Monday, December 5, 2011

The End of Something?

Hollywood’s fascination with the ancient world makes cinematic sense.

Films are comprised of a great many elements, but above all else, they are visual journeys to a proscribed reality representing a time and place different from our own. Even a contemporary film about contemporary times is artificial in the sense that any narrative structure, by definition, is a representation of reality – not reality itself. Along these lines, it is not surprising filmmakers love costumes and settings that allow them to dabble in world-making, and if one is going to whisk the audience away to somewhere else, why not some other time? But even these points cannot truly account for the spate of sword and sandal films that erupted in the wake of D. W. Griffth’s Intolerance and continued to land on the screen for almost 60-plus years (longer if we include Ridley Scott’s Gladiator and HBO’s Rome). 

Ancient Babylon, from Intolerance.
What else is at work, I suspect, is an attraction to grandeur and momentousness, both of which are tough to spot in one’s own contemporary existence, where and when we tend to remain unimpressed with ourselves – or at the very least, accustomed to our own achievements and challenges. Thus, chariot races become infinitely more visually compelling than moon-landings.

Griffith called his aforementioned effort “colossal spectacle,” and the same description certainly applies to 1964’s The Fall of a Roman Empire, a film that attempts in about three hours to surmise what Edward Gibbon chronicled in several volumes of words. And while it is true this film fails to capture the scope and notoriety of the collapse of one of history’s greatest political systems, it must also be said director Anthony Mann’s attempt sputters along in a rather magnificent fashion. All $20 million of the budget is clearly visible in the picture’s astounding costumes and sets and there are extras galore in the battle scenes. Whatever else it succeeds or fails to achieve, one cannot argue the filmmakers here failed to pay enough time and attention to all things that look, feel or smell Roman.

The opening scenes in the wilds of Germania are particularly well done. Indeed, anyone who smitten with the supposed incredibleness of CGI-animation should return to this film and these scenes and gander at the Roman Fort, perched on the edge of the Empire. Most of the set was probably created through a combination of mat-paintings, miniatures and balsa wood, but it looks stunning on film when the vassals of Marcus Aurelius parade in front of him to pay homage. The rest of the film is equally impressive, too. I read where a total of 55-acres of outdoor sets were constructed, and frankly, I will take this passé extravagance over the computer-spun realities inflicted on us today. 

Even more impressive is how this film, which is openly bent on grandness, also takes the time to get unimportant details correct. I was pleasantly surprised, for example, to see a lictor standing behind Commodus with his axe of bundled sticks (this is called a fasces in Latin). I doubt many people notice that, but if you are attempting to get it right, actually doing so requires such diligence and care.

If the same attitude was applied to casting, this film might have been more than it is. Two of the critical roles Mann picked absolutely correctly. Alec Guinness is perfect as the wise and moody as Aurelius, the thinking man’s emperor, while Christopher Plummer is delightfully wicked and snide as Commodus, the pompous fool whose inability to impress his father leads to a demented quest for personal glory that eventually threatens the entire Roman way of life. The acting problems begin with Sophia Loren’s barely palatable turn as Lucilla – Aurelius’s daughter – and goes from bad to worse with Stephen Boyd, whose wooden portrayal of a Roman general comes damn close to derailing the audience’s ability to enjoy the film.

What saves the effort is the big ideas wrestled with on the screen. The story, which should be familiar to all, involves a potent mixture of war, intrigue, the attempt by a great man to secure his legacy and his fear of dying and having his life stand for nothing (a timeless concern that haunts us all). Aurelius is only on screen the first hour, but it is his conflict that drives the action here and his alone. The rest of the players are simply reacting to conundrums the great philosopher plays out in his head, while an empire and unknowing mass of people swirl in the whirlwind of unrealized thought and deed that he leaves behind (great men are often agents of chaos, whether they intend it or not).

I have mentioned Gladiator, the film by Ridley Scott, and it goes without saying that I will have to mention it again, for that film borrowed so heavily from Mann's effort that it might not have existed without it (entire scenes and subplots are lifted, literally in total). Gladiator is a good film, and certainly more enjoyable than this effort, but what it added in entertainment, it lost in ideas. Plunging the audience into the sands of the arena might titillate, but it does not intrigue. What exactly was Rome? And why was it so worth fighting and dying for? Gladiator plays at answering those questions, but ends up pursuing an empty notion of revenge with not much else at stake, whereas The Fall of the Roman Empire powerfully explores what is lost when Rome falls (honor, citizenship, a chance to live in relative safety and free from harm). 

That Rome's grandeur is seemingly pulled down by one man is completely inaccurate, historically speaking (Rome flourished well after the 180 AD-ish time period depicted in the film and went on being Rome until at least 476 AD), but it is compelling nonetheless. Plummer's Commodus is manic and desperate, but he is also not his father's son (and he knows this) and he lashes out at the world more from an inability to find a place in it than from in sort of feverish spite. At the same time, Sophie Loren is forced to oppose her brother in order to try to save her father's legacy.  That she winds up as corrupt as Commodus even as she strives for noble purposes is a testament to the film's disturbing message about the collapse of social cohesion. Stephen Boyd attempts to remain true to himself and true to Rome, but in the end, he witnesses his army and its commanders bought off with gold, and the citizens of Rome drunk on the improvised glory of Commodus and his new and idolatrous cult of personality. 

For Boyd it is a frightening moment, one in which he truly becomes a son of Aurelius, for like the departed emperor, his life's work is made meaningless by the whims of a populist mob who has lost all sense of self. For the audience living in uncertain times, both then and now, it is strikes a chord of warning. When a society forgets its pride, when it ceases to defend itself and work toward greater ends, then it truly loses its way and its worth. The penultimate scene, wherein the throne of the empire is auctioned off to the highest bidder, shows how much and how little the title has become, thanks to collective social abrogation Commodus and his reign of terror gave voice to. 

