Sunday, June 23, 2019

COLUMBIA NOIR: THE LINEUP/PUSHOVER/THE BURGLAR


This is the third and final collective review of the Criterion Channel’s bundling of several films under the “Columbia Noir” tag--multiple examples of 1940s and ’50s crime pictures released by the Columbia studio. These films are only on the streaming service through the end of this month, so you’ll want to squeeze the good ones in fast. Here is my first selection, and here my second.


The Lineup: Stirling Silliphant sits behind the typewriter again, just as he did for Columbia on Nightfall in 1957. The Lineup came a year later, and was directed by tough-guy director Don Siegel, known for Riot in Cell Block 11 [review], the 1964 version of The Killers, and perhaps most famously Dirty Harry [review]. Like that Clint Eastwood vehicle, The Lineup takes place in San Francisco. The film is a dual procedural, focusing one side on the cops investigating a drug smuggling scheme, and on the other, the two hired killers collecting the heroin from unsuspecting mules who have had the contraband hidden in their souvenirs from foreign countries.


It’s this more salacious side that dominates The Lineup, mostly due to the razor-sharp, unsettling performance by Eli Wallace (The Misfits [review]). He plays Dancer, a cold-blooded fixer with a singular drive. Robert Keith (Written on the Wind [review]) works alongside him as Julian, the mentor and handler for Dancer. Together they thug their way through the Bay Area, picking up the smuggled packages and leaving a trail of dead bodies behind them. Wallach delivers a perfectly modulated performance, lacing Dancer’s precise actions and false pretenses with a callous indifference, the murderous impulse lingering just under the surface. It’s fantastic to watch, both riveting and menacing.

Siegel blends the drama with a more realistic shooting style, making a meal out of the San Francisco locales. This is especially noticeable in The Lineup’s climactic car chase, a crazy high-speed rush through the Presidio and beyond. It’s pretty exciting stuff, and closes the movie on a high note even while delivering the expected “crime doesn’t pay” messaging.


Pushover: Another Richard Quine effort (see previous review of Drive a Crooked Road), 1954’s Pushover begins by pinching its slugline from Double Indemnity, even going so far as to borrow one of its stars, before taking off in its own direction.

Indemnity’s Fred MacMurray shows up in Pushover as Paul Sheridan, a police detective who finds himself taken in by the femme fatale he’s been tasked to case. It’s no wonder, since Lona is played by Kim Novak (Vertigo [review]), here making her screen debut--though at this point more an alluring beauty than a capable actress. Ready to toss all caution and scruples to the wind for Lona, Paul attempts to discombobulate his own stakeout, leading to one colleague ending up dead and the other suspicious.


The screenplay by Roy Huggins, the writer behind the TV series The Fugitive, makes clever use of the limited cast and confined locations that a stakeout requires. Three cops: two in an apartment across the way from Lona’s and one in a car down on the street. In addition to Paul, there is Rick (Philip Carey, Mr. Roberts), a straight arrow, and Paddy (Allen Nourse, Odds Against Tomorrow), an older cop with a drinking problem, one step away from retirement but one stumble from losing his pension. Add to this dynamic whatever complications you can think of, but also factor in Rick developing a crush on Lona’s pretty neighbor (Dorothy Malone, perhaps most memorable as the sexy bookseller in The Big Sleep [review]). There are many collision courses of human behavior just waiting to explode.


Quine brings all the requisite shadowy cynicism to Pushover. It’s not quite as dark as Double Indemnity, but it’s fueled by a similar disappointment in the social contract. The plot is smart, but the dialogue isn’t very sharp, depriving Pushover of the sort of snappiness that could have nudged it into being a classic. That said, it’s still damn enjoyable, and worth it to see just how far MacMurray’s Paul will go to get the blonde.


The Burglar:  Though I have no memory of it, turns out I reviewed The Burglar back in 2014 and back then wasn’t impressed by its ragged style the way I was when watching it today. Notes I made during this viewing:

* jumpy editing, keeps a fast pace by cutting out connective tissue
* emotional extremities, psychological framing, the whole film has a feverish impatience spawned both from the pressure of guilt and sexual tension
* Duryea as a sweaty, repressed mess brings it all together. His restraint is juxtaposed by his henchman’s uncontrollable urges. The assault on Jayne Mansfield’s character is rough even now, but especially for 1957
* Police feel like they are in a different movie. The lackadaisical detective has more in common with Steven Geray in Columbia’s So Dark the Night [review]

Some of these thoughts are echoed in the longer piece, and though I’d be inclined to give The Burglar 3 stars instead of 2 nowadays, the rest of what I had to say still rings true. Read it for yourself:


The 1957 film noir The Burglar is the kind of film that I'm almost compelled to embrace and champion as a lost curiosity. Directed by Paul Wendkos, who went on from here to direct a ton of television, and adapted by David Goodis (Dark Passage) from his own novel, The Burglar is a bizarre, almost impressionistic take on the usual small-time heist drama. I say almost, as you'd be hard-pressed to make a case for its disjointed quirks being intentional. When it comes down to it, The Burglar is a bit of a mess.

