Saturday, January 29, 2011

Film # 49: Some Like It Hot (1959)

Director: Billy Wilder

Initial Release Country: United States

Times Previously Seen: once (about 9 years ago)

Teaser Summary (no spoilers)

Pair of jazz musicians dress in drag and travel with all-girl band to flee gangsters. Shenanigans abound.

Uncut Summary (Full plot synopsis, spoilers included. Fair warning.)

Chicago, 1929. Joe (Tony Curtis) and Jerry (Jack Lemmon) are a couple of jazz musicians who play in a hot speakeasy run by notorious gangster “Spats” Colombo. That night is payday, and the two are working out how to pay back all of their many debts. Just as they bask in the appreciation of simply having a steady job, the police raid the club off of a tip from a local rat, “Toothpick” Charlie. Joe and Jerry see it coming and get out, but the police manage to shut down the place.

The next day, Joe convinces Jerry to put all of their money on a horse. The horse loses, and gone is the fellows' remaining cash, leaving them broke and jobless. They head to a talent agency, to no avail, finding only the tantalizing job for a bass fiddle and sax, their instruments, but for an all-girls group heading to Florida. Instead, they take a small gig on the far side of town. Joe even connives his way to borrowing a secretary's car to get there.

Early that same evening, the boys stroll into the garage to pick up their loaner car. While waiting for the tank to be filled, though, a pack of mafiosos storms in, led by Spats Colombo himself. They have Toothpick Charlie cornered there and gun him down, along with a half dozen other unlucky saps. Joe and Jerry witness it all and are about to join the recently deceased, but they luck out and escape the garage.

On the run, they decide to pose as women and join the all-girls band that they had heard about earlier that day. They adopt the names Josephine and Daphne, don some wigs and dresses, grab their instruments, and show up at the train station. On the train, they meet all of the other girls in the band, including the sultry Sugar Kane (Marilyn Monroe), the group's bombshell singer and ukulele player. Joe and Jerry have to fight their male urges amongst the scantily-clad women, especially the voluptuous, naive and vulnerable Sugar.

"Josephine" and "Daphne" sashay their way down the platform.

Once in Florida, Joe and Jerry seem to be in the clear, but only to an extent. While Jerry is eager to ditch the masquerade, Joe reminds him that Spats is likely looking in every jazz club in the country for them. They decide to remain Josephine and Daphne for a while longer, though it's starting to pose its own unique problems: Jerry has already had to fend off a grabby, though very wealthy suitor – the playfully lecherous Osgood Fielding III.

This also gives Joe the chance to weasel his way into Sugar's arms. He uses what he knows of her search for a rich man “with glasses” and takes on his second persona: the heir of the Shell Oil Corporation. Under this guise, he finds Sugar on the beach and she falls for it, hook, line and sinker. The two part ways, but Sugar is clearly starstruck.

Back at the hotel, Jerry receives a call from Osgood, who invites “Daphne” to an intimate evening on his yacht. Joe convinces Jerry to let him use Osgood's yacht to woo Sugar under his “Shell Oil” millionaire persona. Jerry reluctantly agrees to this as well as keeping Osgood busy on shore for the evening.

That evening, Joe's devious plan works to perfection. Jerry keeps Osgood occupied with an evening of romantic dancing while Joe works a cunning game of reverse psychology on Sugar. After ferrying her out to Osgood's yacht and pawning it off as his own, he weaves a tall tale about the freak death of a past love and how he is no longer able to feel love for any woman. Sugar, taking up the challenge to re-ignite his passions, kisses Joe repeatedly and clearly falls in love with his fictitious persona.

Sugar and "Shell Oil Junior" get further acquainted.

Back at the hotel in the morning, Joe returns from his evening of deception and snuggling with Sugar to find his pal Jerry in a bizarre daze. After a marathon evening of lively dancing, Osgood has proposed to him, and Jerry seems to actually be considering marrying the goofy old sod and extorting alimony checks from him after the inevitable annulment. Joe manages to snap Jerry out of this odd and felonious notion.

At the same time downstairs at the same hotel, one Spats Colombo has arrived for a meeting of mafia dons, all under the heading of a gathering of “Italian Opera” aficionados and presided over by head boss Little Bonaparte. Bonaparte has a serious bone to pick with Spats, as Toothpick Charlie had been a friend of his.

In the lobby, Joe and Jerry stumble across Spats, fortunately in disguise, but think that they've been discovered. They immediately hustle back to their rooms and pack for a hasty getaway. However, while clambering down the banister outside their room, they are spotted by Spats and his crew. A chase ensues, but the boys manage to elude capture by ducking under a banquet table. Unfortunately, the banquet is for the “Italian Opera” mobsters, including Spats. The banquet turns into a bloodbath as Bonaparte has Spats and his crew brutally gunned down. Joe and Jerry a discovered by Bonaparte, but the police arrive, allowing Joe and Jerry to slip away once again.

In the lobby, Joe and Jerry hide and overhear some of Bonaparte's goons explaining that they have all of the roads and public transportation routes out of town covered, in order to intercept Joe and Jerry. They realize that they can take Osgood's yacht to escape, and Jerry channels “Daphne” to make Osgood amenable. Osgood agrees, and the only order of business is for Joe to break away from Sugar without breaking her heart. He decides to once again use Osgood by sending Sugar some flowers and a diamond bracelet that Osgood had intended for “Daphne”. This initially crushes Sugar, but she decides to pursue her Shell Oil man as he flees to the shore with Joe and Osgood. She joins them on the boat just as they depart for Osgood's yacht. Joe finally comes clean to Sugar, dropping all masks, but she hardly bats an eye and accepts Joe, wholeheartedly.

Jerry, still dressed as Daphne and riding next to an elated Osgood, tries to let him down easily. Osgood is not so easily rebuffed, forcing Jerry to finally remove his wig and confess that he is, actually, a man. The euphoric Osgood misses not a beat and delivers the most timeless line of the film, saying, “Nobody's perfect.”

The love-struck Osgood and his muse, "Daphne"

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

Eh. Inconsistently entertaining.

Some Like It Hot has some really funny moments peppered into an underwhelming barrage of flat gags. The movie is clearly meant as a silly, screwball affair. From my reviews of earlier classic screwball comedies such as The Awful Truth, His Girl Friday and The Lady Eve, it should be clear that the genre is probably my second least favorite, with musicals taking the top spot. Some Like It Hot, however, eliminates the elements that I always despised, namely the focus on the rich and sophisticated class. By having the two main boobs (not counting Marilyn Monroe's) be average Joes (Josephines?), the condescension found in most screwballs is blessedly absent. Joe and Jerry are semi-lovable, if deceitful, morons who stumble their way through the movie. Unlike the typical “Cary Grant” protagonists of earlier screwballs, I found them far more amusing than annoying.

The humor is so intentionally silly that you can't help but laugh at times. This is mostly due to some great script work and top-notch comedic acting. While I couldn't care less for the endless gender humor (e.g. the fellas tripping in high heels, Jack Lemmon adjusting his fake breasts, et al), the interactions between Tony Curtis and Marilyn Monroe are priceless. Once Curtis adopts his “Shell Oil” persona, complete with a dead-on Cary Grant affectation, there are plenty of great moments between him and the laughably gullible Sugar Kane.

Here's some of the primo stuff, when Curtis and Monroe are hitting on all cylinders as "Shell Oil Junior" is trying to cunningly lure the dim-witted Sugar Kane into amore:

A personal side-note and observation: watching Marilyn Monroe in this movie is an interesting exercise, as a modern viewer. She was excellent at playing what amounts to a bimbo who is, in her own character's word, “not too bright.” More interesting to me, though, are the more subtle moments when she would be recounting past failures in love at the hands of abusive men. There are moments when, between sips of bootleg hooch, her eyes would narrow and her pain seemed eerily genuine. Knowing how Monroe's life played out and ended, I wondered just how much “acting” she was doing at these moments.

As funny as some of those moments are, there are plenty of duds to me. Nearly all of the supposedly funny moments with Spats Colombo and his gorillas were anything but. I got the sense that they almost didn't go far enough with the parody. All of the characters in the movie are meant to be cartoonish, but this concept was not fully realized with the gangsters, especially with their dialogue. Instead of being slyly ridiculous, their lines were merely hackneyed. Had some of the other characters' dialogue not been so sharp and clever, I might not have noticed, but compared to Curtis, Monroe, and Lemmon's lines, the writing for the gangsters seems a bit lazy.

