Saturday, November 30, 2013


Nicolas Winding Refn may have been better off putting his dedication to Alexandro Jodorowsky at the start of his latest picture. Then reviewers might have known what they were getting into and wouldn't blame the director for disappointing unwarranted expectations. But like his protagonist, Refn may have wanted to be punished, and in any event the director of El Topo and Santa Sangre is just one of the influences running rampant in Refn's imagination. Only God Forgives is a volatile synthesis of all Refn's influences, a riot of archetypes, and at the same time some sort of self-criticism, if not also a preemptive rebuke to an audience that had but recently embraced him only to repudiate him once he failed to offer them another (cue heavy sarcasm) gritty slice of verisimilitude like Drive. It was one thing to pay homage to or pretend to be Michael Mann in the last picture, and too many things more this time for the mainstream audience to bear.

Only God Forgives is the story of a man who doesn't want to play his archetypal role. Julian (Ryan Gosling, returning from Drive) is an American fight promoter and drug dealer operating in Thailand with his brother. Both brothers are odd characters. Julian sees a prostitute and has her bind his hands to a chair so he can only watch while she masturbates. His brother raises a ruckus in a brothel when it can't provide a 14 year old girl for him; finding one later from an independent contractor, he rapes and kills her. Enter a plainclothes policeman, Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm), who takes the brother prisoner, then basically orders the victim's father to beat the American to death. Then Chang chops the father's arm off with a machete he keeps in a sheath under the back of his shirt; this is punishment for prostituting his daughter and a warning not to do that with his other daughters.

Already tormented by inner demons -- he has a premonition of Chang chopping his arm off, possibly before he's ever met the man -- Julian is now tormented by his fury of a mother, Crystal, (Kristin Scott Thomas), who demands that Julian avenge his brother's death. Not taking no for an answer -- Julian knows what his brother did but Mom assumes that her boy "had his reasons" -- the mother hires hit squads on her own to kill Chang. The hitmen shoot up a noodle shop but miss their target, who seems to live a charmed life. As Chang follows the trail back to the source, Mom increases the pressure on Julian to protect her or raise the stakes for Chang. Julian has the childish notion that things might be settled by unarmed combat ("You wanna fight?") between himself and Chang but the policeman kicks his ass Muy Thai style. Now Julian is motivated enough by the growing threat to his mom, and perhaps by the humiliation he endured at Chang's hands and feet, to agree to a plot to ambush the cop at his home. But he draws the line, a little too late actually, at killing Chang's family.Chang has no such scruples, but then again, Julian's family is guilty. So's Julian himself, if we can believe a story that seems to explain his mania to restrain his hands, but at least he has a guilty conscience, for all the good it does him.

If this film's fantasies of dismemberment put Refn in Jodorowsky's debt, it's hard to believe there's no similar debt to Tod Browning, the cinematic pioneer of dismemberment fantasies in weird settings. But I could be here all night listing all the sources of Refn's fantasia. Many reviewers focused on David Lynch because of the prominence of karaoke in the picture and the sheer weirdness of Chang having it for a hobby. I thought the karaoke scenes helped demonstrate how much of a self-dramatizing personality Chang is, as much if not more so than his ultimate antagonist, Julian's flamboyant diva of a mother. Chang is determined to stage-manage reality, from his certainly unauthorized on-the-spot punishments to his compelling the dead girl's father to do justice's dirty work on Julian's brother. One gets the feeling that his cop stooges are a captive if sycophantic audience for Chang's musical performances. Likewise, Crystal wants Julian to play a role in her personal drama of vengeance, striving to define him to other people, whether she's telling his Thai girlfriend about his sordid business (and belittling his manhood compared to his brother) or warning Chang that Julian beat his own father to death with his bare hands. For his part, Julian is willing to play the role of the dutiful son -- rebuking his girlfriend angrily when she questions her verbal abuse of him and excusing it with "Because she's my mother" -- so long as it contributes to the penance to which he's subjected himself. On some level Julian has renounced violence yet lives in a milieu where violence will be inevitable and the line he draws for himself matters little to anyone else. On another, he represents the folly of a violent movie passing itself off as a critique of violence.

Most reviewers saw Julian's issues as part of what they saw as the film's pretentiously derivative yet ultimately senseless weirdness. Many went further and accused Refn of racism, mistaking his portrait of an underworld that has Americans and other foreigners at its center for a caricature of Thailand as a whole. But Chang is the sort of avenging rogue cop that could turn up anywhere, rendered exotic only by his choice of weapon and his karaoke hobby. But I suppose that if I can credit Only God Forgives for its effort to be all-encompassing of Refn's influences, others might feel that the film is guilty of all possible sins. Refn's principal sin, of course, was his failure to meet a Hollywood standard of realism after passing that test with Drive. Instead, Only God Forgives is this year's brightest triumph of style as substance, from the lurid cinematography of Larry Smith to Cliff Martinez's menacing score, the best I've heard so far this year. It's all simultaneously alienating and alluring. While many see their disgust at it as proof of good taste, others will regard their own admiration as a mark of distinction. Ryan Gosling deserves a lot of credit for sticking with Refn for this picture, and for giving an eloquently minimal performance, but the real test of his courage will be if he works with Refn again. He deserves our encouragement.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

DVR Diary: BEAU TRAVAIL (1999)

The French Foreign Legion was an obsessive subject of pop culture for generations. P. C. Wren's oft-filmed story Beau Geste was but the tip of the iceberg -- or the tip of the sand dune, to keep the right atmosphere. Foreign Legion stories were a staple of the good old pulp magazines; authors like Georges Surdez (best known for inventing or at least popularizing the concept of "Russian roulette" in a Legion story), Robert Carse and J.D. Newson made the subgenre their specialty in the pages of Adventure, Argosy, Blue Book and Short Stories. The Legion archetype lent itself to parody, particularly the notion that men joined "to forget." In the pulps, service in the Legion was a proving or redemptive ordeal, a test of both courage and discipline. The Legion could be a nightmare of discipline, but that discipline, often combined with the discovery of camaraderie, usually made a story's protagonist a better man. The main motifs of Legion stories were the harsh discipline and the threat of savage enemies wherever the troops were deployed, be it in Morocco against the Rifs or against the first generations of insurgents in Indo-China.

For the pulps' adolescent or young-adult target market, the Foreign Legion was an allegory for rites of passage to come, from work to war. But the protagonists of those stories were often older men, people with pasts for whom the Legion offered escape and exile as well as ultimate regeneration. And because director Claire Denis populates her Legion story almost exclusively with young men, a viewer who knows the Legion mainly through pulp fiction or pop cinema might not recognize the troops of Beau Travail as the French Foreign Legion. The pulp archetypes of Anglo-American fiction have little to do with Denis's film, though it's probably no accident that her film is called Beau something. Ironically, however, Denis sees the Legion through an American prism -- specifically the prism of Herman Melville and more specifically Melville's sea story Billy Budd, if not also Benjamin Britten's operatic adaptation of the story, excerpts of which are heard on Denis's soundtrack. For those familiar with Billy Budd it will suffice to stay that, while converting the sea tale to a Legion setting, Denis has also shifted to make her Claggart figure, the officer Galoup (Denis Lavant) the main character. For those less familiar -- and I've only seen the Peter Ustinov film of Billy Budd and haven't read the Melville myself -- Galoup is a conflicted disciplinarian who grows jealous of a handsome, popular new soldier (Gregoire Colin), whom he sees as a rival for the regard of the commanding officer of the troops stationed in Djibouti. In Billy Budd, Claggart basically drives the title character to kill him, despite Billy's essential innocent nature, as if hoping that the act would ensure Billy's destruction -- as it does. In Beau Travail, Galoup goads his nemesis into striking him, but lives to take revenge by leaving the legionnaire in the desert with orders to find his own way back -- with a damaged compass. It's the Claggart figure, Galoup, who ends up facing the doom of a court-martial, if he doesn't release himself and all his repressed impulses the easier way first....

