Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Bandaged and Born Again

Depending on whom you speak to, 1947’s Dark Passage is either foolishly “overlooked” or appropriately “forgotten.”
Not liking such critical absolutes, I would choose something between these two poles of opinion, though if forced to choose a side, I would lean toward the latter – and less flattering – of the two judgments. Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, the real-life couple who generally shine and sizzle in just about any film they appear, cannot rescue this workmanlike film noir.

Considering the genre we are dealing with, I was fully prepared for an opaque and bleak finale, but much to my surprise, Bogart and Bacall emerge from the rather straightforward prison-break plot relatively unscathed. When we last see them they are on a terrace overlooking a South America beach, gently swaying in each other’s arms – an art-imitating-life conclusion that feels like the result of a studio executive who made his intentions known by scrawling on the film’s screenplay draft: “B&B MUST end up happily ever after.”
Champions of the film point to its nifty camerawork and lasting influence on other directors – both of which provoke a resigned shrug from this particular viewer.
San Franciso on display
The decision by director Delmer Daves to film the first hour or so almost entirely from Bogart’s perspective – that is, with the camera literally functioning as his “eyes” – is not something one comes across that often (Lady in the Lake tried – and largely failed – to pull of the same feat for the length of an entire picture). Undoubtedly, it is a brave and innovative move, but it also robs the film of one of its best qualities – Bogart – for almost half its running time. At the same time, I have to wonder if the director really needs to spend as much time as he does showing us what it looks like to conduct the mundane business of existence – walking, entering an elevator, shaving, etc. – from his protagonist’s perspective. It is many things, but interesting is not one of them, and the end result is the audience feels trapped inside a film school gimmick that does not end as quickly and as neatly as it should.

In the meantime, though, we do get to look at Bacall.
In relative terms, she is not nearly as racy or openly suggestive in this role as she is elsewhere. Indeed, she is so demure she seems almost de-clawed. Her ticket into the action is initially presented as circumstantial – she happens to be painting nearby the place Bogart runs to when he escapes from San Quentin prison. However, during the course of the film, it is revealed she faithfully attended Bogey’s murder trial and believes he was falsely convicted for killing his wife with an ashtray. Bacall sympathizes with Bogart and aids his escape by spiriting him straight to her apartment in downtown San Francisco.
If this seems odd, that is because it is. Bacall is clearly presented as the mixed-up type who today would be caught by her friends writing letters to convicted men in the hope of marrying one of them while he was incarcerated. She is, in other words, fairly creepy despite her tame and domesticated pose. Bacall’s character also relates to Bogey because she claims her father was wrongly imprisoned by her stepmother, and thus the relationship that develops on-screen between her and her real-life husband works as a kind of Cassandra-complex run amuck, in which she replaces her departed dad with another older man.

The obvious villain
The third peg in the plot is a busybody named Madge Rapf. It was Rapf’s testimony that put Bogart behind bars, and when Rapf begins showing up around Bacall’s place, he fears the worst. This leads him to accept an offer – made by the world’s oddest and most helpful cabbie – to allow a back-alley doctor to alter his face. The result is Bogart is given a new lease on life – and a chance to resolve the plot’s pair of dangling mysteries – through a new look, although the anonymity he hoped for proves oddly elusive.
There is not much else to assess here. Clearly, this is a film about characters that are not in control of their lives – and what is worse, they know it. The decisions by Bogart and Bacall to simply take what comes and respond to it as best as possible is a powerful example of the brand of stoicism often celebrated in film noir. That fact everything ultimately works out in the end for both characters is distinctly out of step with accepted noir tropes. There is no bloody finale and no downer-ending depicting the futility of it all.
Instead, the audience is treated to a moody, almost surreal San Francisco, populated by odd characters, fog horns and sweeping vistas. It is a delight to watch, but the claim some critics make that this picture is a Kafka-like nightmare, in which an innocent man stumbles through a plot he is incapable of influencing, seems a bit much. There are some quirky moments to be sure, but if there is a metaphor here, it involves the notion of rebirth.

