30 July 2008

A Day at the Beach


I went to Ocean Beach in San Francisco today.

Make the ten minute walk from home to Rockridge BART. Only four minutes until the San Francisco train arrives (BART always makes me yearn for European rapid transit systems). Get off at Embarcadero and catch the N Judah to the end of the line. By the time we hit the avenues the sunny day is enveloped in gorgeous San Francisco fog. The temperature drop and I'm in heaven.

Quick dash across the great highway to the beach.

The ocean.

Waves pounding. Call the wife, she could hear the waves and wind clearly in the background. Ocean always makes me feel minuscule yet powerful. Why don't I live by the ocean?

Not many people about. Some joggers. Some surfers. Some fisherman. See a tiny Asian fellow reel in a tiny fish. People walking by each other always exchange hellos, nods, smiles or all three. I guess people are friendlier at the beach in deference to the ocean.

Lots of birds. Skittish gulls and menacing crows. I'm always worried they'll suddenly develop a taste for fresh human eyeball. I'm not positive but I believe I'd have these thoughts even if I'd never seen Hitchcock's Birds (1963).

The surf does not provide an ideal locale for skipping rocks. Lakes or slow moving rivers are best. After a few tries I get a stone to five or six skips.

I find the perfect shell. It's coming home with me.

Something bobbing in the waves a few hundred yards out. Seal or person? If it's a person I reckon he or she's in trouble. But what could I do? Turns out to be human, but this surfer is in no peril.

Stop to eat. Brought a lunch. The walking and sea air make me hungry. Or is it just that's lunch time?

See a crow picking at a fallen comrade. Cannibal.

Legs getting weary. Shouldn't have come for a walk on the beach the day after a heavy work out. Cross the highway again and stop at a place called Java Beach. Someone of another generation might call it charming. I have a coffee and muffin and read my book. A French au pair who's with her young charge is being hit on by a guy five-ten years too old for her. She's devastatingly beautiful and combined with the accent I can see why the young man would waive the age difference.

I head back home the same way I came. Plop down at the computer. i surf the web. Only surfing I do all day.

Nobody told me explicitly too, but I "had a nice day."

29 July 2008

Introducing Chaos to the Ordered World of Crime


"The Godfather was about careers. Mean Streets was about jobs," wrote film critic Roger Ebert.

Mean Streets (1973) was the film that launched Martin Scorsese's directorial career. While such highly acclaimed films as Taxi Driver (1975), Raging Bull (1980) Goodfellas (1989) and many more would follow, Mean Streets was not just some early effort that hinted at greatness. It was great.

As noted in Ebert's quote, Mean Streets is about the daily grind of gangsters, those who profit handsomely from criminal activities, the struggling worker bees and those on the periphery with "legitimate" incomes.

It is also about sin. The lead character, Charlie, played by Harvey Keitel, struggles with the fact of his sins. He is a good catholic unable or unwilling to ignore his moral offenses, including adultery. There is a wonderful self awareness to Charlie. It does not necessarily lead to his making better moral choices but it suggests someone who eventually might. Charlie is the link between the varied archetypes of the story. While his way of life requires the bending of society's rules he works tirelessly to maintain order and propriety in his vast circle. Charlie works for his uncle, a Mafia kingpin who's also his mentor. The old world Uncle warns Charlie to stay away from his epileptic girlfriend because "she sick in the head" and his good friend Johnny Boy.

To me the real heart of Mean Streets is anarchy, symbolized by Johnny Boy as played by Robert DeNiro. He drops a bomb into a mailbox, insults virtual strangers, punches a passer by for bumping into him, stands on a roof firing a .38, with no intent to hit anything save perhaps the Empire State Building or a laundry line.

There is order in the world of Mean Streets. It is hard scrabble section of New York rife with Mafioso, loan sharks, revenge murders and spontaneous violence. But it is all contained within a structure and closely regulated. Debts are paid, disputes settled and cops paid off. Everything balances at the end of the day. Similarly the church provides very clear rules to live by and means by which to atone or be punished for violations. But with Johnny Boy the rules are tossed out. He asks bar owner and friend Tony to run him both a big tab and a little tab which will balance each other. Of course this is nonsensical which is precisely what Johnny Boy is all about. He owes everyone money, particularly Michael a friend who happens to be a loan shark. Johnny Boy not only fails to pay up, he lies to and laughs at his remarkably patient lender. Johnny Boy doesn't just flout the rules, he spits at them. Thus chaos is introduced to the ordered life of the streets (ravaged as it is by crime and violence). One can easily guess how this element will ultimately be dealt with.

Mean Streets has a lot going on in it (if you really want or need a full plot synopsis see IMDb or better yet watch the damn thing), yet it clocks in at just under two hours and positively flies by. There is an energy to it in part fueled by a wonderful score that mixes vintage rock and traditional Italian music. I'm sure its been said countless times that Mean Streets in style and set presaged much of what was to come from Scorsese. That's a disservice to a film that stands alone as an outstanding directorial achievement.

27 July 2008

His First Name was Actually William


I was going to post about the great film actor Claude Rains. Rains appeared in some of my favorite films of all time. He was the corrupt but guilt ridden senator in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939). In Hitchcock's Notorious (1946) Rains was the German businessman and secret Nazi beguiled by Ingrid Bergman. His Prince John in The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) was the archetypical nobleman villain.

Rains is perhaps best remembered as Bogie’s pal Captain Renault in Casablanca (1942) and he was opposite Bette Davis in two notable films, Mr. Skeffington (1944) and Now, Voyager (1942). One of Rains’ best performances was his first film role (excepting a solitary silent screen experience 13 years prior) when he went unseen as the title character of James Whale’s highly underrated horror classic, The invisible Man (1933). His brilliant scientist turned murderous maniac today comes off just this side of camp. Whether scary or silly its an acting tour de force.

Rains also appeared in notable films like Lawrence of Arabia (1962) and many from the early ’40’s such as The Wolf Man (1941, Kings Row (1942), Passage to Marseille (1944), Here Come Mr. Jordan (1941) and The Sea Hawk (1940).
Rains could be French, Spanish, German, American or even, as he was born, English. He played cops, ship captains, senators, Napoleon Bonaparte and Julius Caesar. Rains was rarely the star in any movie but was never a bit player either. It’s hard to imagine anyone else in some of his signature roles such as the opportunistic Renault, or the villainous Do Jose Alvarez De Corboda in The Sea Hawk.

Besides Bogart, Bergman and Davis he played opposite Cary Grant, Robert Montgomery, Errol Flynn, James Stewart, Ann Sheridan (lucky!), Oliva de Havilland and Bela Lugosi -- to name a few.

Okay I started out saying “I was going to post” about Rains and it would seem I did but there’s so much more that could be said. Consider this to have been a preamble to your enjoyment of this my space site that I came across. http://www.myspace.com/clauderainsfan
Films starring Claude Rains will be featured on TCM Tuesday August 5 as part of their annual Summer Under The Stars.

