Advertisements

Category: Review


JFK (1991)


Directed by Oliver Stone

Written by Oliver Stone and Jonathan Sklar; adapted from “On the Trail of the Assassins” by Jim Garrison, and Crossfire: The Plot That Killed Kennedy by Jim Marrs

–                                                –                                             –                                                       –

“Treason doth never prosper: what’s the reason? Why, if it prosper, none dare call it treason.”

– Sir John Harington

 

Never one to shy from a difficult task, Oliver Stone’s prolific and convoluted cinematic history mirrors his own incredibly interesting life.

The Yale dropout-turned English teacher-turned volunteer infantrymen at the height of the Vietnam War, where he was wounded twice and given a total of eight commendations and medals, went back to school in 1971 where he earned a BA in Film Studies from the New York Film Institute, where one of his instructors was Marty Scorsese, who even then was regarded as a luminary in his craft.

One of the most successful writer-directors of his time, seen by many as a successor in the vein of F.F. Coppola, Stone wrote or directed some of the most notable films of the 1980s, after establishing himself as a fledgling force majeure in the industry when he garnered a Best Original Screenplay Oscar in 1979 for his Midnight Express script.

Not even counting his critically-touted Vietnam War trilogy, borrowing from the worst and best of his wartime experiences (1986’s Platoon, 1989’s Born on the Fourth of July, 1993’s Heaven and Earth), Stone is wholly or partly responsible for films as incendiary and diverse as Scarface (1983), Year of the Dragon (1985) with Mickey Rourke, Salvador (1986) and Wall Street (1987), a film that defined a new generation’s volatile perspective of corporate American greed on the stock exchange.

But in 1991 after stringing together a career of notably unique box-office and critical achievements, Stone created what would be his most dramatically contentious film – and the most controversial film of its time – JFK, which created an aura of debate that thrust a nation desensitized to war and scandal into reopening the question of the grandfather of all conspiracy theories.

An engrossing, thoroughly invigorating work of superior writing and editing, JFK analyzes the initial aftershock following President John Fitzgerald Kennedy’s Nov. 22, 1963 assassination in Dallas, and then expands to detail the pursuit of then-New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison as he attempts single-handedly, and against seemingly impossible odds, to uncover the truth.

No piece of information is too trivial, no coincidence too convenient as Garrison (a role chosen specifically for Kevin Costner during his heyday as America’s most earnest actor) and his staff of fellow hard-boiled ideologues, three years after the assassination, decides to navigate the twisted and treacherous murky waters of what he increasingly realizes – and so perhaps does the audience, as Stone intends – is a massive cover-up of truly epic proportions.

A diverse cast of the unfortunate, the repugnant, and the heroic men and women who had a part – big and small – to play in the tangled web of conspiracy help to further extrapolate and fascinate in this utterly absorbing three-hour plus Sixties opus.

Tommy Lee Jones features as the film’s most palpable – only because everyone else is so intangible – antagonist, effete and mysterious Clay Shaw, accused by Garrison of being involved in a CIA-engineered operation right in New Orleans that had unscrupulous ties to Lee Harvey Oswald.

Oswald, the disillusioned, pro-Castro, Marxist/Leninist shooter who supposedly fired three expert rounds at the Kennedy motorcade and killed the President, is played by noted Nineties acting chameleon Gary Oldman, who, acting the part of self-proclaimed patsy and hapless fall guy throughout, is a subdued triumph.

Michael Rooker, Laurie Metcalf, and Jay O. Sanders highlight Garrison’s team of assistants and understudies, Sissy Spacek plays the idealistic and determined lawyer’s wife, who supports initially her husband’s quest for justice, but succumbs to fear and exhaustion– both of public opinion and other elements far more insidious – when Garrison’s case gains international attention, and Joe Pesci and Kevin Bacon play brash and fiery parts as cogs to Clay Shaw’s own apparent conspiracies.  Most notably, in a small – I can in no way refer to it as minor – but incredibly memorable role, Donald Sutherland portrays Garrison’s important and enigmatic nameless source, X, who meets the district attorney in Washington, D.C., under the Parthenon-like shadow of the Lincoln Memorial, and effectively pulls the seat out from under him with a vivid and unsettling fifteen-minute monologue that attacks every belief and trust he once had in the government he had served during a sequence of cinematic spellbinding for the ages.

In 2009 in my then-home in Bedford, PA I awoke in the late morning of one summer’s day with the remnants of the previous night’s boisterous good time still thudding in my head, and needed more than anything something to mollify and distract my hangover while I nursed my brain back to life.

Pulling out JFK from the smooth paper lining of its Netflix sleeve, I thought maybe I would get a start on this giant film I had been wanting to see for quite a while, perhaps fall victim to a blessed nap – the instant salve to that post-inebriety condition – and finish it later.

I had underestimated the film’s effect, however, and like Garrison listening numbly to X discuss the dire manifestations of public officials, the betrayals of Kennedy’s inner staff – “Like Caesar, he is surrounded by enemies, and something’s underway, but it has no face, but everybody in the loop knows…” – describing the makings of a hideous coup d’etat, I was likewise mesmerized by JFK.

The film’s power lies not in the rabid, frenetic gallery of witnesses and villains and shadowy military personnel providing window dressing for a cheap whodunit, but in the potency of its delivery.  Stone’s film will not sway everyone who watches that the post-assassination Warren Commission’s finding that Oswald acted alone was a myth of shocking proportion, that President John F. Kennedy was brutally murdered by a hit team organized and executed with gruesome precision by the CIA; given the green-light to kill our country’s highest elected official by cabinet members in the upper echelons of our government, and their financial elite puppet masters, in the final effort to halt Kennedy’s stubborn objection to prolonging the Cold War and fueling the powder keg about to explode in Vietnam, the apparent culmination of the country’s post-World War II flame-fanning of the military/industrial complex.

No, you don’t have to believe every facet and word, and you’re not expected to.  But you will be galvanized.  You will do research, maybe just a quick Google search later that night, or maybe you’ll read a book on it.  But, in the end, you will be unable to hold true to the same complacency.

And that’s the whole point.

Make no mistake, JFK is a horror story.  It grabs your hand firmly and takes you down a road no modern patriot wants to believe, and can’t rightly stomach.  The dissonant and uncomfortable strings of John William’s score follows you down a turgid tributary of unnerving questions and palpably convincing conjecture, the needling understanding that maybe it’s possible, that perhaps the soulless and immoral machinations of our very government can hide, fabricate, subdue and pervert justice, that one shadowy figure in shadowy office can make a phone call to another and in its ghastly simplicity murder is made on America’s first citizen.

Doubt in a long-held view is distressing, but once freed can be contagious.  In this era a shockingly large and growing amount of Americans believe that the events of September 11, 2001 were partly or wholly created by the Bush Administration to justify and escalate our undeclared conflicts in the Middle East, a quagmire that our infantrymen’s boots are still in to this day.  Our complete trust in the government is a long-faded dream, and any semblance of astonishment at the nefarious capabilities of it register little on our collectively desensitized and often bitter scale.

Did the film JFK and its mainstream success assist this dubious legion of conspiracy theorists, so reviled for so long, into coming out into the light?  Because of, or despite, it was lambasted immediately when media discovered its subject and its slant.  To quote Stone himself, “never before in the history of movies has a film been attacked in first draft screenplay form.” But, as he would probably also be the first to say, JFK became a national hot-button issue and a social phenomenon.  Then-President George H.W. Bush was asked on its merit, as have many other politicians during and since, while journalists who had been in Dealey Plaza in Dallas at the time of the shooting appeared out of the woodwork to discredit, and all the while tens of thousands more tickets were sold to those that wanted their own private piece of the controversy.