Both Bogart and Bacall are looking to build new lives on top of old ones that are riddled with error or regret. The title itself could refer to the inevitably violent transition a baby makes from the womb, through the birth canal to the light of the outer world. When the bandages come off Bogey’s face, he is helpless and has to be mothered by Bacall for a week’s time. He must suck his nourishment through a straw the same way a baby feeds from an umbilical cord.
Or maybe I am reading too much into all this and looking for greatness in a simplistic movie about a guy on the run from the law?
Regardless, there is neither enough metaphor nor simplicity to make this film stand taller than the name of the stars on its marquee. The villain is too obvious, the mysteries dangled too meager and the final product in no way reflects the quality of the constituent parts, all of which is a longwinded way of saying that this film is ultimately forgettable, even if parts of it are likeable.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Five Classic Spy Films

To be a voyeur, to peak at a private world not your own is a fundamental part of reading a book or going to see a movie or play. As a reader or an audience member, you are, for a time, permitted to survey that which is typically hidden from you during your everyday life. The only way you can learn about actual people as much as you learn about characters in fiction is by spying on them. Perhaps this is why spies and their genre films have such a visceral pull for audiences. Add sex, lies and state secrets to the essential urge people have for observation and understanding and you have a potent mix for highly emotional drama, in which the best and worst of human nature competes for stakes that are both fantastic and accessible.
Detective stories and the Westerns dominated the early days of film, but tension surrounding two world wars gave legs to a new kind of genre film: The spy film, which began with Fritz Lang’s Spies in 1928, came into its own during the 1930s when Alfred Hitchcock began to make a number of films concerning what many call the world’s second oldest profession. The slew of combat dramas produced by the Second World War were ill-suited for the Colder, much more difficult to understand conflict that followed in its wake. The spy film became the only vehicle to explore the complex, deadly and worldwide game between NATO and the Warsaw Pact.
But for all these grand notions of chronicling an era, the best spy films have always heavily relied on depicting some aspect of the emotional drudgery that accompanies the business itself. Like politics, spying is both awful and noble at the same time. It involves lying, manipulation and exploitation. It also serves the cause of truth – and fewer holier aims exist. As such, the best spy films are the ones in which an important unknown is chased by band of flawed individuals, each trying to get the best of the other.
Sounds a lot like life, doesn’t it?  
1. The Spy Who Came in From the Cold
It is not often a great novel becomes a great film, but John le Carre’s classic tome is translated near-perfectly onto the screen in this 1965 film. Richard Burton plays British spy Alec Leamas, a cynical and hardened Cold Warrior who has just seen his entire network of operatives uncovered and executed by the East German Stasi. Sent home in disgrace, Leamas is quickly recruited for one last mission, one in which he is promised revenge against the German responsible for the death of his network. Leamas agrees and allows himself to be recruited by the other side in order to sow confusion there, but unknown to both him and the audience, a larger, more sinister game is being played and Leamas is nothing more than a pawn.

Who is playing who?
Shot in black-and-white, the film oozes atmosphere and functions almost as a film noir. The famous twist at the end, along with Leamas’s resigned decision to quit trying and “come in from the cold,” are unforeseen and haunting, as is Leamas’s dark assessment of his profession and its dehumanizing elements: “What do you think spies are? They are a bunch of seedy squalid bastards like me, little drunkards, queers, henpecked husbands ...” Not to be missed.

2. Notorious
Hitchcock probably made more spy films than any other director. His best is 1946’s Notorious, one of his less well-known efforts. It is a beautiful picture, filmed in elegant settings with glamorous people. But set amongst this splendor is a gritty tale of espionage that captures the complicated relationship between a spy (Cary Grant) and his agent (Ingrid Bergman) better than any other film. Throughout, Grant coldly takes advantage of Bergman’s alcoholism and neuroses in order to get her to spy on an old boyfriend, a man associating with Nazis in Argentina who are up to no good.

Running an agent, cooly...

When the boyfriend (Claude Rains) proposes marriage to Bergman, Grant ignores his own feelings for her and pushes her into the arrangement, knowing it will enable her to feed him better information. The strain of a double-life – faking love and using sex to gain access to secrets – is delicately and expertly portrayed by Bergman. There are several wonderful sequences in the movie and an incredible amount of tension, but it is unabashed realism of Grant and Bergman’s partnership that stands out.

3. The Third Man
Not a straightforward spy film, but spies and espionage abound in this moody expose of post-war Vienna that explores the darkest extremes of human tendencies. Joseph Cotton plays a man who is summoned to work with a friend in the city and arrives to find him dead. Exactly what this friend did for a living and how he died are both shrouded in mystery. All of the people Cotton encounters in this distorted version of Vienna are more than what they initially seem and none of them want him to look too closely at what has happened. Beautifully filmed with a haunting soundtrack an incredible cameo by Orson Welles, this tale is chock full of seediness, intrigue and double-dealing, but we remember it ultimately for what it has to say about human nature and the lies people often tell themselves to excuse the things they do. For a full review of the film, click

4. From Russia with Love
James Bond films do not depict espionage well. Bond is much too extroverted and his methods far too clumsy and action-oriented for real spooks, but not having an entry from perhaps the most famous spy in the world would make for a pretty poor list. Although it is not my favorite Bond, 1963’s From Russia with Love is certainly the best, in terms of plot and actual espionage. Free from the special effects, gadgets and spectacularly absurd antagonists that came to dominate the franchise (as well as make it so easy to parody), this outing sees 007 lured into a Cold War mission to acquire a code-machine under false pretenses.

