Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Power, Perversion and Purpose

Where do we begin with Mr. Bond?


The success of his film franchise – some 23 movies in all – and his status as a cultural icon – one imagines people in the Amazonian rain forest know about the character’s choice of cocktail – is unmatched by anything in the history of cinema. People cheered when the lights went down in the theater where I saw the most recent Bond picture and the frustration about the financial troubles that delayed Skyfall in advance of its release were legendarily frustrating among devotees.

Exactly why the exploits of an officer in the British intelligence service, known as MI-6, should hold such sway over the popular imagination – and this is in not just Great Britain, not just the cousins in the United States or even the English-speaking countries, but of the entire world – begs examination. I propose the success of Bond is visceral (the films are a feast of effects and beautiful to behold), psychological (Bond does what we all secretly wish we could) and philosophical (Bond is a kind of Platonic Guardian of Western Civilization, whose wines and other products he clearly values and enjoys).

The Nature of Bond
In one novel, Bond is described as “certainly good-looking . . . Rather like Hoagy Carmichael in a way. That black hair falling down over the right eyebrow. Much the same bones. But there was something a bit cruel in the mouth, and the eyes were cold.” Add to that the word “ruthless”.


The literary Bond has a facial scar. He fought in the Second World War, can throw knives. He drinks too much, not because it is fashionable, but more because he has no real friends and the loneliness must be filled somehow. He clearly relishes killing, both the build-up, which is often described in sexual terms by Fleming, and the act itself. But the killing takes its toll on him and the spent feelings – again, of an almost sexual vein – pay him back at unexpected moments, so he smokes more, drinks more, or tries to find solace in a round of cards or a drive in the country. These things alleviate his inner demons temporarily, but the only real cure is glimpsed in Thunderball, which opens with burnt-out James Bond recuperating in a health spa. What Bond needs more of is more of the job, more killing, and so he goes looking for it at the spa and finds both. Only then is he "cured" and re-animated.

The literary Bond then is an aesthete, something which unfortunately comes across as humor or snobbery in the films. The literary Bond enjoys the finer things because he does not often like people and the people around him either tend to need killing by him or end up being killed by others. Bond in the novels is closed off to others and he is almost pathologically non-communicative in the books, most of which contain pages upon pages without spoke dialogue, the action being all in Bond's head. He clearly views himself as a distinct being, separated from others by the secrecy incumbent in his job as well as the fact that he is a killer who operates in an artificial – perhaps self-made – world that is beyond everyday Good and Evil.

One philosophy professor writes that Bond is incarnate of a "He Who Eats Meat Wins" mentality, a walking incarnate of the masculine ego's successful overreach into the stratosphere (Bond is many things, but he is not a failure). According to this line of thinking, which I believe is right, Bond has a strong appetite because he is concerned about life and death in way other people are not. Bond could die at any moment, just like the people he himself dispatches. So there is a voracious Epicurean in Bond. Life, which does not hold much meaning to him, is easily extinguished. So he takes pleasure when and where he can...


This Bond does not quite exist on the screen.

The film Bond is the “man every other man wants to be" and "the man every woman wants to sleep with,” as one film critic quipped. On screen, the internal fretting in Fleming’s novels, along with the depictions of doubt and personal regrets, are almost entirely jettisoned. The Fleming anti-hero is thus reborn as a hero, and his uncomfortable flaws and coping mechanisms – that is, his drinking, his nearly sociopathic womanizing and his clear enjoyment of killing – are either softened into punch lines or made positive attributes that denote glamour. It is an interesting transition and one that I believe is critical to the franchise's success. Here, too, I must emphasize that much of the ugliness and raw power of Bond the human being is absent in the films. Ego is often discussed in the film, as Bond's will to act, but in a cinematic context the ego is essentially criticized. In Casino Royale, for example, we have a Bond who must learn humility, and does. On screen, in place of a man who is almost sheer action, we have Bond the civil servant, a man Dr. No calls a "stupid little policeman," which in essence, is correct. Bond therefore is a kind of Horatio Nelson, in that he is somewhat obscene and grandiose, for sure, but still well within society’s bounds of acceptable behavior, and we as an audience are willing to forgive him his trespasses for a handful of equally compelling reasons.

