Sunday, June 27, 2010

Film #33: White Heat (1949)

Director: Raoul Walsh

Initial Release Country: United States

Times Previously Seen: once (about 8 years ago)

Teaser Summary (no spoilers):

Homicidal psychopath criminal grits teeth, kills cops, weasels, and dirty dames. Loves his mother, though.

Uncut Summary (the whole shebang, spoilers included. Fair warning):

Cody Jarrett (James Cagney) and his crew of thieves are bad dudes. In pulling a train robbery, Cody kills a few conductors before taking off with a stack of U.S. Treasury bonds. In the action, one of his crew has his face scorched by scalding steam.

Back at their hide-out, Cody and the crew meet up with Cody's mother and wife, both of whom are more than complicit in his illegal activities. In fact, his mother urges such action so that her son can carve out a path for himself and one day be “on top of the world.” Cody has to watch his back, though, since crew member “Big Ed,” his number two, has serious designs on usurping Cody's gang and his woman, the beautiful and high-maintenance Verna (Virginia Mayo).

While gathering up and preparing to hit the road, Cody suffers from a massive, crippling headache, a chronic condition that leaves him physically prone. He recovers with some soothing from his beloved mother and gathers the gang to head out, leaving behind their severely burned accomplice.

Left to right: Verna, Ma Jarrett, and Cody take a break from homicide & robbery for a quiet moment at the drive-in.

At police headquarters, FBI Agent Philip Edwards ponders how to find Cody. A series of clues lead him to where Cody is hiding with Verna and his mother. After a brief car pursuit, they get somewhat cornered in a drive-in theater. Cody tells Verna and his ma about his back-up plan in case of such a pinch: to turn himself in and admit to another, far lesser crime. This way, he will only do two years time, get released, and take control of the gang again.

After Cody turns himself in, Agent Edwards grills Ma and Verna Jarrett, but both are too smart to implicate themselves. Edwards seems a bit stuck, but he has another plan. He sends in fellow agent Hank Fallon to pose as a convict who will room with Cody in prison, hoping to gain enough confidence to learn where Cody has hidden the loot from the train robbery.

In prison, Fallon takes on the identity of Vincent Pardo, a fictitious con. While in, he eventually wins the excessively cagey and paranoid Jarrett's hard-fought trust. Just when it looks like they have a plan to “escape” together, everything goes to hell. From the convict grapevine, Jarrett learns that Big Ed, making his big move, has killed Ma Jarrett. Cody goes ballistic, punching out several jailers and getting sent to a solitary psych ward cell.

In the clink, Cody gives under-cover agent Fallon what-for.

Cody is far from done, though. He soon collects himself and stages a daring escape, capturing the prison doctor, killing a few guards, and lighting out with Fallon/Pardo and a few of his loyal crew on the inside. Cody Jarrett is once again on the loose.

First order of business is vengeance. Cody tracks down Big Ed and Verna at a hideout house. He catches Verna first, who lies through her teeth to avoid Cody's murderous rage. While she was the one to actually pull the trigger on Ma Jarrett, she pins it on Ed. Cody barely accepts the lie and goes after Ed, who he quickly dispatches with a few slugs to the back. The Jarrett Gang is now back in business again, with Fallon/Pardo now a full member of the crew.

The gang plans a massive score to knock off the payroll at a chemical plant. The plan is to use an empty gasoline truck and a Trojan Horse strategy. Unbeknownst to the rest of the crew, though, Fallon/Pardo has tipped off his fellow officers. Once the gang breaks into the plant and begins the heist, tons of cops show up to put an end to the robbery.

Inside the plant, Cody learns of Fallon's true identity and his impending capture. He finally loses whatever sanity he has left and goes on a killing rampage, though Fallon manages to escape in the chaos. Cody manages to scale one of the massive chemical towers and continues to fire upon the police. He finally makes it to the top, fires a few rounds into the container and screams, “Finally made it, Ma! Top of the world!!”

The container explodes into a massive mushroom cloud, taking Cody's psychosis and rage with it.

Take 1: My Gut Reaction (done after this most recent viewing, before any further research):

This movie is damn fun to watch. It's not high art, and it doesn't require any kind of background to enjoy, if one doesn't mind a high-octane shoot-em-up with a bit more depth than your average cops and robbers flick.

White Heat is noirish, though certainly not pure film noir. Many of the key noir elements are there: bad people doing bad things, a beautiful and dangerous woman in the mix, backstabbing, and a protagonist up to his neck in dastardly deeds. Yet, there is nothing admirable, enviable, or even very empathetic about Cody Jarrett, unlike other noir protagonists like Jeff Markham in Out of the Past or Walter Neff in Double Indemnity. Cody Jarrett is a pure psychopath: murderous, cunning, and driven.

James Cagney was the perfect guy for such a whack-job. Cagney may have been about 5-foot-nothing, but he exuded more toughness and lethal tension than nearly anyone I've seen in film. With his pug face, ever-present sneer, and cold, narrow eyes, it's not hard to see how he could play such a wild man so well. And yet, as scary as he is when in one of his psychotic rages, he was even more frightening when he would calmly look another character in the eye, and bold-facedly tell them that he was going to kill them. Said character was then no less that looking Death straight in that little squinched-up face.

I have to say that the dialogue is really amusing, as I'm sure it was meant to be, to an extent. Cagney delivering lines like, “If that radio's dead, it'll have company.” Or even the exchange when the worm-like con who tries unsuccessfully to kill Cody pleads, “You wouldn't kill me in cold blood, would you Cody?!” and Jarrett responds, “Nah, I'll let you warm up a while!” Pure gold, and there are plenty more like them.

Here's the clip of the prison escape, including one of the aforementioned "tough-guy" lines:

That Cody's crackers, I tells ya!

Still, while White Heat is essentially a cops-and-robbers movie on the surface, there's more to it than that. By adding in Cody's severe Oedipus complex, several layers are added to the tale. It becomes clear early on that Cody only really cares about two things: his mother and her edict that her son get to the top and stay there. The fact that “the top” is a twisted version of success built on thievery and murder is almost incidental.

