Wednesday, May 25, 2022


This review was originally written for in 2011. 

Lionel Rogosin's 1957 film On the Bowery is a landmark of independent cinema and a key component in the expansion of the documentary genre. Shot over several months in New York's infamous skid row district, Rogosin adopts the ethos of the Italian Neorealists and applies it to the American experience. His movie, while not perfect, is an emotional document of a harsh reality, teeming with honest interest that goes far beyond mere voyeurism or common exploitation.

The son of a wealthy textile family, Rogosin turned to filmmaking as a response to WWII. He wanted to make sense of a world he thought had gone crazy and to use his family's riches for something more important than just making more money. It took him a while to suss out just how to make a film, and to assemble his crew from amongst New York's cinema population, but by the mid-1950s, he had it sorted. He spent six months by himself living on the streets of the Bowery, getting to know the men there. From amongst his new drinking buddies he pulled out several distinct personalities, including the two key players in the eventual movie: Ray Salyer, a handsome Kentucky boy on the sauce, and Gorman "Doc" Hendricks, an old salt who knew his way around the bar and flophouse alike.

On the Bowery is a loosely plotted assemblage of real footage and staged scenes. While they are easy to tell apart, one does not weigh heavier than the other. Salyer plays himself as a new arrival to the drunken streets, with Gorman both taking him under his wing and taking advantage of him. For many on the drink, another man's worth only extends as far as his bar tab, and the undulating patterns of a life spending nights getting soused and mornings fighting the hangover set a pattern for these lost souls that they can't get out of. Someone like Ray still means it when he swears he will kick the habit, but a guy with as much experience as Gorman knows otherwise. The best exchange of the movie is when Gorman says he has sworn similar oaths 1,000 times, and Ray counters that he's younger and so he's only tried it 800 times. It's meant to be funny, but there's not much faith put in the notion that one of those last 200 will be the magical cure.

Conversations like that one punctuate the "narrative" of On the Bowery, keeping Ray's basic story on track. His struggle to survive the skids was the sketch that Rogosin and his collaborators, cameraman Richard Bagley (he also shot Sidney Meyers' The Quiet One) and writer Mark Sufrin, put together to keep the film moving forward. In the midst of these controlled improvisations, they cut in footage of the real men on the street. Each chiseled visage implies its own sad story. Eventually, the faces move off the corners and into the bars, and when they've had enough to drink, the reality and the fiction merge. The party turns into a cacophony of arguments and come ons, and even fist fights.

Editor Carl Lerner is credited with helping Rogosin shape his hours of footage into a concise, cohesive movie, and it's to his credit that it all hangs together. (Lerner would go on to edit such classics as 12 Angry Men [review] and The Fugitive Kind. [review]) The bulk of On the Bowery never really feels manipulative or manipulated. Rogosin only strays into conventional fiction when he attempts to wrangle the ending into something of a message. Granted, Gorman's final act of kindness toward Ray is born out of guilt for ripping him off, and the good Doc exaggerates his contribution in his own retelling of it, so at least it's still honest about what motivated him. Rogosin pushes hope, but his fingers are crossed.

The archival print of On the Bowery, put together by the Cineteca di Bologna and archivist Davide Pozzithe and distributed by the fine people at Milestone Films, is exceptional. The image quality is fantastic, and Bagley's stark photography serves to preserve a history that might otherwise have been lost. The conditions we see are filthy, and yet, sadly, not all that unfamiliar. I was hit up for spare change as soon as I left the theatre, and I'm ashamed to say, my first response was to lie and say I had nothing to give. I thought better of it shortly after and gave the man what I had. I don't expect a pat on the back, I was as selfishly motivated as Gorman or anyone else in the movie; I just admit it here as a reminder to myself to maybe not be so quick to take the default position in the future. How else can I suggest you watch a movie like On the Bowery and listen to what Lionel Rogosin has to say? Critic, heal thyself.

Sunday, May 22, 2022


This review was originally written for in 2008. 