In film-making terms, the real tragedy of The Fall of the Roman Empire is the demise of the type of storytelling it employs and the subsequent absence of ideas it wants to wrestle with. Epics today are back in fashion and many of them are no more compelling than their empty-headed predecessors, thanks I am afraid, to the resounding thud of Mann's Herculean effort made at the box office. And yet, somewhere between the high-mindedness of Mann and the brute force of Scott, there is a great film about a great empire to be made. Unfortunately, I doubt anyone has the courage to attempt it. It would be too difficult to get your arms around and too confusing to today's studio heads and audiences. Therefore, in lieu of better efforts not-to-come, seek out this original and marvel in what it manages to do very right.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Dangerous Ideology

No doubt there are plenty of people who watch 1962’s The Manchurian Candidate today and come away thinking it little more than a period-piece, or a kind of curiosity that chronicles an opaque form of paranoia from the Cold War that seems as alien to them as the once-held belief in the divine right of kings.

However, dismissing John Frankenheimer’s calculated adaptation of Richard Condon’s novel on such grounds is a mistake. For starters, I can think of few other films where the imitation of life is as brilliantly warped and overdone – and at the same time as strangely accurate – as this one. That is, we know now that the Soviet Union and its ill-begotten allies really did believe they could brainwash people in political reeducation camps, a plot point that would seem to be cooked up by a kooky screenwriter. We also know the Central Intelligence Agency experimented on methods to both control minds and resist the mind control efforts of their enemies (the infamous MKULTRA project that included a certain compound that later gained famed as LSD). Conspricacy-laced political thrillers that have just a touch of truth may be common fair these days, but in 1962 – when the majority of Americans still trusted their government – the genre was just beginning to find its own feet.

All of which is a roundabout way of saying that The Manchurian Candidate is avante garde filmmaking masquerading as a boorish crowdpleaser (and in doing so, mimicking one of its lead characters quite intentionally). The end-result is a film that may chronicle the dark and often difficult to discern Cold Way conflict better than any other effort, minus Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove. Only, unlike Kubrick’s dark and wickedly cynical slice of satire, Frankenheimer plays it straight and serious. Audiences today might snicker at the lengths the Chinese government undertake in the film to train and condition an assassin capable of propelling their candidate to office, but the kernel of truth within what is obviously hyperbole and artistic license is worth mentioning.

The Rosenburgs -- Guilty as Hell
There is little doubt today, thanks to FOIA disclosures and solid historical work by scholars such as Christopher Andrew, that the Soviet Union possessed agents who had thoroughly penetrated the U.S. government in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Indeed, the Soviet espionage apparatus stole what could be viewed as the ultimate secret – and in doing so, reshaped the balance of power in the entire world – when agents affiliated with the infamous Rosenburg couple ferreted out the knowledge needed build an atomic bomb. And if you can steal the power of the sun, how hard could it be to try to shape an election?

The infamous "garden party" with the old ladies

Not for nothing is there a line of dialogue about the Senator Iselin character being more dangerous to America than the Soviets themselves. Harry Truman said almost exactly the same thing about Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy and his public attacks on the U.S. government, a historical realism definitely reenacted by the Iselin’s character’s drunken, nonsensical allegations throughout the film about the loyalty of his fellow represenatives. The only problem is that Iselin – like the odious McCarthy before him – is correct. There is something wrong with the American government in The Manchurian Candidate, just as there was in the real life American government in the early 1950s (Chambers, Hiss, Rosenburgs et al were all very, very guilty – despite the intellectual cartwheels that attempt to prove otherwise). Condon’s brilliance is take Truman’s statement of disgust and make it into the ultimate nightmare scenario: What if McCarthy was actually an agent of influence, and in being one, campaigning in the open against traitors like himself in order to avoid discovery? 
These are the kind of visceral historical thrills the film produces, but there are others. Besides all the politics and the espionage there is a fundmentally human story, burgeoned by a pair of powerful performances. Angela Lansbury’s portrayal of Mrs. Iselin is a bone-chilling reincarnation of Shakespeare’s twisted Lady MacBeth. She is at once perfect and unsettling, outdoing the Scottish noblewoman, in that she uses and manipulates both her amenable husband and her recalcitrant son. She is all ideology and narcissism, and perhaps the most disturbing part of her portrayal is the realization that partisans such as her, partisans willing to sacrifice everything – family included – to further their aims, are real and remain among us.

Laurence Harvey’s performance as Raymond, her distinctly unlovable son and prodigal son is the film’s other standout – not Frank Sinatra’s turn as the Army Major haunted by what happened in Korea. Harvey is the picture of frustration, the boy whose overly doting mother never allowed him to become a man. When he finds love, she wrecks it. When he finds fame and success, she capitalizes on it for herself. Throughout, he wrestles with great demons, unsure of how and when to act (like another Shakespeare character). With his father dead and Sen. Iselin living in his father’s house, there is an Oedipal striving in Harvey and his outbursts. His love interest is attractive enough, but one cannot help but feel his attraction for her only grew when he learned she is the daughter of his step-father’s fiercest political rival. Becoming involved with her, means he is screwing his step-father and his mother at the same time.

However, the film saves its ultimate irony and its ultimate revenge until the end. By killing his parents, Harvey becomes a real hero in place of the phony one he has been throughout the film. The irony is that it took an act of familial betrayal to get him there. “Poor Raymond,” Sinatra says, summing up a man whose entire life seems to have been burned away by the powerful flame of Lansbury’s insatiable ideology. In this, the film seems to be saying that the most dangerous people are the ones who have nothing but their principles to lose and nothing but the revolution to strive for. A person’s politics and patriotism are one thing – suborning both to some imaginary cause something else entirely. This was the inherent danger of the Cold War and its Marxist idealists. Like the religious fanatics plaguing the world today, they seemed to have no earthly cares. Ideology was everything . . . and I can think of nothing more dangerous. 

