Sunday, September 30, 2012

Paul Fejos's BROADWAY (1929)

Roy Lane: I'd like to see someone make me stop talking!
Showgirl: So would I!

Was Paul Fejos Hollywood's answer to Abel Gance or the Michael Bay of the 1920s? The Hungarian polymath, whose life (at least as told by himself) reads like a pulp adventure novel, has made a name for himself anew with the Criterion Collection's DVD release of his expressionistic, experimental 1928 part-talkie Lonesome. With Lonesome came two more Fejos features, but the silent Last Performance instantly threw his talent into question. One hoped for a prototype for Universal's horror cycle from the story of a stage magician (Conrad Veidt) using his illusion skills to frame a romantic rival for murder, but the picture betrayed Fejos's deep disinterest in narrative. It comes to life only when the director can play with double-exposures and dissolves or can find excuses to move his camera around the set. Whatever that film's box-office fate, Carl Laemmle Jr. remained enamored with Dr. Fejos, entrusted him with a big-budget all-talking adaptation of a landmark Broadway show, and gave him what he wanted most: a new toy. This was the "Broadway Crane," developed by Fejos and cinematographer Hal Mohr to allow the camera almost literally to take flight, gliding, swooping and diving across seemingly vast heights and distances. D.W. Griffith could have used something like it to film the Babylonian scenes of Intolerance, but Fejos and Mohr applied it to the story of a song-and-dance man desperate to get out of a lousy nightclub gig and break into vaudeville. To make room for the crane, the Paradise Club, named ironically in the play, becomes an Expressionist cathedral, more fit for the Phantom of the Opera than the gangsters and showgirls clamoring for attention here.

Fejos is always out for sensation, and the opening to Broadway is sensational. Universal built a detailed scale model of Times Square, that lit up for night scenes, for the crane (or a smaller version of it) to explore as a thunderous overture blasts out. At night, a giant strides through town, an amazing colossal Bacchus who pours a drink from a bottle and cackles insanely (though silently) as the opening credits appear.

Earlier this summer I was watching Universal's 1939 Green Hornet serial and wondering where the amazing cityscapes in the chapter recaps came from. Now I know, but now the question is: who's the uncredited behemoth having a blast below?

After the credits comes the now-typical Fejos montage with lateral dissolves and multiple exposures, and while his tricks may be familiar by now this one still dazzles, conveying the immensity and energy of the Great White Way for which the play and picture are named.

We get an early hint of the scope of the Paradise Club as its proprietor takes a little walkabout, but we also get some character development. Glenn Tryon, Fejos's male lead in Lonesome, plays Roy Lane, the hoofing headliner of the Paradise floor show who hopes for better things. Can you blame him? Every night he has to walk something like the length of a landing strip from the curtain to the edge of the stage before he can begin to sing. That has to get hard on the legs, especially when they expect you to dance, too. His first appearance on stage gives the crane its first real workout, and it is kind of awe-inspiring or, to use a synonym, awful. Everyone's "Overproduced!" alarms will go off, but to the extent that Broadway is an Expressionist film Fejos probably should get a pass.

Glenn Tryon's ambitions are laid bare, nearly, in Broadway.
Tryon and the Broadway crane get from there to here in one tracking shot.

Roy has a rival for the affections of his dance partner Billie (Merna Kennedy, Chaplin's leading lady from The Circus). The rival, Steve Crandell (Robert Ellis), wants to muscle in on the bootleg liquor racket at the Paradise. To do that, he has to eliminate Scar Edwards and throw the body, with the help of a henchman (archetypal Hollywood drunk Arthur Housman at his most stone-cold sober, ever), into a dump truck. He also has to make sure that Billie, who saw him and Housman escort a "drunk" out of the club, keeps quiet about it, especially since another showgirl, the dangerously sullen Pearl (Evelyn Brent of Sternberg's Underworld) is Scar's girlfriend. Meanwhile, a police detective (Thomas E. Jackson) finds the body and starts hanging out at the Paradise to see who'll crack or who'll squawk. Jackson played the same part on stage and brings a certain "take them...for...a...ride" authenticity to the picture.

Arthur Housman knows better, for once, not to get high on his own supply.
He knows where the bodies are buried, too.

