Thursday, December 9, 2010

Detour (1945)

Film rarely gets more noir than Edgar G. Ulmer’s Detour, a wide-awake nightmare of unforgiving fate and dead-end fatalism that may be the cruddiest great movie ever made. Filmed in six days on a bare minimum of locations for Producers Releasing Corporation, the most impoverished of the Old Hollywood B-movie outfits known collectively as Poverty Row, it fairly reeks of grungy, sweaty desperation on both sides of the cameras. Indeed, it’s tempting to imagine this 1945 must-see movie actually was written and directed by its own protagonist, a paranoid loser who’s furiously anguished, but not terribly surprised, as his hard-knock life devolves into a worst-case scenario.

We meet Al Roberts (Tom Neal) in a dingy roadside diner that, like most of the movie’s other claustrophobic interiors, does not appear to be a studio set so much as a hasty rough sketch for one. Unshaven and socially maladroit, if not borderline psychotic, Al almost immediately alienates everyone around him. Which means, of course, he must resort to voice-over narration – a classic film noir device, used to underscore the inevitability of an anti-hero’s destiny – when he’s stirred to spill his tale of woe.

Trouble is, it’s not easy to feel sorry, or even remain patient, while Al regales us in a tone pitched somewhere between a pathetic whine and a self-justifying snarl. And, truth to tell, it’s more than a little difficult to believe everything he says as he blames everyone but himself for his dire condition. “Whichever way you turn,” he complains, “fate sticks out a foot to trip you.” Maybe so, but Al appears quite capable of stumbling into damnation without any outside assistance.

The extended flashback begins with Al speaking of happier days, when he was a pianist, and his girlfriend Sue (Claudia Drake) was a singer, at a New York nightclub. Even here, however, Al sounds like a chronic malcontent – and not just because the nightclub looks only slightly more lavish than the aforementioned roadside diner. When someone slips him a ten-dollar tip, he’s underwhelmed: “What was it? A piece of paper, crawling with germs.” And when Sue suggests that – somehow, some way – he’ll be a great classical pianist, he snaps: “Yeah, someday! If I don’t get arthritis first!”

Sue eventually announces her plan to leave town, to try her luck in Hollywood. (At least, that’s her story, and she sticks with it.) Al decides to follow the only way he can afford – as a hitchhiker. He fortuitously finds a soul mate when he climbs into the convertible of Charlie Haskell (Edmund MacDonald), a glad-handing high-roller who seems, if such a thing can be imagined, even more misanthropic than Al. Asked about unsightly scratches on his hand, Haskell boasts: “I was tussling with the most dangerous animal in the world — a woman!” Al sympathizes: “There ought to be a law against dames with claws.”

Unfortunately, the budding friendship between likeminded fellows is cut short during a heavy rainstorm. While Al tries to open the convertible top, a slumbering Haskell falls out of the door – and fatally bumps his head.

Naturally, since Al is a film noir patsy and not a reasonably sentient human being, the poor lug decides that, since nobody would ever believe he didn’t kill Haskell, he should dump the body, plant his own I.D. on the corpse, and drive away with the dead man’s amply-stuffed wallet.

And then, as if to fully demonstrate his limitless capacity for self-destructive behavior, Al stops to pick up a hitchhiker a little further down the road. Yes, that’s right: He’s driving a dead man’s car, on his way to see a girlfriend he simply can’t live without, and he still can’t resist slowing down for a hottie with, as he puts it, “a beauty that’s almost homely because it’s so real.” Unfortunately, Vera (Ann Savage) – perhaps the most hard-bitten femme fatale in the entire pantheon of noir shady ladies -- is the “dame with claws” who scarred Haskell. Even more unfortunately, she doesn’t buy Al’s story about Haskell’s untimely demise. (“What did you do? Kiss him with a wrench?”) And even if he is innocent, she doesn’t give a damn: She’s ready to blow the whistle on him anyway, unless he co-operates in her dubious scheme to fleece big bucks from Haskell’s long-estranged family.

Vera doesn’t appear until midway through this 68-minute movie, and she doesn’t get to stick around until the final scene. (Big surprise, right?) But never mind: Once she sashays into the story, she dominates Detour like slumming royalty, bullying and browbeating the hapless, helpless Al for the sheer fun of it. Having sunk even deeper into the lower depths than her reluctant companion – if you can believe her, she’s dying of consumption – Vera is viciously eager to make a killing so she can finance her final days. But the more time she spends with Al inside the cramped quarters of a low-rent hotel room, the more energy and attention she diverts to a sadomasochistic relationship that, at its nastiest, makes the toxic byplay between George and Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? seem like conjugal bliss. (A typical taunt: “I’d hate to see a fellow as young as you wind up sniffin’ that perfume Arizona hands out free to murderers!”) Vera’s telling response to Al’s whiny pleading -- “Stop making noises like a husband!” – intensifies the impression that, intentionally or otherwise, the second half of Detour plays like a perverse parody of a deeply troubled marriage.

And speaking of perversity: Detour, a squalid Poverty Row quickie that only gradually gained acceptance as a classic, turned out to be the high point in the lives of almost everyone involved.

Edgar G. Ulmer began his career at the heart of German Expressionism, working as a set and production designer for such notables as F.W. Murnau, Fritz Lang and Ernst Lubitsch. After immigrating the United States, however, he toiled mostly as a director of low-budget genre films, often disguising his threadbare production values with artful applications of light, shadow and camera movement. (Peter Bogdanovich once marveled: “Nobody ever made good pictures faster or for less money than Edgar G. Ulmer.”) He maintains a loyal cult following for a few other works – most notably, The Black Cat (1934), a seriously creepy thriller featuring Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi and striking Bauhaus-inspired sets -- but remains best known for this single, singularly bleak B-movie.

Likewise, Ann Savage had a fleeting career as a minor Hollywood contract player, but never found a better or showier role than the virulent Vera. Even so, she enjoyed more happily-ever-aftering than the seemingly cursed Tom Neal, a quick-tempered ex-boxer who spent most of his final years in prison for the “involuntary manslaughter” of his wife. Although prosecutors originally sought a first-degree murder conviction, Neal always claimed the fatal shooting was accidental. Just like his character in Detour insisted that Haskell died because of a fall -- and that Vera just happened to wind up in the wrong place at the wrong time when Al yanked on a telephone chord.

