30 September 2010

The Many Stories Within Hitchcock's Lifeboat

Okay so upon first viewing Alfred Hitchcock's Lifeboat (1944) is the story of a group of disparate characters fighting for survival on a lifeboat during World World II. But as with a lot of good films it's got a lot more going on.

It is of course a rabidly anti German propaganda film. There were many such movies made immediately preceding and during the war as I discussed at length earlier this year. One shouldn't assume that the term propaganda in relation to a film is pejorative. First of all not all propaganda is bad. Secondly one can choose to ignore the overt message and simply enjoy the story. Lifeboat features Walter Slezak as a particularly odious type of Nazi: the duplicitous and arrogant kind. Slezak as Willy epitomizes a lot of what the Nazi represented to Americans during the war and indeed ever since. He's unquestionably intelligent, resourceful and strong but uses his talents for his own purposes which are as twisted as a swastika. Lifeboat is very clear that Nazis are not to be trusted and must be summarily wiped out. Towards the end of the movie we meet a younger more innocent German and it is clear that his innocent young mind has been corrupted by Nazism. The allies are doing the Germans a favor by defeating Hitler and his cohorts. It's impossible to argue with such sentiments. So Lifeboat is particularly heavy handed in dealing with the Nazis. But then, they deserved it.

Lifeboat also deals with issues of class. Tallulah Bankhead is Constance Porter. She's an internationally renowned journalist who hobnobs with the upper class, which gladly opens its doors to her. Connie has pulled herself up by her high heeled boot straps and is most comfortable with the rich and famous having become both herself.  Also aboard the lifeboat is Henry Hull as Rittenhouse, a shipping tycoon worth a fortune. Though possessive of a common touch, he positively reeks of the dough that he has in bushels. Meanwhile there are several crew members from the ill fated ship and, is the case with virtually every mariner, are of humble origins. They're proud of it too. John Hodiak is Kovac a Chicagoan who is pure working class grit. Like Gus, a Brooklyn native (judging from WWII films a third of America's fight forces hailed from that New York borough) he believes in simple values and simple solutions. Both are sorely lacking in education, refinement and any appreciation for nuance. It's inevitable that these representatives of opposing social stratas will butt heads. You may or may not be surprised at who is depicted as having the sharper instincts when it comes to dealing with the enemy.

Adding to the tension is Connie's supposition, which she merely hints at, that Kovac is a commie. Because this notion is only lighted touched upon it hardly seems worth exploring. Of far more significant is the romance that develops between the two. They are an odd couple to say the least. Kovac accuses Connie of "slumming." She raises no objection to the charge and merely snuggles up against the big lug. Never mind that they have nothing in common. Maybe the moral is that lifeboats in the middle of the war torn Atlantic Ocean make strange bedfellows or that Yanks of all stripes can find happiness together, never mind their stations in life.

Sadly, Lifeboat has a very paternalistic depiction of its one African American character (that it has one at all is laudable) Joe. The screenplay was written by John Steinbeck who intended Joe to be a much stronger personality than he ultimately was allowed to be in the film. Yes, he has a sort of earthy wisdom and is well versed in the good book. But he is deferential to whites (acting surprised and ultimately demurring when asked to vote on an issue). Moreover he is a reformed pick pocket. This ends up being useful in the story but why did it have to be the Black guy who is the ex thief? (I suppose the answer is because the movie was made in the 1940s.) At least he doesn't play dice.

Ultimately it is the ability of all on board to unite that allows them to defeat the Nazi. The symbolism is clear and not far off from reality. After all the Nazis were ultimately out numbered and ganged up on by the allies (not that they didn't have it coming).

The cast is wonderful. Bankhead is positively perfect and one sexy dame. She did middle age real well. The cast also includes Hume Cronyn as an Englishman (one with only a wisp of an accent). William Bendix is the ill fated Willy and though an actor of decidedly limited range, was made for the part. Hull is also perfectly cast and Canada Lee makes the most of his role as Joe.

