Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Up Scope!

If there is such a thing as a submarine film genre, Run Silent, Run Deep invented it.

The 1958 thriller starring Clark Gable and Burt Lancaster as a pair of World War Two naval officers trying to survive each other’s opposing viewpoints during a cruise in the Pacific is a virtual fountain of all the standard material one finds in nearly every undersea adventure: The tense monotony of the sonar pings, the men staring earnestly at gages or listening to propeller screws in headphones and, of course, the Captain shouting “Clear the bridge – Dive! Dive!”

All of which is a roundabout way of saying that this film, chock full of what would eventually become clichés, very easily could have drifted into awfulness and ended up a mediocre ancestor of bigger and better movies. The fact Run Silent, Run Deep remains irresistibly entertaining and watchable, the fact it more than stands up to the test of time and the very obvious advances in photography and special effects – consider that not one frame of the film was shot underwater – rests on great acting and a smart script that deftly invigorates a rather formulaic plot.

Gable’s performance as a commander who yearns for a chance to revenge himself on the Japanese destroyer that sunk his sub is particularly impressive. There is nothing debonair or effusive here from the man who at one time was called The King of Hollywood. Gable’s portrayal of P.J. Richardson as a desperate man full of grit and silent fury is as pitch perfect as Lancaster’s solemn and stentorian turn as Lieutenant Jim Bledsoe. That the two men are set against each other – Richardson convinced the Navy Board to give him command of the submarine destined for Bledsoe – and then gradually reconciled during the film’s action might be predictable, but it is great fun to watch.

Richardson’s pursuit of the Japanese destroyer is inevitably compared by critics to Ahab’s maniacal pursuit of the whale in Melville’s Moby Dick. Richardson is certainly as single-minded as Ahab. At one point in the film, he barks he “never even thought of failing.” At another he warns his near-mutinous first officer that “this boat has one – and only one – Captain.”

But for all this passion, Richardson eventually realizes when he has gone too far and he allows his ambitions to cool, both of which are distinctly un-Ahab-like. Additionally, Richardson gets his “whale” when Bledsoe allows him to give the order that ultimately sends the Japanese submarine to the bottom of the ocean. Ahab’s chase did not end quite as well.

At just a little more than one and half hours long, this is a taut film that wastes no time on the unnecessary. The script swims along at a wonderful pace that never leaves the viewer dulled or displeased. That it manages to do so without the over-reliance on technology later submarine films would suffer from is a credit to this film’s innovative movie-making and powerful storytelling.

While Run Silent, Run Deep is not destined for dissection in film school, it remains a solid piece of drama that more than outshines similar efforts in more recent years. Put simply, they do not make them like this anymore – and that is a damn shame, if you ask me.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

The Ferocity of Alone

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly is perhaps the most famous Western of all time.

Made in 1967, this is the third of Sergio Leone’s spaghetti Westerns that star Clint Eastwood as a lonely gunslinger with a curiously unique – some would say indecipherable – code of conduct that allows him to remain aloof from the immorality of frontier America. Of the three, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly is by far the most complicated and compelling of the so-called “Man With No Name Trilogy" the two men made together. Indeed, the fact the movie survives the ravages time often inflicts on Westerns and remains popular among both fans and critics alike is a testament to the film’s visual and thematic power and the very real weight of the philosophical issues the plot wrestles with.
More specifically, this is a film that probes the limits of individualism and exposes the dangerous links between independence and amorality in the Old West.

Leone himself said, “the West was made by violent, uncomplicated men and it is this strength and simplicity that I try to recapture in my pictures.” To achieve this, he scrubs the Western to its base elements; he jettisons Indians, mining towns, wagon trains and the card games in saloons that dominate more traditional Hollywood Westerns and depopulates his vision of the West until nothing is left but a handful of stubborn survivors who believe violence is the only way they can impose themselves on the empty grandeur of their surroundings. 

