The Wolf Man (1941)

The-wolfman.jpgEven a man who is pure in heart, and says his prayers by night; May become a wolf when the wolfbane blooms and the autumn moon is bright.

Universal had an impressive catalogue of horror films during the 30s and 40s that integrated gothic and science fiction themes into stories such as Frankenstein, Dracula, and The Invisible Man. The Wolf Man can be considered part of that same dynasty and it established Lon Chaney Jr. much like Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi before him, as a horror film staple. He was the Wolf Man as Karloff was Frankenstein’s Monster and Lugosi was Dracula. That’s how it worked.

What makes many of these films compelling is how they take myth and ground it in a believable reality. Fact and fiction becomes homogenized in a sense and such a world is a wonderful place to draw out horror. Because it can be supernatural, otherwordly, and frightening but it also hits close to home since there is a shred of truth always visible.

In this case, the film opens with the prodigal son, the lumbering, good-natured Larry Talbot (Lon Chaney Jr.) returning to the estate of his well to do father Sir John (Claude Rains). There’s some mention of a dead brother and a hunting accident–some tragic events. This is what brought Larry home and he seems to have patched things up well enough with his dad. As they say, time heals all wounds and it’s easy enough to dismiss it with that.

Anyways, life seems generally good. He’s getting acclimated with the quaint town of Lianwilly and he conveniently spies a girl working in her father’s shop across the way, the pretty ingenue Gwen Conliffe (Evelyn Ankers) who happens to be already engaged. But that doesn’t stop her from wanting to spend time with him because he really is a giant teddy bear with nary a violent bone in his body.

This is the preexisting world that the story develops only to be thrown off its axis by a telling event. It’s the origin of Larry’s troubles and they begin with a visit to a gypsy caravan, ending with him incurring a bite from a killer wolf. But the implications are much more ominous and deep-seated than that.

Because the trauma begins to eat away at him and his father though the local doctor sees his change of state as merely a psychological issue. Something he can be cured of. He’s only misguided–a little wrong in the head. They fail to see the full manifestations of his new sickness which transform him and lead him off into the night seeking after victims.

But if The Wolfman was simply an excuse to see a beast, it’s hard to gather that the film would have resonated with anyone then or now. In fact, this film is very much comparable to the superhero films we are so accustomed to now. The great installments are made that way by compelling characters and solid storytelling.

Curt Siodmak the brother of famed film noir director Robert Siodmak must be commended on his script which in a mere 70 minutes develops a streamlined story line full of a certain moodiness. To his credit, he helped lay the foundation for a whole legend that has become the standard archetype for any narratives involving werewolves.

The very fact the little poem uttered throughout the film is practically omnipresent, conjured up by so many individuals, works as a fitting harbinger of things to come. Meanwhile, the gypsies played by (Bela Lugosi) in an unfortunately relegated role and Maria Ouspenska, while pigeon-holed takes on the role of mystical soothsayers with ease. Throw in silver bullets, silver-headed walking sticks, and pentagrams and you have all the necessary touchstones (except full moons). Apparently that comes later.

Furthermore, the general atmosphere, time lapse effects, and painstaking makeup work of Jack Pierce all contribute to the heady brew. Perhaps because it is precisely these things that will make some disdain the horror genre with scorn that actually imbue a B-picture such as this a surprisingly engaging aura. It’s very much a part of the mythology that has been built around these monster movies and while meeting our expectations in a sense, that’s only a small, albeit integral part of this story.

Because, everything must ultimately return back to Lon Chaney’s performance as the genial giant Larry Talbot. He’s the complete antithesis of a monster. It’s not what he wants to be and he proves to have such a strong capacity for love. He keeps short accounts and he has a tremendous urge to protect others from harm. It’s innate in him. That’s what makes his ghastly transformation so devastating. Literally no one sees it coming (except Maleva) and you can attribute that to pure ignorance or you could go out on a limb and say it’s because Larry comes off as a genuinely good human being. By the film’s conclusion we feel truly sorry for him and that’s the key

But if we dare take the metaphor further still, I suppose we could say that his curse was a physical manifestation–reflecting the animalistic evil that can be inside of any person.  The stuff that’s churning inside of our being at any given time. That cauldron of dark desires bubbling up. That’s what makes the dividing line between the physical and psychological so interesting in The Wolf Man. Normally they exist in separate spheres but in some ways this film makes them one in the same.

4/5 Stars

 

Black Girl (1966)

LaNoiredeDVDWhat’s fascinating about this film is how it manages to give voice to those who are normally silenced and even in her subservience this narrative powerfully lends agency to a young Senegalese woman’s perspective. Because even when she is silent and words are not coming out of her mouth and her status ultimately makes her powerless, the very fact that her mind is constantly thinking, her eyes observing and so on mean something. Inherently there’s a great empowerment found there even if it’s only known by her and seen by the outside observer peering into her life. That’s part of her. We are given a view into what she sees. We can begin to understand her helplessness and isolation. Where she came from and the life she left behind. Giving up the master narrative of the entitled and shown the flip side of the world for once.