Beau Travail is probably most noteworthy for the way Denis subjects the Legion to the female gaze, though she also arguably follows a homoerotic thread in both Melville and Britten. Rather than the hard-boiled boot camp environment of pulp fiction, Denis's Legion is more like a frat house full of hunky young men. Despite occasional reminders of the dangers of their work, the legionnaires' routine often looks more like play than work. Denis focuses on their workouts as they run obstacle courses in a manner preminiscent of the notorious al-Qaeda training videos and practice underwater hand-to-hand combat. There's more dancing and chanting than one recently immersed in pulps expects to see in the Foreign Legion, and a much more casual environment. There may be something sinister or psycho in Galoup's attitude, but he hardly compares to the martinets one encounters in Beau Geste and other Legion stories of yore. Instead, he contributes to an illusion of domesticity with his obsessive attention to ironing his uniforms, while underwear hangs from clotheslines conspicuously. Something seethes beneath his gruff surface; Denis hints at it repeatedly with scenes from some Djibouti dance club (or whorehouse?) Galoup frequents. The easy answer to everything is that Galoup is a repressed homosexual, but that doesn't necessarily get to the heart of his issues. The characters motives remain essentially mysterious and monstrous, especially after Denis closes the film with a moment less revelatory than transcendent. Galoup is back in France awaiting his court-martial in a bedroom with a pistol. Then he's in a dance club as the dance-club standard "The Rhythm of the Night" plays. Out of nowhere Galoup starts a frantic yet expressionless breakdance. Denis cuts away from this to show us the acting credits, then cuts back as the acrobatic Denis Lavant throws himself about before finally exiting the screen. It's a tremendous moment of release that may symbolize Galoup's suicide but could just as easily be a mental release or breakdown, and is certainly an enigmatic catharsis worthy of (or influential upon) Paul Thomas Anderson's most recent films, while the way Lavant's personality seems to shift instantly may well have helped inspire Holy Motors, the recent showcase for Lavant by his most consistent collaborator, director Leos Carax. Beau Travail definitely wasn't the sort of Foreign Legion movie I had expected, but Denis follows her own influences and impulses to make her film an indelible pictorial experience.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

DVR Diary: THE ROUNDERS (1965)

In the fall of 1964 the producers of Burt Kennedy's adaptation of Max Evans's novel were confident enough to announce plans for a sequel months before the film came out. They had to settle for spinning the movie off into a 1967 TV sitcom that lasted less than a season. It was an interesting destiny for a project that was packaged as a kind of adult western. This is the kind of adult western it was; one of the comic highlights is the revelation of a woman's bare buttocks. That was certainly risque in 1965, but it didn't represent any real maturity on the filmmakers' part. You get the real spirit of the picture in the sight gags involving the roan horse that plagues our protagonists. In one scene, the horse gets horny at the sight of a filly and leads her to privacy by grabbing a rope with his mouth. In another, he appears to hear and comprehend a cowboy's threat to have him turned into dog food. His head droops across the top of his stall on the cowboys' truck and Kennedy freezes the frame to sell the animal's chagrin. This sort of business seems intended for the kiddie audience that might not be let in if parents knew about the butt shot. Throughout, Kennedy seems torn between telling a slice-of-life story of the two middle-aged modern-day cowboys (Glenn Ford and Henry Fonda, in order of billing) and goofing off. The surety of tone he demonstrated while writing for Randolph Scott and Budd Boetticher is absent. The inconsistency and the prevailing crassness, while all too typical of Hollywood comedy from the Sixties, calls into question Kennedy's aptitude for comedy, despite his later success with Support Your Local Sheriff, if not the true extent of his contribution to Boetticher's movies, though it must be admitted that those screenplays have little comic about them.

Ford and Fonda spend lonely months toiling for skinflint Jim Ed Love (Chill Wills was the only cast member to resume his role on the sitcom) and struggling to break the roan. There are lots of shots of stuntmen being thrown from horses and similar slapstick. Ford's a dreamer while Fonda's more easygoing, more sensible yet more submissive. "Whatever suits you just tickles me plumb to death" is his motto, eerily echoed by the more stupid of two exotic dancers with Harley Quinn voices (and eventual bare behinds) whom the cowboys hook up with when they head to town for the big rodeo. Their plan is to make a killing making side bets that the other cowboys can't ride that vicious roan. The scheme works and the roan performs as planned until he breaks down in the rodeo ring. The big softies are willing to throw away all their winnings to save the roan, but the story takes a turn toward pathos as Ford grabs a pistol to end the creature's suffering. It takes a hard turn away from pathos as the roan revives to kick Ford through a barn wall. Now the boys are out all their money and more, not just for vet bills but for the cost of repairing the barn, and they're still stuck with the roan. The picture ends on an admirable (in the abstract) no-hugs-no-learning note, with the police in pursuit, but it doesn't really end as big as it should; for once, at the very end, Kennedy isn't broad enough. His fans will find his touch in the dialogue. At its best, Rounders will appeal to viewers for whom westerns are very much about male cameraderie, and Ford and Fonda are at their best when they just talk and tell stories to each other. Kennedy and composer Jeff Alexander can't foul these scenes with obnoxious comedy scoring or leering camera tricks. Other positive elements are the location cinematography of Paul C. Vogel and an uncredited appearance by Warren Oates as a poacher. Overall, Rounders tries too hard to be funny in every possible way and the strain of the effort shows in nearly every frame.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

On the Big Screen: CAPTAIN PHILLIPS (2013)