In Leone’s West, there is no community to speak of and certainly no authority capable of taming the wild country and the barbarity of men. As a result, a wary brand of individualism – and to a lesser extent, amorality – thrives in all of his characters, because an individual in Leone’s West does not have the luxury of anything like trust in others or absolute morals. If this world has any rule it is that people must look after themselves and remember that circumstance trumps all.

In The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, a trio of opening vignettes establishes who is Good, who is Bad and who is Ugly. The sequence also forces the audience to question why these characters are described in such terms and to judge during the course of the film whether the descriptions are accurate.
As is the case with all Leone films, the dialogue is sparse – indeed, 10 minutes pass before the film’s opening line – and the characters reveal more about themselves with their eyes and their body language than they do with words: The angular figure of Lee Van Cleef standing in a doorway with one hand resting on a pistol needs no vocabulary to communicate purpose.
When the film opens, Van Cleef – the movie’s Bad character, called Angel Eyes throughout – is on the trail of a missing Confederate soldier who knows the whereabouts of a cash-box stuffed with Rebel gold. His quest for the riches eventually attracts Eastwood – the Good character – and a low-level Mexican bandit named Tuco – the Ugly character, played with a wonderfully-rotten panache by Eli Wallach.

When both Eastwood and Tuco discover clues about the gold’s location, circumstance dictates that they form an uneasy partnership and go after the treasure together. Angel Eyes soon learns what the men have discovered through a combination of sheer brutality and pragmatism. He briefly joins forces with Eastwood – butting Tuco out – in an even more unwieldy partnership, only to be driven away in the film’s penultimate gun-battle. These relationships of convenience, the switching sides – from Union to Confederate – and utilizing whatever is available – the Church, the Law or each other – all to further the quest for gold serves as a constant reminder to the viewer that none of these men has an allegiance to much of anything beyond themselves and their immediate goal.

What little moral clarity there is in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly arrives with the devastation of the Civil War. Both Angel Eyes and Tuco seemed unmoved by the conflict’s violence. To them, the war is an inconvenience, something that stands in the way of their big payday. Eastwood shares this sentiment, but he also recognizes the folly of the death all around him and it moves him to express as much compassion as his character is capable of. “I’ve never seen so many men wasted so badly,” he observes after watching a hopeless attack on a bridge.
Eastwood’s gradual emergence from his shield of solipsism is starkly contrasted by the company necessity has forced him to keep. At one point, Tuco is asked: “Outside of evil, what have you managed to do?” The answer, of course, is nothing. Eastwood dubs Tuco the “Rat” because of his odious personal habits and his unsavory penchant for selfishness. But as repugnant as Tuco is, he is not as bad as Angle Eyes – a committed solipsist who kills, tortures and lies his way through the film’s plot with the cool calculation of a sociopath who sees people not as people but as tools for his fulfillment.

In the film’s famous climax, Eastwood tempts the other two protagonists into a three-way duel. Initially, it appears the entire trio will have to consider both their own perceptions and those of their opponents before deciding who to shoot at. Unknown to Tuco or Angle Eyes, Eastwood emptied Tuco’s gun the night before, meaning he knows who to shoot at and knows he will survive if he shoots quick enough. Far more interesting than Eastwood’s stratagem is the fact that Tuco also chooses to fire at Angel Eyes. So it seems neither the Good or the Ugly can tolerate the Bad – and both men think they will get a better deal with each other rather than with a remorseless killer like Angel Eyes.

To put it another way, it is obvious that if Angel Eyes lived, he would have killed whoever survived the standoff because killing people is what he does (he is bad). Tuco would have killed the duel’s survivor because it would have meant more money for him (he is ugly). Eastwood splits the money with Tuco and rides away, their partnership now forever dissolved. While he might not be “good” in any absolute sense, he certainly is good in the film’s compromised world. And what is more, he seems to have learned a deeper truth the others missed: Namely, that some things are impossible to do alone. One man is not enough.

