Friday, August 31, 2018


This review was originally written for in 2009.

Hollywood was all over Akira Kurosawa from the get-go. Not in the "We revere you so much we're going to import your movies" sense, but in the "No good idea is too good for us to think we can do better but most likely ruin" sense. Quite a few of his more famous samurai action pictures have been turned into quite a few westerns with a variety of results. Yes, it's hard to believe, but one of cinema's greatest directors was treated the way Hollywood now treats foreign horror movies: grist for the remake mill. Though I knew that a ton of different productions had ripped off the basic Rashomon concept of one story told from multiple yet conflicting points of view, I didn't know anyone had ever had the cajones to remake the 1950 classic in its entirety. Turns out there was a stage version written by Fay and Michael Kanin, and it was even filmed for television twice (including once by Sidney Lumet) before Martin Ritt decided to turn it into a full-fledged film in 1964. The Outrage placed Rashomon in a remote outpost in the post-Civil War American West, and it's a surprisingly obscure effort given that it's both Ritt's and Paul Newman's follow-up to the Oscar-winning Hud.

Then again, maybe it's not so surprising. When I worked in video retail, a customer once told me that he had a theory that the more stars there are in a movie you've never heard of, the worse that movie is likely to be. In addition to Newman, The Outrage stars Edward G. Robinson, Claire Bloom, William Shatner, and Laurence Harvey. It's not exactly a Cecil B. DeMille Greatest Show on Earth ensemble, but that's a pretty solid roster. Not exactly no-names, though not exactly A-List--just as The Outrage is not exactly awful, but not really a classic either.

The story of The Outrage pretty much follows the Kurosawa model: three men gather in a desolated area and end up discussing four different versions of one terrible story. In this case, Shatner plays a preacher who is waiting for a train at a rundown station in hopes of catching the next trip out of town, his faith in humanity shattered along with his belief in the absolute. Waiting with him is the downtrodden prospector (Howard Da Silva) who wants to convince him not to go and a conniving huckster (Robinson) in hiding lest the people he ripped off find him. The day before there had been a trial for a crime perpetrated against a traveling couple. As the verdict stands, the notorious outlaw Juan Carrasco (Newman) raped Nina Wakefield (Bloom) and murdered her husband, Colonel Wakefield (Harvey). At least, that was how Carrasco told the story, but Mrs. Wakefield had a different version and a medicine man (Paul Fix) who heard the Colonel's dying testimony delivers a third. Though Carrasco's past crimes made him an easy conviction, the truth seems lost somewhere in all the variations.

Turns out, there is a fourth version, one known only by the prospector, who as far as the court knows only found the body, but who in reality tells the preacher and the con man that he saw the whole thing from the bushes. Yet, there are reasons to doubt his version, too, as his self-serving secrecy undermines his credibility. The con man's cynical worldview may be the truest of all, that humans are suckers and liars. It makes a certain level of sense, especially when you consider that each person's scenario is more favorable to them. Each teller of the tale is a winner of sorts in their own version. Yet, that is also the most obvious interpretation, and Kurosawa's Rashomon provokes a much deeper response. Truth is not merely subjective, it is also unknowable. How each of us lives is dictated by how well we can reconcile ourselves with that principle.

Martin Ritt and the Kanins (Michael Kanin is credited with adapted screenplay) don't entirely remove the grander meaning for The Outrage, but their fourth act ends up being a rather fatal misstep that comes across as far less convincing and far more blatant than Kurosawa's Rashomon. While the first three stories, the ones told by the bandit, the wife, and the husband, are fairly accurate to the Japanese film, the prospector's version is portrayed as first a broad Southern melodrama before descending into a slapstick fist fight between Paul Newman and Laurence Harvey. The rape is suddenly treated like a punchline, and the decision to change how the Colonel dies in the prospector's story also makes it seem like a cruel joke, a misfortune perpetrated by the indifference of the universe. If the prospector's tale in the real truth, life would then be a B-movie rather than a human tragedy.

