stage play helmed in a natural theater. You almost suspect that when Ichikawa returns everyone to the actual stage in the end, he’s going to reveal we never left, and the film actors will return to take a bow.

At the same time, Ichikawa’s approach is deadly serious. There is no irony, no winking at the audience. If art is a reflection of real life, then it must be approached with the same vigor. Our entertainment has consequences. It has lessons to teach. It’s the oldest storytelling trick in the book: lull the consumer into a certain happy state, only for the weight of what we are seeing to land heavily upon us. There is a price for revenge, and one not always paid by the person with the vendetta.

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

Sunday, February 18, 2018

THE HERO - #911

Eschewing popular conceptions of Bollywood movies, India’s greatest filmmaker Satyajit Ray takes us not just backstage, but totally away from it, to create a fascinating study of a famous film actor mid-existential crisis.

Popular movie star Uttam Kumar plays a variation of himself, portraying Arindam Mukherjee, a one-time stage actor turned box office success traveling by train to Delhi to accept an achievement award even as his latest film is flopping in theaters. Much of The Hero’s narrative is driven by how the other train passengers react to having a star in their midst. There is the sick girl and her mother who profess to being fans, the salty critic who thinks movie stars are by nature immoral, and a young wife who has dreams of stardom herself. Most important, though, is Aditi (Sharmila Tagore, Apur Sansar [review]), a progressive journalist whose feminist magazine usually doesn’t peddle in movie news, but when urged by her mother to gather some gossip about a barroom brawl Arindam participated in the night before, Aditi finds herself sitting across from the charismatic performer. What the young woman finds is a man eager to talk, and before she knows it, Arindam is laying himself bare, telling her the true story of how he earned his way, focusing mostly on the mentor he disappointed and the one who disappointed him.

The flashbacks to Arindam’s life in the theatre and the mistakes made on his first movie shoot allow Ray--who wrote, directed, and produced--to leave the train and change up the scenery, but honestly, he didn’t really need the variation. The auteur makes full use of the space, moving up and down the corridors and into different train compartments without ever creating a scene that feels cramped--not even when the whole point is that the other passengers can’t escape each other. Ray peppers his main narrative with mini-dramas throughout the rest of the train, including some tales that parallel the main. The young woman (Susmita Mukherjee) being pimped out by her husband (Kamu Mukherjee) to cinch an advertising deal is an alternate version of the ambitious actress (Sumita Sanyal) whose advances landed Arindam in the fistfight. There are fuzzy lines being drawn between exploitation and self-actualization here, with even Arindam losing focus on whether or not he is still pursuing his career for the right reasons.

It’s pretty easy to see the influence The Hero likely had on Wes Anderson’s The Darjeeling Limited [review], predominantly in how the later film is constructed, including the use of surreal and handcrafted dream sequences and how Anderson uses the confined space to force people to get real with one another. Pretenses break down as the night wears on, and Arindam in particular is ready to spill his guts. As a performer, Uttam Kumar has a very natural way about him. He switches back and forth from being “on” to just being himself without ever needing to force it. As Arindam, he sees the difference between the personal and the public, and reacts to each fan like a deft politician.

Seeing how in control of his charm the actor is adds gravitas to the more intimate revelations he shares with the reporter. It’s only here that Ray emphasizes the closeness of proximity, eventually framing the conversation as a volley back and forth, his two leads never in the shot at the same time, too close to fit. In terms of action and reaction, Sharmila Tagore is remarkable, providing a blank, yet empathetic, sounding board for her scene partner, and reserving her deeper response to more private moments, when she is left to absorb what she just learned. Ray could have easily fallen into some cliché with the Aditi character, making her a cold intellectual or a strident feminist who rails against anything popular, but instead he gives her conflicts of her own. There is part of her who enjoys what Arindam does and understands why he could help her magazine, even as she tries to maintain her integrity and have a truly genuine experience with him. One could suspect that Ray is wrestling with his own feelings for other types of movies, the old critic maybe hitting a little too close to home, or the dismissal of musicals being a more barbed attack than is apparent in the throwaway joke..