Incredibly shapely women means it's a Bond flick...
In reality, the international terrorist group SPECTRE is dangling the machine in order to bring Bond into the open so the organization’s assassin can kill him. Along the way, 007 navigates through the nest of intrigue that is post-war Istanbul and encounters a KGB-trained honey pot sent to seduce him with the charms of her considerable body. It all ends in a delicious cat-and-mouse game between Bond and his assailant, an excellent chase scene and a frightening attack from a hag with a knife hidden in her shoe. Who could ask for more, really?

5. Where Eagles Dare
Another Richard Burton outing, this one supposedly filmed so his son could enjoy a “boy’s adventure” film about the War. As far as that goes, this 1968 effort does not disappoint. The 2 ½ hour running time sprints by, thanks to a delightful cacophony of quirky dialogue intermixed heavy doses of intrigue and machine gun fire, most of which is provided by a certain Clint Eastwood. The plot centers on a mission to rescue an American General being held captive in a mountain fortress by Nazis, but this is little more than a springboard for the whirlwind that follows.

Getting ready to kill Nazis
Given the high body count and action-oriented climax, some would call this a straight war film, but I am sticking with the spy genre. Burton’s real purpose for storming the aforementioned castle is to pull off a complex counterintelligence coup, only half of which makes sense the first time it is revealed. The end of the film sets the stage for more Burton/Eastwood sequels. My heart cries that none were made, although perhaps it is for the best. What we have here is pretty damn entertaining – and as I already suggested, it is not all lowbrow stuff, either. One of my favorite films, even if I know I should not revel in its simple complexity as much as I do. This is Indiana Jones meets James Bond and it is nearly perfect.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

To Banish Evil, One Must Choose Good

At first glance, Alfred Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt is an underwhelming film.
There is nothing in this 1943 effort that matches the director’s murderous shower scene, his flocks of deadly birds or the dramatic confrontation he staged on the stony precipice of Mount Rushmore. Perhaps this is why Pauline Kael wrote the film “isn’t as much fun” as the director’s more ostentatious efforts?

In spite of overt simplicity, Shadow of a Doubt is a remarkable film, one in which a frenzy of psychological activity quivers just beneath the surface and every scene is carefully crafted so that it enhances the greatness of the whole. Hitchcock himself said this is the best picture he made in America – and he may very well be right. So far as I can tell, everything in this film is working exactly as it should, and I can think of no other Hitchcock picture that deals with good and evil as frankly and as poignantly as this one.
It is very easy, of course, to depict evil in its most perverse and grandiose forms.
One need look no further than the James Bond franchise, with is deformed and egoistical madmen, each bent on annihilating something for nothing other reason than to enhance their own sense of self, to see what I am talking about. Nazism and its adherents is another Hollywood favorite – for who among us cannot sneer at the evil Germans and root for their failure? Real evil, the kind of criminal evil each of us stands a greater chance of encountering, is much more mundane, much harder to detect. In Shadow of a Doubt, evil does not lurch onto screen, ugly and scarred and cackling so we know to pay attention to it. Instead, it is quietly invited into the picture’s plot, and for a great deal of time, we are not even certain it is there.

Joseph Cotten as the banal killer.

The inevitable struggle that follows takes place largely inside the mind of Charlie Newton, the film’s youthful protagonist. At the beginning of the picture, Newton is bored with her life in idyllic Santa Rosa and yearns for excitement. In this, she is not alone. Charlie’s father and the family’s next door neighbor are working stiffs who seem incapable of engaging in anything like fun. The pair’s solitary flash of spontaneity and leisure comes when they engage in a macabre verbal game, in which they describe how they will kill each other and then fix it so the police never discover the crime. This foolishness, fired by an overconsumption of mystery novels, also serves to illustrate the innocence of existence in Eden-like Santa Rosa. Actual murderers, intent on committing real murders, could never dwell in such a tranquil place.
When word reaches Charlie’s family that Uncle Charlie is poised to pay an unexpected visit, everyone believes the pivot away from the mundane they were all looking for has finally arrived and life will perk up. The arrival of Uncle Charlie does indeed spice things up, but not in the way anyone intended. Charlie is secretly informed by two private investigators that Uncle Charlie is one of a handful of men suspected of being the “Merry Widow Murderer,” a serial killer who seduces, murders and then robs wealthy widows.