Bond strangles a woman. Pure Fleming moment.
Bond as Escapism
The first reason for Bond's cinematic success is simple. The aforementioned film critic's quip was right. On some level, we – and I mean more the men than the women here – do want to be James Bond (I leave it to the women to chime in on whether they want to sleep with a man like Bond). Or rather, we want to want the things he wants, the fancy cars, dangerous women and good champagne, and we enjoy vicariously participating in his over-sized pursuit of them. We also note Bond's confidence, his acumen and his style and again view these as positive worthy of striving toward. On a puerile level, who doesn't want to be handsome, successful and living an exciting life?

So in this sense, Bond thrills with his wish-fulfillment. Bond films are not documentary or anything like reality, rather they are escapist fantasies, laced with healthy doses of hyperbolic action and over-the-top situations. Bond is never shown filling out paperwork, filing receipts or being forced to grab a lukewarm cup of tea in the MI-6 cafeteria. He literally springs from one luxurious meal to another, from one fine hotel to another, and of course, from one unobtainable – at least to mere mortals – woman to another.

Bond does this, and we get to watch him do it, because he is essentially a creature driven almost completely by his id, which is defined as "the part of the mind containing ... wants, desires, and impulses, particularly our sexual and aggressive drives. The id operates according to the pleasure principle, the psychic force that motivates the tendency to seek immediate gratification of any impulse." Most people do not get to indulge their id as much as Bond, because we have duties and responsibilities and social norms we must pay attention to in complicated social settings. Although Bond is far from brutish, his restriction of his id and its impulses is far more limited than in most people.

This is a complicated way of saying, Bond lives in the moment and likes to have fun. And often, there are no consequences – or at least not normal consequences – attached to his actions. We would go to jail, for example, if we killed people. But Bond has his famous license to kill. Which leads me to...

Sex and Death
Make no mistake, Bond films are all existential struggles – isn't the fate of the entire world always at stake in them? – and the films all intentionally make a direct correlation between sex – a creative act – and destruction. If you do not believe me, go back and re-watch the infamous title sequences from the 1960s when completely naked women frolic around the silhouettes of firearms. What is going on there is much more than a crude metaphor for pistol. For on each of his missions, Bond stares death in the face and the plot hatched by the supervillain often involves the kind of negation death is itself. Consider that in On Her Majesty's Secret Service, Bloefeld utilized a gaggle of nubile young women to do what? To carry a plague that would sterilize plants and animals around the world. To, in other words, negate the creative act symbolized by their sexuality – and the sex Bond has with them – with death.

A penis-shaped laser tries to cut Bond's penis off. A metaphor you could not create on your own. But Fleming did.
That the sex in Bond film's has little or no consequences only furthers the notion that on some level what Bond is at war during the films lies within himself or with existence in more general terms. How many of Bond's sexual conquests are subsequently murdered? There are no awkward morning afters in Bond's world, no talk of promises and commitments. Women are unabashedly objectified and presented as tokens of Bond's dangerous lifestyle (or were until recent films). Just as he gets a great car, he gets great women. Nobody is saying this kind of fetishism is admirable (see Pygmalion), but the desire for this does exist somewhere within us all, just as the desire to murder and be a creature of assured violence exists within us all.

The reward?
Of course, along the way Bond is giving up meaningful relationships, of the possibility of, say, raising children, of having a safe and secure life. And in compensation he receives cars, slavish women, fine caviar, etc. This was Achilles choice and it is Bond's choice. It is not one many of us would make, but there is something primal and attractive about nonetheless, which both Fleming and the filmmakers understand, even if in the case of the latter it is by accident. Bond's brutal life is presented as a glorious procession in order both to tantalize us with the forbidden as well as demonstrate how satisfying and reckless the forbidden might be.