JFK was also the first film in seventy years to affect federal legislation.   The “President John F. Kennedy Assassination Records Collection Act of 1992” was passed, allowing new assassination-related documents, some un-redacted, to be released in 2017 – I for one can’t wait – a begrudging concession by the government directly attributable to the power of the film’s effect.

But with all the intrigue and polarizing hullabaloo aside, people go to the movies to see and hear a good story, and there is no doubt that Oliver Stone’s Oscar-winning (Best Cinematography and Best Film Editing, richly deserved) JFK is just that.

A far-reaching achievement of myriad interweaving cross-currents, not sprawling but cogent, not emotionally indulgent but empathetic and pure, it is still to this day the electrifying Richter scale of engrossing epic cinema to me that I judge most every film, and the same experience that forcibly roused my mind and body out of its hungover stupor those years ago, and hasn’t let up since.

 

 

 

Advertisements

Gravity (2013)


By Adam Kelly

Submitted by Evan Benton

Sandra Bullock, George Clooney, Ed Harris

Directed by Alfonso Cuarón

Written by Cuarón and son Jonas Cuarón

–                                                 –                                                  –

This movie will no doubt set a new standard for what it means to be visually dazzled, gripped, and thrust into new cinematic territory all at once.

The perpetual-motion camera work is a new and majestic journey for theater-goers; as it, in equal parts, disorients and stimulates us in every intense sequence, it transforms each visual nuance into a rightful part of its sweep.

Big blockbusters sometimes end up disappointing because they underestimate originality and its scope.  Instead, there seems to be a more linear approach or understanding of what it takes to thrill an audience.  With Gravity, Alfonso Cuarón, the Mexican director of such original and affecting works as 2006’s Children of Men and 2001’s critically-acclaimed sexy coming of age tale Y Tu Mamá También, beautifully delineates a new world of suspense, majesty, emotion and intimacy that will likely propel the art of visual film the way that The Matrix (1999) helped computer-generated imagery evolve.


Alastair Sim, Trevor Howard, Leo Genn, Sally Gray, Judy Campbell, Moore Marriott, Rosamund John, Megs Jenkins

Directed by Sidney Gilliat

Written by Gilliat and Claude Gurney; adapted from the novel by Christianna Brand

–                                                                                                      –                                                                                             –

It’s hard to think of a better written, formulated and executed thriller like the kind of unique, genre-defying film that 1946’s Green for Danger is.

In chief example, it takes place during one of the more terrifying and utterly chaotic periods in British history, the indiscriminate post-Blitz V-1 and V-2 bombings of London and surrounding areas, and concerns not a group of houseguests in a stuffy Tudor mansion on a dark and stormy night, or on fast-moving train across Europe À la Agatha Christie, but in a small hospital in rural southwest England.

Two doctors, three nurses and a Sister (nun) run the small facility, and military mailman Mr. Higgins arrives with an anonymous letter before returning back to the nearby military barracks.  A whizzing V-1 – referred to in British lore henceforth as the “doodlebug” – collides into the barracks and Mr. Higgins is delivered to the hospital delirious and suffering several surface injuries.  Going under the knife in the operating room (referred to as “theatre” in the British vernacular), several strange circumstances lead to the man’s sudden and unexpected death.

Reeling from confusion and shock – not to mention the added tension wrought by the paralleling romantic inclinations of numerous members of the staff – the hospital hosts a much-needed gala ball, but when Sister Bates is stabbed to death in the operating room after giving a revealing and maddened declaration to the partygoers that Higgins’ death was no accident, a strange circumstance becomes a murder mystery.

With emotions and paranoia running high, Inspector Cockrill – who had narrated the opening moments of the film up to this point – arrives on location to investigate, and the film’s crack wit and taught excitement begins to ignite.

Played by Alastair Sim, the original and beloved Scrooge in The Christmas Caroli adaptation five years later, Cockrill brings slightly zany and unexpected comedy to his performance, from his opening scene falling over himself while taking cover after a V-1 missile lands nearby, to his unorthodox manner of questioning – “I’m a child in these matters”, as he spins child-like on a stool while asking the anesthesiologist (A young and dashing Trevor Howard in only his fifth major film) – as well as the kind of sterling omniscience that Scotland Yard man is expected to represent.

Howard, along with his nemesis, the slick womanizer Dr. Eden, played by Leo Genn – who was in turn lusted after by the late sister – fight over Sally Gray’s Freddi, adding even more anixety and strain into the fabric of this excelsior murder mystery.

Green For Danger meshes madcap comedic elements, sequences of chilling cinematography bordering on horror, a frantic, intelligent score by William Alwyn that properly denotes the movie’s myriad elements, the subtleties of extreme sexual tension amongst a close-knit group of the lonely and scared, and Sherlock Holmes-esque deductive denouement into surely one the most unique of all British thrillers, and most certainly one of cinematic history’s most under-appreciated and undiscovered gems.

Based on the mostly unknown Christianna Brand novel published two years earlier, the production team of Gilliat and Frank Launder – the team behind 1938’s The Lady Vanishes, an early Hitchcock gem, and Carol Reed’s Night Train to Munich from 1940 – discovered the novel and moved to make and distribute it independently, with Gilliat and Claud Gurney tagged to punch out a quick script.

The most alluring and dynamic facets of Danger – the title’s cryptic reference alludes to the color-coded markings on different bottles of anesthetics used to put a patient down, a particularly important piece of evidential motif – involve its idiosyncrasies and multiple combination elements that defy all other films in its mold.

In an adjacent garden at dusk, a decidedly mysterious camera angle opens up on the suave Genn tantalizing the sexually frustrated and distraught Gray with words from Lorenzo in William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice: “In such a night as this when the sweet wind did gently kiss the trees, and they did make no noise . . .”, the almost sensually predatorial Genn is shocked upon hearing the skeptical response of the woo’d Jessica sprout from the lips of the Inspector, who had been doddering under a small bridge, listening.  In his timely escape, the inspector trips over a rogue bush, and promptly removes the stray frond to reveal Howard hiding behind it, spying on the two lovers.

The semi collective self-deprecating script piles several stone of jest onto the identity of the English man and woman at the hour in question, at the eve of war’s end, reeling from two world wars in just thirty years’ time, watching most if not all of the nostalgia and pride of Britannia crumble and fall both literally and figuratively all around them, and yet have to keep moving.

To combine tension and zany comedy together into a murder whodunit would be nearly suicidal for most any filmmaker outside of HItchcock, but such contrived chaos works for Danger and the fictional events that unfold in an unfortunately real and terrible reality, where the film and its cast and crew was quite certainly under siege during the filming.

The pandemonium that can drive a perfectly sane person to  love, dance, cry, take cover, operate, fight and supposedly murder in a little over 90 minutes parallels the extreme times the average east coast Briton was living under, where the sudden terrible droning of an overhead unmanned explosive rocket can mean a very sudden and monotonous demise.  In such a place, how best to cope with chaos but to embrace it fully, and enjoy every ounce of every moment one is blessed with in the meantime?


Gary Oldman, Winona Ryder, Anthony Hopkins, Keanu Reeves, Sadie Frost, Cary Elwes, Tom Waits

Directed by Francis Ford Coppola

Written by James V. Hart; adapted from the novel “Dracula” by Bram Stoker

–                                                                     –                                                                         –

“I have crossed oceans of time to find you. . .”

