Saturday, December 31, 2011

RIFIFI (Du Rififi chez les hommes, 1955)

"Don't strain your brain and grumble. All it means is rough-and-tumble." I paraphrase the English translation of the title song of Jules Dassin's French jewel-robbery thriller. The title is either gangland slang ("the battle cry of every real tough guy") or a nonsense word invented by the novelist Auguste le Breton, whose work Dassin adapted. The song, performed by a nightclub singer -- a glimpse of a floor show came to be obligatory in French crime cinema -- doesn't really represent the overall tone of the film. Dassin was American; he had made Brute Force, The Naked City, Thieves' Highway and Night and the City before being blacklisted. The blacklisters aspired to global sway, reportedly striving to stop Dassin from directing in Europe before Rififi launched his second career as a popular import for American arthouses. A crime story unconstrained by American censorship sounds like a golden opportunity to break boundaries, but Rififi is more a narrative breakthrough than a milestone of explicit frankness.

It does become clear pretty early that we're not in America anymore. You can tell when our protagonist Tony, aka "Le Stephanois" (Jean Servais), an ex-con jewel thief, reunites with his girlfriend. Turns out she'd formed new attachments while he did his time. The new boyfriend lavished her with jewels and furs, which Tony orders her to strip off. Not satisfied with humiliating her, Tony proceeds to beat her with a belt. To repeat: this is our hero -- but this is also a milieu where women willingly take their lumps as part of the rififi in order to partake of sexual paradise later -- or so the song claims. It's also a milieu where the men often end up taking what they dish out.

Freshly embittered, Tony reconsiders his refusal of a proposed jewel heist, except now he wants to up the ante. Instead of a smash-and-grab through the display window, he wants to take the safe where the good stuff is kept overnight. That means putting together an expert team and planning the operation in painstaking detail. After casing the place and identifying its security system, the four-man gang obtains an identical device so they can figure out how to disable or simply muffle its ultra-sensitive alarm mechanism. Confident of their ability to beat the alarm, they embark on the scene that made the film famous and influential: a step-by-step break-in through the ceiling, presented without unnecessary dialogue or music. Can they break in from above without setting off the alarm? Will their scheme to disable it work? Will they be able to break into the safe and get out before daybreak? Will the flics on the beat outside notice anything amiss? This is standard thriller stuff, but Dassin filmed it that way for the first time here, and Rififi has been a model for moviemakers and burglars ever since.

We may be in France rather than America, but crime still doesn't pay. In the U.S., the Breen Office dictated that result; in France it was a matter of fatalism, much as it was in many American films noirs. One of the gang gives a girl too ostentatious a gift and the sharks smell blood. To unify the plot threads, the lead shark is the same nightclub operator who stole Tony's girl. Methodically he breaks down the gang, forcing one to rat out another, killing the latter, kidnapping the kid of a third and demanding the loot as ransom. Here's where Tony most likely redeems himself for his misogynist violence early on, taking it upon himself to rescue the boy and rid himself of his rival once and for all. He takes a bullet in the process, setting up Dassin's second inspired sequence: a delirious drive through Paris as Tony rushes to get the kid home before he passes out, or worse, at the real. Dassin resorts to rapid-fire editing, compiling a disorienting montage to approximate Tony's reeling consciousness as he tries to keep his eyes on the road while losing blood, as all the while the brat treats it like a joyride. It's as brilliant in its own way as the break-in sequence, and it closes the film on a nice note of irony.

Dassin apparently couldn't resist a bit of American-style moralizing late in the picture, having a character question Tony's tough-guy standing by suggesting that all the downtrodden people who don't turn to crime are the real tough guys. It's an exceptional false note in an otherwise toughminded movie. Tony's execution of a stoolie was supposedly Dassin's way of venting against the blacklist and his Hollywood peers who ratted on him, but it's such a conventional scene for crime cinema that you could easily miss the personal political context and hear no axes being ground. Working with a much smaller budget than he was accustomed to as a Hollywood director, Dassin gets results nearly as slick and sleek, with huge help from cinematographer Philippe Agostini and production designer Alexandre Trauner. He's working with tawdry source material -- he apparently cut out lots of racism and other atrocities -- but infuses it with the vitality of the location noirs he pioneered in America. Rififi is more hard-boiled than noirish in many respects, and isn't quite as good as Dassin's best American noirs (Night and the City is his best), but it's not unfitting company for his work for the country that scorned him. If you're in a hard-boiled mood you could do a lot worse.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Pre-Code: THE WET PARADE (1932)

In American history, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer is often portrayed as Upton Sinclair's nemesis. When the muckraking novelist, best known to this day for The Jungle, his epochal expose of the meatpacking business, won the 1934 Democratic party nomination for Governor of California with a program to "End Poverty in California" (EPIC) by taking over shuttered factories, the "Tiffany studio," spearheaded by boy-wonder producer Irving Thalberg, made fake newsreels portraying hoboes waiting to swarm the state as crushing propaganda against Sinclair. Two years earlier, M-G-M had put money in Sinclair's pocket by buying the movie rights to his latest novel. Having done that, the studio seemed unsure of how to promote the resulting Victor Fleming production. They could sell it as an all-star production, albeit cast more with up-and-comers than with established idols. They could emphasize its current-affairs relevant without letting on what side they took. Sinclair himself promoted the picture by staging a debate on Prohibition between infamous evangelist Aimee Semple MacPherson (pro) and Wet Parade star and future satan Walter Huston (anti). People could figure out the context from the title, of course. Do a Google News Archive search of "Wet Parade" for 1932 and you'll get more references to the campaign to repeal Prohibition than you will reviews of the Sinclair movie. For the author, the phrase clearly meant something else, since his novel reaches back before World War I to show the ravages of American alcoholism and portrays the movement to ratify the Prohibition amendment, as well as the resistance that followed ratification. The novel's long out of print but not in the public domain, so it's hard to compare it to Fleming's movie the way we can weigh Sinclair's Oil! against There Will Be Blood. It seems likely, however, that the movie takes a more ambivalent stand on Prohibition than Sinclair did.

Sinclair was something we may find hard to imagine today: a left-wing Prohibitionist. There were many like him; it's worthwhile to remember that women wanted the vote, in many cases, so they could elect politicians who would ban liquor, though as it happened the deed was done before most women had a chance to vote. Prohibition wasn't part of every self-styled progressive's agenda, but it was one of the elements that gave progressives a reputation that persists to the present day as busybodies hostile to personal freedom. Sinclair wasn't impressed by the personal-liberty argument. There's a pointed scene in the movie when Huston's alky ward-heeler makes a Democratic stump speech (from the back of a truck) warning his 1916 audience that Republican busybodies were conspiring to take away their personal liberties. In mid-speech, Fleming cuts to a Republican orator (John Wray) making the exact same charge against the Democratic party. The point is obvious: in both cases the rhetoric is nothing but cant. In the novel (I was able to scare up some extracts) Sinclair remarks that neither party was as concerned about personal liberty when the government banned cocaine and similar substances. He may have explained this in the book, but the movie doesn't make the comparison and doesn't address what I suspect was Sinclair's main argument -- that wealthy, greedy capitalists made money off booze and so made sure that politicians opposed banning it. The film only hints at the link between capital and liquor in one scene, an organizational meeting for a national crime syndicate in which the ringleader gives the local thugs their marching orders, then visits with a group of more respectable men to thank them for their investments and promise them a quick profit. The overall message of The Wet Parade seems to be that greed alone allowed people to poison themselves -- but the movie emphasizes a point that may have seemed ironic to Sinclair, or else only underlined his main point: the cure of Prohibition was in some ways worse than the disease.