And the fact that this viewpoint comes from an African filmmaker casts the film in an even more profound light because just as this character is from one of the marginalized castes, the same could be said for the director Sembane Ousmane. My knowledge of African filmmaking is admittedly poor and that’s precisely the point. For me, this film is an entry point, a representation, a portrait of a lineage that I know very little about and that makes Black Girl extremely exciting. Because if this picture found its way to me, there’s a chance that it can represent something to others as well–namely the import that African cinema can have on the world at large if given half a chance.

With this picture, Ousmane makes a visual statement using the medium of film to offer yet another, broader perspective to the patchwork of world cinema that can be decidedly bland and monochromatic at times. Here is a story that even in its simplicity guarantees that more voices will be heard and at the very least more perspectives will be empathized with.

Diouanna is at best a servant and exotic sideshow attraction for party guests and at worst a prisoner who gets her job as a live-in nanny and de facto housekeeper rather like a slave off an auction block. Sadly, it doesn’t feel that much different. There’s a little more free will involved but that’s what humble circumstances can do. She has a choice but not much of one.

She looks at France as an extravagant promise land and a job is a gift of providence that she will gladly take. Still, once she arrives on the Riviera she soon becomes disillusioned. It’s hard not to blame her given the circumstances. She no longer is able to mind kids as she knows best and rarely is allowed to explore the beautiful country she lives in–if at all.

She doesn’t want the husband’s money or the patronizing kindness of the wife which demands every amount of deference and even most of her freedoms. It’s the high position that takes on the role of savior and expects a certain response whether it is fully deserved or not. That is what hangs in the balance of Black Gir signified by the ceremonial mask that Diouanna gifts her benefactors at the outset of her employment.

First relinquished as a gift and taken as an exotic souvenir exhibited on the wall for all to see–a symbol of charity, generosity, and simultaneously colonialism. But soon, as Diouana grows discontent she realizes she doesn’t want this. She will willingly give up this “lavish lifestyle” and whatever perks come with it to retain her identity. That’s too great a price to pay as she realizes and this job isn’t worth the toll. Her cultural identity and the identity represented by this film are vitally important. Because they represent yet another member of humanity.

4/5 Stars

Monsieur Verdoux (1947)

Monsieur_verdoux57Prior to the making and release of Monsieur Verdoux Charlie Chaplin had undoubtedly hit the most turbulent patch in his historic career and not even he could come out of scandal and political upheaval unscathed. To put it lightly his stock in the United States plummeted.

You would think that he more than anyone would have been aware of his current state of affairs. It’s a plausible assumption and yet that’s precisely what makes the release of his latest film during that very climate all the more remarkable.

Chaplin always had a handle on emotional clout and he was the king of pathos but with time as film evolved he did evolve with it and it could easily be said that his sound pictures were imbued with much more prominent political overtones, most notably in The Great Dictator and Monsieur Verdoux. The first was a blatant lambast of the world’s resident tyrannical dictator and his cronies with a tremendous bite that goes beyond simple comedy. The latter film takes a broader scope that’s not quite as evident at first.

It shares similarities with Shadow of a Doubt, Kind Hearts of Coronets, or even The Bigamist and it took inspiration from a passing whim of Orson Welles. But Chaplin plants his particular drama in the previous decade–the age of poverty and depression and that allows him to relate his protagonist once more to the plight of man as the Tramp did perennially. However, Chaplin’s latest incarnation is a far cry from the Tramp and no doubt on purpose. Chaplin had officially retired the character after Modern Times, but with the similarly depicted Jewish Barber in The Great Dictator, Monsieur Verdoux was a character with no semblance of his predecessors.

For lack of a better term, he is a wife killer, a Bluebeard, a gentleman murderer and there’s no other way to put it. Yes, he began as a bank teller with an invalid wife and little boy who hit hard times following the crash. True, he maintains his pretenses at civility and yet here is a character so vastly different from all others because for once Chaplin is making his hero difficult for the audience to like. At the very least, he’s a conflicted hero and as such the contemporary viewer was not about to pity him given Chaplin’s already muddied reputation. This was another nail in the coffin and it’s probably part of the reason Verdoux was generally scorned by the American Public at the time. But now, with the clouds of the cultural moment dissipated we can look at Chaplin’s blackest of comedies without the established biases.

The narrative is comprised mostly of Verdoux cycling from wife to wife, town to town, identity to identity with such fluidity it’s mindboggling. Our only indication that he’s moved is the ubiquitous image of the locomotive always chugging along to the next destination. But we’re introduced to this whole charade through the most curmudgeon, bickering household ever known to man in the Courvais.