Dan Duryea leads the low-rent vehicle as Nat, an equally low-rent crook who spies a wealthy woman's jeweled necklace in a newsreel. He and his crew track the lady down, and they send Gladden (Jayne Mansfield) to case her place. Once they know where the necklace is located and the lady's routines, the two other robbers (Peter Capell and Mickey Shaughnessy) stand on lookout while Nat climbs into the second-story window and cracks the woman's bedroom safe. Despite a narrow brush with the cops, the theft comes off. The high-profile target brings the heat, however, and Nat insists they lay low and wait to fence the ice until it's cooled off.


It's a smart plan, but a hard one to execute, particularly as the bad guys all start to go stir crazy rather quickly. Baylock (Capell) is wanted on other charges and is eager to get out of the country; Dohmer (Shaughnessy) is a mouth-breathing dope who can't keep his eyes--or hands--off of Gladden. Nat is protective of the girl, so he sends her away to Atlantic City to wait it out there. She ends up cavorting on the beach in her bikini (because, you know, she's Jayne Mansfield) and hooking up with a new fella (Stewart Bradley). Nat also winds up meeting a new lady, a tough gal on the make (Martha Vickers). As it turns out, neither of these lovers found each other by accident, and Nat and the boys have to race against the clock and dodge police barricades to get to Jersey before the whole plan goes kablooey.


If you think that sounds like a lot of story, well, it's actually kind of not. The Burglar has a rather small plot when it comes down to it, and Wendkos and crew spend a lot of time hanging around, mulling over the minor story points, repeating scenes and arguments until it's time to move on to the next set-up. It's all rather bizarre. Wendkos shares co-editing credit with Herta Horn, who apparently worked on no other movie before or after The Burglar. Together they whack at the narrative with what one would guess is a meat cleaver and gardening shears. The story jumps from scene to scene, often leaving out crucial connective details, though there is cause to wonder if they were ever there to begin with. A few sequences at the flophouse double up on each other, arguments between the batty burglars repeating as if it's the first time any of them had the same thought. Other story elements make little sense. Nat's sudden ability to roam the city, for instance, making it easy for his would-be girlfriend to find him even as the cops seem to have no clue as to where to look, while Baylock and Dohmer remain under house arrest, is an act of narrative convenience with no grounding in reality.


Yet, for as clumsy and ham-fisted as The Burglar can be, there are also daffy bravura moments, particularly in terms of visual approach. Cinematographer Don Malkames has a vivacious, unhinged filming style, developed as the cameraman on multiple musical revues, capturing live R&B and rock-and-roll. He is a master of artfully composed frames, preferring extreme angles and odd points of view. It's often hard to predict where his camera will end up. When Nat sends Gladden away, Malkames shoots from the ceiling, almost as if we were looking at footage from a security camera. In other sequences, he prefers odd perspectives--sitting in the driver's seat inside a car, peering out from the empty safe as the unsuspecting victim paces back and forth, taking a punch directly to the face. While the mis-en-scene doesn't always line up, it almost doesn't matter. Malkames has a command of both the beautiful and the grotesque.

Unfortunately, that's not enough to recommend The Burglar outright. The film was such a creative flop, it reportedly sat on the shelf for two years until Columbia saw an opportunity to capitalize on Mansfield's burgeoning fame. (Pete Kelly's Blues [review] was shot just before The Burglar , and 1957 also saw the release of Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? and Kiss Them For Me.) Mansfield is certainly beautiful here, though her looks are played down in comparison to the bombshell image that was being cultivated for her. Her acting chops are less impressive. Only Duryea is on point, finding a solid footing for his tough-guy character despite the imbalanced production. By the end, he looks about as confused as the rest of us.


