Not reviewed yet.
Thursday, September 25, 2014
Friday, September 5, 2014
There are memorable endings, and then there are truly memorable endings—director George Stevens’ Shane (1953) resides in the latter category. Once you’ve seen it, you will never forget it. It takes a lot for a movie to even make me sniffle, let alone out-and-out cry, but Shane’s hauntingly bittersweet conclusion, even after numerous viewings, always makes me weep like a baby. Perhaps it evokes my own personal understanding of how heartbreaking childhood loss can be. Whatever may be the case, Shane is one of my favorite westerns of all time—and I don’t even really like the genre.
Based on the Jack Schaefer 1949 novel of the same name, Shane is about the struggle between a group of Wyoming Homesteaders and a rancher named Rufus Ryker (Emile Meyer) and his ranch hands. Ryker resents the Homesteaders for fencing in his grazing land and cutting his herd off from water. The Homesteaders live in fear of acts of retribution by Ryker’s men. One family, the Starretts, are of particularly annoyance to Ryker because the head of the Starrett family, Joe (Van Heflin), is a strong-willed man who encourages the other Homesteaders to carry on in the face of Ryker’s intimidation. As if Joe wasn’t a big enough thorn in Ryker’s side, Joe hires a stoic drifter named Shane (Alan Ladd) to help him around the farm. While it’s never said, it’s obvious that Shane is an adept gunfighter who is trying to escape his past. The Starretts take him into their family, and their son, Joey (Brandon deWilde), gets one of the worst (and cutest) cases of hero-worship known to childhood. The mother, Marian (Jean Arthur), also develops a quiet, innocent crush on Shane, too. When Ryker realizes he’s up against two men, Joe and Shane, who won’t be easily pushed around, he sends for a gunfighter in Cheyenne, named Wilson (Jack Palance), to solve his problems. What ensues is cold-blooded murder and one of the most iconic showdowns in all of cinema.
There are many things to admire about Shane. A.B. Guthrie and Jack Sher’s screenplay does a good job of fleshing out the characters and their motivations, and expertly explains, with a well-constructed dialogue exchange between Ryker and Joe, why ranchers so dislike Homesteaders. Still, even though the scene in question somewhat humanizes Ryker, the rest of the film does its best to demonize him. The character who is most explained, of course, is Shane. His conversations with both Joey and Marian about guns explains a lot about how Shane sees the world and himself. Yet, while the audience gets a clear view of Shane’s motivations, the character of Wilson is pretty one-dimensional. This is not to say that he isn’t interesting or that Palance didn’t deserve his Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination, because Palance created one of the meanest (and most memorable) bad guys in film with Wilson. Dressed in all black and wearing an eerily frozen psychotic grin on his face, Wilson is the personification of evil.
Shane was expertly shot on location near Jackson Hole, Wyoming, surrounded by the Grand Teton Mountains. Loyal Griggs won an Academy Award for capturing both the picturesque backdrops of the vast plains surrounded by the mountains, as well as how well he depicted director Stevens’ vision of the final few scenes of the movie, which are comprised of the looming and eventual showdown between Shane and Wilson. The silhouetted images of Shane riding through the night to Grafton’s saloon/store to meet Wilson, with little Joey running behind, creates a feeling of anticipation and dread. And, then there’s Shane’s entrance. With slow, long loping steps Shane walks across the wooden floorboards of Grafton’s and glides through the swinging bar doors to meet his destiny—only Gary Cooper’s determined walk down the streets of Hadleyville in High Noon (1952) rivals this as the most bad-ass entrance into danger ever.
Of course, what most people remember about Shane (besides how evil Wilson was) is the ending. Throughout the film little Joey has become more and more attached to Shane—so much so that it is heartbreaking to watch as he calls after his hero, “Shane! Come back!” There are several interpretations of what this scene means. Was Shane mortally wounded and riding off into the vast unknown of mortality? Was he going to return to his gunfighting ways, as exhibited by his comments to Joey that, “A man has to be what he is, Joey. Can't break the mould. I tried it and it didn't work for me” ? Did he leave because he’d grown too attached to both Joey and Marian? Who knows, and who cares—just enjoy his quiet ride into the…well, it wasn’t a sunset (more like a purple set), but you get the point.