And here lies the really interesting poser for me. When I think about Cody Jarrett and his ultimate goal, I almost can't help but see some warped version of the American dream at work. In a country in which individual accomplishment is prized above nearly all else, Cody Jarrett is a dark, mutilated, near-success story that ends in tragedy. Through the dialogue and story, we see that he only wants to appease his mother and do something grand with his life. His brand of slash-and-burn determination is not far from what one would have found in Nelson Rockefeller or J.P. Morgan. With this in mind, I almost liken Cody Jarrett to the Daniel Plainview character in Paul Thomas Anderson's epic There Will Be Blood. All of these men, both real and fictional, sought to define themselves by the money they made, by hook or by crook, and Cody Jarrett is no exception.

The non-noir elements in White Heat neither enhance nor take away from the film. There's a fair bit of over-the-shoulder exposition on the methods that law enforcement uses to track down the Jarrett gang. I suppose that this was interesting back in '49 the way that forensic cop shows can be interesting now – it's the basic human curiosity about methodology. Still, they are very dated in this film.

In that same vein, it's a bit of a shame that the movie quite obviously had to follow the “Hollywood” script. Sure, plenty of people get offed, but they're all extras. Even when it seems Fallon is a dead duck and is about to die a semi-noble death, the Hayes Code movie gods intervene and save his hide. Not that it's an altogether bad thing, but the movie lost a slight amount of punch to me by not having the insanity have more dire consequences for the more empathetic "good" characters.

These little things aside, I really liked White Heat, and would certainly watch it again. It's also one of those movies that you can judge for yourself by just watching the first five minutes. You get plenty of the action, depth, dialogue, and acting that make it a great one, and all before you can really relax in your easy chair.

Take 2: Why Film Geeks Love this Movie (done after some further research):

While reviewer after reviewer seems to hail White Heat as an undisputed classic, there's not a wealth of exposition on the film. It's one of the those movies that, like certain other classics, can be boiled down to a few key elements. With a Charlie Chaplin movie, for example, it's always the physical gags and comical situations. With White Heat, it's really two things: the amped up violence and James Cagney.

This film was really a grand return for Cagney. He had long before established his place as the face of cinema gangsterism. His sneering, pugnacious characters made films like Angels With Dirty Faces and Public Enemy. At the end of the 30s, however, he left Warner Brothers studios, turned away from the criminal roles and expanded his horizons, doing such films as the patriotic, light-hearted Yankee Doodle Dandy and others.

About eight years later, though, Warner offered him a deal he couldn't refuse; he went back and signed a contract loaded with residuals and, more importantly, a great deal of creative control. Cagney made the most of it, evidenced greatly in White Heat. Apparently, the true-crime inspirations were Cagney's suggestions, and the final rendition of Cody Jarrett was almost wholly Cagney's brainchild. Cagney reportedly wanted to make Cody a completely psychotic amalgam of all of his past gangster roles. Well, he did just that, and it worked like gangbusters.

One good story comes from the fact that Cagney did a fair bit of improvising on the set: during the famous scene in the prison mess hall, when Cody learns that his mother has been killed, Cagney's over-the-top berserk tirade actually scared the bejesus out of all of the extras, none of whom knew what was going to occur in the scene.

Here it is. It's amazing that Cagney didn't severely hurt himself while flailing around:

Much is made of the bizarre Oedipus complex that Cody has. Many critics point out that Raoul Walsh was so skilled that he managed to have a scene in which a distraught Cody actually sits on his mother's lap and allows her to sooth him, much like an eight-year old boy whose turtle just died. I have to concur since I remember the scene, but thought absolutely nothing of it since, by this time, Cody Jarrett's psychological deficiencies were so well fleshed-out that it seemed completely normal for him.

White Heat. It may not be high art, and it may not have been a grand leap forward for cinematic storytelling, but it sure is one helluva ride and a prime performance by an actor the likes of which Hollywood may never see again.

That's a wrap. 33 shows down. 72 to go.

Coming Soon: In A Lonely Place (1950):

Another Bogie movie! On top of that, I've never seen it, and know almost nothing about it. If you read my Casablanca review, you know how I feel about Bogart. Come back and see how I think this later addition to his resume stacks up.

Please be sure to pick up all empties on the way out.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Film #32: Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949)

Director: Robert Hamer

Initial Release Country: England

Times Previously Seen: none

Teaser Summary (20 words or fewer - no spoilers):

Ostensible gentleman coolly and hilariously murders his way up the tree of succession to a dukedom.

Uncut Summary (the whole shebang, spoilers included. Fair warning):

Louis Mazzini (Dennis Price) is a quiet, polite young man of a seemingly common, working class family. His English mother was turned out by her wealthy family, the D'Ascoynes, for marrying an Italian opera singer. The two left the D'Ascoyne estate for much more modest settings. Shortly after marriage, Louis is born, overwhelming the new father so much that he dies of joy, leaving Louis and his mother essentially alone.

Over the years, Louis grows up while his mother works in menial jobs and takes on a boarder to pay the bills. All the while, she sends Louis to the best schools. He eventually lands a job selling linens and even works his way up to selling women's underwear! All the while, his mother has been educating him on his family heritage, dispossessed though it may be. By this, Louis learns that he is roughly 12th in line for the Dukedom. Not much to go on, really, but time marches on.

Then, tragedy. Luois's mother suffers a tragic accident. She sends a plea to her estranged family to allow her to be buried on the family estate, but she is coldly refused. Shortly after, she dies. Louis becomes furious at the D'Ascoyne's callousness towards his beloved mother. He vows to kill each and every member of the family until he attains the Dukedom for himself. He begins in a benign enough way: he takes a job for his kindly great uncle D'Ascoyne in a large bank.
A determined Louis (left) ingratiates himself to his first future victim (middle) and his future wife, Edith.

Over the next several years, Louis both climbs the corporate ladder at the bank and exacts his cold revenge. Keeping a tally on a family tree, he "X"-es off any family member who dies. In some cases, he is helped by fate; scarlet fever does in twin infant D'Ascoynes and their mother; a fatal blunder at sea sinks Admiral D'Ascoyne; and so on. In many other cases, however, Louis plays the part of the reaper. By poison, explosives, bow and arrow, drowning, and the gun, he gradually does in every remaining living D'Ascoyne (all eight played by Alec Guinness) between himself and the Dukedom, finally claiming the title as his own.