Monday, August 22, 2011

Difficult to Dislike

Like climatic battles between two titanic empires, romantic comedies are damn near run things that fail or succeed by the scantest of margins. Miscalculate the levity, make a poor casting choice or choose an inappropriate setting and any effort in this genre can easily become ridiculous, sappy, unfunny – or worst of all, irritating.


Thankfully, the convergence of skill and craftsmanship behind Charade make it almost impossible to dislike. The 1963 film boasts a talented cast led by Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn, a delightful score and a spy game stratagem that unfolds with exactly the right mixture of playful shenanigans and baited-breath. There is nothing approaching greatness in this movie, but whoever goes looking for greatness in romantic comedies is bound to be disappointed. Fun, formatted with typical cleverness, is more what we are after – and we get to have quite a lot of fun in this semi-serious romp of a picture.

Unfortunately, I suppose some of the tongue-in-cheek that makes Charade such a hoot is lost on the contemporary viewer. Released at virtually the height of the Cold War, a time when both the local cinema and the living room television are alive with spy stories, Charade’s not-so-hidden agenda is levity in the face of overwhelming dread. That director Stanley Donen succeeds so well in satirizing the easily recognizable tropes of the spy genre and the thriller is a testament to precisely how well he understands both. Labeled the “best” Hitchcock film never made by Hitchcock, Charade’s audience is continually asked to follow a film that looks and feels like the great British master’s work right up until the punch lines materialize and burst whatever self-important bubbles were forming.

Parade of Fools.
Joel and Ethan Coen achieved something close to this in 2008’s Burn After Reading, but the Coen duet do not have Donen’s appreciation for the musical rhythms of humor. Donen, the director of the seminal Singin’ in the Rain, knows more about moving humans around the set, and as a result, set-pieces such as the funeral scene in which Hepburn watches in amazement as a parade of oddball characters parade before her eyes unfold with a dizzying feeling of frolic almost completely devoid in the Coen satire.

Elsewhere, the mood remains far too light, the plot far too much what-you-see-is-what-you-get for it ever to really be mistaken for Hitchcock, but even so, there are certainly some Hitchcock-ian flourishes on display.  Chief among them, of course, is the fact that the plot revolves around the innocent bystander (Hepburn) who unwillingly becomes immersed in a complicated espionage plot – a setup Hitchcock utilized several different times, each to great effect. The other touch that made me think of Hitch comes when Grant faces down one of the film’s villains on the roof of the hotel where much of the principle action occurs. Part Rear Window, part North by Northwest, the scene unfolds in a wonderful series of lattice-like shadows cast by a neon sign. The roof’s gradual slope to death-by-falling is both obvious and suspenseful at the same time, and the choreography leading up to the inevitable is staged as masterfully as anything Hitchcock did. Other moments, such as the opening at the ski resort, are funnier when viewed from the historical aftermath of the numerous snow scenes in the James Bond franchise we have all loved and endured for more than four decades. And I doubt there is anything more perfect than the gun pointed at Hepburn in the film’s opening few shots.

Always ephemeral.
The timely murder of Hepburn’s husband saves her from agonizing about divorcing him in favor of Grant (who she meets at aforementioned ski resort). The death also launches the film’s action, as we quickly learn the husband was involved in some kind of espionage or criminality plot. What follows is a largely a comedy of errors, in which Hepburn muddles and giggles her way through several acts of spying and a few attempts on her life. Through it all, Grant is conveniently at her side, dashing and indecipherable until virtually the last frame of the film, when his true nature is finally revealed. Even more interestingly, the film takes great pains to chide Grant for being far too old for the petite and always elfin Ms. Hepburn. Grant, who turned the lead in Roman Holiday several years earlier precisely because of the age difference between the two, supposedly insisted the script contain the jokes – and they work precisely because one of Grant’s strengths has always been self-depreciation.  

Everyone involved probably made better pictures, but as a B-side to the rest of their careers, this is not too far off in sheer quality. I enjoyed this film for what it is and throughout felt a twinge of nostalgia and sadness, largely because contemporary attempts to recreate the chemistry that works so well in Charade now seems beyond Hollywood. The occasional moments of slowness – the script, I think, could have been tightened 15 minutes – does not detract from the final product’s overall punch. This is a fun movie, made by skilled people who know how to entertain audiences.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Duty Amongst Desolation

Alone with duty...
The trio of films John Wayne made with legendary director John Ford about the U.S. Calvary in the late 19 th century’s Indian Wars are an odd mix. Unofficially, the three pictures are lumped together as Ford’s “Calvary Trilogy,” but there is little continuity between the individual offerings beyond the setting and the general themes the plots grapple with.

Indeed, watching them back-to-back can confuse. Ford utilizes the same stable of actors in all three efforts, only he inexplicably changes the character’s names and sometimes shifts their roles. For example, in one film a Ben Johnson is a sergeant and a trusted scout, while in another he is a fresh recruit with a penchant for fast riding. So while Johnson’s horsemanship remains constant, his role in the plot is considerably different. 

But trying to reason why Ford recycled plots and shifted actors is wasting energy that is much better spent on what shines through all three efforts. These films are unabashedly patriotic, but they stop well short of jingoism. They are apolitical in the sense that the messiness of what the Indian Wars represent – especially to more contemporary audiences – is never specifically addressed. What is left when all the other ingredients have been boiled away is the complicated essence of masculine duty – a topic not many movies can claim to tackle, especially nowadays when masculinity is almost held in contempt. And Wayne, the quintessential male American archetype, with his wide-legged walk and his languid drawl, is the perfect actor to explore this concept.

In Fort Apache, the first of the three films, Wayne portrays a highly respected combat commander forced to serve under a vain and mildly unscrupulous martinet, played with excellent aplomb by Henry Fonda. The critical conflict is the clash of wills between Wayne and Fonda. Will the former follow the orders of the latter – or will he rebel and lash out? Made long before the 1960s counterculture refashioned American virtue so that shirking authority became a noble enterprise, Wayne spends most of this picture biting his tongue and saluting. The only time he lashes out is when Fonda accuses him of being a coward. A man must accept professional abuse, no matter how misguided, but he is not restrained from responding to a personal attack on his character.