26 July 2008

A Guy Named Adolf


I'm reading a recent book by British economist Niall Ferguson called The War of the World: Twentieth Century Conflict and the Descent of the West. The title quite nicely summarizes the book. I'll merely add that if you've any inclination at all to read it, do so. Ferguson does an amazing job of covering the breadth of world conflict in the 1900's theorizing as to why it was so terribly violent a century.
I'm about half way through the tome. Yesterday I was reading a section on Adolf Hitler, who of course must figure prominently in such a book. Not for the first time I found myself wanting to go back in time and trying to reason with him (which always seems easier than in reality it would be). I also recalled Bruno Ganz's brilliant portrayal of Hitler in the German film,  The Downfall (2004).  The movie came under some criticism, particularly in Germany, at the time of its release for humanizing Hitler.
I couldn't disagree with those criticisms more.  I think its a terrible mistake NOT to remember that Hitler, and other tyrannical leaders like Stalin were (or as the case may be, are) indeed living breathing human beings.  To make monsters out of them is to play a children's game of pretend.  If they are simply the bogeyman, ogres, Frankensteins we need not deal with a) how they sprung from among more reasoned humans or;  b) how other people endorsed and abetted their efforts. It's not like Hitler could have done it all alone.  Hitler had henchmen.  Not just a small cadre in his inner circle either.  There were a lot of people running concentration camps, there were a lot of people in the Gestapo and there were a lot of people who let the horrors of Nazi Germany take place.  If Hitler is merely a monster, what of all those other horrid Nazis?  Did Hitler cast a spell? We do ourselves no favor by mythologizing our real life villains.
The Downfall was a brilliant interpretation of not only Hitler the man, but some of those close to him.  We see the likes of Goebbels who was culpable in Nazi atrocities and Hitler's secretary, Traudl Junge, a relative innocent whose recollections were the basis for the story.  Neither is a monster, but to varying degrees both are guilty parties.
Ganz played Hitler like a flesh and blood person, not like a cartoon character. Today I saw Heath Ledger's amazing performance as the Joker in The Dark Knight which should earn him a posthumous Oscar for best supporting actor. Ledger was playing a character.  Whatever else he did with the role (and trust me it was amazing) there was the make up and there was the context and we all know that no one like the Joker has ever walked our streets. But a Hitler has and likely will again appear.  The real monsters in our world are the serial killers, mass murderers and tyrants.  Serious films need to show them as people.  In comic  book movies you can do what you will as the villain.
One of the best film villains of all time was Anton Chigurh in No Country For Old Men (2007) played by Javier Bardem.  Chigurh was the personification of evil and somehow was at once all too human and seemingly super natural.  This is part of what made Chigurh so terrifying, he could be interpreted as in many different was.  As originally realized by author Cormac McCarthy in his novel upon which the film is faithfully based, Chigurh's origins (as with The Dark Knight's Joker) were unknown.  With no back story offered and a name and appearance that could evoke various interpretations, audiences were left to ponder whence this embodiment of evil came and what he might represent. Chigurh only seemed super human although his actions and talents bordered on other worldly, he was clearly from among us.  Hitler is a non fiction character with a documented back story and in a serious film needs to be seen as being from among the rest of us. That is precisely what makes him more chilling than the creature in Alien (1979).
On a not unrelated note, last night's Bill Moyers Journal on PBS, spent its first half hour focusing on the issue of U.S. condoned torture conducted these past few years.  Talk about monstrous behavior! As we have learned from congressional testimony and investigative reporters like Moyers' guest Jane Mayer author of the just-released, The Dark Side: The Inside story of the US War on Terror and How it Turned into a War on American Ideals. The fact of torture having been green lighted at the highest levels of our government, along with extraordinary rendition, is undeniable.  That people within our government can find justification for it is mind boggling.  The US has stooped to the level of the type of countries that were once its sworn enemies. Much of this disgrace allegedly stems from Vice President Dick Cheney.  It is often difficult to remember that he is human (I'll never forget his chilling response to an interviewer who pointed out that the vast majority of Americans opposed the continued US  involvement in Iraq:  "so," he replied contemptuously.  Yeah, what do you think this is a democracy or something?).  But Cheney came with Bush as dually elected leaders of the United States.  They need to be remembered as people no matter how little regard they've shown for our constitution or ordinary (i.e. non rich) Americans.  In our lampooning and demonizing of Bush, Cheney and company we on the left have found succor.  But just as with the more extreme cases like Hitler, it is incumbent to remember that these odious characters come, if not from the hoi polloi, by them. Their dark shapes are molded from the same genetic structures as ours.
Do I really have the audacity to suggest that Bush/Cheney can be compared to Hitler? Yes and I'm going further and saying we all bear a resemblance to the worst of us, just as we all are part of and resemble the very best we have to offer.

24 July 2008

To Kill For


"If we only had $2,000 our troubles would be over," says the killer in Alfred Hitchcock’s I Confess (1953). It can be–or it can at least seem to be–just that simple. One lump sum of money can wipe away debt, or buy all the things we need or allow us to flee to a new life. It doesn’t even have to be an impossibly large sum. It can be a mere pittance to a wealthy person, maybe just the equivalent of an average worker’s monthly salary. 

The trouble is how to get it? Expecting to win the lottery is not realistic. Better to imagine an unexpected windfall from a will, the discovery of a rare artifact, or the sale of novel. So many of us are $2,000, or $50,00 or $500,000 away from freedom. Or so we think. Meanwhile the yearning for that magical lump sum can imprison us. We lose track of what we do have and how we can build on that towards better days. Sometimes all it takes is hard work and sticking it out. Quick fixes are so often a false idol we wrongly worship.

This is actually a helluva digression from the story of I Confess, which is hardly about the actual murderer at all. It instead focuses on the wrongly accused (there’s that Hitchcock theme again) a Catholic priest who is in fact the killer’s confessor. Not only did he not do it, he knows who did and because he was told in confession, can't reveal what he knows. Talk about a triple whammy!   Montgomery Clift gave a typically strong performance in the lead role. He managed to express so very much while playing perhaps one of the most stoic characters in the history of film.

This is arguably Hitchock's’ most underrated movie, deserving as it does, a place alongside his more celebrated works. The theme, as I’ve suggested, is quite familiar to the legions of Hitchcock’s fans and the denouement is pure Hollywood, deviating 180 degrees from the original stage play. What sets I Confess apart, aside from Clift, is where Hitchcock put the camera.

The opening shots are masterful. Quebec in black and white–specifically,  it’s architecture, its streets and so many signs with the word “Direction” within an arrow. Then night time, pan into a room where there’s a body on the floor, apparently in a pool of blood. Now follow a man walking hurriedly down cobblestone streets, looking for all the world like a priest. The tone, the mood, and the atmosphere are set. The camera follows the rest from always the right perspective and angle.  The faces are always shot so as to tell more than words possibly can. Vintage Hitch.

While there are standard dramatic elements in I Confess, there are also surprises to this story.  More important than the revelations of the story is the manner in which it is told.