Personally, I am not sure which Bond I like best – the novel or the film version – but I am certain which Bond sells. This is another way of saying that I am certain that if more of Fleming’s Bond made it onto the screen, we would not be talking about a film franchise here of 50 years. Films are spectacles and audiences go to them for bedazzlement. They also go for affirmation. Bond gives audiences both. A Bond film is not a Bond film without almost hyperbolic action sequences (indeed, at one point the action became ridiculous in both the Roger Moore and Peirce Brosnan years). A Bond film is also not a Bond Film without what I will call Bond’s accouterments. By this I mean Bond the aesthete is transformed into a kind of showman for cars, watches, finely tailored suits and complicated drink orders, because these are all luxuries that people want and want to see. After 50 years, Bond and his preferences are now inseparable. The aesthetic eccentricity from the novels has been remade as “classiness” in an age that otherwise rejects such things.

Bond as Civil Servant
If Bond is a creature of id, confronting death and his own personal demons in a way we find entertaining, what ultimately makes him a hero? It boils down to this. As we know, the id "knows no judgements of value: no good and evil, no morality." The id seeks only the discharge of satisfaction (think sex and guns again). And if this is all there is to James Bond, he would appear as the kind of monsters he confronts in his adventures. That he is not a monster is ultimately because Bond's desires are channeled toward the greater good. That is, the filmmakers shrewdly choose to emphasize the purpose of Bond’s existence at the expense of the power and perversion inherent in his character. The Bond in the films is a "hero" precisely because he is working to protect innocents. He is a Platonic Guardian in the purest of forms, because he is an elected elite who endures great hardship and is therefore granted great license and reward so that the Republic will continue to stand.

For Queen and Country
If Bond on-screen did not believe in the goodness of his country and his role in the stewardship of democratically-elected governments, then he would be nothing more than thrill-seeker, cashing in on his job's status to acquire and do things not available to others. But he is not. He is motivated entirely by a noble cause (the defense of freedom), unlike his adversaries. Bond's villains, while sharing much of Bond's will to act and over-sized appetites, are perverted creatures in large part because they do not have Bond's redeeming dedication to service. Fleming was careful to ensure all of his supervillains, for nothing else could stand in the way of a superhero but a supervillain, are both mentally and physically perverted creatures.

Disfigured and without restraint.
Dr. No is a prime example. A cultured and intelligent man, his mind is nonetheless twisted by feelings of rebuke and he harbors an overwhelming desire for revenge that his distorted his entire reality (notice how surreal the Bond villain lairs always are). At the same time, he is a ghost of a human being, with little or no normal emotions and missing hands. In this sense, the Bond villains are evil doppelgangers of Bond, who indeed in The Man with the Golden Gun is openly exposed to this very obvious metaphor when Scaramanga presses Bond to admit how much he enjoys killing and therefore how similar the hitman (Scaramanga) is to the intelligence officer (Bond). Bond, of course, refuses the comparison, but it should provoke audiences to thinking a bit more about the man they have chosen to elevate for half a century. He is, if nothing else, complicated and what he represents about the society that produced him and continues to revel in his exploits is no less complicated...

The Best Bonds
Everyone has a list, of course. On this one, I have avoided what I will call the contemporary Bonds and tried to stick to what I consider the “classic” era of Bonds:


1. Goldfinger (1964): Of all the Bond Films, this ranks top. It is, quite simply, all that a Bond film should be and it is the last Bond film in which the character of Bond himself is not swallowed by the scope of the action or subject to using increasingly ridiculous gadgetry (which thankfully Skyfall jettisoned). The now-established Bond tropes are all introduced here, but they are not distracting yet: We have a wronged woman seeking revenge, a sports car with gadgetry and another maniacal, cultured and somewhat charming villain (Dr. No was not charming), assisted by a bizarre henchmen (Odd Job) who kills people in a fantastic way. There is something important at stake (Fort Knox), but for Bond the battle is more personal, as it would become again when Daniel Craig took up the role. For Bond in this film, it is about beating Goldfinger at his own game rather than “saving the day.” There is also the small matter of the quintessential Bond song, sung here by Shirley Bassey. It was never surpassed, though her sophomore effort in Diamonds are Forever comes pretty damn close.

