It Always Rains on Sunday (1947): Drizzly British Noir

it always rains on sunday 1.png

“Lovely weather for a manhunt.”

Childhood vacations to England have given me a lifelong cache of fond memories of the British Isles. Tea and scones conjure up only good things as do Cathedrals and cobblestone streets. Somehow even the daily drizzle, when it feels quintessentially English, is something I don’t altogether mind. It has to do with it being novel as I always came from sunny California. We romanticize it.

However, It Always Rains on Sunday is nothing like that. It is a film generally for people who have lived in these locales all their lives. The novelty quickly dissipates; it’s always dreary, dismal, and damp. They have their slickers turned up and their Wellington boots on, if they have any. Of course, in a cinematic sense, rain functions as instant atmosphere. It sets a very specific tone while being an evocation of England through and through. It proves to be an ongoing theme.

Furthermore, the picture was produced by Ealing Studios, that British film institution, known for their Alec Guinness comedies of the 1950s and, subsequently, directed by Robert Hamer, most well-remembered for helming one of those Guinness’ comedies, Kind Hearts and Coronets.

But with It Always Rains on Sunday (the title fits the weather and therefore the environs), they found themselves crafting a proto-kitchen sink, day in the life drama that really dug into a community of post-war Britain. We get everything from the daily grind, the mundane activities, and the dodgy dealings playing court with everyday life.

As the rain pours outside, perpetually, men have their papers open. The front pages are plastered with the biggest headline: Dartmoor Escape. Escaped criminal Tommy Swann (John McCallum) is on the run! Coincidentally, three cronies are milling about. Could it be they have something to do with this man or maybe a load of rollerskates that were nicked?

it always rains on sunday 2.png

A typical British family becomes our anchor and Hamer is constantly drawing the story back to them. The husband is a generally benevolent chap content with his morning newspaper and the breakfast at the kitchen table. He’s remarried to Rose (Googie Weathers), a former bar hostess, who is not altogether horrid, but there’s an undercurrent of this being a marriage of convenience — at least for her. It becomes most transparent in her sometimes callous dealing with the step-children.

Two daughters, one dutiful the other blonde and bodacious, when it comes to the boys, and a young son bent on getting some extra spending money to buy a new mouth organ. She doesn’t seem to have any maternal concern for them even as she dutifully runs the house.

The question remains how these seemingly disparate strands might possibly be tied together. But this is a day in the life long before the Beatles ever cornered the market. We come to understand It Always Rains on Sunday is this type of story. It readily covers the beats of the city with all its shadings. This is the joy of the picture, especially all these decades later. It envelopes us in the highly colorful world of the East End, with its smells, markets, fish shops, and pubs.

The local policeman, Inspector Fothergill, goes about his usual business, making his rounds, followed by a cheeky journalist ready to pounce on a scoop. He’s looking for any news on Swann that might be of interest to him.

The best human interest story of the movie is actually behind the scenes romance. Because, upon meeting one another on the set of this picture, Googie Weathers and John McCallum would fall in love and get married soon thereafter. Their union lasted over 60 years, well into the 21st century.

The crucial reveal is that the current Mrs. Sandigate knew Thomas Swann in her previous life. Now he comes calling for a favor since he has nowhere else to turn, setting up a chilling reunion. For now, all we have is in front of the camera. It certainly heightens the available stakes as she harbors the wanted man, and he looks to coax her to remember the former life they had together. It’s obvious the situation can only end in some form of tragedy.

Simultaneously, one of the local gangsters, the angular-faced Mr. Hyams, checks in on one of his game parlors and offers a job then flowers to Doris Sandigate — claiming there are no strings attached though she unsure — he’s just feeling charitable.

Coincidentally, he also catches wind of some roller skates on the market, but he’s already had his hand in fixing the local fights. The dirty money is already being siphoned off from somewhere else. His generosity continues when he donates a large sum of money to the local gymnasium to counteract his shady dealings. One questions the state of affairs when we must turn to criminals as a primary source of charity.

In another vignette, a record store shopkeeper is caught kissing with one of his pretty clients, this time Vi Sandigate, who can’t stay away from any handsome face. He dishes out a pair of mouth organs to keep the blackmailing tykes quiet — including Vi’s baby brother Alfie. They proceed to stomp around town to the tune of “Colonel Bogey’s March.”

The music store owner’s wife Sadie is not stupid. She arrives at the local bar one day to let him know definitively, she’s walking out on him. In response, her weak-willed philandering husband goes scampering after her. Far from feeling like a sordid love triangle, it’s a pointless mess with at least two out of the three lives ruined for good (if not all of them).

Implicit to the movie is this context of a Godless nation. At least no one goes to church or has the normal Christian view of the world you half expect in mid-century Britain. However, given the context of the hell they went through during the war (and even after), I’m not sure the change is unwarranted.

One resident yells at the boys to pipe down with their infernal racket because they are desecrating the sabbath. Then, we see the priest running the orphanage in another scene. But these are isolated almost unimportant moments in a broader narrative.

it always rains on sunday 3.png

Otherwise, this world feels devoid of such religiosity. Maybe it’s simply from coming from an American perspective, but in films of the 40s and 50s, there’s a commonplace aspect to God in some way, shape, or form. Here such ritualism feels almost absent, if not done away with altogether. If nothing else, it does speak to something about our characters and the lives they lead.

It’s based on currencies of love and money. But everyone seems dissatisfied and always longing for something better. And to be completely clear, there is reason to gripe with the world set before them. America, more than possibly any nation, could recoup from the war without a physical need to regroup. Britain did not have such a luxury.

And while the police chase after a fugitive across brick-paved streets, train tracks, and train yards, not unlike the pursuit of Harry Lime, it all feels indicative of a broader problem. I’m not sure if we ever get to it. We are left with a climax and a conclusion that’s stirring enough. But the tale nevertheless leaves so many of its narratives in a state of indefinite suspension.

A lot like life, we do not know how or where they will fully resolve themselves. This illusion is powerful. Not only that, the stories extend outside the confines of a film, but also a happy ending, as it were, is not going to be handed to us blithely.

In short, It Always Rains on Sunday deserves to be named among the best of British noir alongside titles like Odd Man Out and Brighton Rock. The key comes with integrating the everyday occurrences with the criminal element. It makes us aware of how closely related they are. It’s pointless to try and pull them apart.

4/5 Stars

A Walk in The Sun (1945) with Dana Andrews and Company

a walk in the sun 1.png

Opening as it does with the cover of its source material, A Walk in The Sun makes itself out to be a bit grand and simultaneously undermines a certain amount of its ethos as a gritty war picture. Is it a fallacy to think a book can never capture all the textures of life? Does the same hold true with film? I’m not sure.

Regardless, the story is set in 1943 in Salerno, and, keeping with this novelistic form, an all-knowing narrator (voicework provided by Burgess Meredith) gives a brief word on each of the soldiers who will walk through the frames of the film. Some of them are quite familiar.

The real opening of the action feels a bit like further delay tactics. We are on the loading dock of a troop transport. The side has yet to go down, and the assault has not started. We are forced to wait in this pervasive dourness fashioned for the soldiers out of the cinematic mise en scene.

It’s our first indication of what this film will be about, and yet it concerns itself with the interims and the in-between-times when men wait for what’s next. The nervous chatter of the men matches the nervous new sergeant who is meant to lead them. Already we have some internal conflict with everyone unsure of what is ahead.

It feels a bit like D-Day, but this is Italy. Instead of meeting steep opposition, they take the beach relatively easily, entrenching themselves and waiting. Their most mettlesome member (Dana Andrews) never said a truer word when he notes, “you can’t fight a vacuum.” All there is to do, for the time being, is dig in.