Knowing what happened to Neal two decades after Detour, you may be even more skeptical of Al’s account, and more inclined to interpret the improbabilities of the plot as unconvincing testimony by a guilty party.

In many ways, however, the movie is more potent, more devastating, if every word Al tells us is -- God help him -- absolutely true. Because if he isn’t lying, it’s all the more difficult to shake the chill evoked by his final line: “Fate, or some mysterious force, can put the finger on you or me for no good reason at all.”

Day for Night (1973)

Every so often, a motion picture will stake out a territory and lay eternal claim to it. Such is the case with Day for Night, a warm-hearted yet clear-eyed comedy-drama that persuasively argues, with ample evidence, that a movie set is the most magical place on earth.

The late, great Francois Truffaut’s Oscar-winning masterwork was not, strictly speaking, the first movie ever made about the joy of making movies. But it remains, decades after its Paris premiere, the yardstick by which almost every film on the subject inevitably is measured. Its very title, which refers to a process through which night scenes can be shot in daylight, continues to serves as critic-speak shorthand in reviews of everything from Tom DiCillo’s Living in Oblivion (1995) to Oliver Assayas’ Irma Vep (1996) to Roman Coppola’s CQ (2001).

Truffaut cast himself in the central role of Ferrand, the affable, overworked auteur who’s trying to complete a sudsy romantic melodrama, Meet Pamela, within seven weeks at the Victorine Studios in Nice. The production is beset by mishaps and misadventures, some amusingly minor (a recalcitrant cat refuses to perform in a sight gag), some shatteringly tragic (a star dies in an auto mishap before completing a key scene).

At one point, an egotistically impulsive male lead threatens to abandon the film because his current sweetheart has spurned him. Desperate times call for desperate measures by a selfless team player: The American-born leading lady, still vulnerable after a recent nervous breakdown, nevertheless volunteers to keep her feckless co-star interested in the production by feigning romantic interest in him.

Throughout the barely controlled chaos, Ferrand maintains his calm, though just barely, by keeping himself focused on the end that justifies any means. Making a movie, he says, is like taking a stagecoach ride in the Wild West: “At first, you hope for a nice trip. Then you just hope you reach your destination.”

A nice touch: Ferrand sporadically summons in his dreams a fond childhood memory of the time he swiped Citizen Kane publicity stills from a movie theater lobby. As Truffaut noted in a 1973 interview: “There are directors who boast of never going to the movies, but myself, I go all the time. And I am forever marked by the films I discovered before becoming a filmmaker, when I could take them in more fully. If, for example, in the course of Day for Night I pay special homage to Citizen Kane, it is because that film, released in Paris in July 1946, changed both the cinema and my own life. Through the young actor played [in Day for Night] by Jean-Pierre Leaud, I am always coming back to the question that has tormented me for thirty years now: Is cinema more important than life?”

Unlike Meet Pamela, Day for Night brings out the best in everyone involved. The stellar ensemble cast includes Jacqueline Bisset as the beautiful but emotionally fragile Hollywood star, Valentina Cortese as a fading leading lady who’s too flustered (and, quite often, too drunk) to remember her lines, Nathalie Baye as a frisky production assistant — and the aforementioned Jean-Pierre Leaud (a.k.a. Antoine Doinel, Truffaut’s on-screen alter ego in The 400 Blows and subsequent sequels) as the callow, self-absorbed actor who repeatedly poses another question that Truffaut himself often pondered: “Are women magic?”

D.O.A. (1950)

How's this for an entrance? In the opening minutes of D.O.A., Edmond O'Brien staggers into a police station, asks directions to the homicide division, then plops into a chair. "I'd like to report a murder," he rasps. The attentive investigator asks: "Who was murdered?" O'Brien replies: "I was."

No kidding. O'Brien plays Frank Bigelow, a small-town accountant who gets into big-time trouble when he takes an impulsive trip to San Francisco. He makes the journey primarily to avoid the marriage demands of his lovestruck secretary (Pamela Britton). Unfortunately, while he's having a drink with new friends in a jazz club, someone gives him a toxic cocktail. The next morning, Bigelow wakes up with a killer hangover, so he visits a local hospital. That's where he gets the bad news: He's been given a slow-acting poison, and has just a day or two left to live.

D.O.A. is a textbook example of film noir, a type of thriller -- vaguely defined but instantly recognizable -- that reached its peak of popularity in the decade following World War II, when hundreds of Hollywood features combined crime melodrama, aberrant psychology, sexual insecurity, Cold War paranoia and bizarrely lit, nightmarish camera work to varying degrees. Heavily influenced by German Expressionism, and frequently directed or photographed by German emigres, films noir are notorious for tell-tale visual hallmarks – trenchcoated tough guys, rainwashed streets, lazily spinning overhead fans, slats of light spilling through Venetian blinds into smoke-filled rooms – that continue to be evoked in everything from made-for-video B-movies to ultra-stylish TV spots for expensive toiletries. But the darkness in a true film noir isn’t so much a visual scheme as a state of mind, one best summed up by the hapless of protagonist of another noir classic, Edgar G. Ulmer’s Detour (1945): “Fate, or some mysterious force, can put the finger on your or me for no good reason at all.”

The funny thing about film noir is, people who made undisputed classics of the genre during the 1940s and ‘50s didn’t think of their moody movies as anything other than conventional (albeit stylish) thrillers. If you'd been hanging around a studio commissary back then, you certainly wouldn't have heard one director tell another: “Yeah, I'm wrapping up that western, then I'm doing that film noir with Bogart . . .”

It wasn't until French critics much later coined the term film noir -- literally, dark or black film -- that film buffs became fully aware of the qualities that distinguish a film as truly noir. As Ephraim Katz notes in The Film Encyclopedia, film noir “characteristically abounds with night scenes, both interior and exterior, with sets that suggest dingy realism, and with lighting that emphasizes deep shadows and accents the mood of fatalism.” Heroes as well as villains in film noir are “cynical, disillusioned and often insecure loners, inextricably bound to the past and unsure and apathetic about the future.”