One thing that distracted me a bit was the utter shallowness of the characterization, typified most by a lack of consistency. During the first portion of the film, Joe seems to be the slick-talking shyster and Jerry the level-headed, uptight straight man. Without warning, though, Jerry becomes the libidinous and irresponsible clown of the pair. Then, the voice of reason shifts back to Jerry's lips for the last part of the story. I know better than to ask for much character depth from such a goofy comedy, but a little bit of consistency would have been nice.

The plot is hardly worth mentioning. It was clearly just a device for setting up scenarios that, for mainstream Hollywood of the time, were probably rather risque. Having a bunch of nubile women scamper around in their underwear and bathing suits was probably titillating enough; the added element of Curtis and Lemmon's overtly lusty observations and comments almost certainly blazed new trails for popular sexual comedy. It goes without saying that having Marilyn Monroe's undulating curves and generously displayed cleavage, highlighted through Billy Wilder's direction, clearly sent the sex-o-meter into the red. Alas, in this day and age of Farrelly brothers and Judd Apatow flicks, such old-school fare is a relative lightweight.

Some Like It Hot is yet another movie which, if you know a little about cinema history, poses no mystery as to its lasting place in the annals of film. Still, it's another “classic” that I feel has faded to degrees in recent decades.

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

Some Like It Hot seems impervious to wear, as far as critics are concerned. Even now, it is ranked by the American Film Institute as the 22nd greatest American movie of all time, and THE best American comedy of all time. (I respectfully disagree.)

There are no real surprises as to what critics have loved about the movie, which are the same things that I found enjoyable: the sharp, farcical scenarios and dialogue and the timeless sensuality of Marilyn Monroe. Something that does surprise me is how many critics, including this original reviewer back in 1959, cite Jack Lemmon as turning in the strongest performance, for which he was even nominated for several awards. Lemmon was excellent, no doubt, but Tony Curtis provided me with far more laughs.

As he often does, Roger Ebert points out an interesting aspect – Monroe's ability to be such a sex-pot while remaining so genuinely innocent. He recounts the well-known (among hard-core film buffs, anyway) tales of the troubles with Monroe, including her trouble with the lines and the domineering presence of then-husband Arthur Miller. There's also the curious tale of Tony Curtis saying that kissing Marilyn Monroe was “like kissing Hitler.” Check out his review here.

Speaking of Monroe, something was confirmed for me that I made no mention of above – that she did, in fact, perform all of her own singing. I have to agree with the reviews that I read that state that she did outstanding work with them. She may not have been any kind of world-class vocalist, but she was certainly skilled enough to “sell” the lyrics, as Ebert put it. As a person who nearly always dislikes musical numbers in movies, I had absolutely no problems with any of them in Some Like It Hot.

Here's my favorite number from the movie:

Another point of note is that, due to its blatant sexuality, Some Like It Hot is credited as being one of several contemporaneous films that began to break down the Hays Production Code, the ratings code that had been in place for over two decades. In fact, it received a rating of “Condemned” by the “National Legion of Decency” back in '59. I have to think that that piqued the public's curiosity to no end. Fortunately, such Protestant ideals of art and censorship would be mostly shattered in another five or six years' time.

Considering that it's hailed as arguably the greatest closing line of all time, I have no choice but to finish up with this:

That's a wrap. 49 shows down, 56 to go.

Coming Soon: The World of Apu (1959):

The final installment of the Apu Trilogy. The second was an understated delight, and I'm intrigued to see how Satyajit Ray completed his tale of the thoroughly human Bengali boy.

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

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Film #48:Sweet Smell of Success (1957)

Director: Alexander Mackendrick

Initial Release Country: United States

Times Previously Seen: once (about 2 years ago)

Teaser Summary (No spoilers)

Unscrupulous press agent hustles through New York, stabbing backs to climb the social and professional ladder.

Uncut Summary (A full plot synopsis, spoilers and all. Fair warning)

New York City, 1957. Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis) is the hustlingest press agent around. He's also a very minor player in the big city, but he's willing to try every dirty trick in the book to climb out of his self-described hole. At story's beginning, he has just been frustrated by his meal ticket, the immensely influential newspaper columnist and nationalist television pundit, J. J. Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster). Falco believed that one of his clients would be given a positive review in the day's paper, but Hunsecker has left it out.

Sidney scrambles to Hunsecker to find the reason for the snub. He learns that Hunsecker is ignoring Falco's clients because Falco has not yet performed a requested service for him; namely, breaking apart the relationship between Hunsecker's young sister, Susie (Susan Harrison) and an up-and-coming jazz guitarist, Steve Dallas (Martin Milner). Realizing that his career won't advance until the relationship is ended, Falco races to the night club where Dallas is playing.

"Match me, Sidney," says cock-of-the-walk Hunsecker (right) to the ambitious weasel, Sidney Falco.

At the club, Falco discovers that not only are Susie and Dallas still together, but that he has proposed marriage to her. Falco and Dallas have a confrontation during which Dallas accuses Falco of being a sneaky henchman for J.J. Hunsecker. The two part ways without blows, but only just.

When Falco relays the news to J.J., Hunsecker reiterates that Falco will get no meaningful work in the town unless he sabotages Susie and Dallas's relationship. Hunsecker also reveals his reason – that Susie is the only family that he has left, and he refuses to lose her to anyone else, especially not a jazz musician. Falco sets out again.

The first place he goes is to a rival columnist of Hunsecker's, Al Evans. He tries to get a smear piece run on Dallas, claiming he is a druggy and communist, by attempting to blackmail Evans. He threatens to reveal to his wife that Evans made advances on a cigarette girl at another club. The plan backfires, as Evans confesses the truth of the story to his wife, leaving Falco with nothing to show for it. Falco happens upon another rival columnist immediately after, the lusty Otis Elwell, who agrees to run the column if Falco can find him some female companionship. Falco obliges, pimping out the very cigarette girl that Evans had propositioned. The smear piece is run the next morning and Dallas' band is promptly fired by their night club.

On Falco's advice and to maintain the illusion that he is not behind the subterfuge, J.J. Hunsecker calls the night club the next morning. With Susie looking on, he vouches for Dallas and has him rehired. Falco's notion is that Dallas will never accept the charity, refuse to take the job, and the strain will divide Susie and Dallas. He's almost right, too.

Dallas shows up on the set of Hunsecker's television show, and the two have a confrontation that begins calmly but escalates into Dallas accusing Hunsecker and Falco of being totally devoid of morals. Susie watches the entire scene, and is terribly unnerved by everything. After Dallas leaves, Hunsecker tells Susie that she must not marry him, and she demurs. Seemingly, J.J. Hunsecker has obtained what he wanted. This, however, does not seem to be enough. He now wants Steve Dallas's career destroyed as punishment for casting aspersions as Hunsecker's character, claiming that an attack on him is an attack on his “60 million readers.”

Hunsecker and Falco deal with an increasingly agitated Steve Dallas (far right).

Later that night, Hunsecker directs Falco to plant marijuana on Dallas and call a crooked cop to make a bogus arrest. Falco initially balks at this vicious plan, but soon agrees on the promise that he will be allowed to write Hunsecker's column for a three month period while the man is away with his sister. Falco does the deed and Dallas is arrested.

Some time later, after he has had many a celebratory drink to toast his diabolical success, Falco is contacted by Hunsecker. He is told to get to his apartment right away. When Falco arrives at the Hunseckers', he finds Susie, who has heard of Steve's arrest and is wracked by grief to point of being suicidal. Falco coldly assures her that she is merely being immature and that it will pass. However, Susie nearly makes good on her threat by attempting to throw herself over the balcony. Falco stops her, and begins to calm her down.

Just then, Hunsecker arrives. He disavows Falco's claim that he was the one who had called him, and it soon becomes clear that Falco has been set up. Hunsecker has planned to have Falco framed for an attempted assault on Susie. Hunsecker begins to batter Falco, and eventually Falco blurts out how Hunsecker had arranged the frame on Dallas. Hunsecker relents just long enough for Falco to flee from the apartment, but Susie has heard everything.

The fighting over, Susie sadly packs her bag and leaves the apartment, but not before performing a final act of courage: she looks her domineering older brother straight in the eye, tells him that she would rather die than live with him, and that she pities him. Out on the street, Falco is captured by the police and arrested. Nearby, the immensely powerful J.J. Hunsecker watches helplessly as his young sister walks out of his life.