The cast includes Anne Baxter who does little as the blackmailed ex-love of Clift. Indeed, next to Clift, the rest of the cast is comparatively pedestrian except for German actor O.E. Hasse as the killer. Hasse’s Keller is a man just $2,000 away from a better life, and he’s willing to kill for it, and he’s happy to let Clift take the fall for it.  Another German, Dolly Haas is heart breaking as the killer's wife.
These were rare English language appearance by Hasse and Haas.  Hasse was magnificent because he managed to simultaneously garner both are sympathy and antipathy.

I Confess.  A dark film with dark themes that is one of Hitch's best.

23 July 2008

Once Upon A Time


Two people meeting and falling in love is not unusual. Two people meeting, falling in love and staying together successfully for over 30 years is unusual.

Chris & Don. A Love Story is a documentary about one such successful relationship. The two were together from 1952 until Chris died 34 years later. Their relationship warranted this wonderful film in large part because of who they were as individuals.

Christopher Isherwood was a noted writer whose Berlin Stories formed the basis of the story for Cabaret (1972).  In Cabaret, Michael York was essentially playing Isherwood and York, in fact, provides the narration for excerpts from Isherwod's diary that are read in Chris & Don. A Love Story.  


Isherwood was born to an upper class British family. He moved to Berlin in the 1920's but left when the Nazis came to power, eventually settling in Southern California. There he came to know the glitterati of Hollywood eventually meeting and falling in love with an impossibly handsome young man 30 years his junior.  That man was Southern California native Don Bachardy.

Don, only 18, was still very much in the process of finding himself at the time they met. He would eventually become an extraordinary artist whose drawings of some of Hollywood's elite are among the film's highlights.

Despite their age difference Chris and Don formed a loving couple. Not surprisingly, Chris was a bit of a father figure as well as mentor. Though perhaps Don was initially something of boy toy, he quickly grew into his own man and, as Chris became ill in the last years of his life, Don was taking care of him. Along the way their relationship experienced the requiste ups and downs. Like any long lasting couple, Chris and Don reveled in the ups and survived the downs.

Chris & Don. A Love Story is a portrait of two people who fall and stay in love. Many couples grow apart, others grow together. How this happens in any relationship is nothing short of a miracle. It requires sacrifice, patience and a desire to share not just one another's bodies, but minds and emotions.

The movie was possible because the pair took a lot of home movies and photographs from virtually the time they met until Chris died.  (This spares having to endure any more of the re-enactments that are the film's only blight.) Also, Don drew lots of pictures of Chris, almost compulsively at the end, including post mortem.

Much of the story is told in present day by Don, a remarkably fit 74 year old man who bicycles to the gym for work outs and still draws. He lives in the home he shared with Chris those many years.

I have not yet made reference to the obvious fact that this is the story of two gay men.  While the film explores their being "out " and together in a tightly-closeted Hollywood, their homosexuality was secondary to the main story. Chris and Don should be commended for their bravery in living together openly many years before Stonewall, but I think it wrong to look at this film as a "gay movie."  To do so would suggest that a gay couple is inherently different and the fact of their sexual preference supersedes all else. Hopefully our society is moving to the point where couples are just couples and need not be viewed as particular kinds of couples.

Chris & Don. A Love Story deserves to be seen as the story of two people who defy all odds and lived happily ever after.

22 July 2008

Everyone is Entitled to an Opinion


The Internet Movie Database provides a message board space for all movies and TV shows. This allows people to initiate a discussion on a movie or ask questions or post a comment and get responses.
As one would imagine, there are a wide range of opinions on films. Below I've copied and pasted some scathing comments about some of America's most beloved films. Remember, we are ALL entitled to our opinion.

Casablanca
I watched this movie for the first time yesterday, and i didnt find anything special about it, i know it was made in 1942 and im not saying it was bad for those days, but i guess it is because i dont like drama romance movies, but then again i saw The Notebook with my girl and i found the story so much more interesting, i guess what im trying to say is that, if Casablanca was made these days i dont think it would get as much credit.

The Third Man
I can see why people call this a classic. I can see why it's ranked so high, I however was VERY dissapointed in it. the music firstly is tottally out there, the acting is a bit underwealming for the time (aside orson wells who is utterly fantastic), not to mention the film drags in far too many places. (the ten min sewer scene with nothing but shots of people running around)
the cinematography is excellent and the story isn't bad, but it was just a decent noir for me. The love interest, the woman, is a rediculous character, a manipulative hag who brushes away the main charecters attempts to help her, even when lime turns out to be a murderer of hundreds of innocent children and people (indirectly) (note that i love old films, 12 angry men, maltese falcon, treasure of sierra madre, casablanca)


Sunset Blvd.
I don't understand the acclaim around this film. The execution was poor. I couldn't feel for any of the characters. The camera work was uninteresting and lacked close-ups. The performances were too over the top. The story was a little incoherent. The idea was pretty solid but it took a distracting, boring and empty direction. Some parts were also predictable.

The Godfather
Okay people, so maybe it was 'great' for it's time, and it is still a good movie, but not number one. And the list is "Top 250 movies" not "Top 250 movies of their time". And plus there were way better movies of the time. One flew over the Cuckoos nest, and A Clockwork Orange. Now I expect some smart ass comments from all the losers who follow this list so exclusively. Okay, I get it. Most of you people refuse to look at the thousands of movies that are outside of this list and you refuse to admit that there are movies better then the Godfather. Now before you come here asking me questions such as "then why are you posting here?" I'll answer in this post. I'm posting here because this movie has been number 1 for too long, and I'm posting my opinions on this movie here. I'm glad that you all decide to hop on the bandwagon, but I'm not like that. I'm just posting what I think, and the hundreds of other people who hide the truth with a comment such as "This movie is the greatest!" just to gain respect from the people on this site.

Duck Soup
I saw that it was ranked in the top 250 on IMDB and has a high rating. But it is just impossible to get through...it has lame "play on words" jokes that should only appeal to a 5th grader. Maybe it was funny and original in 1933, but it sucks now.

Raging Bull
I hated it.
There were some good things about it though. The acting was great, I love Joe Pesci and De Niro was awesome as well. Also, I loved the cinematography. All the scenes with smoke, whether it be cigarette smoke or whatever, I loved the black and white contrast against the smoke  And there were some scenes where I was especially impressed with the lighting.
As for the story, I found it dull, slow paced and rather boring. It was a well made film, but I wouldn't watch it again. I would recommend it for an aspiring filmmaker, or a person who loves movies and has a rich taste. But as for a pedestrian moviegoer, you can skip over this one
.

Vertigo

I just watched this movie and still couldn't see why its so great. I wasn't really moved or thrilled by it at all.

Psycho
Tacky and with rubbish effects, not as good or realistic as Transformers or 300 wooo. Why is it this film has such rubbish special effects in comparison.