Their subsequent mission is to blow up a bridge and take a farmhouse. Simple enough. For the conventions of a movie narrative, it makes following the action lines quite efficient. Except, A Walk in The Sun is rarely about its objective, until it finally is. In other words, it takes so many meandering trails and paths, riding conversations to the eventual outcomes.

Robert Rossen’s script is probably too self-aware and witty for a fox hole, but this is Hollywood, after all. At any rate, it ably captures the nervous ticks — the repetitions making up human speech patterns. We have catchphrases. Norman Lloyd comes to mind (“You guys kill me”) as the company’s wry misanthrope, observing the world around him, drolling on about some future battle in Tibet to end all wars.

A jocular Richard Conte seems to relish the chance to run off his mouth as the talkative Italian-American, Private Rivera, always up for razzing his buddy and touting his own exploits as a gunner. There’s the ubiquitous nature of cigarettes or “butts” on the warpath, looking particularly anachronistic in the hands of a G.I. played by Sterling Holloway. Lloyd Bridges is one of the staff sergeants and an imposing fellow but the real center, equal parts cynical and indomitable, is Andrews as Sergeant Tyne.

a walk in the sun 2

Of course, in the army, it’s not always the most capable soldiers who are calling the shots. Between wounded superiors and casualties, this mantle falls on Sergeant Eddie Porter (Herbert Rudley), an indecisive brain with little practical military experience. The prevailing question remains, is he going to crack under pressure?

Certainly, a lot happens in the ensuing scenes, however, what feels most pertinent are the aforementioned lulls because a majority of our time is spent passing time with the soldiers. In these interludes, the narrative is intercut with song and score while being lent an introspective edge thanks to Meredith’s constant omniscient input. Here again, is this trace of self-importance cropping up.

However, A Walk in The Sun settles into something genuinely compelling as we realize we are getting the alternate portrait of war. Lewis Milestone chooses the theatrical nature of all the G.I.s crammed together in the frame just as his lateral shots capture the minimal action setpieces at their most dynamic.

We observe the shades of insubordination and passive aggression in the chain of command, a result of the lack of confidence in superiors. This is further compounded by lapses in judgment and real-world miscues, like forgetting your only pair of field glasses back down the road. It’s not so much atmospheric or authentic as it gives a sense of the personal truths of war. It brings the war picture down to ground-level, to its most intimate and idiosyncratic. In other words, it’s the epitome of human.

They must leave their wounded along the road to be picked up later. The sound of planes overhead is an infantryman’s worst nightmare. And still, they bide their time. Each man’s mind becomes distracted by anything but the war. They reminisce about Norman Rockwell’s paintings and the future of the covers of Time magazine.

Maybe it’s someone recalling their favorite records from Russ Colombo or Bing Crosby. The fat life would be getting The Andrew Sisters autographs and playing music all day long. For his part, Sergeant Ward, a farmer by trade, can’t stop thinking of nice, juicy apples, nowhere to be found in an arid environment like Italy.

During one telling interaction between an Italian-American soldier and two native Italians straggling through the countryside, I couldn’t help thinking this would have never happened with Japanese-Americans in Japan. In fact, the irony is that the all-Nisei 442nd Unit was also stationed in Italy on their way to rescuing The Lost Battalion in 1944.

There might be a single instance of heightened conflict in A Walk in The Sun; it’s when they come upon an Axis armored car and proceed to blow it up. But these types of moments are dealt with quickly, and the film sinks back into tentative homeostasis.

a walk in the sun 3

We can easily condense the narrative by jumping to the final push in realizing their mission. It’s relatively straightforward. We know what they need to accomplish, but the execution and the synchronization are key. It feels unnecessary to expound upon the results in great length. It’s about what you’d expect from an all-out ground assault. Of course, there’s a cost.

More intriguing is a fabled backstory to A Walk in The Sun. Fresh off his own military service and already a prolific journalist and screenwriter in his own right, Sam Fuller brazenly lambasted Milestones’ picture for its fictions even as he praised the earlier All Quiet All The Western Front. Because it is true the film from 1930 is a crowning achievement in pacifist cinema and a tour de force for the director.

Certainly, juxtaposing the final images alone, All Quiet on The Western Front goes out unsparingly. The full brunt of the gut-punch is felt as we see how much war has ravaged humanity. Its successor does not elicit the same guttural response. Then again, to parry Fuller’s point, it might be safe to concede its primary intentions were of a different nature altogether.

It becomes even more compelling to consider a brash young Fuller’s statements in lieu of his own forays into war pictures. He had several actioners of note including The Steel Helmet, which is easy to tie to A Walk in The Sun.

This earlier film perhaps is wordier — the characters mouths are filled with plenty to go on about. However, where I feel they can be linked together is through this sense of utter disillusionment with war. These are not career soldiers driven by dreams of valor and accolades in the service of their country.

Certainly, they are human. They have these kinds of thoughts too. Most of the time it’s idle chatter. It’s the mundane moments in-between where they are just people in a soldier’s uniform. What becomes apparent are their preoccupations, fears, and foibles, cutting through their daily existence. It comes down to survival.

Again, A Walk in The Sun might be a tad verbose and a bit too manicured and manufactured for a wheeling-dealing future maverick like Fuller. What it doesn’t sell us short on is the reality of wartime conflict. It’s not a pretty or mythic business between the gods. It’s brought down to earth into all our messy human concerns.

The message it preaches implicitly feels sharply antithetical to typical propaganda pics. It lives out apathy and levity as much as bare-knuckled heroics. Somewhere in the middle of it all, we’re provided some essence of what war truly is.

3.5/5 Stars

Objective Burma (1945): Errol Flynn During Wartime

objective burma 1.png

It’s nearly ubiquitous for all the old war movies to open with an instructive title card supplying some context and placing us in the scenario at hand. While not the apex of visual storytelling, it does serve a concrete purpose. Objective Burma is, of course, about the Burma campaigns — the toughest road — opening a corridor that had to be opened. It proved to be a combined operation across the spectrum of Allied forces, and the first ones to go in were the paratroopers.

This is where our specific story begins. It must be noted the events have been conveniently recast and, therefore, the history books were rewritten for the sake of Hollywood convenience. At first, you assume Errol Flynn might be a Brit until you realize all his crewmembers are tried and true Americans. And he’s one too.

From then on, we know where our picture stands. In fact, everyone else — aside from a Chinese ally and their native guide — American. Two personal favorites would be the ever-wise-cracking Richard Erdman (who passed away in 2019) and George Tobias, always good for a couple of jabs at his mother-in-law. Look close enough and you’ll even pick out a young Hugh Beaumont while veteran actor Henry Hull plays an Ernie Pyle war correspondent-type.

I find the script, penned by Ranald MacDougall and loaded with witticisms, useful in building unique voices all throughout the company, even offsetting all the typical wartime shop talk. The idiolect of each is conveniently differentiated so even in the melange of personalities, we get a flavor instead of a muddy amalgam of white noise. It serves the picture well, especially due to its substantial running time.

The terrain is fittingly immersive, but sometimes it feels that instead of finding the action within the environment, the story is content in simply being a nature tour, moment by moment. It remains some small comfort having James Wong Howe. His work in transforming Los Angeles County Arboretum and Botanic Garden into the miry underbrush of East Asia is quite the feat. One is reminded how Sam Fuller turned another section of Los Angeles — the grounds of The Griffith Observatory — into Korea for The Steel Helmet. In both cases, it works.

Their first task is to take out an enemy radar tower, and it couldn’t be easier. They quite literally catch the Japanese out to lunch and calmly mow them down after their forces have fanned out into position. It’s a bit like a video game, if not like shooting fish in a barrel.