Ominous arrival.

At first, Charlie refuses to consider the idea. At work here is not only familial loyalty, but Charlie’s shared similarities with her uncle. Throughout the film, the two Charlie’s are presented as doppelgangers, in that both carry the same name, the same genes and seem to share a distinct unease with slow-paced suburban living. Uncle Charlie sees much of the same disquiet that drove him from Santa Rosa in his niece, while Charlie correspondingly views her Uncle as something of a sophisticated and well-traveled man of the world. If she shares the same personality as him, the same proclivities and tastes, then the fact her Uncle became a killer is a kind of indictment of her as well.
For his part, Uncle Charlie seems fairly harmless until he tips his hand at dinner one night with a rambling rant about widows being fat animals who deserve to be slaughtered. The remarks are completely shrugged off by the family, but Charlie knows exactly what her Uncle is talking about, and from that point on, the cat-and-mouse game played between the two becomes the film’s dramatic heart. But in order to best her Uncle, Charlie must fully open her eyes and shed her childish naiveté, a point her Uncle makes when he accuses her of being no different than the innocent townspeople in Santa Rosa:
"You go through your ordinary little day, and at night you sleep your untroubled ordinary little sleep, filled with peaceful stupid dreams. And I brought you nightmares. Or did I? Or was it a silly, inexpert little lie? You live in a dream. You're a sleepwalker, blind. How do you know what the world is like? Do you know the world is a foul sty? Do you know, if you rip off the fronts of houses, you'd find swine? The world's a hell. What does it matter what happens in it?"
As I have already suggested, Charlie shares part of her Uncle’s unsettledness and therefore is less surprised by his shocking – but ultimately banal – turn to evil. Charlie is the lone character capable of understanding what the people of Santa Rosa cannot (the only other people in the film who know the truth about Uncle Charlie are detectives who come from the city). In this sense, the film is something of a Bildungsroman, in that Charlie leaves her childhood and matures into an adult during the film’s events. As Paul Duncan notes, she begins the film in a dress and ends the film in a suit. Along the way, she must face down disturbing truths and choose to follow her own nature (and in doing so, wind up like her Uncle) or reject it and help protect the innocent folks around her.

Two sides of the same coin...
That Charlie not only vanquishes the evil in everyone’s midst but then chooses to prevent their knowledge of it by never revealing her Uncle’s deeds is illustrative of both her ultimate choice and her commitment to it. Charlie has left childhood behind, faced the realities of the world and chosen to function as one of the often overlooked and underappreciated guardians who keep places like Santa Rosa free from harm: Good has triumphed over evil – and all because a girl had the strength to ignore her own inclinations and do what is right.
The power of the above is made even greater by this film’s subtle astuteness. There is no proselytizing, no blaze of holy glory. Accordingly, among the Hitchcock cannon, this gem should never be forgotten, overlooked or ignored in favor of its more flashy cousins. Watch it and be amazed. Then watch it again and be even more amazed at how much cleverer the entire enterprise becomes once you know what comes next. Like a well-made piano, all of the requisite parts here are expertly crafted and carefully assembled, so that when the plot calls for a particular key to be struck, the notes sing out, pitch-perfect and resonate for precisely the right amount of time.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Fool's Gold (Learning What Really Matters in Life)

Greed is certainly an interesting topic, given the recent collapse of the world economy due to what Gordon Gecko notoriously deemed “good” in the contemporary classic Wall Street.
John Huston’s The Treasure of the Sierra Madre may be separated from Wall Street by more than 40 years of filmmaking, but the former’s depiction of how wealth can pervert human personality is equally as powerful as Oliver Stone’s tome to excess (a movie which ironically encouraged a generation of filmgoers to want to become stockbrokers).
I doubt anyone can watch The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and walk away with a strong desire to take up a pick and shovel and go gold-mining. The audience’s lack of enthusiasm has plenty to do with gold-mining being antiquated and back-breaking work, of course, but I suspect part of the reluctance stems from the film’s depiction of the incredible amount of violence that surrounded the trade. In the dusty and desolate landscape Huston paints, finding and then mining the gold is only half the battle.
Along the way, you have to take pains to disguise what it is you are actually doing – lest the government or some other prospector swoop down – and you have to forever be on the lookout for being robbed by your fellow miners. Then, having successfully mined the substance, you have to transport your gold across a godforsaken land populated almost entirely by bandits and Indians, all of whom are more than willing to knock you on the head and to take away your hard-earned stash.