Sunday, June 16, 2019

COLUMBIA NOIR: MURDER BY CONTRACT/HUMAN DESIRE/DRIVE A CROOKED ROAD/NIGHTFALL - CRITERION CHANNEL


I am continuing to work my way through the Criterion Channel’s “Columbia Noir” bundle, a collection of crime and melodrama spanning three decades of the Columbia studio. You can see my first group review here; it appears this collection will be off the Channel at the end of the month, so hurry if any of these sound like your thing.


Murder by Contract: This raw 1958 hitman picture from Irving Lerner is considered a B-movie classic, lauded by Martin Scorsese and others for its rough-hewn, independent style. It’s a bit like Allen Baron’s Blast of Silence [review] in that what it lacks in polish, it makes up for in earnestness.

Vince Edwards, who played Val in Kubrick’s The Killing but was probably best known as TV’s Dr. Ben Casey, stars as Claude, a self-motivated would-be contract killer looking to earn enough cash to buy a house on a lake far away from the grind. Claude’s m.o. is that he uses his brains rather than weapons, avoiding any pitfalls that might lead to the police tracking him down. After a few successful jobs, he is sent to Los Angeles to take out a nightclub performer (Billie Williams) about to testify against a colleague of Claude’s boss. With the trial a few days away, Claude decides to soak up Hollywood...only to find the time wasted when the girl proves harder to kill than he thought.


It’s funny to watch Murder by Contract now, as it’s hard not to think about the HBO show Barry, in which Bill Hader plays an assassin who tries to leave the life to become an actor. Too bad Murder by Contract has none of Barry’s wit, character, or even action. This is all pretty standard stuff, obviously done on the cheap, with little editing or rewriting applied to Ben Simcoe’s sloppy script. The narrative meanders, and Edwards appears committed to the role but incapable of delivering what that commitment requires.


Human Desire: Master director Fritz Lang had scored a noir hit with The Big Heat, also for Columbia, in 1953, and Human Desire sees him reuniting his principal cast a year later for another go. This time, Lang is adapting La bête humaine, the Emile Zola novel that also inspired Jean Renoir’s excellent 1938 drama of the same name [review]. Glenn Ford takes over the Jean Gabin role, playing Jeff, a fresh discharge from the Korean War returning to the small town where he grew up to pick up where he left off. Jeff is looking to resume his quiet life as a train conductor, renting a room in a house with his co-worker, the man’s wife, and the growing daughter who has eyes for the levelheaded boarder.

Enter temptation. On a random trip, Jeff crosses paths with Vicki Buckley (Gloria Grahame), who lays on the charm. Little does Jeff know that Vicki’s flirting is to distract Jeff from finding the body of the man her jealous husband, Carl (Broderick Crawford), just killed. As Jeff is drawn into Gloria’s web, he soon ends up covering for her misdeeds and heading toward the inevitable: he’ll have to kill the husband if he wants the wife all to himself.

Stylistically, Human Desire has more in common with Lang’s 1952 steamer Clash By Night than it does The Big Heat. The title says it all: this is a plot about base emotions and internal struggle. Grahame sizzles as the manipulative femme fatale, playing off nicely with Jeff’s more earthy paramour, the innocent who can see no wrong in the man she loves (a noir trope). Ford conjures some of that grinding anger that worked so well for him in Gilda [review], but the real star here is Broderick Crawford, who portrays Carl as scheming and black-hearted, but also nervous and insecure. He makes the violent creep almost sympathetic.


Drive a Crooked Road: Okay, now this is more like it. This 1954 crime piece from director Richard Quine (Sex and the Single Girl [review]) is sharply written and unflinching in its dark cynicism. Mickey Rooney plays Eddie Shannon, a natural wunderkind with a car engine who also likes to race from time to time, but always comes in second. Ribbed at work for being short, and self-conscious about the scar on his face, Eddie is a lonely guy just getting by.

Enter into his life Barbara Mathews (Dianne Foster, The Last Hurrah), a Beverly Hills swell with a car that needs his special touch. When Barbara takes Eddie outside the garage, however, it’s she who will be applying her own special touch. Barbara is a unique kind of femme fatale--she plays the part of the loving, open girlfriend so convincingly, there isn’t even a hint that Eddie is being played. Rather, it’s guys in Barbara’s social circle who eventually approach Eddie, looking for a driver who can navigate the winding California roads.