Alan Ladd, by all accounts, was one of the nicest men in Hollywood, so he obviously didn’t have to put on an act to make Shane so amenable, but that doesn’t negate how effortlessly he plays his role. And while he benefitted from working with an extremely talented cast, it’s never easy working with children. Yet, somehow his scenes with the doe-eyed Brandon deWilde (who was also nominated for Best Supporting Actor) play very naturally—and sound like conversations you might here between a father and son—nothing appears forced. Jean Arthur also had the same chemistry with deWilde that Ladd did. I can’t imagine how Katharine Hepburn, Stevens first choice for the role of Marian, could have ever brought the needed gentleness to the scenes between Marian and Joey. This was Arthur’s last film role (she actually came out of retirement to do it), and she certainly went out on a high note (unlike poor Hepburn who ended her film career playing Warren Beatty’s aunt in his horrible remake of Love Affair).
Overall, Shane is an iconic western. It benefits from good acting and stellar cinematography—and perhaps one of the greatest endings in cinematic history.
Tuesday, September 2, 2014
The Naked Spur (1953) is the third of the eight film collaborations between director Anthony Mann and James Stewart. I have noticed that each proceeding movie seems to get darker than the last. Perhaps this was intentional, as Stewart wanted to play edgier characters and Mann wanted to push the limits of the western genre. Still, I’ve started to notice something fascinating about the Mann/Stewart oeuvre: the “villains” are almost always more interesting than whatever character Stewart is playing. This is not to say that his characters are one-dimensional—because they’re not—but somehow I find myself more entertained by the bad guys.
Sam Rolfe and Harold Jack Bloom’s Oscar-nominated screenplay takes place in late 1860s Southwest Colorado. A newly-minted bounty hunter from Abilene, Kansas, Howie Kemp (Stewart), is in hot pursuit of murderer Ben Vandergroat (Robert Ryan). Howie needs the $5,000 reward to buy back his ranch, which was sold by his two-timing girlfriend while he was fighting in the Civil War. Unfortunately for Howie, he takes on two untrustworthy partners, Jesse (Millard Mitchell) and Roy (Ralph Meeker), who each want a third of the reward. Ben, for his part, is obviously not just a killer but also a good judge of character, because he soon realizes he can easily turn his captors against one another. It also helps that his sidekick is a pretty young blonde named Lina (Janet Leigh), who catches both Howie and Roy’s eye. Almost all of the film focuses on how Ben manipulates the men on the long trail back to Abilene.
One of the best things about a Mann/Stewart western is that they are shot on location. The San Juan Mountains in Durango, Colorado, were usually the rough terrain of Mann’s choice, and The Naked Spur was filmed there (along with a few scenes in Lone Pine, California). Four of the five westerns Mann made with Stewart were shot in Technicolor (the only one that was not was their first effort, Winchester '73, but its success probably enabled the others to be photographed in color), and all were shot in wide-screen format. For me, classic western films lensed on location have an extra degree of authenticity to their studio lot western counterparts. As such, this is one of the main strengths of The Naked Spur. William C. Mellor’s cinematography does a good job of capturing the vastness of the rugged mountainside that must be crossed before Ben can be returned to Abilene.
As noted in previous reviews, the Mann/Stewart western redefined the western by making the protagonist of the film an ambiguous anti-hero. Gone was the traditional white-hatted cowboy whose intentions were pure and straightforward. The new western “hero” was often a violent, bitter, and vengeful man who was either seeking redemption or revenge—or maybe both. Stewart’s Howie had definitely been turned bitter by the betrayal of his girlfriend, and his motivations for capturing Ben had more to do with money than bringing him to justice for killing someone. As Howie said himself about Ben: “He's not a man; he's a sack of money!” I must admit that Stewart does a tremendous job of playing a morally conflicted man in this, and that this role is more compelling than the one he played in Winchester ‘73.
Still, as conflicted as Howie is, Ben is far more interesting. Perhaps Robert Ryan just knew how to play cynical meanies, but he seems to upstage Stewart in The Naked Spur. His character’s conniving ways combined with the devilish glint in Ryan’s eyes, compounded by the overall humor and callousness of Ben, is probably the best thing about the movie.
Now, the absolute worst thing about The Naked Spur is the character of Lina. I’m not certain, but I have to believe that Mann directed Leigh to speak in a shrill tone in 90% of her scenes. Seriously, I lost count of how many times she screamed“Ben” or sounded totally unpleasant when having conversations with the other men. And, in what world would a beautiful girl like Lina be hanging out with the likes of Ben, a friend of her father’s, and old enough to be hers? The same goes for the perceived romance between Lina and Howie. Surely after her father died someone would have wanted to marry her or give her a job in a whorehouse. Perhaps I just don’t like Leigh for some reason, but, for me, she seems miscast in the role. Yet, fortunately for her, she was, and she finally found an escape route from ingénue hell at MGM.