Then, an ironic twist. Shortly after marrying the beautiful, noble and honorable Edith (Valerie Hobson), whose previous husband was one of Louis' victims, the newly coroneted Duke Louis D'Ascoyne is arrested for a murder that he didn't commit. In truth, he is being framed for the suicide of the husband of his past acquaintance and lover, the sensual and greedy Sibella (Joan Greenwood). Her ploy is to blackmail Louis into killing Edith and marrying her, making her the new duchess.

In the end, Louis agrees to Sibella's terms. She produces a previously-unfound suicide note which exonerates Louis. Upon his release, Louis stands outside of the jail gates to look upon two carriages: his upstanding and forgiving wife, Edith; and his egotistic and avaricious blackmailer, Sibella. Just when Louis seems to be back in the driver's seat, he realizes that he has left his faithful and honest memoirs in the middle of his jail cell, a thorough condemnation written by his own hand.

Take 1: My Gut Reaction (done before any further research):

A movie like this is one of the main reasons I started this little project: to find brilliant films that were previously unknown to me. Kind Hearts and Coronets is phenomenal comedy.

Only knowing the basic plot and that the film was British, I guessed that it would be black humor, and boy, was I right. It is black. Pitch black. To quote "the cowboy narrator" from The Big Lebowski, "...darker than a steer's tukus on a moonless prairie night." But it's black humor of the highest degree. It's the type of dry, dark, literate humor that I think only the British could pull off.

Louis Mazzoni, the serial murderer out for vengeance and the title that his beloved mother turned her back on, is far from warm, cuddly, or sympathetic. But damn, he sure is entertaining to watch and listen to. This is thanks to an brilliant script worthy of the wittiest Irish and British writers at their finest, as well as Dennis Price's portrayal as the mixed race, avenging devil. He's all manners, sophistication, and sly wit as he condemns and slays English aristocratic society both in word and in deed.

Equally worthy of attention is Alec Giunness as the eight D'Ascoynes. His performances are as incredible as they are hilarious. The eight aristocrats: the kindly banker, the bluff patriarch, the arrogant dandy, the blowhard Colonel, the bombastic Admiral, the ferocious suffragette, the rambling parson, and the emasculated photography enthusiast; each one is given his or her own attitude, bearing, voicing, and even posture. Each one is distinct and distinctly hilarious. Among the many jewels in Guiness' acting crown, this one is worthy of a prime place.

Here's perhaps the most hilarious little sequence of deaths. My favorite is the death of Admiral D'Ascoyne, which comes second in this clip. Sorry, but I can only give the hyperlink to the youtube clip.

A side-note on Alec Guinness. I heard once that one of his great regrets was playing Obi Wan Kenobi in Star Wars. The reason being that, after five decades of stellar acting work on the stage and screen, he would forever after 1977 be known almost exclusively as the bearded and robed mentor to a weenie Luke Skywalker. A true tragedy, in my book.

Back to Kind Hearts and Coronets. My girlfriend and I laughed so hard at this movie that I had to wonder why it isn't better known. My only theory is that U.S. culture has never embraced dark humor, en masse. When I think about our popular culture in terms of TV shows or movies, I find it still mostly composed of yuk-yuk jokes, slapstick gags, and very obvious, sophomoric humor. There have been some strides made lately, with a few successful shows dropping their laugh tracks ("But how will I know when to laugh!?") and relying on (gasp!) the actual script and acting.

The Office has done rather well with this very British approach, though a notable casualty was the incredible show Arrested Development, which Fox bungled horribly. I can only hope that more people begin to see the value in such shows, and realize that taking otherwise serious or dire situations and mixing them with a dash of ridiculous fiction can create storytelling magic. Kind Hearts and Coronets was a key forefather to such things in film, and I highly recommend and fan of dry, off-beat humor give it a watch.

Take 2: Why Film Geeks Love this Movie (done after some further research):

Some really interesting factoids about this movie out there, most notably in this great little essay by Philip Kemp.

The adaptation process was an interesting one. The original novel, Israel Rank: the Autobiography of a Criminal (1907) by Roy Horniman, was a very similar dark satire that subverted the aristocratic system in England. However, some key changes were made by the scriptwriters. Firstly, Horniman's half-Jewish killer was made to be half-Italian, given the political climate of post-WWII England. More importantly, however, were the additions of various methods of assassination (in the book, Rank poisons everyone) and the clever witticisms delivered by Louis Mazzini. Kemp points out how these latter two changes enhanced the story invaluably, and I can't help but agree.

Equally interesting is the life of the film's director and co-scripter, Robert Hamer. Kind Hearts and Coronets was quite a departure for the Ealing production company, which had mostly done lighthearted films of fancy. It was only through many battles and Hamer's sheer genius that the film was made. Hamer was, by all accounts, a true man of film and brilliance, extremely creative and beloved by the actors with whom he worked. He was an alcoholic whose anger at the established, stuffy British culture fueled his creativity. His discontent seemingly only grew over the years and eventually wore him down, leading to his death at a relatively young age, another casualty of artistic constraint.
A still from one of several scenes cut for the American version, for openly admitting to infidelity.

Speaking of limiting creativity, it's interesting to see how the film was changed for the American release, several months after the London premier. Certain scenes between Louis and Sibella were deemed too erotic and suggestive, so they were cut. The scenes that ridiculed the dim-witted parson D'Ascoyne violated movie codes. They were cut. And, the most grievous affront in my mind, the ending was altered. Since the Hayes code forbade the mere suggestion of a criminal getting away with a crime, the American version added ten seconds of footage to show Louis' memoirs actually being found at the end, thus eliminating any chance that the murderous Mazzini would get off scot free. Yet another example of amusing ambiguity crushed by the Hayes code, a la Baby Face.

On a more critical note, most reviews seem to laud Joan Greenwood's performance as the petulant Sibella as outstandingly alluring. While I can't deny her skill, I disliked the character so much that I can't agree with the original TIME magazine review that she's basically the sexiest thing on the planet. I found her a little to elf-like to put her on a level with some of the sultrier vixens of the day, Barbra Stanwyck and Ingrid Bergman, to name a few.