2. From Russia with Love (1963): Probably the most traditional espionage film in the series, in that this is a real spy film, with a plot that involves a code machine and a honey trap, both classic Cold War espionage devices that have real-world corollaries. The scenes in Istanbul and the chase at the film's conclusion both still stand up, even if the deranged women with the shoe in her knife does not. The opening scene is also a classic, and no doubt worked better on the original audience, who did not know there would be 20 or so more films.


3. On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969): George Lazenby as Bond continues to divide, but leaving aside his uneven performance, this efforts soars with emotion as Bond meets his match in Diana Rigg’s character, falls in love and actually marries. Along the way, there are two great chases in the snow and some real emotional depth to what is clearly the most faithful adaptation of a Fleming novel. The pattern of the woman in this film being the equal of Bond became commonplace in later efforts, but it never worked as well it as does here. When Rigg skates up to help bail Bond out of trouble when he is at the skating rink, he is actually scared and out of ideas, something that does not happen anywhere else, I believe. It would have been interesting to see the filmmakers continue the thread begun in the last scene of this film with a revenge picture as a sequel, but instead we got Connery back in the rather glib Diamonds Are Forever.


4. Thunderball (1965): Sure, the underwater scenes are somewhat slow, but the rest of the film races along and Bond on several occasions faces real jeopardy. Connery is at the top of his game here, too. He is suave, provocative and full of a carefully calculated wit. The role does not bore him yet and the filmmakers are still giving him interesting things to do in his scenes that are not cliched. The outdoor shots work well, we get a great Casino scene and a villain who is creepy in a subtle and refined way.


5. The Spy Who Loved Me (1977): Surely, the best of the Roger Moore offerings? There is no real silliness in the film, aside from Jaws (who is no more or less preposterous than Odd Job) and the soundtrack’s disco-music accompaniment. Barbara Bach is amongst the best Bond girls to look at and more than a match for Moore’s casual approach to … well, everything really (does this man even run in action scenes?). The plot involves an underwater lair, stolen submarines, d├ętente and an arch villain who wants to cleanse the world by destroying it. In case you are not following, this is essentially a remake of You Only Live Twice with a few updates. No matter, because it works. There are some good effects, some real moments of tension, excellent sets (designed in part by Stanley Kubrick) and a great conflict between Bach and Moore.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

The Absent Catalyst

As far as first efforts go, one can hardly argue with Alfred Hitchcock's initial stateside film.

A dark and Gothic tale that clearly borders on the film noir, 1940's Rebecca would later be eclipsed by the great auteur's other, more richly imagined Hollywood efforts, but in terms of sheer craft and complexity, I rate this film as highly as any of Hitchcock's others. The only film from the great director that ever nabbed an Academy Award for best picture, Rebecca soars on the back of a remarkably tight script -- no scene or line of dialogue seems wasted here -- excellent cinematography and a pair of perfectly understated performances by Sir Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine.


I confess I have not read the novel on which the film is based, but it would be difficult to imagine how it could equal the film's subtle portrayal of wickedness and possession, given that in certain scenes, Hitchcock paints the proverbial thousand words with merely the position of a shadow, the movement of the actors or the tone in which they speak. Atmosphere is everything in this film, and how could it not be? This is, after all, a film in which the title character who is the driver of the entire film's events is not even alive. Yes, you heard me correctly. Not even alive.