Lifeboat was shot on a backlot but if you know that in advance you'll forget it once the opening credits role. Watching Lifeboat you'll find yourself wondering how they managed to film out in the ocean. The fog is low and ever present except when sun or rain is needed. In terms of weather there's nothing to suggest you're not seeing the real deal. The constant bobbing of the waves, interrupted only by their rampaging during storms, is quite effective.

On most lists of Hitchcock's best films, Lifeboat wouldn't crack the top ten. This speaks to what a prodigious career Hitch had. It's a helluva story well told. It can be enjoyed at many levels in many ways. There's a lot going on and it's all compelling viewing.

25 September 2010

Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy Howl the Movie! Holy James Franco! Holy the Directors! Holy the Animator! Holy!

I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by TV, commercials and bad films. But today I saw Howl directed by Bob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman.

So cool.

The young Allen Ginsberg played by James Franco.

So perfect.

The obscenity trial over the publication of the poem. Interviews with Ginsberg. Animation to illustrate the reading of the poem. And the reading of the poem.

So there.

Movies have the power to influence. Or they can further deaden our minds. Empty calories.

So many.

Hey baby Howl is one of the good ones. About something. Someone. A time. A sea change.

So powerful.

Ginsberg a chronicler. A thinker. An artist. A voice. A rock and rolling jazzy symphonic changer. Attuned to his own voice.

So strong.

Ginsberg a beat. Hung with Kerouac, Cassady, Burroughs. Influenced them. And thus all of us.

So right on.

Ginsberg a pioneer. Not afraid of his, you know, SEXUALITY. Got out there and told it. Not necessarily proud, but surely loud. No shame. Why should there be? The artist must know himself and at some level embrace himself.

So should you.

The trial was....................(important). Hurrah for it! Hurray for the 1950s and the Beats and Lenny Bruce and the last great decade of jazz and the first of rock and roll and the coming of hippies and their idea of peace and love.

So the right thing.

The great fight propelled by the likes of (the loves of?) Ginsberg. The fight, done with love, you dig, against militarism, commercialism, consumerism. And all those wretched isms still at it today, brother (you too sister).

So it goes.

Yeah I dug the film. Trial stuff was okay. Animation good. Franco doing Ginsberg was as this generation would say -- awesome.

So hip!

The directors were at the showing and did a Q and A. Good dudes man, done some documentaries of note (note em on IMDb, friends). Urged us to urge others to see their independent low budget filmed in two weeks movie.

So I will.

This movie should be seen by those "who demanded sanity trials accusing the radio of hypnotism & were left with their insanity & their hands & a hung jury," and it should also be seen by those who "who crashed through their minds in jail waiting for impossible criminals with golden heads and the charm of reality in their hearts who sang sweet blues to Alcatraz" and of course by those who "who sang out of their windows in despair, fell out of the subway window, jumped in the filthy Passaic, leaped on negroes, cried all over the street, danced on broken wineglasses barefoot smashed phonograph records of nostalgic European 1930s German jazz finished the whisky and threw up groaning into the bloody toilet, moans in their ears and the blast of colossal steam whistles." And by the rest of y'all too.


22 September 2010

Love, Death and Dostoyevsky? It Must Be a Woody Allen Film

Who but Woody Allen can successfully blend humor, existential angst, romance and Napoleon Bonaparte into a movie? (Don't strain yourself, folks, it's a rhetorical question).

It'd had been decades since I'd seen Love and Death (1975). In fact my one clear memory of the film was the old man who proudly owned a piece of land, which was literally a little piece of land. Yes, there was that kind of creative if silly laughs sprinkled throughout. But there was also a hodgepodge of esoteric and obscure references to keep us high minded types amused. There's an entire riff on the Russian author Fyodor Dostoyevsky, that you can miss entirely if you're not paying attention.

Allen also used the film to pay many an homage to his hero, Ingmar Bergman. It wasn't the first or last time he so homaged the great Swedish director. But never was his homaging so clear or effective (have I used enough forms of homage for you?).