The film’s best moments have nothing to do with the Wayne/Fonda conflict at all. 

More specifically, a great deal of this film unfolds like a novel of manners, in that we are shown how the society of the Calvary functions and what is and what is not permitted. Our main vehicle for this is the courtship of Fonda’s daughter by a young lieutenant whose family background is most decidedly lower class (the courter’s father is the trilogy’s ubiquitous and loveable drunken sergeant). The scene in which Fonda must, in his own eyes, humiliate himself by dancing with the boy’s mother is racked with visual tension that recalls the sensations produced by Edith Warton’s best prose.

A movie of manners.
Fonda’s eventual comeuppance occurs via the inevitable sting of battle. Like Custer, Fonda underestimates his enemy and refuses to listen to his subordinates around him. The result is equally disastrous as what happened in real life at the Little Bighorn, only in Ford’s film the one saving grace seems to Wayne’s fidelity to his commander – despite his commander’s obvious stupidity. There is something of the “The Charge of the Light Brigade” in all of this, but unlike Tennyson's poem, Ford is not interested in the sacrifice the men who died in vain made. Instead, Wayne’s decision to continue serve – no matter what the cost – is what stands out.  

Some rather un-Ford like cynicism even creeps into the end of the picture when Wayne chooses not to refute a newspaperman’s virtual deification of Fonda’s foolishness. Wayne remains focused on his service, and in this regard, seems to operate under the presumption that the truth will not ultimately enable his attempt to fulfill his duty. This is a dangerous maxim to put forward, of course, but in Ford’s hands, it feels more thought-provoking than the “my country right or wrong” phrase that found new life as America descended into Vietnam.

The nuance and characterization that made Fort Apache so interesting are largely absent in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, Ford’s second cavalry film. The only one of the three shot in color, this film jettisons the Fonda character and then largely repeats the same plot without him. The main difference is that Wayne is virtually in command this time and he is tested not by another officer, but by events beyond his control (an Indian uprising). Charged with being the guardian for this desolate outpost of civilization, Wayne’s duty is to protect his troop and the White settlers who depend on them for their very existence. However, at the same time, Wayne knows being officer and gentleman means more than just being following orders, and with this in mind, he attempts to fulfill his duty, satisfy his morals and deal as fairly as possible with the Indian aggressors.  

Wayne cleverly avoids an all-out war with the Indians by stealing their horses – itself ironic, given the Old West stereotype that Indians are horse thieves. What Ford wants his audience to understand is that the warrior who finds a way not to fight is every bit as glamorous as the one who charges to certain death. In this sense, the end of She Wore a Yellow Ribbon intentionally unfolds in exactly the opposite fashion of Fort Apache’s ill-fated climax. And unlike Fonda, who is one dimensional and stubborn, Wayne is presented as the complete officer. His solution to the Indian threat protects the American interests he oversees and avoids bloodshed at the same time.

This near-perfect ending matches nicely with the film’s booming Technicolor vistas, but it somehow feels less tangible than the ugly truths we were forced to swallow in Fort Apache’s dénouement. Perhaps, having experience cynicism in the trilogy’s first outing, I was unprepared for Ford’s return to his more typical brand of optimism? 

Rio Grande, the third and final film, is hailed by some as Ford’s not-so-subtle comment on the Korean War. Personally, I think that is something of a stretch. However, this is the only film in which the Indians are presented in evil terms. Wayne also makes what he ultimately judges as mistakes, only to erase his errors – in reality, judgment calls based on incomplete information – with a triumphant charge into an Indian camp.  

Along the way, there is great deal of singing and some of the novel of manners approach explored with such success in Fort Apache returns in the form of Wayne courting Maureen O’Hare, who plays his sassy and ready-for-divorce Southern wife. Wayne’s and O’Hare’s son is also present in the cavalry troop, with Wayne blustering he will not display even an ounce of special treatment toward his offspring. Unfortunately, for all the attempted fireworks, the estranged couple’s interplay never goes anywhere, and as delightful as O’Hare is, we end up feeling like she is there simply because the plot calls for it. Wayne’s son fails to torment him as much as he could, either.

Wayne & Ford on set.
As I already suggested, unlike the previous two films, where the Calvary blunders into a battle it need not fight or avoids unwanted bloodshed through Wayne’s clever plan to steal horses, Rio Grande sees the U.S. soldiers engaged in a moral battle against Indians who have lapsed into cross-border banditry and inexplicably decided to kidnap white children. In the finale, Wayne and his men ride into a village and assault a bevy of Indian warriors who are literally staggeringly drunk on firewater. The children are recovered, the Indians vanquished and back at the Post, O’Hare is suddenly smitten with her wounded husband. All is well that ends well, I suppose, but there is not much drama in what happens here, and given the heights of previous offerings, Rio Bravo ranks as the trilogy’s biggest disappointment.

That Ford clearly decided to make less complicated films after Fort Apache should not surprise. The entire reason he made the trilogy in the first place was to generate enough cash for his studio so he could make The Quiet Man. Accordingly, there is some truth in the argument that this trilogy is formulaic and designed to sell tickets. But to dismiss these films as nothing more than a means to an end would be a massive mistake.

Monument Valley
For starters, we owe Ford a debt of gratitude for dragging the Western out of the Hollywood back-lots and allowing it to breath in the open American air. Monument Valley, where all three films are shot, is a wondrously cinematic, full of barbaric rock formations and dramatic desolation. Without the valley’s austerity, Ford’s clinical exploration of masculinity would fail to impress as much as it does and the sheer danger of the land America’s pioneers were forced to contend with would remain a mystery to filmgoers. 