Jean Gabin was one of the earliest stars of French cinema, sort of like the Parisian Humphrey Bogart. A man's man and an extremely physical actor, he played tough guys in movies like Pepe le Moko and Port of Shadows. When I call him a physical actor, I don't mean that he was doing stunts like Erol Flynn and jumping around, but that he acted with his entire body, becoming the role in full the way Gerard Depardieu would decades later (or, for a more contemporary reference, Javier Bardem). At the same time, he also had that classic Hollywood quality where, regardless of the role he played, he was always Jean Gabin. His gestures, his way of speaking, the very way he carried himself--all Jean Gabin.

Archie Mayo's 1942 suspense picture Moontide was Gabin's first Hollywood production after emigrating stateside when the Germans rolled into France. In it, Gabin is still very much Gabin, but this time in English. He plays Bobo, a carefree dockworker in his cups on the Southern California coast. Bobo sees life as a party, and he hits the whiskey pretty heavy to keep it going. The whiskey hits back pretty hard, too, leaving the seaman with many nights unaccounted for. One in particular may need more accounting for than others: an old salt that Bobo argued with early in the evening is dead by morning, having been strangled. It seems maybe Bobo has killed with his hands before, and he may have done so again. His buddy Tiny (Thomas Mitchell) might know, but Tiny may also be keeping his lips zipped just to keep the Bobo gravy train going. It pays to harbor a man's secrets.

Things go the other way the next night, however, when Bobo sees a young woman trying to drown herself and pulls her out of the water. Anna (Ida Lupino) is a waitress with secrets of her own, and Bobo refuses to hear what drove the lady into the water, instead letting secrets remain so. Though traditionally a wanderer, Bobo decides to settle down and run a bait shop with Anna. Naturally, Tiny doesn't like seeing his ship moored, and so he tries to make trouble for the couple. It becomes a game of who knows what, who is bluffing, and who will call those bluffs.

For his American debut, Gabin surrounds himself with a marvelous ensemble of actors, and he more than holds his own. Bobo is a character who takes whatever comes how it comes, and Gabin lets his body hang loose for the role, saying just as much with his graceful and comic hand gestures as he does through dialogue. He's excellent with Lupino, whose frail demeanor is perfect for the world-weary Anna. She goes from tentative to increasingly confident in Bobo's care, even eventually mustering the strength to stand up to Tiny. As the bad guy, Thomas Mitchell almost owns the whole show. The character actor is probably best known as Uncle Billy in It's A Wonderful Life [review] and the Mayor in High Noon [review], far cheerier roles than this one, and it's actually a shame he didn't get to be the heavy more often. Tiny is a real bottom-feeding weasel, the kind of guy you love to hate and whose mere presence adds tension to a scene. If you said that they didn't have to cue Bobo's dog to growl at him every time he came near, he just got testy because Mitchell made the canine believe he really was a lout, I'd not doubt it. He also brings an intriguingly obsessive edge to the role that lends some fire to the homoerotic undertones in the Tiny/Bobo relationship. Being gay would certainly explain why Bobo keeps taking off to go fishing or work on an engine rather than spend the night with his woman, which otherwise just looks like a clumsy device to clear the way for Tiny to victimize Anna.

Of the strong cast, only Claude Rains (Casablanca) seems to be playing under his usual caliber. Perhaps it's just the nature of his role, though. The character of Nutsy is more of an observer who occasionally doles out some barroom wisdom rather than being a completely active participant in the melodrama. That particular role certainly isn't the only thing undercooked in Moontide. Despite having such amazing actors and a narrative gumbo that practically demands Mayo pour on the spice, Moontide is a pot that never boils. The entire picture moves at an even pace, never speeding up to match the bloodlust or slowing down to enjoy any other kind. The direction is workmanlike, only mustering up any semblance of a style in a few of the late-night shots and one amazing, Dali-inspired drunken montage. Then again, how hard is it to get a dramatic image by backlighting an actor on a foggy coastline? Plus, we don't know how much of that was really Fritz Lang, who left the movie after two weeks of shooting, making room for Mayo.