Part of Allen's brilliance (and there are so many) is in the creation of his own distinct character so unique in cinema. He's a nebbish. A nerdy everyman. Groucho sans mustache and self confidence. Wise cracking. Totally self serving. A lascivious lover of women. An intellectual without pretense. Surely this is not someone that Joe NASCAR can get behind, but any of us blokes who've ever felt a massive underdog to the dumb, powerful and vacuously handsome, can relate. Yes he's a coward but then again there's nothing much worth fighting or dying for. Better to live and love then to die a hero's death.

In Love and Death he's Boris, madly in love with a cousin Sonja (Diane Keaton) but called away to war when Napoleon invades Mother Russia. Of course like any cinematic comic hero (think Bob Hope, Danny Kaye, Chaplin) he stumbles and bumbles his way into being a hero. He also survives a duel and wins the love of Sonja.

But in addition to being a comedy this a tribute to Bergman so you get the sense that living happily ever after is not in the cards.

Love and Death was the last film Allen made before Annie Hall (1977) announced him as more than just another funny face. It's a largely forgotten Woody. When talk turns to his early comedies it usually centers on Take the Money and Run (1969), Bananas (1971) and Sleeper (1973). Conversations then skip ahead to the aforementioned Annie Hall and other critically acclaimed films, some of which made little or not attempt at accessing audience funny bones.

Truth be told those earlier yuckfests are all, at least in my humble estimation, funnier than Love and Death. However in this film we see Allen probing some deeper themes such as morality, that he would give closer examination to in films like Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989) and Match Point (2005). In those a murder is planned and executed, leaving serious questions for the characters and thus the audience to ponder. In Love and Death the intended victim is Napoleon but the points raised are the same, if more humorously. Allen has us chuckling and thinking at the same time. True it was a bit more crudely here than in later efforts, but it was a start and a helluva good one at that.

I'm not altogether surprised that I'd bypassed viewing Love and Death for so long. Allen, who is still, as they say, going strong, has already left us a great deal to enjoy repeatedly. But it is a mistake to ignore it. Yes it portends more to come but in its own right, Love and Death is a diverting 90 minutes that gives us a thing or two think about amid the laughs.

13 September 2010

Moontide, A Wonderful Film, But Oh What Might Have Been

"It's getting to the point where I'm no fun anymore
I am sorry
Sometimes it hurts so badly I must cry out loud
I am lonely
I am yours, you are mine you are what you are."
From Suite Judy Blue Eyes by Stephen Stills

Aficionados of film love nothing more than a new discovery of something old. Recently for me that was movie called Moontide (1942). Surprised I never saw it? So was I.

So what did I have to whet my appetite? The cast! The great French actor Jean Gabin (an all time favorite of mine) starred along with Ida Lupino -- a criminally under-appreciated actress, whose performances I greatly admire. The supporting cast featured Thomas Mitchell and Claude Rains -- two greats for the price of one! Between them they've been in over a dozen legendary films from Stagecoach (1939) to Notorious (1946). Jermone Cowan was thrown into the mix for good measure. So that's a cast to lure any cinema buff.

Archie Mayo directed. He had two terrific films to his credit, Mayor of Hell (1933) and Petrified Forest (1936) and a lot of other decent work but he's by no means in the upper echelons of directors.

I love this from the plot summary on IMDb: "there's fog on the water and evil brewing."  Moontide relates the story of a longshoreman named Bobo (Gabin) who ties one on, as he is want to do, and awakes to wonder if he killed a man. He meanwhile takes a job at a bait shop and oh-by-way rescues a young lady (Lupino) who tries to drown herself in the ocean. Bobo and the young lady, Anna, shack up together in the bait shop (cozy!) and fall quickly and deeply in love.

Ahh but there must be complications and they are here provided by Bobo's old friend Tiny (Mitchell) who's really more of a particularly evil parasite than a bon ami. He aims to break up this happy couple. One doesn't associate Thomas Mitchell characters with creepy menace which is one reason his performance his so wonderful. What a snake! Bottom line is that Mitchell could act and thus could play anything, so it while was an interesting change, it should not be surprise that he is so bloody good in Moontide.