One of the most intimate portraits of a self-disclosed perfectionist in film is Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse, a documentary by director Francis Ford Coppola’s wife Eleanor, detailing the harrowing, maddening journey of filming Apocalypse Now.  

Candidly introduced in a post-production interview with Coppola, the famed director stated simply, “We were in the jungle, there were too many of us, we had access to too much money, too much equipment, and little by little we went insane.”

Insanity, perfectionism, an undying commitment to vision, these descriptions were used by supporters to prop up his deserved lofty critical status following his incredible success in the 1970s.  Conversely, these words were also used by detractors to undermine his works of the 1980s, reflecting a proposed – and ridiculous – idea that he found his heart of darkness in Apocalypse Now, and as well as nearly killing him forever changed his appeal, his penchant for making marketable, successful movies.

This unfair impression followed him specifically after news broke that he’d be helming, and no doubt producing, the newest adaptation of Dracula, written in 1897 to muddled accolades, but since then becoming probably the most famous and influential of all horror novels.

The script, written by James V. Hart some years before, was brought to Coppola’s attention by Winona Ryder in a break-the-ice sit-down between the two after an assumptive falling out following Ryder leaving the set of 1990’s The Godfather, Part III after being tagged to play Mary Corleone.  This did not deter the two from agreeing on a want to bring to life the story unlike any before, and, in particular, the script’s eroticism. As stated by him later, the sensual aspect of the feverish, often blasphemic historically fated connection between characters Count Dracula and Mina Harker appealed to Coppola.

Columbia Pictures, having greenlit the picture, giving the still-esteemed Coppola’s own Zoetrope Studios the power to cast, emphasized a want to make the film especially marketable.  The last two retellings of the classic story – both released in 1979 (Frank Langella led a reworking of a long-running Broadway performance, and Werner Herzog lent his own vision to a stylized remake of F.W. Murnau’s legendary Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens featuring Klaus Kinski) – didn’t generate much aplomb and both were found straying from the original Stoker product.

Coppola vowed to not let this happen; to mesh entertainment with due respect, as well as inputting newly discovered themes he found most important, starting with insisting that the film uses the Anglo-Irish author’s name in its title.

Perhaps it was with great surprise on the part of universal critics that, upon release, the film was . . . really good, even great.  The best regeneration of the classic story in fifty years, and the most dutiful adaptation yet.  Coppola’s vision, aligning with Hart’s sexualized, lusty script, succeeded despite – or because of – its weirdness, its hyper-stylization, and its visceral gore.

Coppola chose to spend most of his not unimpressive $40 million budget not by dragging camera crew through Transylvania, or constructing massive sets of Victorian Kensington, but on his actors, what he referred to as the “jewels” of the feature.

Costume designer Eiko Ishioka, a veteran of many venerable Japanese works, was given free reign of both pocket and mind to dress the film’s actors, and to fit the inimitable style that was beginning to creep into the story’s vision, the combined talents of a dazzling supporting array of make-up artists, special effects wizards, matte designers, art and set designers.  This roster included German-born cinematographer Michael Balhaus, another veteran of his medium, who proved himself the very scope of Martin Scorsese’s visions, lending his hand to The Color of Money (1986) and The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) and Goodfellas (1990).

The money saved from reducing the film’s ventures to the myriad sound stages of Burbank and Hollywood made the small(er) scale of production conducive to more imaginative contributions from the film’s virtuosos.  Left alone to dabble in their own interpretations, the weekly drawings and storyboards brought to Coppola’s desk made him work with Hart to alter the script to suit the fantastical, dreamlike elucidations that were beginning to become the benchmark of the story.

As a result, in only shallow observation, Dracula‘s art direction is astonishing.  The use of matte effects for backgrounds as studiously applied miniatures do more for the film’s feel and aura than saccharine greenscreen ever could.  Furthermore, each setting, whether in Count Dracula’s brooding, eerie, decrepit castle, on the waterlogged, doomed vessel Demeter, or in the Westenra’s gilded, lofty garden mansion, is made wholly effective by the special care taken to characterize them.

In Dracula’s castle in particular, imaginative concentration converged on this frequently filmed setting, making it its own creature entirely, more than just gargoyles and wispy cobwebs: the much- mimicked effects of Dracula’s ever-moving shadow, the long red cape of Gary Oldman’s ancient Count gliding behind him on colossal, burnished floors, and most memorably, the eternally damned vampiric vixens (one is Monica Belluci) sifting and straining through silk sheets and crawling unnaturally along tall, dusty mist-covered bedposts.

Each scene, much like filter-rich cinematographic epics like 1975’s Stanley Kubrick classic Barry Lyndon, is rich enough to take something out of on each subsequent viewing.  In this respect, there are simply too many admirable and exciting qualities to reference and recommend, unfortunately putting a patron of the film in the position of stating, “Just see it.”

The reasons why Todd Fields’ 1931 visualization, and Hammer Film’s subsequent additions deviated so criminally from the novel’s plot came from the obvious – it was easier.  Easier to make just one female character, an amalgamation of virginal, thoughtful Mina and well-heeled, somewhat indecent beauty Lucy, and easier to have just two protagonists – Jonathan Harker and Abraham Van Helsing – and leaving out most of Lucy’s suitors, who are paramount to the novel’s action/adventure ending.

And most easily, making Count Dracula the obscene, evil abomination; the king of the undead, the antagonist that even Stoker portrayed as fairly one-dimensional.

This was not in the vision, or the story, that Coppola wanted, and the first change of predicted pace he hired chameleonlike Oldman, the wunderkind of Eighties British independent cinema, to portray the count in his many forms.  To deepen the character’s scope he rediscovered and used the story of Vlad the Impaler – the 15th century devout Christian prince Vlad Dracula, who impaled thousands of Turks in his remorseless victories – as the archetype, and used Hart’s precursor story of Vlad denouncing his faith in favor of Darkness after returning from battle only to find his wife, Elisabeta, dead by damning suicide.

Following Oldman was a cast of young American and British actors eager to prove themselves in such a promising reworking of a classic: Ryder as Mina, reworked in the script as the reincarnation of Dracula’s beloved Elisabeta, Keanu Reeves as her fiancée Jonathan Harker, the lawyer that descends unknowingly into Dracula’s web, Anthony Hopkins fresh off his Oscar win as the fabled Dr. Van Helsing, Sadie Frost as robustly sexual vixen Lucy, and Cary Elwes, Richard E. Grant and Billy Campbell as her suitors.

Offbeat musician Tom Waits takes a fabulous and repellent turn as Renfield, the man Harker replaced that was driven mad by Dracula, rounding out the cast.  In trying to find a Vito Corleone for his Godfather, Coppola initially reached out to Laurence Olivier in the thought that other great thespians would flock to the opportunity. The idea ultimately had no staying power, and Oldman was no Olivier in 1992, but the range of characters serve to complement one another, and Coppola – a noted actor-friendly director -worked hard to make them comfortable with each other as actors, whether in sexual throes or sparring on backs of wagons.

Much has and will be made of Oldman’s performance, which must have required limitless patience whilst sitting through hours of makeup and prostheses, but in which he poured all of his considerable talent and incredible diversity in a role that seemed tailor-made for him.  Whether the aged Count, the youthful, captivating Prince, a monstrous wolf-creature, a flaccid-winged demon bat, or a wisp of green smoke Oldman is never lost in the countless effects that cover him, and he exudes his personality through any and every way, and apparently made quite sure of having his say, as revealed by several off-screen directional arguments with Coppola.