Quine makes great use of the landscape, from beach to mountain to the almost space-age confines of Eddie’s dealership. There’s a sparkle to it all that hypnotizes our protagonist, and though Eddie is an A-grade patsy, Rooney brings empathy to the role. You really feel sorry for the guy, and Foster is such a warm presence, so kind, it feels like a double betrayal when it goes wrong. These factors give special stakes to Drive a Crooked Road’s finale, affecting who we root for and why in a way that has more emotional truth than the standard noir payoff.

To see Mickey Rooney in a similar role, and also just to see another quality film noir, also seek out Quicksand from 1950.


Nightfall: Jacques Tourneur could bring style to any genre, be it horror like I Walked With a Zombie [review] or the quintessential noir Out of the Past. While his 1956 Los Angeles crime picture Nightfall does not necessarily rise to the level of that classic Robert Mitchum collaboration, it’s still a solid chase picture in its own right.

Aldo Ray (Miss Sadie Thompson [review]) plays Jim, a Navy vet built like a quarterback with a cool, gentle demeanor. Jim is hiding out in Los Angeles, where he is being watched by several pairs of eyes. Most notably, by two crooks, John (Brian Keith, The Parent Trap; The Pleasure Seekers [review]) and Red (Rudy Bond, On the Waterfront), bank robbers who ran across Jim in Wyoming while on the run. That tussle left one man dead and a bag of money went missing--money the pair of hoods believe Jim is hiding.


It just so happens the night they catch up with Jim is also the night he meets Marie (Anne Bancroft, The Graduate [review]), a lonely model who lucks out by meeting the one gentleman in Hollywood. Or so she thinks. Her chance encounter puts her in danger once Jim gives the bad guys the slip, and the two of them end up in a race to get out of town and find the cash.

Tourneur, working with a script by Stirling Silliphant (In the Heat of the Night [review]), strikes an interesting balance here. The hunt has all the great tension of an urban thriller, while flashbacks to Jim’s story, and really the man himself, have the easygoing calm of a farmland drama. The blonde patsy is not your typical noir hero. His voice is soft, his vocation is art, his origins are rural; he’s a light fish swimming in a dark pond. That means when we shift to Jim’s terrain for Nightfall’s snowbound climax, things get a little quieter than we are used to in a noir showdown, but Tourneur and Silliphant are letting the characters dictate the action, bringing the hunter and the hunted full circle to have an ending that perfectly suits who they are.


Friday, June 14, 2019

THE WICKER MAN - CRITERION CHANNEL

This review was originally written for The Oregonian in 2013.



Long before the remake was a distant image in Nicolas Cage's rearview mirror, the original The Wicker Man was a cult horror classic.

Made in 1973 by English director Robin Hardy, The Wicker Man stars Edward Woodward as a police constable drawn to a remote Scottish island on the pretense of looking for a missing girl. Awaiting him is a bizarre pagan community led by the appropriately named Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee). The isolated detective finds himself in a surreal, increasingly dangerous world with no connection to the mainland.

Oh, and Britt Ekland dances naked.

Perhaps more weird than scary, and even at times a little goofy, The Wicker Man well deserves its reputation as an oddball delight. Though mostly seen in its shortened theatrical release, in recent years we have seena newly struck digital presentation of the “definitive" director’s cut, restoring most of his original intent.*


* NOTE: It is unclear which version is on the Criterion Channel.

Wednesday, June 12, 2019

SWING TIME - #979


Swing Time is pure joy.

The 1936 musical, directed by George Stevens and starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, is brimming over with bliss from its very first frame to the very last. Frothy and buoyant, the movie delights as a romance; cynical and witty, it also functions as an early 20th-century parable of American gumption. You can be a wise guy and a hustler, but that doesn’t mean you don’t have a heart.

Astaire stars as Lucky Garnett, a hoofer looking to make his way in the world by marrying up. When his theater pals make him late for his own wedding, it gives his would-be father-in-law a chance to drive a wedge between suitor and daughter (Betty Furness). So it goes that Lucky and his pal Pop (Victor Moore), a magician and con man, head to New York--where Lucky will need to make a sizable sum in order to prove he’s good enough for the bride-that-wasn’t.


Upon putting shoe to pavement in the Big Apple, Lucky runs across Penny (Rogers), a city girl who doesn’t fall for his rap but ends up on the wrong side of his schemes anyway. When Lucky’s joking around gets the girl fired from the dance school where she teaches, he rolls the dice and taps his shoes to win it back for her, ultimately pairing up with Penny as a dance duo--their ambitions funded by his and Pop’s gambling profits until the team really gets up on their feet.