The actual notion of masculine duty itself has also probably never been given a more thorough treatment than it has in these three pictures, either. By setting politics completely aside and taking his audiences back to a time and place that most have forgot, Ford successfully illustrates the notions of service and heroism. These were men on the edge of the world, and regardless what history would say about them today, they were serving an ideal and safeguarding a way of life in incredibly dangerous and inhospitable places. Being reminded of such service from time to time cannot be a bad thing…  

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Call Them Irresponsible

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is a lightning-strike film.

I say this because without the electrified chemistry between leads Paul Newman and Robert Redford the picture would not have succeeded at the box office, nor would we remember it today as a classic example of Americana. Irreverent, rambunctious and largely devoted to a commonplace, jocular and mutually debasing form of male friendship – call it “buddy-ism,” if you will – the movie is a failure in everything other than the intangibles associated with its unique and irrepressible tone.

This judgment might seem harsh, until one scratches the surface of what is ultimately a very superficial film. I mean, for starters, it is not much of a Western. Or at least, we can think of several better Westerns from the same time period without much effort. Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West, to name just one titan, is released less than 365 days before Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch is released the exact same year. In the case of the Leone outing, the plot is intricate and bloody journey through the American West and the triumphs and tragedies of the nation’s Manifest Destiny. Peckinpah’s similarly impressive effort is violent ode to the impossibility of outrunning the emerging tropes of change. In stark contrast, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is essentially a light-hearted “chase” movie, in which Newman and Redford offer up some entertaining banter as they run and run and run…

Odd interludes – and here I am thinking precisely of Newman’s bicycle jaunt with the always appreciated Katharine Ross – and the enjoyable – if somewhat out of place – Burt Bacharach soundtrack attempt to fill the ample space left by the over-simple plot, but even these cannot rescue what I believe is a clever work of whimsy. Not bold enough to be a Western, not quite funny enough to be a comedy, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid defies definition and simply exists. None of which changes the undeniable fact the film was a runaway success when it debuted in 1969 and has since been preserved as “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” by no less an authority than the U.S. Library of Congress. However, I would argue these accolades say more about the American filmgoer than they do about the film itself. Accordingly, the key to understand the success of this picture lies in understanding what it represented for the audiences who embraced it.

Put simply, this film connected with people in 1969 similar to the way The Graduate did a few years prior. The reason both films resonated has to do with what many crudely like to call “counter-culture,” a vulgar and largely inaccurate catch-all which I will now attempt to rhetorically distance myself from, even as I unavoidably rely on what the term means to most readers. Released during a time when very serious men in crew-cuts landed on the moon and some other very serious men in crew-cuts continued to fight an escalating battle in Vietnam, Butch and Sundance – like Dustin Hoffman’s character before them – are distinctly confused and unserious in their enterprises. It is this lack of focus, this distinct uncertainty about life and one’s place in it that makes all three characters immediately accessible to moviegoers in the late 1960s – and today.

Something about Butch and Sundance’s attitude toward life feels right, given the serious of everything going on around their characters and the corresponding seriousness that accompanies the individual audience member whenever they view the picture. Unfortunately, there is little else to hold onto in the film other than this “feeling,” however vague it may be. Logically speaking, the film is a mess and the careful viewer can never really figure out what is happening, let alone take away any coherent purpose or message from the film’s events.

To hard back to another 60s classic, one which I have already reviewed, Bonnie and Clyde is a fascinating exploration of the links between sex and violence and how the display of physical power can equal titillation and ultimately satisfaction. The crimes committed in that film serve as the window through which the audience assesses the titular characters bizarre – and largely sexless – relationship. Something like this is occurring in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, but the metaphor is much less focused and much more difficult to discern. Butch and Sundance are friends, but what that means in the context of a film in which neither man seems to care about much of anything is the enigma behind the “feeling” we get from their warm camaraderie. 

Butch is presented as the thinker, Sundance as the man of action. What holds the two opposites together is their mutual disdain for work and their liking of an easy and carefree life of robbery. Neither fancy attachments of any sort, though both seem attached to each other, even if they would never admit it. Their treatment of Katharine Ross is particularly revealing. On the face of things, she is Sundance’s girlfriend, but she just as easily could be Butch’s – and the impression we are left to gather from this is that the romantic relationship is accidental and Sundance probably would not mind if she suddenly started sleeping with his partner. As the film winds down, Ross announces she is leaving the two men because, ominously, she fears they will meet a bad end. Neither raises the slightest objection to her departure and her Sybil-like warning is equally shrugged off by the two men.

This casual carelessness extends to nearly every other facet of the men’s lives. Both regularly lose nearly all the money they make in their robbery and neither seems to have any inclination toward a higher principle. They stop short of villainy because they are not killers – in one of the film’s pivotal scenes, Butch proclaims he has never killed anyone – and they go out of their way, Robin Hood-like not to harm anyone they come across in their life of crime (quite the opposite of Bonnie and Clyde). This is meant to demonstrate their carefree and friendly attitude, but by end of the film, both have killed a great many people and they have shifted from robbing the ill-gotten fortunes of railway barons to stealing the meager fruit of the Bolivian peasantry’s hard labor. This hardly seems winsome.

Unlike The Graduate, in which Hoffman’s character becomes somewhat self-aware and rejects the booze-soaked world of his parents, Butch and Sundance remain oblivious to their inherit shallowness and they seem no wiser at the end than they were in the beginning. Indeed, the ill-fated decision to go to Bolivia is undertaken because the country is something so utterly foreign as to be mythical to the two men. As an audience, what we are witnessing here are the dreams of children – not mature men, who care or understand that everything positive in the world is built on responsibility, sacrifice and integrity. When the pair charge from their hiding place at the film’s conclusion, we are meant to see their off-screen destruction by a hail of bullets as the inevitable and tragic end of iconoclasts. 