In D.O.A., O'Brien's Bigelow is a prototypical noir protagonist, a not-entirely-innocent bystander who's unfortunate enough to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. At first, he suspects his death sentence was handed down by an elegant smuggler (Luther Adler) with whom he's had indirect business dealings. But the answer to the mystery really lies in a bill of sale that Bigelow notarized back home. The document is potentially incriminating evidence, and two co-conspirators want to destroy all trace of it.

Throughout a long flashback bracketed by Bigelow's fateful visit to the police station, D.O.A. shows how knowing you're about to die can be empowering, if not liberating. The movie refrains from stating the obvious, but there's little doubt that Bigelow behaves with uncharacteristic bravery while hunting for his killer only because he knows he has nothing left to lose, no one left to fear. He even keeps his cool during confrontations with the smuggler's chief henchman (Neville Brand), a grinning psychopath who does his best to make Bigelow's short life miserable.

O'Brien, always a dependable character actor, gives one of his finest performances here as a man who wants to make every minute count while he's running out of time. He's at his best in a surprisingly affecting scene that has Bigelow phoning his secretary, and trying very hard not to tell her what's wrong. From the look on his face and the pauses in his conversation, you can tell he's thinking about how different things might have been had he not been so quick to avoid a long-term commitment to this woman who loves him.

Polish-born Rudolph Mate (1899-1964) started out as a cameraman for the great Carl Dreyer (The Passion of Joan of Arc) before moving to the United States to work with such notables as Alfred Hitchcock (Foreign Correspondent) and Ernst Lubitsch (To Be or Not to Be). As a director, his resume includes everything from sci-fi spectacle (When Worlds Collide) to Tony Curtis star vehicles (The Black Shield of Falworth). But he remains best known to film buffs for D.O.A., an engrossing 1950 drama that sustains an unsettling atmosphere of noirish dread even during scenes shot in broad daylight.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Stagecoach (1939)

The disreputable doctor who cracks wise and drinks heavily, but sobers up when the chips are down. The golden-haired prostitute who brightens incandescently when a naive cowpoke calls her “a lady.” The shifty-eyed gambler with a gun at his side and, presumably, an ace up his sleeve.

And, of course: The square-jawed, slow-talking gunfighter who’s willing to hang up his shootin’ irons — who’s even agreeable to mending his ways and settling down on a small farm with a good woman — but not before he settles some unfinished business with the varmints who terminated his loved ones.

Why? Because, as the gunfighter tersely notes, “There are some things a man can’t run away from.”

These and other familiar figures had already established themselves as archetypes by 1939, that magical movie year in which Stagecoach premiered. Even so, director John Ford’s must-see masterwork arguably is the first significant Western of the talking-pictures era, the paradigm that cast the mold, set the rules and firmly established the dramatis personae for all later movies of its kind. Indeed, it single-handedly revived the genre after a long period of box-office doldrums, elevating the Western to a new level of critical and popular acceptance.

And unlike, say, Raoul Walsh’s creaky and badly dated The Big Trail (1930) — John Wayne’s first starring vehicle, but a career-stalling flop in its time —Stagecoach remains a lot of fun to watch.

Ford’s film is a classically simple tale of strangers united in close quarters for a brief but intensely dramatic interlude. In this case, the characters are passengers aboard an Overland Stage Line coach during a dangerous trek through Indian Territory. The journey begins in the small town of Tonto (no, really) as two social outcasts — Doc Boone (Thomas Mitchell), a gleefully roguish alcoholic, and Dallas (Claire Trevor), a tearfully vulnerable prostitute — are forcibly exiled by the good ladies of The Law and Order League.

These pariahs board the stage to Lordsburg along with Mrs. Mallory (Louise Platt), a very proper and very pregnant Army wife; Hartfield (John Carradine), a courtly gambler who appoints himself as Mrs. Mallory’s protector; Peacock (Donald Meek), a mild-mannered whiskey salesman whose sample case is progressively depleted by Doc Boone; and, at the last minute, Gatewood (Berton Churchill), a blustering banker who has absconded with the contents of his office safe. Buck (Andy Devine) is the driver, and Sheriff Wilcox (George Bancroft) rides shotgun. Just outside of Tonto, the travelers are joined by The Ringo Kid, a boyishly handsome gunfighter who has broken out of prison to avenge his murdered father and brothers.

As Ringo — the role that saved him from the professional purgatory of B-movies — John Wayne makes one of the greatest entrances in movie history: While he spins a rifle like a six-gun, the camera rapidly tracks toward him, then frames him heroically, almost worshipfully, in a flattering close-up. Ringo is a friendly and forthcoming fellow, even when dealing with Sheriff Wilcox. But he leaves no room for doubt that he’s quite capable of minding his own bloody business at the end of the line.

If you’re familiar with Stagecoach only through its reputation, or if you’ve seen nothing more than cut-and-paste highlights from Ford’s classic, you may be surprised by the movie’s intimacy. To be sure, the majestic landscapes of Monument Valley — to which Ford returned for several subsequent Westerns — are grandly impressive. And the much-imitated Indian assault on the speeding stagecoach, replete with breathtaking stunt work choreographed by the legendary Yakima Canutt, is every bit as exciting as its reputation attests.

But what really makes Stagecoach so vital and memorable is the emotionally charged interaction among its vividly drawn characters. Much of the movie consists of expressionistically lit interior scenes. (Orson Welles reportedly viewed Stagecoach several times as part of his preparations for making Citizen Kane.) And in many of its most memorable moments, the archetypes reveal unexpected depth and complexity. Even Carradine’s ostentatious gambler turns out to be truly chivalrous in his fashion, redeeming himself gracefully under fire. And Wayne demonstrates that, long before his speech patterns and body language ossified into self-parody, he could give as soulfully affecting a performance as any hero who ever rode hard and shot straight in the most American of movie genres.