Overall, The Naked Spur benefits from being shot on location and from both Ryan and Stewart’s performances. However, the character of Lina is insipidly annoying.
Monday, September 1, 2014
There is an interesting backstory about director Ida Lupino’s The Bigamist (1953). She and her then husband, the writer, Collier Young, formed Emerald Productions (later called The Filmmakers) in 1947, so that she could make high-quality films that usually centered around provocative subjects. To her exasperation, she had been relegated to being typecast in B-pictures at Warner Brothers. Her production company gave her the opportunity not only to act in, but also to direct and write a number of unique films. Although Lupino and Collier divorced in 1951, they continued to work together. When production began on The Bigamist, Young and the film’s other female lead, Joan Fontaine, were married. In an ironic twist, a film about a man married to two women ended up being written by a man who was producing it with his ex-wife (who was also the director), and co-starring his current wife. Only in Hollywood!
The story, written by Young, Larry Marcus, and Lou Schor, is about a traveling freezer salesman who finds himself married to two women at the same time because he’s pretty much an honorable man. Now, that statement reads and sounds strange, I’m sure, and I’m not condoning bigamy as a practice (personally I believe that any type of marriage should be against the law), but Harry Graham’s (Edmond O’Brien) case is rather unusual. He loves his first wife, Eve (Fontaine), but they have a complicated relationship. After learning that she couldn’t have a child of her own, Eve started helping Harry run his business, and it, not Harry, became her main focus. Harry, who spends more time on the road than at home, is a lonely man who longs for companionship. He gets it with Phyllis (Lupino), but not the kind of companionship you might think. They become genuine friends first and then later, one fateful night, things turn into something more. Besieged by guilt, Harry returns home and vows never to see Phyllis again, but after months of not seeing her he decides he owes her an explanation. This is when he learns that Phyllis is pregnant, and being a stand-up guy (don’t laugh) he offers to marry her. Harry probably could have gotten away with it for years but for one small detail—Eve decides she wants to adopt a child, and that means an investigation by a very nosy adoption agent named Mr. Jordan (Edmund Gwenn). I won’t spoil the ending because it’s so good (and ambiguous anyway) that you have to see for yourself how the dominos fall for Harry.
So, Lupino wanted to make movies about provocative subjects—I suppose pre-martial sex, out of wedlock pregnancy, hints at abortion, and bigamy were provocative enough for 1953. There are a lot of layers to the overall plot of The Bigamist that might irk some feminist film critics, but there are a few things they might like to ponder over for a bit first. Let’s start with Eve as a woman consumed with growing her business. Is her devotion to the company a surrogate for the child she will never have? Had she been able to have a child, would she have even started working? Is her career blinding her to the fact that her husband is emotionally absent? Is this why she decides she wants to adopt? Does Harry seek companionship with Phyllis, a waitress, because he feels emasculated by Eve’s business acumen? And, what about Phyllis—is she a modern woman who doesn’t need the confines of marriage to have sex or is she being punished with a pregnancy because she crossed a societal line? Moreover, does she give into societal norms by marrying Harry? What’s most compelling about The Bigamist is that there is not just one answer to any of those questions.
While I wouldn’t say that the performances were Oscar-worthy (or even Golden Globes worthy), they are passable. O’Brien, for his part, does a nice job of making Harry a sympathetic character—a tall order, seeing as he was playing a bigamist. Of course, Lupino wrote the Warner Bros. acting manual on how to portray cynical women who after being stung by love once avoided it like the plague. I can never understand how directors direct themselves—you’d think there would be an objectivity issue somewhere (see Woody Allen)—but Lupino was the first female director to do so. Her performance is much stronger in the first half of the film than in the second half. Once Phyllis becomes pregnant, and bedridden, gone is all of her spunk and Lupino seems perturbed by the character she is playing, which is insane because she’s both the director and producer of the movie. There’s not much to say about Fontaine’s turn as Eve. This isn’t to say that she does a bad job, but her character is pretty one dimensional, which, of course, hinders her ability to elicit sympathy for her character.
Overall, the best thing about The Bigamist is the rather provocative storyline, which merits an after-viewing discussion. The acting, if not sensational, is passable and does the job of conveying an emotional center to the film, which is played out well in the ambiguous ending.