Broadway seems like the Warner Bros. picture the studio never made, an ultimate mashup of the Warners gangster formula and the Busby Berkeley backstager. Fejos's approach can only leave you wondering what Warners would have done with this story, or regretting that they didn't get a chance. Broadway fails as a backstager and a musical because the director appears to have no interest in the musical numbers. He has this incredible device with which he could have done incredible things with the numbers like filming amid the showgirls, but whenever the girls arrive en masse, that's usually his cue to rear back to the ceiling or cut away to the detective's cat-and-mouse game with the gangsters. His crane stunts eventually become repetitive; he even repeats some numbers and films Tryon's entrances the exact same way as before. He's more interested, as he was in Last Performance, in backstage activity. Some of the best shots are of the company proceeding through several layers of curtains as they take the stage, with the camera just ahead of them and parting the curtains for them, or a group of showgirls dashing from their dressing room to get into position. As ever, movement, whether of the camera or the people it films, is an end unto itself for Fejos, but he does achieve a payoff moment of poetry with his monster crane and monster set. It comes the morning after the show and a wild party that followed. The crane starts at floor level, just inside the entrance, as scrubwomen clean the floors, and rises to its full height before panning across the club's towering balconies before descending to the stage, where janitors are sweeping up.

I'm as much a sucker for pure spectacle as anyone, but I doubt anyone can watch Broadway without questioning whether all the apparently monstrous expense was necessary, or appropriate. You'll wish that Fejos had cared more about acting and gotten either better performers or better work from the obnoxious Tryon, the glowering Brent, and the simpering Kennedy -- who, ironically enough, would later be Mrs. Busby Berkeley. As the evidence comes in, it looks increasingly like the humane sentiment of Lonesome was a happy accident or Fejos's random choice of scenario. The man had talent and even some pictorial genius, but whether through Hollywood's fault or his own, he had a hard time finding proper vehicles for his peculiar genius. After being denied the directing gig for All Quiet on the Western Front he was done with Universal and on to new adventures and several more filmmaking careers. He left behind plenty worth seeing, including plenty of Broadway, but that film is a supreme case of the whole being less than the sum of its parts. If you're a specific fan of cinematic folly and overreaching ambition, Broadway is a fascinating trainwreck that's strongly recommended.

Thursday, September 27, 2012


Back in the innocent Sixties, Americans apparently didn't know what a mercenary was. Or so film distributors may have thought. As a result, a film known in Great Britain as The Mercenaries was called Dark of the Sun here, though the latter, to be fair, was also the name of the movie's source novel. Likewise, when the time came to translate Sergio Corbucci's Il Mercenario for American audiences, the original U.S. distributor opted for the title A Professional Gun. Another possible explanation is that, if Americans knew what mercenary meant, they might assume that a film of that name would deal with violence in contemporary Africa, as Dark of the Sun did, rather than horseback action during the Mexican Revolution. The word Gun probably did more than anything else to identify Corbucci's film as a western, if not a spaghetti western, for those first U.S. audiences. But could any tweaking of the title prepare those people for the dazzling experience they were about to see? The year is 1968, and Il Mercenario is already in many ways self-consciously derivative of past Italian westerns. At moments the picture borders on parody, but Corbucci and five co-writers achieve a kind of transcendent parody that winks at the subgenre's conventions while remaining a sincere, authentic cinematic experience.

Il Mercenario is what some call a "Zapata Western," one of the many Italian westerns set primarily in Mexico rather than the U.S. Set during the Revolution of the 1910s, it anticipates the end-of-the-West atmosphere of similarly set The Wild Bunch, but does without the elegiac tone. The Italian filmmakers are too interested in revolution to worry about the end of things. Mercenario resembles Wild Bunch less than it does its major Italian precursors: Damiano Damiani's A Bullet for the General, which established the motif of the ambivalent team-up of Mexican bandit/rebel and Gringo specialist, and Sergio Leone's The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, which set the three-character pattern repeated here. In addition, Mercenario references Leone's For A Few Dollars More in its climactic staging by the "good" hero of a fair-fight showdown between the "bad" and "ugly" characters. For A Few Dollars More itself doesn't yet have the good-bad-ugly formula down -- it's really two goods vs. a bad-ugly -- so Mercenario's climax seems more generically perfect. But in discussing the climax I'm getting ahead of myself.

The Gringo is Kowalski (Franco Nero, star of Corbucci's genre breakthrough Django), an erstwhile Polish revolutionary who's hired by a family of Mexican mine owners to transport their silver to the U.S. Before setting out for the mine, he has a shootout with a gambler and by killing him earns the enmity of Curly (Jack Palance), our Bad character. If the story has a weakness, it's that Corbucci never really builds Curly up as a super gunfighter or even a particularly tough guy. Curly usually has other people do his dirty work for him. Corbucci illustrates this by having his camera follow Palance while his goons beat or kill people offscreen, only returning to the scene of violence when Curly inspects their handiwork. Palance makes up for this with a performance that grows stranger, without really going over the top, as the film goes on.