Do children still dream of being pirates? Their teachers do sometimes, if you judge by books that idealize the egalitarian, multicultural or otherwise transgressive pirate republics of yore. You can't do that for the best-known pirates of our own time, the raiders from Somalia who capture ships for ransom off the Horn of Africa. Paul Greengrass's film about the 2009 pirate attack on the Mersk Alabama probably would preempt any fantasies of 21st century piracy, for Captain Phillips makes clear that for Somalis, piracy is little more than a job of work. Greengrass practically drives the point down the viewer's throat by drawing obvious parallels between the life of pirate Abduwali Muse (Barkhad Abdi) and that of his destined antagonist, Alabama skipper Rich Phillips (Tom Hanks). Both men live in an increasingly competitive and demanding world. Muse is under pressure from his elders to earn more money by capturing more ships, and there's intense competition merely for places on a pirate crew. Phillips worries that his kids will face a tougher world than he does, but he already observes that there's intense competition for commands, even on ships bound for dangerous waters -- ships that inexplicably provide no weapons for their crews. At its heart the true story of Phillips and Muse has been the stuff of pulp adventure for generations, yet Greengrass underscores the extent to which both men are really working stiffs. At the same time, he manages to make Muse's assault on the Alabama the most thrilling action sequence I've seen this year. Muse is the picture's villain, no matter how much Greengrass and writer Billy Ray humanize him and his cohorts, yet you'll probably feel a temptation to root for him as he pursues the gigantic cargo ship in his skiff like a rowboat chasing a whale. The Alabama has no weapons but enjoys every other technological advantage, while Muse has no benefit of surprise. Phillips has anticipated pirates and has many means to repel boarders, from high-powered hoses ringing the hull to the high-powered maneuverability that lets the Alabama try to shrug off the boarders and their ladders like gnats. You can't help feeling that Muse's capture of the ship is a triumph of skill, tenacity and pure nothing-to-lose courage. You retain enough of that admiration to agree when Phillips says later that someone like Muse should have more options in life than fishing and piracy. And you may remember enough of the opening scenes to suspect, when Muse answers "Maybe in America" that neither he nor Phillips fully understands how the world is changing.

Greengrass is one of the active directors who's changed the way movies look. His pseudo-verite approach, dating back to his breakthrough film Bloody Sunday, anticipates the artificial immediacy of "found footage" movies while his work on the second and third Jason Bourne movies has given action films a more raw, frantic feel that leaves many spectators disoriented or merely annoyed by their inability to see things clearly. By comaprison, Captain Phillips achieves a kind of epic clarity as Greengrass focuses on the spectacle of the tiny skiff hunting the giant Alabama on the open water, the waves bucking Muse's ship like a bronco. The chase scenes have the spirit of high adventure that the rest of the film is at pains to deny, and the picture is never quite as great once the chase is over. For a while it's like The Enemy Below meets Die Hard as Phillips, his crew and Muse's men play a three-way cat and mouse game, the idea being to keep the Somalis from taking more hostages, until the crew turns the tables on Muse and forces the pirates to quit the Alabama. The film slackens further in its third act, after the pirates have departed on a motorized lifeboat with Phillips as their sole hostage. It grows overblown as Greengrass feels it necessary to show us the U.S. gathering its forces for an assault on the pirates, while the tense exchanges between Phillips and the Somalis (about half of whom speak English) become repetitive. The director stretches the suspense out a little too long for comfort, especially after Muse is taken off the board, tricked into going on board a Navy vessel to join his elders in negotiating Philips's ransom. The other actors playing pirates are good enough to establish themselves as distinctive personalities, but don't have Abdi's paradoxical dead-eyed charisma. All that's left is the Tom Hanks show, as the star goes through phases of pain, terror and shock while enduring one of the most horrific rescues you'll ever see. Hanks gives a solid performance as the flinty captain (complete with "Yankee Irish" accent) but whether he's working the accent or conveying the character's almost-paralyzing trauma post-rescue, someting technical about his acting sometimes comes through to remind you that this is Acting, while Abdi benefits from the illusion of a newcomer's naturalism -- his fine acting may not be recognized as Acting the way Hanks's is. Captain Phillips is sometimes overblown, and Henry Jackman's score nearly always is, but at its best its a very good film that anchors the action and adventure with a disquieting message. The confrontation of Phillips and Muse shows that the rat race has gone global.

Now PLaying: NOV. 24, 1933

Footlight Parade will not match the five-week run of Gold Diggers of 1933 at Milwaukee's Warner theater. That doesn't necessarily mean it wasn't as popular as the previous Busby Berkeley spectacular. Since the summer, the Warner theater chain had refurbished the Strand into a first-run theater. To make room for a new Paul Muni picture, Warners moves Footlight Parade from the flagship Warner to the Strand, as illustrated below.

You'll also note the competition for the Warner duo. Let's take a slightly closer look at each.

James Whale's Invisible Man is now, after 80 years, one of 1933's best-known pictures. As part of the Universal horror cycle, it's one of the few 1933 films that remains culturally relevant on the pop level. The Whale film may be second only to King Kong in that respect. During the buildup, Universal made big claims for this one.

The other point of interest in the ballyhoo is the way the ads build up Claude Rains, emphasizing his stage credentials, without letting on that you'd see his face only at the very end of the film. That didn't stop him from making the hoped-for impression.

If The Invisible Man is a living film today, Hoopla isn't.

Hoopla was Clara Bow's second film for Fox and the follow-up to her scandalous comeback picture Call Her Savage. Such was the career of the 1920s "It Girl" that a comeback film was necessary when Bow was not yet thirty. Call Her Savage has become a canonical Pre-Code picture, but Hoopla hasn't the same reputation. Bow's comeback ended here; apparently it was her own call to call it quits but it seems right in retrospect that she bow out before the Code Enforcement crackdown. We can keep an image of her in our imaginations as a star who wasn't and maybe couldn't be tamed.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

DVR Diary: John Ford's UPSTREAM (1927)

A contemporary reviewer for the trade press thought it necessary to inform readers that Upstream was not an outdoor adventure picture. Blame Fox Film for the confusion; having promised a picture of that title, co-starring Dolores Del Rio and Walter Pidgeon, only to have the project fall through, they slapped the label on a story originally titled The Public Idol. Knowing John Ford as we think we do, we might have expected an outdoor picture as well, but Upstream, long thought lost until a copy was found in New Zealand a few years ago, seems Fordian just the same. The setting of a boarding house catering to actors proves to be quite the Fordian environment. The westerns we know him best for were often filled to overflowing (some might say infested) with eccentrics whose personalities were essentially theatrical. Here no one is normal, broadly speaking. Everyone's an entertainer, all of them down on their luck -- "at rest" is the genteel way to put it, but those in that category are expected to pay in advance. Some are in decline, others still young and aspiring; both groups get their due. Our main focus falls on a romantic triangle: a knife thrower (shades of The Unknown!) and his two assistants. The male assistant (Earle Foxe) has little enthusiasm but carries a storied theatrical name. It's that name a high-powered producer is after when he calls at the boardinghouse, briefly getting everyone's hopes up. The sudden offer to star in Hamlet terrifies young Brasingham, but an elderly acolyte of the Bard -- he lights candles in front of a bust of the playwright -- gives him a quick tutorial that leads to the lad conquering London and earning a nod of the head from the royal box. Success goes to his head, however, though the now-Great Brasingham gets his comeuppance when he crashes the wedding of the knife-thrower (Grant Withers) and his female assistant (Nancy Nash) at the old boardinghouse, cluelessly thinking that the celebration put on there is in his honor.