Kind Hearts and Coronets deserves much more modern recognition that I think it receives. Any person who gets hearty laughs from calm, cool, literate humor would do well to track down this 60-year old classic. I'll certainly be watching it with any new viewers that I can find.

That's a wrap. 32 shows down, 73 to go.

Coming Soon: White Heat (1950):

"Top of the world, ma!!" I've seen this one, and remember liking it. I enjoy James Cagney's "ornery little man" persona, and if I remember rightly, he plays a whack-job, mother-loving criminal in this one. Should be fun.

Please be sure to pick up all empties on the way out.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Film #31: Out of the Past (1947)

Director: Jacque Tourneur

Initial Release Country: United States

Times Previously Seen: 2 (last about 4 years ago)

20-Words-or-Fewer Teaser (no spoilers):

Quiet, clever tough guy has to reconcile shady past with a deadly beauty and a soulless, greedy gangster.

Uncut Summary (a full synopsis, spoilers included. Fair warning):

In the small town of Bridgeport, California, Jeff Bailey (Robert Mitchum) seems a brawny, quiet gas station attendant. He goes about his business and is courting the lovely Ann Miller, though he's not very forthcoming about his past. That is, until his past shows up unexpectedly.

An acquaintance from Jeff's past rolls through town and informs Jeff that another old acquaintance, Whit Sterling (Kirk Douglass) is looking for him. Jeff reluctantly goes, but not before telling Ann about his connection to Sterling.

Several years prior, Jeff, whose real name is Jeff Markham, was a private eye in New York. It was there that he and his then-partner Jack Fisher took on a job from Sterling to track down the woman Kathie Moffat (Jane Greer), who had shot Sterling 4 times, stolen $40,000 and run off. Jeff takes the job and tracks Kathie to Acapulco.
In Acapulco, Jeff begins to fall under Kathie Moffat's spell...

Upon first finding her, Jeff plans to hand her over to Sterling; however, he soon falls in love with her, and she him. Jeff reveals himself to her, and she forgives him while also claiming that she never stole any money from Sterling. Just as the two are preparing to leave Acapulco together, Sterling and one of his thugs, Stephanos, show up. Jeff does some quick tale-telling to shake them, then quietly hops a boat back to the U.S. with Kathie.

They remain low-key in San Fransisco for some time before fate strikes a crushing blow: Jeff runs into his old partner, Jack. Jack then tracks Jeff and Kathie to a secluded cabin in the woods and demands blackmail - for the $40,000, he won't tell Sterling that Jeff and Kathie ran off. Jeff and Jack eventually get into a fist fight, which abruptly ends when Kathie guns down Jack and flees, leaving Jeff to discover that she also had the $40,000 all along.

At this point, we return to the "present," in which Jeff has now told Ann the whole story. The goodly Ann takes it in stride and hopes the best for Jeff in cleaning up whatever mess still remains. Jeff goes to Sterling's mansion in Reno, Nevada, where a few surprises are in store. First and greatest is that Kathie is once again living with Sterling. Even more is that she has told Sterling the entire tale of her and Jeff. Sterling claims that he holds no grudge, though he does feel that Jeff owes him one. One which he means to collect.

He tells Jeff to go to San Fransisco and assist in stealing certain tax documents from a lawyer who's blackmailing Sterling. In actuality, it all turns out to be an elaborate frame job, as the lawyer unexpectedly turns up dead on the same night that Jeff is to break into his office and steal the tax documents. In truth, Kathie has signed an affidavit naming Jeff as his former partner, Jack's, murderer. This is to serve as Jeff's motive for the killing. Jeff figures it out,plays along to a point, and starts making moves.

Neither the first nor last punch Jeff will receive or dish out.

He gets the tax documents and tries to trade them for the affidavit, but it doesn't work. Sterling sends one of his goons to find Jeff, but the goon ends up dead thanks to Jeff's handy assistant from the gas station, who "fishing reels" him into a local river. Jeff returns to Sterling's Reno estate, only to find Sterling shot dead by Kathie, who insists that he must flee with her if they are to have any chance of surviving. Jeff, resigned, agrees.

What Kathie doesn't know is that, while she has been packing her bags to go, Jeff has called the police. As they drive down the road, they see a police barricade in the distance. Kathie realizes that Jeff has turned them in. In a rage, she pulls a pistol and shoots Jeff. The car crashes and finishes the job, leaving both Kathie and Jeff dead.

Back in Bridgeport, Ann hears of the news and asks Jeff's assistant from the gas station if Jeff was truly going to run away with Ann. Rather than tell her the truth that he wasn't, the kid tells her yes. And so, believing herself betrayed by the man that she loved, Ann begins to move on and leaves with the town sheriff, a man who has loved her for his entire life.

Take 1: My Gut Reaction (done after this most recent viewing, before any further research):

I love this stuff.

While Detour was the poor man's version of a decent noir tale, Out of the Past is solid gold on par with Double Indemnity. When I try to figure out why I like these films so much, the answer isn't obvious: the characters are not the most believable, the plot almost always gets laughably convoluted at some point, and the visuals always flirt with crossing the line of style over substance. Still, as I mentioned in my review of Double Indemnity, I think it comes down to one thing - that the fusion of the elements of noir can only exist in film. And this makes it great.

In watching the movie with my girlfriend and her roommate, we couldn't help but chuckle here and there. The constant tough-guy glares and fast-talk invite amusement, though not ridicule. We also had to actually pause the film for a few seconds while we made absolutely sure that we understood the plot clearly. This is something that I've heard is almost required for noir - a story that gets complex almost beyond comprehension. I'm OK with this since it makes the protagonist stronger; you may not know what the blazes is going on, exactly, but Jeff Markham sure as hell does, and he's damn sure going to find a way to straighten it out!

Here's one of the great scenes when Jeff knowingly walks into the frame with the lawyer, Eels (only in noir could that name exist!):

Speaking of Jeff Markham, I have to say that Robert Mitchum is an absolute treat to watch in this thing, perhaps topping Fred MacMurray's trailblazing role as Walter Neff in Double Indemnity. Mitchum is a case-study in how to be quietly tough. With his massive build and cool gaze coming from behind those droopy eyelids of his, he made me wonder where actors like that are these days. The only one who comes to mind is David Morse, though I don't know that he's tried his hand at anything like noir. Mitchum was a rarity.