Arriving at the mine, Kowalski finds that the proprietors have been captured and hanged by Paco Roman (Tony Musante), a small-time bandit first scene rebelling against his wretched existence as a mine worker and barely escaping execution by trampling. Paco is the Ugly character: uneducated and crude, resentful toward inequality but constantly tempted by self-interest. But self-interest defines Kowalski. When the army descends on the mine, he offers to aid the bandits with the machine gun he brought along to defend the silver -- but only if Paco pays him from the plunder. The army routed, Kowalski goes his way -- only to run into Curly's gang. Paco rescues him, having realized that Kowalski's weapons and wits will make his a more formidable rebel force. Inexplicably, they spare Curly after killing his men, though they probably expect him to die after they strip him down to his shirt (leaving no bottoms) to make his way back to civilization. Curly shows his true character under adversity, however, defiantly tossing the shirt at his enemies' feet and marching off stark naked after promising that he'll meet both men again.

With Kowalski's aid, Paco becomes a terror, sacking towns and acquiring a girlfriend, Columba (Giovanna Ralli) who may be the most cynical of all the characters, having no illusions about either of her liberators. The two protagonists are constantly renegotiating their alliance. Kowalski is always ready to walk away, but every time Paco realizes anew that he can't do without the "Polack," the mercenary demands more pay and gets it. Whatever idealism he had in Europe seems long gone, while Paco's experiences of power as he judges between rich and poor make him more ambitious and less tolerant of Kowalski's greed. Finally, he decides that the Pole can't leave Mexico without surrendering all his plunder to "the revolution" and throws him in prison to prove his point. Now, however, Curly reappears, apparently as an adviser to the regular Army. What advice can he offer? The same kind Carl Denham offers... airplanes! Actually, it's one biplane, but it does devastating damage to Paco's base of operations, and it's a shocking intervention of modernity into our familiar spaghetti-western fantasyland. As usual, it's up to Kowalksi to save the day, and the Pole may be the ultimate spaghetti western hero. How many others ever shot down an airplane?

Kowalski's victory is just one round in a fight Paco can't win, and both men have to flee. Months later, Paco is a clown in a circus fighting a pantomime bull when Kowalksi finds him. Curly finds him at the same time, but as always, Curly is soon short of sidekicks and it's time for the climax. It's one of the greatest showdowns in spaghetti westerns. Kowalski has the upper hand and makes Paco and Curly fight a duel with rifles, each with one bullet. They walk to opposite ends of the bull ring and wait for the Pole to ring a bell three times before turning and firing. The bell punctuates an unusually upbeat theme from Ennio Morricone; it's the same music you hear when Uma Thurman punches her way out of the grave in Kill Bill Vol. 2. It seems to be the music playing in Curly's head. As the moment of truth approaches, while Paco is stuck out there in clown makeup, Palance puts on an beatific expression, and you get the eerie feeling that he may not care whether he wins or loses. He's put his fate in the hands of a higher power. Superficially it looks like a mockery of Leone's showdowns; one of the combatants literally is a clown. But the overall effect, between the music and Palance's ecstatic anticipation, is like something sacred. Earlier, Paco's gang had desecrated a Catholic street festival by disguising themselves as saints on a float so they can assassinate a podium full of watching army officers, with Columba as a bearded, machine-gun firing angel or saint. The duel is their true sacrament, or their auto-da-fe -- or if it's not theirs, it's ours.

Unfortunately, the film has nearly 15 minutes left to go and no hope of topping that showdown. The final twists and reversals all seem anticlimactic, but the whole story has really been little more than a pretext for cinematic sensation. Django and the bleak, wintry Great Silence are regarded as the two towers of Corbucci's work in the western genre, but on the pictorial level, at least, The Mercenary may be his masterpiece. I've mentioned the fluid camera movements over long takes as the director actually avoids violence to follow Palance around, but practically every frame of the picture is a brilliant composition. Cinematographer Alejandro Ulloa has a lot to do with that. Mercenario has a richer palate than many spaghettis; you're more aware of the sky in all its colors than you are in many genre films that foreground blasted earth, stark mountains or mud.