Comeuppance, I'd like you to meet Mister Sidney Falco...

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

This film confirms one thing: I'm a full-fledged United States citizen, all right.

Don't get me wrong. This is not some patriotic thing. I mean to say that, after watching several slower, meditative, humanistic films of a realistic bent, made in foreign lands, watching Sweet Smell of Success spoke to me loudly and clearly. It said, “You, my son, were raised on fast-moving, slick-looking movies about fast-moving, slick-looking characters, and by God, you'll always love them!”

Who am I to argue?

I watched this movie once about a few years ago and was ambivalent, but upon this recent viewing I have decided that I simply wasn't paying close enough attention. It's great. Sure, there may not be a probing, deeper message beyond the “greed kills” theme, but it has enough substance to match all of the flash that it has.

The story intrigued me plenty. Seeing the curtain pulled back on the press agent and publicity businesses is interesting enough. As most are well-aware, the news sleeps for no one, and anyone who's desperate to make their mark in the field had better be tireless. Sidney Falco is certainly that, which sets up that great dichotomy that, while not distinctly American, can probably be found in our films in greater numbers than anywhere – that obsession can lead to an inexhaustible work ethic but a complete absence of circumspection and self-reflection. Following Falco around from one seedy, shadowy locale and deed to another is fascinating. The tale only slows down a few times just long enough to catch your breath and try to keep up with the impassioned hustlers involved. Unlike longer, more measured films like Aparajito and Pyaasa, the time flew by while I watched this movie.

Greater than the plot itself are the characters. It's rare that not one but both main characters are unlikable in a movie. Sidney Falco is a self-obsessed monomaniac whose complete lack of compassion for others is only matched by his utter absence of ethics. His idol and partner-in-crime, J.J. Hunsecker, is the 1950s version of Rush Limbaugh or Glen Beck – a media mastodon who wraps himself in a flag and uses his power to raise up or cast down those he deems worthy, with extreme prejudice and without moral compunction. Seeing them try to manipulate the events around them and each other would be entertaining enough, but Susan Hunsecker turns out to be the final ingredient. She's really the only character who evolves and is sympathetic in the end, though she is not in the picture nearly as much as either Falco or her brother. Quite a storytelling trick, that.

Here's a great scene. It's the introduction of J.J. Hunsecker. Start it at 2:00. It takes a few dozen seconds to pick up the glacial intimidation that Lancaster emits:

As always, great characters can only truly shine through when put in the hands of great actors, and here we have a couple of “legends” in their prime. While I'm not a particular Tony Curtis fan, I have to say that he was spot on as the slimy Sidney Falco, complete with impish good looks and devilish wit and charm. Burt Lancaster, solid in everything I've seen him in, does a great turn as a powerful megalomaniac. Despite the dorky glasses that he sports, he uses his broad frame, clenched jaw and granite-cold eyes to bore holes into anyone he sees as lesser than himself. Which, in his view, is everyone.

The script is great. Co-adapted for the screen by the author of the source novella, Ernest Lehman, it crackles with all of the silver-tongued, noir-ish dialogue you would hope for from a tale of the New York media scumbag biz. There are plenty of quotable lines, not the least of which is the oh-so-revealing quip by Falco, “Don't do anything I wouldn't do. And that gives you a lot of leeway.” And he wasn't joking in the least. Sure, there are a few moments during which the script gets a little too clever for its own good, a la older screwball comedies, but this is rare, in my view.

Here's a clip of one Falco's particularly sleazy moments. Start from the beginning and watch for a few minutes. You may even see Falco's skin taking on a scaley quality:

The dialogue is noir-ish, but the cinematography is noir unfiltered. At this point, I'm sure that United Artists could have sprung for a color picture, but this film demanded black and white. This was essential to enhance the mood of the darkness, shadows, and looming gray facades and harsh, glaring lights of Manhattan and midnight. Falco is one of countless weasels who wants to be a big shot, and J.J. Hunsecker may be a big shot, but they're all gnats in the shadows of the city itself.

I'd watch this movie again in a heartbeat. It's one of those movies that sails along at such a fast clip that it virtually demands more than one viewing. Now that I know all of the twists and turns of Falco's ethical gymnastics, I can watch to enjoy the performances and nuances a little more.

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

Sweet Smell of Success was not received well by a test audience, which led producers to think that they had a severe flop on their hands. Apparently, Burt Lancaster physically threatened director Mackendrick after the initial test screening, thinking that he had sunk them. This, however, was premature. That first audience was apparently taken aback by seeing two established “good guys”, Lancaster and pretty-boy Curtis, as utter scoundrels. Once released to wider audiences, though, the high praise came flowing in. This is rather clear from this first review back in 1957 by TIME magazine. This review, along with nearly every other that I've read, cites the tight, “whiplash” dialogue as being the element that makes the movie so singular and worthy of respect.

This is probably the most well-rounded scene, in which all of the major characters go after each other. Start it at 4:00 to see the verbal showdown between Hunsecker, Falco, Dallas and Susie:

As is often the case, the story behind the story is interesting. The Hunsecker character was modeled on real-life New York gossip columnist Walter Winchell, who held sway in the big city for decades. Original novelette and co-screenwriter Ernest Lehman had been a columnist and used his experiences with press agents to build the tale.

The thrumming urgency of the plot and dialogue was very likely the product of the filming process. Lehman had become ill just before shooting, so Clifford Odets was brought on to finish the job. Instead of doing a two- or three-week quick polish, he dismantled much of the script and began reconstructing all of the relationships through the dialogue. It took several months – so long that filming began before Odets had completed the work. The result was that Odets was often finishing pages mere hours before the scenes were shot. I have to believe that this added to the built-in stress and tension in many of the scenes. There's a snippet of director Mackendrick's description of the process here.

Worth looking at more closely is the interplay between Falco and Hunsecker. Roger Ebert does a nice job breaking down their symbiotic relationship in his review here. Ebert actually suggests something else that others have also picked out – a possibly latent sexual interest by Hunsecker towards both his young sister and Sidney Falco. I suppose that this is fair, though it's hardly what makes the film truly entertaining.

Some modern critics point out that a few of the aspects of the film are dated: that 1950s version of the hip New York and the age of the all-powerful gossip columnist. Still, even those who point these things out concede that they do little to diminish the timeless strengths of the movie.

That's a wrap. 48 shows down, 57 to go.

Coming Soon: Some Like It Hot (1959)

From one Tony Curtis movie to another. One with Jack Lemon and Marilyn Monroe, to boot. This one is invariably put in every critic's “top 10 American comedies list”. I watched it some years ago, and have never felt a desire to watch again. Well, I was surprised in my re-viewing of film #47, so I should go into this one hoping for the best.

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

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Film #47: Pyaasa (1957)

Title for Us English-Speaking Types:Thirst” or “The Thirsty One

Director: Guru Dutt

Initial Release Country: India

Times Previously Seen: none

Teaser Summary (No spoilers)Skilled but poor poet loses, laments, finds, loses, and finds love for women, if not humanity. Sings about it all.

Uncut Summary (The full plot synopsis, including spoilers. Fair warning.)
In 1952, India, the young poet Vijay (Guru Dutt) searches for love and work. He is clearly a very gifted poet who delivers his verses with an incredible singing voice. Yet, he is spurned everywhere he goes. While he would like to sing profound verses about lost love and the ills of society, publishers and audiences have no desire to listen.

Vijay, left, receives just one of many rejections of his poetry from a publisher.
At his family's meager home, his mother tries to offer him a charity dinner, but his two older brothers heap shame and guilt on him for not being a “working” member of the family. Vijay then discovers that one brother has sold some of his poetry as waste paper. Despite his loving mother's pleas to either stay or take her with him, Vijay departs home alone.

In a nearby market, Vijay discovers that his poetry was sold to a woman who read and was interested in the verses. Alas, the vendor does not know the woman. Later that day, by the river, Vijay hears a beautiful young woman singing words that he had penned. He follows her to her home, discovers that her name is Gulabo (Waheeda Rehman) and that she is a prostitute. Vijay is far less concerned about this than getting his poetry back, which he does.

Vijay shares a close moment with Gulabo.

Soon after, Vijay is reluctantly dragged to a college reunion by a former classmate. There, he sees his past lover, Meena (Mala Sinha), with whom he had a storybook romance until she left him, inexplicably. At the reunion, he recites some extemporaneous melancholy poetry, which falls on ears that are all deaf except for Meena's and a quiet dark-eyed figure, Mr. Ghosh. Upon leaving, Vijay is met by Ghosh, who is a publisher and offers him a job, though only as a menial worker. Vijay accepts.

