Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Pre-Code Parade: A SOLDIER'S PLAYTHING (1930)

For the great silent clowns, the coming of sound was a grave challenge. Everyone's careers seemed to depend on whether they could talk properly, but sound also threatened to change the nature of film comedy. Charlie Chaplin had enough power and popularity to keep on making silents for another decade. Laurel and Hardy passed the test with flying colors, their voices only enhancing their comedy. Harold Lloyd switched to sound quickest, only to learn over the course of the 1930s that his persona had grown obsolete. Buster Keaton lacked the creative control to define his own course, and when he spoke his throaty gravel seemed to weigh him down. All of them, at some point, must have perceived sound as a threat. To Harry Langdon, I suspect, it represented a second chance. After ascending to popularity nearly equal to Chaplin's and Lloyd's, and greater than Keaton's, Langdon crashed and burned before Hollywood really cared whether he could talk. By 1929 he was reduced to making two-reelers for Hal Roach on the same lot as the ascendant Laurel and Hardy. But in 1930 he got another chance at features -- two chances, in fact. Universal starred him alongside fellow silent veteran Slim Summerville in the gangster comedy See America Thirst. Warner Bros., the studio that had swallowed Langdon's former employers at First National, cast him alongside Ben Lyon in Michael Curtiz's service comedy A Soldier's Plaything. Technically Langdon was billed second, and for some markets the main attraction was that popular novelist Vina Delmar wrote the story. Today, no one remembers either Delmar or Lyon, but even in 1930 audiences must have felt that Langdon dominated the film, that it was his movie above all. He's such a strange figure that he can't help monopolizing our attention. Whether that makes him funny is another story.

The army was full of misfits, and many of them were unconsciously the means of bolstering up the spirits of the companies. Many of them were pathetic, too, because comedy characters and pathetic characters are often only a hair's breadth apart.
- Harry Langdon, 1930.


Unfortunately for Langdon, A Soldier's Plaything doesn't really address his interesting thesis about the morale-building effects of misfit clown-soldiers. That said, Langdon, as "Tim," certainly is a misfit clown-soldier, and a pathetic one at that. Tim starts out running a Coney Island shooting gallery when the U.S. enters the Great War. Inspired to an enlist by a patriotic speech across the boardwalk, he's detained by a customer determined to shoot every duck in the row, almost before Harry can move them into position. Finally, Tim goes to a local bookie parlor to bid a strangely sentimental farewell to his pal Georgie the gambler (Lyon).  Georgie doesn't buy that patriotism bunk but wishes Tim well just the same. When he gets into a fight over a card game and seems to kill his antagonist by knocking him over a railing -- the drop is several floors and the dummy takes it hard -- Georgie decides that the best way to escape the electric chair is to join Tim in the army and risk getting shot, blown up, bayoneted, etc.

Fortunately, the film isn't really about war -- it really isn't about anything. It boils down to a sequence of episodes, each introduced with a lengthy title card, that keep the film going until the inevitable discovery that Georgie's victim didn't die, making it safe for him (and Tim) to return home after the war. A Soldier's Plaything is mostly a postwar story, as Tim and Georgie take part in the occupation of the German city of Coblenz. Fraternization with frauleins is their primary objective. Their secondary objective is avoiding punishment details which inevitably involve shoveling horseshit. So traumatized is Tim -- shellshocked, even -- by his experience with horses, not excluding the time he literally becomes a horse's ass when he and Georgie put on a two-part costume to escape a compromising situation -- that once he's back home he can't even stand the sight of a merry-go-round. "Oh no no no" he says in his peculiar way as he flees Coney Island at the close.

Langdon opens the picture in his familiar costume but trades it in for a uniform in short order. Tim's still very much the Harry Langdon fans would have recognized, and he's a type not exactly unfamiliar now: an infantilized adult who has the desires of a full-grown man but seems to have none of means to realize those desires. Tim's as determined to get girls as Georgie is and as determined to prove himself a ladies' man. The joke, I guess, is the childish way he goes about it. Unable to speak French or German, he responds to foreign languages with a stream of babble, as if he thinks his interlocutors might just randomly understand some of it. He seems capable of playing music, but the song he chooses to seduce a girl with goes something like this: "If You'll Wee-Wee Me [Oui-Oui, get it?] Then I'll Wee-Wee You." It actually seems like the perfect Harry Langdon theme song; it nails something vaguely or unwittingly unsettling about his persona. It's all quite archaic and yet there's something contemporary about the embarrassment of it all. Langdon has a voice that might remind you slightly of Lou Costello and uses it in a similarly childish way throughout, though not as loudly as Costello would use his. You get a lot of "uh-ohs" and "no-no-nos," but at some moments Tim comes across as nearly a human being, or someone who wants to be a human being before his inadequacies betray him. Tim walks that hair's breadth Langdon mentions in a publicity interview for the picture, and often trips over it. He may not have had creative control over Soldier's Plaything, but it definitely ends up like a Harry Langdon star vehicle.

The comedy's not all verbal, of course. Langdon is a master of small gestures as well as pratfalls, and one of his best bits comes when the movie finally gets around to the service comedy's inevitable drill scene, when Tim almost mockingly illustrates the drill sergeant's comments with hand gestures. As a slapstick director, Michael Curtiz is often ambitious, but his results are hit-and-miss. A scene when Tim disrupts a military amateur show in rehearsal is marred by choppy editing, but a long take in which Tim has to sneak out of a barracks quietly, yet manages to bump into nearly every possible noisemaking object, is admirably done. The main problem with the film is Curtiz's inability to develop any narrative momentum, though post-production editiong may have been a factor against him. It has its moments and proves Langdon's promise as a sound comedian, but personal issues and plain bad luck soon forced him into bankruptcy and back into two-reelers after a year of idleness. When Langdon filed for bankruptcy, he blamed his misfortune on the coming of sound. That's unfair to this film, bad as it is in many ways, since Langdon's misfortunes started before movies talked. A Soldier's Plaything must go down as a failed experiment, but at least the people involved deserve credit for trying.

Sunday, January 26, 2014


Toshiya Fujita's film is obviously a landmark in the mental landscape of Quentin Tarantino. It's not only a gory revenge story, but it also has the quirky chaptering that would become a Tarantino tic. In the context of Japanese cinema and pop culture, it's part of the legacy of Kazuo Koike, the manga writer best known for his Lone Wolf and Cub (aka Shogun Assassin) series. America's nearest counterpart to Koike probably would be Frank Miller, an admirer who contributed covers to the first series of American translations of the Lone Wolf books. Like Miller, Koike brought a new level of "realistic violence and death" (as it used to be described by comic book sellers) to his medium, though Koike did so as a writer only. Ironically, given the new level of gore his stories inspired in movies, Koike's manga were published in black and white. Others factors certainly influenced filmmakers like Fujita, whose unflagging enthusiasm for arterial spray can make Lady Snowblood sometimes look like a Herschel Gordon Lewis samurai film. Fujita didn't invent the effect; Kurosawa had done it (in black and white) in Sanjuro back in 1962. But Fujita's persistent attentiveness to all the ways blood can flow seems exploitative if not pornographic.

Fortunately, there are levels of style and self-awareness that redeem the picture. Koike contributed to the screenplay, and there may be a note of self-congratulation in the sequence when Meiji-era readers rush to buy copies of Lady Snowblood, the muckraking account of the heroine written by the film's Koike surrogate, a Japanese Ned Buntline who turns the protagonist into a folk heroine, as images from the original manga appear on screen. More characteristic of Koike, perhaps, is the doomy tone, the way the heroine is identified as a creature of the "netherworld," accursed from birth with a burden of vengeance. But that portentousness actually fits well with the increasing stylization of the story, the way a curtain comes down to end Chapter Three after the heroine slices a hanged woman in half, or the way Fujita teases the start of Chapter Four by having the author actually drafting the chapter head with ink on paper before something distracts him. Perhaps these are ways of acknowledging the manga-ness of the material, of establishing that the source is at a further remove from reality than the usual sources of samurai movies. The increasing stylization puts the blood in a different light, suggesting that it's more than spectacle for slack-jawed gorehounds. Not that that would compromise the experience for the gorehounds, but Lady Snowblood was and still can be enjoyed on multiple levels depending on the what the viewer is looking for.