Moontide is neither dark enough for a noir, nor histrionic enough to be a truly effective melodrama. The seas should rage, but instead, the waves roll in calmly with barely enough force to push a dead body ashore. Not a terrible movie, but not all that memorable either--just disappointing.

Saturday, May 21, 2022


 This review was originally written for in 2012.

There's something about the way the title card declaring that Bernie is based on a true story that compels you to think that maybe you're being conned. Perhaps it's just that Fargo has made the moviegoing audience a bit suspicious of quirky films about a murder in a small town, but it's not helped that co-writer and director Richard Linklater and star Jack Black, who previously worked together on The School of Rock, don't even try to hide their tongues in their cheeks. They're pushing those suckers hard against the inside of their mouths. The bulges are evident.

And yet, Bernie is taken from real life. The story of an East Texas funeral director who killed his rich benefactor and then spent nine months pretending she was alive while he spent her money has already done the "true crime" rounds. Screenwriter Skip Hollandsworth wrote the article that is the basis for the film. His angle was to focus on the fact that many of the citizens in Bernie Tiede's community rallied around him and pushed for leniency despite his having shot a senior citizen in the back four times. Linklater makes much dark comedic hay out of this idea, attempting a light-hearted version of a docudrama by blending "real" interviews with "authentic" townspeople with the more traditional humorous staging of the events. The effort is noble, if not entirely successful.

Black is amusing and restrained as Bernie, a religious-minded funeral director who, by all accounts, took his job seriously and extended generosity to the families he aided above and beyond the norm. He had a particular ability to get along with the older widows, and he managed to charm the uncharmable. Marjorie Nugent, who is played with particular comedic aplomb by Shirley MacLaine, was a pretty mean old woman. Her husband owned the local bank, and both of them were notorious misers. Bernie and her became friends, traveling all over the world together, though eventually Bernie became more of an on-call servant. As Marjorie grew more and more demanding, he snapped and shot her with the "armadillo gun."

Or so he says. The county district attorney, Danny Buck, thinks otherwise. Buck is played by Matthew McConaughey, whose big break was back in Linklater's Dazed and Confused [review]. McConaughey has traded that film's feathered hair and tight T-shirts for a bad wig and ill-fitting suit, yet he has kept all the cockiness. Buck is convinced that Bernie is more of an operator than he lets on. Their neighbors think Buck is the operator, that he's just an opportunist with a re-election campaign to manage. All the money Bernie spent while hiding the body was to help out his friends, and no one liked Marjorie much anyway. Where's the harm?

Bernie strikes a tenuous balance between macabre humor and gruesome reality. The down-home values angle is a bit of a trick. One gets the sense that Linklater wants us to have some sympathy for Buck, who, for whatever his flaws, would rather see the law upheld than distorted by some kind of misguided sense of charity. The problem is, the writing is too wishy-washy, never really coming down firmly on either side of the argument. It's almost as if Linklater himself was charmed by the folksy wisdom and forgot that it's not as imbued with common sense as the tellers seem to think. They con the filmmaker, even in absentia, as much as Buck believed that Bernie conned them.

The other problem with Bernie is that, like its main character, it's almost too nice. The storytelling is elevated by a genial comic touch, and I never got the sense that Jack Black is making fun of the man he's portraying; at the same time, I started to wish everyone involved would stop being so damned polite and start getting more invasive. We never get to really know Bernie Tiede, we never figure out what makes him tick. Sure, there are segments questioning whether he and his victim were ever romantic or if he was actually gay, but these notions are treated as so silly as to almost be immaterial. It's quite possible that Tiede's mercurial personality is what makes his story so fascinating, but if that's the case, that's something the film needs to own up to. Danny Buck almost touches on it in his closing arguments, but then Bernie shies away again.

Linklater has made a movie that is hard not to enjoy, but it's also equally hard to love. I like a lot of what he has done here. Playing the fake documentary element with such a straight face while at the same time letting the dramatization be more loose and carefree is kind of an interesting take on the genre--though, if I'm going to watch a mockumentary about a delusional theater person in a small rural town, I'm going to go with Waiting for Guffman. It's a better film. The kind of better film Bernie should have been. Instead, Bernie's just all right.