Sunday, October 2, 2016

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)

He’s really dead. She’s really a he. He is his mother’s killer. She is her sister’s mother. All of them did it. No one gets out alive.

And then there’s the all-time favorite surprise ending: It was only a dream. Or a nightmare.

You can trace the latter trick all the way back to the dawn of the silent-movie era, and follow its various permutations even beyond the audacious turnabout that signaled Bobby Ewing’s return to Dallas. But when you’re cataloguing the most significant cinematic deceptions, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari deserves special mention. This 1920 German fantasia represents the first meaningful attempt to fuse Expressionistic style and conventional substance in a commercial film. Just as important, however, is the movie’s seminal success at pulling the rug out from under its audience.

Indeed, even the people who wrote it claimed they were surprised by what happens in its final scene.

Caligari begins prosaically enough, with handsome Francis (Friedrich Feher), seated next to a stranger on a park bench, promising to tell a stranger about an adventure he shared with Jane (Lil Dagover) – his beautiful fiancĂ©e, who just happens to be passing by -- in their small German town of Holstenwall.

Once Francis begins his tale, however, the film shifts into a phantasmagorical fantasyland, as characters go through their paces in an Expressionistic universe of distorted perspectives, asymmetrical doorways, crooked windows, sloping chimneys -- and streaks of light and shadow painted across tilted walls. Officious bureaucrats sit atop enormously high stools, frowning down upon fawning supplicants. Sleepwalkers stagger across impossibly slanting rooftops, and through forebodingly twisted forests.

Take note of the many angled shapes and pointed objects that, right from the start, are sprinkled throughout the film. (Visual allusions, perhaps, to the dagger wielded lethally in key scenes?) These sharp geometric figures convey a pervading sense of danger and evil, serving as exceptionally potent portents in a movie teeming with scenery that often threatens to chew up the actors.

(In his audio essay for the film’s DVD release, scholar Mike Budd persuasively argues that Caligari was the first moving picture to introduce Expressionism to the masses, and movies to Europe’s intellectual elite. On the other hand, critic Pauline Kael was no less persuasive when she noted that, while Caligari is “one of the most famous films of all time” and “a radical advance in film technique,” the German masterpiece “is rarely imitated -- and you’ll know why.”)

Against this bizarre backdrop, director Robert Wiene unfolds a comparatively mundane horror story about Dr. Caligari (Werner Krauss in outlandish make-up and Mickey Mouse gloves), a sideshow charlatan who causes murder and mayhem in Holstenwall with the help of his star attraction, a somnambulist named Cesare (Conrad Veidt, who would later cause trouble for Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca).

These prototypical bogeymen – cinematic templates for succeeding generations of manipulative mad scientists and, more recently, Halloween-style indestructible death-dealers -- are perfectly in sync with the stylized make-up and scenic design. At least, that’s the view espoused by film historian Lotte H. Eisner in The Haunted Screen: Expressionism in German Cinema and the Influence of Max Reinhardt (1952). Insisting that the “characters of Caligari and Cesare conform to Expressionist conception,” Eisner elaborates: “The somnambulist, detached from his everyday ambience, deprived of all individuality, an abstract creature, kills without motive or logic. And his master, the mysterious Dr. Caligari, who lacks the merest shadow of human scruple, acts with the criminal insensibility and defiance of conventional morality which the Expressionists exalted.”

Cesare -- whose unnaturally white face, heavily mascaraed eyes and black-on-black wardrobe suggest a Goth-influenced bit player from Night of the Living Dead, or a first draft of Edward Scissorhands – pops out of Dr. Caligari’s cabinet to answer audience questions during a fairground show. Unfortunately, Francis and Alan (Hans Heinrich), Francis’ friendly rival for Jane’s affections, are among the curious onlookers when Cesare makes his Holstenwall debut. Even more unfortunately, Alan asks an imprudent question (“How long have I to live?”) and gets an immediate answer: “Until tomorrow’s dawn…”

Sure enough, Alan comes to an untimely end shortly after staying too long at the fair. Francis, no fool, figures things might not be on the up-and-up with the good doctor and his black-clad accomplice. So he returns to the fairground, only to glimpse a heartwarming tableau: Dr. Caligari, fawning over Cesare like a kindly mother, feeding broth to his charge in the privacy of their caravan. Hardly anything incriminating, Francis figures. More to the point, with Alan out of the picture, Francis now has exclusive dating rights to the beautiful Jane.

As the body count mounts in Holstenwall, however, Francis feels compelled to avenge his late friend -- and, naturally, protect his beloved Jane – by joining the local police in a hunt for whoever’s behind the killing spree. The clues lead to Cesare, and beyond him to Caligari. The trail ends at an insane asylum, where Caligari is revealed as not merely a patient, but rather the deeply disturbed director of the institution.

But then, just when it looks like everyone – except Cesare and Dr. Caligari, of course – will live happily ever after, the movie opens a trapdoor: The entire melodrama is the product of Frances’ fevered imagination. In the final scene, we discover the nominal hero is in fact a delusional patient in a loony bin operated by a benevolent Director who looks just like – ta-dah! – the malevolent Dr. Caligari. “At last,” the Director exclaims, “I understand the nature of his madness. He thinks I am that mystic Caligari. Now I see how he can be brought back to sanity again…” Authority is validated, order is restored.

