Friday, May 15, 2020


This review originally written in 2005 for my Confessions of a Pop Fan blog.'

The Sniper is a 1952 release from director Edward Dmytryk, also known for Murder, My Sweet and The End of the Affair. Dmytryk really has to struggle against some heavy-handed material here. The film stops dead twice as the police psychologist explains his theories about sexual predators and the proper course of treatment, but even as these monologues grate on modern ears, you have to appreciate the progressiveness in even approaching the subject. The titular sniper is a disturbed young man who has developed an obsessive hatred of women, and he is compelled to climb the rooftops of San Francisco and shoot ones he feels have done him wrong. Arthur Franz plays the killer as a lost soul who just wants to belong somewhere, only to find himself barred from the social situations he finds himself in. He goes from placid happiness to rage to self-loathing and guilt all in the course of single scenes, the smallest slight setting him off. It all has an unexplained connection to baseball, stemming from his first violent outburst as a child, and it comes to the fore at a carnival where an obnoxious woman in a dunking tank game taunts customers. Franz buys nine balls, sinking the woman five times in a row before really losing his cool and hurtling the rest of the balls at the tank itself. It's explosive, and makes perfect sense for a character overcome by irrational anger.

The movie truly shines, though, when we focus on the cops (including the amusingly named Lt. Frank Kafka), who approach the crime scenes with a gallows humor and a dogged determination they never quite let show. The best scene is when a parade of sex perverts is led through an open interrogation where they are more ridiculed than questioned, the sort of snarky bad-cop interrogation that has become a staple of police stories. Dmytryk's fantastic location shooting is another high point, adding a realistic touch to the film. The steep San Francisco streets seem to personify the sniper's internal struggle: he can never walk normally on even ground.

Wednesday, May 13, 2020


This review originally written for in 2013. 

I've written some pretty harsh reviews of older Biblical movies in the past, and generally take heat for it whenever I do. It's a genre that hasn't necessarily aged well. The earnestness of movies like The Song of Bernadette [review] has only grown more clunky over the decades, and some dramas like The Robe [review] now come off as more campy than intended. It's not that I am opposed to these kinds of movies, but it seems they need to be of a finer vintage, like DeMille's The King of Kings [review] or the silent version of Ben-Hur.

William Dieterle's 1953 interpretation of Salomé proves to be a solid exception, albeit an imperfect one. Rita Hayworth leads a fine cast as the stepdaughter of King Herod (Charles Laughton, Island of Lost Souls [review]). Herod's marriage to Salomé's mother (Judith Anderson, Rebecca [review]) has brought him unwanted attention from John the Baptist (Alan Bedel), a prophet in a new religion who also preaches sedition against Rome. While Herod is in service to Rome, he is afraid to move against the Baptist due to an old prophecy and his fears that the preacher may be the Messiah.

Salomé herself recently left Rome, tired of being persecuted and rejected by Roman men as an outsider. She is thus understandably upset to hear that her mother is suffering from small-minded bigotry, as well. Travelling with her is Claudius (Stewart Granger, Caesar and Cleopatra), an emissary sent to check up on Herod. Claudius turns out to be sympathetic to Herod's dilemma, sensing that harming the Baptist would turn the King's subjects against him. The soldier also turns out to be susceptible to Salomé's charms.

The gnarled motivations and backstory of Salomé is largely what makes the movie still interesting. At first I thought it odd that Harry Kleiner and Jesse Lasky Jr.'s script was working so hard to humanize the people who are, essentially, the villains of the piece, but this ends up working toward establishing Christianity as a transformative movement. John the Baptist's message appeals to the fundamental humanity in his oppressors, and it offers redemption to all, including Salomé, who ends up joining his cause. It's her mother who will be the one to demand the prophet's head.

No surprise there, really. Anderson is at her best when she is being selfish and shady. Laughton mainly sleepwalks through yet another bored ruler role, while Granger and Bedel play their parts with a stiff reverence. At times, they serve as little more than props on the elaborate sets, clotheshorses for the fancy costumes. The colorful photography of Charles Lane (Charade [review], Summer and Smoke) eclipses just about everyone. Salomé is a Technicolor delight.

Only Rita Hayworth, with the help of her trademark red hair, manages to stand out. As always, she is lovely, and she wears her gowns with elegance. (Her outfits were designed by Jean Louis, who also made Rita's knockout black dress in Gilda [review].) The actress struggles slightly with Salomé's naïveté, overdoing the wide-eyed routine just a tad. This could just be the downside of playing a character who was considerably younger than she was, even if she somehow still manages to look as fresh-faced and youthful as required. It was interesting to watch this film back-to-back with Miss Sadie Thompson [review], released in the same year. In that one, Hayworth plays a woman of some experience, and she is allowed to show her maturity, both in performance and appearance. You'd swear they were shot at least a decade apart.

The climax of Salomé is Hayworth performing the "Dance of the Seven Veils" to distract Herod. It's an excellent number, with both the costumer and the dancer delivering on the choreography's sensual promise. It's too bad that an uncut version of the routine doesn't exist. It's a crime every time Dieterle breaks away from his star to show the backstage shenanigans. It's Salomé's biggest selling point, and makes the more rickety plotting well worth sitting through.