The mighty Meiko Kaki plays Yuki, "Lady Snowblood," first scene assassinating a yakuza boss on an appropriately snowy night. An origin story follows establishing her beef with four scumbags -- three men and a woman -- who ran a racket promising exemptions from military service in return for payments with which they absconded. These no-goods pounce on the new schoolteacher who's arrived in town, identifying him as a wicked government "man in white" and murdering him and his son. They rape his wife, who ends up a prostitute in prison desperately trying to get pregnant so a child can avenge her family against the remaining three malefactors after killing one herself. Yuki is her prison-born spawn, born as her mother dies, raised by a soon-released fellow con and trained in combat by a rather mean priest.

Believing one of the three dead at sea, Yuki goes after the survivors, one a broken-down gambler with a devoted daughter, the female fourth in parts unknown under a new identity. Yuki agrees to have her story published with the idea that pubilcity will draw the woman out rather than forcing her deeper into hiding, and that proves a good guess. More surprising is how that woman ends up hanged before Yuki can finish her. Turns out that the one thought lost at sea wasn't lost at all -- and he's the writer's father. You'd think he wouldn't show his hand and risk Yuki's wrath, but common sense would only stop this film in its tracks, and we really wouldn't want that to happen.

I assume that most people wouldn't. To be frank, I still don't care for the increased gore in Seventies swordplay movies; no matter how we might rationalize it as stylization, it still comes across as crass compared to the more elegant violence of the previous generation. Still, style is substance in Lady Snowblood, and Fujita and cinematographer Masaki Tamura bring enough genuine style to the picture to keep it worth looking at -- although Meiko Kaji pretty much does that just by showing up. She's arguably the greatest action actress cinema has yet produced, and that itself is probably a triumph of style over substance. Whether she's a sword-wielding avenger or Female Convict Scorpion in modern dress, Kaji has a presence that dominates the screen -- as well as a lovely singing voice for the theme songs all Japanese actors, apparently, were obliged to perform in this period. However we describe Lady Snowblood generically or stylistically, it's first and foremost a Meiko Kaji movie, and as such is certainly worth seeing. Maybe we should think of all those ejaculations of blood as the homage due to her.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Riz Ortolani (1926-2014)

Perhaps you recognize this familiar theme:

Nicolas Windig Refn's Drive reintroduced the music of Riz Ortolani to American audiences. Ortolani, who died this week, was one of that mighty generation of Italian film composers of whom Ennio Morricone is the best known. Ortolani actually made his name in America before Morricone did, earning an Academy Award nomination for Best Song for "More," the theme from Mondo Cane, the breakthrough film of his major collaborators, Gualtiero Jacopetti and Franco Prosperi. This clip from the film provides a sample of its many instrumental variations on the theme.

"Oh My Love," the song from the Drive soundtrack, comes from Jacopetti & Prosperi's most infamous picture, Goodbye Uncle Tom. Those who think themselves hardened by sitting through Twelve Years a Slave may yet flinch at this time-bending exploitation essay on slavery and its consquences. Ortolani's greatest film score is typical of his mondo work, providing a romantic, sentimental counterpoint to horror on screen. Here's "Oh My Love" in its original context.

As with "More," Ortolani came up with variations on the theme that go far from the rapturous idealism of the Katyna Ranieri vocal. A second theme gets quite a workout, starting here:

And climaxing here with new notes of funky menace as the directors imagine modern blacks (circa 1971) reliving Nat Turner's rebellion:

Perhaps the greatest example of Ortolani's characteristic effect is his opening music for Ruggiero Deodato's Cannibal Holocaust. Like Goodbye Uncle Tom, Cannibal Holocaust has a reputation as one of cinema's most horrifying experiences, and like Uncle Tom, it includes some of Ortolani's most beautiful music.

Ortolani wasn't Morricone's equal in quantity or quality, but he was one of the top men of that cohort that made almost every Italian film of a certain era sound incredible. At his very best, he was quite nearly equal to anyone's very best, and his are some of the most memorable moments in movie music.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Pre-Code Parade: WHAT! NO BEER? (1933)

This is career death: Buster Keaton's final film for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, the studio that destroyed him. The legend is that the studio people thought they understood comedy better than the greatest physical comic of the silent era. The truth was that Keaton's big-budget spectaculars for United Artists, The General and Steamboat Bill Jr. -- had not been especially popular with their original audiences, so Metro may have felt it necessary to steer Keaton in another direction, just as they would do, more successfully to an extent, with the Marx Bros. a few years later. Keaton made two silents for M-G-M that are conceded to retain some of his old spark. But Keaton in talkies proved hopeless. His voice made it easy for Metro to reinvent the Buster persona as an utter moron, though he did at least once revive his naive millionaire character for them. Worse, it was thought necessary that he say funny things, though thanks to the scripts he rarely did. Keaton wasn't reluctant to talk, but his own ideas for sound comedy were thwarted consistently. His inclinations ran from the parodic to the absurd. His idea to save his career was to film an all-star parody of Grand Hotel -- he'd wanted in on Grand Hotel itself but Lionel Barrymore got the part he wanted -- but of course the studio nixed the idea. In frustration with both his career and his marriage, he drank. In What! No Beer? he is often obviously sozzled on screen. That film might drive anyone to drink, whether you had to perform in it or watch it.

Edward Sedgwick directed; he made all but one of Keaton's Metro pictures, and by now was as void of inspiration as his star. Throughout the picture there are moments that have the potential for humor that might have been realized by a healthier Keaton and his old collaborators. There's potential, believe it or not, in the idea that Elmer Butts, a taxidermist, keeps money stuffed in his various specimens. In better days, Keaton might have run with the idea of storing much more in the stuffed animals, or using them as furniture, utensils, etc. But here Sedgwick seems to have no idea of how to frame the action so it works as gags. You see the same sort of failure repeatedly. Buster is handcuffed to Jimmy Durante -- in the story as well as in his career at that point -- and is flung about as Durante gesticulates wildly protesting their innocence to a judge. At his best Keaton would have choreographed this business with care and ensured that his director would have shot it to get the most laughs out of his pratfalls. In the finished product Sedgwick cluelessly shoots Buster crashing about aimlessly, as if his main concern -- and there's probably no "if" to it -- had been to record Durante's malaprops and mugging. Even Durante can't do anything with one of the film's big set pieces; his and Buster's first attempt to brew beer at their new brewery. Durante is working from an old family recipe that's pathetically small in scale given their resources, and the gag is that he, Buster and their three helpers (including stuttering Roscoe Ates) still louse up the job. Sedgwick has a large brewery set to work with, and no idea, probably having no input in its construction, of how to work with it. The sort of workplace comedy that the Three Stooges could do in their sleep seems beyond anyone's ability here. There's lots of spraying people with water, with hose gags that must have seemed old to the Lumiere brothers in 1896, but nothing that rises to the level of a true sight gag. What! No Beer? is one of the most ineptly directed comedies you'll ever see, and as such it exposes mercilessly how badly Keaton had deteriorated in his five years at Metro.

The idea is that Elmer Butts wants to make a million dollars to impress a girl (Phyllis Barry) he met outside an anti-Prohibition rally, not realizing that she's a gangster's moll. In this inspired-by-imminent-events fantasy, Prohibition is doomed by a national referendum, after some clumsy pratfalls in collapsible voting booths, and the Durante character assumes that beer will be legal the very next day. He convinces Elmer that he can make his million by investing his $10,000 nest egg in a brewery, but when they finally brew a batch large enough to sell they're raided by the cops. They're spared jail time only because they've actually failed to brew proper beer, but once Ates gives them a formula for then-legal "near beer" they become pawns in a power struggle between two gangsters for the last days of the bootleg market. In a badly written and performed scene one of the gangsters (Edward Brophy) invades Elmer's office, only to be impressed by Elmer's newly-learned sales talk (Buster conveniently reads his lines from the book) into thinking that "the frozen-faced guy" is a business mastermind. This alliance makes Elmer the enemy of the rival gangster (John Miljan) whose moll is the very girl Buster pines for. She exploits this to get information (and $10,000) from Elmer in the Pre-Code era's lamest seduction sequence, but she later inexplicably falls for him for real. The alleged slapstick highlight of the film is Elmer's thwarting of a hit on him by accidentally unloading his beer barrels from his truck so that they roll downhill and wipe out his assailants. It's a feeble imitation of the boulder gags from Seven Chances with none of the payoffs. The real climax comes when Mijan takes over the brewery and forces Durante & Co to make real beer. Elmer escapes by having himself sealed in a barrel and rolled off the premises. He then gathers a mob by driving through town promising free beer at the brewery. A horde descends on the place, and in the confusion Elmer takes out Miljan with a drop kick to the ankles that is, sad to say, the high point of acrobatics in this Buster Keaton picture. In the end, our heroes open a legal beer garden (misspelled "Butt's") and in a rush for his autograph another mob strips Elmer to his underwear, while Durante promises the audience that beer is coming soon to a town near them. He can't help adding a "hotcha-cha" to that, and I can't help wanting to break a bottle (or a barrel) over his head.