Among the film’s supporting cast, the two women stand out alone.  Reeves as Harker nearly falsifies the film, a surfer boy with a British accent, and Hopkins understandably takes on much license with Van Helsing and has a little too much fun, but Ryder and Frost are perfect opposites, and their youthful vigor and startling, completely different versions of beauty, tantalize and tempt.

Ryder holds her own against Oldman’s menacing, intimidating Count, at times just a tiny bit foppish, but startlingly believable when Dracula’s hold on her begins to tighten, and the two embrace in a centuries-spanning love that has never abated.

This is Coppola and Hart’s most understated addition to the story, its theme of undying love, exemplified in the relationship between Mina and Dracula, something that is fated from the beginning, and inherently destructive despite both characters’ mystical, infinite longing.

Fulfilling this unearthly providence, Mina is finally enfolded by Dracula, where there love is to be consummated for all eternity as she begs to be made into a vampire.  Struggling against the indomitable will of fate, Dracula pushes her away, telling her that he loves her too much to give her this life.  At long last, he yields, but the mere hint of an exertion against this cursed existence denotes Dracula’s humanity – something no other adaptation looked at in such sympathetic fashion.

This makes the love story, filled with lofty verbiage – “Then I give you life eternal, everlasting love, the power of the storms and the beasts of the earth. . .” – much more believable than could be imagined, and transcends the horror and even the book’s romantic limitations.

Composer Wojciech Kilar, brought in at first for how his decidedly Eastern European style would parallel the story, does well in reinforcing mood through his music, but his true resonance is through the score’s main centerpiece: the ancient passion and devotion of the film’s love story.  The main motif, listed on the soundtrack simply as “Mina/Dracula”, is Gothic, brooding and almost sentimental.

The accolades were many, but virtually all for effects.  The sound editing and makeup teams deservedly won their Oscars at the 65th annual Academy Awards; Ishioka was also given one for her rich work on the costume designs, without which none of the film could have been possible.  Domestically and especially internationally, the film reaped in over $215,000,000, and all noted critics praised Coppola’s vision and Oldman’s feat of performance.

Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow from 1999 is the only other horror film in the past quarter century that can come close to matching Bram Stoker’s Dracula in incredible art direction, a true work of cinematic tapestry-making in which a bonafide artist of his medium was allowed to do whatever he wanted in bringing his vision of a classic to the screen.


Richard Chamberlain, David Gulpilil, Olivia Hamnett, Nandjiwarra Amagula

Directed by Peter Weir

Written by Weir, Tony Morphett and Petru Popescu

–                                                                     –                                                                         –

“Dream is a shadow . . . of something real.”

Directors helm the massive ship that is their film, in charge of traversing the undulating, meandering, and sometimes rough current that is its journey.  Each one has their own call sign, their own signature, like Kubrick, or Lynch or Ford that come to represent them.  Others have their perennial thematic strengths and their cinematic prolificity to speak for them, like Spielberg, Lean and Scorsese.

Long-time Aussie auteur Peter Weir traverses the rippling waters between both an illustrator of film with a cinematographer’s eye, and a bonafide blockbuster-maker.  The torch-bearer of the Australian New Wave – born roughly with Nicholas Roeg’s Walkabout in 1971 and continuing up through the Ozploitative Crocodile Dundee (1986) – Weir cut his teeth in his hometown of Sydney, working at a local news station and eventually making some short films crafted  after hours with company equipment that would lead him to stardom.

His immediate critical success in America came with the classic Harrison Ford-led Amish thriller Witness in 1985, with its ethereal synthesized score by Maurice Jarre and sweeping, golden Pennsylvania corn fields shot by longtime collaborator Russell Boyd that rival’s Néstor Almendros’ historic panoramas in Days of Heaven (1978).

Crowd-pleasing period prep school cheerer/weepie Dead Poets Society followed in 1989, which proved to be a real box-office darling, allowing Weir the ability to spread his talents into other genres  throughout the 1990s.  But after a five-year hiatus coming after 1998’s The Truman Show, Weir unleashed his take on Patrick O’Brian’s classic series onto screens with Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, his best work since Witness and the most exciting and realistic seafaring warfare epic since fellow Aussie Roger Donaldson’s refreshing Mel Gibson-led reboot of The Bounty in 1984.

But in the wake of his quarter-century’s worth of success in America, it’s important to not forget his roots, steeped in Australian culture and the native Aboriginal mythos of the land down under’s otherwordly landscapes.

Only Weir’s second film, 1977’s The Last Wave is the most fantastical, the most bizarre of his entire repertoire.  Beverly Hills-born Richard Chamberlain – an unofficially honorary Australian thanks to the success of The Thorn Birds in the early 1980s – is cast as David Burton, a Sydney attorney that is chosen rather oddly to defend a group of Sydney’s Aboriginals accused of murder.

But there is definitely more to the case that meets the eye, an inexplicable and unsettling occurrence proving this early on in the film when the dream-prone Burton envisions an Aboriginal man in a rain-drenched nightmare, only to see him in the flesh for the first time as one of his clients.

The weather, and in particular the pouring, sopping wetness of an unusually strong monsoon is often the most noticeable and powerful character in the film, and Weir uses it terrifyingly in the jarring opening sequence, when school students in the dusty climes of Western Australia watch cricket ball-sized hail and sloshing rain storm out of a clear blue sky.

The Last Wave makes sudden, briefly scripted and unbelievable connections to the weather, the intense Aboriginal Chris Lee, and Burton, who may or may not be descended from an ancient line of white-skinned otherworldly seers called mulkurul, who made their living ages ago predicting the apocalypse.

It’s Chris Lee’s character, played by the most famous Aboriginal actor of all time David Gulpilil, the last stop when a production company wants to cast a native Australian, that makes the prophetic visions that The Last Wave alludes to credible and believable.  Raw and primal, Gulpilil is the antithesis of Chamberlain’s suited Anglo-Saxon everyman, and yet the two onscreen create a palpable back-and-forth chemistry that dignifies the craziness that they’re steeped in.

Burton, whose Reverend stepfather is his only remaining relation, learns that he as a boy had dreamed his mother’s death.  It is revealed that she died in exactly the way he had envisioned.  And when more nightmares come to him, some of them now more waking then dreaming, revealing the images of Sydney townsfolk drowning in a flooded street, Burton knows that something catastrophic is about to happen.

The film’s conclusion takes place in the uncharted depths of labyrinthine sewers underneath the city, where Burton discovers a nearly untouched Aboriginal shrine.  On its walls is painted the prophetic images that Burton and the Aboriginals have spoken of: a lunar calendar leading up to the very end of life, the terrifying image of a mountains-tall tidal wave roaring towards Australia.

And in the shrine, alongside the decayed skeletons of former mulkurul, Burton picks up an Aboriginal death mask – an exact likeness – and rushes, driven insane, out of a storm drain and onto a beautiful Sydney beach, only to see the end rushing towards him.

There is much fantastical stuff that had to be implied, rather than told, in the film’s one hour forty-six minute length, but Weir and Boyd pulled out their bag of cinematic tricks for the job.  Strange, disconcerting animal noises paired with blaring, throat-scratching didgeridoos are heard when composer Charles Wain’s emotive keyboard chords aren’t playing.  Indelible shots of rainwater cascading down the top of a flight of stairs, tiny toads chirping in the sodden outdoors, a sudden burst of oil-dark rain onto Burton’s windshield, and a frightening image of a nude Aboriginal standing in silhouette outside Burton’s door.

There are films one observes, and films one experiences, like a thrill ride or even an opera.  Weir’s collective movies, and The Last Wave at the forefront, occupy the latter’s territory.