Nonetheless, "Rebecca," who is Olivier's deceased wife, has a power and allure whose attraction has outlived her death. Indeed, the film itself makes it clear that the hand of the dead can rest on the shoulders of the living, no matter how much the living wish it were otherwise. In Rebecca's case, the power stems almost entirely from perversion. Though she was known as a beautiful and successful socialite, Rebecca's inner self was dark, manipulative and cruel. Not only did she torment her husband, but the film makes it clear she toyed with several other lovers, to say nothing of people in general. Her chief ally in this comes in the form of Judith Anderson, who is not only the housekeeper on Olivier's estate, but also Rebecca's sole confidant. Anderson clearly enjoyed the games Rebecca played, and in her absence, she has devolved into a kind of priestess who worships at the memory of her former master.


Accordingly, Anderson is forever dressed in black. She is rarely shown walking, and in most scenes moves about the frame more like an apparition or wraith than a human. Her devotion to Rebecca is clearly suggested as homosexual, but in a completely unrealized sense. Instead of love, we have co-dependency base on shared sociopathic tendencies that delighted in the manipulation and destruction of others. Rebecca -- the extroverted half -- needed an audience for her twisted triumphs, Anderson -- the introverted half -- needed a idol to follow and give her life meaning. 

Such devotion, of course sets Anderson against Fontaine, Olivier's new wife. But more than that, Anderson is against Olivier, the last person to see Rebecca alive and the person whom Anderson correctly suspects of having something to do with Rebecca's death. Olivier, too, is hiding something and suffering from Rebecca's legacy. To free himself from Rebecca's trap he must both admit to himself what kind of person Rebecca was and acknowledge his role in first not stopping her and then in crudely confronting her and having an unwitting hand in her death (Olivier also believes he murdered an unborn child).


Fontaine, who arrives in Manderley with no understanding of the forces already at work there, must discover, along with the audience, who everyone is and what their role in the tragedy of Rebecca was. The interesting part of this is that every character has a piece of who Rebecca was, none of them have the whole. All of the characters are reluctant to share what they know and what they learn with one another, believing (correctly, as it turns out) that the whole of what they might assemble might not be something to linger in front of. And in fact when the pieces are finally put together for the audience to see, something frightening and wicked does appear.

Rebecca most certainly was a villain, but like most villains, she did not have to kill or behave crudely herself because there were plenty of people willing to either help her (Anderson) or abstain from stopping her until it was too late (Olivier). Manderley itself is haunted by the evil done there, and to show this Hitchcock brilliantly shoots the interior as if there is always water dancing on the walls, a direct reference to Rebecca's watery grave offshore, and to the fact that everyone remains waterlogged by what she left behind. Olivier and Fontaine must perpetuate the lies in order to seal their own marriage. Manderley itself cannot be saved and it burns to cleanse away what happened there (fire being the opposite of water). 


This would seem a neat ending to a haunting were it not for all the unanswered questions Hitchcock has asked in the course of the film's narrative. Specifically, although it seems Olivier and Fontaine had ended the "curse," if we can call it that, and made it as a couple (and mustn't all couples excise their pasts before truly bonding for life?) there remains the thorny issues of trust and truth. Specifically, Rebecca challenges its audiences to ask  whether people ever truly know each other and can trust one another? 


Hithcock, ever the puppet master, would return to this topic with some success in Suspicion. And both in this film and that one, he seems to be asserting the negative. That what we see of another person is but a gesture or a presentation (like a film) and all the while the realness of a person, if we can call it that, is their consciousness, something we can never truly know no matter how much time we spend with them or how many conversations of souls laid bare we have. Nobody in the film knew Rebecca, either. They had pieces of her and assembled they became something like the whole, but it was not quite the whole. Nobody, for example, could say why Rebecca did what she did or why they allowed themselves to fall under her power. Such questions are ultimately unanswerable, and such endings to films are truly what make them great.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Not Dark Enough

Strange waters these.