To be fair, Durante seems almost desperately conscious of a need to fill the void created by Keaton's implosion, even if his efforts seem to further suffocate his colleague. He's trying to save the picture, but Jimmy Durante can only do the opposite with his maddeningly repetitive shtick and his dismal malaprops. Some people actually dig that type of humor, and I can only feel sorry for them. Again, had the film had a more competent director and a more engaged star a better balance may have been struck between the co-stars' styles. A scene at Durante's barber shop is another missed opportunity. He raves about the referendum while lathering Elmer's face and while impulsively gesticulating cranks the lever that raises and lowers the barber chair, as all the while a stoic, silent -- almost Keatonesque -- black man struggles to shine Elmer's shoes. You can see the pieces of a promising gag sequence laying about, but Sedgwick is barely capable of putting one block on top of another and the result is more disorganized flailing about. In Sedgwick's defense, there are signs of heavy editing in the 65 minute picture. Shots are cut abruptly, probably in at least some cases to cover some lapse of Keaton's. In one case, near the end of the seduction scene, Sedgwick sets up a pratfall gag, but we never see Keaton take the fall. Had it gotten so bad that Buster couldn't manage such a simple task? Watching this film, you can believe it. It's one of the most demoralizing hours of cinema you could subject yourself to, and though you may know that Keaton would bounce back eventually, if not to full creative flower than at least in the esteem of movie lovers, you may find that hard to believe after seeing What! No Beer? This is a film that lives down to its bad reputation and may even exceed it. For some, my saying this may be a dare to watch the movie, but it lacks the spectacle and pathos of a more ambitious train wreck as well as anything like the incoherent inspiration that makes some bad films highly entertaining. What! No Beer? is so bad that it's terrible; for fans of Keaton it's downright horrifying.

Monday, January 20, 2014


The last time I reviewed a Bollywood movie I speculated that the nearest American counterpart to the Indian movie format was the singing-cowboy genre that flourished for not quite 20 years, from the mid-1930s through the early 1950s. The two types of movie aren't really the same, but the singing-cowboy westerns remind us of a time when "melodrama" meant a combination of drama and music, when the drama paused for a "specialty" of song and dance. The singing-cowboy film is melodrama par excellence, particularly when it's made by Republic Pictures. Republic specialized in singing cowboys, stunts and special effects. Many of their serials are still revered today by genre fans, but the singing-cowboy films tend to get dismissed as a creative dead end. If we think of them, we think of them as bowdlerized westerns, usually set in a dude-ranch sort of west of the modern day, complete with telephones, automobiles, etc. -- and in which the hero always shoots the bad guy's gun out of his hand. But if we think of them as musicals first, they represent another evolutionary step away from Busby-Berkeleyan spectacle and the musical as a syncopated live-action cartoon, contemporary with the rise of Fred Astaire at RKO, with an emphasis on virtuoso performance rather than mass formations. At Republic, you got the musical innovation -- their films are important in the evolution of country-western music as well -- along with as much mayhem as their legendary stunt men could throw in.

Joseph Kane's Tumbling Tumbleweeds was the first feature-length starring vehicle for Gene Autry, who'd made his starring debut earlier in 1935 in the one-of-a-kind singing-cowboy/sci-fi mashup serial The Phantom Empire for one of Republic's precursors. Autry was already a radio and recording star by the time he hit Hollywood, a fact often acknowledged in the films in which he almost invariably played "Gene Autry." With him came sidekick Smiley Burnette, who in this film is "Smiley" rather than his usual alias, "Frog Millhouse." Burnette was the Curly Howard of singing-cowboy sidekicks, younger and heavier than the bewhiskered codgers who more often attended the heroes. A frequent songwriting partner of Autry, Burnette had a bizarre gimmick, earning his movie-character nickname by taking his voice down to an Popeye-like throaty rasp for humorous effect, in contrast to his more high-pitched yet mellow drawl. Speaking of bewhiskered codgers, journeyman character actor George Hayes had not yet transformed himself into "Gabby" when he took the role of a clean-chinned yet mustachioed snake-oil salesman in Tumbleweeds. His turn here is a reminder that the New York native could act and wasn't merely something Republic found in the desert.

Although we learn during the film that this version of Gene Autry has made a name as a recording artist, we find him traveling with Hayes's medicine show as it visits his old family home. The story Autry may have had a poor agent, or he may have sought the opportunity to return to the land we saw him exiled from in the film's first act. He had refused to take his father's side in the typical range war, but intervenes to save his life at the climax of a furious action sequence in which film buffs may choose to see the hand of supervising editor Joseph H. Lewis. Since Papa Autry was unconscious during the rescue, and no one else witnessed it, he still thinks of Gene as a coward and repudiates his son before the young man can account for himself. Returning, Gene and his band take shelter in a shack still occupied by a wounded fugitive our hero recognizes as a boyhood friend. After helping him evade a posse, Gene learns that his friend is accused of killing Old Man Autry, and that changes things, at least until his friend's wife sets him straight about who really done it....

In later life Autry bought up the rights to his old pictures, and his heirs have had them preserved and restored for regular play on the Encore Western cable channel. So the first surprise about Tumbling Tumbleweeds for those with dim memories of lousy public-domain prints of singing-cowboy pictures on old-time TV, is how good this picture looks. It's a twofold surprise, since apart from the crisp picture Kane's direction is often impressive, not only in the action scenes but in the framing of many more sedate scenes. He has a knack for getting a camera into tight spots and making each scene as lively as possible. A performance of Hayes's medicine show, without Autry, is a highlight, thanks to Burnette and Eugene Jackson as "Eightball," at once a performer in the show and flunky to Hayes. Jackson does a frantic tap dance during a Burnette number, then tops himself (while Kane cuts to a tighter shot) by doing a James Brown bit avant le lettre, tiring of his pace and collapsing until dosed with Hayes's remedy, which brings him back to full power or more. Ernest Miller is the credited cinematographer and Lester Orlebeck the credited editor; both deserve credit for packing this little picture with considerable energy. Autry himself was never much of an actor but he is what he needs to be here. The players bring the enthusiasm of a new project to their first of many, many more pictures, and even if you don't care for the music you can appreciate the impression Tumbleweeds must have made. It's the sort of landmark movie film buffs may have to learn to appreciate, instead of appreciating it outright, since it set a standard few of us comprehend anymore. A reappraisal of singing-cowboy films is probably necessary before we can judge them on their own terms, rather than as compromised westerns or regional musicals. We shouldn't expect to find masterpieces anywhere in such a survey, but the films themselves might find some more respect than they get today.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

On the Big Screen: COOL HAND LUKE (1967)

That's right: the big screen for Paul Newman's iconic performance in Stuart Rosenberg's film of Donn Pearce's novel. The occasion was the grand re-opening weekend for the Madison Theater in Albany NY. Located near the College of St. Rose campus, the Madison is a neighborhood movie house dating back to 1929. It was a single-screen theater as late as the early 1990s before the original space was split into two screens. Four more smaller theaters were added later. Under new management, the two primary screens now serve as Albany's first full-time repertory movie house, while the remainder are converted into a live performance space. The revamped Madison emphasizes classic Hollywood, broadly defined, programming films according to a different theme each week. Prices for films and concessions alike are reasonable ($5 for the movie) and I intend to be as much of a regular there as the films justify. Anyone who really loves movies in the Albany area should support a theater that shows old films the way they were meant to be seen -- bigger than life.