Sunday, May 10, 2020


This review was originally written in 2011 for

My first encounter with The Big Country was a couple of years ago. I wasn't familiar with William Wyler's 1958 film until George Clooney was talking about how he borrowed a scene from it for Leatherheads [review]. When Clooney's character goes and gets John Krasinski in the middle of the night and takes him outside to settle their differences without anyone else spying in, that's a direct lift from The Big Country. Gregory Peck does the same with Charlton Heston. They need to fight, that's inevitable, but the score is between them, and there is no need for bragging or showboating.

It's a pretty impressive fist fight, with both men whaling on each other until neither of them can stand up. It's also central to understanding Gregory Peck's character in the film, and really, the whole of Wyler's message. Life's hurdles are for each individual to tackle in his or her own way, and though might may sometimes be required, it may not always make right. This didn't all sink in the first time I watched The Big Country, but seeing it again, I am awed by Wyler's expansive transformation of the cowboy epic into a politically relevant tale of personal responsibility and ethics.

The Big Country is based on a novel by Donald Hamilton, perhaps best known now as the creator of the Matt Helm character (Dean Martin played Helm in four movies in the 1960s). Wyler and a team of writers bring Hamilton's book to the screen as a western that is as grand in scope as the open land allows, but as deeply personal as human drama demands. Peck plays James McKay, an East-coast gentleman and former Navy man who travels West to join his fiancée (Caroll Baker, Baby Doll) at her family home. When he arrives, he is immediately out of place. His bowtie and rounded hat say "dude," and the local roughnecks immediately doubt his suitability as husband for one of their own. In particular, Steve Leech (Charlton Heston), the foreman on the girl's family ranch, doesn't like this dandy threatening his own place in the scheme of things.

But it's not just McKay's clothes that set him apart, it's also his attitude. Little did he know that by joining with the Terrill family, he was signing on to a long-running feud between the well-to-do Major Terrill (Charles Bickford, Brute Force [review]) and a neighboring rancher, the less successful Rufus Hannassey (Burl Ives, who won an Oscar for his performance). Their main squabble is over the Big Muddy, the land that separates their properties, a lush spread with a healthy water supply. Since its owner died, leaving the deed to his granddaughter (Jean Simmons, The Robe [review]), each man has fought to get his hands on the property and cut his rival out, even though the woman has every intention of honoring her grandfather's promises and letting both water their cattle on the Big Muddy.

The truth is, neither Terrill nor Hannassey are really fighting over water. Their bitterness goes deep down, and it's indicative of class divides and social ranking. Major Terrill is respected and rich. He calls Hannassey and his boys "the local trash;" Hannassey, in his blistering opening speech, calls Terrill "a high-tone skunk." As McKay learns more about this feud, the murkier the motivations of each man becomes and the obvious first impressions lose their luster. It also becomes harder and harder for McKay to stick to his own principles, as the natural suspicion of outsiders undercuts him at every turn. It would be easy to show up his detractors. When he first arrived on the ranch, Leech tried to haze him by putting him on the farm's most ornery horse. McKay beggared off, though later that day, returned to the corral and kept getting on Old Thunder until it stopped bucking him off. He knew he could do it, he didn't need outside validation.

James McKay is another of Gregory Peck's great screen heroes, a man as philosophically and morally resolute as the progressive reporter he played in Gentleman's Agreement or his career-defining turn as Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird. Peck is the very embodiment of intelligent masculinity. While watching The Big Country, I texted a friend and said, "Damn, I'd like to have a drink with Gregory Peck." He is stoic and smooth as McKay, displaying plenty of backbone but in a manner that is quietly assertive rather than shouty or violent. He also gets to be funny and romantic, particularly in his scenes with Simmons. There is at least one laugh-out-loud moment when he feigns being queasy during their contest of who has the most gruesome story from their respective adventures.

William Wyler was no stranger to big productions. A decade prior he had made The Best Years of Our Lives, a multi-layered portrait of post-War American life. Though The Big Country doesn't branch out in quite the same way as that film, it is no less impressive in terms of how Wyler handles large themes. He expertly moves from contemporary life to the untouched countryside of America's past, appropriating it as a backdrop where these near-mythic conflicts can play out. The Big Country was photographed by Franz Planer (The Nun's Story, Breakfast at Tiffany's [review]) using the widescreen Technirama process (a Cinemascope knock-off). Wyler and Franz use the gorgeous mountains and untouched plains of California and Arizona as their canvas, drawing their drama under the blue skies and using the grandeur to show both the smallness of human pettiness and also how majestic individual endeavor can be when placed in the context of the big, beautiful world we live in. Their compositions are fantastic, particularly in the final scenes of conflict. Gunmen dot the landscape as far back as the camera eye will permit.

For western fans expecting quick-draw showdowns and black hat/white hat morality, The Big Country likely won't be your thing. For those who want something a bit more enriching, who want to see complicated men wrestle with maintaining a personal code of honor and maybe get a little romance for good measure, then The Big Country is soon to be one of your new personal favorites. As another friend pointed out, this is like The Quiet Man [review] set in the American West, with all the expansiveness such a transplantation implies.