This reflection does not necessarily lead to the conclusion that one needs the society and community intentionally absented from Leone’s film, but it is a strong indication that the director is trying to say partnerships – or something like them – are important, even for rugged, individualistic gunman. Indeed, such arrangements are the building blocks of the society and community Leone’s Old West -- essentially a kill or be killed state of nature -- lacks. In this sense, Eastwood’s character has evolved, and in doing so, he points to a future where militant individualism -- and the amorality that comes with it -- will not be as necessary as it is for the men in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.

In other words, civilization proper was coming to the West, it just took some time getting there. In the meanwhile, the denizens of the frontier were, well, on their own. So when Tuco tells a corpse who failed to get the drop on him: "Just shoot: Don't talk about it," the audience knows exactly what he means...

Monday, November 22, 2010

On Learning to Live with the Machine

What did audiences in 1957 think of Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory?

The film is incredibly dark and moody, nearly every scene oozes with overt cynicism about the absurdity of war and the shallowness of patriotism. Such sentiments seem out of place with our image of the 1950s as safe and sterile. After all, people still believed then. There was no Vietnam, no cultural upheaval and the gradual unraveling of the public trust in officialdom that accompanied both had not yet begun.

Of course, the notion that cynicism was invented in the 1960s is little more than an oft repeated untruth. The requisite horrors of the First World War produced a decade of commentators and artists who ruefully referred to the Great Lie that lay behind the conflict (Gertrude Stein would famously call some of them the “Lost Generation”).

Kubrick could have chosen the easy route with Paths of Glory and simply added his voice to an already impressive chorus with yet another anti-war missive about an armed conflict that seems to make less sense the further time advances from it. Instead, he decided to utilize the incredible lethality of the war – in which there were more than 38 million combat casualties – to present a simple but powerful tale that explores the mathematical ruthlessness of bureaucracy and the ways in which power dehumanizes many of the men who possess it.

This last point is made clear when a pair of French generals meet in the film’s first scene to discuss the possibility of a new offensive. At first, Gen. Mireau resists his commanding officer’s entreaties to attack a German fortification known as the Anthill, saying that he cares too much for his men and will not order them to lose their lives making such a pointless attack. However, when the possibility of promotion is dangled in front of Mireau, he quickly loses sight of the men as anything other than a means to an end and agrees to the attack.  

Kirk Douglas plays Colonel Dax, frontline commander caught between Mireau and the other clueless generals and France’s brave but dispirited soldiers in the trenches. Dax knows Mireau’s order to take the Anthill is a non-starter, but he also knows resisting the order is futile. When the subsequent attack is predictably driven back by heavy German machinegun fire, an enraged Mireau blames the offensive’s failure on group cowardice and orders 100 of Dax’s men to be hauled in front of a firing squad and shot.

Eventually, Mireau is forced to accept a deal in which one soldier from each of the division’s companies will be randomly selected and tried for cowardice. At the trial, Dax does his best to defend the trio of unlucky men, but the hopelessness of resisting the gears of a military bureaucracy that believes more in chugging toward a conclusion than it does in contemplating the character of its actions leads to a verdict that is never really in doubt.

In the film’s penultimate scene, a captured German girl is forced to sing to the French troops. At first, the French jeer her and shout obscenities, but as the girl continues to sing “The Faithful Hussar,” the men slowly are cowed into silence by the sweetness of her voice and eventually they begin to hum the tune, not knowing the words. Equally disturbing and moving, the scene reminds us that for all the pessimism present in Kubrick’s films, he understands the universality of beauty and believes that it transcends nationality and ideology. That it takes a scared refugee to remind the soldiers of their own humanity – and indeed, the humanity of the Huns on the other side of no man’s land – is perhaps the film’s most ironic and subtle moment.

Much of the rest of Paths of Glory suffers from obviousness: Its heroes and villains are far too easy to identify and the complete lack of unexpected choices in the plot places the audience in the awkward position of constantly knowing more about what will happen than the characters do. Even so, one cannot deny the power of the injustice documented in this film. And I am not sure we will ever see a more frightening depiction of the heartless efficiency present in large, bureaucratic administrations.