For whatever reason the new management at the Madison opened with a four-film Paul Newman festival, also showing Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Sting and Slap Shot this opening week. Perhaps predictably, I chose the oldest film of the four. Cool Hand Luke is celebrated as a celebration of rebellion, but a closer examination reveals greater ambivalence about the hero's rebellion. In his southern prison, Luke is a reluctant Christ figure in a world without God, or at least a Christ figure who doesn't believe in God. Rosenberg acknowledges the absurdity of the concept, posing Newman in his most Christ-like attitude just after Luke has eaten 50 hard-boiled eggs in an hour on a bet. Later, the idolization of Luke by his erstwhile enemy Dragline (George Kennedy in his Oscar-winning role) adds a tragicomic note to the allegory. Luke seems capable of miracles, not just in his capacity for eggs but in his inspiration of the work gang to finish a road job in record time, earning them precious extra hours of leisure. Late, he has a Gethsemane moment in an empty church, asking a God whose existence he doubts whether He has any plan or purpose for Luke, finally interpreting an unpromising omen as a cue to give up his life. Luke himself is as uncomfortable with his eventual role as hero of the work camp as he is with any role life tries to force on him. Rebel he may be, and rebel he may against real oppressors, but Luke's rebellion is no more principled or conscientious than Marlon Brando's in The Wild One. Brando's biker, asked what he rebelled against, answered, "Whaddaya got?" Luke might well answer, as in a moment of fatigue, "I dunno, boss." The movie never tries to explain his rebelliousness apart from noting a broken home -- abandoned by his father, raised by an aunt. He has no theory of rebellion beyond, "just because it's the law don't make it right." For this film's purposes, that's enough.

Luke doesn't rebel for a living. He may well have settled into a stint as idol of the cons had the bosses not insulted and provoked him, sending him to "the Box" on no more pretext than a fear (having seen White Heat?) that his mother's death might drive him to attempt escape. Their own actions provoke the response they feared as Luke makes three breaks for freedom. After the second, his acolytes appear to desert him after he seems to break under physical and mental torture from the bulls, but Dragline's faith is restored when a seemingly tamed Luke seizes a truck and drives off. Dragline needs to believe that Luke had faked being broken, that even as he was clinging to a guard's foot he was planning the third escape. He seems undissuaded when Luke assures him that he was broken and had not planned the truckjacking in advance -- "I never planned anything in my life," Luke insists. Kennedy takes Dragline in an odd direction in these last scenes, turning him from the bully of the early scenes into a Lenny to Luke's George -- a Lenny for whom, in a way, George will sacrifice himself. Yet if Dragline has become as a child in Luke's presence, even as Luke tries to blow him off once and for all, there's a hint at the end that Luke has actually enlightened Dragline in some way. Before Luke, Dragline himself had seemed content to be the king of the cons, but Luke taught him to recognize his chains. That Dragline ends the film shackled actually seems like a sign of progress, proof that he's now travelling Luke's path, for whatever good it will do him. Because Luke himself remains an enigma, Dragline's relationship with him becomes the real story of the film -- which is, I suppose, how Kennedy earned that Oscar.

Stuart Rosenberg wasn't really a great director. He too often calls attention to his and cinematographer Conrad Hall's gimmickry, particularly the mirrorshades of "the man without eyes," and makes some odd pictorial choices like a huge closeup of a singer's mouth during a hymn. But he tells the story smoothly, though Lalo Schifrin's score threatens at times to overwhelm the images, and lets his vast ensemble of character actors do their things. Seeing the picture on a big screen made it more atmospheric, more sensual in a grubby, sweaty sense. It reminds you how a star on the big screen commands not just the screen but the whole theater. Seeing it whole for the first time in a long time also reminded me of how much Cool Hand Luke has influenced the Coen brothers, from their recreation of the mirrorshade man in O Brother Where Art Thou to the echo of Clifton James's orientation speech in The Hudsucker Proxy. It's odd because the Coens have never done anything in spirit like Luke, but it gives you an idea of the impression Rosenberg makes visually, despite what I said above. The film may have a mixed message, but there's definitely no failure to communicate here.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Redford was Robbed

The Academy Award nominations for the 2013 movie season have been announced and from my perspective the big story is the almost-total exclusion of J. C. Chandor's All is Lost, which ended up nominated only for its sound editing. From what I've seen Chandor's is just about the best American film of the past year, with only Twelve Years a Slave rivaling it. Which is number one and which number two depends on my mood. Most stunning is the exclusion of All is Lost's star Robert Redford from the Best Actor race, but I suppose I should not have been surprised. Redford has won some awards since Lost made its debut at Cannes, but even there he lost to Bruce Dern, who remains in the Oscar race for his work in Alexander Payne's Nebraska. Since Cannes it may have seemed that Dern and Redford would make this year's competition a Lifetime Achievement contest, but Dern isn't necessarily the favorite in a strong field from which another erstwhile front-runner, Tom Hanks in Captain Phillips, has been bumped in favor of latecomers Christian Bale (for American Hustle) and Leonardo DiCaprio (for The Wolf of Wall Street), while Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave) and Matthew McConaughey (Dallas Buyers Club) got the nominations everyone expected. I haven't seen Nebraska yet but I can assume safely that Dern gives a more "showy" performance than Redford by any imaginable standard, simply because Redford's work in All is Lost was masterfully minimalistic, primarily physical rather than verbal. Redford no doubt suffered more in competition because his role required no physical transformation or accent, and he did not play a real person. He had no big speeches to give, unless you count the note we hear him compose at the very start of the film, and the most emoting he did was to yell "F-F-Fuck!!!" when his character ran out of fresh water. It all goes to show that a theatrical standard for acting still prevails that underrates the committed and convincing yet understandably quiet physicality the elderly yet vigorous Redford brought to Chandor's film. It will be said, and has been said already, that Redford and the film as a whole fail to "connect" with audiences, but the real problem is that audiences don't watch certain films with sufficient attention to appreciate the work on the screen. The wisdom of Alfonso Cuaron's choice to have Sandra Bullock's astronaut talk to herself constantly throughout Gravity appears to be reconfirmed, since Bullock won a nomination and is probably the closest rival to Cate Blanchett (Blue Jasmine) for the actual prize. But Chandor's decision (obviously seconded by Redford) to keep "Our Man" almost entirely silent throughout All is Lost is one reason why theirs is a slightly superior film to Cuaron and Bullock's, though few acknowledge the difference.

For what it's worth -- and there's little reason, really, to take the Oscars seriously as a measure of cinematic worth -- I would have left Bale and DiCaprio's good performances off the short list in favor of Redford and Oscar Isaac for Inside Llewyn Davis. I have to withhold judgment on Dern and McConaughey until I see their work, but for now I'm rooting for Chiwetel Ejiofor, though there's no nominee whose victory would disgust me. If anything, I may grow more disgruntled over the nominations after I see Joaquin Phoenix in Her this weekend. He gave the best male performance of the previous year in The Master, but the Academy judges actors by overall attitude rather than individual performances, and too many members simply don't like Phoenix. Of the actual nominees, I suppose Bale is the least worthy. While I enjoyed his work in American Hustle I get the sense that he's riding everyone else's coattails and basking in the obvious love Hollywood apparently has for David O. Russell, in collaboration with whom Bale has already won an Oscar. I suspect that Russell will win one of the big prizes, either Best Director or Best Picture, either of which will infuriate those who see Hustle as a mere entertainment compared to the harrowing history lesson of 12 Years or the innovative spectacle of Gravity. But a comparison of the films rather than the actors is a topic for another time. For now, just remember that Robert Redford was robbed.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Pre-Code Parade: DAY OF RECKONING (1933)

For some reason Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer borrowed Richard Dix from RKO to star in this Charles Brabin film. Dix was Radio's top male star of the Pre-Code era but that's not saying much. He had little more than size going for him, with neither the common-man appeal of older lummoxes like Wallace Beery or Victor McLaglen nor the virile charisma of a Clark Gable or Gary Cooper. He made the transition from silents to talkies easily enough but wasn't really that good with dialogue. Still, he had starred in Cimarron, and that meant something to people. It didn't mean he was a true leading man, regardless of what RKO claimed, and Day of Reckoning seems to acknowledge this by leaving the Dix character alone at the end after everything seemed to point toward a romance between John Day, the well-meaning petty embezzler who spends two years in jail, and the Day family maid (Una Merkel) who acts more like a mother to his children (including little Spanky McFarland) than does Day's actual wife (Madge Evans). Mrs. Day's extravagant ways forced John into crime, while Mamie the maid selflessly carries on after John's conviction leaves the household without income. Mamie has a suitor, but it's Stuart Erwin for crying out loud, so you assume the poor milkman for all his modest decency won't stand a chance against Dix. A romance between John and Mamie seems inevitable once Dorothy Day takes a secretarial job with John's friend George Hollis (Conway Tearle), who starts an affair with her. This liaison enrages Kate the head secretary (Isabel Jewell), George's former favorite and lover. The story takes an unexpected sharp turn when Kate confronts the new couple at George's place and shoots Dorothy to death. George goes to jail for killing Kate and ends up in the same cell block as John Day. This, then, is the Day of Reckoning....