A skilled auteur can take an unbelievable, even silly idea and strengthen it even without fiddling with the script.  The camera work can be made to provide all the explanations necessary, and here Weir lets it do the talking.


Michael Shannon, Douglas Ligon, Barlow Jacobs, Natalie Canerday, G. Alan Wilkins

Written and directed by Jeff Nichols

–                                                                     –                                                                         –

“This is the same man that ran out on us, that left us behind to be raised by a hateful woman.  He made like we were never born.  That’s who this man was.  And that’s what he’s answering for today.”

Shotgun Stories is the spiraling southern Arkansas saga of two clans of one dead man’s offspring finally letting their hate and jealously for each other consume them.  Its focus is on the first, initial, set of sons, abandoned at a young age by their father to be raised by a vitriolic mother.  These are Son, Boy and Kid, simple tags for a group of children callously disregarded by their father to a grave extent while he started a new life with another woman and another set of sons.

Son (Michael Shannon) lives in a split-level with his on-again, off-again wife Annie and their son.  A gambler by hobby and a fish farmer by trade, Son’s disagreements with his wife over his plans for the future (or lack thereof) forces her to take the child and leave.  In her absence, Son invites co-worker Boy – who lives in a tent in the backyard – to come stay in the house until they come back.  Son also extends the invitation to Kid, a youth basketball coach idling his time trying to install an air conditioner in his van, and the three stay under the same roof for the first time in ages.

Almost fortuitously, news arrives in the form of the boys’ estranged and equal parts despised and despising mother, who informs them quickly and succinctly that their father is dead.  A hasty decision to crash the funeral is made, and among black-tied grievers the dirty shirt and denim-clad Son asks to speak a few words above the nondescript dun-colored coffin.  In his speech he tells them – a horrified mother, two adult sons and two teenage ones – that their father was not who they thought they were, and not a good man.  He concludes with a column of spit he directs at the coffin, spewed forth with the ejecta of hate.

Understandably, a near-fight ensues but the two families leave on uneasy terms after the widow begs for a cessation.

But further into the movie, hostilities become not only desired but almost . . . fated. The incident at the funeral sparks a series of events that lead to inexorable tragedy, but open up a possibility for redemption and understanding.

Shotgun Stories is harsh and austere in its writing, its imagery.   But it cannot be called bleak.  In actuality, it is perhaps the most refreshing and meaningful film to blur the border between independent and mainstream cinema.  It’s a tale of vengeance that produces no real victory, of how decades of hate and hate-spawning can still be undone, and about the unbreakable bond of family; even if that bond is rotten to the core.

Also refreshing is its outlook on right and wrong; the Old Testament eye-for-an-eye mindset.  Son is perhaps the protagonist but he is not a hero; and as the two sets of brothers argue the origin of the generation-old feud he initially preaches peace to Kid and Boy but does not follow his own advice later in the film.  In fact a particularly galling piece of violence nearly undoes everything if not for the benevolence of the film’s wisest brother, Mark (Travis Hayes).

The bond of family can be stifling, acidic, even unbearable; but it’s beyond important.  Son, Kid and Boy hated their father, were raised to hate their father and his ilk that replaced them, but at the core of that anger is simple jealousy.  Such feelings long fermenting are poisonous enough, but when they involve family there is often no antidote.

The characters in Stories‘ “dead-ass town” are effectively white trash, uneducated Southern rednecks and engage in the stereotypes that follow such monikers; but they are as real and believable as any other class study of any race of any place.  The fratricidal vengeance Son, Boy and Kid espouse becomes believable to any person betrayed or wronged by a parent.

The understated but paramount role of Son was written specifically for Shannon in mind, as he was coming off of his terrifying, delirious performance in 2006’s Bug: his first lead role and one he originated on stage. Quite simply there is no actor like Michael Shannon working in film today, nor has there been for the past decade besides, perhaps, the legendary Daniel Day-Lewis and, in recent developments, the talented Ben Foster.

He is a method actor, a chameleon-like true thespian who inhabits each role no matter how small or paltry, and his intense, often brooding characters are somewhat difficult to grasp, to understand, but they stick with you.

Shannon’s acting dogma – equal parts subtlety and furious incandescence –  adds the perfect recipe for Son; a man suddenly thrust into the role of older brother and mentor when he himself often thinks like a child.  His acting ability lends power to an already static supporting cast of talented unknowns.

Stories‘ strengths put it heads above its class of film, and its moral resonance raise it further still.  Arkansas-native Nichols’ debut film; it’s a gripping, distinctly American essay on the power – good and bad – of family, and the shocking depths some will go to stake – or remove – their claim in it.


Rod Steiger, Jaime Sánchez, Brock Peters, Geraldine Fitzgerald

Directed by Sidney Lumet

Written by Morton S. Fine and David Friedkin; adapted from the novel of the same name by Edward Lewis Wallant

–                                                                      –                                                                               –

Some films unwittingly become the subject of controversy for the most trite of reasons; where a stink is made about the particulars of a film’s content when the disputed sequence is an extension of the auteur’s vision, an argument that can very rarely be compromised without compromising the film itself.

The Pawnbroker is a film of many firsts.  Taken at face value, it is the first of prolific director Sidney Lumet’s films depicting the gritty, unforgiving side of his favorite city (“New York is filled with reality, Hollywood is a fantasyland,” the director once said), and the movie that finally catapulted gifted actor Rod Steiger from solid supporting cast member to lead actor.

Plot-wise, it is the first American film to show the suffering of a Holocaust survivor, and the first to attempt to recreate some of the horrors of life in a concentration camp.  The film has since created a legacy for others following suit; and to date very few American films have created the same realistic and devastating account of the Twentieth Century’s greatest evil and its repercussions.

But a first that most film analysts will recall is how the The Pawnbroker defied and led to the implosion of the MPAA’s Production Code, becoming the first American film to feature nudity and be approved by the MPAA.  Initially rejected, producer Ely Landau managed to elicit company help to bypass the Code and appeal to the MPAA for approval with some cuts to the nudity.

The film passed, despite getting branded as “indecent” by several religious groups, with Lumet making minimal to no cuts to the scenes in question.  A major victory for production companies at the time, the decision heralded the doom for the Production Code, which has long outlived its usefulness.

What is strikingly annoying is that the scene in question is not just tantamount to the growing climax of the plot, but hauntingly evocative, even shattering to both the viewer and to Sol Nazerman, the Holocaust survivor and eponymous pawnbroker played by Rod Steiger in a career-defining role.

Nazerman’s tragic past is immediately shown at the film’s beginning, prefacing even the opening credits, as fantastical black and white photography by Boris Kaufman centers on a happy family – a man and woman, two children and a grandmother and grandfather, the latter dressed in traditional Jewish garb – picnicking on an unclear European lake.  Slow-motion, unfocused camera angles reminiscent of French New Wave cinema depict the family’s love and contentment.

Then suddenly, they look off-camera into the distance, and the smiles drain from their faces.

This introduction is just one of very few, very short flashbacks into the backstory of Nazerman, a former German professor who escaped from the Holocaust as his family’s sole survivor.  Embittered, spiteful and self-loathing, Nazerman buries himself into his profession, a pawnbroker whose store is a front for a prominent East Harlem gangster.  He spends time outside of work at his Bronx high-rise apartment, or in the bed of a the former wife of a friend who died in Europe’s fires.

Nazerman’s assistant, a young Puerto Rican named Ortiz with dreams of grandeur, idolizes Nazerman and his knowledge of money.  While it may be a learning relationship, Nazerman has no capacity to outwardly show fondness or love, something Ortiz learns when Nazerman equates him in the same vein as the rejects and scum that ooze in and out of the pawn shop selling away their prizes or thefts.

