28 March 2010

She Did More Than Just Kiss a Woman: Marlene Dietrich in 'Morocco'

The most powerful force I've ever encountered is the human female. The repression of women by men throughout history is evidence of the massive insecurity at the heart of the male psyche. Men have employed all the powers at their command, beginning with physical force, to keep women in positions of servitude whenever possible. Woman is a force of nature that men, in all our simple mindedness, have never been able to fully comprehend.

Yet a woman will at times fling reason and her God given gifts to the wind and devote herself to a man, literally willing to follow the lucky bloke to the ends of the earth. This is part of the total incomprehensibility of women.

As a measure of its extreme stupidity, Hollywood, a male dominion, has turned its back on powerful women and their stories for most of the last half century. Today our female leads are either naifs barely out of adolescence, or silly comic actresses, or pretty but vapid faces whose sole function is as arm candy for hunky leading men.

While actresses like Scarlett Johansson, Tilda Swinton, Penelope Cruz and Charlize Theron are ready willing and most able, modern day producers and directors don't know how to utilize them. They get some good roles, but rarely as stars.

To see a truly transcendent female performance you need a to look back -- way, way back -- to the days of Greta Garbo, Jean Harlow, Barbara Stanwyck and of course, Marlene Dietrich.

Dietrich had a series of incredible performances that made mediocre films good, good films great, and great films masterpieces. The list include Der blaue Engel (1930), Blonde Venus (1932), Shanghai Express (1932), The Devil is a Woman (1935), Scarlett Empress (1934) and of course Morocco (1930).

All these films were from director Joseph von Sternberg who knew how to direct a woman, at least Dietrich who he loved, literally, physically and most important to us, cinematically. (All but one of these films came before the enforcement of the Production Code which did far more more harm to women's roles than to men, effectively denying their sexuality, keeping them out of bedrooms and boardrooms.)

Morocco is an utterly ordinary story that is elevated to classic status by Dietrich (with an enormous assist from von Sternberg). Gary Cooper is French Legionnaire Tom Brown and Dietrich is chanteuse Amy Jolly who arrive in the title city almost simultaneously. Brown catches Jolly's opening night performance and the two go gaga for one another. Jolly's first number features her in a tux taking a rose and stealing a kiss from a female in the audience. Sadly this is often all anyone knows about the film and it has been analyzed ad nauseum at the expense of the rest of Morocc's many attributes.

Both Brown and Jolly are avildy pursued by others and their situations are further complicated by their repsective lines of work But this is one of those loves that is "special" in the way so many in films are. Yet this is different than most film story loves. There is a remarkable restraint in what we see of the two together and even what is hinted at. We do not need steamy scenes of passionate love making. Indeed the couples' first scene alone together is a whole lot of talk and the chatter is not all that racy either. But when the female lead is blessed with so much seductive conviction, you don't need a whole lot more to get the idea.

Dietirch was a woman who could (what am I saying she, thanks to the magic of film, still can) turn a man to butter just by crossing her legs. What legs!

Like Willie Mays chasing down a flyball she made it all seem so bloody effortless. There is something so wonderfully natural about her movements, her facial expressions, that combined with some very calculated mannerisms make her the ultimate seductress.
And we haven't gotten to the voice, both spoken and singing and in any of three languages. It has such a strength and conviction to it. Combined with how slowly each word is formed, it has the effect of making each word wrap itself slowly around a man's ear, lovingly caressing his eardrums. Surely English being her second language (or third) and her accent enhanced the effect of her speech. The words had to be thought through as spoken, making them carefully and wonderfully rendered.

What makes Morocco so fascinating is that she's got all of this going for her and yet must act out of desperation to get her man. Despite the employment of all her charms, Legionannaire Brown plays it pretty close to the vest. He loves her but isn't it going to make a spectacle of himself about it. For a woman of such magnetism to have to work so hard for a man gives her a vulnerability that can make male viewers want to pitch forward and beg the heavens to be with her. This is part of the feminine mystique, to be so powerful yet to fall so hard for one of us. These powerful creatures exposing their hearts and souls and losing not a wit of dignity in the process. No wonder we men fear women.

*Spoiler Alert* In the end the heroine follows the dope and his troop into the vast desert, leaving all behind, kicking off her high heels, helping pull another female follower's goat. It can be viewed as the ultimate act of abasement for this woman to surrender everything for a man. But in this story, with this star it is just an incredibly deep manisfestation of true love. This is her chocie. And her willingness to leave behind a man who promises wealth (Adolph Menjou) not to mention a career, is a declaration of independence.

Morocco is at times stitled, slow and some actions seems unmotivated or over the top. But the effect of Dietrich as this incredibly powerful creature is not to be missed.