In prison, John has befriended a likable counterfeiter (Raymond Hatton) and another con who cracks from worrying over his wife's fidelity. We see this latter loser taken to the mental ward after getting a letter confirming his worst fears. All his histrionics foreshadow Day's reaction to the circumstances of his wife's demise. Dix tries to go over the top when the moment comes but he was always more beef than ham and goes about his suffering too self-consciously to be convincing. Once John figures out how to get at George Dix is on safer ground, able to rely on brute force. Like Dix, Brabin rises to the occasion. The county jail is a high-rise, and John finds George taking a sun bath on the roof. Brabin films their fight on a high-rise roof as if he'd studied at the feet of Harold Lloyd. The action is persuasively perilous, though if the fight was staged Lloyd style the danger to actors or stuntmen wasn't that great. The authenticity gives the film an energy it otherwise lacks, but Brabin follows it with a terrible process shot of Dix and Erwin riding through the countryside in a horse-drawn carriage, the background shifting from left to right to represent the shaking that neither actor can pantomime. They're on their way to a decisive meeting with Mamie the maid, who's taking care of John's kids on a farm. Jerry the milkman is anxious because he's thinking like we in the audience: Mamie loves those kids so much that she probably should marry John and be their mother for real. And doesn't John need a wife as well as a mother for his little children? Apparently not. Mamie, the true heroine of the film, picks Stuart Erwin over Richard Dix. But it looks like she'll still be raising those kids for John Day, yet in the end it's John -- the hero, the protagonist -- who ends up looking superfluous. So maybe Metro had to borrow Dix from Radio because none of their own male stars would take such a thankless role. Still, the fact that the hero doesn't get any girl at the end of the picture is one thing that makes Day of Reckoning stand out as an unorthodox picture even for the Pre-Code era.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

On the Big Screen: INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS (2013)

The Coen brothers' first film in three years is a tricky piece. Because of their collaboration with T-Bone Burnett and an invocation of the Odyssey, it might seem closely related to O Brother Where Art Thou, but its closest kin in the Coen filmography is really Barton Fink. Set in 1961, it explicitly offers the Disney animal adventure The Incredible Journey as a cinematic reference point, but when I think of a cat lost in New York City in 1961 I think Breakfast at Tiffany's, and there's probably more room for illuminating comparisons in that direction. The title itself is deceptive, as is, presumably, the title character's record album of the same name, since we never truly get inside Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) and may leave the theater thinking there'd be nothing there if we got inside. The picture's a period piece with little appeal to nostalgia; since the subject is folk music and some of Davis's songs were created for this movie, we don't hear the usual pop tunes that define the decade if not the particular year. It doesn't seem to be about 1961 or the folk music scene on the brink of Dylan's emergence. Instead, it's about failure and frustration, if not a will to failure or self-frustration, but Davis must have enough talent to keep the film from becoming the wrong kind of comedy. That makes his failures as an entertainer and a person more mysterious, if not more tragic, but the Coens give us no Rosebud to account for them. That's only fair, since it's not as if these are problems only Davis can have or get.

We know his weakness; Llewyn doesn't "connect with people" the way some of his rivals do. But that begs more questions. How much of his dysfunction have to do with the suicide of his singing partner, for instance? But the Coens resist the temptation to show that person in flashback, and we never learn why he jumped off the George Washington Bridge. How much of Llewyn's conflicted attitude toward music, not to mention his sometimes-horrifying irresponsibility, has to do with his relationship with his father? He seems to resent having to play music, treating performance as an onerous job, while the only time he performs unbidden, or not for money, is when he visits his father in a nursing home. Llewyn reminds his dad that he'd always liked the particular song he plays, but the Coens undermine the sentiment of the moment by having the father soil himself in apparent response to the music. The brothers strive to maintain a comic tone, and some bits like the song "Please Mr. Kennedy" are hilarous, yet Inside Llewyn Davis is in some ways their darkest film. Davis is definitely their most unlovable protagonist. He is contemptibly irresponsible, reaching bottom when he abandons a dying or dead John Goodman and a live cat in a car on the highway on a wintry night. Bruno Delbonnel's cinematography is at its best and bleakest as Davis quits the car and hitchikes for Chicago, and later, when Davis fears he may have hit the same cat with another car on the return trip to New York. These are dark nights for Davis's soul, or what passes for it, and Oscar Isaac conveys convincingly both the character's moral agony and his inability to do anything about it -- both feelings compounded by his recent refusal to take the exit into Akron to find a child he'd only just found out about, the result of an aborted abortion.

Llewyn Davis is alienated to an extent fatal to whatever artistic ambition he has, but I don't think the Coens mean to say that this alienation is his crucial flaw. They may mean to show that such alienation and ambivalence is close to the surface of many artists, not just the failures -- their own reputation for misanthropy is probably relevant here, and for some Inside Llewyn Davis will only reconfirm that reputation. But Llewyn Davis rings too true as a type to be dismissed as a misanthropic caricature, though some of the supporting cast may seem like more typical Coen caricatures, and the most disquieting thing about the movie is the extent to which we find ourselves empathizing with this apparently repulsive person as everything goes wrong for him. He may seem exceptionally rotten in may respects, but let's face it: sabotaging one's own ambitions, perhaps misunderstanding them in the first place and failing to become famous are not exceptional at all.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Pre-Code Parade: PAID (1930)

Joan Crawford is a pioneer woman-in-prison in Sam Wood's Pre-Code adaptation of a 1912 chestnut, the Bayard Veiller play Within the Law. As Mary Turner, Crawford is sent up for shoplifting on the job at a department store. Mary says it's a frame-up but who'll believe her, especially after she uses her sentencing hearing as a platform to rant against her employer for his cheap, heartless ways. There's a nice bit of early cross-talk as Mary, her boss and his lawyer all try to make themselves heard in the courtroom. Crawford gets a very early prison shower scene noteworthy, alas, for its whiff of racism. Unlikely as it seems, there's only one black woman in prison with Mary, and maybe for that reason Mary reacts like that woman is carrying plague when they end up side by side, naked, in the shower. The wall of the stall covers the naughty bits, but the sight of bare black and white legs in such proximity no doubt titillated or scandalized many in the original audience. Happily, the black prisoner gets the last word, gently mocking Mary's revulsion. "Don't worry honey," she says, "It all goes down the drain!"

Paid doesn't linger in prison, since its real subject is Mary Turner's pursuit of revenge against her oppressors. With no opportunities for an honest living on the horizon after her release, she falls in with a gang run by Joe Garson (Robert "Carl Denham" Armstrong). Mary and other women seduce, entrap and extort wealthy men with threats of breach-of-promise suits. Mary hits the law books and is able to tell the cops off when Garson's schemes are within the letter of the law. Meanwhile, she pursues her own agenda, seducing the son of her former employer. The object this time, however, is to humiliate the old man by actually becoming his daughter-in-law. But you know how it is. The kid is handsome and doesn't care that he was only a pawn in her plot, and she has real feelings for him. Meanwhile, the cops come up with a preposterous plan to trap the Garson gang. Their plant tries to convince Garson, who has extensive burglary experience, that the Mona Lisa is being kept in a local mansion. Garson himself is skeptical at first; he knows about the 1913 theft of the famous painting, but the plant assures him that a fake was returned to the Louvre, while the real Leonardo came to America. It doesn't take much to convince Garson after all, but the break-in ends in predictable disaster, with Mary's husband blundering into the middle of it while the plant gets killed.