The only problem is the moment feels as empty and haphazard as the rest of the film. Butch and Sundance die because the law finally caught up with them, not because their “way of life” became anachronistic or their social deviance – robbery and murder – was no longer tolerated. Charming as the pair are, they lived like brigands and died like brigands. Period. Exactly what we are supposed to take away from their lives, beyond some crude combination of the 60s’ nebulous “fight the power” and “go your own way” motifs, is never clear. But make no mistake, this is a picture whose star power is bright enough to hide these flaws, hence its unchallenged status.   

Friday, June 24, 2011

Mr. Leading Man

It is hard to know where to begin with Cary Grant.
It seems obvious the Bristol-born Englishman should be the subject of this site’s second actor profile, but finding the right words to describe the precise constellation of his career is challenging. Born Archibald Alexander Leach in 1904, Grant went to Hollywood in 1931 where he first broke into films as a kind of rubber-man actor, one whose limbs and face could be invisibly tugged by directors intent on physically punishing the lead in their film in order to provoke howls of laughter from audiences. He was wacky in the vein of Charlie Chaplin, with impeccable physical timing and an uncanny ability to simultaneously make the absurd less ridiculous and more funny.
Grant, the physical comedian
Although his two outings with Mae West – She Done Him Wrong and I’m No Angel – are probably where his star burst into being, I am partial to Arsenic and Old Lace, which I view as something of a finale to Grant’s early comedic period (although by 1944 he had already played the dark and ultimately indecipherable antagonist in Alfred Hitchcock’s highly underrated Suspicion). Arsenic and Old Lace’s preposterous plot allows Grant enough space to showcase his full array of talent. Mortimer Brewster’s character could be stodgy, but Grant’s incredible ability to amuse and charm ensures that Brewster is always accessible and never aloof from the audience. That Grant continued to play similar elites for much of his career and never come across as snobby or unapproachable is a testament to the delicacy of his performances and his ability to connect with moviegoers, regardless what the plot demanded from him.
Anyone doubting the skill and depth of this achievement should consider the ease with which we accept Cary Grant as Cary Grant. What I mean by this is that a great deal of acting is about making the effort of the performance appear effortlessness – and nobody does this like Grant, an actor who disappears into his on-screen persona so deeply and convincingly that separating the two is difficult. I pretended to be somebody I wanted to be and I finally became that person,” Grant said. “Or he became me. Or we met at some point.” Thus, his famous attempt at self-effacing humor – “Everyone wants to be Cary Grant—even I want to be Cary Grant” – is much more than just a joke. It is a revelation that Grant was pretending to be Cary Grant and the acting reached such a point that nobody knew the difference anymore, himself included.
Regardless of method, Grant eventually became Hollywood’s perfect leading man, capable of playing the lead in a romantic comedy or the protagonist of an action-packed thriller. Whatever the script called for, Grant’s cool and capable demeanor and his stylized delivery fit the bill. Critics said James Bond is a character every man wants to be and every woman wants to be with, but the same could be said of Grant by the time he reached the height of his fame in the 1950s. Perhaps this is why he was briefly considered to portray Bond in Dr. No?

Personally, I doubt Grant could have pulled of the cruelty called for in playing the famous British spy, but he comes damn close to something like it in Notorious, an incredibly underrated film where he casually pits Ingrid Bergman against her husband. In addition to being a great spy film, Notorious showcases a facet of Grant’s acting – specifically, his ability to play darker roles – that most directors unfortunately chose not to pursue (Hitchcock being the solitary exception). In this sense, the claim that Grant traded introspection for affability is accurate. Throughout his career, his roles never allow him to reveal even the slightest amount of indecisiveness or insecurity. Indeed, Grant maintains his masculine poise even in the films where the plot revolves around his character being caught up in stratagems beyond his knowledge or control (see North by Northwest, Arsenic and Old Lace or To Catch a Thief).
On the run, Grant still seems in control.
Tall, dark and handsome in every way the phrase is meant to be understood, Grant cut a lean figure in his slightly-baggy suits. His perfect hair and well-manicured appearance walked right up to the line of the dandy-ness, but never quite crossed it. Personality plays a large part in separating him from Hollywood’s insufferable beauties. For all his looks and charm, Grant never took himself seriously – either in life or on the screen. His aforementioned willingness to engage in the absurd and poke fun at himself is precisely why we like him so much. It is impossible, for example, to imagine Humphrey Bogart climbing into a shower with a suit on and washing himself with soap to amuse Audrey Hepburn the way Grant does in Charade. Bogart is too stoic, too straightforward. In contrast, Grant is lighthearted and never too serious, even when gun is pointed at him and his life appears to be on the line.
Forever classic
Like a lot of other great actors, Grant missed out on winning an Oscar through the competitive process, so the Academy gave him an honorary award in 1970. The notion that Grant could have died unrecognized by film’s most-esteemed critical body boggles the mind. Among all the epitaphs written about him, I propose to add the following honorary title: Mr. Leading Man. Whatever the script, whatever its location and plot and action, there was a time when a producer could pick up the phone and secure the services of Cary Grant, and in doing so, know that one the most important roles in his film was in the best of all hands.

Key Performances:
North by Northwest
Arsenic and Old Lace
Bringing up Baby
The Philadelphia Story

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Winds of Fate

I can understand why John Huston decided to make a movie in which Edward G. Robinson and Humphrey Bogart’s powerful personalities are confined to smallish, overcrowded rooms. There is dramatic combustibility in such a tactic. Unable to bully or maneuver their way out of scenes, each man in 1948’s Key Largo is forced to deal with the other. The fact that neither gains the upper hand over the other – that is, prior to the film’s climax – is entirely the point on display here. Trapped in a hotel together, forced to wait out a terrific hurricane that rages just outside the building’s fragile windows, Huston intentionally restricts this pair of hyper-masculine, action-oriented men in order to teach them both a lesson in humility and to remind them that a person’s ability to control their own fate is limited.