24 March 2010

Warm Up for Basbeall Season by Watching a Movie (Baseball-Themed, Of Course)

You could spend weeks wading through the many really bad baseball themed films that have been made over the past 100 years. You would see a lot of weak comedies, cliched story lines and ridiculous action scenes supposedly depicting baseball. But a much better idea would be to spend a few days taking in those rare baseball films that are actually enjoyable. Always trying to help my fellow film lovers, I offer now my nine favorite baseball films (one for each inning). Enjoy!

Bull Durham (1988) or the Church of Baseball. While this is a film that non baseball fans can enjoy, it is the definitive baseball lovers movie. Like all the movies on this list it is about much more than baseball. And like a lot of great films (which is what this is) it is really about relationships. It is also really funny. Kevin Costner, Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon star. The latter is the ultimate baseball lover and the other two are minor leaguers whose careers are heading in opposite directions. If you love baseball, see Bull Durham. If you hate baseball, see it anyway. Thank me later.

Eight Men Out (1988) or Baseball as Social Commentary. From director John Sayles, this is an excellent telling of the notorious Black Sox Scandal of 1919 when eight Chicago White Sox conspired to throw the World Series. It's about gamblers, crooks, heroes and the price of corporate greed to our national pastime. John Cusak plays third baseman Buck Weaver in a memorable performance.

Bang the Drum Slowly (1973) or The Death of a Fictional Baseball Player. Worth watching just to see a young Robert DeNiro as the fatally ill catcher Bruce Pearson. Based on the wonderful novel of the same name by Mark Harris, it's guaranteed to tug -- nay, yank -- at your heart strings. Happily it does so without schmaltz. Not typical of films of the 1970' yet reflective of the time period.

Sugar (2009) or Baseball Isn't Everything. This movie is criminally underrated likely because it was independently made and lacking a wide release. It tells the story of a young Dominican baseball star who's signed to a big league contract. Before he can play in the bigs, of course, he's assigned to the minors, in Iowa of all places. There's plenty of baseball here and it's superbly done, but the story soon goes in a surprising direction and becomes about something else. I wrote about Sugar at greater length last Spring.

A League of Their Own (1992) or There's No Crying in Baseball. Yes it's overly sentimental and you have to put up with Rosie O'Donnell, but its a fun story. Geena Davis is believable as a World War II era baseball player. Tom Hanks as a manager of this all-girl's team (based on a true story) is a scene stealer, particularly with his "there's no crying in baseball" speech. Madonna also features.

Alibi Ike (1935) or Playing Baseball for Laughs. The short story by Ring Lardner upon which this film is based is one of the few pieces of writing that literally makes me laugh out loud and slap the knees. Sadly, the film is not nearly so funny. Happily its funny enough. Joe E. Brown is in the title role. Casting a comic in the lead was a mistake but the supporting cast almost made up for the error. The sumptuous Olivia de Havilland is the love interest. You also get Roscoe Karns and William Frawley.

The Natural (1984) or Baseball as Arthurian Legend. Another baseball lover's delight, it has spawned dozens of unworthy imitations. I'd seen it so often that I finally stopped getting dewy-eyed at the ending. After staying away from it for awhile I'm ready for another plunge. You should take one too. Barry Levinson directed and deserves top marks. While Glenn Close's nice little role has been overrated, Robert Redford is perfect as Roy Hobbs.

The Bad News Bears (1976) or Baseball for Brats. Another film that has spawned weak imitations. A rag tag bunch of little leaguers led by Coach Walter Matthau finds life lessons, victories and fun doing it their way. Sounds corny now but it was an original then and with a strong cast Led by Matthau and Tatum O'Neal is, you should excuse the expression, a big hit.

Pride of the Yankees (1942) or the Death of a Real Life Baseball Player. The best of the baseball bio pics, Gary Cooper was born to play Lou Gehrig the great baseball star who had a disease named for him. Babe Ruth appears as Babe Ruth. Talk about typecasting! Other Yankees appear as themselves too adding to the film's excellent baseball scenes.

21 March 2010

No, I Have Not Posted Every Possible Film List One Can Possibly Imagine, I Offer Proof

In the short yet glorious history of this blog I have posted more film lists than you can shake a stick at (though why you'd want to shake a stick at a film list is beyond me). I've posted lists of directors' best films, best westerns (not the motel chain, the film genre), best film quotes, best of particular decades, best of particular years, best Christmas films, best films with train scenes, best opening scenes and best films set in San Francisco. To name a few.

So that about covers it, you say. Not so fast! I now offer a mere sampling of list topics that I have yet to get around to. I don't mean to suggest that I someday will write full posts on any or all of these, but one never knows. Meanwhile regular readers of this blog (both of us) can anticipate (dread?) all manner of film lists that are still to come. Maybe even one of these.