The film's final act is a melodramatically psychological cat-and-mouse game pitting the cops against the members of the Garson gang. Mary refuses to rat out Garson, while her husband, not wanting Mary to take the rap for the killing, claims responsibility himself. Mary backs him, believing that he can dodge the chair by claiming self-defense. Mary's wise to the cops' tricks, alerting her husband to a bug in the room where the detectives expect them to incriminate themselves. Finally, Garson himself is brought in and made to believe that his cohorts have already confessed. Ultimately, however, Garson succumbs to the Pathos of Renunciation. He's had feelings for Mary, too, and he realizes that the only way to spare her another term in jail, or to give her a chance at a fresh start with a husband who loves her, is to take the rap himself, even if it means the chair. He puts on a brave, blithely hard-boiled face, but neither he nor the detectives are fooling Mary by assuring her that he won't burn. Fortunately, she has hubby's handsome shoulder to cry on. All of this shows the source story's age by the time Paid winds up; it may have seemed as hokey in 1930 as it does now. The film earns just about all its Pre-Code points in the prison scene, but Crawford's intensity keeps things watchable throughout. Her smart, tough-minded antiheroine is a more compelling criminal than Armstrong's old softy, and deserved a slightly better showcase.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014


Frank Capra married his "Cinderella man" concept to the subject of American politics in 1939's Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. By that time Charles Brabin had Capra beat by seven years. Adapting Henry Bernstein's play The Claw, Brabin and five writers (including the late actor Louis Wolheim, who had worked on a treatment before dying the previous year) put their not-quite-so-innocent Cinderella Man -- this is the Pre-Code era, after all through a similar rise, fall and redemption routine, with twists specific to the star. Lionel Barrymore's junior senator even has the same first name as Jimmy Stewart's iconic neophyte. He is Jeff (for Jefferson) Keane, a small-town lawyer who makes a name for himself in statewide politics by getting the governor to pardon a man wrongly convicted of murder. He's encouraged to challenge the judge who sentenced the poor man in the next election, but doing so would put him at odds with the state's powerful political boss, U.S. Senator Bitler (Burton Churchill). Bitler tries to intimidate and humiliate Keane into submission at a swanky party crashed by the lawyer, but the boss only provokes our hero into challenging him instead of the judge. Despite the odds, and by means of no interest to the filmmakers, Keane pulls off the upset and heads to Washington D.C. with his daughter (Diane Sinclair) in tow to serve as his hostess, the Senator-elect being a widower. He takes the oath despite being denied the courtesy of an escort by his senior colleague from his home state, who considers Keane a traitor to their party. To this point, Washington Masquerade is so Capra-esque that Keane is ready to throw punches at his fellow Senator.

Keane's big issue in the election was hydroelectric power. Like many Americans in the first third of the 20th century, he believes in federal or municipal ownership. Needless to say, the idea was widely opposed by pro-business types, one of whom denounces the concept as "Communistic" on the Senate floor, provoking Keane's maiden speech in the august body. To those who think private enterprise is best qualified to steward the nation's resources, Keane offers the Depression as evidence to the contrary -- a palpable hit, certainly, for many in the movie audience. Keane's speech is a hit with the public in the picture as well, forcing powerful lobbyists to take steps to stop him. Senator Jeff is double-teamed by lawyer Alan Hinsdale (the ever-loathsome C. Henry Gordon) and influential D.C. courtesan Consuela Fairbanks (Karen Morley). She seduces Jeff the old fashioned way, while Hinsdale seduces him with wealth. Consuela marries the lonely widower (over his daughter's warnings) and pressures him toward a business relationship with Hinsdale that has the appearance of corruption. Complicating the scheme is Consuela's old lover Henri Brenner (Nils "General Yen" Asther), with whom she renews an affair. When everything falls apart, it looks like old Jeff Keane will take the fall for taking bribes from Hinsdale, but he gets one chance to speak in his own defense and makes the most of it. Unlike Jeff Smith, who after all was framed, Keane admits guilt in order to blow the whistle on those also guilty -- not just Hinsdale but former Boss Bitler.

Then the film goes too far. For Capra, it would be enough for Jeff Smith to work himself into a swoon. That's not enough for Lionel Barrymore, however. He'd just won an Academy Award playing an attorney who talks himself to death in court in A Free Soul and, by God, he's going to talk himself to death in this picture, too! This time Barrymore does the old, "I'm just going to sit very still in this chair until people notice that I'm dead" trick. For that he earns an epitaph from an admirer: "He loved his country enough to die for it." The line lands like a lead weight. The problem is, the stunt Barrymore pulled in Free Soul is like Daffy Duck's gasoline trick in the cartoon; the people may want an encore but you can only do it once. It's hard to imagine any moviegoer, even the simplest rube, who saw Washington Masquerade after A Free Soul without saying, "Again?" It's a you've-got-to-be-kidding moment that kills the picture dead, at least. Too bad, too, because the picture has points of interest apart from being a precursor of Capra's film. Moviegoers in the Pre-Code period seemed to want pictures to explain what was wrong with Washington, unlike their descendants eighty years later. A cycle of political pictures resulted that document the range of options people imagined possible in the 1930s. While Washington Masquerade is neither the most incisive nor the wildest of these, like all these pictures it has obvious historical interest, and for those who find historical interest itself entertaining, I recommend it.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Sir Run Run Shaw (1907-2014)

The younger of the two Shaw brothers (born Shao) who built the family entertainment business into an empire, Run Run (born Renleng) was like America's Adolph Zukor in his longevity -- the founder of Paramount lived to 103. Shaw and Zukor were two of a kind, and Shaw, whose death was announced today, may have been the last of that kind. He may have been the last true movie mogul, though for all I know there may be claimants to that title in India. No one there, I suspect, can have it claimed for him that he founded a genre of film, but the lead on many of Shaw's obits is that Shaw Bros. created the kung fu movie as we know it today. If Bruce Lee created the demand, Shaw Bros. had the supply before, during and after Lee's meteoric career. Credit is due all the performers and directors, Chang Cheh above all in the latter department, for making it happen on screen, but Shaw Bros. pretty much created their world the way Zukor, Mayer, the Warners, Zanuck etc. created worlds for Hollywood to conquer. Shaw's relationships with his talent were what you would expect from a mogul, and as with his American counterparts, the results matter. The truth is, you don't really see so many kung fu movies like the ones Shaw made anymore, but the wuxia fantasies that prevail today have roots at Shaw Bros. too. Thanks to home video, the Shaw Bros. brand name is probably better known now than it ever was, even though Shaw hardly makes films anymore. Run Run Shaw was simply an epic figure in the history of the wild world of cinema.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

A HIJACKING (Kapringen, 2012)

Somali pirates are a great movie subject because, well, they're pirates. In the past two years global moviegoers have seen two distinct portrayals of their depredations. Americans are more familiar with Paul Greengrass's Tom Hanks vehicle Captain Phillips, but Danish writer-director Tobias Lindholm (whose previous film was the prison flick R.) got to the topic first. Greengrass is admired for his semidocumentary style, but Lindholm's movie has more of a documentary look if only because his film, compared to a Hollywood project, shares most documentaries' budgetary constraints. Also, Greengrass is as much an action specialist as a stylist, and Kapringen is nothing like an action movie; it's intimate rather than spectacular. The two films can share the general subject because of the stark difference in each director's approach.

In Captain Phillips the pirates' boarding of the Maersk Alabama is arguably the year's most thrilling action sequence; in Kapringen the pirates' boarding of the MV Rozen is presented as a fait accompli. Captain Phillips aspires to short-term suspense as the captain and the pirates play a cat-and-mouse game during what feels like a very brief takeover of the Alabama, while the real subject of Kapringen is the slow-motion terror of tedium in captivity. In Phillips the pirate leader tries to entice the captain into compliance with the promise of quick negotiations, a quick payday for the pirates and a quick release for the captive crew, but Kapringen suggests that such a promise is false, or at least overly optimistic. The pirates in Phillips simply want to do business, and Kapringen shows us what that means. The pirates make a ransom demand ($15,000,000) and the ship's owners, only occasionally listening to the advice of their hired negotiation specialist, try to talk the number down beneath a mere million. The final figure of $3,800,000 is reached after months of captivity for the Rozen crew. We endure this mostly from the viewpoint of the ship's Danish cook Mikkel (Pilou Asbaek), who has a wife and kid at home looking for answers from the employers who fancy themselves hardball negotiators, who can tell the family that Mikkel is OK after a nightmare negotiation out of Ron Howard's Ransom, with the CEO's "Don't fuck with me!" raving answered with the sound of gunshots on the ship. The potential heartlessness of the people who have to pay ransoms is a subject Captain Phillips, for all its other virtues and its stated concern with the rat race forced on everybody, seems happy to avoid.

But Kapringen isn't primarily a jeremiad against corporations. Lindholm is as much interested in the exhausted camaraderie, somewhat sort of Stockholm Syndrome, that develops between captives and pirates, and in the cycles of frustration and plain boredom that sometimes drive casual cruelty. At one moment pirates may point rifles at the back of Mikkel's head; in another they'll join in a chorus of "Happy Birthday to You" in honor of Mikkel's daughter.