This film has the sweep of high adventure, and Morricone rises to the occasion with an epic score. Nero is more a presence than a personality, but that works just fine for this picture, while Musante somehow manages to underplay his Ugly role, making Paco thoughtful if not necessarily intelligent. And as I've suggested, in an underwritten part Palance is amazing. The Mercenary may not be among the greatest spaghetti westerns, but it's certainly one of the most enjoyable I've seen in a long time.
 *   *   *

Footnote on the word mercenary: After posting this review I watched The Treasure of Pancho Villa, a 1955 film directed by George Sherman, on my DVR. In one scene Shelley Winters, playing a bluestocking turned Villista, calls Rory Calhoun's character a mercenary. Calhoun calls "mercenary" a "two-dollar word" ($2 were worth more in 1916) and adds, unrepentantly "If that means a gun for hire, sure, that's me." Consider that a historical vocabulary lesson.

Herbert Lom (1917-2012)

Born a Czech count, Lom somehow became Hollywood's idea of an authoritarian Frenchman. He played Napoleon Bonaparte in King Vidor's 1956 War and Peace but most famously embodied embattled authority in the role of Inspector Dreyfus, the long-suffering superior of Peter Sellers's Inspector Clouseau in the Pink Panther movies, beginning with the first Clouseau-oriented sequel to the original picture, A Shot in the Dark, and continuing through the series's 1970s revival. Arguably, Lom made those later films as Dreyfus acquired an Ahab-like obsession with destroying Clouseau. He had long since distinguished himself as a heavy or heel type before briefly graduating to near-star status as Captain Nemo in the Harryhausen Mysterious Island and the title character in Hammer's Phantom of the Opera. He started out as a British actor -- Napoleon was his first role in English, in 1942's The Young Mr. Pitt -- and his first Hollywood role, filmed in Britain, was a strong one, the crooked pro wrestling promoter in Jules Dassin's Night and the City. He remained primarily a British performer for some years yet, most memorably as a comic heavy in The Ladykillers. By the end of the Fifties Lom was a fixture in big-budget epics, usually in less than Napoleonic roles: the negotiator for the Cilician pirates in Spartacus; the veiled villain of El Cid. He carried on in international productions and lent whatever credibility he could to Pink Panther films made after Sellers's death. His last credit was a 2004 Miss Marple mystery movie; his last noteworthy one was probably back in the 1980s, in David Cronenberg's The Dead Zone. He was always a welcome face in movies and Mondo 70 remembers him fondly after learning of his death today.

Screencap from War and Peace from

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Roaring off the Streets of Lawrence: NOW PLAYING: Sept. 26, 1962

Two golden anniversaries today, one on the big screen, one on the small. For one day, the center of the cinematic universe is Lawrence, KS. Here's a page from this day's Lawrence Journal-World.

And here's a close-up of the big ad.

It's probably more of an event in retrospect than it seemed at the time, but the film really is one of the classics of a classic year.

On the home front, so to speak, this ad could have run anywhere. As for what it advertised, its success was more immediate.

A cultural milestone in its own right, alas.

There's also this, opening in Washington D.C.

I watched Pressure Point last week. Hubert Cornfield's picture makes some interesting efforts to visualize its racist madman's delusions and twisted memories, but singer Bobby Darin is oddly dull as the madman -- the issue isn't juvenile delinquency, as the advertising suggests, but an American avowing Nazism during World War II, and the meat of the movie is surrounded with a lame framing device in which powdered-haired Sidney Poitier mentors novice headshrinker Peter Falk. It's worth a look, though, for its more fantastical moments and as a document of the time.

Monday, September 24, 2012

PRE-CODE PARADE: Warren William in BEDSIDE (1934)

After leading a cohort of Warner Bros. players -- Glenda Farrell and Guy Kibbee went with him -- to Columbia Pictures for Frank Capra's Lady For a Day, Warren William kicked off 1934 back at his home studio with a medical drama directed by Robert Florey. There's almost a world of difference between the two pictures. In Capra's, William is a lovable, indeed an essentially benign rogue out of Damon Runyon, as if Capra saw no difference between Runyon's underworld whimsies (see also Guys and Dolls) and Warners' more hard-boiled stuff. William's Dave the Dude in Lady pulls off a bluff worthy of his Warners characters in convincing visiting aristocrats that Apple Annie the street vendor is a Manhattan grande dame. The bluffs in his Warners pictures were becoming less successful, or at least the studio writers made them increasingly hollow. The Mind Reader had shown that the William character had nothing but his gimmick -- no innate talent, not even a gift of gab, to make his bluff good. Earlier, William played a heroic fraud, even if, as in The Match King, he did reprehensible things. Bedside seems to set William up to play another kind of heroic fraud, but ends up making him an even more ignoble fraud than in Mind Reader. Is it any wonder his star would soon decline?