As far as femme fatales go, Jane Greer was damn good, as well. I still give the overall nod to Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity, but Greer was solid. She had a pixie-like beauty that belied the sick, vicious, tainted soul buried beneath that entrancing exterior. As Moffat, Greer was seductive, sympathetic, and detestable, all in turn.

Kirk Douglass. I think this was one of his first roles. If it was, I'm amazed that he didn't get typecast to play evil s.o.b.s for his entire career. He's so convincing as the cold, calculating snake with an oily smile, that it's a wonder that he soon broke out of it to play heroes.

But I think the reason that the actors can shine so much is the dialogue. While some might view the lines as being cheesy, and they no doubt will make you laugh, it's not because they're cheesy. It's quick, macho, tough guy stuff of the highest order. Here are a few of the best:

Kathie: "I don't want to die."
Jeff: "Neither do I baby, but if I have to, I'm going to die last."

Kathie: "Oh, Jeff, you ought to have killed me for what I did a moment ago!"
Jeff: "There's time."

It's the kind of stuff that can only exist in fiction, and only in film can you see someone like Robert Mitchum deliver the lines with such unmatched, resigned stoicism. It's like he's secretly amused at everyone around him, but knows that in the end, he's the one who's going to go down. Yet he's not going down without getting some jabs in along the way, either physical or verbal. And I assure you that each jab lands squarely where it's targeted.

I will gladly watch this movie again, and would recommend it to any lover of film. It's solid on all fronts and, while it certainly didn't create the noir genre, it's about as good an example of this unique form of cinema as you can possibly find.

Take 2: Why Film Geeks Love This Movie (done after some further research):

Apparently, I'm far from the first to make note of the dialogue as the strong point in this movie. Film critic extraordinaire Mr. Ebert dedicates several paragraphs to it, and even picks out some of the gems himself in his review. I learned from this, as well, that the original screen writer's script was supposedly pretty dreadful, was re-written by James M. Cain, then re-re-written by a B-film writer named Frank Fenton. This last revision was, by most accounts, where the best lines come from. Goes to show that even a margianl writing talent may have one great script in them. Out of the Past was apparently Fenton's.

One of the many great shots throughout the film - Markham about to face his fate.

Another amusing thing that Ebert discovered in speaking with Mitchum and others involved in the film is the ever-present cigarettes. He, like myself and many others, take note that this movie may have more butts huffed than any in history. Surprising thing is that this wasn't really scripted at all - Mitchum said that was "just what we did." Different times, all right.

In reading up on Robert Mitchum, some light is shed on his singular place in the annals of acting. Reviewer after reviewer describes him as "world weary" and "indifferent" (this is no insult, I assure you) in his manner. Well, real-life Robert Mitchum led quite a young life. He was raised in Hell's Kitchen, New York, got into all sorts of mischief as a young man, ran away from home at 12, hopped railroad cars for a few years, and found odd jobs. He dug ditches, fought for prize money, and was generally a hard-ass by the time he was 17 years old. Then, he returned east and found gigs for a local theater, including everything from stagehand to song and script-writer to performer. So I suppose that he comes by his "indifference" quite honestly. When you've had to punch some guy in the face repeatedly for your supper, acting in films must be no great shakes.

Out of the Past had a lukewarm reception back in '47. This original TIME review is almost dismissively short. Though I like the film far better than this original critic, I understand what they mean by Mitchum's fatalistic composure not working as well during the tender love scenes.

Even if Mitchum isn't exactly the most romantic cat of all time, I still dig his work.

That's a wrap. 31 shows down, 74 to go.

Coming Soon: Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949):

I'm almost totally in the dark on this one. Never seen it, but I've read that it's a British farce in which Alec Guinness plays a ton of humorous roles. Sound like something I might like, but I won't know for a few days.

Please be sure to pick up all empties on the way out.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Film #30: It's a Wonderful Life (1947)

Director: Frank Capra

Initial Release Country: United States

Times Previously Seen: none (though I'd seen the last 30 minutes about 4 times)

20-Words-or-Fewer Summary (no spoilers):

All-American, self-sacrificing nice guy gets in a serious jam, contemplates offing himself, then gets help from an angel.

Uncut Summary (a full blow-by-blow, spoilers included. Fair warning.):

In the quaint American town of Bedford Falls, George Bailey grows up. From childhood, he proves to be exceptionally kind and selfless. At age 12, George saves his little brother, Harry, from drowning in a frozen pond. At age 15, he prevents his pharmacist boss from making a fatal error with his drug mixing. These actions, while wonderfully admirable, are the easiest of George's altruistic feats.

Here's George at 20, showing just how far he's going to be from sanity in one hour, movie time.

At 20, just as he prepares to travel the world before going to college, George (Jimmy Stewart) is called upon to take over his uncle and father's savings and loan business. There's really no money in it, and it stymies George's life-long dream of exploring the globe; however, he feels obligated to keep the local Scrooge, Mr. Potter, from getting his greedy fingers on the business. George sucks it up and takes the position, agreeing to hold down the fort until his younger brother returns from college in four years' time.

Four years later, a newly-married Harry returns from college. Surprisingly (or not), Harry has an opportunity to take a promising job with his father-in-law's company. The ever-generous George gives his brother a pass and decides to stick with the job. On the plus side, he realizes his love for beautiful girl-next-door, Mary (Donna Reed). Just after they get married, the town forces Harry to make another sacrifice. There's a serious bank run and the newlyweds have to use their travel money to support the savings and loan's depositors.

Over the course of the next fifteen years or so, the Great Depression comes and goes, as does World War II. Many of George's friends and his brother have seen the world and made plenty of money. In the meantime, George has remained in Bedford Falls with Mary. They have very little money, but they have four children and a lovely house that Mary has slowly renovated over the years.