Beyond all the movie-business material, the community that Satyajit Ray builds in The Hero is also subtly reflective of society. There are the successful people--both the actor and the wealthy business man (Ranjit Sen) share a compartment--alongside the middle classes that either just want to get by or who are looking for a leg up. Only the lower classes don’t seem to be represented here--though maybe those are the train workers who don’t get the same kind of focus, a choice that is a commentary unto itself. These distinctions channel into the themes of who needs the entertainment that Arindam provides, and who judges him for not doing more. It’s a tangle of desire, accomplishment, and remorse, with our “hero” being the only one who has lived all three--a bitter realization that he is stuck with as the train comes into the station, and the community disbands to return to their individual lives.

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

Friday, February 16, 2018


This review originally written for the Portland Mercury

One of the more hotly debated films at the Portland International Film Festival in 2011, Apichatpong Weerase-thakul's Cannes favorite might be an exercise in patience—but for those willing to go with the chilled-out flow, it's a deeply rewarding, albeit puzzling, cinematic endeavor. Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives tells the story of a dying man in Thailand who exists in a rarefied state where folk tales and ghost stories mingle with everyday life. As the ailing Boonmee (Thanapat Saisaymar) nears his end, family members gather around, including some who have been long absent.

Weerasethakul evokes an oral tradition, letting the dinner guests share the tales of their journeys, and then leads us deep into caves full of spiritual history before disconnecting these lifelines and returning the survivors to the cold of modern urban living. Meditative and mysterious, full of long takes and dreamy ideas—including hairy ape men with glowing eyes and randy fish who take out their sexual frustration on human women—Uncle Boonmee is as unpredictable as it is enthralling. It works in part because Weerasethakul never pauses to question the reality of his fairy tale. To do so would be like explaining a magic trick. As in life, not knowing how it all comes off is part of the adventure.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018


This review was originally written for in 2010.

Jules Dassin's 1959 French-Italian co-production The Law (La Loi) is a flirty and fun tornado of small-town scandal. Set in the coastal village of Porto Manacore, looking out over the Adriatic Sea, the ex-pat director's adaptation of a Roger Vailland novel was apparently too hot for the censors upon its release, relegating it to obscurity amongst the filmmaker's resume. After spending two hours spinning in The Law's dizzying narrative, I can't understand how a revival took so long to come around.

The Law is a story of how social structures are governed, showing us how life in the town is dictated by two men--the Godfather-like Don Cesare (Pierre Brasseur), who has all the political and financial power, and the gangster Matteo Brigante (Yves Montand, Z [review]), the muscle on the streets. "The Law" is also a drinking game that was popular in Southern Italy, and its strange rules mimic the way everything else is run. One man is named the boss, and he appoints his deputy, and together they control the wine. They pour the drinks, choosing who gets a glass via posturing and humiliation, until the pitcher is empty. Then a new boss is chosen, and a new deputy. You keep going until the players can't stand it anymore.

Such is life. You keep going until you can't stand it anymore. The heroine of The Law is Marietta (legendary Italian beauty Gina Lollobrigida). Marietta and her mother and two sisters live with Don Cesare, and are essentially his harem. He currently sleeps with her older sister, but Marietta is next to be called into his bed when he grows bored with her sibling--just as it was with their mother and her eldest daughter before them. Marietta's brother-in-law, the Don's right-hand man Tonio (Paolo Stoppa), also lusts after Marietta, and Brigante is determined to make her his own. She has other ideas, however, and when a new fellow comes to town, Marietta sets her sights on him.