The movie oddly echoes The Birth of a Nation in its attention to the intertwined destinies of a Southern and a Northern family. Fleming opens down south with the declining fortunes of Col. Roger Chilcothe (Lewis Stone), who attempts to swear off alcohol at the urging of his daughter Maggie May, aka "Persimmon" (Dorothy Jordan) when she sees how it's ruining his health. He can't resist the temptation of sociability, however, and goes on an epic bender, gambling away most of his wealth in the process. He's finally brought home, despite a bartender's protest that he still has a few dollars in him, only to suffer the DTs ("I'm in Hell!") while begging Persimmon for a drink. It's a defining pre-Code moment to see the future Judge Hardy, the iconic paterfamilias of the Code-Enforcement era, meeting his end face down in a pigsty as his faithful colored retainers wail with grief. The Colonel's son, Roger Jr. (Neil Hamilton) is an aspiring author and a follower in his father's staggering footsteps. His own path leads to the big city, where he takes up residence in the hotel operated by the family of Mr. Tarleton (Huston), the aforementioned rummy spellbinder. Tarleton's long-suffering son Kip (Robert Young) really runs things, and hates booze for what it's done to his dad and many of their tenants. That makes him a kindred spirit for Persimmon when she moves up north to join her brother, who sets up a lavish society speakeasy (on the strength of whatever literary success) once Prohibition takes effect. The signifier of his decadence, as is often the case in pre-Code cinema, is Myrna Loy, bottle-blond here as his sneering consort.

Prohibition hangs over the characters' heads like a Damocles sword for many years. Tarleton passionately opposes Republicans (and appears, unlike other pols, to believe his own rhetoric) because he assumes that they'll ban booze; he and his tenants celebrate Woodrow Wilson's last-minute re-election by dancing ring-around-the-rozy like kids. When Prohibition comes (on Wilson's watch, spurred by wartime restrictions on grain use), the last day before the new regime is an epic pub-crawl, with four identically dressed mourners as our tour guides ordering every bad to play "Auld Lang Syne." The new law doesn't compel anyone to renounce liquor; instead, people empty out liquor stores and hoard as much as they can. Kip Tarleton's blithe assumption that they'll all go dry within a year proves profoundly mistaken.

The Prohibition section of the movie feels the most like an Upton Sinclair story. That's because the real exploiters come to the fore: the bootleggers who exploit newly-illicit desires by pouring any compound into a bottle and counterfeiting familiar labels. An impressive montage illustrates the process with the kind of muckraking realism that made Sinclair's name. Instead of drying people out, Prohibition has only driven them to literally poison themselves, though the movie leaves you wondering how anyone survived, since every bootlegger seems to be bottling poison. Old Man Tarleton is driven mad by the bad stuff and beats his wife to death when she smashes his last jug of hooch. Chilcothe Jr. literally drinks himself blind on rotgut procured by his bellboy. When he bemoans his loss of sight, Loy silently slinks away; chasing her, he falls down a flight of stairs. Outraged by the horrors he's witnessed, Kip Tarleton becomes a Volstead agent -- and speaking of horrors, he's teamed with ace agent Abe Shilling, a master of disguise who is himself but a thin disguise for the dreaded Jimmy "Schnozzle" Durante. Known today as the elderly cartoon narrator of Frosty the Snowman, Durante lives in movie infamy as the motormouth sidekick inflicted by M-G-M on Buster Keaton, but The Wet Parade proves that you don't need to feel sorry for Keaton to feel bloodthirsty toward "Schnozzle." Under normal circumstances, this might be called a "rare dramatic role" for Durante, but that would be false advertising; the comic simply employs his familiar shtick incessantly ("Hot-cha-cha!" "I got a million of 'em," etc) until a bootlegger mercifully puts him out of our misery. I am tempted to recommend The Wet Parade to anyone who has ever wanted to see Jimmy Durante killed, but alas, he doesn't suffer enough, nor does he die quickly enough. Instead, he expires in Kip's arms, after reassuring him: "You know how cats got nine lives?...[wait for it]... I've got...a million...of 'em..." While Durante's character may have been inspired by the real-life "Izzy and Moe" team of Prohibition enforcers, I suspect that Upton Sinclair wrote no scene in which an agent infiltrates the Chilcothe speakeasy disguised as a Bulgarian diplomat with a beard that was probably saved for the Russian aviators of A Night of the Opera three years later. If part of the studio's purpose for this picture was to promote Robert Young as a star, they did him and themselves no favors by yoking him to Durante for the final section. And by that point the movie's message has been muddled. Like many a pre-Code crime film, it pleads for a stronger crackdown on gangsters. At the same time, it practically concedes, in the year before Repeal, that Prohibition was a failed experiment, without accounting persuasively or even coherently for the failure.

However you interpret it, Fleming's Wet Parade is an often-entertaining ensemble piece, with Huston standing out as a lovable rogue whose roguishness becomes less and less lovable. Like many pre-Code pieces, its primary interest is probably as a historical document, especially since it's one of the apparent minority of films (M-G-M's Marie Dressler vehicle Politics is another) that actually endorses Prohibition, whether with Sinclair's full vehemence or not. The fact that M-G-M adapted a Sinclair novel two years before declaring war on him -- the only other adaption of Sinclair I'm aware of between this one and There Will Be Blood is Disney's The Gnome-Mobile (!) -- definitely marks The Wet Parade, whatever its politics, as a pre-Code event. At almost two hours, it's an epic by early-talkie standards, as probably befits Sinclair's expansive vision. I probably shouldn't recommend it on its own terms, but no survey of pre-Code cinema is likely to be complete without it.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Wendigo Meets THE COUNTESS (Die Graefin, 2009)

In modern folklore, Erzsebet Bathory is the female Dracula, the "Blood Countess." In history, the Hungarian noble was accused of shedding the blood of innocent girls to retain or regain her youthful beauty, not by drinking the stuff but by bathing in it. In fiction, she has been imagined countless times as a blood-drinking vampire, a force of evil persisting into the present day. In cinema, the past decade has seen a point-counterpoint debate over the historical countess's character. Juraj Jakubisko's Bathory, which Wendigo and I haven't seen yet, portrays its heroine (according to reviews) as a misunderstood Renaissance woman and a victim of chauvinism and superstition. In the following year, Julie Delpy, best known in the U.S. as the co-star of Beyond Sunrise and Beyond Sunset, released her version, an all-out auteur attack -- she wrote and directed the film and composed its score while playing the title role, -- that has it both ways to an extent. Delpy's Bathory is a victim, but also a victimizer, an aristocratic woman of her time if not ahead of it. We watched it last weekend on a Netflix stream.
In Delpy's account, Erzsebet was acclimated to cruelty at an early age, compelled to watch peasants being beaten and convinced that people deserved harsh punishments. It's not a big deal while she stewards her husband's lands (and apparently enjoys the love of a local witch) while he fights the Turks, but upon his death she begins to feel anxious. She's courted by another powerful noble, Count Thurzo (William Hurt), who covets her lands, but she covets Thurzo's son (Daniel Bruehl). The boy seems to love her sincerely, or at least with the naive ardor of youth, but dad's having none of it and sends the kid off to Denmark. He convinces Bathory that the boy had abandoned her for another, younger woman, making her hypesensitive about her looks.