And then, on Christmas Eve, disaster strikes. As a government loan officer shows up to see the books at Bailey Savings and Loan, Uncle Billy misplaces $8,000, which falls into the hands of the still-stodgy Mr. Potter. When the disappearance is revealed to George, he soon grows desperate. Desperation eventually turns to panic, and panic to mania. After pleading with an unsympathetic Potter for a loan, George decides to kill himself, hoping that his life insurance policy will pay for the missing cash. He staggers to the town bridge...

Watching from, literally, on high the entire time have been the heavenly host. The angels have heard the prayers of George's concerned friends and family and decide to help. They send Angel, Second Class Clarence Oddbody (Henry Travers). Clarence keeps George from ending himself and even grants him his transitory dark wish: that he'd never been born.

Initially writing off Clarence as some random kook, George returns to town to face the music. Little does he realize that Clarence has not been joking. As he traverses Bedford Falls, George confronts the reality of the town had he never existed: Potter has turned it into a commercialized den of iniquity, loaded with bars, cabarets, and desperate people. Most the George's friends and family are either in dire straits or dead. George refuses to accept this warped reality and slowly loses his mind, only barely grasping the positive influence that he has had on the many lives in the town. Mentally and emotionally shattered, he returns to the bridge.
While a devastated George nearly hits bottom, the angel Clarence returns reality right-side-up. George soon realizes that his friends and family are back to those he always knew. Despite the still-present financial trouble, he is overjoyed to return to this familiar reality and sprints through the town, filled with Christmas cheer.

George returns to his home to find his four children, but also the local police, who are waiting to arrest him for the absent $8,000. While George is far less concerned about this than before, it soon ceases to be a problem: Mary returns with all of George's friends in the town, all of whom have decided to pitch in a help George out of his fix. George is redeemed, the Savings and Loan in saved, and everyone has a merry Christmas.


Take 1: My Gut Reaction (done after one viewing, before any further research):

I might just be a very sick and disturbed person. The things I like about this film may classify me as some kind of psychotic.

By nearly any account, It's a Wonderful Life is an American Christmas classic. It clearly follows in the tradition of Dickens's A Christmas Carol, and has been referenced and imitated endless times in the decades since the 1940s. We all know how many times it gets shown during the holiday season, and this speaks to its enduring place in our U.S. culture. It's a 20th century fable that has stood the test of time remarkably well.

I really don't like most of it. Most of it, mind you.

I chalk the things I don't like up the temporal context. It's a Wonderful Life was released on December 20th, 1946. World War II had ended, optimism was high the United States, and the entertainment machine was just starting to tap into the nascent "American Dream" that would mold popular film and TV culture for roughly the next thirty years. It's a Wonderful Life was one of the first films to get the formula down correctly: the all-American town; the idyllic, romantic home; the beautiful, dutiful wife; the four adorable kids; and the hard-working, self-sacrificing husband. Movies and TV shows would keep churning out this cookie-cutter again and again.

This is mainly what I don't like about this movie. While the film is not devoid of some characters with true depth, most of the Bedford Fallsians are very one-dimensional. Mr. Potter as the local Mammon is greed and evil incarnate. Uncle Billy is a bumbling boob. Martini is an almost offensive caricature of Italian Americans, complete with a gaggle of kids, an outrageous accent, and an affable dimness. In fact, nearly all of the town reminded me of the Saint Louis portrayed in Meet Me in St. Louis - a lot of hokey lines and flashy stereotypes, very little substance.

Here's the first 10 minutes or so from the film. Just pick any random 2 minutes from it and you'll see just how far off of the "Gee-Shucks"-o-Meter this first half or so of this film is:

This leads me to the moments I like in the film, and I can sum it up in one idea: when George Bailey starts to go batshit. The viewer can sense it building throughout the film's first hour-and-a-half (the much more familiar Christmas scenes only make up the last 30 minutes of the movie) - after every sacrifice made as an adult, you can see some small piece of George get crushed into a little ball and tossed into some dark corner of his soul. Well, after the money gets lost and George is facing jail time, he loses it, and he steadily devolves into a near-madman. And I all but revelled in every moment of it.

Hear me out. It should be obvious that I disliked the setting of Bedford Falls. The cheese factor is off the charts, and my feelings about the characters should be clear. The only grounding force is George Bailey (and, before he dies, George's father). As I saw George's dreams get suppressed by the stiflingly simple-minded townies and the cartoonishly evil Mr. Potter, I totally empathized with George, though I think my feelings different than those that Frank Capra intended. While I think he meant for the viewer to pull for George to snap out of his doldrums and realize the gifts around him, I was actually rooting for George to crack some skulls. It was how I would have felt had someone dropped me into the set of Meet Me in St. Louis - that I was stuck in some twisted, nightmarishly Disneyfied version of the American dream.

And so, as George began to rant, rave and rage against the trappings of Bedford Falls, I wanted him to succeed. Or at least to escape. He obviously feels the same at the darkest moment of the film - when he stands on the bridge and contemplates jumping. I certainly wasn't hoping for that, but I surely understood it.

Here's a great moment after the money disappears and George's frenzy begins. It's exactly the way any real human would act if he found himself amongst a gaggle of half-baked, fictional goobers. Probably most disturbing is from time 2:00 to about 5:00:

Somebody get that man a case of Southern Comfort, fer chissakes!

The latter 30 minutes were odd to see again. The truth is, I always thought that I had seen this film. I came to learn, though, that I had really only seen the last 30 of this 132-minute long tale. The well-known ending is really just adapted (ripped off?) from A Christmas Carol - instead of visiting past, present, and future realities as Ebenezer Scrooge does, though, George gets to see a world in which he never existed. Once this final portion of the film is set up in its initial 5 minutes, the remaining 25 belabor the point. I must concede, however, that this is from the perspective of 34-year-old who has grown up with science fiction, alternate reality, and time-jumping tales having already gone far beyond novel.

Despite my thinking that It's A Wonderful Life is overlong and devoid of any real teeth, there are some things to like. Jimmy Stewart is very good, though he is at his Jimmy Stewartest - clever, goofy, lovable, and gosh-darn-it, just a heckuva fella! While his performance as George Bailey has a dark element, I prefer his turns in The Shop Around the Corner, Rope and Vertigo. Donna Reed is also quite good, though her character is not totally fleshed out. She's certainly more vivid than almost everyone else in Bedford Falls, but there's still something a bit lacking.