At Mr. Ghosh's publishing company, it soon becomes clear that Ghosh, though realizing Vijay's dream of using his poetry to reach the public, has no interest in publishing the young man's work, calling it “trash”. Vijay overhears this, but swallows his pride and stays on the job. That evening, he goes to work at a party at Ghosh's home, where a gathering of prominent poets is taking place. Here, Vijay discovers that Ghosh's wife is none other than his lost love, Meena. He breaks out into another mournful piece of sung poetry, which captivates all of the other poets there. Afterwards, Vijay sees that Meena left him for the promise of material wealth with Ghosh. It becomes clear to Ghosh that there is something between Vijay and his wife, leading him to fire Vijay.

Through all of this, Vijay occasionally runs across the prostitute Gulabo, who has clearly fallen in love with Vijay through reading his poems. Vijay seems attracted to Gulabo's loving spirit, but is conflicted over how to behave towards her.

A few days after his firing, a broke and homeless Vijay is lost in thought on the banks of the Ganges when he sees his two brothers giving last rites to someone. Vijay discovers that it was his mother, who has died before he could make any final farewell. He retreats to the home of a vice-ridden fellow poet and promptly gets drunk. Intoxicated, he drifts through the brothel area of the city and sings a rousing verse about the social ills of his country. Yet again, however, no one is listening.

A drunken and despondent Vijay unleashes his poetry on an uncaring red light district.

Financially and spiritually at rock bottom, Vijay resigns himself to suicide. He heads towards some nearby train tracks, and even gives his jacket to an emaciated vagrant, who then quietly follows him to the train yard. Just as Vijay's about to throw himself in front of an oncoming locomotive, the vagrant gets his foot caught on a different track. Vijay goes back to pull him free, but fails. Vijay survives, but in a state of shock. In a case of mistaken identity, the country at large believes Vijay to have been killed by the train, thanks to the jacket that the vagrant had been wearing when run down.

Thinking her love to be dead, Gulabo goes to Ghosh to publish Vijay's surviving poems, not knowing Ghosh's feelings towards the young man. Instead, Gulabo finds Meena in the office, and quickly discerns that Meena was the inspiration for so many of Vijay's poems of lost love. Just as this discovery is made, Ghosh arrives. He gladly accepts Vijay's poems from Gulabo, realizing that he can reap enormous profits from the presumed-dead poet.

Ghosh's plan works all too well. Vijay's poetry is a nationwide publishing sensation, touching the dispossessed souls of the populace and raking in millions. However, a problem arises for Ghosh – Vijay awakens from his stupor in the hospital. He is initially put into a sanitarium for claiming to be the famous poet Vijay, and is kept there after Ghosh, a former colleague, and even his own brothers refuse to identify him. They realize that their gravy train will most likely only continue rolling as long as Vijay is “dead”.

Eventually, Vijay manages to escape with the help of his friend, local massage oil salesman and goofball, Abdul Sattar. It has now been a year since his “death”, and Vijay follows a throng to a memorial service in his honor. At the service, the ever-cunning Ghosh lambastes the audience for being the reason that Vijay committed suicide. Seeing the scene and infuriated by the greed, avarice, and materialism he sees at work, Vijay breaks into an impassioned verse railing against these social ills. All present are stunned, including Gulabo, who is the only one who is genuinely joyed to see that Vijay is alive.

After the public revelation that he is alive, Vijay's former detractors and enemies turn coat and try to ally themselves with him now that he is on the verge of becoming immensely wealthy by acting as the country's living voice. At what is meant to be a public recognition of his true identity, Vijay disavows his name and leaves the angry mob to tear each other apart, only further acting out the very corruption that Vijay no longer wants a part of.

That night, at her brothel, a saddened Gulabo slinks into deep feelings of loss. This changes when, much to her surprise, Vijay appears at the gate. In his eyes is a profound melancholy as he tells Gulabo that he is going to go away. When she asks to where, he simply replies that he will go until he does not need to go any farther. He asks Gulabo if she will go with him, to which she gives a wordless smile. The two walk, hand in hand, into the night.

Vijay arrives at Gulabo's brothel to announce his departure from society.

Take 1: My Gut Reaction (Done after this first viewing, before any research)

It's now been about 24 hours since I watched Pyaasa, and I can't get it out of my head. This is a good thing.

After my girlfriend and I watched the movie, we were both rather quiet as we absorbed everything that had been thrown at us during the movie's two-and-a-half hours. As you can see from the mere length of my earlier synopsis, there are plenty of pivotal plot points, which make for a epic story. Add to this the Bollywood mode of adding music, and you now have an even larger piece of work. But it was neither the storyline nor the extended soundtrack that gives Pyaasa its weight. No. It's the tone and the themes.

Anyone who has read my reviews of the musicals Meet Me In St. Louis or Singin' In The Rain knows that the genre is probably my least favorite. While Pyaasa is clearly a musical, I found that I didn't mind the songs. Unlike so many Hollywood musicals, these Indian numbers were not invasive or written merely to be independent hit songs that were shoehorned into the picture (this is something that I found Meet Me In St. Louis particularly guilty of). Rather, the songs in Pyaasa are artistic expressions of the characters' feelings, and it is these very feelings that sets the movie even further above its musical brethren.

Nearly all musicals that I've seen are optimistic in tone. Sure, there may be a sad little tune thrown in here and there, but everything is generally upbeat. The songs in Pyaasa, however, have a beautifully melancholy attitude running through them all. Whether they're about unrequited love, frustration at a diseased society, or a resigned acceptance of both, there's a genuinely Romantic power to them that is absent from most musical soundtracks. In fact, the only other “sad” musical that I have seen is Lars Von Trier's uber-downer, Dancer In the Dark, but that film brought depressing to new lows despite how skillfully it was made. Pyaasa taps deeply into the ennui but it never dragged me so far down that I couldn't see a certain amount of beauty to it.

Here's a clip of one of the great songs. There are no subtitles, but the emotions are as clear as can be. This is from the class reunion at which Vijay sees his past love, Meena. I needn't explain just how he feels about her:

On top of all of this, the music is, on the whole, fantastic. While I don't really like when the singers send their voices soaring into the wavering, higher registers, the rest of the time the vocalists displayed amazing chops. All of the songs were either catchy or touching, depending on the requirements of the scene. A few songs may have gone on a tad too long, but many were quick hitters that popped up and then got out of the way of the story. I find that I really like the Indian styles with the sitar, accordion, and percussive instruments.

Another general strength is the overall story. Granted, the notion of a gifted and tortured artist being unappreciated and scorned by society is hardly new. Still, this movie imbues Vijay with thoughts and words that tap into the more universal plight of humanity. The vehicle of the love stories is a bit hackneyed, and even the “mistaken death” plot line is a rip-off of Sullivan's Travels, but the movie is effective in making the larger points.

As far as the other technical merits, they were a somewhat strange hodgepodge. Director and star Raja Dutt apes the visual and musical scoring style that had preceded him. Cinematography-wise, one can see many similarities with earlier Hollywood masterpieces like Citizen Kane and Casablanca. He does it very well, even if he wasn't exactly breaking new ground. The score is an odd scattering of popular melodies ranging from classical European to snappy American folk. The shifts were sometimes strange, bordering on comical, but they don't greatly diminish the overall film.

The acting is another point that is a mixed bag. The primary actors, especially star and director Raja Dutt, are excellent. However, most of the other parts are overdone in the throwback melodramatic styles of previous decades. It doesn't help that much of the dialogue is rather simplistic an stagey.

Would I watch this movie again? Perhaps. I have to say that the DVD version I watched appeared to be an older edition. This made for some questionable subtitles and a rather grainy look. If a reliable company like Criterion Collection were to give it a facelift and some updated translation, I would love to see it for the more polished aesthetics.

Pyaasa was a pleasant surprise, and one of the more singular films I've watched on the list yet. I can't say that it turned me into a Bollywood fan, but it has piqued my interest and given me some ideas and images that will stay with me for years to come.