Enrico (Marcello Mastroianni, 8 1/2 [review]) is an agronomist sent to Porto Manacore to modernize it. He represents progress, and so naturally butts heads with Don Cesare. When you own all the land, you don't want to be told what to do with it, after all. Enrico is overwhelmed by the convoluted social structure, and when he tries to play "The Law," it's not to his liking. On the other hand, Marietta very much is to his liking, even if he can't figure out how to make it work. She's a practical gal and ready to marry the outsider, she just needs to find a dowry. When she sees a Swiss tourist with a fat wallet, she lifts it. Half-a-million lire should be enough for any wedding. By no coincidence, she also gets a neighborhood boy--part of a gang of thieves and pranksters that do her bidding--to steal Brigante's knife. It's his only weapon, and the sharp blade scares everyone else. You don't have to have Freud on retainer to get the symbolism of Marietta taking it from him.

If all of this sounds particularly tangled, well, hold up, I'm just getting started. The Law is packed front to back with subplots and narrative complications. For instance, Brigante's son Francesco (Raf Mattioli) is having an affair with the wife of the town judge (Teddy Bilis). The woman, Lucrezia (Melina Mercouri, Dassin's real-life spouse and star of his films Never on Sunday and Topkapi), enlists another lady, Giuseppina (Lidia Alfonsi), to help her pass notes to Francesco. Giuseppina knows what Lucrezia is going through, as she's the mistress of the chief of police (Vittorio Caprioli). Also, Lucrezia bribes her by buying her a dress that is supposed to lift her breasts so she appears to have a bust like Marilyn Monroe's. When we first meet Giuseppina, it's while the cop is telling his buxom wife that he dreamt that her flat-chested friend had a bosom herself--which should tell you something about how sexed-up The Law is. Gina Lollobrigida's cleavage is an element of real focus amongst her neighbors, and I'm starting to understand why my dad thought it was such a big deal when she guest-starred on Falcon Crest when I was 12 years old. Va-va-voom!

Jules Dassin's script for The Law is an extremely agile piece of writing. He never gets overburdened by all this story, nor does he ever shy away from the heat. Visually, he and cinematographer Otello Martelli (La strada [review]) make use of the tall buildings and winding streets of Porto Manacore to give the audience the feeling of traveling through a maze. Built on a hillside, the village has lots of stairs and many levels, and it's easy to get lost. Try to map out which way Marietta is going as you watch The Law and see if you can keep up. The way the town is built, and how it's put to use on film, is another representation of its class structure. One of the earliest scenes is an impressive tracking shot that takes us up to the top of the police building, peering into the apartments where the judge and the chief live, moving down the side of the building and across, past the jail cells. The camera is being dragged along by Marietta's siren song, and we find her across town, shining boots on a balcony and singing to the morning sky. The men of the movie are bewitched, and so are we.

The Law is a real narrative tour-de-force, full of rich characters and surprising script developments. The actors all attack their roles with relish, and Dassin was at the height of his powers when constructing his mis-en-scene. The Law is as fresh and bold as any modern bendy, curvy crime movie, while also not being a crime movie at all. What a fantastic discovery!

Sunday, February 11, 2018


Setting things right, and watching the intended companion in a double-feature with John Huston’s The Misfits [review here, and a part II piece here].

And honestly, I am ashamed of myself for waiting this long to watch Humphrey Bogart’s last picture. Released in 1956, The Harder They Fall features an aging Bogie at his most tenacious, a stand-up guy trying to get through by doing a little wrong. It’s both a tad too late to be classified as a sports-themed noir a la The Set-Up, and a little too early to stand as a symbol of old Hollywood trying to get its licks in with the new generation. Imagine this same movie in the mid-1960s, featuring Bogart tussling with a heavyweight from that era, someone like Jack Nicholson or Dustin Hoffman in the Rod Steiger gangster role, and it would be the classic studio man tearing into the avant garde. This role could have been as iconic for Bogart as a punctuation of a time as Orson Welles’ turn in Touch of Evil [review].