Kubrick, of course, would go on to make better films, but no one can deny that this effort remains an authoritative opening argument from an artist who uses the medium of cinema to ask his audiences essential questions about the human condition.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Condor Fails to Fly High Enough

Sometimes, it is difficult to watch classic films and recognize what made them classic. Other times, it is just impossible. The distance from the release date is too great, the world too different.

Three Days of the Condor, a Sidney Pollack film starring Robert Redford is routinely referred to as a classic spy thriller – or, at the very least, a pretty good example of the conspiracy-driven films that bubbled up in the mid to late 1970s. The problem is these kinds of films do not affect contemporary film-goers the way they did their original audiences: It is no longer shocking, for example, to learn that the government lies and sometimes does things it should not (see All the President’s Men).

For my money, films like Three Days of the Condor work better as indicators of an era – examples of mindsets and of attitudes, etc. – than as pieces of timeless drama. That is not to say the constituent parts of this film are not any good. The direction and acting here are superb and the film should work – and therefore age – better than it does. Exactly why it falters rests on the not-so-subtle message I believe the filmmakers wanted to impart to audiences.

When we first meet Redford, a man well known for his off-screen messaging, he is a CIA open source analyst in New York who scours books written in foreign languages looking for patterns or ideas. It is not exactly exciting stuff, until he goes to get lunch one day and comes back to find all of his colleagues dead. When he calls Langley to try to figure out what happened, Langley sends someone to kill him. Redford then adopts the tried and true movie and television-mantra of trust no one and stay on the move until you figure out just what the heck is happening (the Jason Bourne franchise did precisely this for three films).

Along the way, Redford picks up Faye Dunaway, the woman destined by the script to find his newfound vulnerability strangely enduring. It would be unfair to criticize Dunaway for this. She brings real emotive power to her scenes, even if nearly all of them are completely unnecessary to the plot. Her performance manages to grab hold of just the right amount of denial and acceptance in her interactions with Redford – and she can also be funny, such as when she jokes about being a “spy fucker,” a line I took as a sharp jab at the arm-candy that is ever-present in other spy films.

That line, however, is about irreverent as the film gets.

The majority of the time is spent in an earnest game of dodge-the-assassin. And the buildup concerning the mystery about what Redford knows, why his colleagues were killed and exactly who it is who may be trying to kill him – maybe there is a CIA within the CIA, he muses – is all done with serious and skillful vigor. Unfortunately, the tension inherent in these questions never really goes anywhere. Worse, we never can feel like Redford is in any danger. He is unquestionably the cleverest person on the screen, and despite being an analyst who read books for a living, he manages to sidestep all of the deadly operatives sent after him.

Whatever promise the film contains evaporates in the final 15 minutes, wherein instead of the revelatory finale we have been building toward, we are given a rather prosaic confession in a mahogany study – and can anyone really say for certain what the confessed “plot” really was? – and the film’s hitherto lethal antagonist gives up his aggression toward Redford, thanks to a new financial arrangement with CIA that the film’s creators probably reckoned was both original and disturbingly amoral. They are completely wrong on the first account, but closer on the second. The assassin’s steely description his dedication to a code of non-allegiance that rests entirely on caring only for his own professional exactitude as a killer is indeed chilling.

But it is Redford’s code we are supposed to care about, and so far as I can tell, he really does not have one. His transformation from the type of man who would join the Central Intelligence Agency in the late 60s or early 70s (the climax of Vietnam anyone?) to someone who would go to the New York Times to expose Agency wrongdoing does not feel legitimate.

The phony transformation is perhaps most clear when Redford, who almost appears to have quit acting in the final scenes of the film and inserted his actual personality and politics into the picture, loudly voices his disdain for the Agency by calling its employees “you people” – a sophomoric rebuke that conveniently forgets, of course, that his character is indeed one of those “people,” too.