William plays Bob Brown, an x-ray technician with the sort of bedside manner you'd expect from a Pre-Code picture. He has an adoring assistant (Jean Muir) who wonders why Bob has never pursued his M.D. He's never had the money to finish medical school, he explains, so Nurse Caroline insanely loans him tuition money -- her life savings??? But he doesn't make it to Chicago before blowing the whole roll on gambling. He bluffs, of course, writing letters describing his studies while toiling as a humble orderly. In a crucial scene, he takes the initiative to administer medication to a suffering patient. For his trouble, because he had no authorization and the hospital can't take the risk, he's fired.

From here, Bedside could have become a tale of a Great Impostor, a man with genuine medical talent who only lacks the credentials to save lives. Instead, after returning to Caroline and resuming his x-ray work, Bob looks for the shortest way to success -- he becomes more concerned with the credentials than with acquiring the skills that earn them. His big chance comes when a flustered man (David Landau) stumbles into the office claiming an illness that only a shot of morphine can help. Both Bob and Caroline suspect that the man may be faking his illness to get the dope, and both deduce from his specific orders regarding the injection that he must be a medical man. Inspired, Bob follows the junkie home and learns that he was once Dr. J. Herbert Martell. Bob convinces the man to sell his medical diploma, with a promise of future injections thrown in. He now needs two things to be a success: a real doctor to do most of the work for him, and a press agent. He finds the former in Dr. Wiley (Donald Meek), who's also the inventor of a rejuvenation device. He finds the latter in Sam Sparks (Allen Jenkins) who starts building a reputation for the "recently returned from Europe" Dr. Martell. Sparks's efforts extend to having people shill for the doctor in high-profile public places and having him paged in hotels and sports arenas. The guileless Wiley is happy to take on as much work as "Martell" can dump on him while Martell himself provides the bedside manner that thrills the society ladies. Only the occasional reappearances of the real Martell, badgering him for more money and morphine, complicates Bob's rise to fame.

Caroline grows increasingly suspicious -- why did Bob change his name, after all? -- but is mollified for a while by Bob's assurance that most of his clients are simply hypochondriacs who want attention. His most prominent client is an opera singer who wants him as her surgeon after he diagnoses a flaw in her singing, having overheard a real doctor's opinion moments before. Her trouble doesn't require surgery, but she insists, and to oblige her Bob makes a perfunctory incision in her throat and quickly sews it up, convincing Caroline that no harm has been done. But he can't even do this right and the singer starts hemorrhaging. Not even Dr. Wiley can save her -- but what about his invention? He manages to revive her with his rejuvenation device, but "Martell" gets all the credit. By now, however, while Wiley remains naive, Caroline has seen enough. Despite this latest miracle, time is running out on Dr. Martell. The real Martell circles him like a vulture, eventually becoming a haunting hallucination. The moment eventually comes, with his love's life on the line, when Bob must own up to the truth....

A film like this needs to leave an opening for the protagonist to redeem himself, but Florey and five writers have painted William into a corner and can't get him out. He should have been able to at least contribute to saving Caroline's life with the knowledge he'd acquired long ago, in some echo of that unauthorized intervention earlier in the picture. Instead, he runs about begging other doctors to perform the necessary surgery until they browbeat him into admitting his imposture. After that, he's barred from medical practice and slinks back to his x-ray business -- and for some reason Caroline sticks with him. This is admittedly a realistic finish -- except maybe for the girl standing by him -- but it ends Bedside with a dull flop.  Warren William the heroic bluffer, the big talker, is gone. In his place is Warren William the pathetic loser. What's wrong with this picture? I just explained it to you....but William wasn't through yet by a long shot. His next picture would be another where he takes more than he dishes out, but in it William would become more of a Hitchcockian protagonist, a mostly sympathetic figure who makes one mistake that threatens to destroy his life. Our next picture in the William series is Roy Del Ruth's Upper World, but for now, here's our usual original trailer for Bedside, courtesy of


Elsewhere in the blogosphere: BIG BUSINESS (1929)

Back in the balmy days of summer I submitted a list of favorite/greatest comedy films to the poll being conducted by the Wonders in the Dark website. The stats are tabulated and the countdown from No. 100 has been underway for more than a month now. It reached No. 65 today, and for the occasion I was invited to account for the 1929 Laurel & Hardy short Big Business, a miniature epic of mutually-endured destruction and salesmanship run amok. My review is now up at Wonders, where I invite readers to follow the comedy countdown to date and hereafter. The list has been eclectic and controversial among regular Wonders followers so far and may only grow more so the closer we come to the top. You may not agree with the rankings but the discussion may amuse you -- and you may be inspired to try something new someday.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