In The Harder They Fall, Bogie plays Eddie Willis, a sports writer who finds himself out of work following the folding of the newspaper where he wrote for nearly two decades. Realizing that the job kept him fed but never gave him enough to start a savings, he throws in with crooked fight promoter Nick Benko (Steiger, Jubal [review]), hoping to earn enough green to never be in this position again. Benko has a South American giant he wants to turn into a North American star, but El Toro (Mike Lane) can neither throw nor take a punch. Only Eddie knows how to work the press to turn this loser into a champion, getting his old pals on the circuit to look the other way when things are dodgy and ignore that the fix is in.

What follows is a long tour of sell-outs, compromises, and lies, as Eddie tries to keep the whole enterprise from going belly up by Toro either finding out the truth about the cheat or getting beaten to a pulp. The audience and some of Eddie’s friends--a television reporter he had a falling out with (Harold J. Stone, Spartacus) and Eddie’s wife (Jan Sterling, Ace in the Hole [review])--see Eddie’s willful ignorance for what it is, even as he doubles-down at every obvious cue to get out. He has to believe that somehow Toro will get his payday, or Eddie will never get his.

The Harder They Fall is directed by Mark Robson (Bedlam [review], The Valley of the Dolls [review]), working from a script by Philip Yordan (God’s Little Acre [review]), who in turn is adapting a novel by Budd Schulberg (On the Waterfront). It’s a slick picture, its swift pace held together by a tightly constructed script. The dialogue is terse and the viewpoint resolute in its cynicism. You’re going to really hate the bad guys, more so when they appear so spineless next to Eddie. As a narrative, The Harder They Fall is scrappy studio system efficiency, pulling off ten rounds of drama without ever hitting the canvas. 

Robson treats all the boxing matches as important, be it a quick done-in-one where the chump goes down easy or the finale where Toro has to tussle for real with the champ. In that climactic bout, the camera deftly moves in and out of the ring, giving us both the fighter’s POV and that of the audience. The latter’s pained expressions makes the beating seem all the more harsh. The most brutal match, however, is an earlier exhibition where a particularly proud pugilist (Abel Fernandez, TV’s The Untouchables) has to be given a bloody out. Try not to cringe waiting for Toro to hit the right mark.

Eddie is on par with some of Bogart’s most famous roles--the last good man amongst a whole lot of bad ones. Like Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe, he has a moral code that he should not deviate from lest there be consequences. Unlike them, Eddie has thrown that code out, and his arc is all about getting it back. The older actor mines a weariness that serves him well, making it as if Eddie somehow knows he is the last of his kind. When he goes down, all else will follow. Eddie’s relationship with Toro is a bit like a citified Of Mice and Men, with the simple giant never quite grasping how things work. The tragedy here is that he is very nearly self-euthanizing, taking Eddie’s advice that the only way out is by taking it on the chin--again and again and again.

The Harder They Fall is a fitting finish for Bogart. While, sure, he could have done something more grand or obvious before the final bow, it makes more sense to see him go out as he started: playing the toughest guy in the room. Even the very last scene, when he sits down to write, a flipside to In a Lonely Place [review], there is a statement of intent: Bogie will never give in, he’ll always be Bogie. It would have been interesting to see him punch into the next decade. Imagine his collaborations with Godard, or playing an elderly heavy in a Coppola movie. The old hound dog would have certainly taught the young pups a thing or two about a thing or two.

Jean-Paul Belmondo looking at a The Harder They Fall poster in Breathless.

Saturday, February 10, 2018


Full disclosure: I’m reviewing this movie by mistake. Not that The Harder They Come isn’t worthy of review, but I uploaded my piece on The Misfits to coincide with the Criterion Channel’s Friday night double feature with the intention of reviewing its companion to go along with it. One reprint, one new review.

Only, about fifteen minutes into Perry Henzell’s 1973 reggae movie, I couldn’t help but think it was a strange companion to John Huston’s western. What was the connection? Having already seen The Harder They Come, it probably should have dawned on me before I even loaded it in, but I didn’t know. There had to be some logic to this thing, some commonality to this pairing.