I am quite the Humphrey Bogart devotee, as my profile of him on this site suggests.


And so I find myself wandering in unfamiliar territory when I make the claim that I do not believe Bogart works well as Raymond Chandler’s infamous shamus in 1945’s The Big Sleep, a film that also suffers from far too much subtlety and not enough naked awfulness (more on the latter below). In most cases, I would defend Hollywood’s by-gone penchant for leaving the crude unsaid and for suggesting rather than showing, largely because we have far too much of the opposite these days, but in the case of The Big Sleep, the production code at the time simply did not allow for the grit and grime and human frailty of Chandler’s pre-war Los Angeles to appear on-screen.

And Bogart, painful as it is for me to write, is part of the problem.

Certainly, he is great in the other film noir detective classic – The Maltese Falcon.


In that film, Bogart shines as Sam Spade, but that is largely because Sam Spade has no human weaknesses, is on a mission of righteous revenge. Bogart also essentially plays him as Bogart. But Phillip Marlow, Chandler’s know-it-all private dick? As a tremendous fan of a writer I consider much more than a mystery hack, I can honestly say there is a tragic grandeur to Marlow that Bogart just cannot capture. Bogart is too sure of himself, too clean and too self-righteous for Marlow, a man whom Chandler writes as a kind of fallen angel, a once-righteous being that is now chock full of cynicism to shield himself from more disappointment, more failure.


Marlow on the page is a grubby human who makes a grubby living, but he infuses what is an otherwise parasitic and not-so-honest way of living with a kind of noble grandeur by adhering to a strict and unspoken code that raises him above his clients and their short-term interests driven by greed or sex. Bogart, on the other hand, is noble in The Big Sleep, but he has none of Marlow’s ugliness, none of his self-awareness about his character’s ugliness, and consequently, he delivers lines intended to convey pained self-understanding – no doubt gained through previous unspeakable awful events – with such deadpan earnestness that the dialogue comes across a series of clever quips instead of moments of carefully crafted, naked confession.

Perhaps this failure has to do with the Howard Hawks’ impressive but flawed production.

Faithfulness is often a virtue, but in this case, the film tries to follow so many of the novel’s permutations – of which there are many – that the result is dizzyingly confusing onscreen (it all works much better on the page). Indeed, two endings of the film were cut, both of which are available on the DVD, because audiences in 1945 were uncertain exactly what the hell happened in Hawks’ first attempt at a resolution. So he tried again. I could follow events well enough, but then I have read the novel and had that as a primer. Woe to the filmgoer who approaches the story here cold.

This is not to say the good guys are not obvious and the bad even more so.


Lauren Bacall simmers here in one of her three onscreen appearances with Bogart as the more responsible, if somewhat still less than honest, daughter of Bogart’s client. Bacall arches her eyebrows in all the right places and she absolutely purrs all the right lines at just the right moment with just the right amount of licentiousness.

Martha Vickers’ sucking her thumb and batting her eyes as she attempts to lure men to their doom or find a new thrill is much more disturbing and much closer to the mark laid down by the novel. Her portrayal of the little girl all grown up in all the wrong ways is both frightening and positively scandalous. And why the filmmakers went this dark in this one portion of the movie and remained vanilla elsewhere mystifies. She is, at one point, quite clearly drugged, raped and photographed for blackmail purposes. As if this is not enough, Vickers makes it clear her character actually enjoyed the defilement.