On the Big Screen: THE MASTER (2012)

Despite the critical success of his last picture, There Will Be Blood, Paul Thomas Anderson had a hard time getting a new film made. We've known what it would be for a while -- or we thought we knew, and thus knew why Anderson was having trouble getting the project financed. From an early point, the hook for The Master, on which Anderson twisted in the wind for years, was that it would be a film a clef about Scientology, its title character a fictionalized (to an extent initially uncertain) version of L. Ron Hubbard. Scientology's a touchy subject in Hollywood, so studios didn't want to touch The Master until an heiress took it upon herself to back the film. The finished product triumphed at the Venice Film Festival, the number of awards it won limited only by festival rules. Now that it's arrived in America, some reviewers have expressed disappointment that the film is not quite what everyone thought. The Master is not about Scientology. It's not really about cults or cult leaders. And that's left some wondering whether it's about anything at all.

In story terms, it's about Freddy Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), a malcontent sailor who's having a hard time adjusting to peace -- not that he was well adjusted in wartime. He's a sexually frustrated sociopath who has one special talent: a knack for concocting alcoholic beverages from the material at hand in unlikely locations, from a torpedo bay to a developing room. As a civilian he declines from department-store photographer to vegetable picker until, adrift, he stows away on a yacht full of partygoers. The master of the revels is Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a self-proclaimed polymath and author of The Cause, a book of modern-day revelations. He practices past-life-regression therapy and makes implausible claims for its benefits. He admires Freddy's mixological prowess and sees the clearly-troubled man as a subject for therapeutic experimentation. Not having anything else to do, Freddy settles into Dodd's orbit, to the dismay of Dodd's family, and becomes a self-appointed enforcer, beating up skeptics who challenge Dodd's ideas. One skeptic that can't be beaten down is Dodd's own son, who tells Freddy that his father is a fraud, making his philosophy up as he goes along. Despite the disillusionment, Freddy and Dodd seem locked in a co-dependent relationship. The attention Freddy receives is as much a drug as the hooch he makes for Dodd. But a parting of the ways is inevitable. Dodd's therapy appears to succeed to the extent that it inspires Freddy to finally look up an old flame of his, and more finally, a moment comes when Freddy feels he's learned enough and is ready to apply some of Dodd's lessons to others....

No plot summary will do justice to the overall experience of The Master. As a director, Anderson has put aside the relentless tracking shots that defined his early style and now works in a more classical style befitting the period of his new film. Aided by cinematographer Mihai Malamaire Jr., he achieves some perfect recreations of the look of late-1940's America as it survives in ad art and movies. As in There Will Be Blood, Jonny Greenwood of Radiohead has contributed an uncanny score of his own compositions and period torch songs -- expect a lot of play for "Get Thee Behind Me, Satan," in particular. All of this sets the stage for two titanic performances from Phoenix and Hoffman, who will face each other at the Oscars if there's any justice. Phoenix's Freddy is a paradoxically charismatic grotesque, his contorted carriage an embodiment of inarticulate yearning. Hoffman's Dodd is a barnstorming Wellsian projection of insecure power and narcissism, a mountebank of the kind you might have thought they didn't make anymore. The Wellsian note in his performance is, I think, a key to the film.

Dodd has been struggling for years to write a sequel to The Cause. It finally appears in the course of the film, but he seems less happy with the product than the production. Like Orson Welles, Dodd seems to enjoy the creative process, such as it is for him, so much that he's almost reluctant to finish it -- perhaps out of fear that all his followers will go away afterward. Dodd is no more Orson Welles, however, than he is L. Ron Hubbard. But I think he is Anderson's image, not of a cult leader or guru, but of a certain kind of artist. The Master itself is not about art, I think, but it has something to do with the anxiety of influence as Freddy seems to learn something from Dodd. What he learns, as revealed in a comic coda, might deflate Dodd a bit, but there was a real lesson, even if it isn't the one Dodd intended. In broader terms, Freddy is an apprentice, an inarticulate experimenter in whom Dodd recognizes a potentially intoxicating gift. Dodd tries to give him, if not discipline, a method -- a method that makes Dodd the center of an expanding universe, or as Freddy sees him in an already-notorious vision, the master of a harem of naked women. We've seen from an early Rorschach test that Freddy sees sexuality, or at least genitals, in just about everything, and we've seen his response to art, of a sort, when he humps a sand-sculpture of a naked woman in front of his fellow sailors. Freddy is ultimately interested in the art of scoring, while the artist, the master, is almost unconscious of the way his art works as a perpetual seduction to satisfy his own needs. So insecure is Dodd that he talks in terms of billions and trillions of years and infinite reincarnations to keep people interested, to keep the end at bay. Yet he seems just self-conscious enough about his real agenda to resent people like his own wife (Amy Adams) who take The Cause all too seriously. There's something of the artist's resentment of obsessive fans in the way Dodd barks at an acolyte (Laura Dern) who harps on a word change of seemingly vast significance in his new book that Dodd himself probably hadn't even noticed. The price of needing acolytes is having unworthy ones, while Freddy can finally pry himself loose from Dodd's orbit because he has simpler goals and no need for cosmic truth.