Surely the rest of the movie cannot be this easy even as it remains flippant toward the enemy, continually referred to pejoratively as “Japs” or “Monkeys. It’s too true. Their subsequent air pickup has to be aborted due to imminent enemy forces, and Captain Nelson (Flynn) splits his unit up to find a new checkpoint. Though disoriented, his command is held together. The other contingent is not so lucky with only a few stragglers making it back unscathed.

One of the mortally wounded, cradled in the arms of his buddy, says he’s never seen anything like it. It was a slaughterhouse. The Japanese were waiting for them in a clearing and mowed them down. Later, when the remnant tries to recover the rest of the dead, they realize the maimed bodies of their comrades carved to pieces, all but unrecognizable, if not for their dog tags.

It’s this brand of sadism that makes antipathy toward the Japanese enemy that much easier. It’s not an out and out lie. We know these types of despicable practices took place in service to the radicalized nationalist ideology. When men become so arrogant and callous, their capability for evil only intensifies.

What is problematic is not that the enemy is all but faceless; it comes down to the same issue of mowing down the Japanese earlier. There is a double standard we often hold ourselves to. It’s another incongruity. Consider the fact that, in real life, prisoners taken by the Allies would have been executed in order to move forward with the operation. It makes pragmatic sense. In the film, they’re conveniently killed off in the opening skirmish so there’s no need to show the messy business. To be clear, it’s not a matter of making allowances for the enemy but realizing the shades of gray in our own conduct.

At the midpoint, one cannot repudiate the fact our covert operatives are no longer the chipper aggressors soaring toward victory. Their ambitions are now forced to become even more elemental. Somewhere around this juncture, Objective Burma ceases to be a war movie and becomes a fraught survival story.

The straits are dire. They’re all but trapped, surrounded by enemy forces patrolling on all sides, and the grind — not to mention the loss of their comrades — is grating on them. Morale begins to crumble as fatigue sets in. The bottom line is that they never cave completely in either regard, despite the hardships in the jungle.

One might chalk it up to their leader, and it’s true Flynn commands with a strong yet compassionate fortitude. He cares deeply about the well-being of his men, even as he stands unswervingly by the orders they’ve been designated with. Upon receiving word to disregard all previous orders, they get ambushed in a clearing over a supply drop and vaguely chart a course north to a destination they don’t know. They’re following orders, clinging to the hope of some deliverance. But even if there is help coming, the enemy knows their position.

In one final stand, they entrench themselves on a hilltop, sweating it out into the wee hours, surrounded by a maze of tripwires to keep the Japanese at bay. They are outnumbered, the enemy cloaked in darkness, looking to overtake their position. I cannot think of anything more terrifying.

Their triumphant stand is made in an instance of clarity, thanks to a flare lighting up the night sky, and a barrage of grenades they’re able to lob at their retreating enemies. The film see-saws back toward one side decimating the other. It’s a pulse-pounding final setpiece still underlined by this sense that the “good guys” won so all is well. Understandably, in 1945, there need not be any ambiguity to the moral gradient.

The story of why Flynn found himself only playing soldiers and never actually being one is a subject of some personal mortification. His laundry list of ailments went beyond his bad heart to purportedly include tuberculosis, malaria, and back problems. True to form, the studio kept it all conveniently on the down-low — quelling any leakage as to maintain the image of their masculine star. Of course, it created a bit of dissonance in the wartime years.

One of the curious results was the observation Flynn was never more malleable and easier to work with than during his wartime cycle of films. Whether it was his embarrassment in not being able to fight himself or his drive to do his part in Hollywood’s propaganda machine is not clear; although it may have been some of both.

Because, in 1945, I hesitate to say Errol Flynn was on the way out, but certainly with the end of WWI,I and the beginning of the post-war years, it was a time meant for a more youthful batch of matinee idols and stagy rebels meant to reflect changing times.

By 1959 Flynn would be dead, his career plummeting to its conclusion due to hard drink and hard living. For now, he still fit the ideals of the generation but even that had to be doctored by Tinsletown to hold onto the last vestiges of one of the 1930s preeminent action icons. The war changed everyone. Even Errol Flynn.

3.5/5 Stars

Quai Des Orfevres (1947): Directed by Henry-Georges Clouzot

Quai Des Orfevres 1.png

Unearthing Quai Des Orfevres is a glorious discovery of post-war French cinema. Because Henry-Georges Clouzot is always a man I heedlessly clump together with Jacques Becker when it comes to French film history. Not because of an immediate connection but, on the contrary, it’s the very thinnest of labels.

They both have a handful of superior films to their names and yet never seem to reach the full-fledged prominence of some of their countrymen as far as their bodies of work are concerned. If we want to oversimplify the situation we have Jean Renoir on one side and then the youthful revolution of the Nouvelle Vague with the dawning of the 60s thereafter.

And yet, to acknowledge Clouzot was considered by Alfred Hitchcock himself as a true rival for the title of “The Master of Suspense” seems a heady admission. On the laurels of Wages of Fear and Les Diaboliques alone, there is some merit in the conversation. Most agree Psycho was a reaction to the latter film (since Hitch could not get the rights).

One area Clouzot can claim primacy over Hitch is the fact he personally wrote most, if not all, of the screenplays he directed. Quai Des Orfevres benefits as much from his writing as anything, yet another robust entry to his filmography. Though it came to fruition only after a substantial ban from the French film ministry.

That is a story worth dissecting on its own because his previous picture, made in occupied France, was all but bankrolled by the Third Reich. You can imagine that this didn’t sit well with people. It’s a fitting anecdote for the very reason that the war no doubt affected his characters as much as it affected him.

The France featured here is not quite the post-war Vienna of The Third Man, but it’s merely a hop, skip, and a jump away. For that matter, it evokes a bit of Carol Reed’s world from Odd Man Out too.

In this case, Clouzot’s focused on a group of performers at some shoddy theater house. It’s hardly glamorous entertainment, but for all those involved, at least it’s a meager living. If nothing else, they look after their own.

Right in the thick of it is vivacious stage talent Jenny Lamour  (Suzy Delair) and her balding husband, Maurice Martineau (Bernard Blier), who can constantly be found accompanying her on the piano. Between her shameless flaunting and flirting and his burning jealousy, it proves to be a highly volatile cocktail.

The conflicts, in this case, are not political or instigated by human avarice. They are of a more personal nature, between a husband and wife in turmoil. We do not know their history, but if the scenes around them are any sign, they are coming off hardship, with the war being indicative of their entire life together.

A local photographer, named Dora (the glamourous Simone Renant), who has some business with Jenny, is also paid a visit by a hunched, beady-eyed creep who happens to have quite the portfolio of financial holdings; it’s the only reason any girls give him the time of day. In this instance, he brings a pretty young thing to pose for him.

In some twisted way, it’s mutually beneficial. They want his influence and he wants pretty girls to dominate. One bystander notes, if Brignon (stage actor Charles Dullin in his final performance) were poor, he would have been in prison long ago.

Despite the generally disquieting nature of these themes, it’s even more sobering to admit, somehow it still remains timely as a portrait of men in power using their capital to lord it over the opposite sex. There is social repugnance, but they label him a “dirty old man” and leave it at that.

What’s more, Jenny Lamour is going to see him; it’s good for her career. Maurice despises the smutty scuzzball and with his anger justified for once, he goes to confront him at his hotel room; the staff and manager catch the tail-end of his outburst.

This only matters in reference to the film’s crucial inciting incident. Brignon is murdered one evening. It’s not unfamiliar or unexpected. Still, keeping the details murky for those unfamiliar with the story is in the best interest of all. But, needless to say, law enforcement gets involved when the body is found — his apartment in disarray.

This, of course, cuts out a large swath of the story. Because it is not a mystery. This is a character study. The man who winds up drawing out the performances and reactions from everyone else happens to be the curious Inspector Antoine (Louis Jourvet). It’s true colorful detectives are a mainstay of the police procedural with Columbo, courtesy of Peter Falk or even Alistair Sim’s Inspector Cockril, from Green for Danger, springing to mind.