Erzsebet takes her frustrations out on her servants -- and after beating one girl with a hairbrush she becomes convinced that the blood splashing on her face has softened her wrinkles. Her witch companion sees no such improvement, but the countess won't be dissuaded. Delpy has shown us that she saw an image of exaggerated aging in her mirror before; now the compensatory illusion launches her on a course of infamy. While the film is narrated by young Thurzo, who tells us only that he has heard or read many stories, we seem to be getting Delpy's objective account of what happened. In that account, Bathory becomes a torturer and murderer, but you can also see how the pressures of her political situation (she must keep an army in the field without compensation from the twittish King of Hungary) and the habits of aristocracy molded a woman who might have turned out differently in other circumstances. Delpy takes the legend to its conclusion, with the condemned countess walled into her bedroom, and adds a closing twist: the only time Bathory actually bites someone to draw blood, the victim is herself....

While The Countess is no vampire film by any stretch of imagination, Wendigo wanted to make it part of the series exactly because of Bathory's close linkage to vampire lore and literature going back to Sheridan LeFanu's Carmilla and beyond. Dracula maven Raymond McNally has even argued that Bathory, rather than Vlad Tepes, may have been more influential on Bram Stoker's imagination via Carmilla. Delpy briefly teases that a decadent aristocrat who seduces, then submits to Bathory may be a real vampire -- his family is at least the subject of vampiric speculation -- but she isn't out to foreshadow any future vampiric career for the Countess. Nevertheless, since Bathory is a proto-vampire in the popular mind, any Bathory film is virtually a vampire movie.

Since we haven't seen the Jakubisko Bathory, our only point of comparison with an all-out Bathory movie is Peter Sasdy's Countess Dracula, and Wendigo considers Delpy's Countess superior to Sasdy on just about every level. Delpy is obviously more concerned with fidelity to history than Hammer was, though the sparsity of the record compels her to speculate at times, but even conceding artistic license to Sasdy Delpy outdoes his picture in script and direction. The most Wendigo will grant the Hammer is that Ingrid Pitt looks and sounds more like his mental image of Bathory, and may have been a better actress in the role overall than Delpy was. Wendigo thinks that Delpy may have bitten off more than she could chew in writing and acting a script in what to her is a second language -- English, that is. While she's given herself an out by emphasizing how cold Bathory was, her delivery too often seemed rushed and uninflected, as if she wasn't the best judge of her own line readings, though she's usually expressively convincing. What she does conveys effectively, and most impressively for Wendigo, is Bathory's complete failure to understand that she had done anything wrong. Delpy gives herself a speech like something out of Monsieur Verdoux in which the Countess complains that she's condemned for killing, but warriors are lauded -- but Delpy the director handles the speech just right, showing herself as self-righteous if not self-deluded.

As a director, she labored under some budgetary limitation that kept her from really showing us this mighty army Bathory's husband had created and the Countess herself maintained. Instead, Delpy gives us symbolic images of the husband fighting and chopping heads, then sitting on a pile of corpses -- one of the first hints of gruesomeness to come. Lack of extras aside, she makes excellent use of costumes, locations and sets to give a convincing picture of Bathory's aristocratic milieu.

Delpy must have realized that a Bathory movie would most likely be seen as a horror film, whatever her intentions. She doesn't flinch from violence and gore, including mutilated corpses and some alarming self-mutilation. One hair-raising early moment comes when she cuts her breast open in order to insert a lock of young Thurzo's hair -- that can't be healthy! She's also liberal in showing us mutilated corpses and suggestive scenes of torture, but she never really crosses the boundary into bad taste and silliness. The Countess is less torture porn than kin to the "history of cruelty" pictures I've reviewed on my own, where torture and bloodshed are emphasized to illustrate the injustice of the past. For today's audiences, however, it may prove neither fish nor fowl. The gore in it may be just enough to repel Delpy's usual American fans -- The Countess didn't get a theatrical release here -- but it may not go far enough over the top to meet the expectations of exploitation film fans.

Wendigo thinks that Delpy succeeded in her stated intention to show "the psychology of human beings when they're given power." Her Bathory is a product of her culture, where nobility as a class thought themselves divinely privileged and entitled, but treated each other just as ruthlessly as they treated peasants. Wendigo also detected some defining insecurity, if not self-loathing, in Delpy's Bathory, who after all starts cutting herself before she bleeds others. The insecurity may have come with her status as an aristocratic widow with an army whom the King owed money. As Wendigo notes, she was an inconvenient woman whom enemies might want to get rid of on the least pretense. There's also, ultimately, insanity -- a chilling scene inside her final prison when the Countess prays to God for vindication, and for blood. Worst of all, there's an utter absence of compassion, best illustrated for Wendigo when Bathory watches her most faithful lackeys brutally executed without batting an eye. That lack of compassion, which may simply have been bred out of her at an early age, belies her sanctimonious griping against double standards at the end, and in showing this Delpy is at her best as both actress and director.
While The Countess doesn't count as a vampire film, Wendigo would recommend it to vampire-film fans, who may imagine themselves familiar with the Bathory legend, as an introduction or approximation of the real "Blood Countess." It might be an object lesson. Erzsebet Bathory was not a supernatural monster, but this film's Bathory is indisputably evil without any redeeming glamour. Her life and career, at least as Delpy renders them, are sufficient material for a horror movie.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

BATMAN RETURNS (1992): a film for Christmas

It'll be twenty years and one month, approximately, after Tim Burton's second Batman movie opened when Christopher Nolan's third will roll out. Nolan's idea of a Christmas present to the moviegoing public has been a limited-release IMAX prologue to The Dark Knight Rises featuring his and actor Tom Hardy's interpretation of Bane, while the less fortunate can settle for a trailer that throws some of the spotlight on Anne Hathaway's turn as Selina Kyle. Some people have already chided Nolan for daring to stage a scene between Hathaway and Christian Bale at a costume party, as if the idea could only have been borrowed from Batman Returns. If so, it's probably the only thing Nolan will borrow from Burton's sequel. Watching Returns again for the first time in a while was a stark reminder of how different Burton and Nolan's visions are. The starkest reminder of all has probably been the year of hype for Rises. If a Batman fan felt that Nolan had one great task to do after his second film, that task would most likely be to give us his Catwoman. Yet Nolan has appeared far more interested in Bane, a preference he justifies (without disparaging or really saying anything about Catwoman) by his desire to give his Batman an antagonist actually capable of beating him up. I haven't been able to shake a feeling that Catwoman is an afterthought for him, and maybe even something imposed on him by the studio. Nolan keeps his cards close to his vest, however, and for all we seem to know about Rises much remains mysterious. Consider the speculation raging among comics fans that "Miranda Tate," the character played by Marion Cotilliard, must really be Talia, the daughter of Ra's al-Ghul and Batman's other great love interest in the funnies. We probably won't know until someone sees the finished film. My own view was that, had Nolan openly introduced both Talia and Selina Kyle in the same film, his film could have been an anti-Twilight, with fans of the two femmes fatales forming "Teams" to assert each favorite's superior worthiness as a Bat-mate -- though I must acknowledge that, for many comics fans, Batman's ideal woman is "None of the Above." In any event, Nolan has little interest in simply reproducing comics mythos -- no more than Burton had. His purpose has been to translate the Batman mythos into an almost-real 21st century context, which means going in the opposite direction from Burton. I could probably go on about Nolan, but I'm going to save most of that, and many of my thoughts about Batman and Catwoman, for next July. We have a film for Christmas to look at first.

Actually, I can't leave Nolan behind for the moment without questioning whether he'd ever want to set a film at Christmastime. By comparison, Batman Returns can be seen as the middle film of a Tim Burton Christmas trilogy, following Edward Scissorhands (in which immortal Edward assures Winona Ryder of a white Christmas every year) and the more obvious Nightmare Before Christmas. So there's probably more of a point to setting Returns at Christmas than there was for Die Hard, to offer at least one similarly set summer movie. While there's some of Burton's sometimes tiresome epater le bourgeoisie attitude in play, the most obvious motivation I can see is that Christmas is a season when lonely people are likely to feel lonelier -- an ideal time for the revenge tragedy Burton stages. At the same time, there's something almost subliminally blasphemous about Burton's Christmas story. Apart from the mockery of the Moses legend, Returns can be seen as pitting Batman against a collective, trinitarian antagonist -- three aspects of evil or sin.