In 1920, this climactic twist stunned audiences – and infuriated the film’s screenwriters.

Austrian scenarist Carl Mayer and Czech poet Hans Janowitz originally conceived Caligari as a cautionary allegory aimed at audiences still recovering from the ravages of World War I. As far as they were concerned, Caligari personified an unlimited state authority that idolizes power, while Cesare represented, in Janowitz’s words, “the common man who, under the pressure of military service, is drilled to kill and be killed.” When Francis unmasks Caligari, his triumph shows that – again, in Janowitz’s words – “reason overpowers unreasonable power.”

Trouble was, neither director Wiene nor producer Erich Pommer felt altogether comfortable with the ramifications of the original script. They feared retaliation by any powerful people who might interpret the allegory as a personal attack. More important, they worried that audiences would respond unfavorably to anything that reminded them, even indirectly, of the everyday horrors lurking just outside the movie theater.

You see, during the 1919-1933 heyday of the Weimar Republic, a period now widely recognized as a golden age for German cinema, many of the filmmakers’ countrymen felt they were living a wide-awake nightmare. A sudden spurt of inflation could impoverish almost anyone in a matter of weeks, if not days. Women and children were driven to prostitution, often with the tacit approval of their needy families. Street brawls between Communists and National Socialists occurred frequently enough to qualify as spectator sports. The grand experiment in postwar democracy simply wasn’t working. Or, perhaps more accurately, wasn’t allowed to work.

Much like audiences in Depression-ravaged America, Weimar-era Germans sought escape from harsh realities by seeking escapism at the movies. Historical romances, costume dramas and lavish epics based on ancient legends were prime box-office attractions. Equally popular, however, were dramas of the macabre and fantastical – tales of horror, phantasms and science fiction – that allowed audiences a safe way to savor catharsis through the playing out of worst-case scenarios.

At such a time, in such a place, folks might like to exorcise their worst well-founded fears by enjoying a scary melodrama about a modern-day wizard and his murderous cat’s-paw. What folks most assuredly wouldn’t like, Wiene and Pommer decided, was a movie that could inspire “dangerously radical” notions about government and the governed.

Which is why, despite fervent protestations by Mayer and Janowitz, the allegorical nightmare was transformed into a striking but safely apolitical dreamscape. Specifically, Wiene and Pommer – aided by filmmaker Fritz Lang (M, Metropolis), who freely offered detailed script suggestions, and had originally considered directing Caligari himself – contrived the device of wraparound scenes that identify Francis as a paranoid fantasist.

With the invaluable collaboration of production designers Hermann Warm, Walter Reimann and Walter Rohrig, Wiene offers in Caligari a boldly stylized rendering of “reality” as viewed through the eyes of a madman. And if the director undercuts his own “explanation” by depicting the supposedly “real” reality of the opening and closing scenes in the same unrealistic manner, well, chalk it up to Wiene’s compulsive showmanship.

But consider this: A decade or so after the 1920 premiere of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Adolf Hitler underscored the prescience of Mayer and Janowitz by demonstrating just how easily a mesmerist could cloud the minds of the masses. As German film historian Siegfried Kracauer notes in his aptly titled From Caligari to Hitler: A Psychological History of the German Film (1947), the Expressionistic silent classic “is a very specific premonition, in the sense that (Dr. Caligari) uses hypnotic power to force his will upon his tool – a technique foreshadowing, in content and purpose, that manipulation of the soul which Hitler was the first to practice on a gigantic scale.”

Thereby proving, alas, that the scariest nightmares are those from which you cannot awaken.

Friday, April 3, 2015

A Face in the Crowd (1957)

There’s a scene during the final 20 minutes of A Face in the Crowd – the strikingly prescient and enduringly potent 1957 drama that showcases the greatest film performance ever by the late, great Andy Griffith – that has sufficient smash-mouth impact to make you forget, if only for a few minutes, that you ever saw the same actor play the ingratiating peacekeeper of Mayberry.

Three years before he assumed the lead role in the long-running sitcom that bore his name and ensured his immortality, Griffith mesmerized moviegoers with his galvanizing performance as Larry “Lonesome” Rhodes, an ingratiatingly folksy fraud who’s discovered by a broadcast journalist (Patricia Neal) in a small-town Arkansas jail, hired as a tale-spinning, guitar-strumming entertainer at her radio station – and launched as a local superstar on a relentless trajectory toward national celebrity.

Right from the start, Marcia Jeffries, the aforementioned journalist, has ample reason to believe that this good-ol’-boy is a ne’er-do-well whose artless sincerity is more apparent real. Still, she goes along for the ride – motivated, evidently, by equal measures of infatuation and ambition – when Lonesome Rhodes is hired away by a TV station in Memphis.