When finally agreeing to show Ortiz how to distinguish real gold from a fake, Ortiz comments on the numbers tattooed on Nazerman’s forearm, and wonders aloud if that’s a secret society and what he would have to do to join.

“What do you do to join?” Nazerman answers blandly.  “You learn to walk on water.”

Rebuffing the friendships of Ortiz, as well as the desperate attempts of an aging social worker named Marilyn Birchfield, Nazerman succumbs to mental degradation as he begins to increasingly hallucinate and envision memories of the Holocaust.

Kaufman’s cinematography, used here in the same great effect that he had when shooting 1953’s New York opus On The Waterfront and 1960’s brightly lit love story Splendor in the Grass, is most effective in these flashbacks, these horrific memories.  Their abruptness, their desolateness pain-drenched visuals are as heartbreaking as they are unsettling.  It is not a surprise that Kaufman, who emigrated to Canada in 1940 after serving in the French Army, is a Russian Jew, and saw firsthand the hatred that spewed at Jewry from Stalin’s Russia.

Nazerman is approached by Ortiz’s lover, a prostitute, and in a misguided approach to helping Ortiz  bares her breasts and offers herself.  The previously mentioned sequence – and source of the misaligned Production Code’s scrutiny – effectively breaks Nazerman, as her nudity hearkens back to a long-suppressed unspeakable memory of being made to watch as his wife was forced into prostitution for Nazi guards.

A short while later, Nazerman learns that the organization for which he works for, headed by a bullying, larger-than-life homosexual gangster named Rodriguez, gets most of its money from laundering goods and property from Harlem brothels.  Nazerman, having accepted generous contributions over the years and knowing full well that he was working for illegal peddlers, cannot take this new knowledge.  In a harrowing sequence, Nazerman pathetically grovels at Rodriguez that he cannot continue to do this, as he is assaulted by thoughts of his wife’s degradation in the camps, before finally agreeing to continue after Rodriguez threatens to kill him.

This begins a conclusion of unfortunate coincidence and ignorance, as Nazerman’s refusal for friendship and his want to be alone in his own desolate mental landscape alienates and offends Ortiz, leading the young man to attempt poorly conceived revenge.

The Pawnbroker is a surefire shock to the system; as realistic and unflinching a film as any that could be released in the present.  The nudity controversy that unfortunately surrounds it nevertheless dissipates as the film’s myriad strengths take hold.

Foremost of these strengths is Rod Steiger’s untouchable performance as Nazerman, embodying the anguish and regret on top of deep hidden anger that one would associate with the character.  Streiger’s periods of breakdown, his tearful bouts of unimaginable mental torture and suffering, are about as genuine and skillful as a professional actor can get.

Lumet initially campaigned for James Mason to take the part, agreeing with many other critics that Steiger was not capable of a leading role despite his obvious talent.  Lumet, helming just his seventh film out of a final fifty-plus, conceded following agreements with Steiger on plot direction.  The decision cemented Steiger’s place as one of America’s greatest actors, and conceivably couldn’t have gotten his Oscar-winning role in In the Heat of the Night three years later without his acclaimed performance as the pawnbroker.

There is a scene in which Nazerman, aimless and lost in his memories, visits the home of Mrs. Birchfield (an almost unrecognizable Geraldine Fitzgerald, whose film career peaked by the mid-40s), the social worker-cum-spinster that yearned for the company of another troubled soul.  Having rebuffed her already Nazerman comes prepared to apologize, and actually opens up to her about his agony at having survived when his loved ones did not.

She listens intently and, after a long period of discussion tapered with silence, wanly holds out her hand to him.  It lingers there, waiting, but Nazerman never takes it, never even looks at it.  He slowly gets up and leaves her apartment as Mrs. Birchfield, remains seated and finally puts her arm down.

Here is an encapsulation of the The Pawnbroker‘s incredible strengths of acting, of writing and of cinematography in an unforgettable ten-minute sequence.  Its realism – how can one truly open up about something no one can understand or relate to? – is echoed in the faces of the two actors who are attempting to create a friendship that is one of  obvious desperation, an escape out of loneliness.

But Nazerman, knowing that his own painful solitude is eternal, realizes the conversation’s futility and leaves abruptly.


Daniel Day-Lewis, Madeleine Stowe, Wes Studi, Stephen Waddington

Directed by Michael Mann

Written by Michael Mann and Christopher Crowe; adapted from the novel by James Fenimore Cooper and George B. Seitz’s 1936 film adaptation of the same name

–                                                          –                                                         –

People are products of their age, and insofar people can also be products of their age’s culture.  In the culture of film, one doesn’t have to be a film critic to recognize that films like 1967’s The Graduate, or 1977’s Star Wars were profoundly affected by the decade they were released in, and therefore profoundly affected the decades after.

I would not be so brazen as to compare the above-reference cultural powerhouses with that of Michael Mann’s action/adventure period piece The Last of the Mohicans, but I will state that in my film classes at university, among my closest film peers, I’ve noticed that it is a film that is ingrained in its time period.  Frankly, everybody knows and remembers it.

Recall the violent colonial ambushes: scarlet redcoats cut down by Natives that seem to materialize like mist out of thick treelines , the final climactic showdown on the cliffs of the Adirondack Mountains, Daniel Day-Lewis rescuing raven-haired beauty Madeleine Stowe, Daniel Day-Lewis running while firing two muskets, Daniel Day-Lewis jumping through a waterfall.  Mainly, recall Daniel Day-Lewis.

Upon its release Mohicans was met with box-office success as well as critical aplomb through nationwide newspapers.  Whatever the age group, people went to and returned to the theaters to see it not because they were familiar with the 1826 novel, or the French and Indian War, or the plight of the semi-mythic Mohican peoples – they went because Mohicans gave the filmgoer a historical drama unlike any other, a marketable one.

In the 1980s came a slew of historical period pieces that snagged Oscars and Oscar nominations by the barrelful (1984’s Amadeus, 1986’s The Mission, 1987’s The Last Emperor) but failed to appeal to the regular moviegoer, the non-critic, the person just wanting to see something interesting Friday night.

And then the successful ones, the ones that struck a chord in audiences, like 1981’s Chariots of Fire or 1985’s Out of Africa, weren’t ones that a self-described red-blooded American saw with his buddies.  They were reserved for his family, or, in the latter’s case, for his spouse.  And came with tissues.

Mohicans blasted onto the historical drama landscape of the new decade finding the perfect medium between good drama and good action.  The violence – scalpings, eviscorations, bloody tomahawks and immolations – set the pace of a period action/adventure for a new generation, but while outright explosive, is complementary among the other fine work found in all corners of Mann’s film.

Italian veteran Dante Spinotti mans the camera, and finds perfect middle ground between the frantic doses of kinetic energy that detail the action sequences, and the sweeping panoramas of the smokey, grandiose green mountain ranges of colonial America.  The score, helmed by Trevor Jones and Randy Edelman, captures each moment with perfect, sweeping arrangements.  But it is the theme music, crafted from Scottish instrumentalist Dougie MacLean’s song “The Gael”, that turned the very popular soundtrack into a bestseller.

The acting, blended with the authenticity of dedicated historians, creates a palpable period piece, and in terms of culture influence brings an important but fairly unreadable American literary classic to a whole new kind of plane.

Fenimore’s main character of Hawkeye is in this version smoldering captured by Day-Lewis, a white settler taken in as an infant by Chingachgook (Russell Means) and his own son Uncas (Eric Schweig) – the last of the Mohican tribe of  East Alonquian Native Americans.