1. The Father.

This is Max Shreck (Christopher Walken), in name an homage to the star of Nosferatu, in image an homage to The 1,000 Eyes of Dr. Mabuse. A department-store magnate and aspiring energy monopolist, Shreck is "the man who runs things," Gotham City's "mover and shaker," a Langian supervillain with the power to lift the accursed subterranean into the light of day and cast souls from the heavens, as well as a concerned parent. Evil incarnate otherwise, Max is always ready to sacrifice himself to protect his son Chip, if only because the youth is his legacy, his only continuity after death. He's a pharaonic figure in the movie's mock-Mosaic context, but his menace is undercut by his underwritten role. Walken's dialogue is sometimes literally reduced to a shrug, and as with all the villains, Shreck is too often reduced to speaking flippant if not infantile one-liners that make them sound stupid rather than sinister -- his response to one taunt from Bruce Wayne is "Yawn." I've always felt that Walken could have done a lot more with the part if Waters and Burton didn't turn Shreck into a moron at crucial moments. His behavior at the climax defies common sense; having just learned the secret identities of both Catwoman and Batman, and having his life threatened by the former, he might be expected to sit back and let Bruce Wayne eliminate the main threat, and then blackmail Wayne into compliance with his power-plant plans and perpetual stoogery thereafter. Instead, he shoots Wayne, wasting a bullet that might have saved his life if aimed elsewhere. Maybe Shreck ends up weak just because he's a Langian villain in what is, despite appearances, not a Langian film, thematically speaking.

2. The Son.

I remember reading an interview in which Burton confessed to being frightened as a kid by Charlton Heston's transformation from prince to prophet in The Ten Commandments. It's not hard to see Batman Returns as the byproduct of that primal fear, as its top-billed villain, The Penguin (Danny DeVito) is a child cast upon the waters, only to return with an agenda of biblical revenge upon his fellow firstborn. As a manufactured hero and candidate for mayor (a trope borrowed from the 1960s TV show) Oswald Cobblepot arguably becomes a kind of antichrist, with Max Shreck as his satanic sponsor. Early versions of the script established Shreck and Cobblepot as brothers, but the writers made the right call by turning Shreck into a kind of substitute father figure for the malevolent mutant. Burton's vision of the Penguin is a drastic departure from the dapper, fussy figure of the comics. You can dress him up to look like Dr. Caligari, but he remains an animal, cold-blooded but comically randy. Waters writes contradictory dialogue for him, sometimes utterly vulgar, sometimes verbally pretentious, that seems appropriate for Burton's stated theme of duality -- maybe Schreck pales in comparison because there's no real duality at play in him.

In any event, the Langian Schreck is eclipsed by Cobblepot, who despite his Caligarian formalwear is a classic Lon Chaney Sr. villain -- the grotesque outcast with a grudge against society and an occasional hint of a soul. There's not much hint of a soul in Burton's Penguin, but the director does make him an object of absurd pathos throughout, never losing sight of Cobblepot's desperate desire for acceptance (and sex) while reminding us that probably only the penguins ever really loved him. De Vito gives a performance worthy of Chaney, working the suit and the makeup for all they're worth. Even though he was certainly cast for his physical attributes and abrasive persona, he succeeds in making Cobblepot a distinct personality, or at least an ideal embodiment of Burton's dualist-animalist vision.

3. The Holy Ghost.


A few weeks ago I bought the Japanese ghost story Kuroneko during a Barnes & Noble Criterion Collection sale. I haven't watched the film yet, but the synopsis was a twenty-years late "a-ha!" moment. In Kuroneko a mother and daughter are raped and murdered by marauding samurai, but are revived by -- you guessed it -- cats licking their wounds. In the Japanese film, apparently, it's clear that the the women are undead, animated by cat spirits but retaining their human memories. We can assume that Burton, Waters or Sam Hamm either saw this 1968 film or were aware of the cat-spirit concept from Japanese folklore and applied it to Selina Kyle. Michelle Pfeiffer's character is an even more drastic departure from her comics template, since the movie's Penguin is at least still the leader of a criminal gang. Burton's Catwoman is an all-out avenger, even pausing before her campaign against the Shreck empire to play vigilante, if only to rebuke the victim-to-be for being a version of her own former mousy self. Burton seems uninterested in crime as such, the nearest thing to a conventional criminal in Returns being the businessman Shreck. But his approach allows him to cut to the quick in the matter of Selina Kyle and Bruce Wayne. He can dispense with the questionable notion that opposites (criminal and crimefighter) attract. As Bruce Wayne himself says, he and Selina are essentially the same. His tragedy is his failure to realize that their exact sameness makes a happy ending impossible. They're both "split, right down the center," but the split makes it impossible for either, despite Wayne's own desperate proposal, to go home to a fairy-tale castle together -- leaving aside the likelihood that Selina doesn't even belong on this earth, that her kingdom is no longer of this world.


In a way, neither does Bruce. His commitment to his avenging path had already cost him a lover before Returns even starts, and it has left him a kind of living ghost -- not the strutting playboy Christian Bale has portrayed -- brooding in darkness before the Bat-Signal stirs him into action. His romance with Selina belies his claim that his romance with Vicki Vale failed because she couldn't accept the "two truths" that define him. Selina comes to understand them all too well. If anything, she's split more profoundly than Bruce, as her crudely sewn and instantly fraying costume illustrates. After indulging a cruel streak we'd seen even before her trauma, she interrogates herself in a shop window, asking, "Why are you doing this?" In the end, she sees no choice but to do it. When she says she couldn't live with herself if she accepted Bruce's proposal, does she mean only that she can't accept leaving Shreck alive or, worse, that she doesn't deserve the happy ending Bruce self-deludingly offers? A supernatural reading of Returns would require her to follow through and destroy Shreck, that being her sole mission on earth as the wrath of God. An animalistic reading of the sort that Burton preferred at the time -- Selina as essentially a cat -- wouldn't be inconsistent with the supernatural reading of her as a cat-spirit. The dualistic reading is tragically pessimistic about the possibility of harmony between any two people. A part of each of us yearns for it, but another part always seems to want something else. That's why Bruce ends the first Burton film alone atop a tower while Alfred chauffeurs Vicki below -- and why Selina ends the second equally elevated and equally alone (in a late yet appropriate addition) while Bruce rides dismally in the limo. Christmas only heightens the pathos, but Burton's refusal of reconciliation, his insistence that love can't conquer all, makes Batman Returns an anti-Christmas movie, as might befit a June release -- unless indulging your pity is your idea of a holiday exercise.