Along the way, of course, Lucky and Penny fall in love, but he still thinks he needs to honor his prior commitment to his fiancée and can’t just be straight about this predicament with his new paramour. Nor can he be straight in business, despite his promises not to gamble. It’s just not his way. How ever will this work out?


Swing Time is fun and snappy, set to the rhythm of Lucky’s lifestyle, and yet comfortable in its pacing. Stevens is not afraid to take time between musical numbers to let his characters be themselves and will let a conversation run long if it means adding to the drama. No one in Swing Time feels like they are in a hurry--Astaire will indulge a long look at Rogers, Moore will take the space he needs for a card trick or a sight gag--and yet the movie never drags, never feels lazy, and always finds the right cue to make its next move.

Astaire has a charming, unforced screen presence. He seems unaffected by script or camera lens, he is as naturally himself as he is graceful on the dance floor. It’s easy to see why he and Rogers made such a great pair. They are just as in tune in conversation as they are in choreography. Though made not long after the Hays Code was implemented, Swing Time still generates some real heat between its leads, and the jokes and situations still manage to be a bit naughty. These are Runyon-esque characters, sharp denizens of a softened underworld, but criminals and crooks and show people nonetheless.


There’s nothing to not really like about Swing Time. Even Astaire’s unnecessary turn in black face--the tribute to Bojangles Robinson could have been done with dance alone, adopting his skin tone adds nothing--seems tame and lacking in malice. And the famous routine where the star trades moves with three shadow versions of himself dazzles enough to make you forget the misstep.

Which is really the point of a movie like Swing Time: to make you forget. It’s smart escapist entertainment, a cut above, even as we hurtle into this whole other century. Effervescence, it seems, has no expiration date.


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

Sunday, May 26, 2019

JABBERWOCKY - #903


Lewis Carroll’s poem “Jabberwocky” is considered the greatest nonsense poem of all time, inventing its own language and creating a picture of a monster that it is both fearsome and silly. Knowing that, and watching Terry Gilliam’s first feature-length film as a solo artist, 1977’s Carroll-inspired Jabberwocky, gives some context to where the filmmaker is coming from.

But I’m not convinced that all of the above is a good thing.


I don’t quite get what to make of Jabberwocky. I decided to watch it after viewing Gilliam’s latest, The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, a cursed production about a cursed production and how art can drive one to madness. It’s a dull mess. The cosmos did everything it could to warn Gilliam away from this folly, but the auteur identified with the dizzy Don a little too much, it seems. You’d think after a couple of decades that Gilliam would have figured out The Man Who Killed Don Quixote; my guess is that instead the maestro shed no ideas gathered across all those years, landing this beast with all the brambles and barnacles of various development hells intact.

Too bad then that I don’t see much clearer thinking behind Jabberwocky. I don’t understand what this film is supposed to be. The obvious answer would be a satirical fantasy, mining similar comedic veins as The Life of Brian and Monty Python and the Holy Grail, but without the talented Python ensemble to back their American partner up.


Jabberwocky is lit like it’s Barry Lyndon, but its set decorators are more obsessed with grit and grime and making everything oily and dirty. And the director himself with scatological humor. We see more than one person defecate, and the hero of the piece, Michael Palin’s typically clueless Dennis, is urinated on twice. Dennis is every Terry Gilliam protagonist: a befuddled doofus buffeted about by society, trapped in a quagmire of red tape, bad faith, and inexplicable social mores, obsessed with love that is beyond his reach, but ultimately stumbling into some semblance of a resolution.


Palin gives it a good try. This is totally his wheelhouse, after all. Any appeal that Dennis has comes from Michael Palin’s genuine and undeniable likability. The character has no traits worth rooting for--he’s single-minded, self-absorbed, and lacking in finesse or taste--yet one can’t look at Michael Palin’s innocent, open face and wish him to fail.

Ostensibly, Jabberwocky is a quest story. The titular Jabberwocky is terrorizing villages in the kingdom, and our expectation is that once Dennis leaves his small hamlet for the royal city, he will somehow be put in position to slay the beast, and thus be the hero he didn’t know he could be. And we do get there, but not before a lot of detours into undercooked sketches where Gilliam satirizes medieval culture and takes the piss out of more romantic views of the period. You fancy being a knight of the Round Table? Well, be prepared to live in filth and squalor amongst unenlightened people with no real moral compass. The level of humor here is maybe best illustrated by Dennis and the rich merchant of his village, Mr. Fishfinger (Warren Mitchell), laughing about a man who got so scared his teeth turned “snowflake white.” Get it? They are all gross and are too stupid to know it!