Thanks to his guns and his gang, it initially seems like Robinson is completely in control of the film’s plot, but once the hurricane arrives, all bets are off – and Robinson, who is suddenly equally as powerless as the others, knows it. The rotten weather cages the armed and the unarmed alike. Bogart seems to understand this when he growls, “You don't like it, do you (Robinson), the storm? Show it your gun, why don't you? If it doesn't stop, shoot it.”

Of course, Robinson cannot shoot the weather any more than he can plug the people trapped in the hotel with him (he needs all of them for something). The fact the cruel and well-armed gangster is fairly powerless – or has his power limited by things entirely beyond his control – is pivot on which the entire film swings. As for the storm, it is the ultimate illustration of humanity’s powerlessness. It arrives randomly and wreaks equally random destruction – and not just on the hotel buildings.

Robinson as the smug gangster.
Tertiary characters in Key Largo do not fare well and their fates are meted out with almost the same sense of randomness that powers the storm’s creation. Consider, the fate of the two Seminole Indians, enticed to turn themselves in after escaping from prison. They come to the hotel because Lionel Barrymore’s character tells them he will make certain the local authorities deal fairly with them. Both Indians are framed by Robinson for a murder they did not commit and are subsequently gunned down by the local sheriff. The other characters blame the deaths on Robinson’s trickery, which obviously plays an important role. However, Robinson would not even be at the hotel were it not for Key Largo’s geographic location – off the coast of Florida –and the storm that prevents his departure. Thus, an unforeseen confluence of seemingly random events plays a critical role in the fate of the two men.
Of all the characters, Bogart’s cynical war-veteran seems to understand more than most that even matters of life and death are largely chance. Though it is never fully explained, the film strongly suggests that Bogart survived the hard-fighting at Monte Casino and Lauren Bacall’s husband did not through the exercise of sheer luck. This is partly why Bogart rejects the war hero mantle, is willing to ascribe it to the dead husband and arrives at the hotel tired and world weary. For him, Key Largo is literally the end of the road, a way to escape his listless post-war existence on the mainland and to try to start fresh.
His trajectory runs him smack into Robinson, another character interested in a fresh start. Only Robinson is trying to get back to the mainland after being kicked out of America because of his involvement in organized crime during the depression. On opposite sides of the law and on opposite paths, the two men can only glare at one another as they simmer and slowly come to an unhappy boil in the close confines of the hotel. The firecracker interactions between these two titans of studio cinema are a large part of what makes an otherwise straightforward film dramatic and irresistibly interesting.
A pair of tough guys...
This is also the fourth and final film Bogart and Bacall made together. In critical terms, it is the second-best after The Big Sleep. However, in terms of chemistry between the famous husband and wife team, Key Largo is the weakest of the four. Bacall is oddly silent for most of this film. What little acting she is called on to do, she does with her eyes – most of which is quite good, but her plain-Jane routine is a terrible waste of the sultry sexuality we saw in To Have and Have Not, and we cannot help but feel like any actress could have played this rather uninteresting role.
The husband and wife, not sparkling together.
Robinson’s one-time glamorous girlfriend (played by Claire Trevor) is far more exciting.
Trevor’s character was a big deal during the days of prohibition – talented, beautiful, famous and highly sought after. But a life on the run with Robinson has reduced her to a nervous alcoholic, with passable good looks and a shaky voice that is forever scared of its own sound, lest it upset her endlessly irritable partner. When Robinson forces her to sing for some whiskey, she absentmindedly lapses into “Moanin’ Low,” a sad tune whose lyrics describe a woman trapped in an abusive relationship. She begins the song full of gusto, but as the meaning of the words penetrate her addled mind, her performance falls apart under the weight of the realization she is singing about herself. It is terrible moment, portrayed with incredible power by Trevor, who won as Oscar for this performance.
Trevor belts it out.
Trevor is also noteworthy here because she is the only other character than Bogart who is changed by the film’s plot. Backed into a corner and repeatedly reminded of his inability to alter his situation, Bogart frets and fumes and eventually decides that a man has to take advantage of whatever crumbs of opportunity come his way and fight to clear his own path as best he can. In doing so, he seemingly rejects the attractive logic of pragmatism and offers up that humanity’s destiny should be shaped by more than the sum of any equation: “When your head says one thing and your whole life says another, your head always loses,” he concludes. Trevor agrees, and for the first time in what must be a long time, she begins to push back against Robinson and work within her own opportunities to shape the outcomes of her fate.
All does not end well for everyone in this tale that no one seems in control of, but by pushing back, a few of these characters learn how to resist the winds of fate as much as possible. Huston's overall message seems to be that life is random, tough and unfair, a set of circumstances that makes the "pushing" all the more important. Bogart says he fought the war to rid the world of men like Robinson's character. At the end of the movie, Bogey is still fighting, and his decision to do so is invigorating. In between, the powerlessness experienced by everyone in the hotel is palpable and humbling, and the randomness of events is terrifying. We cannot control everything, the hurricane seems to be saying with every rattle of the windows, but a person should be ready to act in the moments when they can control some small thing...

Monday, June 6, 2011

Classic Date Night?