Putting My Best Foot Forward, Great Cinematic Podiatrists

Splish! Splash! Must See Films Featuring Water Polo Action

Best Films I've Not Only Never Seen, But Never Heard Of

My Favorite Key Grips

The Cold Hard Facts -- Ten Great Films From Antarctica

So You Want to Learn About Calvin Coolidge Through Feature Film, 12 Movies to See (the photo above is of Marlin Brando portraying Silent Cal in Billy Wilder's "Too Cool Cal" (1957))

Pump Up the Volume! Beloved Musicals from the Silent Era

Achtung! The 25 Best Films from the Habsburg Empire

The Very Best of Jean Claude Van Damme (Just Kidding)

List This! A List of Really Cool Ideas For Film Lists

16 March 2010

Care For a Cary? He Comes in Many Varieties

Suave, sophisticated and handsome. Witty but not pretentiously so. Wears a suit or tuxedo like he was born in it. Speaks the King's English in a clipped but clear manner. Cooler than a cucumber. That's the popular image of Cary Grant's film characters, and the man himself, and I wouldn't think of disputing it. Except to say that he was so much more.

Grant is, if anything, grossly unappreciated as an actor. He could do so much more than stand around looking good, swapping bon mots and wooing the dames. As I will prove with a mere sampling of his films, Cary Grant was, like all great actors, many men. Of course he could not be not handsome anymore than he could be Chinese. And the elegant, charming persona was something he did so well and so naturally that he not only played it frequently, but personified it. His characters were never athletes but always athletic. They were rarely intellectuals but always erudite.

Grant was an actor and a star. Films in which he appeared are specifically labeled, Cary Grant movies. In other words he wasn't just in them, he was them. Grant could stretch. He could take that basic essence (and oh what an essence) and trim it or expand it or modify it in so many different ways. Here's what I mean:

Cary the Kooky in Bringing Up Baby (1938). I could have gone several ways with this one. For one thing Grant's character, Dr. David Huxley is a bit of a nerd who despite the spectacles is a dreamboat to at least two women. He's also putty in their hands. It is in the hands of Kate Hepburn's Susan Vance, a certified kook of the first order, that the good Doctor goes all whacky on us. This is Screwball Comedy Cary and he plays it to the hilt. Mincing around with a hat over Hepburn's derriere, flopping around in her dressing gown, cavorting about with a leopard. Grant wasn't just in comedies, he made them comedies.

Cary the Cold in Blonde Venus (1932). This is really a Marlene Dietrich film, but it is interesting to watch Cary pre stardom in a crucial co starring role. I label him cold but he's hot for Dietrich's character (which is to say he has a pulse). This is a very powerful man who's used to getting what he wants by virtue of being filthy rich. Cary plays it totally contained thus not detracting from Dietrich. Grant paid his dues as a second banana for a few years and it was in part by virtue of the strength of performances like these that he soon got starring roles.

Cary the Shady in Mr. Lucky (1943). This is a darker Cary than we're used to in a performance I wrote about last Summer. There's more than a hint of mystery to Grant here. He's tough as hell but with heartbeat beneath the rough veneer.

Cary the Carefree in Topper (1937). This is Cary at his most fun-loving. You can't top a guy who doesn't let his own death keep him from having a great time. It's a character, all decked out and swilling champagne, that is quite close to embodying the public perception of Grant. Grant is an utter delight here. Funny, nimble with a dash of wisdom. He could do slapstick with the best of them because he never went overboard.

Cary the Manipulative in His Girl Friday (1940). You'd not be far off saying that Walter Burns is sleazy, just consider how ill he treats poor Bruce Baldwin, you know, the guy who looks like Ralph Bellamy. But Burns is no stinker. He's simultaneously wooing back his ex wife and getting the big scoop. His dealing from the bottom of the deck is just a case of the ends justifying the means. This version of Grant is one step ahead of everyone and able to keep up with the slick patter of his ex, Hildy Johnson (Rosalind Russell). A delight to watch for Grant's vocal dexterity alone.

Cary the Resourceful in North by Northwest (1959). You could also say this is Grant as the innocent victim, but he doesn't play it that way. This is a man who won't let circumstances get him down. So he's mistaken for someone else, and people are trying to kill him, Roger Thornhill is no one's fool. This is an older Grant but he's every bit as agile and perhaps even more the debonair ladies man. This is Grant as an action hero of the 1950s variety.

Cary the Radical in The Talk of the Town (1942). Here is Leopold Dilg, a political animal framed for a heinous crime and on the lam. He comes across a Supreme Court justice to be with whom he can palaver about matters legal, philosophical and political. Again he is a victim but one who knows the score and means to clear his good name.