In fact, in the preliminary stages, the inspector can be found poking around the musical hall, not unlike a Columbo — unassuming and out of place — and trying to decipher what he has to work with.

Later, in his office, he helpfully summarizes a deposition for Mr. Martineau to save the man time (He’s the most obvious suspect if it’s not apparent already). Bringing in the rest of his person’s of interest takes up the remaining daylight. It’s only a matter of time before a resolution is met. The Inspector’s generally insouciant when it comes to the daily grind, though he’s deceptively astute when it counts most.

Quai Des Orfevres 2.png

To reiterate, the story is not necessarily about the tautness of the plotting. There are too many questions. Not enough answers to loose ends. How does Jenny remain so even-keeled while her husband is the one sweating it? The alibi Maurice makes up is so flimsy. His case lines up so serendipitously with a bank robber who stole his car the same night. Why does Dora involve herself? But all these details are almost beside the point.

We know the perpetrator almost before the case has started — we think — and at any rate, it’s before the inspector comes on the scene. To evoke Columbo again, this is not so much a mystery as much as it is a “How’s he gonna catch them.” But in this version, it’s not an elementary case of fun and games.

Rather, a statement is being made on the state of law and order. Where the police search after a murderer of a despicable man because it is there job. Because these are the working-class folks. Criminals, in one sense of the word, yes, but also victims in another.

The characters and their dynamics become the seat of all the intrigue. The decisions they make. The logic they use. What they choose to disclose and hide from one another. Jenny, Maurice, Dora, they all are involved, but it’s more complicated than surface-level perceptions might suggest.

Even Inspector Antoine, the film’s most splendid creation, as realized by Jouvet, is given the benefit of a personal history outside the context of the film. His beloved son, from his time abroad in the French colonies, is the love of his life. The case almost seems like an unwanted distraction from what he’d really like to be doing. It’s this insightful brand of humanity found within most of the characters transforming Quai Des Orfevres into a truly singular take on the conventional crime thriller. The final shots sum up these ideas in succinct terms.

4/5 Stars

The Story of G.I. Joe (1945): Robert Mitchum Shows His Chops

the story of gi joe.png

Charles M. Schultz was one of the great memorializers of WWII in that he kept events like the D-Day invasion or the art of Bill Maudlin in the public forum for as long as Peanuts was syndicated. If I remember correctly, it was also through his strip I first became aware of the name Ernie Pyle.

It’s not too far of a stretch to think the former Sergeant Schultz (who saw action in Europe) eventually saw this movie because, before he ever penned a frame of Peanuts, this was the first homage, not necessarily just to Pyle, but also to the soldier that he chronicled for the folks at home.

We jump right in with a truck loaded with men being hauled to the front where the action is. Not only do they pick up a furry passenger, they take on a civilian as well because Pyle (Burgess Meredith) is intent on getting as close to the epicenter of the action as possible. He wants material bearing an authentic mark.

The man who agrees to let him aboard is none other than Robert Mitchum, their scraggily and sleepy-eyed leader, who never seems to be perturbed. As a related consideration, it becomes intriguing to chart his early career with all his bit parts as soldiers finally leading to a heftier role. These included his blink and you’ll miss it cameos only a couple years prior, in everything from The Human Comedy to Corvette K-225, and Cry Havoc. What followed were stepping stones like 30 Seconds Over Tokyo and finally, The Story of G.I. Joe.

It doesn’t feel so much as we are seeing Mitchum transformed into his future persona. He appears unflappable as much off-screen as he is on. It’s more so a matter of Hollywood realizing who he was and what compelling qualities he brought to the lead. Certainly, he’s masculine; he has a handsome, distinctive face, but there is something more to him. It’s the suggestion of not caring about any of the distractions around him. This underlying coolness in any manner of situations. It all catered to his future stardom at RKO.

But back to the trenches. Although we get Artie Shaw out on the front, the production also ladles on the dramatic diegetic scoring a little too thickly when they experience their first casualty. We know the import of the moment only to get clubbed over the head with it just to make absolutely certain it didn’t escape us.

Otherwise, the film causes us to brush up against the elements in an immersive even dispiriting manner courtesy of cinematographer Russell Metty. You begin to live vicariously through the platoon and understand their daily struggles. This is The Story of G.I. Joe at its most effectual, succeeding in precisely what Pyle was striving to do. We get a tactile sense of his life’s work as a war correspondent.

Day after day, company C, 18th Infantry makes its way across Italy. All sorts of men, big and small, fill up their ranks. Freddie Steele, coming off his intriguing turn in Hail The Conquering Hero, is no less watchable here as a grizzled soldier intent on finding a victrola so he can hear his son’s voice. It’s the sole shred of home, keeping him sane in the chaotic world he’s subjected to day in and day out. Many of the others aren’t so lucky, more or less lacking his indefatigable brand of grit. The mental toll is high for all parties.

I know it’s set in a different country but with the rubble, bell tower, infantry, and tanks rolling across the grounds I couldn’t help thinking of the midsection of Saving Private Ryan because The Story of G.I. Joe, as one of its precursors, documents the life of the common man as well as the skirmishes he’s subjected to.

They systematically take down a pair of Germans lurking behind the debris to clear the area. Later, one of their company (John R. Reilly) has an impromptu wedding ceremony in the bombed-out premises — Pyle being tapped to give the bride away. A little over a decade later Stanley Kubrick would end up marrying his wife who appeared in his seminal war movie Paths of Glory. William Wellman cut out the middle man, so to speak, by having his wife (Dorothy Noonan Wellman) in an uncredited role as the nurse who weds the G.I.

Without resting on their laurels, they are tasked with taking a new position. It’s ruled over by a monastery — a religious relic the enemy have conveniently fashioned into an impregnable observation post; they won’t give up the ground. What’s worse, the hesitant allies won’t bomb the building. We’ve reached an impasse until human life finally takes precedence over maintaining ancient artifice. As it should.

the story of gi joe 2.png

The holidays come, and it’s a drab affair, men clinging to dreams of the family and food back home — from turkey to cranberry sauce. Of course, they aren’t granted such amenities where they are so all they have are their private memories. In between the barrage of artillery fire, one of the company’s members (Wally Cassell) picks Pyle’s brain about his time in Hollywood. For a brief solitary moment, he drools over starlets like Carole Landis; it removes him from his current reality of muck and mire.

Christmas might be a complete wash if not for their commanding officer scrounging them up some turkey and a bit of wine as they slog through the perpetually miserable conditions. They manage a bit of yuletide cheer in spite of the bleak landscape around them.

It feels less like propaganda in the typical sense or at least it’s all the more effective as an empathy picture, putting us in the boots of the soldier so we get a feel for the lives they lead out on the front. You begin to realize how extraordinary they are in their very ordinariness.

Ernie Pyle winning the Pulitzer is like a drop in the can. It feels so inconsequential in the face of all they have gone through together, but the beauty is Pyle has gone through it with them. They have mutual solidarity in the thick of this continual absurdity.

On Christmas evening, after a typically long day, he sits down with the leader of the pack and pulls out one last turkey leg from under his jacket.  He picks off any fuzz and partakes in the delicacy. It’s a much-appreciated gesture. They trade off taking swigs of Italian moonshine scattered with conversation.

The most revealing revelation is the sergeant’s agitation of having to write the families of every young man who gives his life. In some queer way, he feels like a murderer, and it rankles him to see every new fresh-faced recruit who has no idea what he’s gotten himself into. There’s a helplessness in him and yet it’s his job to keep them together, so he does the best he can under the deplorable conditions.

the story of gi joe 3.png

This scene might be the most meaningful impression we get of Mitchum as a human being because he’s a believable G.I.b but here we see his honest chops as an actor. It’s no coincidence that this is the picture helping him transition to stardom.