Why not?
I say forget paying in excess of $10 and then digging even deeper into your pocket for popcorn and candy and soda. Avoid the packs of boisterous teens, bleeping and chatting on cell phones as they snort and surge in restless herds around the contemporary cinema and the gluttonous shopping malls that tend to abut them. If you want to do dinner and a movie with that special someone, I urge you to go out to eat or prepare something nice at one of your home’s, then settle down on a sofa together for a classic movie. It will be cheaper and more rewarding.
In terms of quality, I can assure you, whichever classic film you watch will operate on a mental plain far beyond today's contemporary romantic comedies. The classic will eschew ribald humor, avoid obvious puns and leave a touch of mystery to sexuality and romantic encounters – through what the film does not say or does not show – that is both charming and refreshing. Couples actually had to court and communicate in classic movies because they could not make eyes across an ill-lit dance club, leave together after too many cocktails, peel their clothes off and “hook up” on screen (see Knocked Up et al).
However, I admit it can be difficult to know where to start if you want to do a Classic Date Night. Some people – amazingly and oddly enough – do not like classic films. Others adore classic films and either love or hate certain actors and actresses. And finding films that please both men and women is difficult no matter what era of movies we are talking about. So to help with all this, I offer up five films that are a perfect for any date-night scenario. These are classic crowd-pleasers that everyone should love, regardless of age and relationship status…

They will always have Paris...
 1. Casablanca
Still my favorite film and one that I believe is impossible to dislike. Humphrey Bogart is perfect as the savvy nightclub owner trying to escape from his past and Ingrid Bergman gives a delicately poised performance as the woman unwittingly at the center of a love triangle. Rooted in an incredible setting – Morocco in the early days of World War Two – and chock full of snappy dialogue and complicated moral conundrums, this is a film of many genres. Espionage, politics, war, adventure, romance and comedy – it is all in the film’s perfect screenplay, which is why every generation continues to rediscover this gem. Guys will enjoy this film because of Bogart – he is cynical, cool and forever one step ahead of everyone else – and the wartime setting that forces people in the film to make important decisions about what they stand for and what they are willing to sacrifice. The ladies will appreciate Bogey, too, but they also will swoon for the film’s romanticism and the notion of a joyful but tragic love affair that is hostage to a particular time and place. See immediately if you have not already done so. If you have, watch it again with a partner. As a shared experience, few movies can match it...

Stuck in the middle...
 2. Sabrina
Sometimes derided as a rather formulaic re-imaging of Cinderella, in which the servant girl falls in love with master of the manor, this film surpasses the limitations of its script thanks to the acumen of the actors involved and the skill with which they play off one another. Juxtaposition is, of course, a critical element of comedy, and it has never worked better on the screen than it does in the love triangle depicted here between Audrey Hepburn, William Holden and Humphrey Bogart. The contrast between Hepburn’s smooth femininity and Bogart’s chapped masculinity works particular well, and as an audience, we completely believe these opposites ultimately attract. Guys will like this film because Bogart and Holden are both great and there is a very real examination of a man’s commitment to his family and the unfortunate tension between pursuing happiness in one’s private life and being successful in business. Ladies will enjoy Hepburn because she is Hepburn. The maturation of a young and immature girl who slavishly pursues the wrong man into a confident woman who chooses to be courted by the right kind of man also hits home. Sumptuously filmed, the movie leaves both sexes with the positive message that love is perhaps the only invigorating force capable of provoking radical positive changes within a person stuck in a rut.

Two gals gabbing, only one isn't a gal...
3. Some Like it Hot
A truly scandalous film for its day, Some Like it Hot is a bizarre comedy of errors that chronicles how a pair of friends and musicians –Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon – must disguise themselves as women in order to avoid being killed by powerful mobsters. Curtis and Lemmon excel as oddly paired friends who are barely able to keep up their disguise once they encounter a certain Marilyn Monroe. The hilarity that ensues when costume changes and forever-shifting stories are called upon to keep the cross-dressing ruse alive verges on wacky, but remains entertaining without drifting into hyperbole. And Curtis doing an intentionally stiff and obvious Cary Grant impression is particularly funny. That everyone in this film is confused about what they want and being misled about who the other characters truly are says something both sweet and ironic about the gamesmanship involved in courting. What – if anything – the film ultimately says about sexuality, I leave for others to decide. Guys will enjoy Monroe. She is sultry and sensationally lurid throughout – and her dresses barely contain her considerable body (has any other actress ever had her sexual presence?). Guys will also enjoy the film’s great humor and the witty repartee between Curtis and Lemmon. Ladies will enjoy Monroe’s unintentional humor and the film’s rollercoaster examination of just how far a man will go to flirt with a pretty woman.

Kelly convinces Stewart to pay attention
4. Rear Window
Most Alfred Hitchcock films make for great date movies, but this effort just beats out North by Northwest to top them all. I chose this because the mystery involving whether a man killed his wife is absolutely enthralling and watching it with someone else and dissecting the scenes is incredibly fun. More to the romantic point, this film – despite all of its loftier themes and tropes – is about a how a pair of opposites – Jimmy Stewart and Grace Kelly – work as a couple. In trying to unravel the picture’s mystery, the audience is afforded an incredibly intimate portrait of two people on the brink of marriage. That only one of them wants to get hitched and neither of the two realizes they are already verbally jousting like an old married couple is one of the film’s great charms. Guys will enjoy this movie because its plot addresses the notion of voyeurism – in particular, the male penchant for looking – and it forces the audience to consider what is normal and what is moral. The ladies will enjoy how Kelly floats almost ethereally across the screen in her scenes and how the film deals with nearly every aspect of love through the various depictions of the apartment complex’s residents. Both sexes will appreciate how cinematic the movie is, with its wonderful dialogue, its incredible set-pieces and the odd but ultimately tender take on courtship.

Tender mercies
5. It Happened One Night
This might be the hardest sell. For starters, it is difficult to find. For seconds, it has all the appearances of being the kind of old movie contemporary audiences avoid (it looks hokey, old and filmed with dubious quality). However, anyone who passes on this film is truly missing out. I first saw this in college in a film class and I can safely say the entire audience of 20-somethings was delighted. Since then, everyone I have shown the film to has responded with similar glee. It is, quite simply, a wonderful picture, full of warmth and charm. Clark Gable’s cynical newsman melts when he encounters naïve heiress Claudette Colbert. The guys will like this picture because Gable is masculine, believable and funny. The girls will enjoy Colbert’s emotional adventure: She runs away from a proscribed and boring existence, has an once-in-a-lifetime trip on the road and falls in love. Everything that Roman Holiday is, it owes to this film. Not to be missed.