As interested in these physical rigors as the film is, the real meat of Huston’s efforts comes when the movie focuses on how the sudden acquisition of wealth fosters a dangerous kind of paranoia and desperation that can eventually compel good people to commit violence.
Even more to the point, the film essentially argues “honor” among coworkers and friends is little better than that among thieves – if gold is involved somewhere in the equation. This is due primarily to the emotional qualities gold possesses for those who seek it.
Gold is a means to an end, a kind of cipher, in which “gold” stands in for whatever larger dreams a man may have. Thus, when Humphrey Bogart’s character talks about dreaming “about piles of gold getting bigger and bigger and bigger” it is not the gold he is really thinking of, but all the pleasures the metal can provide. Such is the power and attraction of the dream fulfillment gold promises, as long as “there's no find, the noble brotherhood (between men) will last. … But when the piles of gold begin to grow... that’s when the trouble starts.”

Our main prism for the trouble is the aforementioned Bogart.
When the film opens, the normally classy Bogie is so down and out he physically yearns for a cigarette a man has nonchalantly tossed on the street. Desperate and almost without pride, Bogie makes an attempt to grab the still-smoldering bud, only to lose out to a street urchin. Eventually, he meets up and forms a kind of hobo partnership with Tim Holt, but the alliance fails to alter their luck. Both men are taken advantage of by an unscrupulous contractor who recruits them to do back-breaking work and then fails to pay. When the pair eventually stumbles across the man who owes them the money, they beat him savagely – but crucially, they only take what cash is owed them, and no more.
They decide to try their hand at gold mining after they come across a kooky old man – played by Walter Huston, the director’s father – who has been in the business all his life. The old man seems to have a feel for how the expedition might turn out, but he goes along anyway because for him the act of mining is an end in and of itself (whereas Bogart and Holt want to strike it rich).
The fun does not really get started until the men strike gold. From that point on, Bogart’s greed-driven descent into paranoia is something to behold. He mutters to himself expertly, sweats and exhibits the incredible physical picture of a man no longer in control of his own thoughts or emotions. No assurance is enough for him as the world becomes a darker and more dangerous place (now that he has something to horde and protect). Such is the power of Bogart’s performance, when he robs his partners and leaves one for dead, the audience is unsurprised and shocked at the same time.

Mad with Fever...
Having metaphorically lost his head for gold, Bogart is eventually decapitated by bandits within sight of his final destination. Ironically, the bandits who kill him care little for material wealth. The act of thieving and stealing is an end unto itself for them. So little are they interested in valuables, they do not recognize Bogart’s gold when they discover it and they let the precious powder scatter in the wind (they are only interested in selling Bogart’s mules to buy more guns so they can commit more robberies).

The bandits’ endless cycle of violence is less greedy than the miners’ perpetual quest for wealth, but it is no more purposeful. Well before the trio set out to Sierra Madre, the old man makes it clear he has struck it rich many times before, only to lose it all and begin the process over again. Bogart and Holt ignore this insight, convinced they are powerful enough to avoid repeating the same mistake. They are wrong, and what the film seems to be saying about their incorrectness is that anyone who ties themselves to a purpose no bigger than themselves is doomed to eke out a life in which the selfish cycle never ends – and consequently happiness never arrives.

Ending conflict means establishing familial ties
In contrast, there is a beginning, a middle and end to family life, and this, albeit very subtlety, seems to be the only bit of hope the film dangles in front of an audience who has just witnessed the worst of what human psychology has to offer. The old man shrugs off the loss of his gold and chooses to live out his twilight days among the local Indian village, where presumably he will take a wife and settle into his role as the physician. In similar fashion, Holt will go to Texas, where it is strongly implied he will take up with the wife of the prospector who died defending the trio’s mining camp. The survivors of this tale of greed, in other words, are all men who chose to settle down, begin a family and live a life of steady occupation and reward.
In that sense, this film is blindly simplistic and fairly predictable.
Greed is bad. The iniquitous meet an ugly kind of frontier justice. Those who understood the ill effects of gold eventually sought to regulate their appetites and establish a more simple – and safe – way of life. Reality, of course, is much more complicated than this, much more upside down. But this film is not about reality. For all its grit and grime, this is a fairy tale of a movie – a lopsided and ugly one, to be sure, but a fairy tale nonetheless. And as such, it is a towering achievement that leaves the audience with a profound sense of insight at its conclusion.
I suspect if you showed this film to the men in gray suits who routinely plunder the markets from their corporate towers, they would chortle at the naiveté located at the picture’s heart. In the world of Wall Street, more often than not, the paranoid and greedy Bogart’s win, and the spoils of their twisted labor do not idly blow away in the winds of fate. If life were more like the movies, we would not have to live with the results of such morally bankrupt calculations.