With the fury of the French and Indian War as the backdrop, Hawkeye is apathetic in regards to the coming storm, and fervently opposes he or his fellow colonials joining the British army as a contingent.

But when by fate the trio rescue the daughters of Colonel Edmund Munro, Alice and Cora (Stowe), in a violent ambush en route to Fort William Henry, the last of the Mohicans become inexorably embroiled in the sweeping conflict.  Complicating matters, Hawkeye and Cora develop a fiery romance despite her being basically betrothed to haughty Major Duncan (a very underrated performance from Stephen Waddington).

Day-Lewis, fresh from his Academy Award-winning role as Christy Brown in My Left Foot three years earlier, was involved in his first real American blockbuster with Mohicans, and his inimitable method style – learning how to live off the land and make his own camp, carrying a long rifle at all times – was much publicized.

Director Mann would go on to reunite America’s two greatest living actors in 1995’s Heat, before making two of the coolest movies of the 2000s with 2004’s Collateral and 2006’s Miami Vice.  The fact that he just as successfully created the standout colonial America film as he did films with gangsters, drug dealers and cops highlights his acumen.

A few critics did not fall for the stirring romance of a Mohicans’ new kind of period drama, notably Desson Thomson of The Washington Post, who lambasted the film as “an MTV version of Gothic romance”.

While Thomson makes a good point when he calls the romance between Hawkeye and Cora tacked-on, the whole war ” grist for their love”, (We discussed this when he taught my Introduction to Film class at GMU my junior year, to my good fortune) this is not an airbrushed movie, a glamorous depiction of a violent, turbulent and unknown portion of early America.  It is realistic, and painstakingly made to look so; and if the wholesale score, vicious action and sumptuous naturalist imagery make it not only a good movie but a chartburster, that’s to our benefit.

All film is accessible, even the most boring, superficial and just plain horrible.  I am no film egalitarian, but nor am I an elitist. If a film can be immensely popular, while at the same time standing aside thespian-filled dramatic behemoths of its age, it’s a treasure; the best of both worlds.

The Last of the Mohicans will always remain such – a bolt of excitement and rousing romance, a true modern epic of its time and a perennial popular culture embodiment.

Images courtesy of emuleday.com and anomalousmaterial.com.

Desson Thomson quoted in The Washington Post, Sep. 25, 1992.


Sterling Hayden, Sam Jaffe, Louis Calhern, Marc Lawrence, James Whitmore, Marilyn Monroe

Directed by John Huston

Written by Ben Maddow and Huston; adapted from the novel by W.R. Burnett

 

–                                                    –                                                                        –

“Crime is just a left-handed form of human endeavor.”

Picture a more realistic Ocean’s Eleven, better written, better acted and with a powerful keynote on the blurred line between blue uniforms and black trenchcoats.  Add to this some of the film noir genre’s most beautiful cinematography and it’s most unflappably badass tough-guy and you’ve bought yourself a vacation in John Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle.

The elements – the hand-picked group, the score, the double-cross – is, to a society inundated with more caper films than explosions in a Michael Bay film, pretty routine.  And yet even knowing the pattern and watching it develop, The Asphalt Jungle deceives the viewer; not with a clever trick, or a tacked-on attention-getting plot twist, but in creating one of the first instances of unlikely sympathy in an film audience: simply put, we find ourselves cheering for the criminals.

Avoid the shrugs – sixty-two years ago, this was a big deal.  Crooked cops, while at a century-mark in city barracks’ infestation, were not shown to be in entertainment.  Protagonists weren’t usually criminals, and when they were it had to be because of some silly misunderstanding.

These time-told maxims have no place in film noir, however, or under the lens of the immortal John Huston, who before Jungle had shown moviegoers everywhere the gritty world of steely gumshoes and devilish dames two years earlier in Key Largo, as well as in another Humphrey Bogart vehicle – 1941’s genre-defining The Maltese Falcon.

Given free reign by producers at MGM Studios, Huston collaborated with writer Ben Maddow – who got a nomination in that winter’s Academy Awards; the film got four – and the two set off on a caper story with more meaning that mischief, more dynamism than dynamite.

German immigrant and crime genius “Doc” Riedenschneider comes out of the clink with seven years’ worth of planning for a score to end all scores – half a million dollars for effortlessly robbing a high-end jewelry store of all its rocks.  He enlists the help of a small-time bookie who puts him in touch with a bent lawyer named Emmerich looking for money anywhere he can get it.  The idea in motion, the trio put in a search for a driver, a locksmith and a “hooligan” – what I can define a half a century later loosely as a strongman.

Enter Dix Handley, introduced in the opening scene as a massively tall figure draped in a black coat disappearing into the liquid dark of sunrise away from a patrolling police cruiser.  A Kentuckian obsessed as much with horses as he is his home he lost to debt years ago, he’s been doing small time robberies and stick-ups for the better part of a year in the city in order to raise enough money to buy back the old ranch.  Correction, to raise enough money to gamble for more money in order to buy back the old ranch.

Naturally, this makes him familiar with the bookie, where a chance meeting with Doc in the same smoke-filled lounge makes Doc recommend Dix for the hooligan spot.  Agreeing to a fifty-fifty split, Doc and Emmerich put the players in motion and the game is on.

But of course, nobody trusts nobody in the jungle.

Emmerich, played in deliciously slimy candor by stage veteran Louis Calhern, naturally wants all the money for himself, and enlists the help of an immoral private eye.

Doc, not an amateur by any means, sees a possibility that Emmerich will try and swindle them, and confides in Dix – who is as strong in honor as he is in physicality.  Every party proceeds carefully, and surprises riddle holes in the plot from then on out as rapidly as a machine gun.

Sterling Hayden, gruff, statuesque former war hero, is Dix.  At six-foot five, Hayden literally towers over the other characters (Gifted character actor Sam Jaffe is about a foot shorter as mastermind Doc) and is a massive creature of animalism.  In other words, a true bad ass.

“Why don’t you quit crying and get me some bourbon?” He yells at one of the group, rubbing indifferently at a bleeding stomach wound following the robbery.

Louis Calhern, who I remember best as the larger-than-life Julius Caesar of Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s 1953 adaptation of Shakespeare’s classic, dives low in society to portray the sly lawyer Alonzo Emmerich, who ignores his bed-ridden wife to canoodle with a girl “young enough to be his granddaughter”, a girl who calls him “Uncle Lon” and has since cost him so much in party favors that he’s flat broke.  It’s a sublime and desolate performance from an actor usually cast in grandiose roles.

And I’ll just mention that this particular blonde looker – called “babe” and “baby” by seemingly all the film’s male characters – is none other than Marilyn Monroe in an early role, who steals every scene she’s in despite not even being listed on most opening night posters.

No one in the cast overdoes their parts.  The performances blend into the sequences and subtle plot turns like ingredients in a blender – all part of the bigger import, the greater good.

And then there’s the noir bits.  It’s all there, the mysterious, gritty setting, the tough but good guy, the beautiful dark (and blonde) haired squeeze, and the slimy villain.  In the dead of night, black cars with criminals and cops sneak around under a canopy of dripping railings, drenching arc-sodium lamps and steam from clogged sewer vents.  My favorite sequence in the film includes the dancing antics of a voluptuous schoolgirl in front of a club’s jukebox, jiving to some jazz underneath the aroused eyes of Doc.  In a fixed spot, the camera is bizarrely only at torso-height, and her dancing becomes almost dizzying as for a few moments she goes out of focus and then back in, before it cuts to an almost frightening view of the frenetic, almost erotic look on her face.  A noir fan soon finds the Jungle a lovely place to visit.