And by the way: Has any film actor ever had a better year than Stagecoach co-star Thomas Mitchell did in 1939? Consider: In addition to earning an Oscar for his work in Ford's classic, he also contributed memorable performances to Howard Hawks' Only Angels Have Wings, Frank Capra's Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and (playing opposite Charles Laughton's Quasimodo) William Dieterle's The Hunchback of Notre Dame. And, not incidentally, he played the heroine's dad in a little movie called Gone With the Wind. Cowabunga.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

The Public Enemy (1931)

Despite what you’ve heard from four or five four generations of nightclub comics and impressionists, James Cagney always insisted that he never really said “You dirty rat!” in any of his movies. Not even in William Wellman’s The Public Enemy, where such verbal belligerence typified his portrayal of Tom Powers, a cocky and crafty bootlegger whose unbound id, hair-trigger temper and insatiable appetites have enduringly defined the character as a prototype for cinema’s most memorably monstrous gangsters.

On the other hand, Cagney most certainly did shove a grapefruit into the face of co-star Mae Clark during a key moment of Wellman’s 1931 classic. Decades after the movie’s first release, this celebrated scene remains shocking in the sheer casualness of its brutality. Cagney’s bantamweight thug tires of nonstop nagging by his increasingly annoying girlfriend during breakfast, so he simply grabs the first object at hand to silence her yapping. It’s not merely a spontaneous gesture, it’s a wielding of absolute power -- he does it because, dammit, he’s entitled to do it. You won’t find a scarier example of nonchalant sociopathy this side of Martin Scorsese’s GoodFellas (1990), wherein Joe Pesci’s demented Mafioso matter-of-factly shoots a troublesome waiter, then kills the poor guy for complaining.

Cagney didn’t merely become a star, he established himself as an icon in The Public Enemy. With showboating displays of mannerisms that would forever define his on-screen persona -- the frightfully ambiguous smile, the insolent curl of his lip, the staccato delivery of dialogue, the chronic hitching of his pants with clenched fists – he gives a performance at once theatrically stylized and persuasively naturalistic. And if that sounds contradictory, well, that’s also part of his magic. As actor Malcolm McDowell, a Cagney admirer, perceptively noted, “The point is that you believed him – and he was real, but not realistic. They’re different worlds altogether.”

Cagney was the right man in the right role at the right time. During Wellman’s must-see movie, his Tom Powers traverses an arc that begins with increasingly violent juvenile delinquency – he’s betrayed by a Fagin-like crime boss, Putty Nose (Murray Kinnell), who later pays dearly for his treachery -- and reaches an apogee with his spectacular success as a mid-level mobster. Along with Matt Doyle (Edward Woods), a childhood friend and long-time partner in crime, Tom makes his mark as sales representative for a bootlegger with unforgiving rules regarding product placement. Tom enjoys fast women (including a sexy young Jean Harlow) and big money, much to the mounting concern of his saintly mother (Beryl Mercer) and Mike (Donald Cook), his honest brother.

Much of the violence in The Public Enemy – including the shooting of the traitorous Putty Nose, and the vengeance killing of a horse that may have inspired similar animal cruelty in The Godfather (1972) – occurs off-camera. (Steven Soderbergh makes a specific visual allusion to the film’s violent climax – Tom goes into a rival gangster’s den and, while the camera remains discreetly outside, wreaks bloody havoc – in his own 1999 drama, The Limey.) But there’s never any attempt to soft-pedal the unadulterated joy Tom takes in dishing out rough stuff. When Mike dares to complain about Tom’s murderous business methods, Tom sneers at his sibling, a decorated WWI vet, and sarcastically snaps: “You didn’t get those medals for holding hands with the Germans!”

In the end, of course, crime can’t pay and the criminal must die: The final scene has Tom deposited as a bandage-wrapped corpse on his poor mother’s doorstep. But that grisly quietus does relatively little to dim the attractive glow of earlier scenes that tend to glamorize strutting outlawry and conspicuous consumption. Those elements were potently symbolic, and politically charged, in an era before the Production Code curtailed violence and other antisocial behavior in movies. Many Depression Era audiences, enduring unemployment and deprivation in the wake of the stock market crash, dreamed of revenge against a system that had failed them. As a result, gangsters of the sort essayed by Cagney, Edward G. Robinson (Little Caesar, 1930), Paul Muni (Scarface, 1932) and Humphrey Bogart (The Petrified Forest, 1936) frequently were greeted as fantasy fulfillments.

Even now, Tom Powers’ nose-thumbing disregard for convention (to say nothing of his lack of impulse control) is echoed in the protagonists of contemporary crime stories – Casino, The Sopranos, etc. – and gangsta-rapper music videos. Robert Warshaw insightfully illuminated the phenomenon in The Gangster as Tragic Hero, his seminal 1949 essay, when he noted that a character such as Cagney’s natural-born killer “appeals to that side of all of us which refuses to believe in the ‘normal’ possibilities of happiness and achievement; the gangster is the ‘no’ to the great American ‘yes’ which is stamped so big over our official culture and yet has so little to do with the way we really feel about our lives… And the story of his career is a nightmare inversion of the values of ambition and opportunity.”

His Girl Friday (1940)

It’s the kind of grand Old Hollywood story that, if not true, should be. Filmmaker Howard Hawks claimed on several occasions, to a variety of sympathetic interviewers, that he was entertaining dinner guests in his home during the late 1930s when someone steered the conversation toward the fine art of movie dialogue. Hawks flatly announced that the best dialogue he’d ever heard came from Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, and that the very best Hecht-MacArthur dialogue came from The Front Page, their exuberantly cynical 1928 stage play about roguish reporters covering an execution in a colorfully corrupt Chicago.

To prove his point, Hawks produced two copies of the original Front Page script. (Pretty convenient, his just happening to have those scripts on hand, but never mind.) He gave one copy to a young lady in attendance, and asked her to read the part of Hildy Johnson, the veteran reporter who vows to quit the wordsmith racket so he can marry into wealth and respectability. Hawks himself read the part of Walter Burns, the robustly unscrupulous editor who will use any means, fair or foul, to keep Johnson on the staff of his newspaper.

“And in the middle of it,” Hawks recalled, “I said, ‘My Lord, it’s better with a girl reading it than the way it was!’” Which led, according to Hawks, to his remaking The Front Page – previously filmed in 1931 by Lewis Milestone, with Adolph Menjou and Pat O’Brien in the leads -- as His Girl Friday.