Here's a clip of perhaps the most charged song in the movie. This is near the end, when Vijay sees the mob and his enemies figuratively feasting on his presumed corpse. He can take no more, and his song slowly builds to a fever pitch by the end:

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

Wow. Of the 47 films that I've watched for this blog thus far, Pyaasa wins the award for having the least amount information available. I'm sure this would be different if I could speak Hindi. I can't, so there's little to add to my own subjective views above.

There are a few interesting odds and ends, though. One is the all-too familiar tale of studio meddling. Raja Dutt wanted the ending to be Vijay walking off alone. The studio, certainly fearful that such an end would alienate a larger audience, demanded that Gulabo go with him. I have to say that, unlike the other movies in which such modifications were mandated, I was alright with this one. Maybe I was simply in a more romantic mood while watching it, but I was glad that my heart could hang its hat on something after Vijay's wholesale rejection of society.

On a minor, more amusing note is that the film crew wanted to film the red light district scene (maybe the most powerful and beautiful of the entire film) on location in Calcutta. They made it there, but were run off by a pack of local pimps. Among all of the problems that film makers have faced in history, I can't say that I've heard of such a thing.

Here is that famous scene in the brothel area. This is when Vijay is overwhelmed by the state of affairs in his beloved country:

That's a wrap. 47 shows down, 58 to go.

Coming Soon: The Sweet Smell of Success (1957)
Watched this one about a year ago, and thought it was decent. I've always enjoyed Burt Lancaster, and he plays a real piece of work in this one.

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

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Film #46: Aparajito (1957)

* This film is the second in the “Apu Trilogy,” which I will be reviewing in full after I watch the final film, The World of Apu. This review will be relatively limited since it is considered only the middle portion of a larger whole.

Title for Us English-Speaking Types: “The Unvanquished”

Director: Satyajit Ray

Initial Release Country: Bangladesh

Times Previously Seen: none

Teaser Summary (No spoilers)

Poor Bengali boy reaches adolescence in Bangladesh and India.

Uncut Summary (A full plot synopsis, spoilers included. Fair warning)

When last we saw the six-year old Apu Roy, he was leaving his little forest village in Bangladesh, following the tragic death of his older sister.

It is now 1920 in Banares. The ten-year old Apu, his mother and priest father live in the packed city that straddles the holy Ganges. His father ekes out a living by administering rituals to the locals, and his mother tends their battered, ancient home. Apu, unable to go to school due to his family's extreme poverty, roams the streets and riverside, taking in the massive buildings and the strange local people.

Apu heeds his mother in the narrow alleys of Benares.

During an evening festival, Apu's father takes ill. After a struggle of a few days, he succumbs to his sickness and dies. With no other obvious source of income, Apu is trained as a priest and begins to conduct minor rituals around the city. Eventually, a wealthy family takes Apu's mother in as a housekeeper, which enables her to scratch together a modest amount of rupees, though this is hardly enough for anything beyond subsistence living. After a few months, mother and son pack up and move to the smaller town of Dewanpur.

In Dewanpur, Apu continues his work as a small-time local priest, young as he is. He one day discovers that there is a quality school nearby, and he begs his mother to enroll him. She takes what little money she has and does so. In school, Apu excels in his studies. He greatly impresses the instructors and superintendent at the school. They even give him extra work outside of class, which he absorbs with prodigious enthusiasm.

After roughly six years of superior work at school, Apu is offered a scholarship to a university in Calcutta. When he excitedly tells his mother, she grows very upset at the prospect of losing Apu, the only living member of her immediate family. She soon calms, however, and resignedly supports her son's desire to leave Dewanpur and go to Calcutta.

The adolescnent Apu somberly thinks about just how figurative that globe in his hands is.

In Calcutta, Apu takes residence in a print shop, where he works on the presses at night to make enough to support himself. During the day, he tries his best in class, but finds the amount of studying and night work overwhelming. He drifts off to sleep in the middle of the class, only to be called out and told to leave for the day. He does manage to stagger through the rest of his first semester, and returns to his mother for the holiday.

Back in Dewanpur, his mother is overjoyed to see him again. She has had little to do since her son's departure. She even tries to convince him to delay his return to Calcutta for a few days, so as to have a little more time with him. He tells her that he cannot, but he is somewhat stymied when his mother intentionally does not wake him for his return train. Initially angered, he decides to stay for one extra day. This seems to bring him a certain amount of inner peace.

Upon returning to Calcutta the next day, Apu becomes a studying and working machine. He now manages his printing job and his studies far more easily than before, and he once again seems to be on the track that will lead him out of poverty and towards far greater things. His mother, however, begins a slow mental and physical deterioration due to loneliness. She sends him a letter asking him to write more and come home for a few days to visit. Apu sends back a brief response, explaining that his impending exams demand that he stay in Calcutta to study.

Shortly after this, Apu receives a letter from his mother's friend. In it, he learns that his mother's health is failing. He returns home to find that she has passed away. He is distraught. By the next morning, though, he steels himself, packs his few belongings into his carrying sheet, and walks out of Dewanpur towards the train station, presumably to return to Calcutta and finish his education.

Take 1: My Gut Reaction (Done after this first viewing, before any research)

Aparajito is a very logical continuation of its preceding chapter, Pather Panchali. As such, it requires the correct mood to watch. As with that first installment, I was in the proper frame of mind, which allowed me to see what an excellent film this is.

The similarities between the first two parts of the Apu trilogy are obvious and deep: they are thoroughly humanistic, being devoid of any hint of overdramatization or sentimentality. They both focus on a select few people. In Pather Panchali, it was clearly Apu and his mother, with his sister and father being lesser, though key, characters. With Apu's sister dead, and his father not lasting more than twenty minutes into it, Aparajito narrows the character focus even more. Everything is about Apu and his mother. The tale is a very delicate balance that conveys the deep, universal feelings of the maternal bond, and yet it never overplays its hand. Even if they wanted to, I feel that very few filmmakers could have pulled off this feat.

This clip contains a key moment, and a fine example of how Ray captured the very understandable connection between Apu and his mother. They have been in Dewanpur and Apu, 10, has been earning a bit of money as a child priest. Start it at 8:00:

The pace of Aparajito is blessedly faster than the first chapter. Pather Panchali, while masterful in its meditative state, was tryingly slow. This portion of Apu's life takes place in larger cities, amongst the ancient buildings and various peoples of Benares and Calcutta. For someone like me, who has never been anywhere close to these places, Apu serves as a proxy spy glass. As a wide-eyed village boy, he soaks in the new sights and sounds, and so do we. Director Satyajit Ray had to be aware of this, and plays up this relationship wonderfully.

I have to admit that a great amount of the appeal was certainly due to personal experience and bias. I myself am a teacher. This makes the entire sequence of Apu's academic progress a very easy thing to appreciate. As with all portions of these films, this is not high, fantastic drama, especially not to the average viewer. But to anyone who has worked with or watched someone as they sought their way in the world, such triumphs and progress are marvels to behold.

Of course, the strength of the movie comes from the emotional power imbued with the tale of Apu and his mother. Once his eminently likable father dies, Apu and his mother are even more tightly bound. This could easily have been the point where Satyajit Ray took the tale along one of many standard, cliched paths. Instead, he used a dash of familiar story lines that would ring true within his tale, and blended them perfectly. Apu and his mother show affection, love, respect, scorn, anger, and admiration for each other, all at different times and all in eminently authentic ways. As I stated in my review of Pather Panchali, this story has the very real feeling of a documentary rather than a work of fiction.

Here's a solid clip. Just watch from the beginning, and know that just prior, Apu has asked his mother if he can go to Calcutta to study. His mother initially panics and refuses. Apu gets surly and is slapped. He runs out of the house and to the nearby pond to sulk. That's where we pick up the scene. Just watch the two actors' faces throughout, to get a nice variety of emotion:

While Aparajito may feel like documentary, it is not documentary. If there is any doubt of it, one needs only look at the film itself. If Satyajit Ray worked cinematographic wonders with his first movie, his skills only grew greater in the years immediately following. On another shoestring budget, he shows an amazing eye for setting up shots, both long and close, to communicate both feelings of intimacy and feelings of awe. The larger cities seemed to be something of a playground for Ray, who used a variety of appropriate high and low angles to enmesh the viewer in the settings. The result is a film that, while nearly identical in spirit to Pather Panchali, has a very different aesthetic.