The acting is all very good up until that last story, too, with everyone playing his or her roles with the appropriate gravitas. The switch is so severe for the prospector's story, you almost have to wonder if it was all cooked up following a rather wild party and everyone was too drunk to be operating such heavy machinery. Even Shatner kept most of his hammy tendencies in check, though at times this early performance already shows signs of his trademark delivery (in terms of speaking style, he's kind of the Christopher Walken of his day). I'd actually give the top acting marks to Edward G. Robinson as the sharp-talking roadshow salesman. The veteran actor is the most comfortable up there on the screen of any of them, and his skills as a raconteur serve him well.

I'd have been curious to hear how an older Paul Newman reflected on the time he played a Mexican, with dark make-up and all (what is that? tan-face?). To his credit and the credit of his Actors Studio training, he buries himself in the part with the same amount of respect he would give any other role. Though I suppose some could grumble about his accent and gruff voice he adopts (did he study Treasure of the Sierra Madre in lieu of a dialect coach?), he largely manages to avoid racial caricature. In fact, the writing seems to be informed by an awareness of how the Mexican people might have been viewed at the time and includes allusions to racism and shows Carrasco playing at being a stereotype to lure Col. Wakefield into his trap (indeed, even relying on the white man's greed). Beyond the voice and the make-up, I don't get the sense that Newman would have played it any other way if his character were a white bandit named Carson rather than a Mexican one named Carrasco.

If there is one compelling reason to watch The Outrage, it's the sure-handed direction that Ritt displays for most of the movie, as well as the beautiful photography by James Wong Howe (The Sweet Smell of Success). From the rainy railway station that provides the story frame, the waiting men looking like an early test version of the trio at the station at the start of Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in the West, to the open desert and the way the people crowd into the town square to witness Carrasco's trial, Ritt and Howe use the wide open spaces of the West to show how remote this little pocket is, how isolated the pioneer is from polite society. They capture every gorgeous detail, every cactus and every raindrop, using the Panavision process to its full limits. In contrast, the little oasis where the crime goes down is softly lit, like a pocket dimension within the greater frontier. The Outrage is a gorgeous movie, tightly edited by Frank Santillo (who also worked with Sam Peckinpah on his more thoughtful movies), an expertly constructed movie from start to finish.

But a technical triumph is still only as big a victory as the script allows, and alas, there is no way around the pitfalls of The Outrage. While the first sixty minutes are very good, if a bit unnecessary given the existence of the Kurosawa original, the final thirty are a terrible blunder. There is little reason to watch a flawed version of Rashomon when you can just watch Rashomon--and that you can take as the absolute truth in a world of wishy-washy opinions. Anyone who says different is either lying or wasn't really there!

Saturday, August 25, 2018


Every pet owner likely watches Errol Morris’ Gates of Heaven with a little cringe of familiarity. Buried in all of us is some of the same sincere absurdity that drives many of his interviewees to partake in the services of his subject: namely, pet cemeteries.

Morris’ 1978 debut is a documentary of many subtle layers. Ostensibly about two different pet cemeteries--one run by a well-meaning man with no business sense, the other by a true believer who has made a real go of it--Gates of Heaven could at first blush seem to be having a laugh at the expense of its subjects, but the more Morris’ subtle presentation settles over you, the more you realize that Gates of Heaven is an affectionate document of people whose deeply held feelings border on the ridiculous, but whom are all the more lovable for it.

Why else pair the earnest Mac McClure with the owner of a nearby rendering plant that competes with the concerned man over the dead? McClure’s overwrought compassion is given context by terrible things that his rival so callously undertakes on the regular. Likewise, McClure’s unvarnished emotion is balanced against the business sense of Cal Roberts’, whose family-run Bubbling Well Pet Memorial transplants McClure’s customers when he loses his land. Roberts sees his business as more of a religious calling, which itself is juxtaposed against how his two sons approach the vocation. One is an aimless hippie who does the work but with little ambition, the other a go-getter, primed for the oncoming 1980s, looking to expand profit in a way that forgets the true nature of the enterprise.