The Maltese Falcon
Horrible dialogue, bad acting I couldn't even stand Bogart. I'm really disappointed in this movie. I was expecting something really great because this movie is so hyped and Bogart is always great(Casablanca, Treasure of Sierra Madre). Another, thing is people always say that movies made today are bad, and they don't compare to movies of yesteryear, but look how stupid this movie is I hope people really weren't like this in the 40's. I can believe people were paying to see crap like this. I mean the style of this film was probably the same as everyother movie back then. Don't get me wrong there were some good movies too, but Jesus. And man, the dialogue.

Bonnie and Clyde
Seriously, I turned this crap off within 40 minutes. How the hell could anyone finish this movie?

On the Waterfront

This movie totally does nothing for me, maybe you guys out there should watch a real movie like Billy Madison or Happy Gilmore. What kind of name for a movie is On The Waterfront anyway?????

Grapes of Wrath
I am frankly bored out of my skull right now watching this POS movie. This class sux0rz. I mean, on their way to california, i wish their car would break down in the beginning, and they would just die of thirst in the middle of the freaking nowhere. I feel like i'm getting dragged behind a chariot in the middle of the hippodrome. And arsalon looks like sean, but arabian or indian or something instead of a hippy.

Citizen Kane
SPOILER ALERT
The first and only time I watched this movie, I thought to myself...I just sat through two hours of this movie to find out that Rosebud was a stupid sled. I like long dramas, but this had no point. I cannot believe this is considered to be one of the best of all time.

Some Like It Hot
THIS HAS TO BE THE MOST OVER RATED WASTE OF EYESIFGHT, HEARING, TIME AND CELLOID IN HOLLYWEIRD HISTORY..."STARS" THE MOST OVER RATED MATTRESS BAG DOOR KNOB, EVERYONE TAKES A TURN "ACTRESS" OF ALL TIME........POOR TONY CURTIS AND JACK LEMMON.....INVOLVED IN THIS POS

21 July 2008

Give Peace A Chance


So you want to join the army and fight in a war? First of all young fella, let's have you sit down and watch this movie. It's called All Quiet on the Western Front. Maybe you heard something about a book by that name, one written by Erich Maria Remarque, a German who fought in World War I. You probably saw it prominently featured in a school library. (The Nazis didn't care for its message so they used it for kindling.)  Well, a movie based on the book was made t back in 1930.

Sit down! They made some really good movies back then and this is one of 'em. Movies don't need to be in color to be good, kid.
No, nobody you're likely to have heard of in it. Biggest star in it was Lew Ayres. Director was Lewis Milestone. Maybe this'll impress ya, it won the Best Picture Oscar. I know that means a whole lot more to you than it does to me.

Okay, here we are, the movie's started, now watch....

By the end of the film my imaginary young friend would hopefully been struck by many, many scenes and moments from this extraordinary film. A lot of outstanding movies have a few noteworthy moments. All Quiet is teeming with them. To wit...

The teacher inspiring his innocent young students to enlist. One by one they rise from their seats and shout in exaltation that they'll join. In a montage that we'll see copied over and over in future films, Milestone focuses on each face one at a time.

As the young soldiers are dropped off to fight in their first battle we see them march forward each looking back at the camera. What are they looking at? Their lost innocence? The safety of home?

At the sound of the first shelling at least one soldier soils himself.

Under fire for the first time one solider is blinded and hysterically runs about until, inevitably, he's killed.

Soldiers undergoing days of shelling, non stop explosions, snap under the pressure. ( Who can blame them?)

A soldier visited in hospital complains of a terrible pain in his foot only to discover to his utter horror that one of his legs has been amputated. A comrade asks about his boots, the amputee, after all, won't be needing them.

We see that soldier run off to battle in those boots only to be quickly mowed down. Now a third solider wears the boots, he, too, is killed.

In battle a man takes hold of a fence. An explosion. Only the arms remain.

In a contemplative moment a soldier asks about this war's origins. He is told that a war starts when one country insults another. The soldier is befuddled, wondering if a tree from Germany insulted a French mountain. (Most wars are just about that stupid.),

Ayres' character, Paul, takes cover in a shell hole. A French soldier sees him, pounces, but Paul is ready with a knife and stabs him. Paul and the dying man spend the night in the shell hole. Paul talks apologetically to the enemy soldier, even after his foe dies. He speaks of how they could have been, should have been friends.

Paul returns home on leave. He confronts the teacher who inspired him to join. The professor is in the midst of trying to exhort another class of young men to join the fray. An older, wiser Paul does not make a patriotic speech the teacher expects, instead warning of the reality of battle.

Friends die, lose limbs, go mad. Horrible deaths are witnessed.

All Quiet on the Western Front came along at just the right time, three years after the full on introduction of sound in movies. This proved important. The bombing, in particular reverberates throughout the picture, as much and as important a character as the film had. It's timing was key in another way as it was completed three years before the Production Code began being enforced. While there is no profanity or blood and brain matter splattered about, AQotWF is a very real look at war that wouldn't have been possible with the Code's enforcement.

An endless series of horrific events would not make for a watchable film. But AQotWF is filled with humanity in the persons of the soldiers who fight. It is because of their camaraderie that they don't all go completely insane. Yes, they fight because they must, but they also fight for each other. Humans are pack animals. For most of us comfort, security and friendship all stream from the company of others. In times of stress that is particularly crucial; there's no better example than soldiers in war. AQotWF gives us that. Seventy-eight years later it is still the quntiessential anti-war film.

It also gives, or should give, anyone who watches it pause about going to war. Unfortunately, those people do not include so many of our leaders, so many of whom are ready to send other people's children and spouses off to war. Some folks never learn.

Right Kid?

20 July 2008

The Set Up

(Spoiler Alert)
Okay I'm watching a movie I've never seen before: Golden Earrings (1947). All I know going in is that it stars Marlene Dietrich.  From the opening credits I learn that Ray Milland co-stars. The rest of the cast is unfamiliar to me.

I'm going to look for how the story is set up.

It's London, 1947, a foggy night and we enter a gentleman's club. Not an uncommon opening.
At the front desk the clerk gets a young lad to deliver messages to two members, one described as an American. The American receives his message and learns he must catch a plane to Paris on urgent business. The other message goes to Milland. What's this? He's got streaks of white in his hair, this suggests that we'll soon be going into a flashback as Milland hadn't grayed yet in real life. Milland has received a package with two golden earrings. He seems quite delighted.

So far so good.

Milland goes to the front desk walking by the American who is in the company of two others. The American is immediately intrigued to note that Milland has two holes in his ears as for earrings. In 1947;  this is curious indeed. The American asks his companions about this abnormality. They can shed no light on it. They do say that Milland's character is a fine fellow, a war hero who before the war was a bit of a stuffed shirt.

Interesting.

At the front desk Milland is told that he can indeed get on the next flight to Paris.  He's overjoyed.  This all obviously relates to the earrings he's received. We know the American will be on the flight so more will be revealed. We can guess that Dietrich sent the earrings and Milland is going to meet her. We've got many questions and look forward to their resolution.

Nice start.