Sunday, August 31, 2014
Writer/director Samuel Fuller started working as a crime reporter for the New York Evening Graph when he was just seventeen. This early profession, as well as his time in the U.S. Army during WWII, greatly shaped the films that he made in his fifty year movie career. One of these films, Pickup on South Street (1953), was a crime/spy drama that could have been ripped from the headlines of the early 1950s, during the McCarthy Era, when it was believed that insidious “commies” would stop at nothing to smuggle secrets out of the U.S. What is unusual about this movie, as compared to others of its ilk, is that the “hero” of the story isn’t exactly patriotic (in fact, if he’d had his way, he would have sold the secrets to the “enemy” for $25,000). J. Edgar Hoover found the whole thing reprehensible and tried to get Fuller to stop using the phrase “flag-waving”, which somehow made it through the censors. What didn’t make it through, though, were some extremely violent scenes, as well as some touchy-feely stuff between the male and female leads. That’s not to say that Pickup on South Street isn’t still violent and risqué—because it is--but what eventually made it to the screen was Fuller’s toned down vision.
Skip McCoy (Richard Widmark) is a three-strike pickpocket who chooses the worst mark on a New York subway car: Candy (Jean Peters). Unbeknownst to Skip (and Candy, too), he pinches a delivery to a communist agent from Candy’s ex-boyfriend that contains a chemical formula on microfilm. Furthermore, the FBI (most notably, Willis Bouchey) are on the train when it happens and knows that Skip has the microfilm—although they don’t know who he is or where he lives. For that information they contact Skip’s archenemy, Captain Dan Tiger (Murvyn Vye), who reaches out to well-known and connected stool-pigeon Moe (Thelma Ritter, in yet another Oscar-nominated performance). But the police aren’t the only people who contact Moe, as Candy finds her and pays $50 to learn that Skip lives in a fishing shack. To say their first meeting doesn’t go well would be an understatement: she gets cold-cocked and then felt up when she comes to. You’d think this would be enough to turn any woman away, but not Candy, who it is hinted at is a former prostitute. After two very unpleasant encounters with Skip, and the realization that he’d sell state secrets to the commies for $25,000, Candy decides she’s in love with him and is willing to risk her life to save him. What?
Yes, my main complaint with Pickup on South Street is that I cannot accept the premise that Candy would fall in love (in a matter of minutes) with a man who roughs her up and is a would-be traitor. The idea that she would take a beating, not to mention a bullet, from her ex-boyfriend (Richard Kiley) instead of revealing where Skip lives is beyond disbelief. I don’t know if in the 1950s male writers like Fuller thought it was okay to use violence against loose women and then reward them with the love of their abusers or what, but as a modern woman I have an extreme problem with this.
The one sacrifice for Skip in the movie that I can stomach is that of Moe. Thelma Ritter very rarely got to play dramatic film roles, but she surely showed she could handle them in Pickup on South Street. Her character, obviously in poor health, is trying to earn enough money for a fancy Long Island funeral and to avoid Potter’s Field. Her matter-of-fact way of selling information is refreshingly callous, but like anyone else she has a limit. Her limit is aiding and abetting commies and selling out her friends (in this case Skip) to almost certain death. Her scene with Richard Kiley about just how tired she is is both heartbreaking and brutal—but not in the way you might think.
While I take issue with the fact that most of the violence that takes place in the film is inflicted upon women, I still must commend the way that its framed and shot. Fuller, along with cinematographer Joseph McDonald, creates a gritty, dark underworld through the use of shadows and noir lighting techniques. In particular, almost every scene in the fishing shack is not only darkly lit and shadowy (to mimic the dealings that are taking place), but through the use of extreme close-ups, a claustrophobic feel is created. And, even I have to admit, that by using such techniques in some of the more violent scenes that there is an added effect.
Overall, Pickup on South Street is a tightly-knit crime drama. While I can’t get behind certain premises of the story (most notably the “relationship” between Skip and Candy), it moves at a brisk pace. Additionally, as noirs go, it is filmed in such a way to emphasize the dark underbelly of not only the criminal world but the possibility (albeit ridiculous) that communists are lurking in the shadows.