That is where they meet Mel Miller (Walter Matthau), a bookish and bespectacled TV writer who’s repeatedly ribbed by the casually anti-intellectual Rhodes for his Vanderbilt education. (I don’t have to tell you that this guy crushes on Marcia, do I?) More important, Memphis also is where they meet Joey DePalma (Anthony Franciosa), the conniving office assistant to the mattress-store owner who buys commercial spots on Rhodes’ TV show, and is so infuriated by Rhodes’ mocking presentation of his ads that he’s only partly mollified when his sales start to skyrocket. Joey is the one who sells Rhodes, a budding regional phenomenon, to Manhattan advertising agencies.

One thing leads to another, Rhodes – in one of the movie’s funniest sequences – suggests a surefire way to sell a vitamin supplement of dubious worth, and pretty soon the “Arkansas Traveler” (as Rhodes is nicknamed) is reaching a devoted national audience of 50 million viewers and rising.

But wait, there’s more: The retired general (Percy Waram) whose company produces the vitamin supplement – which, weirdly enough, is none-too-subtly pitched as a 1950s version of Viagra – sees Rhodes as a potential “wielder of opinion” who could utilize his aw-sucks soft-sell shtick to promote widespread fealty to “a responsible elite.” Which would make Rhodes a valuable asset in the general’s campaign to push a stuffy isolationist senator (Marshall Neilan) as a viable Presidential candidate.

The longer he basks in public adulation as host of a top-rated variety show, however, the more Rhodes is convinced of his superiority to his viewers, most of whom he secretly despises as credulous fools, and his intimates. He claims to love Marcia – but he marries, more or less on a whim, Betty Lou Fleckum (Lee Remick), a 17-year-old baton-twirling cutie, mainly because he’s intimidated by Marcia’s independence, and feels safer with what he assumes (wrongly, or course) is a docile bimbette.

And when Rhodes decides to start a different type of national TV show, Lonesome Rhodes’ Cracker Barrel, in which he’ll offer conservative political commentary camouflaged as nuggets of country-boy wisdom, he has little trouble bending to his will both the general, who grudgingly signs on as a sponsor, and the senator, who dutifully drops by to make disparaging comments about such Radical Leftie constructs as social security and unemployment insurance. “I’m not just an entertainer,” Rhodes rants while browbeating the general. “I’m an influence… A force.”

That brings us to the scene where, after sending Betty Lou into exile for her infidelity, Rhodes pays a late-night visit to Marcia’s Manhattan apartment and, while confiding in her, drops any pretense that he’s anything like the good-hearted homespun sage he pretends to be on TV.

Sure, he admits, he’s backing the senator for President – selling him like any other product, really -- because the candidate has promised him a newly created cabinet post, Secretary for National Morale. And because Rhodes knows damn well that he can get this guy into the White House.

“This whole country’s just like my flock of sheep,” Rhodes rants while Marcia blanches. “Rednecks. Crackers. Hillbillies. Hausfraus. Shut-ins. Peapickers. Everybody who’s got to jump when someone else blows the whistle…

“They’re mine,” Rhodes insists, absolutely certain of his mastery of the unwashed masses. “I own ‘em. They think like I do.

“Only they’re more stupid than I am. So I got to think for them.”

Marcia listens attentively. And fearfully. And then, without fully realizing at first what goal she has improvised, she sets out to destroy the man Mel Miller has aptly described as a “demagogue in denim.”

Like many movies that are years (if not decades) ahead of their time, A Face in the Crowd was neither warmly embraced by audiences nor universally praised by critics during its initial theatrical release. During subsequent decades, however, the film – directed by Elia Kazan and written by Budd Schulberg three years after they memorably collaborated for On the Waterfront – has attained the status of an essential and influential classic, and now is widely admired as one of the relatively few movies (along with Network, Quiz Show and a small handful of others) to fully comprehend and vividly convey the immense power of mass media to shape opinions, create icons – and, at its worst, deceive millions.

The name Lonesome Rhodes has evolved into a kinda-sorta shorthand for any sort of telegenic huckster whose affects a beguiling Everyman manner to sell products and/or propaganda. When Keith Olbermann used to sneeringly refer to Glenn “Lonesome Rhodes” Beck, his taunt struck many – including, I’ll admit, yours truly -- as devastatingly accurate.

And when Rick Perry collapsed as a 2012 Presidential candidate during his notorious “Oops!” moment at a nationally broadcast debate, it was hard for some movie fans not to recall Rhodes’ climactic self-destruction during an unguarded moment of on-the-air, open-mic candor.

Of course, anyone who wants to characterize A Face of the Crowd as a cautionary tale about media manipulation by treacherous right-wingers must also acknowledge that Kazan (who died in 2003) and Schulberg (who made it all the way to 2009) infuriated folks on the Left back in the 1950s -- and, indeed, continue to be viewed unkindly by many liberals in Hollywood and elsewhere – because the filmmakers, both of them disillusioned ex-members of the Communist Party, infamously named names while testifying before the House Un-American Activities Committee. And while they lost many friends because of their actions, they remained steadfast in their assertions that they were motivated by love of country, not fear of blacklisting.