Pollack and Redford would both go on to make better films that said more interesting things in less obvious ways. But even if we set aside the obvious politicking, the film struggles to work within its own genre, thanks to a few too many unbelievable scenes, a bizarre and unnecessary love story and a plot that never really fulfills its promise. A fair criticism, which I believe can almost be said about any 70s genre picture, is that Three Days of the Condor is essentially a terrific B-movie elevated by an A-list cast.

How Wonderfully it All Comes Apart

Let me be clear: Double Indemnity is a damn fine movie.
Billy Wilder’s 1944 film noir classic starring Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyck and Edward G. Robinson skillfully takes viewers on a disturbing journey through the depths of human wickedness. Betrayal, greed and lust are all on display in this tale of murder and insurance fraud gone horribly wrong.

As is the case with his other noir classic, Sunset Boulevard, Wilder presents the film’s primary action through a kind of narrative confessional told in a series of flashbacks by protagonist Walter Neff. “Yes, I killed him,” Neff slurs into an office’s Dictaphone late at night. “I killed him for money and for a woman. I didn't get the money and I didn't get the woman. Pretty, isn't it?”
Far from it, Mr. Neff.
Indeed, thanks to the delightful sordidness of the story in author James M. Cain’s 1935 novella, it took several years and several tries before a screenplay that could pass the era’s notorious production code could be cobbled together for Double Indemnity. The final version we see on the screen comes from Raymond Chandler, a man who knew a thing or two about crime fiction. Chandler famously scrapped much of Cain’s clunky dialogue and re-wrote it. The result is a tour-de-force of snappy lines and perfectly executed scenes that flow like the following one, in which Neff takes a pass at the woman who we know will eventually wreck him:
Phyllis: There's a speed limit in this state, Mr. Neff. Forty-five miles an hour.
Walter: How fast was I going, officer?
Phyllis: I'd say around ninety.
Walter: Suppose you get down off your motorcycle and give me a ticket.
Phyllis: Suppose I let you off with a warning this time.
Walter: Suppose it doesn't take.
Phyllis: Suppose I have to whack you over the knuckles.
Walter: Suppose I bust out crying and put my head on your shoulder.
Phyllis: Suppose you try putting it on my husband's shoulder.
Walter: That tears it.
Phyllis: I wonder if I know what you mean.
Walter: I wonder if you wonder.

Stanwyck’s portrayal of Phyllis, the lonely trophy wife who longs to rid herself of her boorish husband, is something to behold. She is both vulnerable and insidiously serpentine at the same time – and the alluring toxicity of this mixture easily overcomes Neff’s initial objections to offing the man that is keeping them apart. Improperly inspired, Neff sets about using his inside knowledge of the insurance business to craft the perfect crime with the highest payout, but the minute details of the plot are really only window-dressing for the inner-lives of the plotters. At its heart, Double Indemnity is a morality tale about what happens when the baser elements of psychology – the aforementioned greed and lust – are given free reign. And the mechanical way the film’s subsequent violence and betrayals unfold perfectly illustrates the banality of horrible crimes, such as murder or adultery – or, in this case, both – once they have been decided upon by the principles who will carry them out.
The film also successfully depicts how morality can be something of a slippery slope. That is, if Neff can betray and kill one person, what is to stop him from doing it again, given that what can crudely be called a moral threshold has already been crossed? Nothing, the film seems to tell us. The end of immorality is a kind of nihilism that permits all manner of behavior, no matter how ugly.
Barton Keyes, the ornery claims investigator whose “little man” in his chest lets him know whenever someone is trying to pull a fast one on the insurance company, knows all of this. He peruses the ingenuity of human inequity for a living – and what is more, he knows how Neff’s morally bankrupt partnership with Phyllis ends before Neff does. As Keyes tells Neff about halfway through the picture, “it always comes apart sooner or later.” Guilty conspirators are forever tied to one another, and being the sort of people prone to making immoral choices, it is impossible for them to keep such a permanent bargain. Disintegration is inevitable. 