Upstream finds Ford between two phases of his career. He had recently made his name with the western blockbuster the Iron Horse and followed up with Three Bad Men. He would next enter a more self-consciously artistic phase, influenced like his fellow Fox directors by the arrival of F. W. Murnau to make Sunrise. The influence would become apparent in films like Four Sons, released in 1928. Upstream was Ford's only 1927 release, which makes it hard to excuse the slapdash nature of the story. He seems confused over whether Brasingham is the main character or whether he was making an ensemble piece. I suspect he'd rather have done the latter, but he's stuck following Brasingham to London, where a vision of his momentary mentor inspires his to triumph, and then back to America and a closing humiliation that makes this one-hour feature feel more like a slapstick short subject where the star acts out a fantasy only to be kicked back into his rightful place. Actually, Brasingham isn't kicked into his rightful place, since he'll go on being a star, but since the other two legs of the triangle haven't gotten an equal share of development, Upstream feels like a star vehicle for the otherwise-unknown-to-me Earle Foxe -- whom Ford used as late as My Darling Clementine. I often credit early movies for telling stories efficiently, but for once this is one that really does feel too short. Still, there's a certain indisputable charm to the film that isn't just the glamor of discovery. Upstream isn't really an unearthed treasure, but there's a pleasant shock of recognition to it when you realize that, however an unlikely setting this seems for a John Ford picture, the director really does seem to be in his element. Watching it is like removing a layer of his legend, getting past the man who made westerns to the essential showman at heart.

At least one reviewer at the time saw this pretty much as I did. 

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Now Playing: NOVEMBER 17, 1933

Last week the Universal drama Only Yesterday was the big winner at the Milwaukee box office, or so we can infer from its being held over for a second week. It probably won't be the champ this week, because Busby Berkeley is back.


Following the success of 42nd Street back in March, Gold Diggers of 1933 was a summer blockbuster, staying at the Warner for an extraordinary five weeks. For their third spectacular musical this year Warners piles it on by throwing James Cagney into the mix in his first musical starring role.

The film may need no introduction, but here's the trailer anyway from You'll be excused for thinking it's a Twentieth Century-Fox picture at first with that drumroll, but Warners will be excused, too, since there was no Twentieth Century Fox in 1933.

What are the other theaters throwing into this buzzsaw? Only Yesterday is standing its ground, but the New Garden goes with the latest in a popular Pre-Code series.

It may have been the Honolulu detective's greatest case, but this adaptation of the Earl Derr Biggers novel in which Chan first appeared is one of the few big-studio 1933 releases (along with Warners' notorious Convention City) to have gone lost. Actually several of the early Chans are lost, and I'm not sure why. Convention City was lost because it was considered unreleasable in the Code Enforcement era; perhaps later politically correct attempts to suppress the Chan films account for the loss of this one.

Meanwhile, the Palace tries to match Footlight Parade's quantity with the quality of a live nude dancer on stage -- and Popeye the Sailor Man

Faith Bacon was the legendary Sally Rand's principal rival as a fan dancer and actually sued Rand for stealing her gimmick. Bacon lost the battle for history and died, most likely by suicide, in 1956. Here she is somewhere in between, in a "soundie" uploaded to YouTube by vitajazz.

Friday, November 15, 2013


With Ginger Rogers leading the charge, fresh from 42nd Street and Gold Diggers of 1933, and Frank McHugh and Allen Jenkins following close behind, this William A. Seiter comedy looks like a Warner Bros. invasion of RKO. However, Professional Sweetheart has a certain cartoonish amorality to it that's more characteristic of RKO itself than of Warners. It's a sendup of radio reflecting the already widespread awareness that real-life personalities didn't live up to the personas broadcast over the wireless. Ginger plays Glory Eden, the "Purity Girl" who sings for the Ippsie Wippsie Washcloth company. We recognize immediately -- contemporaries probably caught it as soon as Rogers appeared on screen -- a discrepancy between the performer and her radio image. Sotto voce, she threatens the MC that she'll close the program with some unscripted if not unprintable words if she doesn't get the "doodads" she was promised earlier. In a nice juggling of sound and image, we hear the Purity Girl sing her inane tune while the MC frantically runs around outside the studio trying to secure delivery of the doodads and protesting Glory's grasping nature to anyone he can grab. The doodads finally arrive; they seem to be lingerie that Glory's patron Mr. Ipswich (Gregory Ratoff) displays by holding them against his crotch. This only temporarily satisfies her; Ippsie Wippsie will have to do more if they want her to sign a long-term contract. Her main beef with the contract is all the morals clauses in it. Plucked from a small-town orphanage, Glory dreams of doing the town and indulging herself, but her employers won't even let her eat foods they deem inconsistent with her the Purity Girl's wholesome image. Her fantasies of Harlem are fueled by her maid Vera (Theresa Harris), an aspiring entertainer in her own right. Ipswich and his team (McHugh plays Speed the press agent) won't relent on most of the clauses, but figure that if they allow her a boyfriend she'll be happy. They seek out an Anglo-Saxon type ("Say, he's white!" Ipswich exclaims on seeing his picture) and find Jim, a fan from Kentucky (Norman Foster) with a performing bug of his own -- he enjoys reciting bad poetry. As Ippsie Wippsie starts a publicity buildup for an on-air wedding, the company's great rival, Kelsey Dishrags (Edgar Kennedy's the boss, Jenkins his minion), tries to entice Glory away with a contract free of morals clauses. Her enthusiasm for this offer disillusions Jim somewhat, but he decides to elope with her to Kentucky in order to tame her.

Rogers has already spent a good part of the film in her underwear, and there's been much fun made of Franklin Pangborn's effeminacy, but things get even more Pre-Code from here. While the Ippsie Wippsie people wonder where Glory went, Vera brazenly proposes herself as the new Purity Girl; her impromptu audition is a decidedly more sensuous rendering of Glory's theme song, "Imaginary Sweetheart." Meanwhile, in Kentucky, Jim attempts to discipline his angry new spouse, but Glory won't take the archetypal spanking sitting down. She fights back -- we saw her fury earlier when she hurled a library of unwanted books at Ipswich and friends -- until Jim lays her out with a sock on the jaw. Chagrined, he draws water to revive her. Already revived, Glory decides she'll enjoy the attention and plays dead a while longer. McHugh and Jenkins are dispatched to the hills by their respective masters to lure Glory back. McHugh gets the idea that if they actually do hire Vera as the Purity Girl and put her on the air, jealousy will draw Glory back to New York. It's a good plan, better even than Speed thought. His idea was that Glory would be jealous of Vera taking her spot. He did not reckon on the way Jim would respond to hearing Vera sing. "Her voice sure does ... hey, they shouldn't oughta put that on the radio!" he sputters, but soon he's swaying uncontrollably to Vera's rhythm. And remember, he's been captivated by the voice of a black woman who's just taken over a white woman's spot on the air. Glory's definitely ready to go back to work, but now she wants Jim to share air time with her. However, Jenkins has stolen a march on McHugh and the Ipswich team. Having seen earlier how they'd tricked Jim by letting him recite his doggerel into a dead microphone, Jenkins has signed Jim to a contract to do his thing for Kelsey Dishrags. Since Glory won't work without Jim anymore, what's Ippsie Wippse to do? Since this is a romantic comedy, a merger of souls is echoed by a merger of companies in one program. Poor Vera is lost in the shuffle, admittedly, but what else is new?