And now, my greatest shame.

I truly did get choked up at the end. Not at the stupid "Every time a bell rings...." blah-blah-blah quote (by the way - that kid was teeth-grittingly annoying). No, the throat actually tightened when George finds that he has been left Clarence the angel's copy of Tom Sawyer, in which is inscribed "Remember that no man is a failure who has friends." That one got me. It's the same way I felt at the end of City Lights. Now, Frank Capra can join Charlie Chaplin on the short list of filmmakers of sappy movies that still squeezed a few tears from me.


Take 2: Why Film Geeks Love This Movie (done after further research):

It's a Wonderful Life is such a quintessentially American film that I could spend months researching critics' raves and gushing praise. Instead of all that, I picked the titan of the industry: Roger Ebert. I really like a lot of Ebert's reviews since he judges films based on what they were trying to do, not necessarily on how they stack up to other films.

Roger loves this old Frank Capra classic for reasons that I think most fans like it: the simple charm of a moral tale told in a cozy town, featuring affable characters. I have to disagree with Roger on a few points, though. While he finds the admittedly slapstick humor in the earlier segments of the movie charming (falling into a swimming pool, George Bailey talking to a naked Mary hiding in a bush), I found them tedious. Ebert even uses the word "corny" to describe a few of the scenes, but he does so with acceptance and warmth. Not me.

Ebert's synopsis is worth reading for the little history lesson it gives, as well. It's a Wonderful Life, while considered a very good film upon it's release (here's TIME's glowing review back in 1946), it shortly after went to sleep. It went to sleep for about three decades and was all but forgotten.

Then, it became public domain. This meant that any television station that could get its hands on the film could show it without cost. And so, guess what got shown over and over and over during Christmas time? You got it. Hence, a Christmas movie tradition was born, though I feel like it's lost some steam in recent decades, most notably to A Christmas Story.

Richard Corliss actually puts it all very succinctly here. He's absolutely right that this film is hard to see with fresh eyes, and I agree that everyone should try it if they haven't in a while. While I may not rush back to see this film again, I have to say that it's certainly not bad, and I never felt like it was wasting my time. Once the next snow falls for you, give this one a try - I all but guarantee that you won't hate it, and I suspect many of you will actually like it more than you expect.

That's a Christmas wrap (yuk yuk). 30 shows down, 75 to go.

Coming (Very!) Soon: Out of the Past (1947):

Shady dames, quiet tough guys, and lots and lots of shadows. Yup! It's more noir!! That's what I'm talkin' about, ya mug.

Please be sure to pick up all empties on the way out.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Film #29: Notorious (1946)

Director: Alfred Hitchcock

Initial Release Country: United States

Times Previously Seen: once (about 8 months ago)

20-Words-or-Fewer Summary (no spoilers):

Gorgeous, floozy booze-bag is enlisted by suave G-Man to spy on expatriate Nazi sect in Brazil.

Full Summary (a full blow-by-blow of the plot, spoilers included. Fair warning):

In Miami, former Nazi John Huberman is convicted of treason against the United States. His daughter, Alicia Huberman (Ingrid Bergman) goes home and drowns her sorrows at a small soiree at her home. Present at the party is T.R. Devlin (Cary Grant), whom Alicia believes to be a local policeman simply sent to keep an eye on her. He is, in fact, a federal agent whose task is to survey Huberman to determine if she can help the U.S. government infiltrate a suspected Nazi contingent in Brazil.

Alicia has a reputation of loose relationships and being a bit of a tippler. Upon discovering Devlin's true purpose, she initially turns him away. When Devlin confronts her with proof of her love for the U.S. and hatred for the tenets of Nazism (in the form of a taped conversation with her father), she relents and agrees to accompany him to Brazil.

Once in Brazil, the service's plot is made known: Alicia is to ingratiate herself to one Alexander Sebastian (Claude Raines), a past acquaintance who was friends with John Huberman and loved his daughter, Alicia. Once the false love is impressed, it is to be exploited and Alicia is to reveal anything that she uncovers in her dealings with Sebastian. Complicating things, however, is that Devlin and Alicia fall in love with each other. Yet, the stoic and professional Devlin refuses to allow his feelings for Alicia interfere with the mission, and he allows her to use herself as erotic bait.

Agent Devlin has his first encounter with a tipsy Alicia Huberman

The plan works, but all too well. Sebastian once again falls in love with Alicia. So much so that he proposes marriage. Along with Sebastian's love for her, Alicia also discovers that Sebastian is indeed in the middle of a plot by Nazi German expatriates to somehow reestablish some sort of Nazi power in the world. Despite his discomfort at letting his love further embed herself in such dirty dealings, Devlin and the local U.S. feds allow Alicia to marry Sebastian, in the hopes of unearthing further details of the plot.

Once Alicia is married to Sebastian, they throw a party at which Devlin arrives, posing as a playboy American on holiday, and discovers that the Germans are stockpiling plutonium deposits from a nearby mountain range. Unfortunately, Sebastian later discovers Alicia and Devlin's true identities and treachery. Sebastian and his aged mother, also of fundamental Nazi leanings, then begin to slowly poison Alicia, hoping to quietly dispatch her without further alerting the U.S. agents.

In the end, Devlin figures out what is happening and arrives at the Sebastian estate. He slyly extricates Alicia, finally confessing his love to her as she is in bed, near death from poisoning. Upon leaving with her, he leaves Sebastian behind to face his fellow Nazi conspirators, who now know the full scale of his indiscretions and will presumably "deal" with him. We are left to assume that Alicia will be nursed back to health with her love, Devlin, at her side, and that Alexander Sebastian will be "silenced" by his compatriots.

Take 1: My Gut Reaction (done after this most recent viewing, before any research):

Really good film. Probably one of Hitchcock's absolute best, which is saying something.