Saturday, August 30, 2014
Contrary to published reports, and the Oscar committee of 1952, director Vincent Minnelli’s The Bad and the Beautiful (1952) proved that Lana Turner could really act. Playing a character amalgamation of a little bit of Judy Garland, Dianna Barrymore, and probably Jennifer Jones, too, Turner gives the performance of her career—how she was snubbed by the Academy for this and rewarded with a nod for her campy turn in Peyton Place (1957) is beyond comprehension. A further annoyance is that Gloria Grahame won Best Supporting Actress for her very limited turn in this film and beat out both Thelma Ritter (With a Song in My Heart) and Jean Hagen (Singin’ in the Rain) for the award. However, the one person who did rightfully earn a nomination was Kirk Douglas, who plays a Hollywood megalomaniac who darkens the glitter of Tinseltown for everyone he meets. I suspect Douglas’ spot-on performance of the bastard son of Orson Welles, Val Lewton, and David O. Selznick is one of the reasons that The Bad and the Beautiful is still considered one of the best done movies about the film industry. Mind you, that doesn’t mean that it’s not soapy (hell, a soap opera is named after it, just insert Bold for Bad)—because it is—but wasn’t (and isn’t) Hollywood its own soap opera?
Based on George Bradshaw’s “Tribute to a Badman”, the Oscar-nominated screenplay cuts the picture into three periods, told in flashback, of the life of movie producer Jonathan Shields (Douglas). The first section is dedicated to the Poverty Row years of the young producer and his friend and aspiring director Fred (Barry Sullivan). Working for a penny-pinching film executive (played by Walter Pidgeon), the duo hit B-picture gold when they make Doom of the Cat Men (no doubt, a direct reference to Lewton’s Cat People). Unfortunately for Fred, when the opportunity to make a $1 million picture comes their way he gets burned by the rising star that is Jonathan.
The second act of the rise and fall of Jonathan Shields is the main reason to watch The Bad and the Beautiful, because this is when Turner’s Georgia Lorrison has her dealings with him. The daughter of a Hollywood legend and drunk (probably a reference to John Barrymore), Georgia is a Hollywood extra—as well as a drunk and tramp (all things that at one time or another Turner herself was) who Jonathan deems has star power—even though she can’t really act. Knowing that Georgia has daddy issues, Jonathan becomes a father figure to her and coaches her on the finer points of acting while casting her in the lead of his next big picture. Insecure and fragile, Georgia falls desperately in love with Jonathan only to realize what a detestable human being he actually is. To say that Turner is on fire in every one of her scenes would be an understatement. She owns every second she is on screen—she even overshadows Douglas. I would have been completely happy if the other two sections of the film had been completely thrown out and Minnelli just focused on this maniacally toxic relationship.
The final part of the film focuses on Jonathan’s dealings with author and screenwriter James Lee (Dick Powell). A southern academic married to a distracting, idiotic wife (Grahame), James Lee finds himself entrenched in Hollywood after his wife convinces him to hear Jonathan out about writing the screenplay for his novel, which Jonathan has bought the rights to. When Jonathan realizes his would-be writer can’t get anything done because of his wife, he asks a known Hollywood Casanova (Gilbert Roland) to provide her with her own distraction. Things don’t end well…all around. The film’s director (modeled, I believe, on Alfred Hitchcock) walks off the set and Jonathan takes over the helm and proceeds to produce the film that bankrupts his own studio.
My biggest complaint with The Bad and the Beautiful is it ends with the weakest part of the movie—maybe of no fault of it’s own. Whoever thought it was a good idea to have anything or anyone follow Turner’s section of the film was obviously an idiot. The headliner is the headliner, and things don’t usually go well when anyone follows the main attraction. Yes, I know that when Jonathan was with Georgia he was on top and the downfall still needed to be told, but that fact alone does not negate how much the story sags once Georgia is out of the picture (although she does make a brief appearance in this section).
Overall, The Bad and the Beautiful is the beneficiary of great performances by Turner and Douglas. While I don’t agree with the overall organizational structure of the film, it is still well told and highly entertaining.
Friday, August 29, 2014
The Book refers to director Charles Crichton’s The Lavender Hill Mob (1951) as the funniest offering that London-based Ealing Studios ever produced. While there are sincere moments of hilarity in it, I must say that I much prefer both Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949) and The Ladykillers (1955) to this film. That’s not to say that it is subpar or unentertaining—there are a few laugh-out-loud moments and a rather dizzying scene at the Eiffel Tower that warrant notice, but there are still some shortcomings—most notably the inane car chase scene.