And yet: In his 1988 autobiography, Kazan noted with some bemusement that, years after his and Schulberg’s HUAC testimonies, A Face in the Crowd received a rave review in the Communist Party’s West Coast People’s World newspaper – and a withering pan in the right-wing journal Counterattack. And while critics and academics have suggested everyone from Arthur Godfrey to Will Rogers as real-life inspirations for Lonesome Rhodes, the late director deemed it more important that Schulberg “anticipated” another charismatic entertainer with political ambitions: Ronald Reagan.

As for Andy Griffith: It’s practically impossible to overestimate the irresistible appeal of Sheriff Andy Taylor, his beloved sitcom alter ego, a character that seemed to embody all the best qualities of a loving father, a reliable friend, a folksy sage, and a droll yet compassionate observer of human foibles.

At the same time, however, it’s doubtful that even Griffith would have claimed that throughout his half-century as a stage, screen and television actor, he ever had a role as complexly multifaceted, or gave a performance as fearlessly full-bodied, as he did when he made his big-screen debut in A Face in the Crowd

Monday, November 11, 2013

The Manchurian Candidate (1962)

Anyone who charts the development of thrillers throughout the history of American movies must reserve a place of honor for John Frankenheimer’s The Manchurian Candidate, the not-so-missing link between grimly paranoid, seriously noirish melodramas of the Cold War-fixated ’50s, and darkly ironic, brazenly fantastical superspy escapades of the swinging ’60s.

Frankenheimer’s impressively stylish and audaciously stylized tale of brainwashed assassins, duplicitous politicians and international conspiracies is at once unmistakably of its time and undeniably timeless. There’s something uniquely appropriate about its timing as well. Consider this: Manchurian Candidate had its New York premiere on October 24, 1962 – two days into the Cuban Missile Crisis, a real-life doomsday scenario that could have triggered World War III, and eight months before the U.S. release of Dr. No, the very first larger-than-life, licensed-to-thrill movie featuring the shaken-not-stirred James Bond.

But wait, there’s more: The 007 film was based on a book famously enjoyed by President John F. Kennedy, commander in chief during the ’62 contretemps over nuclear warheads in Cuba. President Kennedy also had words of praise for The Manchurian Candidate, Richard Condon’s original 1959 novel (which scripter George Axelrod ingeniously adapted for the screen), and Kennedy's approval reportedly did much to allay any apprehensions about filming a book that involved the potential termination of a presidential hopeful.

(According to Hollywood legend, Frank Sinatra, star and co-producer of Manchurian Candidate, curtailed all distribution of the movie after JFK, a close friend, was assassinated. The truth is far more prosaic: Sinatra withheld the movie from re-release until 1988 because of a squabble over profits.)

Very much like Stanley Kubrick’s equally disconcerting Dr. Strangelove, Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (which arrived in theaters just 15 months later), Frankenheimer’s classic initially upset many moviegoers – and confounded a few clueless critics – by exploiting and satirizing the free-floating, wide-ranging paranoia of its Cold War era. Indeed, Manchurian Candidate struck many tender-hearted souls as by far the more irresponsible of the two films, simply because it isn’t so obviously a black comedy.

Combining elaborate showmanship with an urgent sense of purpose, it appears at first glance to be a conventionally dead-serious thriller, shot in aptly somber black and white – especially effective during faux newscasts, Senate hearings and political convention coverage – and edited with a virtuoso skill that, back in the 1960s, greatly impressed a wanna-be moviemaker named Steven Spielberg. (“When I saw The Manchurian Candidate,” Spielberg recalled in a 1977 interview, “I realized for the first time what film editing was all about.") Only gradually does the movie reveal its true colors as over-the-top, larger-than-life pulp fiction fueled with impudence, iconoclasm and aggressively impolite wit.

The prologue, set during the Korean War, establishes Sgt. Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey) as a humorless prig who’s intensely disliked by his men even before he leads them into an ambush during a late-night patrol. After the opening credits, however, Shaw returns home as a celebrated hero – and Medal of Honor recipient – for rescuing his unit from behind enemy lines. Whenever he’s asked about his former comrade-in-arms, Capt. Bennett Marco (Frank Sinatra) automatically replies: “Raymond Shaw is the kindest, bravest, warmest, most wonderful human being I’ve ever known in my life.” Marco knows, with absolute certainly, that the testimonial is a lie. But that doesn’t keep him from reflexively repeating it at every provocation.

Frankenheimer teases us by slowly, suspensefully revealing the truth in literally nightmarish flashbacks. It turns out that Shaw, Marco and their men were brainwashed while imprisoned in Manchuria, then placed on display before an audience of Soviet, Chinese and North Korean operatives. To prove the effectiveness of their “Pavlovian technique,” spylord Yen Lo (Khigh Dhiegh) ordered Shaw to kill – on stage – two soldiers under his command. Unfortunately, the demonstration was a success. Even more unfortunately, Shaw was implanted with post-hypnotic suggestions, enabling deep-cover agents to use the “war hero” as an unwitting assassin. The other surviving captives? They were implanted with the “kindest, bravest, warmest” bunk, all the better to make the fraud plausible.