Saturday, May 9, 2020


This review originally written for in 2011.

Leading British arthouse film director Andrea Arnold (Red Road [review], Fish Tank [review]) has taken one of literature's most famous romances and scrubbed it of its poetic declarations and gloomy portents, revealing a tattered, brutal tale of cruelty and the privilege of class that has been lurking underneath all the heavy breathing and emo expressionism.

Arnold's interpretation of Wuthering Heights maintains the 19th-century timeframe and Southern England locale of Emily Brontë's novel, but her presentation of the Earnshaw estate is neither fancy nor pretty. There are no white curtains come alive in the wind, no pleasantries or politeness. It's muddy and dark and bare. The story is basically split into two halves. In the first half, the head of the Earnshaw clan (Paul Hilton) brings home a young ruffian (Solomon Glave) he found in the streets. Thinking he will do the boy a favor by raising him as his own, he dubs the child Heathcliff and forcibly baptizes him into his family and religion. This breeds resentment with his eldest son, Hindley (Lee Shaw), and awakens something else entirely in his daughter Catherine (Shannon Beer). The relationship between the two adolescents is one of sexual discovery, even if they aren't immediately clear on exactly what they are discovering.

When Earnshaw dies, leaving Hindley in charge, things take a turn for the worse. Hindley becomes more openly hostile and expressive in his racism. Though Brontë described Heathcliff as darker skinned, the prejudice against him was primarily because he was a gypsy; Arnold has decided to cast Heathcliff as a black male, adding a more pronounced and identifiable sting to Hindley's hatred. Feeling ostracized in the community, Heathcliff leaves to make his way in the city.

Heathcliff's return to Yorkshire as a grown man is the start of Wuthering Heights' second half. Played now by James Howson, a first-time actor (like much of the young cast), Heathcliff comes back to find the farm in a state of disrepair under Hindley, and Cathy (Skins-star Kaya Scodelario) has married the son on a prosperous neighboring farm (James Northcote). Seeing his plans for revenge and redemption scarpered, Heathcliff chooses instead to hang around, slowly twisting the emotional knife in his tormentors while also trying to rekindle lost passions. Such things can, of course, only end in tragedy.

Andrea Arnold's take on the material exposes the Heathcliff/Cathy relationship as less a great love affair and more an obsession over a lingering compulsion. Cathy, played with eager naivete by Beer and haughty privilege by Scodelario, is drawn to Heathcliff because he is forbidden fruit. He is a bit of a bad boy, prone to verbal outbursts full of colorful, anachronistic street slang, but she also toys with him, both as a teen and as a woman. This makes Heathcliff grow increasingly bitter. Both Howson and Glave are a bit blank onscreen, their only apparent emotion being the slowly boiling anger and resentment that understandably make them want to lash out. Earnshaw adopted Heathcliff hoping to make him one of his own, and in that he succeeded. His natural children are petty and mean, no matter how many class pretensions they claim. Hindley is a hooligan, Cathy is practically an 1800s version of a chav.

This latest rendition of Wuthering Heights was shot by Robbie Ryan, who worked with Arnold on her previous movies; more recently, he's lensed both Ken Loach's The Angels' Share [review] and Sally Potter's Ginger & Rosa [review]. Ryan brings a street-level verité to what is traditionally a fancier story. The camera follows the characters on loose feet. Jittery handheld and voyeuristic close-ups lend the film an immediacy costume dramas often lack, plucking Wuthering Heights out of the past and placing it in the now. Though Ryan and Arnold linger on different aspects of the natural surroundings, they never chase the magic hour or seek out the more conventional beauty of the countryside. They instead prefer nature in all its harshness--mud, waste, death.

The elements are a living presence in Wuthering Heights. The wind and the rain drive the narrative and its characters, reforming the people as much as the weather also alters the landscape. A sudden storm accompanies a conflagration of emotion, leaving a lingering feeling that the soil will never dry, nor will the extreme impulses of the battered lovers ever cool. This, of course, only adds to the tragedy of Wuthering Heights: Heathcliff and Cathy can never win, they are subject to the natural order, and its inevitable consequences, as much as anyone--or anything--else.

Thursday, May 7, 2020


This review originally written for The Oregonian.

Stray Dogs, the 2013 film from Taiwanese director Tsai Ming-liang (Good Bye, Dragon Inn), is a heartbreaking work about struggle and human connections.

The story follows a family of three--father, son and daughter--getting by as best they can. Dad's alcoholism has put them on the streets.

A lonely grocery store clerk who regularly feeds the neighborhood's homeless canines meets the children in her store. They tug at her sense of charity.

Ming-liang's patient filmmaking avoids expositional narrative. In Stray Dogs, the silent scenes say more than the sparse dialogue.

The movie is at once beautiful and entrancing, ending with a staggering scene of loneliness and warmth. The stillness of those final moments is emotionally devastating, yet incredibly rewarding.