Cary the Complicated in Notorious (1946). I'll come right out and say that I think this is his best performance. He's a complex man. Director Alfred Hitchcock knew what he was doing in casting Grant as U.S. Government agent T.R. Devlin. He's assigned to recruit a lovely young woman (Ingrid Bergman) to spy for the government. He falls in love with said woman. Imagine what he goes through when her duties require her becoming the lover of an older man, an enemy at that. Actually you don't have to imagine so much because Grant is so bloody good in the role. There is a strong yet tortured, conflicted, yet triumphant man conveyed by Grant.

Cary the Cynical in Only Angels Have Wings (1939). He's unfazed by death, even when it strikes those close to him. Just comes with the territory, he reckons. There is a coldness to his Geoff Carter that can be a little off putting to Grant fans used to the charming characters that he so often played. But he plays it well. We come to accept that this is a different guy and if we never in turn accept his manner we understand from whence it comes. I don't know that Carter is an especially deep character, but he makes sense.

Cary the Angelic in The Bishop's Wife (1947). Grant was an angel to many a woman so why not play one? It's a wonderful performance because he plays Dudley as so other worldly. There is a heart breakingly unhuman quality to Dudley. He's got all the style and grace in the world. Maybe so much that it's clear he's not of this world. All those powers but not the gift of humanness. Grant is so good in this that he makes us believe in angels.

15 March 2010

I Go All Anton Chigurh on Netflix and It's Movie Moods

With the recent tragic demise of my local video rental store (Videots) I have had to turn to Netflix for my DVD rental needs. Other than the fact that I am feeding another corporate whale and one that that helped swallow the minnow that was Videots, I am pleased with them.

I've already taken advantage of their "instant" service that allows one to watch some movies online at no extra cost. Netflix also has the advantage of being able to offer "everything" that is available on DVD.  So while I miss the chumminess that Videots provided (free pop corn while you browsed!) Netflix, for greedy capitalist swine, is pretty sweet.

But today I was amused to come across their request that I  provide my "Taste Preferences."  This of course, will help them provide me with better recommendations. One sub category was "Moods." Users are asked to indicate whether they watch the designated moods "Often" "Never" or "Sometimes."

I notice they provide examples to explain what each "mood" refers to. But I'd rather guess. For example "Cerebral." This must refer to high brow films for snobs like me who like to *gasp* be left with something to think about. My guess is that they're referring to Bergman films like The Seventh Seal (1957). Indeed I'm sure that a lot of foreign films would fit into this category. Let's see (this is in real time!) some of what they give as an examples. What's this? Annie Hall (1977), The Hours (2002) and The Royal Tenenbaums (2001). Yeah, I suppose. It just points to how silly a category this is. Any half way decent movie is at one level or another "cerebral."

Here's another one: "Gritty." I'm guessing these are realistic action films with a sober story to tell, like The French Connection. How about True Grit? It's got grit in the title! No? Let's see what Netflix says: I was right! The French Connection (1971) along with No Country for Old Men (2007) and Taxi Driver (1976). Wow, great films. Give me the grit.

Here's an easy one: "Family-Friendly." This means no cussing, no violence and no s-e-x.  Stuff for the kids! Like Dumbo (1941)! Racially offensive but who ever said racism wasn't family friendly? Netflix gives these examples: The Sound of Music (1965), The The Incredibles (2004) and High School Musical (2006). I'll steer clear of this category. The only family High School Musical is friendly to is a family of morons (okay I'm sure the pre teens like it. Sorry).

Here's a category I find totally baffling: "Heartfelt". According to my mutual friends Merriam and Webster, "heartfelt" means "deeply felt, earnest." So I suppose a heartfelt film is one that is...I don't know, serious? They really mean what they're saying? Shouldn't that be every movie? Examples from Netflix include (I can't wait): Philadelphia (1993), E.T. (1982) and the Dead Poet's Society (1989). Evidently this is the "serious message" category. For my money you could put Taxi Driver and The Hours in here. Way too broad.

I like this one: "Imaginative". Let me tell you, I have never enjoyed a movie that was not imaginative. The very definition of film making hinges on the notion that said film's creators are helping us in the audience use our "imagination" just as they used their own in creating the film. But I'll bite, let's see what Netflix considers "imaginative" films.  The Chronicles of Narnia (2005), Monsters Inc. (2001) and The Truman Show (1998). I'll grant you they all are fine examples of imaginative film making. But so too are Philadelphia, The Sound of Music and No Country for Old Men. Silly category.

I hate this one, "Feel Good."  Yes, I like to "feel good" but in terms of films it generally refers to sentimental schlock with manipulative, contrived story lines. They're usually phony baloney kids sports movies or people overcoming "impossible odds." Let's see some examples from Netflix: Rudy (1993), Dirty Dancing (1987) and Sex and the City (2008). Rudy is exactly what I was talking about and so too to a lesser extent is Dirty Dancing, What Sex and the City is doing here I don't know but then again I've never seen the TV show or movie. Anyway whenever I watch a film I really like I "feel good."