While Marco tries to convince his skeptical superiors that his repressed memories aren’t deranged fantasies, Shaw sets his sights on a journalistic career while avoiding all unnecessary contact with his smothering mother (Angela Lansbury), a honey-voiced, steel-willed harridan who’s grooming her current husband, Sen. John Iselin (James Gregory), for a White House bid. Shaw frankly despises his buffoonish stepfather, and with good reason: The senator is an opportunistic rant-and-raver who claims to have a list of Communist agents at work in the State Department (just like the real-life Sen. Joe McCarthy, whose Red-baiting witch hunts were still fresh in the minds of moviegoers in 1962). In truth, Sen. Iselin’s charges are inventions, impure and simple, concocted by Mrs. Iselin. And, mind you, that’s not the worst trick up her sleeve.

Manchurian Candidate is an equal-opportunity offender: It takes so many potshots at Left and Right targets that it was condemned as anti-American and crypto-fascist at the time of its release. Iconographic symbols of America – most often, images of Abraham Lincoln – are repeatedly used for satirical intent, to emphasize how patriotism can be the first refuge of politically-savvy scoundrels. (The movie often recalls, and at one point paraphrases, a complaint occasionally aired during the ’50s: “Joe McCarthy couldn’t do more damage to this country if he were a paid Soviet agent!”) And yet, at the same time, Frankenheimer also indicates that paranoia sometimes is a perfectly rational response to worst-case scenarios. His movie cuts both ways, and it cuts very deep.

(It also coined a phrase that remains, more than four decades later, irreplaceably useful as shorthand in our pop-culture slanguage. At one point during the second term of President George W. Bush, conservative columnist David Brooks despaired over what he viewed as the Commander in Chief's egregious bumbling during a Meet the Press confab: “[S]ometimes in my dark moments, I think he's The Manchurian Candidate, designed to discredit all the ideas I believe in.”)

It would have been asking too much, I suppose, for Jonathan Demme’s updated remake of The Manchurian Candidate  to have the same stunning impact as Frankenheimer’s masterwork. But I don’t think it’s out of line to complain that the 2004 misfire wasn’t sufficiently sneaky and distressing on its own terms. Far too much of the Demme’s Candidate came across as obvious and literal-minded, if not leaden and ham-handed. And it didn’t help that Demme gave away too much, too early, while unwinding his recycled plot.

In the remake, which Demme directed from a script by Daniel Pyle and Dean Georgaris, the Soviet and Chinese operatives were replaced by agents of a Halliburton-type conglomerate. But instead of brainwashing U.S. soldiers during the first Gulf War, the bad guys implanted will-snapping computer chips in the brains of their captives. And instead of killing anyone who got in the way of his stepfather’s ascent, the new Raymond Shaw (Liev Schreiber) was himself a candidate for national office – a candidate, of course, who would be controlled by his corporate masters. (All of which raised some indelicate questions: Why did the bad guys go to so much trouble? Instead of brainwashing a candidate, why didn’t they just make really big donations to his campaign fund?)

To be fair: Denzel Washington was terrifically compelling as the new Ben Marco, a man desperate to uncover the truth while maintaining a tenuous grip on his sanity. And Meryl Streep was good enough as Eleanor Shaw, Raymond’s controlling mother, to occasionally make you forget how brilliantly Lansbury played the same part in the 1962 version. Overall, however, Demme’s The Manchurian Candidate was nothing more than a fitfully exciting trifle that was reasonably involving and quickly forgotten. In the history of American movies, it likely will be remembered, if at all, only as a footnote.

Friday, July 12, 2013

North By Northwest (1959)

Alfred Hitchcock’s celebrated contempt for “the plausibles” – his derogatory term for literal-minded spoilsports who carp about coincidence and logical inconsistency -- infuses almost every frame of North By Northwest, a perpetual-motion machine geared to move faster than the speed of thought.

The impossibly complicated scenario of this 1959 must-see movie has something to do with a New York businessman who’s mistaken for an FBI agent, and something else to do with a cross-country chase from Manhattan to Mount Rushmore. For the most part, however, the plot concocted by Hitchcock and screenwriter Ernest Lehman is little more than a gossamer thread, or a wispy excuse, to link a series of dazzling and audacious set pieces intended to surprise and delight.

Get a load of this: The hero is forcibly inebriated, then sent down a winding mountain road in a brakeless Mercedes.

Look at that: The same hero arrives in the lobby of the United Nations building, just in time to be framed – and, worse, photographed – as a knife-wielding assassin.

Check it out: The poor sap keeps an appointment near an open field in the middle of nowhere, standing precisely where he can be a sitting target for a crop-dusting plane armed with a machine gun.

There’s more – much more -- here, there and everywhere. A luxury apartment where expensive accoutrements are stocked for a man who never was. An auction house where a fugitive desperately bids to save his life. A passenger train where an alluring woman is suspiciously eager to assist. An airport where a government agent explains the entire plot in 30 seconds – only we can’t hear him over the sound of whirring propellers. And, of course, a Mount Rushmore precipice where a spiteful villain stomps on the fingers of a dangerously dangling hero.