This little picture is such an embarrassment of comic character actor riches that they don't have time to find something interesting for Zasu Pitts to do. She shows up early as a reporter seeking an interview with Glory ("You can trust me," she says, "I eat with the stars, I sleep with the stars" -- at which point she has Glory's complete attention) and is supposed to become some sort of confidant of our protagonist, but disappears for big chunks of the picture, though she does get the last word. Edgar Kennedy is also relatively underutilized; there's little time to get his slow burn really going. Given all the talent in front of the camera, Professional Sweetheart is inevitably less than the sum of its parts, but it's such a good-natured whirlwind of exuberant irreverence that it's hard not to be amused. It was the start of a second tour of duty for Ginger Rogers at RKO, this one securing her place in movie history, and while she comes off a little more obnoxious than normal, as a comedienne she got off on the right foot. That would prove a useful skill.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

DVR Diary: ZANJEER (1973)

Prakash Mehra's contribution to the global tough-cop genre of the 1970s made lead actor Amitabh Bachchan a star in India. The wider recognition of Indian cinema gave Bachchan enough celebrity worldwide that he was cast in this year's The Great Gatsby as a Jewish-American gangster. The thought might scandalize his core audience for a number of reasons. In Zanjeer Bachchan plays an incorruptible hero, a cop with a Batman-style origin. His parents are killed before his eyes amid the fireworks of a Diwali celebration; the only thing he can remember about the killer is the bracelet ("zanjeer") he wears. As an adult Vijay Khanna remains tormented by his loss. He suffers nightmares of a white stallion rampaging across a greenish nightscape. He takes his grief out on the criminal element; we learn that he's been bounced from precinct to precinct for getting too tough on crime and vice. His tactics work, however. This is illustrated by Vijay's encounter with a vice boss, Sher Khan (Pran) on his new beat. With few preliminaries, Vijay orders this rather vainglorious, nearly cartoonish figure to cease and desist. Sher Khan respects Vijay's fearlessness, and respects the officer even more after they fight each other (without weapons) to a standstill. Such is the criminal's respect for the fighting lawman that when Vijay orders him again to shut down his gambling dens and other related establishments, Sher Khan complies immediately and takes up a new career as a grease monkey. Better still, Vijay has made a friend for life and Zanjeer has acquired some reliable comedy relief -- or at least that's how I saw it.

Teja (Ajit, another mononymous performer) proves a tougher nut to crack. This vaguely Tony Cliftonish figure is a real hardcore crime boss, unimpressed by anyone's courage or prowess with fists. He deals with Vijay by having him framed for taking bribes and put in prison. Teja underestimates Vijay's resilience, however -- and now that our hero is off the force, he doesn't have to answer to anyone for how he deals with Teja. Actually, that's not quite true. He has to answer to his beloved, Mala the singing knife-sharpener (Jaya Badhuri, the future Mrs. Bachchan), who wants to settle down to a secure, peaceful existence. It's a tempting idea, but Vijay couldn't live with himself if he chose that path -- not after his long-awaited encounter with the mystery man who'd been tipping him off about crimes by telephone throughout the picture. This Indian Christian, Mr. DiSilva, has pretended to be a wino to get information about criminals ever since his sons died while celebrating Christmas with rotgut bootleg hooch courtesy of Teja's gang. Bootlegging was a big criminal business in India back then; Vijay's poor dead father had gotten into trouble in the first place by getting involved with the bootleg counterfeit medicine trade. And wouldn't you know? Everything's connected, as Vijay learns on another fireworks-lit Diwali night as he and Sher Khan storm Teja's headquarters, only to be distracted by a conspicuous piece of the gangster's jewelry....

Turner Classic Movies's presentation of Zanjeer did not inspire confidence. An already gamey print proved itself mismastered during the opening credits, when cast and crew information repeatedly went missing beneath the bottom of the letterboxed screen. Meanwhile, Robert Osborne had said that Zanjeer was not like contemporary musical "Bollywood" movies. If he meant to imply that there were no musical numbers, he was proven wrong once Mala started advertising her skills with song. Later, Sher Khan gets a big number as he tries to cheer up and motivate our hero, and there are other numbers in between, though nothing as elaborate as the Bollywood label now implies. I wonder whether Osborne bothered looking at the film before introducing it. I hold none of it against the film; the musical aspect of Indian films isn't exotic, but merely old-fashioned. Melodrama was a universal art form before movies; many an English-language stage play would intererrupt its action for specialty musical numbers, and the conventions of Bollywood might not seem so outlandish to Americans if more of us remembered all the singing cowboy movies made here from the Thirties through the early Fifties. Zanjeer differs from those films only in its refusal to put Bachchan over as a musical performer like Roy Rogers or Gene Autry. Vijay is a fighter, not a singer, and Bachchan's dynamic brawling must have put him over as much as his good looks. His fighting style is somewhere between martial arts and professional wrestling, and while that makes Zanjeer hard to take seriously in comparison to other countries' tough-cop pictures you can still see what Bachchan brought to the project that captivated audiences. The picture is crude and simplistic, but its energy kept me watching despite the problematic presentation, though for most outside India Zanjeer will probably prove less a classic than a historical curiosity. Fortunately, I like historical curiosities, so I'm glad I had to see this one.

Monday, November 11, 2013

THE TRAMPLERS (Gli uomini dal passo pesante, 1965)

April 1865: the Confederacy has surrendered and Lon Cordeen (Gordon Scott) has come home to Texas. In his home town the war isn't over. He arrives to find his father Temple (Joseph Cotten) hanging an abolitionist. Abolition and reconstruction aren't what Temple fought for, so he refuses to recognize them. He hopes to use his extended family to enforce his will, but Lon has a different idea. He's internalized the idea that a new order should prevail. For him, that new order takes the form of rebellion against his father. This is a formula for Instant Santayana: by refusing to accept the consequences of the war, Temple Cordeen provokes a war within his own family. Taking Lon's side are his sisters, one of whom loves a man ("Frank" Nero) of whom Temple disapproves, as well as his impressionable, hotheaded brother Hoby (James Mitchum). Meanwhile, the daughter of the hanged abolitionist yearns for revenge on the Cordeen patriarch. She's a wild card who puts the possibility of reconciliation out of any Cordeen hands.

In The Tramplers, Gordon Scott comes home from war to find no peace.

The imminence of a new order is inscribed in the casting of Albert Band's film. Released in Italy four months before Django made Franco Nero a global star, it places the young actor in a subordinate role, but also leaves his character one of the last men standing as the Cordeens annihilate each other. The future of the west belongs to Nero, at least as far as Italian cinema is concerned, but Gli uomini dal passo pesante was a vehicle for Gordon Scott.

A lifeguard turned movie star, Scott may not have been the greatest Tarzan, but no one can dispute that he starred in Tarzan's Greatest Adventure. That 1959 is a legitimately fine action film, and the first since Edgar Rice Burroughs's own productions to let Tarzan speak with the fluency Burroughs gave him. Scott, who had acted Weissmuller style for several earlier films, rose to the occasion with forceful performances in Greatest Adventure and Tarzan the Magnificent before trying his luck in Italy in peplum films. By 1965 it was time to adapt to the new craze for westerns, and Tramplers was Scott's second stab at the genre after a film in which he played Buffalo Bill. Tramplers was also his last western -- he made two Eurospy movies before retiring -- and it must be admitted that Scott loses something the more clothes you put on him. He seems shrunken and doesn't really stand out the way he should in his western costume. However, his diminished appearance helps sell Lon Cordeen's war-weariness, while at the same time Scott invests the character with a dangerous sense of entitlement early. There's something unpleasantly arrogant yet riveting in the way Lon thrashes a poor relation he considers unworthy of sitting at the family table. We know it's payback for the man knocking Lon down in town on the day of the hanging, but we can also assume that the man's telling the truth when he says he didn't recognize Lon at that time. There's more to the beating, and Lon's insistence that the man pick Lon's hat off the floor and put it on Lon's head, than that. It's an obvious challenge to the patriarch's authority, as if Lon isn't merely appalled by Temple's renegade atrocities but also impatient to take the old man's place as head of the clan in a new society. It's probably no accident that Lon eventually hooks up with the abolitionist's daughter, even though the screenplay (adapted from Will Cook's novel Guns of North Texas) doesn't really build up any relationship between them until the end.