"Steamy" Movies. These must be set in steam baths! No silly, this is clearly the heavy on sex category. I'm guessing Body Heat (1981) would embody this "genre." Netflix says: Basic Instinct (1992), Bound (1996) and Unfaithful (2002). Same thing.

There are many more categories but frankly I'm starting to find this depressing. Your standard genres such as Western, Horror and Romantic Comedy are limiting enough (albeit sometimes a convenience) but parsing movies into "moods" is downright ridiculous. Just the fact that there's so much overlap seems to negate the whole exercise. How many films that are "Scary" aren't also "Suspenseful" or "Violent"? Also some of these categories are particularly silly such as "understated" and "mind-bending." But the worst aspect of this is how it reduces works of art (More your No Country for Old Men and less your High School Musical) to vague terms.

I pause now to allow you to accuse me over reacting. After all, you may reason, the good folks at Netflix are merely striving to offer the best possible recommendations for my viewing pleasure. I grant that. I do over react when it comes to films. You'd fully realize how much if you could see my flaring nostrils, frothing mouth and tear filled eyes. But to those of us for whom cinema is sacred, labeling and categorizing are a slippery slope only most carefully climbed. I'm only really comfortable with sorting films by director as I do with my DVD collection. There's only minimal use in making distinctions between let's say Film Noir and Westerns. Eras are more useful as is country of origin. It can be fun to divide movies by such arbitrary categories as sea faring adventures, as I recently did, and baseball films, as I'll do in a forthcoming post. But neither of these categories says a wit about me as a cinephile.

I simply can't abide dividing movies by "mood." Especially some of these really silly ones. What categories are next? Abstemious, grumpy, flirty, robust, blasphemous, irritating?

Here's a category: give me a break.

10 March 2010

I've Got A Lot to Say, Just Not Right Now I'm Swamped

I have to write here. I have to catch up on French homework. I have to catch up on my Second Language Acquisition course homework too. I've got a book I need to finish reading because I've got four or five others I'm dying to get to. I've still got two DVDs I received for my birthday that I've not yet viewed and a couple others I purchased last month I've yet to watch. Plus I've got two from Netflix* gathering dust. Meanwhile that novel isn't writing itself.

One thing I've learned in life is that, generally speaking, you can only do one thing at at time. You prioritize. I've got my French class in a couple of hours so must do a little work for that first. But there all those blog posts I've planned that are sitting around in my brain waiting to be written. Believe me, this isn't one of them. What you're reading now is my sorry attempt to make myself feel better about not having written much lately. 

I know, I'm quite a lucky man to have such a rich life with books, movies, classes, studies and the like to fill my hours. So I'm not really complaining (Really? Then what are you doing?). 

I have some deeply profound things to say and some really silly ones. I've got wry observations to share and pithy remarks and well thought out concepts to explore. I've got suggestions, rejoinders, bon mots, comments, ravings, diatribes, opinions, facts, data,  and information to pass on. I've got a lot to say and no time in which to say it.

I've got more to learn, more to explore, more to consider, more to wonder about and more to be exposed to. I've got more to watch, listen to, feel and contemplate.

I want to surmise, suppose, speculate, spout, state, shout, suggest, spew, send and sermonize.

I want to conceptualize. I want to create. I want to conjure. No time! Conundrum!

I want to share. With you, dear reader. And those of you with blogs of your own (you know who you are). I want to catch up with what you've been saying. So many smart, interesting, entertaining, amusing, insightful people out there with so much to say. You inspire! You illuminate! You galzanie! You imbue! You excite! You inflame! You influence and you provoke. No joke.

I want to write me and read you (huh?).

I want to go back and time and watch Novak and Hitch (pictured above) on the set of Vertigo (1958).

I want to satisfy anyone whoever stumbles across this blog that though I write for me I think of you. When I'm not going on about nothing/everything (like today) I often have an insight or two about films. I'm so thrilled that some people have watched and enjoyed films based on my blatherings. 

I'll be back with more and better soon. For my sake. For your sake. "For the sake of the children!"

I leave you now (to finally get to my French) with this film quote: "I've got to stay here, but there's no reason why you folks shouldn't go out into the lobby until this thing to blows over." - Groucho Marx in Horsefeathers (1932).

* Yes, I'm with Netflix now, our locally owned video store went out of business. More on that another time.