The template for countless other fleet and flashy action-adventures – including many, if not most, of the James Bond films – North By Northwest is propelled along the fast track by the megawatt star power of Cary Grant, one of Hitchcock’s favorite collaborators. The funny thing is, even Grant was mystified by the knotty plot throughout much of the production. At one point, Hitchcock told Francois Truffaut, the actor complained: “It’s a terrible script. We’ve already done a third of the picture, and I still can’t make head or tail of it.” Hitchcock couldn’t help laughing. “Without realizing it,” he said of Grant, “he was using a line of his own dialogue.”

Grant plays Roger O. Thornhill, a carefree advertising executive who stumbles into the adventure of a lifetime when enemy agents wrongly identify him as an FBI operative named Kaplan. Thornhill actually is an ordinary fellow – at one point, he admits his ex-wife divorced him because he was so dull – but the chief villain of the piece, Phillip Van Damm (James Mason), suspects otherwise.

As it turns out, Kaplan doesn’t really exist – the imaginary agent was invented by a cunning spymaster (Leo G. Carroll) to distract Van Damm from a very real mole in his organization. So Thornhill repeatedly finds himself dodging bullets engraved with someone else’s name.

Lehman frequently described North By Northwest as his one big chance to write “the Hitchcock picture to end all Hitchcock pictures.” Strictly speaking, he didn’t quite succeed: Hitchcock went on to make seven more films, including one – Family Plot (1976), his swan song – that Lehman also scripted. But Hitchcock did indeed express a special fondness for this classic thriller, if only because the crop-duster scene allowed him to realize his long-cherished goal of generating pure terror in broad daylight.

“No darkness, no pool of light, no mysterious figures in windows,” Hitchcock crowed. “Just nothing. Just bright sunshine and a blank open countryside with barely a house or tree in which any lurking menaces could hide.”

Of course, this wouldn’t be a true Hitchcock picture without a hint of aberrant psychology, or a smidgen of sexual tension. There’s an ineffably kinky undercurrent to the relationship between Mason’s villain and his wild-eyed right-hand man (Martin Landau). And Thornhill himself appears to have issues with a domineering mother (played by Jessie Royce Landis, even though she was ten months younger than Grant).

But the most obvious Hitchcockian touch is Thornhill’s wary bonding with Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint), the mysterious blond beauty working as an undercover agent. Not unlike the FBI operative Grant played in Notorious, Thornhill turns frosty and judgmental when his leading lady feels duty-bound to sleep with the elegant bad guy. Almost as if to punish our hero for his presumptuous moralizing, Hitchcock sends him racing through that open field, pursued by that bullet-belching crop-duster, and later forces him to dangle from Mount Rushmore.

Serves him right, too.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

The Kid Stays in the Picture (2002)

You've probably never seen another movie quite like The Kid Stays in the Picture, but, trust me, novelty value isn't the only thing it's got going for it. Equal parts illustrated history, cautionary fable, kiss-and-tell memoir and star-studded extravaganza, this uniquely fascinating and robustly entertaining documentary is a raffish, rollicking masterpiece of first-person myth-making.

Robert Evans is the center of attention here, even though – except for a fleeting, near-subliminal glimpse – he doesn't allow himself to be recorded by the cameras of documentarians Brett Morgan and Nanette Burstein. All we see is an artfully shrewd montage of archival photographs, interview clips, stock footage – and excerpts from a couple of '50s movies that aptly illustrate Evans' self-appraisal: "I was a half-assed actor."

That's right: We don't see today's Robert Evans, but we certainly hear him. It's the same voice that launched several thousand audio books when Evans recorded The Kid Stays in the Picture, his well-regarded warts-and-all 1994 autobiography. It's a gravelly baritone that seems to synthesize hard-won wisdom and hung-over pugnacity. And when Evans speaks here, we can't help listening, because his insights and anecdotes are so fabulously engrossing.

The word "fabulous," by the way, is not idly chosen. As in his book, Evans warns his audience early on: "There are three sides to every story: Yours, mine and the truth. And no one is lying." The Kid Stays in the Picture is entirely Evans' side of the story. There are no talking-head interviews with friends or foes, no competing narrator to cast doubts or raise questions. Morgan and Burstein obviously have shaped the material to their own overall design, editing or eliminating certain items for brevity and narrative momentum. (We learn a lot about Evans' marriage to Love Story star Ali MacGraw, and almost nothing about his several other wives.) But this is Evans' show – his career, his life -- and the filmmakers are smart enough to let him do all of the talking.

 Evans presents himself as being in the right place at the right time, time and again. He lucked into business success, then lucked into an acting career. And after his acting career tanked – he was "a half-assed actor," remember? – he lucked into a new career as a producer.

After that, he lucked into the job of production chief at Paramount Pictures in the late 1960s.