The results are nearly as suspenseful as in Captain Phillips, each picture earning its suspense in different ways. Because of the duration of the Rozen's ordeal, Kapringen is more horrific in a suffocatingly intimate way, while Mikkel's realistic helplessness raises the stakes (and our frustration with the suits) during the negotiation scenes. Lindholm's low-key direction can't compete with Greengrass's spectacular intensity in pure-cinema terms, but Kapringen and Captain Phillips prove to be quite complementary movies that could co-exist nicely as a double feature without either seeming redundant. Piracy off the Horn of Africa is a subject that may yet be far from exhausted.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

DVR Diary: THE BOOB (1926)

Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer was pretty well situated as well as silent comedy was concerned. The company distributed Buster Keaton's early features through Battling Butler and got him back in 1928 as a contract player. Starting in 1927, M-G-M distributed Hal Roach's short subjects starring Laurel & Hardy, Charley Chase, Our Gang, etc. At the same time, the studio attempted homegrown comedy. One of its would-be comedy stars was George K. Arthur, a sad-faced Englishman who often teamed up with tall Swede Karl Dane in buddy pictures. Arthur plays the title character in The Boob, directed by William A. Wellman a year before he hit the big time with Wings. A picture with that title could have been anything. "Boob" was H. L. Mencken's default term of disdain for the average American, who in turn more likely identified the word with Rube Goldberg's comic strip Boob McNutt. As a title for a movie The Boob is generic to the point of vagueness; it may as well have been called The Numbskull or The Moron. But to be specific, Arthur plays Peter Good, a rustic wimp losing his girl to the newcomer from the city, a slicker who's opened a roadhouse called "The Booklovers." To win the girl back, he resolves to become a hero by hunting down bootleggers, this being the time of Prohibition. His hope is that the city-slicker newcomer will be one of the bootleggers. He's encouraged in his ambition by his mentor, Cactus Jim (Charles Murray), who inspires him with tall tales of his youthful Indian fighting, and his sidekick Ham Bunn (played by an uncredited and apparently unknown young black actor). Peter's quest takes him to The Booklovers, which proves indeed to be a speakeasy with a library gimmick and has already been infiltrated by a crack Prohibition agent (20 year old Joan Crawford). Whatever her plans are, Peter comes in guns blazing in Tom Mix regalia, yelling, "I'm looking for bootleggers!" The decadent customers answer, "Oh dearie! So are we!" More or less assisted by Ham Bunn and the sozzled Cactus Jim, who salvages bottles of hooch abandoned during Peter's raid and holes up in a hollow tree, Peter eventually tracks down his rival the bootlegger, proving his manhood in a brawl in the back of a speeding car. And while the film teases that Jane the Prohibition agent will win his heart, having been the only person in the story not to think him a boob, it's still his good old girlfriend (top-billed Gertrude Olmstead) he longs for, and wins.

Low comedy was arguably the highest form of silent cinema, the sight gag its height of craftsmanship. The Boob is a semi-slapstick picture with little of the pictorial genius typical of the great silent clowns. Arthur is an unimpressive clown easily upstaged by Keystone veteran Murray. Since the star isn't really very funny, Wellman brings in another Keystone vet, Hank Mann, for some gags at The Booklovers that have nothing to do with the main story. Mann's best known as Chaplin's opponent in the City Lights boxing match but proves himself quite a competent comedian in his own right as a diner compelled by his fat girlfriend not to eat olives (or are they grapes?) with his fingers. Desperate to look respectable, Mann struggles to impale the things on his fork and later manages to scoop one onto a celery stalk, only to fall tragically short of getting it in his mouth. He's in the film for no more than five minutes, but Mann still may be the best thing in it

Throughout The Boob's 64 minutes, Wellman tries a variety of sight gags, with hit-and-miss results. He has Ham Bunn's dog Benzine lick spilled liquor from one of Cactus Jim's broken bottles and tries to sell the animal's inebriation by having him do nothing in particular, but in slow motion. Cactus Jim exhorts Peter to brave deeds by recounting his own adventures, illustrated by a lithograph on his wall. Wellman transforms the picture into a moving picture of a Hickok-like Cactus fighting off a tribe of Indians single-handedly as Peter watches like a movie-theater spectator, but there's nothing actually funny about the scene. At The Booklovers, the floor show includes remote-control strippers. They come out in hoop skirts, but by touching a button a stagehand lifts the girls' outfits to the ceiling. This makes no sense unless the girls were on wires like marionettes throughout their performance. It may have been done with air currents, however, since the stagehand teases Hank Mann's fat girlfriend by turning on the air as she leaves until her own skirts nearly lift heavenward. After the climactic car chase ends with a wreck, an injured Peter reenacts the chase in a dream. As the car races through the sky, Peter repeatedly flings the villain earthward, only to see him reappear to resume the fight. Eventually Peter's girlfriend, who was driving, faints and flops all the way out of the car, leaving our hero to careen to his doom, except that he wakes up. These bits are interesting without really being very funny. Nor does Wellman do much with a pathos angle that develops when Peter aids an impoverished old lady who later nurses him after the car crashes into her old-folks' home. The old lady seems to be in the picture only because comedy was supposed to have pathos in it back then. Overall, The Boob demonstrates (as M-G-M would again once it took creative control of Keaton's career) how hard it was for an otherwise super-efficient studio with plenty of talent on hand (Crawford is wasted in a merely functional role) to equal the output of the lone-wolf auteurs of silent comedy. Posterity has separated the wheat from the chaff; while the vast majority of the films of Chaplin, Keaton, Lloyd, Langdon etc. survive, many if not most of the studio comedies are lost. At least The Boob survives to represent the others that didn't make history's cut, and to make clear how exceptional the truly great comedies really were.

Friday, January 3, 2014

Pre-Code Parade: THE SHIP FROM SHANGHAI (1930)

It looks like it should have been a Lon Chaney vehicle and it nearly was. Under the title of "Ordeal" it was announced as Chaney's next film for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in the summer of 1929, but by August, when production began on a ship wired for sound -- it was hyped in early 1930 as the first all-talking picture filmed at sea -- Louis Wolheim had been signed for the lead role as the film's heavy. Wolheim is known today just about entirely for the next film he made, All Quiet on the Western Front, but he'd had a solid career in silents as a grotesque sort of he-man. The role has Chaney written all over it: a brute with a fragile psyche who longs to turn the tables on his betters. You can see how it had been meant to develop Chaney as a man of a thousand voices, since Ted the Steward must be obsequious toward the passengers on the yacht he serves, but is mockingly vulgar while gossiping with the dumb Swedish cook, and later raves through delusions of grandeur ("I'm a kind of god!") when he takes control of the crippled ship after a storm. In the end, like many a Chaney character, Ted really longs for the authentic love of a woman, but the villain of The Ship From Shanghai does nothing whatsoever to earn it. I don't know whether Chaney was reassigned by the studio or turned the part down himself, but I suspect that he would have seen that there was nothing sympathetic about Ted, the role leaving him no opportunity to play for pathos as he liked.

Compared to some Chaney films, Ship strikes a modern note by treating Ted as a psychologically sick man. When a dowager passenger diagnoses him as a paranoiac with a "king complex," we sense from cues that Wolheim has given us that she's on to the truth. Resentful of his subservient status, Ted gloats over every petty victory he can claim over his employers, celebrating wildly, with the dumb cook as his audience, when one of the passengers promises to be more careful about leaving cigarette ashes on dinner plates. Rather than tragic, Ted is just plain crazy, as the climax proves. He has tricked the rest of the mutinous crew, except for the cook, to abandon ship so he can make the rich passengers his private playthings. His most coveted plaything is Dorothy (Kay Johnson), whom he coaxes into a private dinner (and more) with a promise to spare the rest of the passengers. She is compliant but cold, and that won't do. Ted wants real passion from her, and it comes in the form of scorn as she calls him a madman and a loser. Improbably, this outburst breaks him. He races toward a mirror and starts yelling at himself, finally smashing the glass with his fists while crying, "They've beaten me!" At last he runs on deck and throws himself to the sharks. Wolheim gives the thankless part everything he's got but it probably didn't boost his chances to be the Next Lon Chaney when the first one died later in 1930. As it happened, Wolheim himself didn't long outlive his real triumph in All Quiet. Like Chaney, he was a cancer victim, dying just a year later.