What the filmmakers understood is how arresting the inevitable dissolution is, how wonderfully positioned it is to teach us about the awfulness of human behavior. Everyone thinks they know what goodness is and where it can be found, but not many people would look for evil in an insurance salesman and a housewife, and that is the source of much of the power and beauty of Double Indemnity.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Talented Mimicry Begets Talented Mediocrity

I had high hopes for To Have and Have Not.

The 1944 film was based on a Hemingway novel – a mediocre novel, but a Hemingway novel nonetheless – and it was directed by Howard Hawks, the man responsible for classics such as Scarface, The Big Sleep and El Dorado. With William Faulkner contributing to the screenplay and the oft-repeated behind-the-scenes legend that stars Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall fell in love while making this movie, how could the film be anything other than cinematic dynamite, sizzling at the fuse?
Unfortunately, in spite of all of the aforementioned big names, To Have and Have Not fails to deliver in multiple categories – charm being perhaps the most important one. Essentially, what we get is a confusing kind of best-effort from a lot of creative people who decided to remake another Bogart film that truly is a classic – Casablanca.

To Have and Have Not’s failure begins – but by no means ends – with its curious script, in which the novel’s tale about a desperate man who turns to gunrunning is completely jettisoned in favor of an incomprehensible intrigue revolving around a handful of Frenchmen resisting the whims of Vichy France on the Island of Martinique. As if this obvious plot point were not enough to ram home the resemblance the studio was shooing for, many of the film’s set pieces take place inside a bar that if you squint your eyes could almost be as effortlessly cool as “Rick’s Café.” When everybody isn’t drinking and smoking and looking for the strangely absent roulette wheel, there is a great deal of official-sounding talk about having the proper papers and about fighting for the “cause.” And occasionally, a German stool pigeon shows up – played rather deftly by Dan Seymour – and makes trouble for everyone.

It is tough to criticize Bogart for walking and talking like Rick Blaine, even though he does this throughout To Have and Have Not. Having seen Bogart as Harry Morgan in this film, Bogart as Blaine in Casablanca and Bogart as Philip Marlowe in The Big Sleep in a span of about two weeks, I would be lying if I could point to any difference in his performances. Bogart always plays himself, and I am okay with that. He has an incredible on-screen presence and the fact his devil-may-care coolness has never been equaled is more than enough to forgive him whatever other faults he may have as a performer.

Bacall’s performance in To Have and Have Not is more difficult to classify.

Certainly, she does enough here to justify the superstardom that would eventually follow, and she more than matches Bogart in their scenes – itself no mean feat, considering this was her first film and she was the screen-legend’s junior by more than 20 years. As for the legendary Bogart/Bacall chemistry, it is clear the two get along in this picture, but I am not sure anything extraordinary happens.
My failure to find the duo’s fabled chemistry could also have something to do with the obviousness with which Bacall is parachuted into this film. That is, unlike Ingrid Bergman’s character in Casablanca, Bacall’s really has no reason for sauntering into Bogart’s watering-hole in To Have and Have Not. Furthermore, once she has landed in the middle of the film’s opaque plot, the writers keep her there without ever really inventing a compelling reason for doing so.

That everyone else also seems to be going through the motions a little too well is very evident at the film’s conclusion, when there is no great climax to the plot’s muted conflict, no great sacrifice demanded of its hero and no promise that anyone in this fictional world is any different from having survived the depicted events. In other words, it does not end with the triumphal flare and tragic wonderfulness of Casablanca. That wouldn’t be a problem, except Casablanca is the film everyone here is supposed to be trying to ape.

Of course, the reasonableness of trying to reproduce the Casablanca magic just two years after its release is the silent, unanswered question that looms over the entirety of To Have and Have Not. I cannot fathom why anyone ever attempted such a fool’s errand, and if this film teaches us anything, it is that you cannot remake a classic – no matter how gifted a troop of talent you assemble.