Because, of course, there is. But you have to have the right film to see it. The movie I should have been watching was The Harder They Fall with Humphrey Bogart. It’s Bogie’s last film, just as The Misfits was Gable and Monroe’s curtain call. Now that made sense.

Which leaves me to write up The Harder They Come all on its lonesome. Apropos of...well, not nothing. I mean, I am supposed to be reviewing Criterion releases, that’s what this site is for. I’d say it’s easily more than ten years since I last watched The Harder They Come, back when I’d have said it wasn’t really my thing, and it took a little time after seeing it for me to eventually come back around to appreciate its legendary soundtrack, because I thought the music really wasn’t my thing and I’d say now with even more years on the calendar, I appreciate the movie a little more, as well.

The Harder They Come was responsible for introducing much of the world to reggae music, and it made a star of singer Jimmy Cliff, who plays Ivan, a country bumpkin turned aspiring singer turned city gangster. Ivan’s entry into Kingston immediately goes wrong: he’s robbed, his mother refuses to let him crash at her pad, and he ends up homeless and starving. When a local preacher (Basil Keane) takes him in and gives him a job, Ivan’s luck turns, but so does his attitude. Now more cynical about the way of things, he starts to take advantage and take what he thinks is his, including stealing a bike and sleeping with Elsa (Janet Bartley), one of the preacher’s adopted daughters (so to speak). After running an errand for the church takes him to a recording studio, Ivan grabs his chance and cuts the movie’s title song, but even that goes wrong for him. His stubborn hustle turns off the label owner (Robert Charlton), and the guy sits on the single. His fame slipping through his fingers, Ivan starts selling drugs, the beginning of a criminal spree that will turn him into a folk hero and make “The Harder They Come” a #1 hit.

For as slick as that plot description sounds, The Harder They Come is not a slick movie. The narrative is rough and choppy, the acting sometimes questionable, and the overall look of it is not at all artful. But then, that’s also the charm of the thing. Henzell’s neorealist approach, shooting on location, using real people, working with the same scrappy fervor as his main character, creates a motion picture with a specific flavor that is altogether different to anything else out there. Henzell--who never made another feature--doesn’t just introduce us to Jamaican music, but to the country itself. The people and the locale really come through, and for as individual as that is, there is, of course, a shared experience we can identify. The themes and tropes of this poverty-stricken community are not all that different from the things we see in blacksploitation pictures or hear about in hip-hop. The Harder They Come has that same dangerous allure.

The film’s lone standout sequence, and one I would call entirely artful, is The Harder They Comes’s final scene. On his first night in town, Ivan gets a friend to take him to the movies, where he watches the original Django. Henzell jumps back and forth from the theater screen to the audience, whose loud reactions overtake everything, much in the same joyous way Sullivan sees the crowd enjoying the Pluto cartoon in Sullivan’s Travels [review]. The director calls back to this in the climax, when Ivan is having his shootout with the police. Between gunshots, we cut back to the movie audience, the people who have not only egged Ivan on with their attention, but also the ones we now see made his infamy possible. Brilliant!

In addition to Jimmy Cliff, who performs the most numbers, the movie’s soundtrack has Toots & the Maytals, Desmond Dekker, and the Melodians (among others). Each offer a slightly different soundscape, but they all sing about their own experience, be it Dekker’s ode to shantytowns or Toots creating a buoyant groove about everyday stress. For me the top numbers, though, are Cliff’s plaintive cry of determination “Many Rivers to Cross” and the Slickers’ outlaw anthem “Johnny Too Bad.” (Again, full disclosure: I might have heard them first as UB40 covers. By which I mean, I did. It took me a while to come around to reggae and dub. I told you it wasn’t my thing....)