Woven through these tales are the testimonies of real pet owners who have availed Bubbling Well of their services. Herein lies Gates of Heaven’s true heart. For as excessive or outlandish some may find the pet cemetery business, it means something to those who bring their fuzzy loved ones there to rest. As we listen to their stories of connection and loss, we also view the memorials, images of the absent companion coupled with some adoring sentiment--alternately heartwarming for how long the life shared and heartbreaking for how short. One poor Christmas critter didn’t even make it to the following summer.

Sure, Morris is a natural satirist, and his intent with Gates of Heaven is not to simply memorialize or celebrate. Laced into this narrative is a critique of how commerce can taint spirituality, and how necessity can be overtaken by luxury. Maybe the rendering plant is more sensible by putting the animal remains to good use, and maybe a permanent resting place for doggies and kitties is impractical and even extravagant. Neither is really for the documentarian to say, the questions are simply there. But they also wouldn’t matter if Errol Morris didn’t have a genuine affection for everyone he cuts into the film, nor would Gates of Heaven have endured these thirty years as a work of astonishing humanism. Be honest, when watching it, did you look at your own furry pal sitting nearby and consider what his or her own monument might look like when the time comes?

Wednesday, August 22, 2018


A different version of this review was published on in 2010 to promote a Rod Serling-focused DVD.

Studio One was CBS' premiere drama anthology, running 1948 to 1958. Every week they presented a live play for the television audience, be it a new script by a hot young writer or an adaptation of stage material. Amongst the writers who cut their teeth in these early days was Rod Serling, whose keen observational eye and serious interest in the nuance of moral dilemmas quickly earned him notice. Serling is best known today for his Twilight Zone series, which he introduced on camera at the start of every episode. Twilight Zone's reputation is often unfairly reduced to knee-jerk jokes about its twist endings, but the truth of the matter is, those shows endure not because of their often surprising turns, but because of the heartfelt and soulful dramatics that lead to the twist. Serling is one of television's foremost chroniclers of the human condition, something that is more than obvious in his Studio One collaborations with director Franklin J. Schaffner. No sci-fi trappings here, just straightforward storytelling.

Schaffner went on to helm Advise and Consent on the stage and Patton for the big screen, and worked with Serling again on Planet of the Apes, and it's interesting to consider how the two teleplays they did for Studio One, 1956's The Arena and 1954's The Strike, predicted the subject matter that would continue to interest the director. Like Advise and Consent, The Arena is set in the U.S. Senate, and like Patton, The Strike is a war story about the courage of leadership.

The Arena tells the story of James Norton (Wendell Corey), a junior Senator appointed to a seat once occupied by his father. Dear ol' dad likely pulled some strings to get his boy in there, a fact not lost on Norton Sr.'s old political rival, Senator Harvey Rogers (John Cromwell). Despite the advice of his spin doctor, Jack Feeney (Chester Morris), Norton immediately locks horns with Rogers, a fight he is not equipped to handle. The more experienced politician massacres him, and Norton must decide whether a particularly juicy piece of dirt he has on the older man is worth the price of his integrity.

The Strike is set in South Korea in 1951. Major Gaylord (James Daly) is in charge of five-hundred men trapped under enemy fire in the middle of the Korean wilderness. He has one patrol of twenty that got lost on a recon mission, and when it comes time to move out, he is faced with a difficult choice. An air attack can take out the Communist artillery, but the recon unit would be collateral damage. Are the lives of twenty a fair trade for the full battalion?

In both teleplays, Serling poses a central question for two very different men: what is the right thing to do? Not what is the easiest, what is the most convenient, but what is right. The difference is that, in the case of Senator Norton, the right thing will allow him to sleep easier at night, but in the case of Major Gaylord, it will likely haunt him for the rest of his life. Norton is a stubborn man whose levers are pulled by his bitter father, and he lets his ambition and need to please his dad cloud his judgment; Gaylord is a man crippled by his conscience. Past experience has taught him that losing even one soldier hurts, and he'd be more than willing to pass off the decision to someone else. It's his men who force him to lead, demanding he fulfill the confidence and trust they have put in him.