Fact or fiction? As author Todd McCarthy notes in his admiring biography, Howard Hawks: The Grey Fox of Hollywood, it’s mighty strange that no dinner guest, including the unidentified woman who read Hildy, ever mentioned being present during this fateful evening in Hawks’ home. And it’s even stranger to imagine Hawks, aptly described by McCarthy as “the antithesis of the fast-talking, hard-driving verbal type,” zipping through the rapid-fire repartee penned by Hecht and MacArthur.

But so what? To paraphrase a line from John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance – spoken, appropriately enough, by a newspaper editor – when the legend becomes accepted as fact, why print anything but the legend? The story may be apocryphal, but it exemplifies an anything-goes, seat-of-the-pants creative process that we’ve come to accept, even romanticize, as typical of Hollywood’s golden age.

In much the same way, His Girl Friday – arguably more than the Hecht-MacArthur original, and definitely more than any other film adaptation -- indelibly established the stereotype of reporters as rudely sarcastic iconoclasts who talk fast, crack wise and raise hell while they comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. When Hawks’ Hildy Johnson (a Hildegard rather than a Hildebrand) makes her grand entrance into the press office of the Chicago Criminal Courts Building, to join the deathwatch for a luckless bumbler who accidentally shot a cop, she rubs her fashionably padded shoulders with a vibrantly motley crew of ink-stained wretches. Despite her claims to the contrary, she looks and sounds like she’s precisely where she’s meant to be, because she can talk faster and crack wiser than anyone else in the room.

Rosalind Russell wasn’t Hawks’ first choice, or even his fifth, to play Hildy Johnson, but her image-defining performance as the sassy and brassy newspaperwoman is swell enough to suggest that no one could have done it better. (Whenever I screen His Girl Friday for college-level film courses, female students seem particularly impressed by Russell’s portrayal of a woman liberated way before women’s liberation was cool.) Her most attractive attribute: She is a spectacularly worthy opponent in verbal jousting with Cary Grant, perfectly cast as Walter Burns, her conniving ex-editor and, more important, ex-husband.

Months after divorcing Water, Hildy returns to the Morning Post newsroom, only to announce her engagement to Bruce Baldwin (Ralph Bellamy), an affably bland insurance salesman. Bruce has no connection to the madcap world that Hildy wants to leave behind, a fact Hawks subtly underscores by having Walter wait outside a newsroom gate marked “No Admittance” while Hildy bids Walter good-bye.

But, of course, Hildy doesn’t fare well while trying to say farewell: Walter tricks her into doing what she really wants to do, which is remain a reporter who comes alive most fully when she’s on the prowl for a big story. And while Walter and Hildy may be, like Elyot and Amanda of Noel Coward’s Private Lives, unable to live happily either apart or together, there is no doubt that they are soul mates who speak the same language with the same warp-speed alacrity.

Such rhetorical virtuosity is a defining characteristic of screwball comedy, a genre that thrived throughout the 1930s and early ’40s. Films of this sort were an escape from the harsh realities of Depression Era life, offering carefree and attractive characters behaving with abandon and freedom in a world filled with colorful but (usually) harmless eccentrics and blustering but (usually) impotent authority figures.

Like many other screwball classics, Hawks’ must-see masterwork belongs to the sub-genre known as “Comedy of Re-Marriage,” being the story of divorced partners who simply must be reunited because they bring out the best in each other. Walter may be a sneak, and his motives are hardly selfless, but he genuinely admires – and values – Hildy’s professional abilities. Hildy has every reason to distrust Walter – except, of course, when he’s telling her that no one else would appreciate her, and encourage her, the way he does.

His Girl Friday ranks among the finest and funniest screwball comedies, largely because Hawks, with a little help from Hecht and MacArthur, gave his characters so much to say so quickly and memorably. Although chronically averse to theorizing or philosophizing about technique, he hinted at the key to his movie’s appeal with this pithy quip: “They’re moving pictures. Let’s make them move.” 

Monday, September 27, 2010

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)

In an age when radio talk shows, all-news cable networks and seemingly infinite arrays of internet websites offer round-the-clock reports of thievery, adultery and brazen stupidity on the part of politicians, it may be well-nigh impossible to believe there ever was a time when Americans were less cynical, and more respectful, in their views of elected officials.

Indeed, as far back as 1939, when filmmaker Frank Capra unveiled Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, American voters already were accustomed to logrolling and pork-barreling as instinctive behavior of political animals. But the transition from healthy skepticism to deep-rooted distrust -- or profound disgust -- on the part of the electorate is a relatively recent phenomenon. Capra’s classic comedy about virtue triumphant (though just barely) over Washington corruption is throwback to the days when most people still wanted to believe that public servants really served the republic.

Jefferson Smith, the soft-spoken but steel-spined hero stirringly played by James Stewart, is a small-town do-gooder. He heads the local branch of a Boy Scouts-type organization, quotes Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln at exhaustive length and, evidently, thinks his best gal pal is his dear old mom.

(A random thought: Can you imagine the contortions that contemporary screenwriters would go through to immediately indicate that this bachelor scoutmaster isn’t really – well, you know, gay?)

In short, Jeff is such a starry-eyed naïf that he seems a perfect choice to serve as “honorary stooge” when one of his state’s U.S. Senators dies. Political boss Jim Taylor (Edward Arnold), a robustly venal string-puller, voices a few doubts about appointing this “big-eyed patriot” to serve the remaining two months of the late legislator’s term. But the state’s other senator, Joseph Paine (Claude Rains), a silver-haired paragon of faux virtue, insists that he’ll be able to keep the “simpleton” in line. Yeah, right.

Initially, Jeff appears every bit as green and gawky as his handlers hoped. As soon as he reaches Washington, D.C., he slips away on his own, to take a bus tour of the nation’s capital. (Cynics often point to this sequence – a shamelessly sentimental and spirit-pumping montage of the Washington Monument, the Lincoln Memorial and similarly impressive icons – as representing the worst excesses of what detractors label as “Capra-corn.” In his defense, Capra claimed that when he first took the Washington tour, he felt the same rush of excitement – “I got a bad case of goose pimples!” – that inflames Jeff Smith.) Later, while Jeff is being tutored by his cynical secretary, Clarissa Saunders (Jean Arthur), the dewy-eyed newcomer decides he should pay a visit to Mount Vernon, for inspiration, before his first day of duties in the Senate.