The next scene is on the plane and, of course, the American finds himself sitting next to Milland. After a bit of hemming and hawing the question about the earlobe holes comes up. To answer the question Milland will have to tell a story.  Now we'll get the lead-in for the flashback.  Flashback movies offer an air of romance.  A character remembers a happier time, nostalgic for a time and place where there was perhaps adventure and almost certainly romance. The audience relates to the these sentiments and is easily hooked.

Milland's flashback takes us to Germany on the eve of the second world war. He and a mate were on a spying mission for the military and they'd been caught. We start the flashback as they plan their successful daring escape. The two get away from the evil Nazis and are on the run in the heart of Pre-war Nazi Germany.

Cool.

They split up with plans to rendezvous. Fifteen minutes into the movie we're most intrigued and antsy to see Marlene. We are introduced to her from behind with her familiar voice humming a tune as she sits by a river. She is a "gypsy" and it is obvious to even the most causal movie goer that she'll be aiding Milland and there will be love.

The story has been beautifully set up.  I'm ready to sit back and enjoy an  adventure romance set during a key moment in history with the exquisite Marleen Dietrich at the center of the story.

Well done, director Mitchell Leisen and writers Frank Butler and Helen Deutsch.  This has been an absolutely textbook set up for a movie.

Unfortunately, the movie as a whole stunk. Dietrich and Milland had no on screen chemistry. The pacing was poor, the cinematography unimaginative, the story line weak and many of the actors playing Nazis positively chewed the scenery. One wonders if Josef von Sternberg saw the manner in which Dietrich's beautiful face was slighted by Liesen's camera. He likely had a fit.

Leisen had been good with Claudette Colbert in Midnight (1939) and No Time for Love (1943). But I've gotten spoiled seeing the manner in which von Sternberg shot her. It's amazing to note that Dietrich was 46 when Golden Earrings was made and absolutely stunning–hell, she was stunning over ten years later in Touch Of Evil (1958).

So let's go back in time and have Fritz Lang  or Robert Siodmak direct Golden Earrings with Cary Grant or Michael Redgrave as the male lead.

Keep  the set up though, it was bloody good.

19 July 2008

Oscar Shmoscar


I got this question the other day about a recent film: "Is it Oscar worthy?" I get asked this often and it bugs the heck out of me. Actually, there are two ways to interpret this question:

1. Is this the type of film that the Academy will choose to honor whether it deserves the recognition or not? Fair question. Sometimes you can predict that a film such as Atonement will garner undeserved nominations while a terrific film like Zodiac will be ignored. Oscar nominations and winners can be predictable and baffling–or even both. Guessing what's going to be nominated then what will win can be a good parlor game.

2. The other way to look at the "is it Oscar worthy?" question is that the person asking the question considers the Oscar the gold standard for judging films. There are a lot of people like this (they are also known as causal film fans).

Here is a detailed and unimpeachable response to those who believe that the Oscars are the “be-all and end-all” of film evaluation.

Question: How many “Best Director” Oscars did the following group of directors garner between them? Alfred Hitchock (pictured above), Howard Hawks, Charlie Chaplin, King Vidor, Stanley Kubrick, William Wellman, Arthur Penn, Ridley Scott, Stanley Kramer, Sideny Lumet, Ernst Lubitsch, Robert Altman, Orson Wells and Alan J. Pakula.
Answer: Zero. Zilch. Nada. None.

Here's another one. These gentlemen have never won a competitive best actor award: Cary Grant, Peter O'Toole, Richard Burton, Albert Finney, Leslie Howard, Edward G. Robinson, Claude Rains, Peter Lorre, John Barrymore and Kirk Douglas.
And the following ladies have been similarly neglected: Glenn Close, Irene Dunne, Deborah Kerr, Thelma Ritter, Jean Simmons, Myrna Loy, Ida Lupino, Janet Leigh and Jean Arthur.

It gets worse, folks. In 1933, Cavalcade won best picture over fellow nominees: Trouble in Paradise, King Kong, Duck Soup, Queen Christina and Dinner at Eight.

In 1936, The Great Ziegfeld won the statuette over Modern Times, Fury, My Man Godfrey, Show Boat, Swing Time.

In 1939, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, The Roaring Twenties, Stagecoach and Ninochtka lost to an overblown soap opera called Gone With the Wind

In 1940, The Grapes of Wrath, Foreign Correspondent, The Letter, The Great Dictator and The Philadelphia Story lost to Rebecca, a worthy picture but...

in 1941, How Green Was My Valley won the best picture Oscar over Citizen Kane.

In 1949, The Third Man was not nominated for best picture.

In 1951, An American in Paris beat out A Streetcar Named Desire, The Day the Earth Stood Still, African Queen, Strangers on a Train and A Place in the Sun. No joke.

In 1956, Around the World in 80 Days won best picture. The Searchers didn't. Seriously.

Two years later Gigi won the Oscar beating out something called Vertigo.

In 1967, In the Heat of the Night beat out both The Graduate and Bonnie & Clyde.

In 1971, The French Connection won. A Clockwork Orange, The Last Picture Show and McCabe and Mrs. Miller didn't.

Five years later the Academy awarded Rocky over Network, All the President's Men and Taxi Driver. (I'm not making this stuff up.)

Four years after that it was Kramer vs. Kramer over Manhattan and Apocalypse Now.
Not to be outdone, the 1980 ceremony saw the big prize go to Ordinary People, not Raging Bull.

One doesn't know whether to laugh or cry about this one. In 1989, Driving Miss Daisy beat out Do the Right Thing and Glory (there's all you need to know about Hollywood and African Americans).

In 1998, Shakespeare in Love was the winner, not Saving Private Ryan. Of course that was the year after Titanic's Oscar sweep.

And just a few years ago Crash got best picture. That alone is bad enough but is compounded by the fact that it won over Brokeback Mountain and Good Night, Good Luck.

Question: Is it Oscar worthy?

Answer: Who cares?

17 July 2008

No Ordinary Time


The central character in Jean-Pierre Melville's Army of Shadows (1969), Philippe Gerbier, is a totally ordinary looking fellow, perhaps bordering on homely.  Gerbier's appearance is appropriate to the film.  There are no handsome, dashing leading men. No exciting chases, dramatic explosions, or torrid love scenes. Instead, Melville presents the story of the French Resistance as being comprised of regular folks, in many cases, doing quite regular deeds to confound and defeat their Nazi oppressors during the occupation.

Army of Shadows is realistic in depicting the resistance. But more than a study of that time in history it is a look at people thrust into extraordinary circumstances and how they react. An informer is caught and brought to a house where he is to be killed but neighbors have moved in next door and would hear the gunfire. Our heroes have no silencers and no knives but they are under orders to do away with the young man who has betrayed some of their fellows. What follows is a heart wrenching scene of execution that is graphic more in what it shows about the psychological toll on humans that killing can exact than on the physical act of dying.