The beauty of a Rod Serling script is that though he may pose a question that seems extremely compact, he unfolds it so that every possible angle can be explored, showing how large the true issue is. This is especially true of The Strike, where the men in Gaylord's command offer different reactions and modes of thinking in regards to the problem. A visiting chaplain (Roy Roberts) is a voice of faith and the greater good, while the soldiers take a far more cynical, practical view. They expect their higher-ups to make the bad decisions they can't and accept death as a product of war.

The acting is uniformly good through both shows. Chester Morris gets the meatiest role in The Arena. Senator Rogers even says as much: the man in the middle is the one with the real burden, he's the one who must see both sides and sway to either. Morris maybe overdoes some of the drunk scenes, but they work all the same. In The Strike, James Daly commands the screen as the Major. He is a fairly standard Serling lead. Rod loved watching a man fall apart. Daly sweats, paces, twitches, and loses his cool at every turn of the script page.

Anytime I watch these old shows, I always have to pause and admire their construction. The performers and the crew had to move between sets without taking a break, and I'm always fascinated by the complicated set-ups they create to give everyone time to get where they are going. When you step back and dissect what you are seeing, it's pretty remarkable. There were no do-overs. If the camera was not in place, if an actor tripped and fell or forgot his lines, there was no way to fix it, everyone would see. It's like live theatre, but beamed across the nation. Most of the productions on Studio One or other anthology shows, including these two episodes, rivaled regular motion pictures, and often, they got remade as full movies. You'd expect productions of this kind to be quaint throwbacks to a simpler time, but they are really far more complex than most of what the networks put on television in the decades after taped broadcasts became the norm and prior to the more recent cable revolution.

Saturday, August 18, 2018


While 1970s American movies like Taxi Driver and Dog Day Afternoon gave us an indelible image of the grimy side of 1970s New York, it was the independent auteurs that followed that captured the more arty, anything-goes side of the city’s culture. Early Jarmusch, for instance, and even Martin Scorsese’s Big Apple follow-ups to Travis Bickle like The King of Comedy and After Hours.

Susan Seidelman is by far more in the Jarmusch camp. The New York of her 1982 feature debut Smithereens is the New York that gave us Basquiat and Madonna--with whom, of course, Seidelman would make Desperately Seeking Susan not too long after. Interesting people doing interesting things just for the sake of it, just because they thought New York was the place to be. New wave music and graffiti, striped skirts and checkered sunglasses, hustlers and poseurs--all of these are elements of Smithereens, and all make the film interesting, even if its story never quite finds the depth of its surroundings.

First-time film actress Susan Berman stars in Smithereens as Wren, a New Jersey ex-pat who is trying to blag her way into a rock-and-roll lifestyle. It’s never quite clear what Wren’s artistry encompasses, and likely she hasn’t figured it out yet either, but she plasters photocopies of her face around the city and pretty much barrels through anyone who gets in front of her. Forever the opportunist, she drags along fresh Montana-transplant Paul (Brad Rinn) to her night on the town when it’s clear he’ll pay the bills, but then drops him for Eric, a singer played by real life punk icon Richard Hell, as soon as he shows a passing interest and potentially something to gain. Wren spends the rest of Smithereens bouncing between the two, with only Paul being smart enough to know he’s being used, and the girl too blind to see that Eric will never take her to Los Angeles and let her manage his band.