Scott is upstaged not just by a hammy Joseph Cotten (though not by the deferential Nero) but by James Mitchum's Hoby. Lon's hothead brother ends up more like a spaghetti western character after losing an arm; the injury only exacerbates the character's vicious streak, showing us how Lon has unleashed forces he can't really control, though Mitchum manages to keep the character sympathetic by having him struggle with his violent impulses. These actors' prominence in the picture marks Tramplers as a film from the period when the Italians were still trying to imitate the story and character arcs of American westerns (see also Sergio Corbucci's pre-Django Minnesota Clay). Director Band and co-adaptor Ugo Liberatore were smart (if not economical) to base their film on an American novel, since it's the story and the performances rather than any innovative visual style that will keep people interested in the picture. Tramplers is watchable but ultimately neither fish nor fowl, lacking both the thorough craftsmanship and conviction of the prime U.S. westerns and the stylistic daring of Band's Italian peers. Its juxtaposition of Scott and Nero illustrates a fork in the road for spaghetti westerns, although (with no offense to Gordon Scott) it also makes Tramplers look a little like a dead end.

Saturday, November 9, 2013


For 1930s America, China was the new frontier. An obsession with China pervades the decade's pop culture, the "Chinaman" becoming the Other par excellence, whether as the prototypical "yellow peril" like Fu Manchu or as the harmlessly superior Charlie Chan. Frank Capra portrayed an American woman's conflicted feelings for a Chinese warlord in The Bitter Tea of General Yen, while American boys and men fantasized about the Dragon Lady while reading Terry and the Pirates in the funny pages. I recorded Mervyn LeRoy's adaptation of Alice Tysdale Hobart's bestselling novel expecting another prime example of Hollywood's China obsession, but the film has less to do with the clash of cultures than with an American corporation's exploitation of a loyal employee. Pat O'Brien was given a big chance in what must have been one of Warner Bros.'s most prestigious projects of the year, but he comes out looking like a dupe if not a dope. He plays Stephen Chase, an ambitious young employee of Atlantis Oil Company assigned to its China division. Atlantis wants to sell oil for the lamps of China, natch, and competes with the native peanut oil industry. Chase has an idea for making kerosene lamps, and hence kerosene itself, more economical for Chinese peasants. He expects to make his name with this invention, but a corporate higher-up puts his name on the invention. The blow of disappointment is softened by the promise that Chase's special contribution will be remembered. But we have ample evidence of how Atlantis remembers its employees. Chase's first boss in China (Arthur Byron) gets demoted and assigned to a backwater, but kills himself before submitting to orders. Meanwhile, personal disappointments follow professional disappointments for Chase when his fiancee sends him a Dear John telegram. This creates both a personal and a professional crisis, since Chase has told his American and Chinese colleagues that he would bring a bride back to headquarters. Failing to do this means a crippling loss of "face" -- that quality that defined Chinese society in the American imagination. To save face, Chase convinces an American girl (Josephine Hutchinson) whose father died during their cruise to Asia to go back with him and play his wife.

Of course, real love will bloom on Chinese soil while Chase struggles to make a success of himself. The complications are predictably melodramatic. In an extreme case, the now-genuine Mrs. Chase goes into dangerous labor just as Stephen is called away to deal with an oil fire. When he gets back home, he learns that their baby died. "I needed you" the doctor tells him -- for what is left unclear -- and he wife blames Stephen for putting his career before his family. She forgives him, but Atlantis is less forgiving of the unauthorized expenses involved in fighting that fire and avoiding a bigger disaster. Stephen perseveres and gets transferred to a big city where his knowledge of China proves advantageous. He emerges as the archetypal China hand, one of those rare Americans who "know" China and can deal with Chinese people. I had the impression that Atlantis trained all its people to know China, but apparently that training only sinks in to a few of them. It really boils down to mastering that formal politeness that so fascinated Americans while defining Chinese (and Japanese) people as alien. In short, Stephen knows how to butter up the traditional merchants with flattery and formality in order to keep them doing business with Atlantis -- until the revolution comes. Amid a Communist uprising, Keye Luke comes barreling into the picture as a military officer determined to confiscate Atlantis's gold holdings. Luke's fluency and natural manner of speaking made him a nearly unique figure in 1930s Hollywood. He became best known for playing Charlie Chan's buffoon of a son -- the Chinaman domesticated into a hapless American -- but in Oil his modernity conveys brusque menace as he brushes aside O'Brien's attempts at customary formality. Neither he nor China have time for that anymore, and his men drive the message home by shooting down Chase's Chinese merchant friend at the Atlantis doorstep. Despite Luke's threats, Chase manages to escape with the company's money -- and is rewarded with a demotion to a humiliating clerk's job at the head office. He knows he isn't being treated right, but he refuses to quit because doing so would cost him his pension. How much of a sap he's been all along is finally driven home when his wife confronts the boss to remind him that, after all this time, Stephen still holds the patent on that economy kerosene lamp. His condition improves rapidly from there, but the film closes with him embracing the wife and naively crediting the company with living up to its promises to him, while the wife does all but wink at the camera.

Warners did O'Brien no favor by casting him as Stephen Chase. Sure, it was a high-profile part based on a best-seller, but Chase hardly cuts a heroic figure here. It doesn't help that the studio apparently couldn't afford to show him fighting that oil fire. His battle to save a village is treated the way his wife sees it, as an unworthy distraction from the birth of his baby. A viewer might side with him awhile after everyone guilt-trips him, but it's hard to keep liking him when he never, ever wises up. He may be some sort of China expert -- though the film suggests that his expertise is growing obsolete -- but his real problem is that he can't understand the corporate culture in which he's embedded. At least he doesn't understand it as novelist Hobart (who based her writing partially on life experience) and adapter Laird Doyle see it. While O'Brien flounders, LeRoy does everything possible to tell the audience that the Oil movie is telling a lot less than the novel does. Perhaps the worst possible thing you could do while filming a literary adaptation is to use shots of flipping pages of the actual book as a transition device. Nothing you could do would say more clearly, "There's a lot of story here that we're just going to skip." Just about all literary adaptations skip a lot of story, or at least a lot of detail, but few are as guileless about admitting it as this one. It's not an endearing quality. Personally, I was hoping for something more pulpy, more self-consciously exotic -- something that hinted at what America was really thinking when it thought about China. Instead, Oil For the Lamps of China is a domesticated if not domestic melodrama that reduces the exploitation of an ancient empire to the dull ordeal of an organization man. For all I know it was faithful to the novel, but as a movie it's a big disappointment.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Now Playing: NOV. 7, 1933

Let's check back in with Milwaukee WI for the home stretch of 1933, the last full year of Pre-Code cinema. Here are this week's autumnal attractions, beginning with a film in the seasonal sporting spirit.