It doesn’t take long, however, before Jeff gets wise to the ways of Washington. Our hero is horrified to discover that Senator Paine – a long-time family friend who knew Jeff’s late father, a crusading newspaper editor – is part of a plot to procure federal funding for a dam on property purchased by Taylor and other scalawags. Worse, when he tries to expose the dirty dealing, Jeff is framed as a corrupt hypocrite by Senator Paine himself. But don’t worry: Jeff may have a few dark moments of doubt, but he ultimately rises to the occasion. In the movie’s most famous sequence, he defends himself – along with truth, justice and the American way – in a passionate filibuster that he sustains at great cost to his health and reputation. Gravely conscience-stricken, Senator Paine eventually admits his chicanery on the Senator floor, instantly vindicating Jeff.

As Woody Allen once said in an entirely different context: “If only life were like this!”

Viewed today by jaded audiences, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington might seem quaintly timid in its treatment of money-grubbing politicos, hard-drinking reporters and well-heeled power brokers. In 1939, however, many members of the political establishment loudly decried the movie as scurrilous libel. Washington reporters were enraged by Capra’s depiction of the Washington press corps as boozy and irresponsible. (Thomas Mitchell plays the booziest of the lot, and very nearly steals the picture.) The hostile response to a preview screening in Washington, D.C. remains the stuff of Hollywood legend. Joseph P. Kennedy, then U.S. ambassador to London, reportedly went so far as pressing Columbia not to release Mr. Smith in Europe, lest American prestige be undermined just as Adolf Hitler was making such a nuisance of himself.

The delicious irony is, Capra didn’t realize what a subversive piece of work he had concocted until long after the cameras stopped rolling. As he explained in his 1971 autobiography, The Name Above the Title, Capra intended Mr. Smith as a valentine to American democracy, a heartfelt tribute to a form of government that guaranteed a single, right-thinking individual had the opportunity to stand up and be counted. Propelled by the kind of foursquare, flag-waving patriotism that perhaps only an appreciative immigrant wouldn’t deem extreme, Capra – a Sicilian native who reached U.S. shores at the age of six – wanted his small-town hero to represent all that was noble, honest and idealistic about America and Americans.

(It’s worth noting that, unlike many other indie filmmakers – including some who profess to be deeply influenced by the late, great John Cassavetes – Cassavetes himself refused to sneer at the idealist who made Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. “Frank Capra,” proclaimed Cassavetes, one of the founding fathers of American indie cinema, “is the greatest filmmaker that ever lived. Capra created a feeling of belief in a free country and in goodness in bad people… Idealism is not sentimental. It validates a hope for the future. Capra gave me hope, and in turn I wish to extend a sense of hope to my audiences.”)

Decades later, many Americans continue to view Jefferson Smith as the kind of elected official they’d like to have. In fact, politicians as diverse as Bill Clinton and the late Sonny Bono have cited Mr. Smith as a major influence on their decision to run for office. Trouble is, most Americans also recognize Senator Paine as the kind of elected official they usually have to settle for.

42nd Street (1933)

Here they are, ladies and gents: Lads and lassies, sassy and brassy, singing and swaying as Broadway sensations of 1933 while they tap-tap-tap their way into your hearts.

There’s Dorothy Brock (Bebe Daniels), the delightful diva who juggles a sugar daddy (Guy Kibbee) and a hunky hoofer (George Brent) while celebrating her own superstardom. There’s Billy Lawler (Dick Powell), an all-American “juvenile” who’s catnip to ladies of all ages. There’s Ann Lowell (Ginger Rogers), a chorus girl with an eye for the boys and a naughty nickname – Anytime Annie – she’s bent over backwards to earn. There’s Peggy Sawyer (Ruby Keeler), a starry-eyed novice who’s ever-so-excited to be just another pretty face (and a pair of flashy gams) in the background of the big show.

And folks, we’re talking a really, really big show: The latest and greatest produced and directed by Julian Marsh (Warner Baxter), the living legend who’s fading fast, who’s determined to score once last triumph before he takes his final bow. Always the most demanding of taskmasters, Marsh is even more unforgivingly ferocious than usual as he hand-picks his cast, nitpicks his material – “Sure, I liked that number! I liked it in 1905! What do you think we’re putting on, a revival?” – and rants and raves through rehearsals that push everyone, including Marsh, to egregious extremes.

Through sheer force of will, Marsh bends everyone and everything to his design. Even when fate tosses him a nasty curve – Dorothy breaks her ankle just before opening night – he barely slows his breakneck progress. Left without a suitable star, he simply plucks a replacement from the chorus: Peggy, the fresh-faced first-timer. Is she nervous? Sure. Is she game? You bet. But just to make sure she’s fully aware that it’s not just a show she is shouldering – after all, there is a Great Depression going on -- Marsh shoves her toward the spotlight with a last-minute pep talk:

“Miss Sawyer, you listen to me… and you listen hard! Two hundred people, two hundred jobs, $200,000, five weeks of grind and blood and sweat depend on you! It’s the lives of all these people who’ve worked with you! You’ve got to go on, and you’ve got to give and give and give! They’ve got to like you – got to! You understand? You can’t fall down, you can’t! Because your future’s in it, my future and everything all of us have is staked on you! All right now, I’m through! But you keep your feet on the ground and your head on those shoulders of yours! And Sawyer – you’re going out a youngster, but you’ve got to come back a star!”


Lloyd Bacon’s 42nd Street, the exuberantly campy classic in which chorus girls become overnight sensations and Broadway extravaganzas are literally matters of life or death, is widely viewed as the mother of all backstage musicals, as well as the lexicon containing every cliché of the genre. As such, it’s an easy target for cynics and satirists. But it’s quite capable of raising your spirit and touching your heart if you give it half a chance, because even the moldiest clichés can be surprisingly potent when you confront them in their original context. To put it another way: The characters here are so intensely sincere, even when they’re well aware of how silly they might seem, that it’s almost inconceivably cruel not to take them seriously.