Some people's first thought on seeing Ship From Shanghai might not be "Why isn't Lon Chaney in this?" but "Did Spielberg see it?" That's because it opens in the title town with a Chinese jazz band performing "Singing in the Rain." It put me in mind of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, and at its best Ship has the authentic pulp feel that Temple of Doom strives to emulate.Wolheim's on that same wavelength, and so's Ivan Linov as the big, dumb Swede ("I been think so" is his catchphrase), but the good guys let the film down. The problem is, these seagoing swells pretty much are how Ted sees them: a pack of upper-class twits, none of whom ever really earns audience sympathy. But at the same time, Ted's too obviously a lunatic for people to identify with his class warfare, so it's hard to imagine audiences having a rooting interest in any of the characters. Charles Brabin (Beast of the City, Mask of Fu Manchu) directs efficiently and atmospherically, if not innovatively, but he can't do anything with the climactic confrontation but show Wolheim and Johnson screaming at each other monotonously. Maybe Chaney and Tod Browning behind the camera could have whipped this material into shape, but it was not to be. The best you can say about the film we have is that it illustrates the potential that might have been realized by other hands and other faces.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

On the Big Screen: THE WOLF OF WALL STREET (2013)

After seeing American Hustle last weekend I described it as an "epic Scorsesean farce" and suggested that David O. Russell might prove to have out-Scorsesed Martin Scorsese himself this year. To be fair to Scorsese, I ventured out this holiday afternoon, during what's expected to have been a calm before a storm, to stand in a line outside the local art house to see The Wolf of Wall Street. As it turned out, many of the people in line outside this neighborhood multiplex were there for Philomena -- you never know who'll show up -- and Wolf played to a much less full house than Hustle did on a less pleasant Sunday. The Scorsese film has gotten some bad word of mouth as well as some glowing reviews, and may prove the most divisive film of the holiday or Oscar season. You may have read a story about some old-fogey screenwriter heckling the great man after a Hollywood screening, while professional reviewers, grown impatient in the age of Peter Jackson, have complained about the film's length of almost three hours. But while Jackson may not be able to control himself, Wolf is purposefully excessive in setting up false endings only to have the hero press on irrepressibly, until he's finally repressed. By the end, you might describe Wolf itself as an epic Scorsesean farce, in a Marxist sense. If you think of his Nineties crime epics (Goodfellas, Casino) as tragedies, Wolf seems farcical alongside them. It marks the director's return to his classical mode and his great theme of the rise and fall of a corrupt order that works for a time, yet implodes due to the same uncontrollable desires that fueled its rise in the first place. But since Jordan Belfort's order isn't enforced by lethal force, and Belfort's Qualuude habit sometimes renders him a physical clown, Wolf ends up looking like a comic reprise of Scorsesean themes if not outright self-parody. It's often very funny but Scorsese sometimes undermines its comic potential. He doesn't trust Leonardo DiCaprio's physical comedy to carry the scene in which Belfort, reduced to "cerebral palsy mode" by industrial-strength Qualuudes, must crawl from a country-club lobby to his car. DiCaprio contorts himself quite impressively, but Scorsese feels compelled to add a voice-over when it shouldn't be needed, as if to underline his artistic signature. The standard Scorsesean narrative is erratic here as Belfort usually recounts his story in past tense but lapses into present tense in several scenes, while the director occasionally treats us to other character's voice-overs. Belfort also addresses the audience occasionally in the middle of scenes from his own career rather than from some retrospective point. All this may be a greater sign of some loss of creative discipline than the length of the film.

Wolf shares with Hustle a giddy amorality; it seems more a celebratory than a cautionary tale. Belfort is an earnest young stockbroker who loses his job when his company fails following the Black Monday of 1987. Looking for work, he stumbles upon a strip-mall "boiler room" where telemarketers hustle penny stocks for companies deemed unworthy of listings with Dow Jones. Impressed by the 50% commissions earned for penny stocks -- he earned a much smaller percentage on the Street -- Belfort soon starts his own firm and makes himself a Master of the Universe, cheating all the way. He's been taught by his mentor (Matthew McConaughey in a cameo) that he should indulge all his vices in order to be both aggressive and relaxed while selling. His cronies emulate him and a corporate bacchanal ensues for years, while the FBI and SEC grow suspicious about the company's shady deals. In true Scorsesean fashion, everything falls apart because the protagonists can't control themselves. The false ending I mentioned exemplifies this; Belfort has agreed to a deal with the SEC to quit the business with his fortune largely intact, but changes his mind in the middle of a sentimental farewell speech because surrendering would make him a hypocrite after years telling everyone not to take No for an answer. No one in this picture knows when to quit, and it shouldn't surprise us if audiences interpret this as Scorsese not knowing when to quit. I suspect that Wolf is a film that wants to exhaust its audience and make it feel glad to be rid of Belfort at last.

The director (and writer Terence Winter) may need to make Belfort wear out his welcome because they have genuine trouble making him out as the villain that, objectively speaking, he should be. More so than Bradley Cooper's selfishly ambitious Fed in American Hustle, Wolf's FBI nemesis (Kyle Chandler) comes across, probably unintentionally, as a killjoy. He's a likable enough character, and he gets sympathy for remaining an ill-paid subway commuter, but Scorsese and Winter never allow him to articulate why what Belfort's doing is wrong and why our protagonist deserves to go to jail. Perhaps they thought that would seem like preaching, and perhaps they thought Belfort's wickedness would be self-evident. You don't want to take stuff like that for granted in our time. What Wolf shares with Hustle is not so much literal amorality but a certain blind spot. In neither film are we shown how the protagonists' schemes and scams hurt people. There's no suggestion that people are losing their life savings or otherwise ruining their lives by getting suckered by these films' con artists and hucksters. Rather, both films see their protagonists as rags-to-riches antiheroes, Scorsese apparently seconding Russell's argument that "everyone hustles to survive" and the implicit corollary that everyone is fair game. Both films, if not both directors, seem alienated from bourgeois morality, which in this case isn't necessarily a pejorative. Scorsese has consistently offered an alternative to the bourgeois myth of success. As many bourgeois moralists have said, with varying degrees of sincerity, the key to success -- to rising from rags to riches -- is self-denial, the deferral of gratification. In Wolf, the McConaughey character tells Belfort that he must not defer gratification; the mentor makes a point of masturbating several times a day to keep sharp and clear. In the classical Scorsese universe, the key to success is pursuing gratification without restraint, to get what you want as soon as you can by any means necessary. Those who defer gratification are the schnooks who drive Pintos or ride the subway to work -- and our final shot of the FBI man still riding the subway seems intended to question whether it benefited anyone to prosecute Belfort. I felt more moral qualms about this approach after Wolf than I did after Hustle, but that doesn't mean Wolf is the worse film. It may just have been a cumulative effect after seeing the two so close together.

Wolf is minor Scorsese, however. There's a sense about it of Scorsese trying to prove to the world, or to himself, that he's still Martin Scorsese after all these years. With that comes a very deliberate sowing of wild oats and a relentless parade of nudity and drug humor, kind of like Kubrick at a like age staging orgies in Eyes Wide Shut. While it's consistently funny to see DiCaprio debase himself -- and to mock Titanic in an otherwise utterly gratuitous sea-disaster scene -- a little of Jonah Hill as Belfort's neighbor turned business partner and best friend goes a long, long way. I haven't seen much of Hill (and definitely wasn't impressed with him in Django Unchained) but he seems like another of today's gross exhibitionists who pass for comedians without being especially funny.And if DiCaprio is game -- and it helps that he looks more like a young Howard Hughes now than he did during The Aviator -- when he gets especially shrill in arguments with his wives I couldn't help imagining Ray Liotta in his place and finding the two interchangeable. Still, Wolf is funny often enough that I could stand its running time fairly easily. And lest I seem a killjoy myself for criticizing the amorality of this and American Hustle above, lets remember to cut comedy some slack. Comedy is often a fantasy of transgression, thrilling us as the comedians get away with things that we normally can't, or never get a chance to, and probably never should, until the punch line brings them back down to earth. In that sense, Wolf is a more comic film than Hustle, since Belfort actually falls after rising. And in that same sense, not only Wolf but Goodfellas and Casino are comedies -- and Wolf of Wall Street is definitely the funniest of the three.