If The Harder They Come were made today, the music would probably be more integrated, Henzell and his trio of editors cutting the drama to the rhythm of the tracks. Here, though, they are more a part of the atmosphere, often presented as sourced live, being played by the characters in the scene (be it in the studio or on record), with many of the songs repeated more than once. It’s almost like a cinematic version of the radio, because the repetition means these things stick in your head. The shaggy quality of the whole thing makes for a more authentic experience, too. This is no market-tested compilation roping in the latest passing fad (“Limbo (feat. G-Eazy)”), but a real expression of a people looking to be heard--including one who makes it, and pays the price for doing so.

Friday, February 9, 2018


Originally written for in 2011:

The quality of John Huston's 1961 drama The Misfits is often eclipsed by its salacious backstory. The final completed film of both Clark Gable and Marilyn Monroe, it was written for Monroe by her then-husband Arthur Miller while they were in the grip of a divorce. Shooting was difficult, as both Marilyn and co-star Montgomery Clift suffered from various addictions and mental afflictions. Both Huston and Gable were hard drinkers themselves, but their habits were nothing compared to their younger cohorts. The Misfits even fell into hot water with the studio, who couldn't make heads or tails of the film. If not for Gable, who had final script approval, standing his ground, who knows how the movie might have ended up.

As it stands, The Misfits is a marvelous motion picture, easily one of Huston's best (not an inconsiderable boast). If it was misunderstood in its time, it's because The Misfits was a couple of years ahead of the curve. Its tale of displaced loners looking for meaning in the Nevada desert grappled with the passing of time--and not in the sense of a ticking clock, but historically. These characters represented an age that was ending, a lifestyle that was fading. It was as much a metaphor for the oncoming demise of Old Hollywood as it was the disappearance of 1950s America. The aura of freedom the characters longed for, and the artistic license that Miller and Huston were grasping at, were just around the corner. In two years, Martin Ritt's Hud would be a big hit. Maybe existential cowboys were just easier to take when they were Paul Newman, or maybe 24 months really did make that much of a difference.

The Misfits opens in Reno on the day when Roslyn (Monroe) is going to court to finalize her divorce. Back then, Reno had the easiest divorce laws in the country, and wronged spouses moved to the littlest big city temporarily to establish residency and dissolve their union. (This was perhaps most famously portrayed in Cukor's 1939 production of The Women.) Getting her single life back likely paid off in terms of alimony, but it costs an emotional price for Roslyn, as well. Now that she's alone, she doesn't know what to do with herself.

Enter a cowboy. Gay Langland (Gable) is a rootless roughneck who has a way with the ladies. In his mind, the worst thing in the world is "wages"--that is, a regular job. When Gay meets Roslyn, he's looking to bug out of town and spend some time in the wild with his pal Guido (Eli Wallach), a war veteran and pilot. Guido actually saw Roslyn first, he met her and the woman she's staying with (the great Thelma Ritter) that morning to assess the value of Roslyn's car. That Gay moves in on the curvy blonde causes Guido much consternation. Both men have refused to settle down again since their last marriage--Gay is divorced, Guido a widower--but Roslyn has a way of inspiring men to make exceptions to their principles.

The quartet heads out to Guido's house on the outskirts of town, where they get loaded and flirty. Guido may know how to dance, but Gay wins the day, and Roslyn and he start shacking up at Guido's house. This is essentially Act I. Act II is hitting the rodeo to find a third cowboy to go mustanging. That is when they pick up Perce (Clift), another drunk who rides broncos and bulls. There is some intimation that he maybe has some mental problems, too, though which symptoms are caused by the booze and which by the blows to his skull are up to interpretation. Perce and Roslyn are immediately attracted to one another. If Gay is a kind of stable father figure, then Perce is a kindred spirit, a broken creature just like her. Seeing him tossed around a rodeo ring puts Roslyn on edge. She can't stand a living thing to be hurt. Earlier in the film, she even stops Gay from killing a rabbit who is stealing the lettuce from their garden.