I suppose one could, after reading about how many of Apu's family members die in these first two movies, assume that this film is just a sad-sack tragedy. One could assume that. I, however, am reserving judgment until the final film. The first two chapters have been the story of a bright, precocious boy who has only just begun to hear the larger world calling out to him. He could not hear it in his earliest years due to his poverty, and he could not heed it fully as an adolescent due to his familial bonds. At the end of Aparajito, though, he seems to be walking towards that calling. I have a feeling that the final film of the trilogy, The World of Apu, may be something quite different. Whatever the case, I do look forward to the finale of Apu's tale.

Take 2: Why Film Geeks Love This Movie (Done after a little bit of research)

There's not really much to be found in this movie on its own, since most reviewers consider it the middle episode of a longer work. Of mild interest is that Aparajito raked in plenty of awards back in the day. Seemingly the most interesting is the fact that it is, to this very day, the only sequel that has ever won the award for “Best Film” at Venice Film Festival.

And so, with far more brevity than usual, that is a wrap. 46 shows down. 59 to go.

Coming Soon: Pyaasa (1957):

Bollywood, proper!! I know that India is a movie-mad country, and the Bollywood industry is as hulking as a rogue elephant. And yet, I've never actually watched a Bollywood picture. That's all about to change. Come on back and see how I take to it.

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

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Film #45:The Searchers (1956)

Director: John Ford

Initial Release Country: United States

Times Previously Seen: once (about 12 years ago)

Teaser Summary (no spoilers)

Cantankerous Indian fighter tracks down a pack of Comanche who have kidnapped his niece.

Uncut Summary (A full plot synopsis, spoilers included. Fair warning.)

Texas, 1868. Hardened Indian fighter and former Confederate soldier Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) returns to his brother Aaron's ranch after several years of wandering the plains. He hopes to settle down close to Aaron's family: his wife and their 10 and 16-years old daughters, Lucy and Debbie. He also finds their adopted nephew, the handsome, energetic, 1/8 part Indian, Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter). Ethan gives Martin nothing more than suspicious glances and the proverbial cold shoulder.

The next morning, several Texas Rangers arrive at the ranch to deputize Aaron and Martin into a posse. They are responding to a report of Comanche raiders nearby. The two men agree to go, as does Ethan. After several hours' ride, they find that the Comanche have merely killed several cattle as a diversionary tactic. Ethan realizes that this was to draw the fighting men away from the two nearby ranches so that they could conduct what Ethan calls a “murder raid.” When they return to the ranch early the next morning, they find Aaron and his wife brutally murdered and Lucy and Debbie gone, taken by the Comanche war chief known as “Scar”.

Martin Pawley is only just beginning his long, long journey with the angriest, nastiest Indian hater this side of Pecos.

Ethan and Martin accompany the remaining Rangers and begin tracking the Comanche raiders. Upon finding a dead Comanche buried, Ethan ruthlessly shoots out the dead man's eyes, so as to rob his spirit of the ability to find the afterlife. The Rangers and Martin are shocked at Ethan's apparent and deep racial hatred.

After continuing for a while longer, the search party is attacked by several dozen Indians. They manage to escape and fight them off, but Ethan once again turns brutal. Even when the attackers turn to flee, he continues firing his rifle into their backs. The Rangers decide to take one of their wounded comrades into town, and Ethan, Martin and the young Brad Jorgenson, Lucy Edwards' boyfriend, continue the pursuit.

Eventually, as the trio prepare to camp for the night, Brad sees Scar's war party and a person he believes is Lucy, since he recognizes her dress. Ethan then reveals that he had just earlier that day found Lucy's corpse in a narrow canyon, which he hadn't revealed so as not to upset Brad. In a rage, Brad blindly storms into Scar's camp and is promptly gunned down.

Ethan a Martin take a brief respite at the Jorgenson's home, where Martin is reunited with Laurie, who loves Martin. She wants Martin to stay with them, but he decides to accompany Ethan on his pursuit of Scar and Debbie. By now, Martin deeply suspects that Ethan may see Debbie as no longer “white”, but rather a Comanche, and therefore kill her with the same murderous contempt he has for other Indians.

Over the next several years, Ethan and the stalwart Martin scan the southwest from northern Texas into New Mexico. They travel through the changing seasons, Martin accidentally purchases and Indian wife, whom he banishes, and the two men even come across a group of white women who had been rescued from Comanche servitude. All are deranged, but none is Debbie.

The first of several winters sets in as the search for Debbie continues...

In New Mexico, the pair finally track down Scar's camp, thanks to a local Mexican man. Though Scar knows who they are and what they are after, decorum forces him to invite them into his tepee to trade. Inside, they finally find Debbie (Natalie Wood), now fifteen years old and one of Scar's wives or servants. Ethan and Martin barely refrain from reacting, but they leave in short order and regroup nearby, out of sight of Scar's camp.

As they talk over their next move, Debbie rushes over a hill to them. Martin runs to greet her, but Debbie warns them to run away, explaining that the Comanche are her people now and that Scar means to kill them both. On hearing this, Ethan pulls his gun to kill Debbie, only to be blocked by Martin. Scar's war party interrupts the standoff and the men have to hop their horses and flee. They escape once again, but not before Ethan takes a poison arrow to the shoulder. They race back to the Jorgenson's ranch in Texas.

At the Jorgenson's, Ethan and Martin arrive just as Laurie is about to marry local mailman and suitor, Charlie McCory. Despite having been away for five years, Martin is livid and gets into a fistfight with Charlie over Laurie. Once the dust settles, Charlie calls the wedding off and the Rangers who are in attendance prepare to take Ethan and Martin under arrest for a misunderstood murder and not-so-misunderstood string of robberies from Ethan's post Civil War years. Just then, a Union cavalryman arrives to report that they have found Scar's war band on the outskirts of the ranch. All men present saddle up and set out.

Debbie, now absorbed into the Comanche culture. Does The Duke kill her or rescue her?

When the Rangers get to the camp, Ethan wants to charge into the camp, not caring if it means that Scar will likely kill Debbie on the spot. Martin convinces Ethan and the Rangers to let him try to rescue Debbie before they and the cavalry assault the camp. He does so, quietly creeping in, waking Debbie, convincing her to leave with him, and even killing Scar. Just then, the cavalry storms in, killing or dispersing every Comanche in sight.

In the chaos, Debbie gets away from Martin, sees Ethan and runs away. Ethan knocks aside the pleading Martin and chases Debbie. He catches up to her in a nearby cave, where she falls to the ground. He picks her up and, instead of murdering her, he cradles her in his arms, saying “Let's go home, Debbie.”

They return to the Jorgenson house, in which everyone goes inside after a joyous reunion. Everyone, that is, except for Ethan, who walks off of the porch and back onto the plains, the door closing behind him.

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

I count a handful of Westerns among my absolute favorite movies of all time, regardless of genre. The Searchers is not one of them. Far from it, in fact.

There are a couple of elements that I think explain why this movie is placed within the pantheon of “Wild West Masterpieces”, but there's really only one that I think explains why its given loftier status than any of John Wayne's other 5,672 western movies (well, it sure seems like there are that many, anyway), and it's that one that gave me the only thing to sink my teeth into.

So what was the one thing? Simple. Ethan Edwards. The character is so truly dark that he's fascinating. In a depressing way, he represents exactly everything that invites scorn upon Americans from basically everyone else: he's bigoted, arrogant, surly, aggressive, bullying and cold. But more importantly is that he's pragmatic and, above all, capable. All of those former adjectives wouldn't matter a whit if it were an ineffectual weakling who possessed them. Ethan Edwards, however, is a homicidal racist who not only wants to kill every Indian he sees, but also can kill every Indian he sees. The Searchers at least acknowledges this by having all other characters sense it and distance themselves from Ethan, even when he's a military compatriot or even blood kin. The final shot of the movie really says it all, which is certainly why it ranks as one of the most memorable closing scenes in history.

Here's one of the earliest examples of Ethan's bone-deep hatred of the Comanche. The video quality is horrid, but that's not really where the strength of this scene comes from. Start it at 6:00:

This brings up the other clear merit of the film – the cinematography. To anyone who has seen any of John Ford's movies, this should come as no surprise. Within the medium of the sweeping epic western, the man was a master of setting, costumes, and shot framing. The high def DVD that I watched the film on, remastered in 2007, truly highlights the vibrancy that visually set apart such Technicolor works in the same way as Meet Me in St. Louis and Singin' In the Rain. After watching almost exclusively black and white films of late, The Searchers simply glows.