And to study.  Huston’s film displays an alluring amount of firsts that, while not coming at odds against the studios, extended how far realism can go in what is marked on the surface as just fantasy.

“Sounds like a soul in hell,” remarks a frightened wife of one of the criminals while a passing police car whines along a narrow alleyway.  Cops are not loved figures here; they are crooks, or beasts, or – even more astoundingly – annoying flies that bug the getaway attempts of criminals that are suddenly heroes.

Hayden’s Dix only wants to get back to his home, and while we are not blind to the fact that he’s a petty, violent, money-grubbing thug, we want this for him. And Emmerich may be a lecherous snake, but his final conclusion – a way to circumvent the law and its punishments – is sudden and upsetting.

The Asphalt Jungle drops the viewer into a seedy word of smokey, dimly lit rooms, light-splashed cars and shadowy treachery.  And yet, it’s not a place unfamiliar, or even outright repulsive.  In the city beneath the city, people live and die by their own desperate needs, but they are not inhuman.

Turning aside our own perspectives as to who deserves what, whether from the law or from our own set of morals,  puts this film in a category of its own: Film la réalité noir.

Images courtesy of filmnoirblonde.com, moviefilmreview.com and flickr.com, respectively.

The Heiress (1949)


Olivia de Havilland, Montgomery Clift, Ralph Richardson, Miriam Hopkins

Directed by William Wyler

Written by Augustus and Ruth Goetz; adapted from their 1947 play of the same name based on Henry James’ “Washington Square”

–                                                 –                                                  –

Long ago, film companies and big motion picture studios controlled not only the landscape of movie-making, but what was marketable as well.

Quite obviously, nothing has changed in that respect.  But in the Golden Age of Hollywood (very roughly gauged as between 1927’s The Jazz Singer to the late 1950’s) even the biggest of the big – RKO, MGM, Paramount and 20th Century Fox – often bowed their heads to the most important asset of their films: the bonafide star.

In 1947 Olivia de Havilland, perhaps the most prolifically accomplished and powerful actresses of her time along with Bette Davis, was in the audience of Augustus and Ruth Goetz’s Broadway production of “The Heiress”, based on an 1880 novel by Henry James.  So intrigued was she by the story that she wired prominent director William Wyler and encouraged him to fly to New York and see it himself.

Trusting the actress completely, Wyler immediately sent for his things and flew to New York.  Following the show, this time it was he who phoned de Havilland, and described how he was so taken by the play he had already offered the Goetz’s $250,000 for the rights and $10,000 per week for a workable script.

De Havilland hadn’t just recommended a decent play to a friend in this case, however; she had another motive in mind.  It was to be a movie, a big film, yes – but she was going to play the star.

Such was the ultimatum she gave to Wyler, who accepted the idea straightaway.

The idea that an actor, let alone a woman, could not only convince her era’s most accomplished director to see a play on a whim but then demand to star in its screen version, is so informal it’s almost laughable.

But such was the state of things in Hollywood then; not a claustrophic spider’s web of agents, publicists, secretaries and advertisers like it is now, but a working network of people accomplished in all aspects of the organization, who took one another on their word with a gamble that often heralded great success.

Not that the time period was by any means enlightened or ahead of its time.  De Havilland herself in 1947 mounted a lawsuit against her own studio, Warner Bros.  Frustrated by roles that typecast her as the damsel in distress, de Havilland often rejected parts that came her way.  Following the laws afforded to studios at the time, Warner counted these rejected roles as “suspension time”, which was added to the end of her contract duration, thus allowing studios virtually unlimited control over their actors’ contract length.

De Havilland, backed by the fledgling Screen Actors Guild, won in the highly publicized legal ruling.  To this day known as the De Havilland Law, the precedence allows for a seven-year limit on studio contracts, but more importantly was the first step in allowing studio actors more freedom in choosing their roles.

But, ironically, sometimes an actor’s most celebrated role still came from their studio’s direct influence.

Paramount Pictures, tagged to produce The Heiress with Wyler at the helm, did their own demanding – specifically in the casting of new and exciting heartthrob Montgomery Clift as Morris Townsend, the charming and handsome suitor to de Havilland’s hapless, shy spinster Catherine Sloper in well-to-do 1840s New York.

Only Clift’s third film, it would be the catalyst for his very quick rise to stardom in the early 1950s.  As the charismatic and entrancing Morris, Paramount got exactly what they wanted in the smooth charm of Clift.  But as his character deepens, and the question of whether he truly loves Catherine as he says or is more enamored with her heiress’s money comes into play, Clift’s reputation as a method actor solidifies.

In a bygone era where films and their giant dollar tags literally depended on the marquee name, stories and plots swayed to an actor’s prior roles, popularity, and in Clift’s case, impact on female filmgoers.  This was so vital to the film’s production that the character of Morris had to be altered from the Goetz’s play dramatically.  Instead of an obviously villainous swindler of hearts and purses the role shifts to a pleasant and magnetic romantic, capitalizing on Clift’s leading man image and effectively transforming the film’s lasting impressions considerably.

And successfully.  Under the wizened eye of Wyler a typical upper-class Victorian weepy becomes a dark, dramatic and agonizing story of love in the lens of greed and imperfection. The less obvious truths of the film make it more mysterious, more alluring, and more affecting.  Did Morris only stand her up truly because he didn’t want her to lose her inheritance?  Was he actually honest the whole time?

The answer should be evident, but the story is refreshingly open-ended in its possibilities even while being definitive in its conclusion – and chilling.

The Heiress meshes the power of superstardom with the clout of true talent.  De Havilland and Clift are both in their primes, doing their part pitch-perfectly in a production that was tailor-made by their respective studios for success.

In many interviews following On the Waterfront and A Streetcar Named Desire, Marlon Brandon actually credited his friendship with Clift, and the rigors the actor went through to inhabit his roles fully, with helping influence his own famous style.  In one of his most unexciting roles as Morris, Clift nevertheless adds something deeper in his own personal style.  While nothing is proven directly whether he is a shameless charlatan or indeed an honest, lovesick quixotic, there are moments in which the camera lingers on his face and the emotions are exquisitely shown in the most slight of detail.  A raised lip in a semblance of what could be a victorious grin, a haunted, exhausted look to the floor – Clift makes these images clear in sight, but mysterious in origin.  A true success at the beginning of a career that faded all too tragically.

De Havilland, of course, is the true vehicle of the entire picture.  Never afraid to look her worst – a year earlier in The Snake Pit she portrayed a wild-eyed schizophrenic in a mental asylum – de Havilland is truly, painfully on point as the plain, shy Catherine Sloper.  So thoroughly is this character inhabited that the transformation that powers the film’s climax comes across as an unnerving surprise, almost as if two actresses encompassed the same role in different chapters.

For this the incomparably accomplished de Havilland was nominated for her fourth Academy Award for Best Actress, which she won.  It was one of four that the film – truly the actress’s brainchild – rightfully earned.

The delightful thing about stage dramas is that, when done right, they give an unequaled opportunity for talent to arise.  A simple story, in a humble setting, with minimal actors – it gives occasions for truly great actors to shine.

The Heiress is a great, dark drama that challenges the perceptions of society, family and love, and its success is both a tribute to the studios that cover all grounds to have it just the way they like, and the actors who have to stand tall to get just as much of a say.

Images courtesy of backlots.wordpress.com, http://www.cinefaniac.fr, and www.cinema-fanatic.com