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.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Everybody Wants Something

With a title like The Asphalt Jungle, little is left to the imagination in terms of what this 1950 film noir is ultimately trying to convey. And if you had any doubts, they are quickly erased during this tour of America’s post-war urban landscape, in which the unnamed city is portrayed as a seedy and dangerous place, populated by a criminal element that operates well beyond established norms.

Within the city’s criminal community, social Darwinism functions in a kind of kill or be killed, rob or be robbed, fleece or be fleeced fashion. A person is allowed to keep as much or as little as they can hold onto. This sort of movie can very quickly devolve into cliché, so thankfully John Huston and Ben Maddow’s screenplay is clever enough to realize that crimes have motives and the criminals who commit illegal acts usually want something beyond the loot (IE – their behavior and crimes are a means to an end, not ends in and of themselves).
Each of the characters in this picture are presented as deeply complex people, all of whom are angling to get something. In some cases, the aims are nobler than others. Sterling Hayden is driven – almost single-mindedly – by the urge to secure enough money to repurchase his family’s lost horse farm back in Kentucky. He willingly joins in the film’s robbery plot, confident it will land him the cash he needs to turn his dream into reality. Sam Jaffe, the man who masterminds the caper, is much less idealistic: “One way or another, we all work for our vices,” he quips at one point.
In the case of Louis Calhern’s character, his vice saunters onto screen in the form of a certain Marilyn Monroe. Much is made of Monroe’s appearance here, but little of the unique combination of glamour, titillation and humor that would later translate into a white hot presence on screen is apparent in this outing. She is simply the “other woman” in a movie that devotes a great deal of time and energy to asking a pretty typical film noir question: Why do men make bad choices?
An early glimpse at a star
In the end, the answer boils down to the original metaphor. That is, like the creatures of the actual jungle, the civilized men living in The Asphalt Jungle’s metropolitan city often operate under the twin impulses of self-interest and self-preservation. To continue following this metaphor, the complicated web of allegiances and desires that forces the characters together and drives the plot are an emotional ecosystem that functions in similar fashion to the food chain in the wild. Bookies, crooked lawyers, policeman and blond bombshells – they all have a role to play in the concrete state of nature explored in this picture, and much of that role depends on how other people play their equally important parts.
In it together, for their own reasons
Faced with the rotten fruit of this reality, the city’s Police Commissioner offers this piece of lofty rhetoric to the audience:
People are being cheated, robbed, murdered, raped. And that goes on 24 hours a day, every day in the year. And that's not exceptional, that's usual. It's the same in every city in the modern world. But suppose we had no police force, good or bad. Suppose we had... just silence. Nobody to listen, nobody to answer. The battle's finished. The jungle wins. The predatory beasts take over.”
There is a sense of desperation in these words that feels right, but ultimately I believe the film’s central heist is a vehicle to explore how the state of nature described by the commissioner is ultimately amoral and random (like a society of animals in a real jungle). After all, the police do nothing to foil robbery or prevent its execution (the institution of the police itself is depicted as corrupt and self-interested). The cops merely stumble across the crime by accident – the random discharge of a gun alerts them – and then swoop in to try to clean up the mess after it has already been made. In this sense, they are little more than janitors who sweep away the proverbial mess that occurs when a lion encounters an antelope, and the difference between the jungle of vines and trees and the jungle made of concrete boils down to the fact that the latter cares about appearances – some would say the illusion of order – while the former unconsciously embraces the chaos and untidiness of existence.
Dead within sight of his dream
This is not Huston’s best film – not by a long shot. However, what we have here is classic – in the sense it inspired a host of other films and television programs – and compelling. The plight of the film’s intertwined fates is intricate and interesting, and the ultimate futility the picture’s final scene leaves audiences with is both profound and disturbing. The world is ugly and chaotic, the movie seems to say, and the ardent are damned along with the capricious. The metaphor of the jungle might be somewhat clumsily used in the picture, but it feels right nonetheless.