Act III is the mustanging. Roslyn goes with the boys, thinking that they intend to capture the wild horses for riding. This is not the case. Nevada mustangs are rounded up for dog food. Once upon a time, there were thousands of them in the mountains, now the men head out there believing they will find at least fifteen; the actual count is less than half that, calling attention to how pathetic this whole scheme really is. Roslyn, of course, is horrified, and her reaction stokes the testosterone in the group. There is much male posturing. First, it's who will abandon the deadly quest fastest in order to placate her; then, as she rejects different members of the hunting party, who is the bigger man. Gay almost literally wrestles with a horse just to prove no one can tell him what to do. In the frontier days, he might have been applauded for this macho showing off. In the context of The Misfits, you end up sad for him--even if you aren't sure which way your pity should flow. Is it because he is so out of touch with the times, or because the times are so out of touch with him?

Arthur Miller's script for The Misfits is poetic and intelligent. The playwright never condescends to these characters; on the contrary, the writing shows tremendous affection for them. It would have been easy to make them purely comical, but the humorous moments come naturally, they aren't forced or born of ridicule. (The drunk antics when they all return home after the rodeo are as hysterical as the preceding scenes are heartbreaking.) There is a layer of metafiction here that is hard to avoid: these freaks getting boozed up and tearing each other apart out in the middle of nowhere really were a bunch of freaks in real life. The doomed history that follows The Misfits around--Gable died mere days after shooting was completed, Monroe followed within a year, and Clift apparently had his heart attack not long after refusing to watch the film on television in 1966--becomes part and parcel with the narrative. These were cinematic icons whose time was about to pass, working in a genre that had also seen better days. It's possible this is the first revisionist western, leading to the reassessment of the cowboy mythology that would redefine the genre over the next couple of decades. It's a safe bet that Peter Bogdanovich saw The Misfits before he started making The Last Picture Show [review]. John Huston's pioneering cinema style is all over that later film. Huston shoots in the thick of the action; wherever the dust is getting kicked up, he goes. Russell Metty's black-and-white photography is beautiful and gritty, capturing the open spaces of the desert plains and contrasting them with the cramped spaces where humans wall themselves in. The bar scene where Roslyn entertains the cowboys in inadvertent ways while playing with the paddle and ball is marvelously orchestrated; the men are climbing on top of one another, and the camera jockies for such positions, as well.

Just as it's easy to forget the excellence of the scripted drama under the scandal of the off-screen drama, it's also easy to forget that these actors became stars for a reason. The acting here is exceptional, with Marilyn Monroe turning in one of her finest performances as the bruised beauty Roslyn. There is a wonderful scene in The Misfits when Gay comments on how sad Roslyn is, and she is shocked, most men always tell her how happy she seems. He replies, "That's because you make a man feel happy." This one exchange could sum up the whole of Monroe's career, and to her credit, she brings this schism to life in her performance as Roslyn. She creates a complete character, one whose internal sorrow keeps her from ever being subsumed by the things the men in her life project on her. She can play at being happy, but Monroe knows how to do it so that it's clear that it's just for show.

By the shooting of The Misfits, Marilyn had put in time with the Actors Studio. Montgomery Clift and Eli Wallach were also purveyors of method acting, and they both bring their naturalistic style to the production. They appear to be living it, not putting it on. (Clift has obviously been living it too much; his handsome features are starting to show signs of age and vice.) Clark Gable somehow manages not to get lost in this. His performance is pure confidence. Perhaps it's the fact that Gay is meant to loom large over the other men working in his favor. He is intended to be different, a misfit amidst the misfits, and so the performance styles end up meshing within the material.

The Misfits is a heavy movie. It's a sad movie. It sets up multiple themes and contends with each, all the while giving proper showcase to the characters and their relationships. It's a movie that isn't afraid to be about something, but it never forgets to be about somebody--or a bunch of somebodies--along the way. It also doesn't skirt the surface or play with clichés; rather, Huston and Miller get right down in the human muck and root around in all the neuroses and foibles, and though they lament how their misfits are losing ground, they also show how these folks do it to themselves. The tide of history drowns those who can't adapt. The glimmer of hope here is that sometimes, when people swim for shore together, they actually find a way to stay afloat.