To be sure, audiences of the 1930s were inclined to take 42nd Street very seriously indeed. As Martin Scorsese perceptively notes in his Personal Journey Through American Movies, the rise of the musical paralleled that of the gangster melodrama in early ’30s cinema. And just as dire economic conditions and widespread unemployment often figured into the motives of movie mobsters, Scorsese writes, “The harshness of the times, the Depression, colored this most escapist of film genres… In those times, if one showed any ambition, one either became a gangster or a showbiz performer – at least in the fantasy world of Warner Bros. Broadway offered a metaphor for a desperate, shattered country. Director or chorus girl, your life depended on the show’s success.”

All of which helps explain why, even during the leanest and meanest years of the Great Depression, movie attendance remained remarkably steady as anxious masses sought Hollywood products that either promised escape from hard realities of the day, or encouraged audiences by reinforcing a sense of solidarity in the face of adversity. To its considerable credit, 42nd Street did both.

Just as important – from a film historian’s view, at least -- 42nd Street did much to define the movie musical as an art form separate and distinct from the stage-bound variety, by introducing an aesthetic of dance conceived for the camera. Like him or loathe him, cheer him or jeer him, dance master Busby Berkeley envisioned a vigorously spectacular form of choreography involving beautifully leggy chorines, machine-like precision, intricate geometric design, surrealistic excess – and, what the hell, as much sexually charged imagery as he could slip past the Production Code bluenoses.

Film historian David Thomson may have said it best: “Berkeley was a lyricist of eroticism, the high-angle shot and the moving camera; he made it explicit that when the camera moves it has the thrust of the sexual act with it. It is only remarkable that some viewers smile on what they consider the ‘period charm’ of such libertinage.”

In the final third of 42nd Street – and even more so throughout Footlight Parade (1933), Dames (1934), Gold Diggers of 1935 and other films that employed him as choreographer and/or director – Berkeley devised elaborate musical sequences that could never be contained in a Broadway production. Nor could they ever appear as impressive on the Great White Way as they do in one of Berkeley’s trademark overhead shots. The grand and glorious irony of Berkeley’s career is that he brought to backstage musicals the type of spectacle that could never be replicated on stage. (No, not even in the popular Broadway musical adapted from the 1933 film.) By doing that, he earned a place of honor in the pantheon of those visionaries who helped establish the wondrous ways that movies move.

Of course, critics don’t always appreciate, or even understand, revolutionary innovation. Consider this snippy pan of 42nd Street, written by an uncredited (and, apparently, unqualified) movie critic for the March 18, 1933 edition of Newsweek: “Busby Berkeley, the dance director, has gone to a lot of ineffectual bother about his intricate formations, not having been told that masses of chorus girls mean something only in the flesh. His talent is wasted in the films.” Yeah, right.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

City Lights (1931)

There may be folks who can remain dry-eyed and hard-hearted during the final moments of Charlie Chaplin’s City Lights, but take care: Anyone that cynical shouldn’t be entirely trusted.

Chaplin’s silent masterworks, one-reelers and features alike, are continually rediscovered by new generations, and recognized as timeless classics by adoring audiences and fellow filmmakers. (“For me,” Francois Truffaut famously enthused, “they are the most beautiful films in the world. Chaplin means more to me than the idea of God.”) To be sure, Chaplin’s relatively few talking pictures -- especially Limelight (1952) and The Great Dictator (1940) -- also inspire admiration and affection. But his pre-talkie efforts are the wonderments that guarantee his immortality, that ensure his very name will forever serve as an adjective for any attempt, successful or otherwise, to mix pratfalling and heart-tugging in a crowd-pleasing comedy.

The Kid (1921) may be more aggressively sentimental, and The Gold Rush (1925) perhaps is more commonly acclaimed as his magnum opus, but City Lights (1931) is by far the most Chaplinesque of all Chaplin movies, being an absolutely magical commingling of graceful pantomime, knockabout tomfoolery, inspired silliness and – perhaps most important – profoundly affecting poignancy. It’s also, not incidentally, a project Chaplin insisted on shooting as a silent movie long after talking pictures had become the accepted norm.

City Lights begins, of course, with Chaplin cleverly introduced in his familiar role as The Little Tramp, the elegantly mustached gentleman whose shabby attire (derby hat, frock coat, baggy trousers, outsized shoes) is offset by his courtly manner and cane-twirling, hat-tipping panache. And it proceeds with the sort of seemingly improvised but intricately choreographed funny business that many comic actors still emulate. (Check out his classic bits in a raucous nightclub and a high-society party.) In the closing scenes, however, City Lights gradually builds to an epiphany of sweetly painful pathos, leading to a final, indelible image of a man smiling with hopeless longing at a woman whose love he fears he could never – not now, not in a million lifetimes – deserve.

Throughout much of City Lights, Chaplin maintains a lighter and mood, even as The Little Tramp – a.k.a. Charlie -- is repeatedly abused or embarrassed. (Chaplin customarily billed himself as Charles Chaplin for his writing and directorial credits, but always stuck with Charlie to identify himself as star of the show.) When a blind flower girl (Virginia Merrill) naively assumes he is a free-spending dandy, Charlie is so smitten that he resorts to drastic measures -- including, most hilariously, his participation in a boxing match -- to earn enough money to sustain the mistaken identity.

Periodically, Charlie enjoys an evening’s revelry with an alcoholic millionaire (Harry Myers) who drinks to steadily increasing excess in the wake of his wife’s departure. Whenever the millionaire sobers up, however, he never recognizes Charlie as his boon companion from the night before. His selective memory proves to be awfully inconvenient for Charlie: After giving the Little Tramp enough money for the flower girl to have an operation that will restore her eyesight, the millionaire forgets all about his generosity. Which, unfortunately, leads to Charlie’s arrest and imprisonment.

After his release, Charlie looks even more bedraggled and destitute than he does in the opening scenes. The good news is, the flower girl, who has opened a flower shop, can now see. The bad news is – well, she can now see him.

“She recognizes who he must be by his shy, confident, shining joy as he comes silently toward her,” critic James Agee wrote in 1949. “And he recognizes himself, for the first time, through the terrible changes in her face. The camera just exchanges a few quiet close-ups of the emotions which shift and intensify in each face. It is enough to shrivel the heart to see, and it is the greatest piece of acting and the highest moment in movies.”