06 March 2010

I Enter an Oscar Competition and You Get to See My Picks (Wish Me Luck)

My ambivalence about the Academy Wards has been well documented on this blog. But that doesn't mean I can turn away from the show when it rears its humongous head every year. Nor can I resist the notion of a little competition, especially when there's a gift certificate to Amazon to be won and nothing to lose.

The rules of the competition call for participants getting one point for every correct prediction but a minus one for every one that is wrong. I can make as many or as few picks as I want.

Please note that I'm in it to win so the following DO NOT REFLECT MY PREFERENCES but my best guesses as to how voters were thinking when they filled out their ballots. Here goes nuthin.'

Best Picture - Hurt Locker
Best Supporting Actor - Christoph Waltz
Best Supporting Actress Mo'Nique
Best Foreign Language Film - Das weisse Band - Eine deutsche Kindergeschicte
Best Original Screenplay - Quentin Tarantino, Inglourious Basterds
Best Adapted Screenplay - Jason Reitman & Terri Tatchell, Up in the Air
Best Animated Feature - Up
Best Achievement in Visual Effects - Avatar

05 March 2010

Ahoy Movie! 10 Seafaring Film Adventures For Old Salts and Landlubbers Alike

Among the growing list of film types in the they-don't-make-em-like-they-used-to category is the seafaring adventure story. Over the last half century adventure stories have been mostly set in outer space or featured other worldly magic. Far as I'm concerned you can't get much more magical than men at sea in often flimsy vessel  in close quarters. Add other people with fearsome weapons and you've got yourself some rip roaring adventures. Magic wands and space aliens not required. The ship is its own universe with the captain as God. Sometimes he is a harsh and capricious master, on other occasions he is wise, benevolent and reliable. Sea life is one of extremes. Weather can range from freezing, to sultry with gale force winds or not a wisp of  breeze at all (a dreaded state for sailing ships). There are also extremes in routine with day after day of tedium interrupted by terrifying peril. Shipmates may be the best of friends or sworn enemies. Ports of call can be exotic, offering gorgeous beaches and flora with exciting nightlife and women aplenty. Or they can be rife with enemies or hostile natives. In other words sea voyages are ideally suited for movies and Hollywood used to take full advantage. Used to. I offer a list of ten outstanding films set at sea with only one from the past 50 years.

"We joined the navy to see the world
And what'd we see?
We saw the sea
We saw the Pacific and the Atlantic
But the Atlantic isn't romantic
And the Pacific isn't what it's cracked up to be."
        From the song 'We Saw the Sea' by Irving Berlin.

The Long Voyage Home (1940). This is a recent discovery of mine and it was a case of love at first sight. From the standpoint of depicting life at sea it may be unparalleled. Okay John Wayne as a Swede is a little odd but the rest of the cast is near perfect. Forget plot points, this is a story of men at sea, their bonds, their conflicts, their fates. Director John Ford focused on the faces. The first five minutes of the film has no dialogue, just the visages of the crew, some busy and expressive,others blank and apprehensive. The cast features Thomas Mitchell, John Qualen,Ward Bond, Barry Fitzgerald, Arthur Shields and Ian Hunter. There is boozing, fist fights, enemy planes, heart breaking loss and surprising truths revealed. It's a story rich in metaphor and life lessons.

Master and Commander (2003). The only film from the past 50 years to make this list. It recalls much of the best of efforts from Hollywood's Golden Age. There is a bit of swash in the buckle. Disparate personalities pitted against one another, opposing forces and Ma Nature. Russell Crowe is tailor made to take the helm of the ship and the movie. The action (and there's plenty of it) is aboard a British naval vessel during the Napoleonic wars. One heart breaking scene of men lost at sea is particularly memorable capturing as it does the cruelty of the briny mass.

Action in the North Atlantic (1943). One reason I really appreciate this film is that it's an ode to the allied merchant marines of World War II. My dear old dad was one such hero (my older brother was also a mariner though in considerably more peaceful times). Any discussion of merchant marines during the war must be accompanied by the word unsung. Their contribution to defeating the Axis was inestimable and they made their contribution at great risk and gained little glory. This film, from director Lloyd Bacon, has a stellar cast led by Humphrey Bogart, Raymond Massey and Alan Hale. It was clearly war time propaganda, but like a lot of such films it not only served its purpose but was a good yarn in the bargain.

In Which We Serve (1942). This is rather an odd duck. Imagine a film co-directed by David Lean and Noel Coward. Now further imagine Coward as a ship's captain (no cocktail hour for witty repartee) in war time. Also ponder that this is a tribute as much to a ship itself as it is to those who serve on it. But peculiarities aside this is a cracking good film about men at war on ship, in the water. We know from the outset that the ship does not survive the war. We can guess that neither do all the men. It all adds up to a surprisingly effective look at the war at sea, especially considering that is was made while that very war raged on.