The ending continues in this manner, offering up a melancholy denouement that feels like one of the more candid depictions of wartime reality. Where the war rolls on no matter what happens. It cannot wait up for the story of a film to catch up.

Of course, Ernie Pyle would never live to see the finished film, which he actually served as a technical advisor on. He was too busy continuing his work in Okinawa where he was killed by an enemy machine gun. It’s a tragic detail, but it makes The Story of G.I. Joe all the more pertinent. If anything, it gets the truth behind Ernie Pyle’s writing, both his life and his death, right. It is the ultimate tribute to the man who tried to get the stories out of everyday heroes back to the reading public sitting in their living rooms.

3.5/5 Stars

“I hope we can rejoice with victory but humbly. That all together we will try out of the memory of our anguish to reassemble our broken world into a pattern so firm and so fair that a never great war can never again be possible and for those beneath the wooden crosses there is nothing we can do but perhaps murmur: Thanks, pal. Thanks…”

~ Burgess Meredith as Ernie Pyle

Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo (1944): WWII Written by Dalton Trumbo

30 Seconds over Tokyo.png

“One-hundred and thirty-one days after December 7, 1941, a handful of young men, who had never dreamed of glory, struck the first blow at the heart of Japan. This is their true story we tell here.”

It’s easy enough to lump Air Force and Destination Tokyo with this subsequent film because we have the impediment of years between us. We have yet another cast rallied around a star; this time it’s Spencer Tracy leading the charge, as the pragmatic James Doolittle, on a highly confidential mission that would be known to future generations as the Doolittle Raids.

In the contemporary moment, if they had enough time and/or money an audience would possibly have a much easier time differentiating because each picture took on a slightly unique facet of the war. Air Force is all but a flying fortress in the days leading up to and directly following Pearl Harbor. Destination Tokyo is about the recon needed for the Doolittle Raid. 30 Seconds Over Tokyo is a bit like the triumphant exclamation point or at least the start of one.

The work wasn’t done for the Allies but it was a sign of forward progress. And with the benefit of hindsight, we can fill in the open-ended conclusion. We know V-J Day eventually happened only a year later. Consequently, it was also deemed one of the more accurate war pictures as far as military details go.

Much of Tracy’s time is spent as a no-nonsense observer of what is going on. The rest of his performance feels like it’s made up of monologues and yet, as is normally the case, he’s so candid and earnest when he delivers them. He quickly draws the moviegoer in just as he does with all the crew members under his command. It’s the magic he has over a rapt audience to the point you believe every word he says.

Otherwise, Lt. Ted Lawson (Van Johnson) is pretty much our lead. I know he’s not much of an emoter, but he might as well be our stand-in for the American G.I. For the time being, he is surrounded by a bevy of compatriots including Robert Walker, Don DeFore, and Robert Mitchum, among others. They all raise their hands when it comes to volunteering for a top-secret mission.

There’s an electricity in the air as they prepare for news of their assignment even as they are warned that they will be pushed to the limit of their capabilities and then some. The utmost secrecy is maintained and their training is commenced in earnest. The work is hard and they play hard after.

One of the crowd is a goofy down-home caricature portrayed by John R. Reilly. He can be found pounding away to the rhythms of “Chattanooga Choo Choo” in the barracks, intent on any merriment he can muster during off-hours. Meanwhile, the crew of the self-proclaimed Ruptured Duck becomes proficient in their new skill set.

30 seconds over Tokyo 2.png

In his free time, Lawson (Johnson) looks to get all the time in with his beaming wife as possible. Though Phyliss Thaxter glows with utter radiance in every scene, it does feel a bit overly twee at times.

Since a group of the fellas have their brides with them, they get together to dance, finding solidarity in songs like “Deep in The Heart of Texas” and a Hollywood mainstay, “Auld Lange Syne.” It’s especially effective for wringing out every last drop of emotion. Wives tearfully cling to their husbands for the last time, knowing that they will soon be separated for who knows how long.

Sure enough, the men get their assignment after coming aboard an aircraft carrier. They will be paying a visit to Tokyo by air and the anticipation sets in even as the flyers all look a bit like fish out of water (on the water). Regardless, it becomes a perfect excuse to play up the camaraderie between the army and the navy away from the football field. They’ve got a job to do, and they’ll do it together.

Robert Mitchum and Van Johnson share a most curious conversation lounging on the prow of the boat, staring off into the darkness. One can only imagine it is screenwriter Dalton Trumbo speaking — not in propaganda but humanity.

First, Johnson offers up how his mom had a Jap gardener once who seemed like a nice fellow. Mitchum says he doesn’t like ’em, but he doesn’t hate ’em either. They agree you get mixed up sometimes. Where are they going with this meandering interchange?

The answer: Trumbo’s brand of what might be most precisely termed “American progressivism.” Some rationale must be proposed for what is at hand and so he does his best. Though it foregoes demonizing the enemy, it takes an alternative path with the same conclusion. It’s the most rational progression. Drop a bomb on them or they’ll be dropping a bomb on Ellen or loved ones like her. It’s highly practical even as it remains problematic.

30 seconds over Tokyo 3.png

Still, the gears are turning. They have their final briefing with Doolittle and agree to meet in Chungking for the biggest party they’ve ever seen. In reality, the moment of truth really does feel like little more than thirty seconds. When they hit the mainland a flurry of Japanese Zeroes fly over, only to pass them by without notice, moving on with their normal patrol. It’s a lucky break.

They end up dropping their loads on the designated targets with efficiency. It’s the aftermath where things get a bit dicier, not so much due to the enemy but weather conditions. The Ruptured Duck is forced to bail out, sustaining injuries, and rescued by Chinese locals under bleak conditions.

Though poorly resourced and kept on the run by impending Japanese, the Chinese are held aloft as loyal Allies ready to aid in this joint cause against the Japanese. It becomes so intriguing how they become such sympathetic figures. Two close-ups come to mind. The Chinese characters are not kept at arm’s length. We are given a chance to study their faces. It’s maybe not a lot, but it’s something. The juxtaposition between the Chinese station versus the Japanese is made supremely obvious.

So while Thirty 30 Over Tokyo has understandably been lauded for a certain level of historical accuracy, there is still a necessity to parse through its stances as a cultural artifact. Like any film, it is a product of its times and a tribute to the minds behind it, whether Mervyn LeRoy or Dalton Trumbo. Each man no doubt had his own agenda, be it bugetary or ideological.

To that point, the picture is framed by a corny romantic crescendo that’s difficult to take seriously. Otherwise, it an intermittently rewarding portrait of a specific time in WWII history. It’s difficult to remake a movie such as this without losing some of its inherent credibility.

3.5/5 Stars

Bob Le Flambeur (1956): Melville’s Noir Heist

bob le flambeur.png

“Montmartre is both heaven and…hell.” 

While Melville would continue to cultivate his own unique canvass and pulp sensibilities, Bob Le Flambeur, as a slightly earlier work, shows its deep abiding debt to the American noir cycle. Because it was at this juncture in time where analogous crime pictures like Asphalt Jungle, Kansas City Confidential, and The Killing were still being churned out in the States.

Bob The Gambler must fit into this same conversation with how it instantly calls on voiceover and submerges itself in the throes of darkness as its constant palette of choice. Melville’s yet to have a Jean-Paul Belmondo or Alain Delon to hang his hat on, as it were (the latter actor was turned down for an early role). Still, he does have Bob (Roger Duchesne), more than meeting the prerequisites of a noirish hero.