The final image of Manhattan (1979), Woody Allen’s melancholy romantic comedy, is a loving homage to the heart-wrenching finale of City Lights. It’s to Allen’s considerable credit that his version is almost as affecting as Chaplin’s original, which Allen admits he carefully studied. “City Lights was funny and also tragic,” Allen told The New York Times in 2000. “Some think it’s sentimental, but to me, it’s an honest film about love.” For all his careful appraisal of Chaplin’s works, Allen says he still can’t fully deconstruct the magic of the master: “I don't believe Chaplin was aware of creating a new vocabulary for film comedy. He just happened to be that gifted, that superb. Very few have taken that extreme leap into a realm that is indefinable and unexplainable.”

The General (1926)

An internationally acclaimed auteur follows the biggest hit of his career with a budget-busting action-comedy epic. The production values are prodigious – a single sight gag requires one of the most expensive single shots in movie history – and the death-defying stunt work is spectacular.

But the critical response is scathing. Variety bluntly blasts the production as “a flop.” Life magazine condemns the cringe-inducing mix of comedy and carnage. The New York Times huffily complains that the director “appears to have bitten off more than he can chew.” Negative buzz abounds, unfavorable word of mouth spreads. Despite the marquee allure of the above-the-title star, audiences stay away in droves.

Sound familiar? It could be the story of 1941, or Last Action Hero. But the embarrassing under-achievements of those box-office duds are fairly inconsequential when viewed in the big picture of Hollywood history. Buster Keaton’s The General, arguably the first action-comedy epic, merits special consideration as a far more significant “failure.”

Today, Keaton’s dauntingly ambitious and remarkably accomplished 1927 comedy is universally recognized as one of the enduring classics of the silent era. Indeed, many critics and academics insist The General is one of the greatest movies ever made in any period. Back in the 1920s, however, it was such a resounding flop that Keaton’s career was forever blighted by its long shadow.

To be sure, Keaton remained active -- most often as an actor, sometimes as a director or uncredited writer -- in features and shorts until his death in 1966. He appeared as a befuddled time-traveler in a memorable Twilight Zone segment, displayed remarkable dignity (and undiminished comic verve) in such teen-skewing trifles as Pajama Party (1964) and How to Stuff a Wild Bikini (1965), and gave a poignantly funny final performance in Richard Lester’s A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1966). But he never again enjoyed the artistic freedom and financial wherewithal he was granted when he made The General.

Even in his heyday, Keaton often found himself on the wrong end of unflattering comparisons to a more celebrated contemporary, Charlie Chaplin. Viewed in retrospect, however, the dissimilarities between the two comic greats are more pronounced. As critic Andrew Sarris astutely noted in The American Cinema, “The difference between Keaton and Chaplin is the difference between poise and poetry, between the aristocrat and the tramp, between adaptability and dislocation, between the function of things and the meaning of things...”

To put it another way: While Chaplin often risks everything, even his life, while soaring on flights of dream-stoked fancy, Keaton customarily remains more earthbound, doggedly ignoring the chaos around him while obsessively focused on purely practical matters. Chaplin romanticizes women as luminous mysteries to be worshipped; Keaton expects a woman to pull her weight even after he falls in love with her. (At one point in The General, his character is so exasperated by the clueless klutziness of his lady love that he very nearly strangles her before opting to kiss her instead.) Whereas Chaplin might be driven batty by his dehumanizing drudgery on a high-speed assembly line (Modern Times), Keaton is more determined to impose control over troublesome technology, likely through sheer force of will.

Consider one of the many unforgettable moments in The General, the Civil War saga of a Confederate engineer’s misadventures while trying to retrieve a wood-burning locomotive hijacked by Union spies. (The title refers to the locomotive, not a military officer.) As Johnnie Gray, the improbably and imperturbably heroic Southerner, Keaton is so busy chopping wood to keep his engine running while pursuing his stolen General, he remains totally oblivious as his train passes retreating Confederate forces, then an advancing Union army. His absurdly disproportionate attentiveness to detail is not unlike that of the bomber crewman in Dr. Strangelove who fastidiously corrects a log error while en route to the dawning of doomsday.

Throughout The General, Keaton lives up to his nickname as The Great Stone Face, making only the most minute adjustments to his expression to signal shifts between amusement (rare) and befuddlement (frequent), despair (he volunteers for the Confederate army, but is rejected because of his value as an engineer) and exultation (he proves his heroism to the Southern belle who once thought him a coward). Just as important, Keaton also illustrates the contradiction – the hilarious dichotomy between stillness of form and fluidity of movement – that is his hallmark as a comic artist.

After the enormous success of his Battling Butler (1926), a relatively slight farce about a faux boxer, Keaton co-wrote and co-directed The General (with Clyde Bruckman) as another star vehicle. Even so, the latter movie’s notoriously expensive sight gag (estimated cost: $42,000) is keyed to the flabbergasted response of a minor supporting character, a Union commander who watches helplessly while a train falls through a burning bridge and into a river far below. Keaton used a real bridge, a real river – and, yes, a real locomotive. Back in 1927, such excessive spectacle in a comedy struck many critics and audiences as bewildering, if not downright unseemly.

Viewers of the era were even more upset by the outrageously dark comedy of a scene in which Keaton fails to notice while his Confederate comrades are felled by a Union sniper. Just in the nick of time, our hero saves himself simply by waving his sword. The loosened blade flies off the handle, and plunges into the enemy marksman.

Mind you, we don’t see the moment of impalement, just a brief glimpse of the dead sniper. But that was too much for most folks in the 1920s. Critic Robert E. Sherwood complained in Life magazine: “Someone should have told Buster that it is difficult to derive laughter from the sight of men being killed in battle. Many of his gags at the end of (The General) are in such gruesomely bad taste that the sympathetic spectator is inclined to look the other way.” Time passes, tastes change: In 2000, when the American Film Institute released its list of the 100 funniest movies ever made, The General ranked higher – No. 18 – than any other silent comedy on the list.

Buster Keaton was far ahead of time, which is why he remains immortal.