The Sea Wolf (1941). Edward G. Robinson is fantastic as the biggest stinker to ever captain a ship. The time is 1900, the port of call San Francisco. The crew includes a nasty Barry Fitzgerald, a drunken and pitiful Gene Lockhart and a brusque Howard DaSilva. But this is a Edward G vehicle all the way. He's a martinet and a sadist and surprisingly complex one at that. Based on a Jack London story, The Sea Wolf is utterly uncompromising and unsentimental in its portrayal of ship board life.

Mutiny on the Bounty (1935). Based on the true story of an 18th century mutiny aboard a British ship in the South Pacific. In addition to powerful performances from its stars, Charles Laughton as the notorious Captain Bligh and Clark Gable as Mr. Christian, MOTB is a veritable primer on ship board life 200 years ago.

Follow the Fleet (1936). Why not include some dancing, music and light romance at sea? Especially when the the dancing is being done by the likes of  Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. While not a particularly revealing look at naval voyages it's good clean fun and a refreshing change of pace from grim tales of cruel captains and ship board mishaps.

The Sea Hawk (1940). Mr. Swashbuckle himself, Errol Flynn stars as a pirate who takes to practicing  his craft on behalf of the British crown against the hated Spanish enemy. And who better to play the villain than Claude Rains? Flora Robson is Queen Elizabeth (the first,silly). It's lightweight stuff but great fun. The quintessential Golden Age pirate flick.

Lifeboat (1944). Okay it's true this story does not take place aboard a ship.  The entire setting is a boat and a lifeboat at that. The characters spend the entire running time at sea in one of the most precarious and frightening states imaginable. People on lifeboats could well imagine death by any number of means including starvation, thirst, shark attack, drowning, disease or by their own hand. Succumbing to madness was also a danger. Once dead a person might be cannibalized. At the same time rescue at any moment was always an ever present hope. Alfred Hitchcock's Lifeboat captures this with the added dimension of the story being set during World War II. Thus there is the added worry of being rescued by the enemy (still, it beats being shark meat). The passengers on this particular boat are from an allied ship but lo and behold they've got a Nazi aboard. What fun.

Moby Dick (1956). It's a whale of a movie (pause while readers enjoy a hearty laugh at my delightful pun). But seriously folks...considering that director John Huston had the weighty task of taking a celebrated and weighty novel and trying to spin cinematic magic out of it, this is a fine film. It doesn't hurt when you have an actor of the stature of Gregory Peck to play Captain Ahab.

02 March 2010

The *Cough* Films *Cough* That Got Me *Cough* Through My *Cough* Bronchitis *Cough*

Last Friday I finally returned to blogging after an unplanned and unwanted hiatus that had Streams of Unconsciousness fans all over the globe saying: "his blog isn't so bad when he's not updating it." I wrote about my horrific illness (actually it was just a cold that morphed into bronchitis) and also about the more serious health woes my big brother was surviving. I also mentioned that there were many films that helped get through and that I would write a word to two about them the next day. I didn't. Nor the day after that nor the day after that. But I am today as I'm finally catching up with my life (does that even make sense -- "catching up with my life"?). Here they are:

The Maltese Falcon (1941). Mary Astor's Brigid O'Shaughnessy is one of the most complex and interesting female characters of her era. She's a liar of the bald faced variety, can't contain herself. She's evil, a temptress, but weak and oh so vulnerable. You don't know whether to make love to her or send her to the gallows. But a man's parter has been killed and he has to do something. Has to do the right thing. Bogie's in all but one short scene of the film (Miles Archer's murder) yet I doubt this would have been a classic without Astor as Brigid. Astor was a delight in all manner of film. From Dodsworth (1936) to The Palm Beach Story (1942) from Red Dust (1932) to Midnight (1939). She made a lot of good films even better. Maltese Falcon is a -- pun intended -- classic example.

Army of Shadows (1969). Director Jean-Pierre Melville was the master of let us say French New Wave Film Noir. But his masterpiece was this story of the French resistance. Well after all the Nazis were criminals and in a sense so too were the Resistance fighters. They were playing their little games of hide and seek and kill and destroy. The stakes were impossibly high for the French. Cyanide tablet anyone? It's an utterly compelling film from start to finish because it all seems so damn real. You hardly need to embellish such stories. So Melville had his heroes as rather plain looking folk acting like middle management employees doing a day's work. Thus an inherently fascinating tale is allowed to stand on its own terms and as such is one of the great movies of all time. It's only been on DVD for a few years and not enough people are aware of it. If you're unfamiliar with Army of Shadows, do yourself a favor. I wrote about in July '08.