There is another scene in which an elaborate plot is hatched to free a compratiot from the Gestapo. The plan is neither spectacularly successful nor heart-breakingly foiled. At the point of nearly succeeding the plan becomes sadly unnecessary. Such things happen after all.

One of the greatest French directors, Melville was a lover of America and American films (he even Americanized his name) and best known for such gangsters films as Bob Le Flambeur (1956) and Le Samourai (1972). But as a veteran of the Resistance he knew the territory in making Army of Shadows. Perhaps that is why he did not glamorize it.  Instead he showed people facing decisions in pivotal moments that could cost them their life or the lives of many others.

Lino Ventura, who portrays Gerbier, is ideal as the film's central figure. He is a realist not swayed by sentiment but he is reflective and thoughtful. His long sad face draws our attention and in its stoicism keeps us grounded in the awful grind of  war. When he runs from the Gestapo it is not an exciting dash for freedom but a desperate attempt to stay alive so as to fight another day. The sound of Gerbier's  shoes against the sidewalk provide punctuation to his dash.  We also clearly see that to survive in war, as to succeed in sports, it is better to be lucky than good.

Melville was also careful in the rest of his casting, with only Jean-Pierre Cassell adding any glitz to the cast. The lone female lead is played by Simone Signoret who here is more of a dowdy middle aged aunt than screen siren.

The only real lightness comes when Gerbier and his boss are taken to London. There, in addition to business, they take in Gone With the Wind at a movie house and Gerbier later finds shelter in a lively bar during a blitz. Later back in France,  the strains of Glenn Miller  – and especially the faces of a lovely young lady from the bar – are vivid pictures in Gerbier's mind when his death seems immenent.

Meanwhile the Nazis are not made out to be monsters.  That would be too easy and Melviille doesn't go for such cheap tricks. After starting the movie with an unforgettable march of Nazis down the Champs Elysees, Melville doesn't much focus on the Germans anyway.

Army of Shadows is full of wonderful moments such as when the French policeman riding in the back of the police van with Gerbier and chatting idly with him pauses to look down at Gerbier's handcuffs. Melville holds the camera on the cop's face for a few seconds as we see his smile fade in remembering his companion's circumstances.

This is not a depressing movie.  No film this well made can be – it is my number two ranked all time foreign language film behind Grand Illusion (1937). Army of Shadows could be seen as a tribute who those who sacrificed their lives or part of their souls in resisting Nazi oppression. But like any great film its themes are broader than that. It is the story of what people do, how they get up each morning and take care of whatever business that awaits them. Whether they are living in a small village at a time of peace or in a war torn city during an enemy occupation. It's also about how, regardless of external circumstance,  we all face choices.

But what choices these people faced!


16 July 2008

I Love These Old Photos of Berkeley






Please note there are no people sitting in oak trees in any of these pictures.

15 July 2008

It's Your Duty To Vote


Thanks to the good folks at Turner Classic Movies, film aficionados have an opportunity to vote for films they'd like to see made available on DVD. A great frustration for folks like us is the number of highly regarded films still not on DVD. To vote go to http://www.tcm.com/top/notondvd/

Don't bother voting for either Notorious (1946) or Rebecca (1940) as they will be released in October, both separately and as part of a yet another outstanding collection of Hitchcock films that will include Lifeboat (1944), The Lodger (1927), The Paradine Case (1947), Sabotage (1936) and Spellbound (1945).

The African Queen (1951) is certainly the most beloved film on the list. Others that I'd recommend include the seldom seen The Mortal Storm (1940) starring Jimmy Stewart and Margaret Sullavan.  Directed by Frank Borzagethis story of a happy family living in the German Alps who, along with others in their community, are torn apart by the rise of Hitler's Nazi party.

I Married a Witch (1942) starring Veronica Lake and Fredric March, Bachelor Mother (1939) starring Ginger Rogers and David Niven, and Topper (1937) starring Cary Grant and Constance Bennett are three delightful screwball comedies that film fans deserve to be able to rent or buy on DVD.

Another great comedy is George Washington Slept Here (1942) starring Jack Benny and one of my great loves, Ann Sheridan. I know I'm in a small minority in saying this but I prefer it to the very similar Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House (1948) with Cary Grant and Myrna Loy. Both involve city dwellers trying to start afresh by fixing up a home in the country. A colorful cast of characters and hilarious mishaps highlight each film.

Speaking of Grant, his 1943 film, Mr. Lucky, is also on the list. His co-star and love interest is played by Laraine Day. It was a perfect rallying cry for the home front during WWII. Grant was a gambler out to swindle do-gooder society dames who instead finds himself falling for Day.

One of the great films of all time – and certainly one of the the greatest silent films – Greed (1925) also deserves a vote. Erich von Stroheim's opus is a classic tale of how money and the deadly sin of greed can ruin lives.

Another silent classic and first-ever winner of Oscar's best picture, Wings (1927) also needs your vote. It has only recently appeared on TCM. William Wellman's story of two WWI flying aces and the woman they both love is one of the first great aviation films and still one of the best.

The film I'd most like to see on DVD is Red Dust (1932) starring Clark Gable, Jean Harlow, Gene Raymond and Mary Astor. I have too many good things to say about Red Dust so will devote an entry blog entry to it at another time.

Enough campaigning from me. Vote for your favorites and encourage others to do likewise. It is your sacred duty.

13 July 2008

I Swear I Didn't Do it!


It can be merely aggravating, terribly frustrating or even be fatal. It is a terrible feeling when someone, or indeed many people, don't believe you. It was as common to the films of Alfred Hitchcock as the beautiful blonde.

Poor Margaret Lockwood. No one would believe her elderly companion existed in The Lady Vanishes (1938). Pity Cary Grant. Those evil spies would not believe he wasn't also a spy in North by Northwest (1959). Imagine innocent Henry Fonda, suspected, arrested and convicted of a hold up he didn't commit in The Wrong Man (1956). Likewise Derrick De Marney wrongly accused of murder in Young and Innocent (1937). And what about Robert Cummings, believed to have committed sabotage in Saboteur (1942). And I haven't even gotten to Jimmy Stewart in Rear Window (1954) or Gregory Peck in Spellbound (1945).

To be wrongly accused, or have your claims of witnessing something disbelieved, touches a central human fear. It is to be alone, and to be suffering an injustice in that isolation. It perverts our basic relationship with society and thus can literally drive us insane.

Hitchcock explored this, and the elemental desire for people to prove themselves. The need to be redeemed became primal in these characters and their efforts thus bordered on the super human. In most cases the characters were "ordinary" people to begin with. Grant an advertising man, Fonda a musician, Stewart a photographer, Cummings a factory worker, De Marney a writer, etc.

This provided two elements to the story. One is that none of us are immune to a seemingly random accusation – innocents are regularly being cleared by DNA evidence of crimes of which they were convicted. The "It could happen to you" aspect of such stories is a great device to engage audiences and show the arbitrariness of human life. The other element this adds is that we are all capable of great deeds in the name of justice, even if motivated by self interest.