The relatives around Vickers, Bacall included, is far cleaner than Chandler’s dark vision of a noble family that has been dragged down by the ugliness of their environment and the awfulness of their individual obsessions. Part of this, I suspect, stems from the filmmakers needing to make Bacall a legitimate love interest for Bogart. Hence, she cannot be that bad and must have some redeemable qualities, despite being dangerous and very obviously a femme fatale of sorts. The problem is this waters down Vickers performance – to say nothing of the rest of the rogues gallery on display here – and makes her actions appear almost alien. Context is important and the disjointedness apparent in the film goes well beyond its uneven handling of its characters. For example, it is even more difficult for the audience to find a context for the plot’s sheer awfulness, given that the L.A. we see here looks like what it is: The L.A. of glittering movie sets. Chandler’s vision of the city is something more sinister, and is perhaps lost to history after a fashion. That is, Los Angeles now has 70 years of crime and riots to chip away at its glamour and nobody today would be shocked that the events in The Big Sleep could occur there. But Chandler was writing about pre-War California, when it was the land of bright promise and sunshine and people migrated there for the climate and new job opportunities – not to fester in an overregulated, traffic-sodden economy built on an odd combination of Hollywood, the music industry and street crime. Like a more contemporary director, David Lynch, Chandler was peeling back the normalness – to say nothing of the downright positivism that sunny California built itself selling – and showing his audience that private eyes like Marlow needed to exist in the otherwise beautiful climate out West, because people were secretly running drugs, having covert affairs and constantly trying to rob their fellow Californians.


Amongst this, Marlow navigates the city’s hellish underbelly in an almost monastic way. Sure, he smokes constantly, is probably an alcoholic and his way of making a living could be considered somewhat dubious, but given the characters around him, the ones his job forces him to deal with, he is simple, pure and perhaps even holy. Indeed, Marlow never overcharges, never switches side or falls for a femme fatale, the latter of which the movie ignores (there has to be a love interest, right?). Thus, The Big Sleep’s biggest disappointment is that this Marlow is not present on the screen. Bogart’s Marlow is not better than his fellow characters, he is simply smarter and less driven to vice. I do not think Chandler is interested in this kind of relativistic judgment. Hard and ugly judgments are more his thing. And make no mistake, this is not an ugly film. The times just would not allow it and the actors, in most cases, just did not have that kind of depravity in them.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Revenge without Responsibility

First, a confession.

I grew up watching Disney’s 1954 film 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea on a video cassette – do people still remember those? – and I must have replayed the film a couple of dozen times. I was, in other words, something of a fan, though it would take me years to realize I had a proclivity to drift toward sea stories and even longer to realize why this was. (It is because they are, as one critic writing about Patrick O’Brian’s series of novels wrote, likely the only genre in which all of the great themes – man vs. man, man vs. himself and man vs. nature – can occur in one story).


Returning to old ground smacks of nostalgia, and more times than not, the journeys end very different than we imagine when we begin them. I have wanted to watch 20,000 Leagues again for years, but I never seemed to get around to it, and part of my distraction, I suppose, was intentional, in that I was in no great hurry to ruin my memories of what up until that point could be a considered a “childhood favorite” of mine.  Is there not some part of us all that wants the integrity of Santa Claus to remain just as it was before we learned the truth and it fled forever? Fortunately, in this case, the cinematic return ended well: 20,000 Leagues remains a solid sea story, one with interesting characters and more than enough ideas to keep an adult entertained.

As for the special effects?

Well, they have not aged poorly. Indeed, I suspect they have aged much better than many of the insipid, CGI-infused creations we are currently subjected to at the theater. I suspect the effects matter less in something like 20,000 Leagues because the characters matters more, and when Kirk Douglas faces off against the giant squid in the sequence forever enshrined in the Disney theme park ride, we care about him and James Mason’s Captain Nemo a great deal more than do about whether the tentacles of the beast flail realistically enough. If you want a touchstone for a comparison to see what I mean, try and recall how unimpressive the similar sequence is in the Johnny Depp Pirates series. One cannot imagine that scene, that film – indeed, that film series – firing the imaginations of young children five years from now, let alone sixty years from now, as the above-mentioned depiction from Jules Verne’s timeless novel has.