Christopher Nolan's great project has been to modernize Batman, to release the character from the grip of retro sensibilities. If the beloved animated series that began shortly after Batman Returns seemed to lock Batman in a film-noir world, albeit with superscience enhancements, Burton's sequel looked further backward to the sensibilities of silent cinema. Apart from some early CGI (including a well-publicized "stunt Batman" for flying scenes) and a song by Siouxsie and the Banshees, Returns may as well be eighty rather than twenty years old next year. It's a monumental relic of the era of massive handmade sets -- Bo Welch's cityscapes are an improvement on Anton Furst's Oscar-winning abstractions. Too much CGI in the intervening generation gives me an even greater appreciation for the craftsmanship on display here. Danny Elfman's music should be making the transition from dated to timeless any year now. He was practically a musical genre in his own right for a while, if not a cliche, and the Returns score remains one of his best. Speaking of The Ten Commandments, did anyone else ever notice a similarity between Elfman's four-note Batman motif and Elmer Bernstein's Wagnerian opening notes (DUH, duh duh-DUH!) for the DeMille film? Finally, I can't leave the subject of Burton's Batman without doing justice to Burton's Batman. Cating Michael Keaton was a casting masterstroke, making clear that Bruce Wayne would not fight crime primarily with brute force while investing the character with that tense introspection of which comedians are often capable. I also happen to think his Returns gear is the best movie Batman costume to date. Keaton is the actor least burdened with clunky one-liners here, and his scenes with Pfeiffer in and out of uniform are extraordinary. The "two truths" speech is especially good and Keaton leaves an enduring impression of a deeply troubled, if not disturbed, yet essentially good man -- despite Burton's neglect of Batman's traditional code against killing. It's too bad that Keaton never got many acting opportunities afterward. I've never bought the idea that he or Bale have been eclipsed by their more flamboyant co-stars, and despite all the attention I've given to his antagonists Returns is still essentialy a film about Bruce Wayne, what defines him and differentiates him from his apparent peers, and why he'll remain as we found him here.

Returns is still my favorite Batman movie (Nolan's Dark Knight is the runner-up), sometimes in spite of itself. Waters's clunky dialogue pales in comparison to the screenplay's awkwardly edited chronology. Consider this: Selina Kyle has to go to Max Shreck's office at night to prepare the paperwork for Shreck's meeting with Bruce Wayne the following morning. That night, Shreck throws Selina out the window and she becomes Catwoman. The next morning is when Shreck stages the kidnapping and Penguin's rescue of the mayor's baby. We see Bruce Wayne watch news reports of the event. Penguin is set up at the Hall of Records to research his parentage, and one night a now-suspicious Batman cruises past the place. In another daytime scene Cobblepot visits his parents' graves and talks to the press. We see newspaper coverage of the scene. That night, presumably, Catwoman makes her first appearance to save a woman from a mugger. The following morning is when Bruce Wayne finally arrives at Shreck's office. Between the night of Selina's "death" and "next morning," an unlikely minimum of four days have passed, and it was probably quite a few more. How hard would that be to fix? For a long while, and maybe still, narrative wasn't considered Burton's strong suit. Returns often moves forward by laborious contrivances. Why, in the middle of a fight with Catwoman, does Batman remark that "mistletoe is deadly when you eat it?" The answer is that Burton needs a way for Bruce Wayne and Selina Kyle to discover each other's secret identities at the same moment, and the mistletoe couplet (answer: "A kiss can be even deadlier if you mean it") provides that. This is not a well-made plot, but the payoffs often justify the contrivances. The Max-querade Ball scene, where Bruce and Selina are the only guests not wearing masks, yet are unmasked to each other via the mistletoe couplet, is a poignantly devastating moment, no matter what it took for Burton to get us there. Burton's purpose was to give us visual and emotional spectacle, and against the odds he succeeded on both counts.
Compared to Nolan, Burton had what now seems a healthy reticence toward making Batman relevant to the contemporary world. Burton's Batman films are unrepentant fantasies unbound by any reality principle. Nolan has done great things with the concept, but he seems to sacrifice a lot of its potential in doing so. The two directors have profoundly different notions of what Batman is all about, and that's bound to influence each man's notion of what Catwoman is all about. For Nolan, time will tell and the clock is ticking. Burton has set the standard, but let's reconvene in seven months and consider this all again. For now, come what may, Merry Christmas and goodwill toward men ... and women.

Straight from the source -- WarnerBrosPictures presents the trailer for The Dark Knight Rises.

Friday, December 23, 2011

OSSOS (1997)

Pedro Costa is probably the best director in Portugal under the age of 100. I first started noticing his name a few years ago when film critics were touting his Colossal Youth as one of the greatest yet little-seen films of the decade. That film is now canonized in the Criterion Collection as the final installment of a trilogy of films set in the impoverished Fontainhas section of Lisbon. That trilogy began with Ossos ("Bones"), which reminded me in content of the tales of lowlife youth made by the Dardenne brothers in Belgium. It's the story of the people caught up in a young, poor couple's crisis over a newborn baby. Neither mother (Mariya Lipkina) nor father (Nuno Vaz) has any real idea of what to do with the baby, whom Costa often shows lying around like a piece of junk or mislaid clothing. The most the dad can think of is to carry it around as a panhandling aid. He begs for money to get food for the baby, then spends it on booze. The baby ends up in a hospital, pried by force from the father's hands, and its treatment brings a nurse, Eduarda (Isabel Ruth), into the story. She's more capable and probably more willing to take care of the baby than either of its parents, but the father is determined to make money off the transaction. If he can't sell it to Eduarda, he'll try someone else. The plot is such that the young mother ends up working a day as Eduarda's cleaning lady, finishing her shift by attempting suicide via the kitchen oven. The compassionate nurse tries to befriend this wretch, only to discover the connection between the girl and the guy with the baby who uses her apartment as a crash pad. This connection is already all too well known to the girl's friend Clotilde (Vanda Duarte, a real-life slum dweller and heroin addict who would play herself in Costa's follow-up film), who also figures out that oven's destructive potential....


It's squalid stuff, but Costa aestheticizes it to an almost alarming degree. He and cinematographer Emmanuel Machuel have maximized the slum's picturesque potential; you can tell that they've combed every corner to find the best camera angles, the most cinematic colors and textures of buildings. Ossos has a paradoxical beauty that's perhaps intended as an aid to compassion, and the actors often become icons of mood, frozen in long, mute close-ups. Costa clearly has a powerful pictorial sense, but his film left me wondering whether his painterly compositions honestly represented the experience of living in Fontainhas or the way its people see their slumscape. A rougher, less thoroughly composed style might have been more appropriate, but that depends on Costa's ultimate purpose. Whatever my qualms, Ossos was a beautiful film to look at, and often effectively so. Costa works in a European style that requires attentive viewing, and his direction is assured enough that your attention is usually justified. It's also worth suggesting that Costa himself may have had second thoughts about his approach, since the later Fontainhas films, In Vanda's Room and Colossal Youth, abandon the widescreen format while reportedly retaining a distinctive aesthetic identity. I was impressed enough by Ossos to see how those other films look.

This trailer uploaded by CineLuso is much more edit-happy than the film itself -- those opening shots of the guy walking down the street are from one long tracking shot -- but it does give you an idea of what goes on in the film. Check it out.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

DRUM BEAT (1954)

Among fans of 1950s Westerns, Anthony Mann and Budd Boetticher have their multitudes of champions, so I always like to say a word for Delmer Daves. If not their peer, Daves was definitely the third master to emerge during the genre's golden decade. Like Mann and Boetticher, Daves's western work was chronologically specific to the decade, spanning from Broken Arrow in 1950 through The Hanging Tree in 1959 before he switched to romance pictures like A Summer Place. Often his own writer, Daves was arguably more of an auteur than his peers in terms of creative control, and his name meant enough to be placed above the title of his big-budget Cinemascope western, a star vehicle for an Alan Ladd fresh from Shane and a kind of perverse do-over of Broken Arrow. But while that film established an archetype of a noble Indian in Jeff Chandler's Cochise, Drum Beat gives us Charles Bronson as an intransigent monster who predictably steals the film from Ladd and captured Daves's imagination in a way that muddies whatever message the director meant his movie to have.