Bobo has a kindly friend, the night watchmen (Rains) who is also playing somewhat against type. Moontide is full of surprises and delights. Watching the four main stars interact is among them. Gabin in English, Mitchell a cur, Rains affable and Lupino... well as always. It's a delightfully unexpected stew.

It came as no surprise that Gabin was so effective as the flawed but ultimately honest and loving Bobo. His English was, of course, heavily accented (oddly this was ignored in the film despite the fact that his character was originally named Frenchie) but plenty lucid. He has been compared to Spencer Tracy but I think him much more charming and even a more interesting actor. Lupino was not for the first or last time playing a very vulnerable but inherently strong woman who needed a man but specifically one who needed her. Anna had her share of troubles put could take care of herself in a pinch and she was no dope.

Mayo's direction is at its best. Moontide is wonderfully atmospheric with a low fog shrouding much of the film and variously lending romance and menace to scenes.  The final showdown between Bobo and Tiny is as good a noir scene as you'll see.

Moontide was a wonderful personal discovery that on its own terms I quite enjoyed. However it clearly suffered from the rigid censorship still being enforced in Hollywood at the time. Some of the story lines could and should have been played out more, but alas the self styled moralists of the time would have none of it.

While I found Moontide to be a fully satisfying cinematic experience, I almost enjoyed the story of its making as much. The DVD the missus and I watched included a featurette about Moontide that included a number of talking heads, among them TCM host, Robert Osborne. There is the usual interesting trivia and gossip associated with the production of a film. In this case for example there is the fact that Fritz Lang was originally slated to direct and that both he and Gabin were nuts about Marlene Dietrich and had a history with her (lucky bums). But mostly one learns about the novel that provided the film's source material. It was written by Willard Robertson, himself a screen actor. It told a much darker and much fuller tale of the two protagonists and their fate. It'd would have made a helluva film.

Surely more lurid and prurient is not necessarily better but some rather large holes in the film could have been filled in. Such as what drove this young woman to attempt suicide? Lupino had to play Anna without benefit of a backstory. Moontide is about a way of life and a type of people that includes the seamier side and to bleach that out is simply wrong. That Mayo and company made such a good film out of it anyway speaks highly of all involved.

It's a continual frustration with a lot of what came out of Hollywood from 1934 through the end of the Sixties. Yes, its clever how directors and writers worked "around the production code", but the fact that they had to puts a huge blemish smack in the middle of a lot of films.  I personally don't miss the repetition of profanities, but for God's sake when a woman's a hooker or two unmarried people are cohabiting, let's just be out with it. I hate having to guess.

So Moontide would have been a different film without the strictures of the code. Oddly, and in contradiction to what I've just spouted, it might not have been better. Who knows what different direction the film might have taken. Perhaps more importantly it's all spilled milk that one needn't cry over. I'll have to learn to accept Moontide and other films like it, not for what they could have been, but for what they are.

What Moontide is, is a film I'm glad I discovered at long last.

08 September 2010

The Appeal of the Gangster Film, and My Ten Favorites

Who doesn't love a good gangster film?

From the beginnings of cinema until the present day some of the greatest films ever made have been about gangsters. In this totally pixilated place called "real life" we (unless absent any sense at all) hate criminal gangs. Yet on film we root 'em on like they were the dear old home team. Anyone knuckle-headed enough to cheer on the cops in a gangster film has no sense of fun or imagination.

So what's the appeal of the genre, I ask myself in order to continue with the essay.  There are several things at work. One is that gangsters are not bound by laws or any other strictures of society. While us law abiding types are confined by criminal codes, ethics, morals, rules and restrictions, gangsters do whatever the hell they want. That's the way to live! And we thus live vicariously through these gun toting mobsters. Yet a mobster does answer to certain set of codes, but principally within the gang itself and to his brother criminal. We can all get behind such latter day chivalry.