I'm not giving anything away by pointing out that in Hitchcock's films the innocent is ultimately believed and cleared. It is also important to note that it is almost invariably by their own efforts that they are redeemed, not by those of establishment figures like the the police or government. Also, our hero usually benefits from the assistance of a confederate, often a comely blond like Grace Kelly, Eva Marie Saint or Priscilla Lane. We may feel alone as the falsely accused, but in this world we can usually count on someone to help.

It is essential in such stories to restore the world to its proper balance (especially absent this inevitably in real life). Happy endings are generally preferable in films, but in the you've-got-the-wrong-guy fiction I believe them to be a must. Generally speaking, only a nonfiction story should allow the innocent to suffer.

Of course, with Hitchcock we always enjoy the ride, too. There is action, adventure, romance and sometimes even laughs along the way. This softens the hard reality of our character's dilemma and provides the requisite entertainment.

Alfred Hitchcock, the master of the"I-swear-it wasn't-me....."

12 July 2008

The Incredible Changing Man


There are some things in life I just don't get – and likely never will.  Many of these things relate to films.  For example: How did Roger Ebert pick Crash as the best film of  2004 and how did it win the best picture Oscar?

As a Hallmark Hall of Fame Movie of the Week from 1983, it would have been pretty good. But as a major motion picture in the 21st century it was just past mediocre. Crash was well intentioned but the story was preposterous.

I also don't get how Woody Allen's Zelig (1983) is not a more revered film. In its execution alone Zelig is brilliant. No pseudo documentary has ever been better, and yes, I'm considering the marvelous works of Christopher Guest.

Allen stars as Leonard Zelig, the incredible changing man, a human chameleon who takes the form of others around him. The story is told in documentary form as if people of the present were looking back on the story of Zelig, who achieved international celebrity in the '20s and '30s before fading into obscurity.

The melding of Allen and other actors, most notably Mia Farrow, into actual film footage from the '20s and '30s is remarkable. To have Allen and other actors appear to be in footage shot 50 years previous would be a technological feat today, never mind in '83.

You could easily fool many people into supposing this was a true story – if that they could get past the fact that a man can become suddenly obese merely by chatting with obese people or become Chinese when with Chinese, or speak French with Frenchmen, or even become one himself when around African Americans.  It sounds silly, I know, but seeing is believing.  It's all done so seamlessly and with such earnestness that a person would not have to be too young or gullible to "buy it."

Perhaps the  best real tip off is that this is not the real deal is that Zelig is played for laughs. The supposed filmed sessions between Zelig and his love interest/psychiatrist (Farrow) include Zelig reeling off several Allenesque one-liners.

Many real life notables appear in the film to comment on the Zelig phenomenon, including Susan Sontag, Saul Bellow and former Jazz Age restaurateur, Bricktop. Others appear in archival footage, sometimes with Zelig edited into the action. They include Lou Gerhig, Adolph Hitler, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Charlie Chaplin.

Zelig is an interesting slice of culture from the '20s and '30s. The narration by Patrick Horgan is perfect (Horgan's name is probably unfamiliar to you but his voice is instantly recognizable to baby boomers).

But Zelig is more than a good time.  It is a parable for the desire many people have to fit in at any cost.  Zelig is a man who is pathological in his desire to be like others.  In given situations we all want to fit in to one extent or another. Sometimes we'll go along with any trend or opinion just to avoid being an outcast.  In this sense,  Zelig is very much a metaphor for fascism particularly, I think, as it existed in Nazi Germany.  It is also a commentary about celebrity in modern culture.  See how quickly the famous can raise and fall and how they can be exploited before their star dims. But Zelig is also a love story, and an important one as it shows how the positive love of one can override the negative false love of many.

This summer marks the 25th anniversary of the Zelig's theatrical release.  It is yet to achieve the reverence it so rightly deserves.

I don't get it.

11 July 2008

Twist N Shout


Entertainment Weekly's online edition has a list of 22 movies with the best twist endings entitled, "You Got Swerved."  There are some memorable films on the list such as Fight Club, The Usual Suspects and Psycho.  But what struck me after looking over the 22 was the ones I didn't remember.

Imagine a movie with a surprise ending and you've forgotten all about it.  What does that tell you? It tells me that a twist at the end is not enough to save a bad or mediocre film.  A film resonates if, taken as a whole, it's a good or excellent viewing experience.

From EW's list  there were several that for me but were hazy memories.  For example, I'd forgotten  everything about The Others save that there were ghosts in it and it starred Nicole Kidman.  Little did I recall about The Phone Booth other than Colin Ferrell played a slimy character who was trapped in a phone booth (remember those pre-cell phone structures?)  by a sniper, and all I remembered about The Prestige was that I was totally disappointed by it and another magician movie from 2006, The Illusionist.   

Admittedly there are some movies that I didn't enjoy that stay in the mind such as Bad Lieutenant which I remember  well because Harvey Keitel's character was so repellent.  And there are some movies that I like while watching  but forget about once the final credits are done, such as the latest Indiana Jones movie.  It was diverting entertainment while on the screen but nothing to ponder afterwards.

A twist ending cannot save a movie that is otherwise lacking.  Indeed, while it can enhance a good movie, the twist is never what makes it good in the first place.  Psycho and Fight Club in particular were outstanding films evens sans twist.  The Usual Suspects may have relied more on the twist for its overall impact but the whole movie built up to it – it was not an add on.
It's crucial that the twist not be tacked on for effect as a gimmick but be an integral part of the story.  Like nudity or violence, the twist should not be gratuitous.

10 July 2008

A Mere 25 Great World War II Films

I was going to compile my definitive list of great films set during World War II.  Too long.  

Then I considered a list of films about World War II that, taken together, would comprise a history lesson about the war.  Also too long. 

So instead, I've come up with this: an eclectic groups of films set during World War II.  Not definitive, not comprehensive, many notable omissions, but able to convey just how damn many good movies the great man-made cataclysm inspired.  Why the "Good War" has inspired so many outstanding movies is a topic for another time.


Suffice it to say, these films all come highly recommended.