"The phrase or slogan of 'peaceful co-existence' is fastening on the public mind in a drum-beat sort of way, beginning softly, slowly, and increasing in tempp and force....The slogan needs exact definition. 'Peaceful co-existence,' conceivably, could become peace-at-a-price -- any price!
The Milwaukee Sentinel, Nov. 18 1954.

The metaphor is just a coincidence -- the sort of thing you get when you search for "Drum Beat" circa November 1954 on the Google News Archive -- but it gives you an idea of the political environment in which Drum Beat was released, with the Cold War still going strong despite Joe McCarthy's fall from grace. Daves had made a film about a peacemaker. In 1872, Johnny MacKay (Ladd) has been summoned to Washington by President Grant. In an interestingly awkward scene, a guard outside the White House invites McKay to stroll right into the Executive Mansion. In the lobby, an old man notes his gun and knife and asks if he means to shoot the President. The oldster goes on to joke about Grant's smoking and drinking before identifying himself as the President's father. Grant himself ushers McKay into a lavish sitting room, where he commissions MacKay to negotiate peace with the Modoc tribe in the Lost River valley. There's already a treaty, but war chief Captain Jack (Bronson) refuses to acknowledge it. MacKay will have to deal with Jack despite the skepticism of a pacifist minister who champions Indian rights. Jack calls himself a captain because he collects pieces of army uniforms and decorates himself with medals plundered off military victims. Not all Modocs agree with him, while some are even more extreme than he, but he bullies and blusters his way to power. He also seems to have some white settlers under his control, having provided them with Indian wives. There's an air of appeasement in the valley that might make 1954 viewers see Captain Jack as a stand-in for the Commies, and his success as an insurgent against incompetent army attacks also makes him a kind of prophecy of the Vietcong and other guerrilla foes of America. But the message of the movie seems to be that we should never stop trying to negotiate peace with hardcases like Jack, no matter how risky it becomes -- and in Jack's case, it's very risky for an erstwhile Indian fighter like Johnny MacKay, who upholds the President's policy despite demands for violent reprisal from hothead whites, one of whom (Robert Keith) starts a war with a vengeance shooting of the Modoc who murdered his wife.

For the record, Daves didn't write Broken Arrow. It's possible that his Drum Beat screenplay is a critique of what was probably still regarded as his greatest triumph as a director. He seems to consciously retreat from the noble-Indian archetype, forefronting a savage enemy who talks in the still-convention pidgin Injun lingo. Indeed, Daves stages scenes in which Captain Jack confronts the brother-sister team of good Modocs, Manok (Anthony Caruso) and Toby (Marisa Pavan) in a Modoc camp -- and they all talk what Jack calls "Boston English" at each other. Jack even tells his supporters at one point to talk amongst themselves in Boston English so the rest of the Modocs won't know their plans. It's especially embarrassing to see Bronson talk this way after seeing him play a chief without the dialect in Samuel Fuller's Run of the Arrow, but his whole performance here (apparently in his first role under his new stage name) is wildly over the top, yet unfocused. Most of the time Jack is a Magua-esque villain, but there's an odd moment when he's nearly convinced to negotiate peace sincerely, only to be bullied back into intransigence by one of his underlings. Finally, after presenting Jack as an iredeemable monster through most of the picture, Daves stretches out the finish after MacKay captures Jack alive so Ladd and Bronson can have a scene comparing their visions of the afterlife and the two men can shake hands before Jack is hanged, as if the "Captain" had been a noble adversary all along. It's as if Daves didn't know what to make with the character after Bronson was through with it, and the auteur's confusion makes Jack's symbolic role, if he really has any, even more unclear. The only clear message that survives the story is the idea that individuals, not entire populations, are to blame for war. This point is made when MacKay criticizes calls for all-out extermination of the Modocs made after Jack had treacherously attacked McKay himself and other negotiators. Daves may not be as sensitive as his Broken Arrow collaborators, but he doesn't want to be seen as an Indian-hater either. He even teases a Broken Arrow style romance between MacKay and Toby, though the hero's heart ultimately belongs to a white girl, and Toby gets her head bashed in with a rock.

When Daves later cast Alan Ladd in The Badlanders, a Westernization of The Asphalt Jungle, the star promptly had the picture stolen from him by Ernest Borgnine. The record suggests that Daves had little more idea what to do with Ladd, for different reasons, than he had for Bronson. Part of the problem with Drum Beat is that the picture has a story, but not a plot. That is, Johnny MacKay never develops after that promising scene in the White House, and Ladd quickly reverts to his typically inert self. If you wonder why he never really capitalized on Shane, here's part of the proof. More might have been made of the romantic triangle, but Daves is so mesmerized by Bronson's rampage that Pavan interacts with him more and Audrey Dalton, as the white girl, practically disappears from the picture. If Drum Beat is about the difficulties created by an intractable leader, that character itself created crippling difficulties for the picture. That insoluble problem wastes Daves's characteristically scenic location work -- a few soundstage scenes notwithstanding -- but then again Encore Western's typical pan-and-scan presentation was a waste of the film's pictorial splendor and some of its dramatic energy. It might suffice as an outdoor adventure -- Ladd and Bronson have a nice little fight while being carried down a rushing stream and there's a neat portrait in futility as the army storms Jack's hilltop stronghold and is shot to pieces -- but Drum Beat is the weakest Daves western that I've seen so far and regrettable proof that while Daves still deserves recognition as the third master of Fifties westerns, he's not really the equal of the other two.

Monday, December 19, 2011


"I have a gift for disaster," says Richard Burton, late of Exorcist II: The Heretic and The Klansman, among others, and from that point -- probably as soon as the trailer started playing --  Jack Gold's movie was a sitting duck for reviewers. Burton plays John Morlar, a man seen mostly in flashback after his head is bashed in (shades of The Assassination of Trotsky!) to start the picture. Euro-detective Brunel (Lino Ventura) has to figure out whodunit as a comatose Morlar clings to life. Fortunately, Morlar left plenty of notes. These lead Brunel to Dr. Zonfeld, whom he's shocked to discover is a woman (Lee Remick). Sacre bleu! Are they that backward in France? But in Brunel's defense, Zonfeld was a man in the source novel by Peter Van Greenaway. In any event, the doctor describes a tragic nut who had grown convinced that he had somehow willed the deaths of his parents, a hateful schoolteacher, and so on. Fine, but unless someone believed him, why would anyone try to kill him? There are more plausible suspects, like the client attorney Morlar got convicted thanks to an insulting, unpatriotic rant in court. There's a neighbor who just might blame Morlar for his wife jumping out a window. On the other hand, could Morlar do what he thought he had? To find out, Brunel learns about telekinesis and American and Soviet experiments along those lines. If Morlar had such powers, some superpowers might well be interested in him. But was he telekinetic, merely clairvoyant, or simply insane? If he did have powers, his jumbled notes might prove far more menacing than they seemed at first, especially since they seem to refer to an upcoming royal event. The more Brunel learns, the more that knowledge appears to establish the motive for murder -- and the more tempted he is to become complicit in murder....