Working with mostly an unprofessional cast*, Seidelman manages a kind of neorealism that is as much John Cassavetes as it is Jim Jarmusch--though I’d also compare this to Alison Anderson’s Border Radio [review]. This quality will  be a boon for viewers looking for an unvarnished time capsule, but might be a problem if you are seeking something with a bit more form. Seidelman is definitely working with the best of what she had available. Shot by Chirine El Khaden, who also worked a camera on the influential hip-hop movie Wild Style, Smithereens has the dirt and grime of a documentary--all of which comes through with a gritty clarity on the Criterion Blu-ray. We see such mythologized sights as the Peppermint Club, and most of the people hanging around are likely the real deal and not hired extras. Going from seedy movie theatres to Bohemian cafes, there is an undeniable authenticity to Smithereens. You could almost say you were there.

And you could also say you’ve spent a lifetime with its main character. Wren is a hard woman to like. Paul is entirely right: she is a self-serving loser with a bigger mouth than tangible qualities to offer. The only thing that makes her tolerable--as opposed to, say, Agnes Varda’s Vagabond protagonist, or countless loudmouth male sidekick characters like most anything Jason Lee played in the 1990s--is that Susan Berman understands the insecurity behind the bravado, and she can sell it when the façade drops. If only she was a tad more charismatic, I might have felt more inspired by the freeze-frame ending. Wren could have been more like Antoine Doinel on the beach at the end of The 400 Blows [review], suggesting a possible future; instead, she only appears startled by the irony of receiving unwanted attention after spending the whole movie trying to monopolize everyone’s time.

Much better is Seidelman’s initial film-school short And You Act Like One Too. Shot in 1976, this black-and-white tale of a housewife feeling neglected on her 30th birthday is a charming day-in-the-life. Marsha (Karen Butler) is abandoned by her husband and daughter on what is meant to be her special day, so instead of sitting around feeling sorry for herself, Marsha goes out and gets a new hairdo, runs some errands, and takes a chance giving a ride to a charming hitchhiker (Andras Maros). Unsurprisingly, this trip leads her to some unexpected places, and Seidelman delivers a comic twist at the end that is truly delightful. The film is simple in its intent, but broad in its character analysis.

Seidelman’s second student film is the color divorce drama Yours Truly, Andrea G. Stern. This short focuses its attention on young Andrea (Jilian Frank), the daughter of a newly separated couple. She lives with her mom (Joanne Gross), and starts to feel left out when a new man (Billy Wine) moves into the house. While the narrative thrust is that Andrea is trying to get Jonathan to move out, this isn’t a Disney Channel comedy where the schemes are wild and implausible; on the contrary, Seidelman’s deeply felt script imagines what realistic actions Andrea would take, what tools she’d have at her disposal.

Yours Truly, Andrea G. Stern is somewhat ambitious in style, framing itself as a documentary with the off-screen director colluding with the girl, but also putting us in the space of her imagination. The title refers to how Andrea signs off her diary entries, which also serve as narration for the film. The result is something more real and personal than if Seidelman had chosen not to take a child’s point of view so serious.

* Though keep an eye out, because apparently Chris Noth from Law & Order and Sex and the City plays a prostitute! I didn’t see him, but I didn’t know to look.

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

Friday, August 17, 2018


This review was originally written for  in 2011.

The spirit of John Cassavetes is alive and well and shooting on the streets of Boston.

Writer/director Damien Chazelle's Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench is a 2010 indie relationship film shot in a classic verite style that hearkens back to the great work Cassavetes was doing in the 1960s, as well as the influential films of the Cahiers du cinema crowd. Guy and Madeline has also earned comparisons to Jacques Demy's The Umbrellas of Cherbourg [review]. It has a romantic heart that beats to a jazzy rhythm, one that is purposefully out of step with the manic drums of modern music. It's an anachronistic conceit that Chazelle wears right out in the open. I get the sense he'd be pleased by all the comparisons and references to possible influences. It's all intentional, all by design. Why else choose to shoot on 16mm black-and-white film if not to remind us of cinema long past?