  1. Saving Private Ryan (1998) Spielberg.  With its opening scenes on D-Day and its climactic last stand, Ryan set the gold standard for  movie battle scenes.
  2. Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970) Fleischer/Fukasaku.  The day that will live in infamy and the lead up to it as seen by both the Japanese and Americans. Have a history lesson along with your entertainment.
  3.  Open City (1945) Rossellini.  Rome in 1944 under Nazi occupation. The resistance.  Lots of ordinary people who'd been through the events depicted in lieu of professional actors. Actual locales used.  A veritable historical document.
  4.  Mrs. Miniver (1942) Wyler.  The British home front during the blitz, the evacuation of Dunrkirk.  Strong cast led by Greer Garson.
  5. Das Boot (1981) Peterson.  Life and death on a German submarine.  Epic and intimate.  A positively great film.
  6. The Great Escape (1963) J. Sturges.  The true story of the audacious plan for over 200 allies to escape from a POW camp.  Steve McQueen, James Garner, Charles Bronson, Richard Attenborough, Donald Pleasance, James Garner.
  7. Army of Shadows (1969) Melville.  Extremely realistic, extremely powerful look at the French resistance in occupied France. One of the great films of all time of any kind.
  8. Casablanca (1942) Curtiz.  On top of everything else, Casablanca gave audiences a real sense of the desperation of many Europeans to get the hell out of Nazi-occupied Europe.  A rightly beloved film that conveyed much truth about what was transpiring at the time.
  9. The Shop on Main Street (1965) Kadar/Klos.  From Czechoslovakia, a look at the effect of the Holocaust on non Jews and the horrible decisions they were forced to make.
  10. The Story of GI Joe (1945) Wellman.  The story of the American foot solider as seen through the eyes of the premier war correspondent Ernie Pyle, portrayed by Burgess Meredith.
  11. Soldier of Orange (1977) Verhoeven.  The war from the perspective of a group of Dutch friends who go in different directions once the Nazis invade. Rutger Huaer features as  a member of the underground.
  12. Schindler's List (1993) Spielberg. Powerful.  Heart-breaking. Depressing. Inspiring.  The horrors of the Holocaust and the heroic efforts of one man to save  as many Jews as possible.  Ralph Fiennes' portrayal of a sadistic German officer is one of the most indelible performances of evil in cinema.
  13. Since You Went Away (1944) Cromwell.  One family at home in the U.S. with father off fighting. A touching film about the home front.
  14. Downfall (2004) Hirschbiegel.  Hitler and company's last days through the eyes of his secretary.  Bruno Ganz is amazing as Der Fuhrer.
  15. Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) Lean.  Alec Guiness,  William Holden, Sessue Hayakawa,  Jack Hawkins, the jungles of Burma,  culture clash, Action,  a dash of romance, oral confusion, and a bridge.
  16. The Last Metro (1980) Truffaut.  Another excellent film depicting Parisians hiding from Nazis. Catherine Deneuve and Gerard Depardieu star.
  17. Action in the North Atlantic (1943) Bacon.  The role of the heroic merchant marines in the war (like my dad!).  Humphrey Bogart, Raymond Massey and Alan Hale star.  Somewhat realistic, certainly exciting.
  18. Europa Europa (1990) Holland.  A Jewish lad in the Hitler Youth?  Come on!  But it's a true story!  It's the fascinating tale of an innocent switching sides in an effort to survive.  Too many people have missed it.
  19. The Pianist (2002) Polanski.  Another Holocaust story. Another tale of survival. This one starring Adrien Brody as a Jewish musician in Warsaw, Poland.  Amazing performance and even more amazing set designs.
  20. Lacombe Lucien (1974) Malle.  Set in Vichy France; the protagonist is a collaborator.  War does funny things to people, usually without their even realzing what's going on.  Our "hero" is an 18 year old farm boy who has a Jewish girlfriend but ends up working with the bad guys.
  21. Twelve O'Clock High (1949) King. Yes there is action in the air but this film is highlighted by the manner in which it shows the psychological strain of war.  Gregory Peck is brilliant in the lead role.
  22. Letters from Iwo Jima (2006) Eastwood.  The famous battle from the Japanese perspective.  Much better than its preceding companion film, Flag of Our Fathers.  Stark, unflinching look at battles and the men who, out of a sense of duty, fight in them.
  23. Closely Watched Trains (1966) Menzel.  The war is seemingly a backdrop to this story of a young Czech railway dispatcher's apprentice and his efforts to "grow up."  However those who didn't go to war often found that the war came to them.  Difficult decisions must be made.  Bittersweet.
  24. Hell in the Pacific (1968) Boorman.  It's pretty much just Lee Marvin and Toshiro Mifune on an island during the war.  The ultimate odd couple.  A great the-folly-of-war picture.
  25. To Be Or Not To Be (1942) Lubitsch.  Why not a comedy to round out the list?  Carole Lombard and Jack Benny,  along with a delightful supporting cast,  in this funny story about an acting troupe that takes on the Nazis in occupied Poland.

09 July 2008

Destination Common Cause











There's something comforting and comfortable about watching World War II movies made at the time of the war and for the first few years after it ended. Yes, the subject is war and there are deaths, violence, and destruction, but those horrors are rarely the theme of the film and they're not graphically depicted.

It wasn't until the late 1950's with films such as Bridge on the River Kwai that there was a more cynical edge to war pictures and the suffering shown was more realistic. By the time of Arthur Hiller's Americanization of Emily (1964) war movies were becoming philosophical and were more likely to dwell on the folly of war rather than serving as patriotic drum beatings. Three years later, in the spirit of the 1960's, The Dirty Dozen was belittling army officers.

WWII films have been fewer and farther between recently with those that are made being absolutely unflinching in the depiction of blood, brain matter and blown off limbs, Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan is a case in point.

Last night I watched Destination Tokyo, directed by Delmar Daves in 1943. It was downright cozy. Yes, there was death and destruction but it was highly sanitized. When an American was killed it was sentimentalized. When Japanese were killed it was justice. Blood and gore were absent.

Like virtually all war pictures made during WWII, Destination Tokyo was war propaganda, plain and simple. It was a patriotic rallying cry for Americans to support the war and see the value of the cause. The Japanese, Cary Grant's character told us, were victims of a horrible system that must be wiped out. Not only for our sake but for the Japanese as well. So films like Destination Tokyo (set almost entirely on a submarine heading from San Francisco to Japan via the Aleutians) were not terribly realistic and wore their messages on their sleeves. What's the possible attraction?

It's a chance to hang out with the guys. What WWII movies like Destination Tokyo did so well was to put together a group of people from various walks of American life with a common cause. In this picture you had your scared but ambitious kid, your playboy, your gruff but lovable cook (Alan Hale, who else?), your philosophical future doctor, your wily veteran, your cool collected leader (Grant); in other words a potpourri, if a commonly used one, of men. The quirky, the urbane, the cool, the fiery, the hyphenated American and the Yankee Doodle do or die. Between them they were everymen. Representing the wide array of attitudes, feelings, hopes, dreams and fears that we all encounter within our simple hum drum lives. The men had their differences but always managed to work things out. In times of peril they pulled together. In terms of the American ethos it was Eden.

Watching World War II movies from the 1940s is like the best time you ever had hanging out with the fellas. A difference here or there but everything worked out and a good time had by all. What a great group of guys! Destination Tokyo also happens to be watchable because of a strong performance by Grant, his co star, John Garfield and the rest of the ensemble cast. It was also an excellent directorial debut by Daves who recreated the claustrophobia in and tension of being on a war time submarine.

One can only imagine the effect such movies had on audiences at the times of its release. Americans. by and large. supported the war and were proud to participate in the shared sacrifices ( a far cry from today when nothing is asked of us except to shop till we drop). Destination Tokyo must have been a feel good movie. Feel good about the war, the sacrifices, and our fellow Americans.

It feels good today, too. War is just the backdrop – it's a movie about people working together, uccessfully, no less. What a concept!