Telekinesis was the secular diabolism of the 1970s, a variation on the devil's power to make bad things happen without the baggage of God and his inevitable victory. For every Exorcist or Omen or Holocaust 2000, it might seem, there was a Carrie, or The Fury -- or The Medusa Touch.   Marvel Comics was ahead of the curve here, having cast a telekinetic in its X-Men comics in the 1960s, and that may have been just one expression of the idea of telekinesis as a mutation of modernity. Whatever its sources in pop culture or pseudoscience, telekinesis was a godsend, secularly speaking, to Seventies cinema. But it didn't guarantee you an entertaining movie, and Medusa Touch goes out of its way to diffuse the potential excitement. The flashback investigation format is deadly as Ventura, presumably dubbed and cast on the strength of a similar investigative role in Francesco Rosi's Excellent Cadavers, plods from informant to informant to pick up each discrete anecdote of Morlar's career. It's a rare but perhaps predictably lifeless performance from a hero of French crime cinema, but no less lifeless are Remick as the doctor and Burton himself as Morlar. Supposedly sober at this time, if I remember the biography correctly, Burton still seems disoriented and confused here, but a script that's too coy about whether Morlar is innocently crazy or ultimately malevolent may be to blame. But while it's always good to have stars' names on the poster, acting is secondary to set pieces of death and destruction, from an out of control car flinging a couple off a cliff to a jumbo jet ramming a skyscraper. The effects are hit and miss, but at least the production made an effort, especially for the big climax at the cathedral. Harry Andrews proves more heedful of dire warnings than he would be in Superman, but despite all his efforts as a security man you can't do without a disaster, so down comes the masonry on the early arrivals -- Her Majesty was fortunately warned off in time. The collapsing goes on for maybe a bit too long -- it has to accommodate Ventura dashing to the hospital to confront the supposedly moribund Morlar -- but it's at least carried on with the typical apocalyptic enthusiasm of the era. I was also amused to see how extensive the TV coverage of the cathedral event and surprise disaster were. When Ventura catches the coverage on a hospital set, the camera angles are exactly the same (including views from the ceiling) as those we'd already seen in "real time." The omniscient TV cameras common to movies (and TV shows) are a minor pet peeve of mine, but they come with the territory.  If Jack Gold and writer John Briley could have built things up with the same enthusiasm as they smashed things, Medusa Touch might have been more enjoyable throughout. Instead, it's a curio of Seventies genre cinema and more proof of Burton's unlucky talent for disaster during the decade.

Here's a trailer uploaded to YouTube by hideseek124.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

R. (2010)

Time for a change of pace -- so how about a Danish prison film? This debut film co-directed by Michael Noer and Tobias Lindholm is as dark and merciless an entry in this genre as I've seen in a while, an uncompromising descent into hell. R stands for Rune (Pilou Asbek), who's in trouble as soon as he's left in his prison "house" because he'd stabbed a friend of one of the skinheads inside. He's hardly settled before he has to beat up "the Armenian" and bash the man's teeth in against a set of stairs in a suggestively sickening bit of violence -- the victim's face is wrapped in cloth so we don't see the worst. That still leaves Rune the low man on the totem pole, subject to constant humiliation and menace. A neat freak, he's soon put to work by the convicts cleaning toilets and the like while they mess up his "house" and draw obscene cartoons on photos of his girlfriend. Asbek's face is locked in a glower of perpetual desperation that seems entirely appropriate to his situation.

But R also stands for Rashid (Dulfi al-Jabouri), a Muslim con close to Rune's age who came in on the same transport and is stored with other Muslims on the level below Rune and the skinheads. Co-workers on the kitchen staff, Rune and Rashid figure out their own toilet-delivery system involving the shells of Kinder Surprise eggs to make themselves useful to the intra-penitentiary drug trade and lift some of the pressure off their heads. Theirs seems an unlikely alliance across ethnic and religous lines, but similar alliances are possible for the purpose of preying on the young convicts and betraying whatever group solidarity exists behind bars. The film demonstrates with grim certitude that it would make no difference had we followed Rashid rather than Rune through the entire picture, as their fates prove all too similar.

You could believe that Noer and Lindholm intended their movie as a corrective to Jacques Audiard's Un Prophete, the French film hailed as the best prison film of the past decade. Without disparaging Audiard at all, his tale of a young con's unlikely rise to power in prison looks like a melodramatic adventure tale compared to the miseries of R. While Audiard was working with a larger context of demographic change in the French underworld, Noer and Lindholm make their drab prison a nightmare of perpetual bullying adolescence. The banal decorations -- potted plants in the halls and such -- give the Danish pen a dormitory look that invites comparisons between the sufferings of Rune and the hazings of a private school. The cruel genius of the story is the way the directors present the intense Asbek as a ticking bomb, but thwart our expectation of release through some ultimate explosion. At a crucial moment, the focus shifts from Rune to Rashid to emphasize their commonality rather than either man's exceptional potential.

Even more cruel, perhaps, is the co-writers' determination not to reduce the trouble with prison to racial or religious conflict. Instead, they give us ample evidence that humanity itself, in the stunted form that flourishes in stir, is the essential problem, and that race or religion offer no real security to anyone, except possibly at the top of the parochial food chain. R's spiritual cruelty may turn off many viewers, but it's also the film's chief virtue -- take it or leave it. For the writer-directors it's a formidable debut, and considerable credit is also due to cinematographer Magnus Nordenhof Jonck and set decorator Holger Vig for creating a suitably bleak, often evilly banal environment for the story. Noer, Lindholm and Asbek won the big Danish movie awards this year, and without seeing their competition I feel confident that they earned them.

Here's a trailer -- with regrettably censored English subtitles, uploaded by NewTrailersUK.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Pre-Code Parade: Edward G. Robinson Roundup

As long as TCM keeps dishing 'em out, I'll keep lapping them up. Last Monday was Edward G. Robinson's 118th birthday, and the Turner channel served up a daytime marathon of mostly lesser-known items from the filmography, ranging from his breakthrough year of 1930 through the late-noir period. For this occasion, let's look at four pre-Code pieces, two with Robinson in archetypal gangster mode, two in something closer to the Edna Ferber style, tracing the rise and fall of titans of enterprise.

Less than two months before the January 1931 release of Little Caesar, Robinson was the gangster heavy in Eddie Cline's THE WIDOW FROM CHICAGO. He's second-billed under lead actress Alice White in this peculiar comic revenge story from the co-director of many of Buster Keaton's classic silent short subjects. The set-up isn't exactly comic: White's cop brother is gunned down in a drive-by courtesy of Dominic (Robinson), nightclub owner and bootlegger supreme. The cops can't build a case against Dominic, so White takes steps on her own. Her brother had just conveniently told her about the daring escape from a moving train off a bridge made by supercrook Swifty Dorgan, who has been unseen ever since. Taking Dorgan's swastika-covered grip with her, which poor brother had kept as a trophy, White poses as Dorgan's widow, hoping that sympathy and her own good looks will earn her a job at Dominic's club and enable her to get dirt on the gangster. The plan works until Dorgan (Neil "Commissioner Gordon" Hamilton) makes good on his reputation by turning up alive. He can expose White's imposture, but since Dominic will only accept the wife's word as proof of Dorgan's identity the master crook goes along while planning a big hotel robbery for Dominic. White's vengeance scheme threatens to go off the rails when she shoots a cop in the back to protect Dorgan, but there may be a method to her madness.

Robinson doesn't exactly steal the film from White, but did steal top billing in some markets.

White is impossible to take seriously as an avenger, even when the film insists, and Cline maintains a comic, almost hysterically hard-boiled tone throughout -- practically every other line is an insult of some sort. Robinson is effortlessly domineering but relatively unthreatening; the overall comic tone allows him to be taken alive so he can make more wisecracks on his way up the river. The highlight is a gun battle between Dominic and the cops after they've raided his club and he's dimmed the lights. As the patrons panic the cops bring in searchlights, but when you know the lay of the place like Dominic, a cop turning on a light only makes himself a target. Even this nicely staged and shot action scene is interrupted by shots of Frank McHugh (in what must be one of his first turns as a comedy-relief lackey) seeking shelter and stoically slinking away from the spotlight. Widow is odd and awkward, as a star vehicle for a failed and forgotten star often is, but it retains historical interest as an early-draft version, albeit one of the latest, for the Warner Bros. gangster genre.