T.E.B. Clarke’s Oscar-winning screenplay is about a gold bullion heist carried out by an unlikely “mob” of “criminals” with an ingenious plan. Henry Holland (Alex Guinness in an Oscar-nominated performance) is a fastidious bank clerk who is in charge of escorting gold bullion from foundries to the London bank where he works. For nearly twenty years the seemingly unambitious clerk has been laying the groundwork for his grand heist of bullion. Why so long, you ask? Try as he might, Holland could never figure out how to get the bullion out of England without it (and he) being discovered by the authorities. However, fate literally walks through his Lavender Hill boarding house door when Mr. Pendlebury (Stanley Holloway) arrives. When Holland learns that Pendlebury owns a foundry that exports gold-painted Eiffel Tower paperweights a plan is hatched to switch out the cheap souvenirs with solid gold ones. They enlist two career criminals (Sidney James and Alfie Bass) to pull off the caper. Surprisingly, the robbery, for the most part, goes off rather smoothly and the “mob” sends their £1 million’s worth of paperweights to Paris. Unfortunately, a mix up occurs and six British schoolgirls are sold solid gold paperweights while visiting the real Eiffel Tower. What ensues immediately following this is complete anarchy.
Some people don’t like British humor—I myself am not a fan of the likes of Benny Hill or Dr. Who, but for the most part I have a dry sense of humor. As such, the very British witticisms and quips that come out of Guinness’ and Holloway’s mouths in The Lavender Hill Mob are amusing. However, some of the best lines actually come from two ancillary characters: Miss Evesham (Edie Martin) and Mrs. Chalk (Marjorie Fielding).
Mrs. Chalk: But surely you must have some suspicion. Who work the heist rackets in this territory?
Policeman: Beg your pardon, lady?
Mrs. Chalk: Oh really! I can't make myself much plainer. Which hoodlums around here specialize in toby jobs?
And, there’s no denying that the plot is quite clever, too. The actual heist itself comprises only a small portion of the 81-minute movie. The rest of the action takes place once Holland and Pendlebury realize that the schoolgirls have the solid gold paperweights. In fact, the most memorable thing about The Lavender Hill Mob directly happens following this realization: the dizzying descent down the Eiffel Tower spiral staircase. The camerawork is ingenious, and oh, so nauseating. Obviously Alfred Hitchcock was inspired by this scene, as he used many of the same camera techniques in Vertigo (1958). However, once the spinning stops for Holland and Pendlebury, The Lavender Hill Mob veers into what I can only describe as the bastard child of the Keystone Cops and Benny Hill (although, of course, the film predated the show). In particular, I am not a fan of the car chase scene at the end of the film. Surely, the British police and Scotland Yard are not complete imbeciles that two middle-aged men could elude them. Plus, it seems cheap compared to the rest of the otherwise smart plot developments.
Overall, The Lavender Hill Mob is brimming with British wit. The overall storyline is quite clever, but the ending leaves me irritated. Still, we do get to see a 22-year old unknown Audrey Hepburn in a walk-on appearances at the beginning of the movie.
Thursday, August 28, 2014
Before Al Pacino and Robert De Niro made playing gangsters their main source of income, James Cagney owned that particular character type. In films like The Public Enemy (1931), Angels with Dirty Faces (1938), The Roaring Twenties (1939), White Heat (1951), and Love Me or Leave Me (1955), Cagney wrote the book on playing tough-talking, psychotic hoods. Of all of these performances, his turn as Cody Jarrett in director Raoul Walsh’s White Heat is probably his most riveting. Perhaps after being typecast as the quintessential gangster so many times Cagney had perfected the role. Everything that is good about White Heat is due to his performance, as well as Walsh’s focused storytelling style.
Cody is the leader of a California-based crew who hold up a U.S. mail train carrying over $350,000. This act sets U.S. Treasury investigators on his tail and eventually leads to him confessing to a lesser crime that lands him in the clink for 1 to 3 years. It is here that he meets an undercover cop named Pardo/Fallon (Edmond O"’Brien) who ingratiates himself to Cody after saving him from an assassination attempt organized by his second in command, Big Ed (Steve Cochran), and his two-timing wife, Verna (Virginia Mayo). After escaping from prison with a new crew, Cody sets out to even the score with Big Ed and plans a payroll heist at a chemical plant. All the while, the man who Cody thinks is his new partner, Pardo/Fallon, is setting a trap for him.
What’s interesting about Cody Jarrett, and Cagney’s performance, is that Cody is a complete psychopath, albeit a charming one. Insanity runs in his family, as both his father and brother totally cracked up and died in asylums, and Cody is no exception. He has absolutely no problem killing witnesses, strangers, and even members of his gang when they get in his way. The only person he would think twice about killing is his mother (Margaret Wycherly). Ma Jarrett and her son have some sort of strange symbiotic relationship that had it existed in the real world (though the movie may have been inspired by the Barkers) would have given psychiatrists loads to ponder. It also sets up one of the best scenes in the film, when Cody learns that Ma has been killed. The sounds that come out of Cagney after learning of her death echo what one would hear when an animal is being slaughtered. Cody goes totally berserk. The raw, ferocious intensity that Cagney displays in this scene looks and sounds completely real.