So there's that but there's also the violence.  If neither over done nor gratuitous (the two go hand in hand), cinematic violence is compelling theater, so to speak. Films in general make use of violence as a story telling tool because it is so vivid and visceral. (And I for one do not for a second cotton to the notion that on screen violence plays any role in creating "real life" violence. Violent criminal gang activity was rampant in urban America throughout the latter half of the 19th century and cinema was not yet part of popular culture.) In some respects, the enjoyment or at least acceptance of screen violence in gangster films relates to my previous point about living vicariously. Many of us, as peace loving as we may be, have had deep seated fantasies about socking someone in the jaw, opening fire on our enemies or intimidating foe and bystander alike with the threat of injury or death. Gangsters on film can satisfy these primal urges for us.

A third and often overlooked appeal of the gangster genre is its appeal to our natural instincts as tribal animals. Humans, like dogs and unlike cats, are pack animals. We like to be a part of. Be it athletic teams, clubs, families, religious groups, armies, unions, fraternal organizations, most people long to be among like minded fellow humans, usually with a unifying purpose. Gangster films are all about male bonding. Sometimes in organized gangs, sometimes in crime families and usually in a combination thereof. We enjoy watching people work cooperatively toward a common goal, sharing hopes fears and dreams. Never mind that these groups are sometimes comprised largely of psychopaths. Related to this is an aspect common to virtually every family, gang or other organization: the boss. Most of us like a good leader, be this the head of the family, the coach, the pastor, the general, the president or the chief. There's nothing more satisfying then being led by and feeling watched over by a good leader. Unless its perhaps actually being that leader.

I now offer to you a list of ten American gangster films. All of which meet the following criteria: they're great films; they feature a family, organized gang or both; include violence but are never gratuitous; and have a leader or leaders. On the one hand coming up with ten was easy, on the other, confining it to ten, not so easy. You may feel compelled to rant and rave about the glaring omission of a favorite gangster film, but remember that this list, like any such endeavor, is bound to reflect the biases and tastes of the author.

Family Affair The Godfather (1972). People love this film, nobody more than I do. Like all great films of the genre it's about much more than crimes and criminals. The Godfather is about family and the transformation of one young man. The violence, particularly at the end of the film, is mostly operatic and not meant to convey the reality of dying by the gun, but to represent the means by which individuals can sacrifice their own decency to achieve their ends. First Marlon Brando as Vito, then Al Pacino as Michael, serve as the head of the Corleone family, the titular Godfather of a criminal enterprise. We see one established in his role, beloved and feared, and watch how another grows into it. From director Francis Ford Coppola.

What Price Anarchy? Goodfellas (1990). This Martin Scorsese film is rich with energy and verve, simultaneously romanticizing and demystifying the life of gangsters. From the narration of Ray Liotta as the real life Henry Hill we hear of the allure of the gangster life, how the rest of us are suckers in our nine to five jobs while gangsters boldly take what they want. But we also see the terrible price paid for choosing such a path. We revel with gangsters in the close bonds they form with one another, while then watching the cost of a single misstep. There is violence aplenty as there needs to be in telling such a story.

Family Ties The Godfather Part II. This necessary follow up to the original, continues the story while also providing the amazing backstory. We see how Vito started his rise and the terrible consequences of such a life to Michael as even fratricide becomes a viable option. Like the first film, Part 2 is about much more than breaking the law. Relationships are part and parcel to most films and they're dealt with in all their complexity and in various forms in this epic. Brothers. Husbands and wives. Business associates. Rivals. All of these and more. Of course brutal violence is often what's used to settle differences. There's no sentimentalizing in Godfather Part 2, indeed there are no trite nor obvious solutions offered. Just cause they're gangsters doesn't mean they can't make you think.

Not Your Typical Mama's Boy White Heat (1949). This is a James Cagney show through and through. He's the not all together popular leader of a gang. There's one of the proverbial rubs of gang life. You may be sitting in the catbird seat as the leader but its always possible someone wants your spot. Cagney's Cody Jarrett has to deal with this, along with the law and those fiercesome headaches. This is one nuanced character, especially for gangster film, for Cody's gang includes his dear ole ma who he's quite attached to. Like all the other films on this list, and many other good gangster films, White Heat is wildly entertaining and features a grand performance by its star. In fact, Cagney as Jarrett is as good a cinematic portrayal as you'll see of gangster.