Gilliam plays a lot of these moments as an afterthought. In the city, we see other merchants racing their litters, pushing the men carrying them to the limit, just to arrive at court first. It’s a nice way to show how these greedy nobles behave, but there is little payoff. Gilliam is off to the next idea, ill concerned with the connective tissue. Which might be fine if these gags were just funnier. The witticisms aren’t as sharp as the ones we got in Holy Grail, nor does the film have anything to say, a la Life of Brian.

And yes, I know, this is supposed to be nonsense, and I am probably taking my comedy way too seriously. Except, when you’re not laughing, what else do you have to think about but why?


I’d also suggest that if Jabberwocky is intended as nonsense, then its conforming to our narrative expectations in the final 30 minutes of the movie violates its own mission. As predicted, Dennis ends up in service to the knight who goes after the Jabberwocky, and it takes expected deviations from there. Amazingly, with the plot getting more straightforward, Jabberwocky somehow becomes even more flat. I didn’t think it was possible. The monster reveal, however, is fantastic, with Gilliam using extreme angles and an obstructed view to slowly ratchet up the feelings of dread and fear. Plus, the monster is really cool, an appropriately odd-looking practical construction.


Let’s be honest, Gilliam is at his best when he has someone keeping him in check. While Jabberwocky could arguably be forgiven as an effort by a filmmaker finding his own way, it has that overloaded feeling that permeates a lot (if not all) of the director’s work. His best films, like Brazil [review] and The Fisher King, succeed because they are tightened up (I can’t imagine what the studio execs who hated the ending of Brazil would think of Jabberwocky’s finale), and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen is the example that proves the rule, its volume and excess making it exciting. At his worst, no one appears to be watching--either behind the scenes or in front of the screen (Tideland and The Zero Theorem come to mind). Jabberwocky feels like a filmmaker unleashed...but almost like he still has to crawl before he can really run.


Thursday, May 23, 2019

THE DAY HE ARRIVES - CRITERION CHANNEL

This review was originally written in 2012 for DVDTalk.com. It is reprinted here on the occasion of the Criterion Channel launching a triple feature of Hong Sang-Soo films that also includes Claire's Camera and On the Beach at Night Alone.


Seongjun is a filmmaker who made four films before abandoning the craft and becoming a professor at a small school in the Korean countryside. On the occasion of The Day He Arrives, the latest from Hong Sang-soo (Woman is the Future of Man; In Another Country [review]), the emotionally wounded artist (played by Yu Jun-Sang) has returned to Seoul to visit a friend, Youngho (Kim Sang Jung). On that first day, the friend is nowhere to be found, and so Seongjun wanders his old stomping grounds, running into an actress he knows, drinking with some film students, and when deep in his cups, visiting his ex-girlfriend, Kyungjin (Kim Bo-Kyung). There is still pain between them, and also some love, though when she sends him away, it seems for the best.

When we see Seongjun again, it's the next morning, and he is back on the hunt from Youngho. If the circumstances look the same, it's because they are. The Day He Arrives, for the purpose of this film, is every day, and every drunken night gives over to the same hungover morning. Seongjun realizes it...and he doesn't. The only time he acknowledges the passage of days, it's when he runs into the actress again. He remembers seeing her the day before, and she remembers seeing him. The air around her is different.


On day 2, Seongjun connects with his friend, and they go out together, hooking up with his colleague, a woman named Boram (Song Seon-Mi). Youngho and Boram are film professors, as well, and they teach together in Seoul. Boram is attracted to Seongjun, she likes his films, and she's curious about his broken heart. He is distracted, however, when they go to a bar called Novel, and the pretty owner turns out to be a dead ringer for Seongjun's ex-lover. Indeed, in a move reminiscent of Bunuel (or perhaps Lynch), Kim Bo-Kyung also plays Yejeon. The director is drawn to this woman, the coincidence is too overpowering. It must mean something, right?


This is the central philosophical question that Hong Sang-soo sets out to examine in his mesmerizing drama. The repetition of events in The Day He Arrives is not an empty gimmick, it's a considered choice that has been undertaken with purpose. As each new version plays out, different things happen. On day 3, an actor friend joins the group. Seongjun also makes progress with the bartender. On day 4, Youngho is drunk and reveals himself a little more. Each character is getting a kind of do-over. They take more risks, speak more truths, and essentially get at what they are trying to get at.