After seeing Grant, Bergman, and Raines in a few earlier films, Notorious was a great departure in terms of characters. Up to this point in the list, Cary Grant had played some of the more annoying characters to me. Between The Awful Truth and His Girl Friday, I had almost forgotten what I liked about him. Now, with his role as T.R. Devlin, he finally sloughs off the skin of an arrogant sophisticate and plays a far more intriguing character. He's calm, cool, efficient, and every inch the professional spy, with nary a condescending bone in his body. Even in the face of the drop-dead gorgeous Alicia Huberman, who he admittedly loves, he doesn't let his emotions get in the way of his job. You may not love him for it, but there's a legitimate strength to him that I hadn't seen in his earlier roles.

Bergman is another one. Coming off her role in Casablanca as Ilsa Lund, which was a relatively weak character, playing Alica Huberman is a great departure. In her very first scenes, she's drunk as a skunk and buck wild. She promptly gets rough with Devlin, who only subdues her with a few quick judo chops and a pinch to a pressure point. She has real fire and shows even more acting skill, convincingly playing a woman transitioning from being a "notoriously" loose Jezebel to a person of great conviction, courage and ability.

Here's a great scene in Brazil which exemplifies everything that Bergman and Grant do well in this movie - tease each other with surgical precision. The first full 5 minutes is well worth watching:

Those last few minutes really skirted the Puritanical movie codes of the day.

Raines does a similar chameleon act. As Captain Renault in Casablanca, he was an eminently lovable rogue. As Alexander Sebastian in Notorious, however, he does a fantastic turn as a semi-suave yet contemptible Nazi. Just as his key role to complete the triad of classic characters with Bergman and Bogart in Casablanca, he does the same with Grant and Bergman in this Hitchcock standard.

The story is perfect for Hitchcock's direction. While the initial romance between Devlin and Alicia is a touch rushed in the early going, it never feels essentially unnatural. It's certainly not hard to see how they fall for each other. It's also balanced beautifully and woven into the espionage tale masterfully. The emotional power is as much left to careful glances and gestures as it is to the occasional outbursts of charged dialogue between Grant and Bergman. These things elevate this tale far above a mere suspense yarn or even an adventurous romance.

The only parts that seemed a bit out of whack to me had to do with timing. One was the aforementioned budding romance. While the characters have been together for over a week (a reasonable time for love to bloom), we viewers have had about 10 minutes with Devlin and Alicia. It was ever-so speedy to me. The other moment is at the end, as Alicia lies on her deathbed and Devlin comes in to rescue her. As he finally breaks down and opens his heart to her, my eyebrows gradually furrowed as a wondered, "has this guy forgotten that there's a cabal of murderous Nazis lingering downstairs?!" It was obviously a necessary scene, but stood out as a bit forced amidst an otherwise masterfully paced movie.

While Hitchcock had already done several very well-received movies by 1946, this may have been his strongest to that point. The exotic locale of Brazil made a great backdrop, and the opulent setting of the Sebastian estate create a great sense of place. Hitchcock always made great use of location, and his eventual use of color would dazzle in films like Vertigo or North By Northwest, but the black-and-white scenes in Notorious are just as striking, if in a more subtle way.

I would say that all but the most ardent Alfred Hitchcock or Cary Grant haters would love this movie. It's engaging and unique, and yet another classic film that has spawned endless imitation attempts (really, James Cameron's True Lies, while entertaining, is just a modified, high-octane, lesser rendition of Notorious). For the real deal without the gunfire or body count, go back to this all-timer.

Take 2: Why Film Geeks Love This Movie (done after some further research):

Plenty of good analysis of this film out there. Hitchcock has obviously been one of the most accomplished, celebrated, and prolific filmmakers in history. Any film fan worth his or her salt can pick out one or two favorites, and it seems that Notorious regularly makes the top 2 or 3 for most film aficionados. And yet, it seems to me that it is less famous than Hitchcock standards like Psycho, The Birds, North by Northwest, or even Vertigo. Why?

Those others had certain shock value to them, and this really interesting essay by William Rothman points out several things, foremost perhaps that this film was virtually the last "optimistic" Hitchcock movie. Coming in the middle of his career, it seems that he hit his stride as a storyteller and director, and he melded the dark aspects that were his hallmark with a more palatable ending for a wider audience.

Rothman points to the relationship between Devlin and Alicia as "perverse," which is true. They constantly torment each other, and not playfully. Devlin all but dares Alicia to run into the arms of Sebastian, just as Alicia willfully plays up her reputation as a drunken tart. Both of them seem to relish the opportunities to torture the other out of some sense of twisted attraction. Before Rothman's essay, I hadn't really considered it, but he seems right on.

One of the really intriguing things to arise from this movie is "The McGuffin," which has become a byword in film. The McGuffin can be defined as the thing that the plot and characters revolve around, in the case of Notorious, it's the wine bottles (filled with uranium, we later discover). Hitchcock coined the term and explained how the actual form of the McGuffin is not important, as long as we sense its importance to the main characters. Hitchcock used the device many times, but other modern examples would be the briefcase in Pulp Fiction, "The Formula" in The Spanish Prisoner, or even "unobtainium" in Avatar. I've always liked the enigma behind these vague objects, and now I know from whence they came.

An additional point about the McGuffin in Notorious - the plutonium. At the time of Notorious's release, the ins and outs of atomic weaponry were far from common knowledge. The fact that Hitchcock and the filmmakers used it as a focal point got the attention of more than one security official in the U.S. They were investigated as to where and how they had learned that plutonium was a key ingredient in the making of such a devastating weapon. Curious, no?

One final note is the original TIME magazine review. It indicates how successful the film was, even back in the day. I particularly like the writer's little jabs at how clumsy Alicia and Devlin are when it comes to the key and the wine bottles. Check out their last paragraph for a few good laughs. Here's the scene the writer was referencing:

All analysis just reinforces what a pillar this movie is in the halls of suspense film. A few more Hollywood studios might do well to study it and try to better emulate its careful fusing of elegance and simplicity to create an incredible piece of work.

That's a wrap. 29 down. 76 to go.

Coming Soon: It's A Wonderful Life (1946):

It's Christmas in June!! It's going to be weird watching this, since it's about 90 billion degrees outside here in eastern PA, but maybe Jimmy Stewart and Zuzu can take my mind off of the heat.

Please be sure to pick up all empties on the way out.