Our other selections are in the more predictable Pre-Code line.



This last one pushes the Pre-Code envelope a little.

Of these I've seen Penthouse (and liked it) and I have a copy of Female somewhere that I ought to watch soon. This Nude World looks like a proto-Mondo movie; I'd look at it if I had a chance, but I wouldn't really expect much from it.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

TWO MEN IN MANHATTAN (Deux Hommes dans..., 1959)

You never know who you'll meet in the big city.

Why, it's Jean-Pierre Melville, the French master of crime and suspense, the direcor of Le Samourai and Army of Shadows. Don't let his sleepy demeanor deceive you; he's a busy man today. Melville isn't just writing and directing this picture, but he's acting as well -- in fact, though he doesn't take top billing, Monsieur Modest is the main character of the story. And he shares a cinematography credit with Nicolas Heyer. He's in New York to shoot exteriors (and the interior of a subway train) and establish atmosphere; he'll shoot the other interiors back home in France. They don't really match that well, but Melville's Manhattan is less a physical place than a territory of mood and music. His opening credits play over Times Square to establish his bona fides, but his camera sets the tone by pulling inexorably away from the familiar crossroads of the world toward darker, more nondescript places. The music still says Manhattan, however, if not America, or 1959. Some of it sounds like library music but much of it is jazzily evocative the way Melville intended. This French film could be the soundtrack for a certain strata of America at the end of the Fifties, where rock 'n roll hasn't reached yet, where the tone of the vibraphone is the church bell of sophistication ringing through the midnight fog cigarette smoke across a sea of booze. They call this film an homage to film noir but it's more of a homage to its own time than to the decade past. It's a Fifties, not a Forties film, in spirit as well as fact.

It might remind you of a Thirties film, since Melville's hero is a reporter hunting a story. He writes for Agence France-Presse and his job is to track down a French diplomat who didn't show up that afternoon at the U.N. Melville acknowledges New York as the capital of the world through his attention to the U.N., portraying its headquarters as an eerie monolith perched like an upright domino begging to be toppled into the river. His quest takes him from this heart of the world into the Manhattan demimonde, descending from a Broadway theater -- the Mercury Theater, mind you, since there's something Wellsian, evocative not only of Kane but Arkadin, to the story -- to a Capitol Records studio to a burlesque club, tracking down women known to be lovers of the diplomat. But the path of the hard-boiled newshound is also the path of Sidney Falco, and Melville's sidekick, the photographer Delmas (Pierre Grasset) is a man on the make, looking for his opportunity to get a scoop, or to catch an entertainer topless when she isn't looking.

It may not have been too soon for Melville to be influenced by Sweet Smell of Success, and in any event Burt Lancaster is spiritually present in Times Square -- his picture Separate Tables is playing in one of the long-gone movie palaces while the credits roll. While Melville hints at characteristic suspense by having himself and Grasset tailed by a mysterious car, the story eventually resolves itself into a moral dilemma. Reporter and photographer find the diplomat dead in an actress's apartment, tipped off by news of her intermission suicide attempt at the Mercury. For Delmas it's the opportunity of a lifetime that only grows bigger when it turns out that AFP intends to cover up the sordid circumstances of the diplomat's demise. The truth grows only more lucrative if it catches someone in a lie. The funny part of it is that Delmas is willing to lie in a similar way. Melville's boss has him move the body from the apartment to a car, but Delmas had earlier moved it from the couch where they found him to the more provocatively photogenic bed. The news agency and the government have their reasons for the cover-up, among them being the deceased's reputation as a hero of the Resistance, but Delmas's resistance to their scheme is no blow for Freedom or Truth but a hunt for the Buck or the Franc. Melville's character goes along with the cover-up with no real enthusiasm. but when it becomes clear to him that Delmas is willing to disgrace the diplomat's innocent family to get his scoop, then there has to be a showdown ... or does there?

The new DVD of the film -- its American debut on home video -- sports a Tarantino blurb equating Melville with Sergio Leone, and maybe for that reason I caught a faint hint of Pulp Fiction in the way a fixer tells our protagonists how to deal with a dead body while telling a tale of wartime heroism. I wouldn't make too much of that, though I suppose the atmosphere of homage makes Deux Hommes Melville's most Tarantinian film. It may not seem very Melvillian to those used to his suspense classics of the Sixties; there's a more overt sense of fun, of Melville living out a fantasy of his own, than you'll get in his masterpieces. His enthusiasm overrides most of the awkwardness that comes inevitably from the mismatch of interiors and exteriors and the casting of Francophones as stilted-sounding Americans. Acknowledge the film as homage instead of mimesis and most objections to its awkward moments will fade away. It's a labor of love more than anything else, and I kinda like it that way.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

On the Big Screen: 12 YEARS A SLAVE (2013)

The history of slavery on film is inseparable from the fantasy of mastery. For that reason, any movie about slavery risks being seen as exploitation. It's always about what the master can do, potentially provoking prurient curiousity, as much as it's about what slaves endure. In the camera eye, the essence of slavery isn't merely exploitation; it is cruelty. The new film by the British director Steve McQueen, acclaimed by some as the best film ever made about American slavery, is no different. The true-life ordeal of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is upstaged, despite the best efforts of star and director, by the spectacle of the monster master. Northup, a free black from New York State who was kidnapped by slavers who enticed the many-skilled man, a husband, father and homeowner. As a free-born citizen of a free state, Northup didn't have to carry papers proving he wasn't a slave, so once taken south, he can't prove his free status. The film follows in the footsteps of Uncle Tom's Cabin as Northup first toils under a "good" but ultimately ineffectual master (Benedict Cumberbatch), then suffers under a Simon Legree type (McQueen alter ego Michael Fassbender). In effect, farce is repeated as tragedy, as one can only laugh at Northup's struggles with Cumberbatch's overseer. Paul Dano's performance may type him once and for all as cinema's designated whipping boy -- white division, of course. He's the nearest thing this film has to comic relief, introducing himself with an inanely offensive work song like something out of Blazing Saddles. He's so unmenacing a figure that it's hard to take him seriously, though his part of the film has a cruel punch line. Humiliated by Northup, the Dano character tries to string the slave up, only to be thwarted by an overseer who has promised to protect Northup. The overseer then leaves Northup to barely avoid strangling in the noose by standing tip-toe in mud until Cumberbatch can figure out what to do with him. In a telling shot, slave children play in the background as Northup struggles for life. McQueen holds the shots of Northup struggling for very long periods. It's a chancy tactic, since there's often a temptation to laugh when this sort of shot is held for too long. Northup's ordeal, however, is only a prelude for the over-the-top antics at Fassbender's plantation.