Here's the opening scene. While the true power of it is mostly lost on a tiny youtube screen, I think you can get the point:

This, though, is not an entirely good thing to me, and this leads me to the reasons I don't particularly like this movie. As of today, my favorite westerns are The Wild Bunch; The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly (Film #63 on this list); The Outlaw Josey Wales; and Unforgiven (Film #91). If you've seen these movies, you can understand the common thread, and no, it's actually not merely Clint Eastwood. The shared element is that each one was a well-balanced blend of the real old west and the mythical old west, though each of these three films weighs one vision more heavily than the other. The Searchers gets the balance completely wrong, in my view. This despite Ethan Edwards being a prototype for the apocalyptic Will Munney in Unforgiven.

A lot of the film comes off as just another hokey, Hollywood western. Any dialogue not by Ethan is ridiculously corny, the comedy is sophomoric at best, and nearly all characters aside from Ethan are complete cookie cutters straight from the “Mass Appeal Western Cookbook”. The only positive about any of this is that it makes Ethan's callous, primitive worldview and his blood lust stand out in even starker contrast. Amidst the dullard jocularity and melodrama around him, Edwards seems even more of an emotional abyss. Still, this doesn't make all of these elements palatable to me. It became roughest for me at the end with the wedding scene, in which the most annoyingly buffoonish character of the bunch, Charlie McCory, is given his moments of “comic” relief. Maybe his dim-witted mannerisms were good fun fifty years ago, but by today's standards, they are on the same level as a pie in the face.

The other major problem with this movie is the pacing. The tale, stretching over five years, gets pulled forward in bizarre and dizzying fits and starts, with sparing clues as to the passage of time, aside from some clumsy or obvious bit of dialogue, and two very brief moments when the men are in winter snow. I assume that John Ford's intent was to convey the arduousness and length of the pursuit, but it may as well have been telling a real time story: the movie is two hours long, and it almost seems as if that's exactly how long Ethan and Martin take to find Debbie. No more, no less. The two men and Scar don't age in any visible way, Martin continues to be childishly naïve and impulsive, and Ethan's last-minute change of heart doesn't seem to have any visible cause. It all comes off as rather contrived.

So this brings me back to the same question I ask when one of the film's on the TIME list does not impress me: Why is it considered a classic?

My best guess is that the character of Ethan Edwards was such a dark departure for John Wayne, and it stood out so clearly amidst the otherwise safe, harmless backdrop and characters, that it is seen as having unprecedented depth. True that it has more depth than the Roy Rogers version of the wild west, but I still think that it's been far outpaced in the intervening decades. I'll take Sergio Leone over John Ford any day of the week and twice on Sunday. (Sunday is spaghetti western day!) I like my westerns will wall-to-tobacco-stained-wall roughnecks, and if a film is going to be a dark character study, the director needs to go all the way. While Ford went further than anyone else had back in 1956, artistic evolution has dimmed its power, in my view.

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

OK, so maybe I was a bit harsh. Not much, though.

After listening to some commentary by several directors, including one of my favorites, Martin Scorsese, I'm willing to cut this movie a little more slack. There were clearly a few elements that I didn't fully perceive or realize upon this most recent viewing, but I believe I had good cause.

Probably the main thing that I should give more credit for is the way that the theme of religion runs through the picture. While John Ford's films have accurately been described as “Catholic”, The Searchers gives us a thoroughly un-Catholic protagonist. Through Edwards' interactions with the Ranger/preacher Clayton, and his expositions on Indians, we see him to be all but an atheist.

Something else that deserves a little more credit is the camerawork. While I did laud this in my Take 1, I was made aware of more than the majestic shots of Monument Valley. John Ford was actually a highly skilled visual storyteller, as evidenced throughout The Searchers. Many thoughts, emotions, and dynamics are conveyed through facial expressions and body language. This is something that far too many films are missing these days.

Many point to the similarity between the Ethan Allen and Scar characters. True that one could see them as the same man, separated by their racial backgrounds; however, I think it goes a little too far when some assert that this serves as proof that The Searchers portrayed Native Americans in a more positive, sympathetic light. The movie seems to have made a few strides past previous ones, but they are very small strides. Of course, such a thing was not to be very well done in commercial movies for at least ten years, and only truly shone through in the massively successful films like Dances With Wolves or Last of the Mohicans.

As far as critics go, I have to agree with a lot of this original TIME magazine review from back in 1956. That review, however, smacks of a writer who had had enough of John Ford/John Wayne films. The reviewer admits to the clear merits, but clearly felt the same way that I did about the pacing. Glad I wasn't the only one.

It is only proper that I end with the final scene of the movie, one that is often regarded as one of the greatest in film history. I have to say, I may not love the movie, but I can see people's point:

That's a wrap. 45 shows down, 60 to go.

Coming Soon: Aparajito (1957)

Part 2 of the Apu Trilogy. Last we saw the cute little Bengali bugger, he was on the back of a horse cart with his dejected mother and father, heading for Benares. I'll have a look in on the lad and see how things work out for him.

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

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Film #44: Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)

Director: Don Siegel

Initial Release Country: United States

Times Previous Seen: once (about 8 years ago)

Teaser Summary (no spoilers)

Doctor discovers growing fear of strange, replica impostors of the denizens of his all-American hometown.

Uncut Summary (Full plot synopsis, spoilers included. Fair warning)

In a Californian hospital in the mid-1950s, Doctor Miles Bennell (Kevin McCarthy) is raving and being restrained by the police. A psychiatrist arrives on the scene and calms Bennell down into semi-coherence. All he can muster, though, is that everyone is in danger of some kind of looming menace that has taken over his hometown of Santa Mira, California. Once further eased, Bennell traces his story back...

A few days prior, he had returned from a conference out of the state to his hometown. Santa Mira seems like the fully realized American dream town, as defined by widely shared post-World War II sentiments: white picket fences, a clean downtown area where the tallest buildings are a mere three stories, and a populace of genial folks, all of whom know and like each other. Upon his return, all seems to be normal to Dr. Bennell. Then, slightly odd things emerge:

While driving back to his office, he nearly runs down a local boy who is running from his grandmother, screaming that his mother is “not his mother.” When Bennell returns to his office, his nurse informs him that nearly all of the patients who had scheduled appointments earlier in the week had canceled, saying that they were now fine. In addition, a cousin of Bennell's former girlfriend, Becky Driscoll (Dana Wynter), claims that her uncle is no longer her uncle.

Becky Driscoll and Doctor Miles Bennell.

This final claim spurs Bennell to investigate. He goes to Becky's cousin's house where the young woman explains that, while her uncle looks the same and has all of the same memories, there is a strange lack of emotion and tenderness in his eyes that had always been there previously. Bennell feels that it is simply some kind of misunderstanding and assures Becky's cousin that it will surely pass.

That evening, Bennell begins to try and rekindle his past relationship with Becky. However, before he can make any real progress, he receives an urgent call from a friend and local writer, Jack Belicec and his wife, Teddy. Bennell goes to their house to find their shocking discovery laid out on their pool table: a lifeless, humanoid form that bears a close resemblance to Jack. No one is sure where the body came from, but they decide to leave it there, with the Belicecs keeping an eye on it, while Bennell takes Becky home.

Jack Belicec reveals his discovery of his own pod replica to Bennell and Becky.

At the Driscoll house, Dr. Bennell gets a disturbing feeling from Becky's father, whom he finds ascending from the basement below. He leaves, only to sneak into the basement and find another near-facsimile growing in their basement dumpster, this one resembling Becky. Bennell sneaks upstairs and rescues a slumbering Becky from the house.

Back at Bennell's house, the doctor calls the police and brings them to the Belicec's to see the “Jack” replica. The doppelganger, however, is now gone. Bennell then brings them to the Driscoll's to expose the “Becky” form, which is also gone. Just then, another police officer tells them that they have just found a burned body matching the description of the “Jack” form. The investigators chalk Bennell's notions up to delusions, and the doctor is sent home.

The next day, things start to become eerily normal again. The young boy and Becky's cousin, both of whom had claimed close relatives to no longer be themselves, now have no problems and claim that everything is fine. That night, while preparing a barbecue with the Belicecs, Bennell makes a harrowing discovery in his greenhouse: four bizarre, large plant pods. As he watches, they hatch and spill out steadily growing human shapes, each one taking on the structure of the four people present. They try to call the police, but the operator tells them that all lines both within and outside of the city, are busy. Bennell gives up and decides to leave the house with Becky, but not before destroying the pod bodies. The Belicecs decide to try and escape town on their own, leaving Bennell and Becky to do the same.