All this talk of luck, of course, recalls another memorable Evans quote: "Luck is when opportunity meets preparation." Maybe he wasn't fully prepared when he first landed the Paramount job, but Evans learned quickly, worked passionately and gambled frequently. To his credit, many of those gambles – Paramount released The Odd Couple, Rosemary's Baby, Harold and Maude, Chinatown and a couple of Godfather epics during his watch – paid off as critical and commercial hits. Indeed, The Kid Stays in the Picture can be viewed a persuasive argument that, during the 1970s, a period many view as the last golden age for Hollywood cinema, Evans was among the most significant shapers of American pop culture.

The movie is most delicious when Evans dishes about the making of classic movies with Jack Nicholson, Al Pacino, Mia Farrow, Dustin Hoffman and other notables. (He says he drove Roman Polanski to direct faster while making Rosemary's Baby, and ordered Francis Coppola to bring him a longer, more satisfying cut of The Godfather.) But Kid is every bit as interesting, even compelling, as Evans describes his own role in his post-Paramount downfall.

 Evans is amazingly frank when discussing his self-destructive behavior, and totally unapologetic about the myriad excesses – including substance abuse and prodigious womanizing – that are part of his living legend. His bluntness often sounds comical, like a bad imitation of tough talk in a hardboiled novel. (It's not love at first sight when he lunches with Ali MacGraw, but he tells her: "Remember, if it doesn't work out with that other guy, I'm only seven digits away!") And it's hard to ignore that his self-abnegation is threaded with steadfast pride: Even as he tells the worst about himself, Evans always manages to paint himself as a survivor.

But, then again, he's entitled: He has survived.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Quiz Show (1994)

For past two decades or so, it has been a favorite sport of good, bad and indifferent filmmakers to define that precise moment in 20th-century history when America lost its collective innocence. Until the release of Quiz Show, the handsome and provocative 1994 film directed by Robert Redford, the consensus had been that this despoiling process began sometime between the assassination of John F. Kennedy and the U.S. troop escalation in Vietnam. One of the more intriguing ideas set forth in Redford's thoughtful yet viscerally exciting drama is that the first signs of corruption and disillusionment already were apparent as early as 1959.

Redford and screenwriter Paul Attanasio vividly evoke the mood and shifting mores of that period in the very first scene of their fact-based film, as an aggressively eager automobile salesman seeks to seduce a skeptical young man with the sleek lines and luxury features of a shiny new Chrysler. Dick Goodwin (Rob Morrow), an up-and-coming congressional aide, does his best to appear bemused by the sales pitch. But there's no doubt that he is genuinely impressed, if not transfixed, by the car itself. Everything else that follows in Quiz Show can be viewed as variations on this first scene's themes of false values, reckless optimism, self-delusion -- and, yes, seduction.

Attanasio's literate and richly detailed screenplay is based on a chapter in a nonfiction book (Remembering America) written by the real-life Goodwin several years after the events of this film. But Goodwin is only one of three central characters in this fascinating morality play. The two others are Charles Van Doren (Ralph Fiennes), a patrician, Harvard-educated WASP from a celebrated literary family; and Herbie Stempel (John Turturro), a blunt-spoken, ill-mannered Jewish graduate student who may really be as brilliant as he claims.

What brings these three ill-matched fellows together, and shapes their individual fates, are the misadventures they experience through their involvement with an enormously popular TV quiz show, Twenty-One.

As the movie begins, Stempel is the program's reigning champion. Unfortunately, the producers and sponsors of the New York-based quiz show think he has outlived his usefulness as an audience draw. Even more unfortunately, Stempel has gotten as far as he has as a winning contestant largely because the game has been rigged; the answers have been provided. So Stempel has no real choice in the matter when the same people who helped him cheat insist that he take a dive. With much humiliation, Stempel loses to Van Doren, the kind of glossy, good-looking golden boy who can help a sponsor sell lots of products to millions of captivated viewers.

At first, Van Doren has grave misgivings about his role in deceiving the public. But as the weeks go by, he comes to enjoy his national celebrity (he even appears on the cover of Time magazine) and his media-manufactured status as, in the words of his producer, "the intellectual Joe DiMaggio that this country needs." And, perhaps most important, he appreciates the opportunity to establish a high profile of any sort that will at long last enable him to emerge from the long shadow of his much-respected, superstar-intellectual father (Paul Scofield).

The brave new world begins to crumble for the younger Van Doren only when a bitterly resentful Stempel decides to blow the whistle on the Twenty-One chicanery. Goodwin, who also is Jewish, is particularly attentive to Stempel's charges of anti-Semitism. ("They always follow a Jew with a Gentile - and the Gentile always wins more money!") But as Goodwin continues his investigation of the TV show for a proposed congressional investigation, he falls under the ingratiating spell of Charles Van Doren, almost to the point of becoming a Nick Carraway to Van Doren's Jay Gatsby. That director Redford once starred in a film version of The Great Gatsby makes this development all the more resonant.

Fiennes, who was so fearsomely effective as the Nazi concentration camp commandant in Schindler's List, is equally impressive, in a far subtler fashion, as Van Doren. Likewise, Morrow transcends his own minor shortcomings - his Boston accent is not entirely convincing - to give a strong, sharply defined portrayal rich in ambiguities.