Part of a recommended Criterion Channel double feature...

Wednesday, February 7, 2018


Originally written for in 2012:

If you've never thought to yourself, "Hey, you know, a woman in her sixties learning how to drive would make a great subject for a movie," you probably aren't alone. And now that the idea is planted in your head, if you think that such a thing actually sounds pretty boring, you're not half wrong either.

Surprise, surprise, such a film actually exists. The 1971 Italian feature The Automobile (L'automobile) stars iconic movie star Anna Magani (Rome Open City [review], Mamma Roma) as Anna, a well-regarded prostitute in her 60s who has never owned her own car. Despite having such high regard in her social circle that her friends and colleagues refer to her as "The Countess," Anna is bored with her everyday existence. Why should a woman of her age continue to schlep around on the bus when having her own convertible will grant her freedom to come and go as she pleases? As the idea grows, she realizes that this could be her liberation, and eventually takes the plunge.

The first third of The Automobile is Anna trying to decide whether she wants the little yellow car or not; the second third is her learning to drive and getting her license; the last third is her first trip as a woman with her own wheels. This outing to the beach introduces her to the new social possibilities provided by having a car. When she meets a nice family at a gas station, it gives them something in common to talk about; when she meets a couple of opportunists at the beach, it shows her how having transportation can get you taken advantage of.

The Automobile was written and directed by Alfredo Giannetti, best known for the screenplay to Divorce Italian Style. His visual approach has much in common with Italian Neorealism. He shoots on location, in the streets and cafes of Rome, photographing Magnani walking the pavement amongst genuine passersby. The narrative has the tangential flow of real life, both to the good and the bad. The movie is at its best midway when Anna is dealing with the frustration of learning to drive and dealing with the off-beat personalities that hold the keys to her dreams. When the older woman is alternately berating and charming the DMV employee taking her license photo, we are reminded of what a force of nature Magnani can be. Suddenly, all the men who have been hitting on her from The Automobile's very first scene make a lot of sense: Anna Magnani is a forceful personality, a woman used to being watched and admired, but who also gets her own way. Her comedic chops are particularly evident when she realizes the official giving her driving test is a former client.

Perhaps the movie's best touch, though, is the ongoing conversation Anna has with herself. This manifests as both a voiceover and Anna speaking out loud. At times, it practically becomes a dialogue. Giannetti shows impeccable timing for moving in and out of the interior and exterior. To capture an unbroken cut where Anna responds to her own thought processes aloud shows the director had an impressive command of the scene.

Too bad not everything in the movie works as well. Long stretches pass without much of interest happening. Too long is spent on the decision phase of the story, and the debate grows tedious. This isn't helped by the drab photography by Pasqualino De Santis (Lancelot of the Lake, Death in Venice). The downside of the realistic approach is that we're stuck with the unattractive early '70s fashion and the earthy color palette popular at the time. This aesthetic is only reinforced by Ennio Morricone's kitschy store. The music never maintains a consistent style, pinging between classic orchestration and contemporary noodling. It's amazing how a modern musical style, which can seem so cutting edge on release, can cause a movie like The Automobile to age so poorly.

I'll admit, I was mostly charmed by the middle section of The Automobile, and by the time Anna does finally hit the highway, I was happy for her achieving her dream. That said, I was nonplussed by the ending, which leaves Anna in a bad place. Gianetti has pulled a bit of a rope-a-dope on us, and what looked to be an uplifiting story about an older woman finding a new lease on life turns into a total bummer. Maybe had I enjoyed the build-up more, I'd also have felt this turnaround more intensely; instead, much like Anna, I am left wondering why I even bothered if this was all that was going to come of the endeavor.