He’s silver-haired with piercing eyes. His dress is nice, impressive, but not altogether flashy. Someone says of him, “Both young and old and already a legend.” Even as the voiceover draws us into the world — and the landscape in itself becomes not only a metaphor but a character — we meet a dame too, all before getting to the focus of our story.

Exteriors at times feel harsh and dilapidated. Trash collects in the gutters of the streets, and no one’s doing the city any favors, dumping their refuse wherever they please. At times, interiors, like a gambling joint or a kitchen, are so spare they play as a unique aesthetic all their own. Bob’s home is full of paintings and paisley wallpaper designs. The eye strays to the tiling, which along with the wallpaper, aid in creating this satisfying geometry of checkerboards, shapes, and patterns filling out the film.

Bob is forever the focal point guiding the movie’s progressions. In one scene he’s ready to shell out money to those in need, but he has his own code — he’s no fan of pimps — and since the cops are looking to run one in, he’ll willingly leave Marc to the police dogs.

For someone with such enterprises and acquaintances, Bob still manages an oddly amicable relationship with the police chief. He’s gone straight for 20 years, after a famed bank job he was forced to pay penance for. He’s done his time and reformed. His noble side has come out on more than one occasion.

But this is Bob The Gambler and so a bit of card play, roulette, and chance should be a part of it. Certainly, Bob more than lives up his name, always winning big on the horses only to lose it the same evening on something else. The capricious nature of it all somehow entices him.

When he hears from a buddy that the local gambling house is full up on cash, he makes a near-instantaneous decision. He’s going to rob it. It seems such a drastic way to end 20 years living under the law, and there’s no real inclination of why he decides this. It’s somewhere in between the lines there, and Melville has left us to figure it out. All we know is he is resolved to do it.

Simultaneously, he moves on with the planning measures. All the paces. The inside man. The financier. Layouts, schematics, gathering the crew together. Each is a single step in this methodical process. Bob proves himself to be no slouch when it comes to the details.  An abandoned junkyard becomes his chessboard to lay out all the pieces in real-time, helping all his crew visualize their parts.

However, despite such intricate planning, it only takes one chink in the armor to ruin it. She’s a young woman — only a girl really — and Bob feels somehow responsible for her. He doesn’t want to see her get harmed and, subsequently, hardened by a life walking the streets.

bob le flambeur 2.png

He treats her well, gives her money, even lodging in his apartment, and he expects no favors in return. After all, it is his young colleague Paulo who is madly in love with her. It’s this that causes him to run off his mouth. He wants to impress her and keep her for his own. Little does he know there are others. She’s not tied down by any stretch of the imagination, and her feminine wiles find her moving up the totem pole, from cigarette girl to hostess to a floor show main attraction.

Meanwhile, the squirrely croupier who has vowed to be their ticket on the inside has a prying wife who catches wind of the scheme. At first, it appears she might be one of the moralistic types, but it becomes apparent she’s even more of an opportunist than him. She wants more of the cut and so if we can go out on a slight limb, she is our second femme fatale.

The police commissioner receives his tip and readies his men, that is if the information is in fact true. Bob seems all but oblivious to these details. True enough, he learns the girl let the word slip, and he gives her a going over. And yet, according to plan, he gets into his tux and heads to the casino. There are only two options: either it works or it doesn’t.

There’s not a gunshot until well into an hour of the picture. When it comes is not important; simply knowing it does is something. No question there’s a weight to the action because when you’re waiting for a gun to go off, instead of having them blasting every few minutes, the impact is more apparent. It punctuates the action.

Fully cognizant of the tension wrapped up in the heist, Melville cuts between faces waiting in cars or sitting in bedrooms — all a part of this plot in some way, shape, or form — and Bob still keeps on gambling at the roulette wheel.  Gambling becomes not just a distraction for us but for Bob as well. Surely, he cannot have forgotten? Is it possible? I’m not sure. One could hazard a guess; it becomes his undoing, but hardly in the way that you might initially expect.

The tragedy in the final moments of Bob Le Flambeur is a different strain verging on the height of comic irony. It might easily elicit a chuckle from a few for the sheer chance of it all. It’s a textbook example of how a heist can go utterly wrong and somehow come out right in another way. When I say textbook example, it might actually be the only one just like this, and this is the film’s final trick. It’s indelible in its own right.

Melville came into the gangster genre with deep reservoirs of understanding and his own applied sense of understated style. Just as he stole and borrowed from others, he would, in turn, become the influence for the generations to come — not least among them the Godards and Truffauts of the world. For the time being, he lived with minor acclaim, but the film community would learn his name soon enough. Although, even that, he borrowed from another man.

4/5 Stars

Sahara (1943): Bogart Against The Nazis…Again

sahara 1.png

The opening crawl of Zoltan Korda’s Sahara sets the scene, though contemporary audiences were probably already well aware of current events. This war film details the exploits of members of the Armored Corps of the Army Ground Forces. In June 1942 an American detachment joined British forces in North Africa to aid against the troops of Field Marshall Erwin Rommel.

We meet three of our heroes in the heat of battle. Their tank is stalling, mortars are bursting all around them, and they are the only contingent left from their company. With the finesse of a man whispering sweet nothings to a lover, Master Sergeant Joe Gunn (Humphrey Bogart) coaxes their tank Lulu Belle into operation.

His meager crew of Doyle (Dan Duryea) and Waco (Bruce Bennet) are grateful, if not slightly incredulous. However, they’ve learned to trust his shrewdness under fire. As becomes a habit, they make a bet on the outcome, and one of them always comes out of the jam a little bit richer. It’s this manner of gallows humor that allows them to cope with these high stake scenarios.

Before losing radio contact, they were ordered to head south, and they follow through on their orders, wind their tank coalition back from whence they came. However, this story, although it boasts an eventual objective, is really about the arid road to get there. Because out in the bleak sands of the Sahara they find themselves gathering up the dregs of other units, left all but obliterated by enemy stukas.

One can almost hear Bogart explaining how he came to the Sahara for the waters. He was misinformed, of course, but then that’s a different film altogether. In this picture, it’s all about camaraderie. A typically hardboiled Bogey takes the lead with his usual tenacity only after the British officer (Richard Nugent) of more propriety defers to his command.

He knows full-well they must enlist total discipline if they are ever to survive the perils set before them. The first order of business is rationing water against the cries of indignation from his subordinates and yet the rest of the British crew begrudgingly fall in, including the token “Frenchy” (Louis T. Mercier), who is resolved to do whatever it takes.

sahara 2

The storyline systematically introduces new characters into the sand-swept drama, and they are not just new stimuli. They feel like living, breathing characters to tease out another facet of the world conflict. The first is a Sudanese soldier (Rex Ingram) toting a groveling Italian prisoner (J. Carroll Naish). In a plea to be taken along, he speaks of his wife and child and the relatives he has working in a steel factory in Pittsburgh.

The film looks destined to take its darkest turn when Bogart is intent on leaving the enemy soldier behind — they need to conserve as much food and water as possible — but he relents because in Hollywood the allies don’t do such things; even Bogart briefly sheds his steely surface layer.

The Nazis, on the other hand, are another matter. A solitary German fighter pilot (Kurt Kreuger) looks to wipe out their faction with several sweeps overhead, strafing them with all he’s got. Ultimately, he’s shot down and taken prisoner. Of course, his Aryan philosophy means he doesn’t want to be searched by an inferior race.

Admittedly, it feels like a slightly ironic footnote. Major Tambul gets vouched for by his American ally and yet this country wasn’t exactly the pinnacle of racial equity either.

Later, the captured German turns his attention to the entire company, sneering at the ragtag assortment of soldiers they’ve gathered together. They’ll never outlast the German war machine. They’re too disparate. One is reminded of a similar tactic used by Sam Fuller in The Steel Helmet to highlight how the enemy (in that case, a North Korean) looks to play mental war games.