Once Robinson was established as a star, Warners guessed that the rise-and-fall gangster formula was translatable into other genres. In a period when big businessmen were still thought of as "robber barons," turning Robinson into a morally-conflicted entrepreneur seemed like a good idea. The first fruit of this transformation was Alfred E. Green's SILVER DOLLAR, released in December 1932.  In this "based on true events" saga, Robinson is Yates Martin, a Colorado pioneer who accepts shares in a silver mine as payment for groceries from his store. He's practically forgotten about it when the miners return from making a strike and making Martin rich. Though it takes him a while to figure out the difference between silver and gold, he soon builds on his investment to become a silver tycoon, a philanthropist and a political force in the young state. He's naively ambitious in an almost lovably stupid way -- when asked to run for lieutenant governor he tells his wife he's just been made governor -- but begins to feel that the wife (Aline MacMahon) is a drag on his aspirations, especially after he's fallen for another woman (Bebe Daniels). The film won't be complete, however, unless the Robinson character falls and falls hard. Just as he's striving to corner the silver market the government establishes a gold standard, drastically reducing the value of silver and bankrupting Yates Martin in one stroke. While future films of this sort might be described as rise, fall and rise, this film and the next one end with the fall, without redemption or reconciliation. They play on the pathos of Robinson as a broken man, Silver Dollar ending on a Wagnerian note as he collapses in delirium on the stage of the grand opera house he built in Denver, with the reconciliation left to his two wives at the funeral. The film has decent production values reflecting the studio's desire to put the star over as a great and versatile actor. He's likable enough to make you regret Yates Martin's fall, but his performance and the film as a whole pale in comparison to Robinson's next effort in this line.

Green took the Silver Dollar formula to further extremes in I LOVED A WOMAN, released in September 1933. The title acquires bitter irony as the story progresses. Despite the poster art to your left, this is another period piece, reaching back to the early 1890s. Robinson plays John Mansfield Hayden, the young heir to a meatpacking fortune called home from his grand tour of Europe when his father dies. Young Hayden is something of an aesthete and contemptuous toward the business practices of his father's rivals. He's more concerned with becoming a philanthropist and indulging the charitable whims of his wife (Genevieve Tobin), the daughter of one of his new rivals. They appear to share a contempt for the corner-cutting that inflicts "condemned" meat on consumers, but Mrs. Hayden seems crestfallen as hubby's principled practices put his business further behind the pack. His own complacency is slapped silly when he falls hard for glamorously ambitious opera singer Laura McDonald (Kay Francis), who sees how inhibited he is and urges him (in a speech that could have been uttered in Baby Face) to become utterly ruthless in pursuit of his dreams. Hayden abandons all his scruples, scrambling to sell any meat he can sweep into a can to the troops bound for Cuba in 1898, earning a face-to-face rebuke from Teddy Roosevelt. To impress Laura, he becomes king of meatpackers while Mrs. Hayden seethes with hate. Hiring a detective to catch him in flagrante with Laura, she discovers before he does that Laura has been cheating on him all along with a younger man. The artiste's idea of love had never included fidelity, it seems, and she feels that Hayden still owes her, since he'd needed her to motivate himself to succeed in business. In his fury, he vows to become bigger than ever to prove that he never needed her -- and proves his point by becoming a war profiteer on a megalomaniacal scale, purchasing land and cattle around the world to feed the armies of World War I. The only problem is that the war eventually ends, and the sudden cancellation of so many orders leaves him short when the bills come do. He ends up a senile exile -- a strange prophecy from Robinson and Warner Bros. of Al Capone's end -- failing to recognize Laura when she visits him in Greece, where the film began. He doesn't even get the dignity that comes with death, as the film fades out on him lapsing into troubled sleep. As in Silver Dollar, the refusal of any real redemption makes I Loved a real downer, and the sweeping character arc Robinson describes from idealist to pathetic criminal makes this film a somewhat soul-crushing experience. I Loved passes a judgment more bleak than we'd get in the crime-does-not-pay era of Code enforcement, when Hollywood would rather reward virtue than punish hubris. The pre-Code era's greater willingness to countenance tragedy is probably another point in its favor.

Curiously, while Robinson played businessmen in tragic mode, his gangster character turned comic in Roy Del Ruth's THE LITTLE GIANT, released in between Silver Dollar and I Loved A Woman. This is one of Warner's pro-FDR propaganda films of 1933, though the political stuff is dealt with quickly at the onset. The movie opens with a news montage illustrating two recent revolutionary events, Roosevelt's election and the repeal of Prohibition. Following the news closely is John Francis "Bugs" Ahearn (Robinson), who reads the writing on the wall and quits organized crime. Arguably, Little Giant is the first "end of an era" gangster film, though the effect isn't elegiac but comically optimistic as Robinson embodies the nation turning a corner toward a new deal. His abandonment of crime symbolizes the nation's commitment to follow FDR on the path to renewal while leaving open the question of injustice. This becomes clear as Ahearn heads to California to retire in luxury amongs the horsy set, only to learn that some criminals are still operating in broad daylight. These are the criminals of high finance, represented by the predatory Cass family, who ironically see Ahearn as an easy mark. The really ironic thing is that they're right; the reformed gangster is so eager to make an impression on the rich that he guilelessly walks into a trap, stamping him even more as One Of Us. Pretty Polly (Helen Vinson) is the lure to catch Bugs's money, which the Casses hope he'll invest into their shady investment bank, which has been issuing bad bonds for some time. Bugs is so hot to go legit that he blindly buys into the scheme, against the advice of his friendly realtor (Mary Astor), whose family fortune was wiped out by the Casses, reducing her to renting out her mansion, without admitting her desperate ownership, to Ahearn. Finally realizing what a sucker he'd been, Bugs fights back the Chicago way, within limits, in an amusing reversal of the vigilantism usually directed at gangsters in 1933 movies. Probably the most "pre-Code" of all these films, Little Giant is a testimony to how beloved Robinson had become among moviegoers as a gangster. He never has to answer for whatever misdeeds he perpetrated as a bootlegger, and never seems in danger of prosecution once Time magazine exposes his presence in California, except for holding the bad Cass bonds. In this film, the New Deal and Repeal are a kind of amnesty for the movie gangster, freeing him to take the fight to the economic royalists and ripoff artists who arguably made many more people's lives miserable. Robinson has a ball with his fish-out-of-water role and the charismatic challenge of playing a tough guy and a sap in one person. He forms a weird little pre-Code triangle with Astor and Russell Hopton, who plays Bugs's loyal sidekick Al. There's something virtually homoerotic about Al's devotion to Bugs ("Where papa goes, mama goes too" he says of himself) and a sense of damaged goods about the overall character that makes him more sympathetic than creepy. He gets the Pre-Code Line of the Film when Bugs invites him to admire an abstract painting he's just acquired. When's the last time you saw something like that? Ahearn asks. "Just before I quit cocaine," Al answers. The film goes a little too far into physical comedy, closing anticlimactically with Bugs's Chicago buddy wreaking havoc on a polo field, but it charms you into forgiving this indulgence. While Silver Dollar and I Loved A Woman demonstrate Warner Bros' feeling that Robinson was destined for better things, Little Giant suggests more persuasively that pre-Code audiences already loved Eddie just as he was.

To close, a trailer double bill. First, Warner Bros. uses every promotional device at its disposal, from rave reviews from contract players to the mailed fist of persuasion, to put over I Loved A Woman. BadMoJos uploaded this frantic preview to YouTube.

And here's a Little Giant trailer straight from TCM.