Cumberbatch plays a cluelessly pious master fond of reading the Bible to his slaves yet ultimately lacking in Christian compassion, while Fassbender finds justification for his cruelty in the same book. He's archetypically dissolute and depraved, a figure who would not be out of place in such less respectable fare as the Mandingo movies or Django Unchained, except that he'd rather see his slaves dance than fight. Essential to his archetype is the sexual exploitation of slaves, and the object of Fassbender's questionable affections is Patsy (Lupita Nyong'o), a mighty mite of cotton-picking productivity. She can pick more than 500 pounds a day while Northup is lucky if he can manage half as much. Fassbender's wife despises Patsy, in one scene hitting the young woman in the face with a full glass decanter. Fassbender himself abuses Patsy as much as he romances her, to say the least. McQueen manages to make this less exploitative than it might seem by deglamorizing Patsy. Nyong'o is a petite woman with close-cropped hair who accumulates scars throughout the picture. No one in the audience, presumably, would fantasize about possessing the wretched Patsy sexually, so Fassbender's lust seems unfathomably strange. Fassbender's performance throughout is fearlessly over-the-top, as it must be to break the spell of fantasy around the character's mastery.

Ejiofor is brilliantly indignant in the lead role, but the film's fidelity to history limits the actor's opportunities to dominate it while screenwriter John Ridley's attempt to make 19th century characters, free and slave alike, more articulate and deliberate in their speech than we are may distance audiences from Northup's emotional experience of his ordeal. Fortunately the visuals more than make up for any distancing effect the dialogue may have on uncomprehending viewers. McQueen has an interesting eye, often focusing on familiar objects in disorienting close-up or landscapes rendered abstract by reflection or atmospheric effects. One especially effective shot turns the blades of a steamboat paddle wheel into a red maw of death as Northup is carried down the river. His long takes are endurance tests for the viewer that hint at Northup's greater test of endurance. Ejiofor and Fassbender top a talented or at least game cast, from Paul Giamatti's brief but chilling turn as a slave trader to producer Brad Pitt's self-congratulatory cameo as a good white whose intervention finally frees Northup. There's a strange irony in the ending that McQueen may not have appreciated or even noticed: even at the heart of slavery's darkness there is still a rule of law that pries Northup from Fassbender's grip. Once Northup makes contact with people who can make contact with authorities in New York, the law, even in a slave state, works in Northup's favor. I'm not sure what this might prove to the audience, or whether it contradicts any impression the film meant to make. It's clear, however, that Northup is miraculously exceptional in acquiring a Get Out of Slavery card, while Patsy and the rest of Fassbender's victims are stuck with him. Some critics have suggested that Northup's limited ordeal doesn't get to the essence of the slavery experience, and the film itself has another kidnapped black draw comparisons between victims like Northup and "born and bred" slaves who have no fight in them. On the other hand, Northup's ordeal probably makes him a better audience-identification figure while augmenting the horror of the story by protraying slavery as something that can happen to anyone -- we even see a white man temporarily reduced to debt-slavery under Fassbender -- rather than something only certain people are born into. If McQueen manages to inspire more nightmares of enslavement than fantasies of dominance, then 12 Years will have lived up to its already lofty reputation among slavery pictures. For now, McQueen should be satisfied with having made one of this year's best films.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Pre-Code Parade: THE BEAST OF THE CITY (1932)

Ominous opening credits over a sinister image symbolic of the title are followed by an upbeat patriotic march as a written prologue by the President of the United States scrolls up the screen. It was supposedly at Herbert Hoover's instigation that Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and William Randolph Hearst's Cosmopolitan production company initiated The Beast of the City. Hoover (no relation to his crimefighting employee J. Edgar) was one of the first to express alarm at the supposed glorification of gangsters in movies. In a movie meant to glorify the police, the President expressed his belief that gangsterdom could be routed if public opinion got behind the cops. At the creative end, the first strange decision was to get an original story from W. R. Burnett. He was the author of Little Caesar and would go on to write High Sierra and The Asphalt Jungle. These works give an idea of where Burnett's sympathies really sat. But if the movie of Little Caesar glorified Edward G. Robinson, presumably The Beast of the City, as scripted by John Lee Mahin (and an uncredited Ben Hecht), would glorify Walter Huston's policeman hero. If so, the writers had, to say the least, an interesting idea of glory.

Charles Brabin's direction is unusually modern, at least early on. The picture opens with (for the time) a realistic observation of police techniques. Brabin's camera pans across a dispatch office, catching a lot of overlapping dialogue and sound effects. It takes several minutes for a plot to get started but Brabin keeps things interesting until then. When the cops finally find evidence of a gang murder, the camera follows Huston's ambitious police captain as he makes his way through Sam Belmonte's nightclub to the lair of Belmonte himself (Jean Hersholt is a strangely Germanic Italian) to bring the gang chief in for questioning. At headquarters, Huston wants to give Hersholt the third degree but is held back by superiors until it's too late and the lawyers arrive to spring their client. Huston is a family man; we see him at breakfast, attended by a son (Mickey Rooney) and twin daughters who make terrible pancakes. The weak link in the family chain and the police force alike is Huston's brother and brother officer (Wallace Ford). If the object of this picture was to glorify the police, no one told Ford, who plays his part in full loser mode. Possibly owing his position to nepotism, Ford hopes for advancement as his brother rises through the ranks, yet falls into the clutches of a vamp. From the advertising, you might think that Jean Harlow had the title role in this picture; it's certainly her most outright evil role. As one of Hersholt's molls, she seduces Ford and gets him to collaborate in crime, disgracing Huston's family.

Harlow supported the release of Beast in person in select cities

Let's get to the glorification. They must have wondered about the glorification angle at the studio until someone had the idea of a blaze of glory. Here's the set-up: Hersholt gets acquitted of murder because Ford is too much of a loser to testify about what he knows. Ashamed, he tries to make it up to his brother by tipping Huston off that the Belmonte gang is celebrating their court triumph at Hersholt's nightclub. I don't know what Ford had in mind, or thought that Huston had in mind, but our hero has had enough of criminals getting away with murder and so on. He leaves his life insurance policy out for his wife to see in the morning and gathers a picked team of similarly sick-and-tired cops outside the nightclub. Inside, the gang (with Harlow) revels, mocking an effigy of the Huston character set up in uniform as the guest of dishonor. Ford appears to tell Hersholt off once and for all. Just as he's about to get his ass kicked, Huston and his men appear. As for what follows, actions speak louder than words, so I'll show you the clip. David Inman uploaded it to YouTube.

For pure volume of violence only the battle scenes in All Quiet on the Western Front top this, and I don't think it would be equaled until The Wild Bunch, which is what this sequence reminded me of the most, from the mocking revelry of the villains to the ensuing war of annihilation. Supposedly, the brass at M-G-M realized that their little armageddon had fallen short of the glorification goal, and as you've seen they promoted it as a Jean Harlow picture. In a way, however, they hadn't failed. The Beast of the City works as a counterpart of the seminal gangster films, adopting an equally hard-boiled attitude (including lots of Pre-Code references to "hop"), only from the police point of view. The apocalyptic imagination at work must have faithfully represented a widespread frustration at the waxing power of organized crime and the apparent inadequacy of established means of dealing with it. Beast is a preview of the quasi-"fascist" films of the following year or so -- including Walter Huston as a possessed President in Gabriel Over the White House -- that imagine extraordinary, extralegal measures against unprecedented criminality. Those films are an essential if not pretty part of Pre-Code cinema, while The Beast of the City, if not the pro-police propaganda President Hoover envisioned, is a respectably intense crime drama in its own right.