The Penitent Man Mean Streets (1973). Harvey Keitel's Charlie is a good Catholic, or at least as good as you can be when you're consorting with and abetting lawbreakers. Oh yes and participating too. The film's tagline is: "You don't make up for your sins in church, you do it in the streets." Clearly we have a man with a conscience. Yes, clearly some crooks have one. In addition to Charlie there is the goofy and dangerous Johnny Boy (Robert DeNiro) who errs badly in not playing by the rules. That is those rules by which gangs govern themselves. Want to break society's laws? Knock yourself out. But within the criminal family you better walk the line. Mean Streets does not romanticize violence or "the life." Even the drunkenness is reeling, staggering and dizzy. So here again we see the wages of sin, whether you've been going to church or not.

Like a Candle in a Hurricane The Public Enemy (1931). Cagney again, this time as Tom Powers a young man who rises from being a two bit crook to running his own show. You can guess how this is going end up for our protagonist. Hollywood tends to want its criminals to get what's coming to them. Powers is a force of nature, as were many a Cagney character. His physicality has never been more impressive than in this mannered and interesting young man. Whether plugging an old enemy or stuffing a grapefruit in a soon-to-be-ex-girlfriend's puss. This is the classic charismatic gang boss and a movie that greatly influenced the genre. It's use of off camera violence by director William Wellman is especially effective.

Very Radical Couples Therapy Bonnie and Clyde (1967). One of the most influential films ever made in part for the manner in which it introduced more realistic violence to cinema. Contrary to Public Enemy the violence was in your face. Different strokes for different movies. Here we have a totally compelling re-imagining of the true life escapades of the real life Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, who along with Clyde's brother and sister-in-law became bank robbing folk heroes during the Great Depression. It is virtuoso story telling of the first order from director Arthur Penn, effectively employing music, humor and an innovative camera.

The Classic Rise and Fall The Roaring Twenties (1939). It shouldn't be a surprise that Cagney appears on this list three times. He appeared in a lot of gangster films and was personally responsible for their success. This is a classic rags-to-riches gangster story with Cagney as Eddie Bartlett. He's the type of crook whose fallen into his line of work by circumstances, then makes the most of it. Humphrey Bogart is an associate who turns on our hero. Like many a gangster we feel for Eddie, certainly next to Bogie's character he's the lesser of two evils We ache as the girl of his dreams (Priscilla Lane) finds love in another's arms. Gangsters can buy a lot with their ill gotten gain, but even they are incapable of purchasing love.

I Smell a Rat Donnie Brasco (1997). Johnny Depp is the title character in the amazing story of a cop who goes under very deep cover and infiltrates the mob. He even gets to see a mob victim sliced up for easy disposal and difficult detection. But most of all this is a look at the totally unglamorous working class mobster who has to hustle for every dime with death an every present danger. Al Pacino gives one of the best performances of his remarkable career as a sort of middle class mobster. Michael Madsen is at once alluring and terrifying as the boss. But it is through Depp that we see the seamy underbelly of the underside of the underworld. We are not underwhelmed.

Johnny Rocco's a Skunk Key Largo (1948). Edward G Robinson played some pretty rotten eggs but perhaps none were worse than Johnny Rocco. What awful things is he whispering into his lovely hostage's (Lauren Bacall) ear? Makes your skin crawl to think of it. I included Key Largo because in addition to being such a wonderful film, Robinson plays Rocco like the dirty stinking rat that arguably all gangsters should be shown to be.  He's also the classic gangster in that he's fully in charge and rightly feared, unwavering in his commitment to do whatever is needed for his own survival and success. Bogie shows up here too, this time as a good guy out to foil Rocco's evil doings.

Others to consider: Little Caesar (1931), Scarface (1932), Brother Orchid (1940)Reservoir Dogs (1992), Johnny Eager (1941), Gangs of New York (2002).