As a side note, it always fascinates me when you have seemingly native German speakers in these old WWII movies. Obviously, this never happened with Japanese (enter Richard Loo) and rarely with Italians. But with Germans and other Eastern Europeans, it was a different case because of the scourge of Hitler.

Kurt Kreuger, as well as John Wengraff, are a couple actors to add to this very unique category. In some ways, although they no doubt detested playing the despicable, the very fact that they are so diametrically opposed to the people they were portraying is another level of cutting derision.

In a subsequent desert storm, the company seeks desperately for any kind of shelter. It proves rather fortuitous leading them to water, which they must painstakingly extract from a trickling well, deep in the ground. It’s a vital resource, and the Nazis are in need of it too. They are the lumbering beast who is rapidly approaching — desperate for resources.

Now time is of the essence, but water is life so they wait to fill up their reservoirs. What this interim period does is give the Allies time to care for their equipment, but, practically, it also allows us to get to know each man better. Their religious beliefs, their wives, the places they call home.

I couldn’t help thinking of Tom Hanks in Saving Private Ryan when one soldier asks where their commander is from. Gunn is far less accommodating. He simply says “no place, just the army.” In each case, their responses more than fit their respective backgrounds, and it gives them a moment to assert themselves as being all the more human.

When a German recon unit arrives, they are dealt with soundly and tempted with water. It’s all a ploy to draw the enemy in for as long as possible. Waco volunteers to try and go off for reinforcements to aid against the impending Nazis. For now, all they’ve got are the men in front of them.

Generally, the film revels in pithy dialogue, but there are a few instances it can’t help but wave the flag for a moment or two. For instance, when Bogart gets candid it feels like a “hill of beans” speech in Casablanca. It could be corny and sentimental but Bogey somehow makes his speech, spattered with references to Dunkirk, Bataan, Moscow, and China, feel like a stirring call to arms.

sahara 3

However, they still have a treacherous enemy in their midst, bent on sounding the alarm for his countrymen — by any means necessary. Because, of course, the outpost is now drained of its liquid gold. They’re being played for suckers. This is when the Italian, Giuseppe, gets his moment to shine — his own speech denouncing Hitler and the German way. It’s a stirring stance even if it’s purpose is blatantly obvious.

With waves of German soldiers looking to take their post, the Allies rally to hold them up for a while, taking as many men down with them as possible. They fight the hundreds with their lusty force of less than ten. It’s a David versus Goliath-like struggle.

The tension doesn’t abate as Sergeant Major Tambul chases down the fleeing Nazi pilot in no man’s land. He tracks him down in a scene imbued with so much real emotion that Ingram got so caught up in the moment, he nearly choked Kurt Kreuger to death.

The strafing is heavy on both sides. Waves upon waves of Germans are brushed back, even as the defenders are knocked off one by one. American fortitude and teamwork involving everyone rules the day as want of water finally cripples the opposition. The drama cools off even as we must take account of the losses. Sacrifices are warranted on all sides.

Sahara is a rousing war film for the very fact it builds a whole world out of California’s Anza-Borrego Desert further fortified by a compelling scenario that’s easy to relate to. What it forfeits in terms of all-out authenticity, it more than makes up for with character. All of a sudden, World War II becomes personal and spearheaded by Bogart — a perfect embodiment of American grit and determination — we soon get behind every heroic action. It’s home front propaganda, nevertheless, functioning, at its best, as unadulterated entertainment.

4/5 Stars

Five Graves to Cairo (1943) and The Desert Fox

five graves to cairo.png

For modern audiences especially, the movie’s opening crawl gives us a bit of helpful context. It’s June, 1942.  Field Marshall Erwin Rommel’s Afrika Corps was pounding the Brits back toward Cairo and the Suez Canal. His notoriety as a tactician and “The Desert Fox” is already spreading. That’s enough on the historical moment.

However, as far as the film is concerned, this was Billy Wilder’s second film behind the camera. Not only is Charles Brackett producing, but he also shared script-writing duties with Wilder, deep into their lucrative, if complicated, collaboration. With the gorgeously perfected cinematography of John Seitz, it’s hard not to consider what was just around the corner. We can almost feel Double Indemnity peeking through. But we’re not quite there yet. There is still space to grow.

Wilder’s opening image is a fine vision: a phantom tank trawling across the sands driven by the dead weight of a corpse. Except, there is one survivor inside the rolling tomb; his name is Corporal John Bramble (Franchot Tone), of the British army. He’s exhausted and terribly disoriented trying to make sense of his curious predicament just as we are.

In the end, the tank gets away without him, leaving the corporal to wander through the desert in a one-person exodus. Plagued by sunstroke, he eventually trades the vast arid emptiness for a ghost town, the former regimental headquarters for the British forces. They have long since left the premises.

One of the only people left in The Empress of Britain Hotel is Farid (Akim Tamiroff), a bumbling wreck of a man, trying to keep his neck and assuage all parties at every turn. The other is Mouche (Anne Baxter), a Frenchwoman in the middle of nowhere, serving as a maid. His cook ran out on him and his only waiter got it in the most recent blitzkrieg.

There’s no time to form a decision about the delusional Brit because just to make things more tenuous German forces roll into town, in preparation for the high command. It’s enough to make any man cave, much less a pile of perpetual nerves, wearing a fez, like Farid.

He obviously acquiesces to their every whim, except giving away their newest guest, currently stowed away behind a counter. He gets by on the skin of his teeth and through the clemency of his newfound benefactors as they vouch for him in his position as their waiter. For the time being, no one can catch them in the lie.

In full transparency, I’m not quite sure what to make of Baxter’s performance — that of an American playing a Frenchwoman, however, I’m rather hesitant to admit she does a fairly spot-on approximation of a Simone Simon or other French contemporaries speaking in English. Truthfully, the whole picture brazenly scrambles all the nationalities, somehow normalizing all the casting. Another American as a Brit. A Russian as an Egyptian, An Austrian as a German, and so on.

Italians come in as well, represented by the boisterous baritone, Fortunio Bonavova, grumbling about the state of affairs for his army. There proves to be a testy relationship even within Axis allies. As always, the Italians feel like the comical little brother in the scenario. If we take the Germans nominally serious — as a kind of threat — the Italians are all but dismissed.

Erich Von Stroheim gives a blood-chilling introduction, back turned completely toward the camera. One thing he doesn’t lack is stage presence, capturing the screen with the entirety of his entrance. While he’s not doing an imitation of the real Rommel, it seems Von Stroheim does us a greater favor by being a version of himself. After all, this is the same hallowed figure who gave us Greed, showed up in Renoir’s Le Grande Illusion, and subsequently Sunset Blvd (1950). He is a worthy enigma in his own right.

The story twirls on a peculiar, if not altogether compelling, coincidence. Bramble takes on the persona of the crippled waiter as a pure survival tactic, only to find out he’s not what he seems. The Germans are the ones who make him realize this, by bringing him into their confidence. They seem in one sense highly rational — at any rate, not utter buffoons — and yet would they have actually been so stupid? We can only conjecture. Regardless, here we are. He’s been given an invaluable if precarious, opportunity.

With an influx of British prisoners, there’s a fear that the jig is finally up. They only need give the word, and he’s done for. Instead, they too play along, realizing their brilliant luck. 20 questions over dinner with The Desert Fox only elicits more riddles when it comes to his plans and unparalleled success.