The story of Guy and Madeline is simplicity itself. Guy (Jason Palmer) is a jazz trumpet player who ruins his young relationship with Madeline (Desiree Garcia) when he cheats on her with Elena (Sandha Khin). This quick hook-up is an ill-considered impulse, Guy only just met Elena on the subway, and eventually, he will come to regret the decision when the new girl gets clingy. While he's figuring this all out, Madeline has decided to move on, and she begins exploring the possibility of getting out of Boston and going to New York.

The principle players of Chazelle's film are all dreamers in some fashion. Guy is a music maker. Like many musicians before him, he's more obsessed with the complications of melody than he is the complications of l'amour. To him, people are played in much the same way he plays his horn. It's not for nothin' that his seduction of Elena is achieved merely by touch. Chazelle avoids making Elena an empty device, giving her an interior life, as well. She is a lonely girl all by herself in the city. Just before meeting Guy, she hits on a street performer; just after, she encounters an old man wandering the streets looking for a connection. (He is played by a fellow named Frank Garvin. Save the "male prostitute" jokes for Fred.) It's hard to tell if none of these connections work out for her due to naïveté or selfishness, though it's also hard not to feel sorry for her either way. Sandha Khin has a broken quality that, if natural, signals very good casting, but if it's intentional, it signals a very good actress. (One wonders, given that she first introduces herself by her own name, only to correct herself and give her character's name, a flub Chazelle decided to leave in.)

Madeline proves to be the real dreamer, however. Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench is full of music, jazzy numbers composed by Justin Hurwitz and recorded by local jazz musicians and the Bratislava Symphony Orchestra. Most of it is either background scoring or live performances by Guy and his friends, including one tap dance routine that spontaneously erupts at a party. It's live music within the scene, and thus grounded in the "real life" of the movie; Madeline's songs are more in line with the old-school, theatrical musical tradition. She sings her tunes as expressions to the self, and the instrumentation backing her up is essentially the music she hears in her head. For her second number, she also imagines her co-workers dancing along, turning her mundane waitressing job into a choreographed performance. As the wronged party in her relationship with Guy, she is the true romantic, and so also the one who fantasizes about a life free of everyday confinement. He may be the artist, but she's the one with an artist's soul.

Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench is shot in a down-and-dirty style. Scenes are loose in the moment, and there is an air of improvisation to the whole affair. The actors appear to be either unprofessional or first-timers who aren't overly polished, and yet who are comfortable onscreen. Chazelle served as his own cameraman (and he also co-edited with W.A.W. Parker), and he favors intimate close-ups and cramped quarters where characters can't escape one another. (A shower scene involving Guy and Elena is particularly uncomfortable.) Street scenes appear to have been captured as they happened, with plenty of real life occurring in the backgrounds. As the music takes over, the camera backs away and the image widens. The editors also put their scissors down, letting the takes run long the way they would have in Golden Age Hollywood, when you could actually watch the performers do their thing without lots of frenetic trickery.

The final sum of all these parts is a fascinating, playful merging of styles. It's MGM by way of the Nouvelle Vague, and though at times the story feels underdeveloped, the emotion is authentic and the characters real enough to make them worth watching. And, of course, there is Hurwitz's excellent music, cut in at all the right times to make sure our attention never drifts. Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench builds to a satisfying, yet open-ended conclusion, where consequences for previous choices come to bear and there is enough honest growth that it leaves us hopeful that they will make better ones down the line.

This charming mash-up also makes you wonder what will be down the line for the people who squished it all together. Damien Chazelle has certainly set a unique bar for himself. Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench combines the personal with spectacle in such a way that makes you want to see more, but the fear is Chazelle could go too far to either side and lose what made this first effort so interesting in the first place. It'll be a balancing act, one I'll be watching while holding my breath and crossing my fingers, hoping against hope that the filmmaker makes it all the way across.

2018 Update: Well, I certainly had high hopes for Damien Chazelle. Too bad he went too far in the wrong direction. While I was conflicted about Whiplash--my review is here--I found La La Land execrable. Chazelle should have stuck with this, his original mission to save jazz.

Friday, August 3, 2018


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


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.


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.


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


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


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.