I suppose how you interpret the changes and escalation is going to determine how you assess The Day He Arrives. It may also be a personality litmus test. The liner notes to the film, written by critic James Quandt, are titled "Déjà Vu," but I think that's too tidy a concept for the existential riddle that Hong is posing. His main character sets the parameters when he says he doesn't believe that coincidence has meaning. Life is a series of random events, and we spend so much time trying to connect them, we risk missing that there is only one inevitable outcome. Whatever circumstances keep bringing these people together, whatever common thoughts drive them (throughout the movie, conversations are repeated with speakers switching roles and/or echoing each other in the discussions), this is all chance. For the optimistic among you, the repetition of these happenings ultimately puts luck on your side. In a kind of Groundhog Day romantic scenario, the characters can get better, do better, and get closer to some kind of true connection. If you're pessimistic like me, the randomness only proves to emphasize how alone we, as humans, really are. Every day, Seongjun gets to know the barmaid a little better, gets to like her more, and eventually succeeds in being with her...only to let his own emotional dysfunction dictate his next move. It's like the old saying goes, no matter where you go, there you will be. Seongjun can't help but be alienated. He is eternally the outsider, always arriving, never staying.


The Day He Arrives, for all its long scenes of conversation, is a tightly edited film. For its surreal concept, it's also surprisingly grounded. The acting and the writing are naturalistic. Hong never forces the drama, nor does he spell out his intentions through overly explanatory or self-reflexive dialogue. Instead, his references are subtle, and he lets the actors be themselves within the scene, lets them find the truth. The camera probes occasionally, moving in tighter on a moment when further intimacy is required, but otherwise it's unobtrusive. We hang back and watch, we aren't pushed into the center of the intellectual mystery. This, of course, makes it all the more intriguing. Hong seduces us with the unknowable, and it's hypnotizing. Even as we begin to discern the magician's tricks, the illusion is never dissolved--meaning we are there wholly and completely when the final devastating day comes at last.



Sunday, May 19, 2019

THE HEIRESS - #974


Just about every child fears turning into their parents, but like owners and their dogs ending up looking alike, some developments are inevitable.

So it is in The Heiress, a drama that at its root is about what a father will pass on to his daughter. Everything would be so much simpler were that to be nothing, but since it’s a rather large sum of money, it makes everything complicated.


Olivia de Havilland stars as Catherine, the heiress in question, the sole child of widower Dr. Austin Sloper (Ralph Richardson, The Fallen Idol [review]). Catherine is shy and plain, having grown up not just sheltered, but stifled by her father’s continually comparing her to his porcelain view of her mother. Sharing the house with the pair is Austin’s sister Lavinia (Miriam Hopkins, Design for Living [review]), herself harboring the ache of a lost love, her own paramour a living memory, the stories she tells Catherine shaping the young woman’s view of marriage and romance.

Catherine is of the age where she should consider her future and the potential for marriage. Lavinia is doing her best to pry to girl out of her shell, insisting she go to social functions and even goading men into asking Catherine to dance. No goading is necessary, however, at one fancy soiree when Morris Townsend (Montgomery Clift, Red River) takes a liking to Catherine and begins to woo her. Within two days, they are engaged--a development that makes the good doctor none too happy. He sees Morris as a man of zero means, who blew threw his own small inheritance traveling in France, and who clearly only seeks his dowdy daughter’s fortune, he couldn’t possibly like her for who she is.


Released in 1949 and based on the novel Washington Square by Henry James, The Heiress is a buttoned-up melodrama, crafted with a meticulous attention to the social mores that would dictate how such romantic entanglements played out. Afraid that Dr. Sloper doesn’t like him, Morris jumps the queue and asks Catherine for her hand first; yet, when the doctor rejects the marriage, Morris beggars off, insisting the patriarch’s approval is necessary for their happiness--though the point of contention being whether Morris cares more for Catherine’s good health or for the fact that she’ll only receive 1/3 of her potential inheritance should Dr. Slope so choose.


We never know, really. Montgomery Clift is at his best here. He’s handsome and charming, but also intensely awkward. He seems sincere, but mercurial, so it’s hard to judge his motivations. William Wyler doesn’t cut away to show Morris sharing any secret confidence. The closest we get are his private times with Lavinia; he gets looser around the older woman, more cavalier. It does give us pause. But then, maybe he’s just more comfortable around her because she isn’t judging him. If he is lying, Lavinia would still prefer Catherine be happy to Morris’ motives being pure.