But Turturro is the one who steals every scene that isn't nailed down with his rude, bull-in-a-china shop performance as Stempel, a man who becomes obsessed with dragging down some former partners in deception for their roles in his fall from grace.

 Quiz Show is, first and last, a hugely entertaining story about sharply defined individuals and the qualities that make them unique. But by being so specific about these people and their era, the film also manages to be timeless in what it has to say about the many ways we allow ourselves to be seduced by fool's gold -- by, all too often, things with an allure to which we'd like to think we're immune. Television is only partially responsible for making that seduction so easy in the electronic age.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Vertigo (1958)

Most audiences were puzzled and disappointed by Vertigo when it first appeared in 1958. Ticketbuyers of the time likely wanted a rollercoaster ride much like other Alfred Hitchcock classics of the 1950s (North By Northwest, To Catch a Thief, The Man Who Knew Too Much). What they got instead was something much darker and more complex, even though the movie’s plot seemed – in synopsis, at least -- the perfect blueprint for a straight-ahead, standard-issue popcorn flick.

Ex-cop John “Scottie” Ferguson (James Stewart) is asked by an old friend to watch over the friend’s wife, Madeleine (Kim Novak), a beautiful but troubled woman who fears she is possessed by the spirit of a mad ancestor. Ferguson is fascinated by Madeleine, and can’t help falling in love with her. But he’s unable to stop her suicide because of his own weakness: His fear of heights, the “vertigo” of the title, prevents him from reaching her before she throws herself from a church tower.

Guilt-ridden and devastated, Ferguson suffers a nervous breakdown. While recovering, he meets a woman who is (pardon the expression) a dead ringer for his late beloved. Judy (Kim Novak again), a department store clerk, is wary of Ferguson’s attentions, but agrees to date him – and, eventually, to be supported by him. She objects, though not very strenuously, when he tries to remake her in Madeleine’s image, changing her clothes, her shoes, even the color of her hair.

Ferguson is overjoyed and grateful that he’s found someone who resembles Madeleine so strongly. Unfortunately, there’s a very good reason why there’s such a strong resemblance…

Don’t worry: No spoilers here, even though Hitchcock himself spills the beans well before the final scene. For those who prefer to enjoy Vertigo merely as a clever melodrama, and who haven’t seen any of its innumerable imitations, the surprise may come as a modestly satisfying jolt. But there’s much more to this must-see movie than an ingenious plot twist.

At heart, Vertigo is not so much a neo-gothic thriller as a moody meditation on sexual obsession. On one level, the film is a metaphor for the filmmaking process itself – or, more specifically, Hitchcock’s approach to that process. Ferguson represents the director who tries to shape reality to his own ends, and Judy represents the actor who’s asked to simply serve as a color in the director’s palette. (Remember: Hitchcock is the filmmaker who claimed actors should be treated like cattle.)

But Vertigo also can be viewed as a study of sadomasochistic symbiosis, with Ferguson single-mindedly struggling to re-create a “perfect” relationship, and Judy reluctantly agreeing to be stripped of all identity to please the man she loves. You could argue that Judy is the more deranged of the pair, in that every action she takes hints at a bottomless self-loathing. You could also argue, however, that Judy gradually emerges in the movie’s final reel as the more sympathetic character.

James Stewart is at the top of his form here, brilliantly playing Ferguson as a discontent, resolutely practical man who’s swept away by grand passions that are not unlike madness. (There’s a bitter irony at work: Ferguson, the man who’s afraid of falling, allows himself to be drawn into a different but equally dangerous vortex.) Stewart’s subtly nuanced and profoundly affecting performance provides the perfect counterpoint for Kim Novak’s fatalistic intensity as Madeleine and her skittish, anxious submissiveness as Judy.

Vertigo is a fever dream of a romantic tragedy, with elegantly graceful passages – particularly the long, silent sequence that shows Ferguson following, and falling for, Madeleine – and foreboding undercurrents. Bernard Herrmann’s score is at once lush and ominous, the perfect balance of musical moods. And cinematographer Robert Burks bathes San Francisco in an eerie glow that intensifies the lyrical beauty of key images, but also hints at hidden deceptions.

After multiple viewings of Vertigo over the years, I have come to wonder: What would the reaction have been back in 1958 – indeed, how would critics, academics and movie buffs view it today – if Hitchcock had opted to end this masterwork about ten or 15 minutes before he does? (Assuming that the Production Code would have allowed him to do so.) That is: What if The Master of Suspense had announced “The End” immediately after Ferguson and Madeleine share their fevered embrace in her hotel room, bathed in a greenish light that seems to signal a shared madness, as she finally abandons all trace of her true self and he passionately grasps his last hope for a second chance?

And what if the audience were left to consider that the only way these two characters could possibly enjoy happily-ever-aftering is to maintain interlocking lies – his self-delusion, her selfless deception – forever more?

Would even Alfred Hitchcock have had the audacity to spring something so thoroughly unsettling, if not downright perverse, on us?