If The Master baffles some people it's probably because of the focus on Freddy rather than the Hubbard-surrogate everyone expected to see. The title creates an expectation that this should be Hoffman's movie and Dodd's story -- Dodd is called "Master" by his followers. Toward the end, Dodd challenges Freddy to let him know if he can figure out how to live without a master, since in Dodd's opinion no one has ever done so. Yet even before I saw the film, but after the first reviews came in, I thought of the title in different terms:
Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds and shall find me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll.
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.

This is "Invictus," by William Ernest Henley, and the reason I thought of it is these lines were chosen for his last words by one disturbed and alienated American, Timothy McVeigh. They may not be the words Freddy Quell would use, but they would seem to be an answer to Lancaster Dodd, and while the poem is British, it seems to express an essentially American attitude of the man who goes it alone, on his own terms, at least in his own mind. If Freddy escapes Dodd's influence, does that make him his own master? Or is mastery always belied, as Dodd hints, by the neediness that drives it? If you don't want to have a master you'll have to answer these questions yourselves, or ask your own questions. You can't expect either me or Paul Thomas Anderson to spell it out for you. For his part,at least, Anderson has made a rich, evocative, novelistic film that will most likely rank among the best of 2012.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Mamma Mia, We've Both Lost: Now Playing: SEPT. 21, 1962

In Milwaukee, Ingmar Bergman reflects. Whether these reflections have anything to do with the film advertised, I can't say.

I can say that The Devil's Wanton was made back in 1949 and is now better known as Prison. It only reached the U.S. on July 4 of this year. Bergman was big enough now that distributors dug up his early stuff to sell here.

A Tuscaloosa, AL, exhibitor also reflects on life and death.

So playing roles on screen is how she really was. Some may agree.

In Youngstown, OH, one distributor decides that the way to put the Italian comedy star Alberto Sordi over with the American public is to deprive him of his first name.

You know, like Fernandel and Cantinflas. One name = a funny foreigner. Get it?

Here's this week's wide release, opening in Palm Beach.

And here's some beautiful B movie promotional art from Salt Lake City, though I apologize for the reproduction.

Convicts 4 was the second feature!

Thursday, September 20, 2012

THE DEMOCRATIC TERRORIST (Den demokratiske terroristen, 1992)

Pound for pound, or proportionate to its size, Sweden may be the world's superpower of mystery fiction. In the U.S. we see countless translations of Swedish mystery and crime novels, with the "Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" series just the tip of the iceberg. My impression is that we don't see so much of Swedish spy fiction. Maybe the Swedes don't write so much in that genre, or maybe their attitude toward the Cold War made their stories untranslatable in the U.S. Nevertheless, Sweden has its own pop spy fiction, and if not the Swedish James Bond, Jan Guillou's Carl Hamilton seems to be one of the country's most popular fictional spies, adapted often into TV and film. Per Berglund's film is the second adaptation of the second novel in Guillou's series, and you can see why, despite the effort to film as much of this movie in English as possible, Carl Hamilton might not appeal to Americans. Democratic Terrorist has a familiar enough story: the spy must infiltrate a leftist terror cell of the German Red Army Faction to prevent an attack on the American embassy in Stockholm. But Hamilton himself (Stellan Skarsgard) has a reputation as a leftist, and one of his greatest exploits before this was to wipe out an Israeli hit team that had attacked a Swedish office of the Palestine Liberation Organization. While this makes him an ideal infiltrator, it raises the risk that he might go native, if you will.