Even more so than Stalag 17, Wilder’s picture is a small-scale war film. What’s present is a decently solid script by he and Charles Brackett. While it doesn’t always jump off the page, there are frequent lines, giving a stirring reminder of who is penning this story. These are the men behind Double Indemnity.

five graves to cairo 2.png

It also becomes obvious the battles have been left for others to reenact. At its best, Five Graves to Cairo is about character and with it, cracking the code of Rommel. It might seem like an insignificant victory but the implication for the broader war are made obvious. It’s easy to admit lives are at stake, even as Bramble teeters precariously close to being ousted. Mouche has no allegiance to him or the country that left her countrymen stranded at Dunkirk.

Instead, Wilder uses the bombers overhead as a bit of a tumultuous symphony for what is going down in the bomb cellar. Chiaroscuro is most boldly on display as our hero must flee for his life. If any character is redeemed, it is Mouche, but for the narrative to function, she is also forced to pay the consequences.

The ending is nothing to bat an eye at — certainly no extraordinarily inventive digression — but it suitable enough for its purpose. There’s a bit of satisfaction as Tone returns back to the place he once stumbled into, now victorious. There’s time for a laugh or two, even as a hint of somberness sets in. In the end, a new resolve has been instilled. We’re ready to go out there and do our part. It fits conveniently enough into the contemporary propaganda machine.

It left me thinking, what’s really missing is the trademark Wilder wit, whether trenchant or wholly subversive. Thankfully, there was still ample time for this to come to fruition. There’s certainly no illusions about war smelling like honeysuckle with enough sand, killing, and residual dead to rule that out completely.

But this early in his career, it still feels like Wilder willingly propagates an ongoing idealism about the Allies and America — the country that openly took him in when he needed a place. He would never lose his gratitude, even as he began to subvert convention soon enough. One could contend Wilder started to understand his adopted nation to its core — warts and all — and still managed to love it. This is one of the true marvels of his career.

3.5/5 Stars

 

Touchez Pas Au Grisbi (1954): Gabin’s Aging Gangster

Touchez pas au grisbi 1.png

On only two occasions have I had the pleasure of watching a Jacques Becker film, and I hold him in the highest esteem even based on this admittedly meager sample size. It seems a fitting observation to acknowledge how closely he was tied to one of France’s foremost titans, Jean Renoir, serving as his assistant director on a number of his projects including A Day in The Country and The Grand Illusion. 

The overt connections between the so-called poetic realism of Renoir and brethren like Marcel Carne seem intuitive, not merely in visual style and content, but going so far as casting some of the same actors — in this case, a Renoir regular like Jean Gabin.

While completely seamless transitions are hard to come by, it’s not all too difficult to go from Renoir to Becker and see how his work bleeds into the crime pictures of Jean-Pierre Melville and then the Nouvelle Vague and so on and so forth. If nothing else, it is a tangible reminder that all cinematic artifacts find their roots in ancestors. Nothing exists on its own completely outside the undue influence of others. As it should be.

Touchez Pas Au Grisbi, translated to “Hands Off The Loot” in English, rarely gives much pretense of being a crime picture. Sure the people within its interiors are criminal types; it’s easy enough to decipher just watching and listening, but this is a film reminding us how mundane even their lives can be.

If there is anything half resembling a prototypical inciting incident it would be the brief moment when the veteran gangster, Max (Gabin), scans the newspaper to note a cache of gold bars have been stolen in Orly. Nothing is said of it but the implications are obvious, and Becker’s movie is made up of such moments.

The director never telegraphs anything to the audience, remaining content to examine scenes, playing around with seemingly trivial or unimportant details, and letting his story rely on such details for its enjoyment. The trick in the initial scenes is the feeling we are driving toward some inevitable end while Becker is content to coast along. As a Hollywood-bred audience, we wait a bit impatiently for the next beat to rev up the action, but the real game is right in front of us the whole time.

In his own way, Jean Gabin has the weight of a Brando or a Jimmy Cagney. He can be “The Godfather,” and we believe it, and yet there is something amiable dancing in his eyes this time around. Of course, he’s nothing like those other men — never unhinged and always settled in his surroundings — but he brings the same boldness of being.

When he’s in a room with others we want to watch him and see what he will do. There is an instant gravitational pull toward him. He can carry these moments like the greats. It’s not to say he can’t be violent, even brutal. Burning like hot coals at times. Slapping people around. Still, he’s always measured.

Touchez Pas Au Grisbi opens as a series of scenes (like most movies) where we go from a restaurant to a car to a club. Two gangsters, including Max and his cohort Riton, are spending time with their pleasant female company (Jeanne Moreau and Dora Doll) — it’s the customary social life of people in their business — they have to make the rounds and keep up appearances.

We are privy to this as an audience and maybe we are waiting for something to happen in the conventional sense. There’s a conference in a backroom were Max pays his respects to a couple of work associates, one a thuggish gangster Angelo (Lino Ventura), the other a bespectacled nightclub owner Pierrot (Paul Frankeur). In another accompanying sequence, he walks in on Angelo with his partner’s girl Josy. Still, he doesn’t do anything rash. He takes it in stride as Josy defends her decisions. In a movie where a plethora of lovely ladies (including Miss America Marilyn Buferd) exist as eye candy, Moreau manages a few defiant acts of rebellion.

Touchez pas au grisbi 2.png

We follow Max home only for him to be tailed by a shady ambulance with two “physicians” looking to take him in. He nonchalantly walks up to his flat, pulls his gun out of a drawer, and wards them off with his piece, darting off into the night to pay a visit to his accomplice Riton (dour-eyed Rene Dary). Call it action if you will, but it’s all a bit discombobulating, never smooth or modulated. This in itself speaks to something. Nothing is written out on a billboard for us. We have to infer and do the work on our own. Becker is content with this arrangement.

Finally, Max and Riton are sitting around a table once again, crunching on food disconsolately. Why are they so bleak? It barely seems as anything has happened to them. Perhaps this is the point. We realize for the first time their discontentment with the life of crime. They are old, at least for such a young man’s racket. They’ve seen it all and as Max says, they’re fed up with it all. More than any amount of danger, it’s a nuisance staying ahead of the pack.

As with any such person, whether thief, gangster, gunslinger, or outlaw, it becomes very difficult to run away from a lifestyle once you’ve been marked by it. The world you initially chose reciprocates by choosing you, and it always has a habit of catching up with you.

For now, they watch and wait. Never before have I witnessed a robber gargling as he gets ready to bed down in his pajamas or later on reaching into the cupboard to pull out the bedclothes. It’s practical, but surely, this is not kosher. Unwritten rules say cinema is life with the boring bits cut out. Becker is brazen enough to make a gangster picture with the dull bits stitched back in. In his own creative patchwork, they inform his characters.

We’ve all but forgotten about their payload. That is until Max pays a visit to his uncle, who also happens to be his shady dumping ground. Haggling over hot money has even lost its luster. It takes all the fun out of having wealth.

Most importantly, we are reminded Max is human. It’s what previous generations — namely the Greeks — would have termed hamartia. This is his fatal flaw. For us, it simply makes him more relatable. He’s a sentimentalist — no longer The Godfather figure. He is fallible. His weakness has been ousted. Surely these themes slowly progressing through the story are not unfamiliar ones about aging and friendship in a dirty business. But they have their own crucial perspective — an individual point of view.

One of the most gripping scenes occurs in a cellar. They’re shoving a young kid down the steps for spying, ready to work him over. He gets a few smacks. In such a banal world it feels all the more terrifying, clamped in our faces with glowing close-ups. There’s little in the form of action up to this point, aside from the film’s fairly explosive climax, as a kidnapping triggers a mini gang war.

Again, Becker appears more interested in the outcomes than the actual events. What is leftover would normally be termed superfluous scenes, but once more, they hold true to the essence of the characters. The ending gives way to these curious moments with Max back around a lunch table with a beautiful woman, on the phone, and hearing some sad news. The melancholy sets in. It all matters. Some might argue there is no movie at all. For me, there’s no movie without Gabin.

4/5 Stars