The Seal Wolf (1941) and Smart Money (1931). Back-to-back Edward G. Robinson. Smart Money is a relatively forgettable picture except for the fact that is the only film pairing of Robinson and James Cagney. Their scenes together do not disappoint, just the overall movie does, though its still well worth the time for fans of either or both stars. (Put me solidly in the both category.) Films give us a lot of what-ifs such as what if two stars had been paired on screen or more often? I don't know that Cary Grant and Bogie sharing the screen would have worked especially well but Cagney and Robinson were a good fit both being tough guys with smarts who were comfortable with physical movements. They, like Burt Lancaster and and Marlin Brando, are interesting to watch for every step they take, every hand gesture every punch thrown. Oddly, in Sea Wolf Robinson is a lot more self contained, his hands often in his pocket, his gestures small. But its one of the best of his many great performances. I love the film and see it more and more as warning against fascism. Robinson is in sharp contrast to co star John Garfield who I always find so wooden and uninteresting. Ida Lupino is in it too and she'll forever be linked in my mind with the word underrated. What an actress!

Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977). It might have been 20 years since I last saw this film. I was struck by how realistic it seems. I mean that of all the cinematic efforts to predict what human encounters with celestial beings will be like this one seems damn near scientific. (Maybe this speaks more to my peculiarities than to the film.) I'll have to watch it again soon to figure out why, but the movie comes tantalizingly close to brilliance and falls just short. I guess you could say that's praising it with faint damnation. It's of course elevated by the mere presence of Francois Truffaut who was an inspired choice as the French scientist (he wouldn't do as a Bolivian one). Dreyfuss was amid a run of great performances and the rest of the cast ranges from good to exemplary. As a story CEOTTK has all kind of elements and themes going for it, not the least of which is as a story of obsession. There are a lot of excellent films about obsessed people and sooner rather than later I'll devote a lengthy post to that topic. (Promise.)

Inglourious Basterds (2009). I've seen it four times now, twice in the theater and twice on DVD and it gets better with each viewing. Director Quentin Tarantino made this film like Michael Jordan scoring 56 points in a playoff game. Everything he tried was right on the money. The casting was inspired. There are so many roles that are and will remain memorable. Scenes resonate. The score was perfect and the whole audacious premise is inspired. Tarantino never needs to top this but if he comes close he'll have created a most impressive legacy. Hell, maybe he already has.

Foul Play (1978). I saw this in the theater shortly after it came out. I should have left it at the one viewing. How on Earth did Chevy Chase get any more film roles after his disastrous performance in this very foul movie? On the other hand the film launched the "Hollywood Star" portion of Dudley Moore's career and Goldie Hawn was as delightful as ever. It's one of those ridiculous crime comedies that somehow finds a large enough audience to make a buck and thus inspires other similar disasters. Real question is: why did I sit through the whole thing a second time? How sick was I?

Manhattan (1979). One of my top ten films of all time and the first I watched on our new DVD player. I never know what to say about it because if I start I may not be able to finish. To me it has the wittiest and most intelligent screenplay of the last 4,000 years. There are lines that I still laugh at loud (that's LOL to you kids) at. I think Diane Keaton is even more impressive here than in Annie Hall. The opening shots of New York with Allen's narration and the strains of Gershwin comprise one of the great starts to a film ever. Period.

Chinatown (1974). I watched it paying particular attention to Faye Dunaway. It's interesting to look at her knowing that the whole sister/mother business. We don't know but she does. It makes her performance all the more impressive. Dunaway had a great run from 1967 through 1976: Bonnie & Clyde (1967), The Thomas Crown Affair (1968), Little Big Man (1970), Chinatown (1974), Three Days of the Condor (1975) and Network (1976). She played opposite Warren Beatty, Steve McQueen, Dustin Hoffman, Jack Nicholson, Robert Redford and William Holden. Not too shabby. Neither is Chinatown, one of those rare films that is not diminished the least in knowing its secret. In other words you could watch it again and again should you want to. Count me in. 

George Washington Slept Here (1942). The wife and I are were talking the other night about how there are always some movies that people like way more than they know they should. Not guilty pleasures really. It's more like how my discussion on this blog about how seeing a movie is like a date. Sometimes you fall in love, other times not so much. Sometimes the movie or date is great but there's no connection. GWSH is like a date with someone who's got flaws that are plain to see but you feel a connection and go gaga. Part of my attraction to GWSH is my attraction to Ann Sheridan who I'm nuts about (someone build me a time machine). There's also Jack Benny who I really like but in a totally different way -- like I needed to tell you. I'm not going to apologize for loving this film nor defend my love. It's just one of those things. Anyway, it was the perfect film to enjoy when I needed a little comfort from feeling like poop. Besides Sheridan and Benny you get Charles Coburn, Franklin Pangborn, Hattie McDaniel and Percy Kilbride. But mostly there's Ann.....(sigh)