In traveling through the town, the two quickly discover that essentially all of their friends and neighbors have been transformed into pod people. Not only that, but they are trying to do the same to Bennell and Becky. The two see no immediate way out of town, and pursued by the police, escape into Bennell's office in town. Here, with some time to think, they decide that he pods take over a person's identity when the person sleeps. With this in mind, they dose up on amphetamines and decide to wait until morning.

After the sun rises the following day, Becky and Bennell see the greatest horror thus far. In the middle of town, hundreds of the people of Santa Mira, now clearly pod people, gather thousands of new pods to disperse to outlying towns and neighborhoods. The goal is clear: eventually turn every living human into a pod creature. Jack Belicec then shows up at the office with a few police, though we quickly learn that they are now, too, pod people, and the full, horrifying story is told. A few weeks prior, a few pods had rained down from space and landed near Santa Mira. The plants are parasites that can mimic any living form and take over their identities by absorbing their minds when they sleep. The new person seems to be a perfect copy, physically and mentally. The one thing missing, though, is emotion. The pod people who explain all of this to the doctor and Becky implore them to give up, ensuring them that emotions such as love are more of a hindrance than a help. The two refuse to listen and fight their way out of the clutches of their near-captors.

Becky and Miles flee from the now completely replicated townspeople of Santa Mira.

Now alone and completely on the run, Becky and Bennell frantically flee from the entire town of Santa Mira. They hide briefly in a cave, throwing the townspeople off of their trail for a few hours. Bennell eventually leaves Becky in the cave to investigate the outside, but the exhausted woman can no longer stay awake on her own. Bennell returns to her to discover that she too is now a pod person. He runs for the highway and just manages to beat the chasing townspeople.

Flash forward to the hospital. Doctor Bennell's story has failed to convince anyone of any more than that he is suffering from an intense hallucination. That is, until they receive a call from the local police detailing a traffic accident that has just sent a large truck spilling out the contents of its bed: hundreds of strange, pod-like structures. Hearing this convinces everyone in Bennell's presence of the veracity of his story, and they rush out to combat the menace. The viewers can only assume that they will emerge victorious.

Take that, you green, replicating pieces of space trash!

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

Pretty average.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers has a mildly interesting plot with some thought-provoking psychological suggestions, but ones that have been plumbed far deeper and more skillfully by many a talented science fiction writer (see anything by Philip K. Dick, for instance). The acting is adequate, but certainly nothing special. The direction and cinematography are solid, but far from revolutionary.

So why is this movie considered such a seminal one in science fiction films?

I'm sure that my further research will reveal or confirm some of my suspicions about the answer to this question, but there are several easy speculations to make:

One is that it may have been one of the first sci-fi movies to strike at deep, universal psychological fears. The clearest one is the ever-present question about human emotion. Is love truly such an enviable feeling? When one considers the pain and suffering that it can cause when lost, how many of us would really clutch so tightly to it? This is the question that the pod people pose to Bennell and Becky towards the end of the movie. Their response is the typically humanistic one – an outright refusal to exchange ostensible peace for their ability to retain their emotions. Still, while this is a curious thought experiment, its one that probably requires a more austere setting than a “vegetable aliens crash land and take over” context to ponder with any true gravity.

Here's the link to a youtube clip that gives a good sense of when things get cranked up: the all-American barbecue with friends so rudely interrupted by usurping space plants. (Sorry for the lack of an embedded clip)

The more obvious explanation for the endurance of this movie is the time in which it was made. Of course, 1956 was when the Red Scare of communism was roughly at its height. Though the ideal of a “perfect America”, as envisioned by Anglo-Americans, had crystallized and been informing popular entertainment (a la Leave it To Beaver, The Andy Griffith Show and The Honeymooners), the perpetual threat was the notion of communism. And of course, detractors of communism claimed that it was a system in which people would become little more than machines, whose sole purpose was to subsist and procreate. Invasion of the Body Snatchers clearly latches onto this primal fear of Americans and runs with it. There's even a moment during the grand exposition in Bennell's office when the doctor asks, “So, we would all be the same?” to which the pod person responds, “Yes.” Pretty hard to miss that one.

While the concept of using science fiction as a vehicle to create symbolized versions of communism isn't unique (I'd be remiss if I didn't mention The Blob, filmed here in my home of Phoenixville, PA), I believe that Invasion may have been the first film to be so blatant about it. The science fiction veneer is so thin that I find the filmmakers' notions a bit ridiculous: that viewers would equate the blank-faced pod people spawned by extraterrestrial plants with the reality of communism. It borders on contempt for one's intelligence, perhaps no more so than during the finale, when a frantic doctor Bennell is running along the highway, screaming for help and madly attempting to explain his pursuers: he stares directly into the camera and yells, “You're next! You're next!!” It may as well have been Senator Joseph McCarthy himself doing it.

The final aspect of this movie that I feel may be seen as influential is the juxtaposition of the bizarre and terrifying with the exceptionally “normal.” By giving the viewer the town of Santa Mira, a carefully-constructed vision of the Utopian, 1950s American ideal, and injecting an all-consuming, hidden, alien threat, it relies on the time-tested formula of tapping into the terror of the familiar and comfortable becoming alien and deadly. It's something that has been notably used by the likes of David Lynch in Blue Velvet and the cult classic TV show, Twin Peaks. Invasion a of the Body Snatchers is the earliest piece of film work that I've seen that uses this combination, and I suspect that it may have influenced later filmmakers.

Whatever the reason is for this movies's status within the cinema world, I feel no need to watch it again. Science fiction to me, a person who really loves a good sci-fi tale, is all about ideas. The primary thrust of it all, from H.G. Wells' The Invisible Man, through Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (a.k.a Blade Runner), to Darren Aronofsky's The Fountain, is the emotional and social impacts of humans' increasing grasp on universal knowledge and technology. These stories are, by nature, cautionary tales, but the best ones are not so heavy-handed with the warnings. Invasion of the Body Snatchers doesn't make much pretense about its political and social commentary, and its one that is rather outdated in my view. And while sometimes a science fiction film's other qualities can overcome an outmoded theme, Invasion doesn't quite hold up in 2010.

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

In reading a bit more, I realize that my first take may be a little bit harsh. Still, I stand by the general feeling that, while it's far from a bad movie, Invasion of the Body Snatchers is not one that I would rate nearly as well as other science fiction movies.

First of all was that this movie suffered that same, cruel fate of several others: the Hollywood studio demand for a more “up-beat” ending. The result was that, instead of the original intended ending of Doctor Bennell running maniacally down the highway, screaming “You're next!!”, we got the happier version in which the earth will be saved by people's zero-hour realization of the invasion. Hence, in the same fashion as films like Baby Face, The Lady Eve, and others, Invasion of the Body Snatchers just misses the chance to leave its audience a bit more ponderous for being left with a more fatalistic outcome.

The lingering question and area of debate over this movie is, to no one's surprise, the allegorical question. Was it meant to be a commentary on McCarthyism or not? While director Don Seigel and star Kevin McCarthy (nominal coincidence, anyone?) deny this, I remain skeptical. Some also argue that the story is meant to warn against the danger of general conformity, whether it be through communism or dogmatic political stances. This is likely the reason that it has been remade three times, most recently in 2007's The Invasion.

Whether the film's creators had any specific political agenda or not, it is clear that the engine that drives the movie is people's fear of losing their emotions and individuality. When this is taken into account, I have to give the movie a little more credit. When one does watch and think about it, there are clearly several frightening notions suggested by the ultimate goals of the pod people.

Here's another link to the iconic ending scenes. Once again, no ability to embed the clip into the link, unfortunately.

The only other factoid of interest that I dug up was a very curious cameo. During a very brief scene at Dr. Bennell's house, Bennell nervously discovers the local gas man in his basement, reading the meter. That young, thin, polite and mustachioed young man is none other than “Bloody” Sam Peckinpah, the visionary director who would make some of the most revolutionary and violent popular films in history, notably The Wild Bunch and Straw Dogs. “He wasn't an real conformist, but he did play one in a movie.”

That's a wrap. 44 shows down, 61 to go.

Coming Soon: The Searchers (1957)

Yeee-Haaaawww!!! We finally ring in the Western in one of the best possible ways. Our first (but far from last) Western features none other than the embodiment of that truly American film creation: Mr. Marion Morrison, better known as John Wayne.

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