Virginia Kellogg’s Oscar-nominated motion picture story, which was turned into a screenplay by Ivan Goff and Ben Roberts, is tightly-wound together by Walsh’s straight-forward directing style. Known for his ability to trim the fat off of movies, Walsh uses every scene to keep the plot moving forward to its explosive (literally) ending. This, of course, is what White Heat is most famous for: its ending. From the famous lines Cody says to Pardo/Fallon after he realizes he’s been duped:
A copper, a copper, how do you like that boys? A copper and his name is Fallon. And we went for it, I went for it. Treated him like a kid brother. And I was gonna split fifty-fifty with a copper!
to Cody’s maniacal laughter after being shot by the police atop a gas storage tank, oodles and oodles of gold nuggets escaped to be used as future popular culture references. And, what better way to go out than with a bang—literally—and in the words of Cody himself, “Made it, Ma! Top of the world!”
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Virginia Mayo’s performance as the sultry, manipulative Mrs. Cody Jarrett. Certainly anyone who’d marry Cody in the first place must have had a screw loose, but Verna is a strange concoction of amusing crazy. Her back-talk to Cody is both smart and child-like, but it emerges from the body of a woman who has no problem using her looks to get from Point A to Point B. Mayo plays well against Cagney. While her best scenes with him are the ones where she gives as good as she gets, she also has the ability to play a woman truly afraid of her menacing husband. This, of course, was due to the fact that Mayo was completely frightened by Cagney because she found his performance so realistic.
Overall, White Heat is a tightly constructed crime drama that benefits from the good acting of Cagney and Mayo, as well as from a focused, linear plot.
Wednesday, August 27, 2014
Anyone familiar with the mental health issues that plagued Vivien Leigh in the latter years of her life has to watch director Elia Kazan’s A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) with a sharper eye than those unaware of Leigh’s bi-polar disorder. It is rumored that near the end of her life that she would sometimes believe she was actually Blanche DuBois, so whenever I watch her Oscar-winning performance in this film I can’t help but try to see where the character begins and the actress ends. Watching Blanche’s descent into complete madness is, for me at least, like riding on a carousel that never stops spinning. This is an apt description, of course, because Blanche “hears” carousel organ music whenever she remembers the events that led to her husband’s death—and probably the pivotal incident that led to her slow decline toward insanity. There is an overall atmosphere of depravity and desperation to this movie, and, as such, it is a dark and heavy film which requires the full attention of the viewer—you can’t look away, no matter how brutal things get.
A Streetcar Named Desire is based on the Tennessee Williams stage play of the same name. With the help of Oscar Saul, Williams adapted his Pulitzer Prize winning play to the screen with some edits. Obscenity, overt sexuality and rape, and Blanche’s husband’s homosexuality had to be glossed over (or altogether omitted) to get past the censors. While there are a few exterior scenes in the movie, for the most part the film is based in the Kowalski’s cramped and stifling New Orleans apartment. As such, there is a theatrical feel to the production, but unlike some other stage plays adapted to the screen that come off as artificial, A Streetcar Named Desire benefits from its production design. Kazan had the set walls designed to be movable so that the walls could progressively close in on Blanche as her madness took complete hold of her.
I’d be lying if I didn’t say the first few minutes of watching Blanche’s constant chattering as an affected Southern belle is both disconcerting and annoying. Each time I watch A Streetcar Named Desire it takes me a good 5-10 minutes to orient myself to her rambling and mannerisms—there’s a lot of crazy to absorb in a short amount of time. However, once you settle into her “cray cray” world you can’t help but be mesmerized by the inner-workings of her delusional mind. Leigh completely owns Blanche—as I stated above, it’s difficult to determine where the line between the actress and the role is drawn.
Of course, no performance, however stellar it may be, can stand alone. Leigh had the good fortune to work with three actors who knew their own characters inside and out, as Marlon Brando, Kim Hunter, and Karl Malden had also starred in the heralded original Broadway production of the play. Jessica Tandy had played Blanche in that production, but Leigh, who had starred as Blanche in the London stage production, was deemed a much better box office draw than Tandy. As a result of this, Leigh felt like an outsider working with a cast who’d worked so closely with one another—and all of whom were members of Kazan’s Actors’ Studio. With a completely different style of acting than her co-workers, Leigh was encouraged to use her “outsider” status to build on Blanche’s own personal isolation. It must have worked, because all of the principal actors were nominated for Oscars--Leigh won Best Actress; Hunter won Best Supporting Actress; Malden won Best Supporting Actor; and, Brando was nominated as Best Actor.