However, the fiber that holds this film together all these year later is the matter in between the sea monsters and underwater sequences. As I already suggested, the performances of Douglas and Mason, to say nothing of Peter Lorre and the lesser known Peter Lukas, are something to behold. Between the four, the audience is afforded glimpses at human archetypes as the group wrestles with the mysterious Captain Nemo’s competing shades of subtle brilliance and melancholic revenge.

The backstory, which should be familiar to all, is Nemo’s rage towards unnamed nations that ship arms that fueled what passes in the film as a loose kind of economic imperialisms. The details of Nemo’s angst are never made fully clear, but this lack of filling in the blank works in the film’s favor. Free from political commentary, Nemo and his lust for revenge that take center stage, while Douglas, Lorre and Lukas look on and puzzle over what to make of it with their very different levels of intelligence, personalities and ideological inclinations (or lack thereof in the case of Lorre – a coward – and Douglas – a brave but politically unconcerned sailor).


At odds with the violence, Nemo and his crew live in almost complete harmony with sea, taking what they want from it in food and supplies, as they cruise across the world – largely under the waves – in Nemo’s own monster, a metal-clad submarine that is virtually unstoppable in the age of wood and sail. The Nautilus only rises to replenish supplies or whenever it must become the embodiment of Nemo’s rage and plunge headlong into a ship, sinking it by opening up its timbers upon contact. There is something demented and childish in this. One man’s nightmare of revenge is visited on the world through an instrument he uses to literal bash against things until they are no more. How different is this than the senseless child, who full of anger, will repeatedly hit his head against something? Not much.

Like many Mason characters, Nemo (Latin for “no one”) is classy and cultured. He has an extensive library, an impressive mind and a first-rate accent. But as the movie makes plain, his revenge ensnares the guilty and the innocent alike. The ship Nemo sinks with Douglas and company aboard was sent to discover Nemo and stop the killing, not carry war materials to abuse an unnamed population, and it is unlikely that Lorre and Lukas are the first civilians blameless in the wars Nemo believes he is stopping that end up in the water because the Nautilus encountered their vessel and sunk it with no remorse for the bodies left in the water.


What we have here then is revenge without responsibility, an oddity when one considers Nemo is railing against men who fund and arm wars without accepting responsibility the havoc and death they cause. It is possible, I suppose, that Nemo began nobly, but that his rage eventually consumed him and he ceased to be selective about whom he lashed out against in his submarine. In the Verne novel, Nemo is far more sinister and obviously mad. That he is not in the film is likely on account that this is, above all else, an adventure picture for children and sheer amounts of dastardliness can only be depicted so much.     


The comparisons to Ahab here are easy to reach for, but viewing it from our perch some 60 odd years later I propose that we can indulge in the reality that this film appeared amid the height of the Cold War, an age in which atomic submarines began plumbing the depths of the world’s oceans, playing a game of cat-and-mouse not unlike what is on-screen here. Indeed, within a few years of the film’s release, those same submarines grew larger and started carrying a cargo of nuclear weapons that are far deadlier than anything Nemo imagined and real submarine named U.S.S. Nautilus sailed under the North Pole to prove a submarine could slip close enough to annihilate the Soviet Union if called upon to do so. The world, as they say, was never the same.


We glimpse some of this in Nemo’s decision to scuttle his submarine at the end of the picture. Nemo does so because humanity is not yet ready for the technology he unleashed in his machine (it is suggested his submarine is in fact nuclear-powered). This, the film’s almost solitary political pronouncement, could not have been lost on discerning audiences in the cold winter of the mid-1950s. What we are to make of this today, I am not sure. That the verdict on humanity is still out? That such machines should be only in the hands of capable people? Or that responsibility has shown itself, in some form, in the fact that we have not succumb to baser emotions and annihilated one another, even though we now have the means to do so? I suppose we each all have our answers, but at the same time I am fairly confident that we can all agree with one of the film’s other messages: That power in the hands of the irresponsible tends to destroy everything in its path – and then, eventually, the irresponsible destroy themselves.