Democratic Terrorist nevertheless seems aimed at a U.S. audience, if only because English is spoken more than Swedish or German. In story terms, that's because Hamilton knows only "ein bisschen" of German, and the Germans know even less Swedish. English thus becomes a kind of lingua franca of Europe, since it seems to be everyone's second language. Skarsgard handles the task easily enough; the future Dr. Selvig of Avengers fame had already made inroads in Hollywood by this time, and it's fun to see him kicking ass in his prime here. The other cast members may all be dubbed, for all I know.

Whatever Guillou's novel was like, Berglund's movie offers a campy caricature of Germany, from the sleaze and grunge of Hamburg's red-light district to the dilletante fanaticism of the young guerrillas Hamilton seeks out. Knowing that they're looking for a Swede to aid them in setting up their plan, he takes a room in a no-tell motel and lurks the mean streets while the director observes the freaks and slobs around him. After Hamilton picks a fight over a pinball machine and shows off his fighting prowess and his Swedishness, he's approached by the RAF people and taken to their spacious pad. After promptly taking charge and chiding them all for their amateurishness, he solidifies his credentials by leading them in a bank robbery. Before long, he's falling in love with one of the pretty young terrorists who has a wealthy background. He's also entrusted to accompany two of the gang on a weapons-buying trip to Syria (played here by the Kingdom of Morocco) that goes sour when the PLO gets wind of what the Germans are up to. The Palestinians feel, as Hamilton does, that the attack on the Americans in Stockholm will only damage the international anti-imperialist cause. Worse, it'll probably be blamed on them. Their solution is to kill the Germans, but to save himself Hamilton blows his cover, explaining that only he can thwart the attack at this point. The Palestinians check his references and respect his way with Israelis, but insist that he prove his sincerity on this occasion by killing his German companions. As they curse him as a traitor, he cuts the Germans' throats; Berglund illustrates this with a suggestively gruesome shot from Hamilton's hip as blood suddenly gushes from above. But that's not the end of his Syrian sojourn. To convince his marks back in Germany that he'd been tortured but escaped, he has to let the Palestinians shoot him and otherwise mess him up.

What follows is fairly predictable as far as both the spy and romance plots are concerned, but the film's main point has been made. All institutions, even ostensibly revolutionary entities, act according to self-interest first before considering principles. The Palestinians readily sell-out their German sympathizers and justify that betrayal of solidarity with appeals to realpolitik. Individuals are expendable, as Hamilton will learn when he tries to spare one from the retribution the German police are planning. This is espionage as tragedy rather than romance. Nations may win, individuals may not. Beyond that, Berglund's movie is nothing special. The plot is by the numbers except for that PLO twist, and the script has too many terrorists to deal with to develop many of them adequately as personalities. But I found it worth watching if only for the different perspective it provided on terror wars back. The Hamburg scenes are amusing in a way that may not have been intended, but Skarsgard gives just the performance the material demands. He does enough to get you empathizing with him despite the film's faults, and you can see why Hollywood grabbed him. And if the novel's in English somewhere, I might even read it someday.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Now Playing: SEPT. 19, 1962

We have an interesting lineup today, but let's start by recognizing the return of Cleosploitation -- the practice premised on the presumption that if you're dying to see Cleopatra next year and dying for more gossip about Liz Taylor and Richard Burton, you'll kill to see a double-feature of one film from each actor. As I've said before, it must work for somebody, because others keep doing it. But here's our first example (from my sample, at least) in a while, from Wilmington, NC.

This theater is really reaching back. Love is Better than Ever is ten years old, hearkening back to the time when Liz took second billing to Jolson-impersonator Larry Parks. I suppose the exhibitor liked the title.

With that formality out of the way, let's take a swing around the country, starting in Lewiston ME.

Further down in New England, here's New London, CT.

On to Berlin!...Connecticut, that is.

Americans were introduced to Eleonora Rossi Drago back in 1954, when this picture was known as The Barefoot Savage. But now for a detour to Pittsburgh.

The main feature, a British POW comedy is better known in its homeland as Very Important Person. And now let's follow General Sherman down to Charleston, SC.

Deeper South is Florence, AL.

Here's a token trailer for the day, as uploaded to YouTube by braniki1

We're heading back North now, to Youngstown, OH.

Just as I Spit on Your Grave is a French film about U.S. race relations, The 9th Bullet is described as a Brazilian western, albeit actually set in Brazil. 

From there it's West to Salt Lake City -- though it may look South from this evidence.

Finally, we shoot Northwest to Spokane, WA.

But wherever you go to see movies -- wherever you show movies -- there's always the competition. And this show premiering today is practically a movie of the week.

To give you an idea of what we're dealing with here, here's a review I wrote of an early Virginian episode written and directed by Samuel Fuller.