The crux of Henry James’ story, and the script by Ruth and Augustus Goetz (adapting not just the novel, but their own stage play), is how Catherine views herself versus how others view her. If Morris is to be believed, he sees something in her that others do not; if her father is to be believed, she is severely lacking. Richardson plays Sloper as haughty, impetuous, and cruel, but with enough warmth to suggest he does want better for his daughter. In particular, he wants her to find her own voice, though ironically he takes the brunt of it when she does. Little would he expect that his acidity is something she would also inherit.


For her part, de Havilland is marvelous, delivering a nuanced performance that convincingly takes Catherine from spinster to dame. The script allows her to make gradual changes, but when the full transformation occurs, it’s still the same woman, despite being practically the polar opposite to how the character began. I think the real reason for this is that de Havilland brings enough natural charisma and depth to the role, that it allows us to see what Lavinia and Morris see in Catherine, enough to reject public perception. Catherine is the underdog, and to be rooted for. Thus, it stings to see her clam back up, to become her old man--haughty and cruel. Her rejection of the maid’s compliment is as demeaning as all the times Dr. Slope rebuked her. It’s these character moments that make The Heiress so enticing. Smartly, Wyler keeps the pyrotechnics dialed down, and he and director of photography Leo Tover (The Day the Earth Stood Still) keep the camera steady. All the drama is in the dialogue, and a carefully crafted facial reaction is more telling than an emphatic zoom.


What surprises me the most about The Heiress is how it sticks to its vision. That motivations remain ambiguous is a triumph to itself, but that Wyler was allowed to stick to an ending that conventional Hollywood wisdom would usually have deemed too dark puts The Heiress a cut above most other costume dramas of the time. In fact, the increasing mania of the last man standing in the final scene haunts me still.

By the by, for those of you who would have sworn that Clift’s Morris was about to break into the perennial Elvis Presley hit “Can’t Help Falling in Love” when showing off his piano skills, your ears do not deceive you! It turns out that the 18th-century tune “Plaisir d’amour” would later inspire one of my favorite love songs.


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

Saturday, May 18, 2019

DIAMONDS OF THE NIGHT - #969


Jan Němec’s 1964 debut Diamonds of the Night is all things at once. Simple and complicated. Sparse and detailed. Accessible and challenging. Grounded and poetic.

Based on a novel by Arnošt Lustig, Diamonds of the Night is the story of two young men on the run in World War II-era Czechoslovakia. Having escaped from a train hauling them to a Nazi concentration camp, the boys charge through the forest and countryside, avoiding people, looking for food, and occasionally resorting to desperate acts to survive. Told with little dialogue and shot in real locations, there is a harsh realism to the story Němec lays out. These boys are isolated, without hope, never sure if the people they spot along the way are friend or foe.


Yet, we maybe can’t be sure of the young men either. We have our assumptions regarding whom they might be and why they were rounded up, but as Němec plays with time and memory, slicing up his scenes, splicing in random shots that could be past or present, fantasy or reality, we can’t help but build different scenarios. Němec starts to really play tricks on us when the fugitives rob a farmhouse, forcing the farmer’s wife to make them sandwiches. We see them take the food and go, but we also see them attack her, leaving her unconscious on the kitchen floor. Which was it? What really happened? As we get more information later, we even start to doubt why she was initially scared of the intruders.


Taken one way, the lack of exposition in Diamonds of the Night causes us to question why the civilians that the escapees encounter don’t help them, why these common folk give their allegiances to outside invaders, whom history has already judged by the time the film was made; taken another way, we are forced to question ourselves, why we automatically perceive things a certain way, and if our failure to challenge the known is the reason fascism can creep in and ultimately win out.

Either way, it’s a compelling experience, rarely giving the viewers time to catch their breath, and revealing a director with a firm grasp of his own cinematic vocabulary.


Arnošt Lustig was a real-life prisoner of war and much of his writing was based on his experiences. A short documentary included on the Criterion edition of Diamonds of the Night explores how Jan Němec interpreted Lustig’s work for film. Also included is Němec’s 1960 student film, A Loaf of Bread, based on one of Lustig’s stories.


A Loaf of Bread details three prisoners plotting and undertaking a scheme to steal bread to feed them on a planned escape. Though more straightforward than Diamonds of the Night, it displays a similar tight control, reminding me somewhat of the French noir of Jacques Becker or Jean-Pierre Melville for how the attention to small action builds tension. It’s easy to see the promise in the young director that would pay off four years later.


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