The fact that Brando lost the Oscar to Humphrey Bogart in The African Queen (1951) is irrelevant, because even though Leigh got top billing and appears in almost every scene of A Streetcar Named Desire, her performance still has the unfortunate fate of being relegated in the annals of cinema history to that of Brando’s. In only his second film role, Brando exudes raw sexual magnetism as Stanley Kowalski. Few actors can play a brutal and cruel man and still come off as a desirable character, but Brando had such an understanding of the dynamics of his character that he developed one of cinema’s greatest anti-heroes in Stanley. And, of course, who can ever forget his bellowing of “Stell-ahhhh!”?
Overall, A Streetcar Named Desire is the beneficiary of four rather remarkable acting performances. And, even though some of the meatier sides of the original play were cut for censorship purposes, the story is so brutally told by Kazan that you can’t look away from the train wreck that is Blanche Du Bois’ life.
Tuesday, August 26, 2014
For me, the best thing about director John Ford’s Rio Grande (1950) is that its small budget and huge success ensured that Republic Pictures gave Ford the money he needed to make The Quiet Man (1952). This is not to say that Rio Grande is a bad film, but it certainly isn’t a favorite of mine, either. This, no doubt, stems from the fact that I’m not a big western fan, and that is definitely what Rio Grande is, albeit a rather soap opera-ish one.
The first of three films that John Ford, John Wayne, and Maureen O’Hara would make together (the others being The Quiet Man and The Wings of Eagles), Rio Grande is considered the final installment in Ford’s “cavalry trilogy” (with Fort Apache and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, all starring Wayne). Based on James Warner Bellah’s 1947 short story, “Mission with No Record”, Rio Grande tells a strange family reunion tale along the Rio Grande River. Colonel Kirby Yorke (Wayne) is a Cavalry commander along the Mexico border who is besieged by raiding Apaches who use Mexico as a safe haven in between attacks. Colonel Yorke’s troubles mount when his son, Trooper Jeff Yorke (Claude Jarman, Jr.), is posted under his command. Having recently flunked out of West Point, Jeff enlisted in the Army as a matter of pride and to emulate a father who he hasn’t seen in over 15 years. Not long after Jeff’s arrival, Colonel Yorke’s very southern wife, Kathleen (Maureen O’Hara), arrives at the post to pay $100 to have Jeff released from the Army. While it’s clear that Colonel Yorke and Kathleen still love one another they have two problems to overcome: her insistence that Jeff be released from his enlistment and her anger over Colonel Yorke’s having burnt down her family’s plantation during the siege of Shenandoah during the Civil War. Complicating this domestic drama are pesky Indians who kidnap a wagon filled with children and a Trooper (Ben Johnson) who is wanted for manslaughter for killing a Yankee who made unwanted advances toward his sister.
While I can’t fault Bert Glennon’s cinematography, which impressively captures Monument Valley, there is no doubt that Rio Grande would have looked a lot better in color. However, Ford was forced to shoot in black and white to save money that would be later used to capture the emerald green of Ireland in The Quiet Man. Still, the desert always looks better in color, and this film, for me, suffers from a mundane feel. The Wayne and O’Hara spark wasn’t yet on full display yet (although they definitely have their moments), as this was their very first film together, which somewhat lessens the overall effectiveness of the movie. Of course, it doesn’t help that their son is so freaking boring, either. Perhaps if Ben Johnson had played Jeff Yorke instead of Jarman things may have turned out differently—Johnson is a standout here.
Thankfully, Rio Grande is aided by a rather impressive supporting cast: Victor McLaglen, J. Carrol Naish, Chill Willis, and Harry Carey, Jr. While McLaglen and Carey are pigeonholed into playing clownish figures, Naish shines in his brief appearances as General Sheridan. He looks and acts like someone with the toughest regional command in the military. Still, the fact that he, and the audience, has to seem entertained by the fort’s serenading squad (the Sons of the Pioneers) is an unwanted nuisance which happens several times throughout the film. I will harken back to their unnecessary presence here the next time I watch The Quiet Man to see if there is anything that could have been improved by the money that was spent on them here.
Overall, Rio Grande is a moderately entertaining movie. I expect its importance stems from it being the first collaboration between Wayne and O’Hara, as well as Wayne, O’Hara and Ford. Yet, for me, there is nothing exceptional about it.