The only reason they matter for this story is that Verdoux has married their sister who has just recently taken all her money out of the bank and vanished. Only the culprit knows what happened but presently he busies himself with tidying up his affairs in one location so he can check in on his other “business endeavors.” To Annabelle (Martha Raye) he is a sea captain away months at a time which explains his frequent absences.

Consequently, his Pigeon also has to be one of the most annoying chatterboxes of all time. It makes sense he’s crafting a poison to kill her even if it’s not quite forgivable.  He also calls upon his second asset the rightfully suspicious Lydia while looking to woo the affluent Marie Grosnay who happens to be less of a boob than the rest of his conquests. Though he is a persistent devil. Soon enough wedding bells chime again and that becomes the fateful day when his many strands get tangled in one brief moment at his latest marriage ceremony.

If nothing else it suggests that the time is running out as global tensions rise and Verdoux finds his fortunes dwindle in the wake of his imprisonment. But now on trial, he’s allowed to be up on the stand and mount his final defense–his rebuttal against the indiscretions of mankind. Ultimately, it’s an invariably cynical take on the ways of the world comparing his spree of mass killing to the prospects of the very scientific mass destruction of the world at present. It’s all business, war and anything else you can imagine, merely profiteering endeavors to get ahead. As he walks off to the guillotine the Priest asks him if he has anything to confess and strikingly he asserts, “I am at peace with God, my conflict is with man.”

This is where we overtly see Chaplin’s stance once more as he stands up on his soapbox as it were but he gave us some indications earlier on as well. Verdoux’s most telling interactions come in the form of chance encounters with a particular young woman. At first, he sees her as a test case for his poison, but soon he’s taken with her words, the way she sees the world. It affects him deeply (You better go before your philosophy corrupts me ). And in a striking parallel to Limelight several years later, Chaplin’s character falls to his demise as this young woman’s fortunes increase. She doesn’t forget him. But the rest of the world isn’t quite so kind.

Monsieur Verdoux goes to the chopping block deservedly so as did Chaplin but the verdict’s still out on whether he deserved it all. Perhaps that’s what his film is getting at. He was full of faults as a human being but then again we all are. It makes sense that God is other, perfect, and outside of our messiness. It’s the rest of us that cause ruin, pain, and suffering. That’s where the blackness of this comedy finds its source and it’s something to ponder and then resolve to allay with doses of love and compassion.

4/5 Stars

Limelight (1952)

limelight 1The glamour of limelight, from which age must pass as youth centers 

A story of a ballerina and a clown… 

In Limelight it quickly becomes evident that Charles Chaplin was well aware of his own legend and how couldn’t he be? For years he had been held in the highest regards, loved by the masses worldwide as one of Hollywood’s founding royalty. He was at the center of the universe and the limelight was burning brightly around him.

I’ve recently been reacquainting myself with Chaplin’s early works most notably those that paired him with the indelible Edna Purviance as well as the gargantuan behemoth of a bully Eric Campbell. But Limelight is a major flashforward in his career, really at the end of it all. By now Chaplin is in his twilight years.

In fact, Limelight is one of his last prominent roles and the feature where he audaciously placed everything in the public eye–a picture that is unequivocally autobiographical in nature, accented with Chaplin’s own romantic dealings and tumultuous history from his entire career up to that point. And yes, he faced scandal in his later years, not simply for his past indiscretions but also more overtly for his political affiliations which unquestionably must have made him an easy target during the supercharged age of McCarthyism.

Still, in a simple heartfelt narrative once more, for one last time, Charlie Chaplin captured his audience. The title card reads much like his old silents would have in setting the scene. It’s 1914, back in the days when he was probably just making it big in real life. However, as Calvero, Chaplin is a washed-up comedian prone to alcoholism with a career that has suffered dearly. But in a moment of action, he saves an aspiring dancer (Claire Bloom) from a self-attempted suicide and from then on becomes a sort of guardian angel for the girl.

Calvero heeds the doctor and allows the girl to stay in his flat, away from the trauma and although it receives the ire of their landlady, he calls Thereza his wife in order not to cause a local stir. It’s one half human drama, other half stage production because while he looks to lift her spirits in any manner possible, he daydreams of his past forays in comedy. He was the man who could pull off a whole gag with a pretense of performing fleas and he had wall to wall crowds.

limelight 2But now no one’s there. The seats are empty, the aisles quiet, and he sits with a dazed look in his flat the only recourse but to go back to bed. It’s as if the poster on the wall reading Calvero – Tramp Comedian is paying a bit of homage to his own legend but also the very reality of his waning, or at the very least, scandalized stardom. It adds insult to injury.

Still, in real life and on celluloid he put up the front of respectability for people. Although he went through 5 wives and now has a young woman living in his home less than half his age, he believes that after all his years of experience, “a platonic friendship can be sustained on the highest moral plane” as he puts it.

And it’s true Calvero is perfectly civil. This isn’t some passionate romance though he does try and call Terry to action in other ways. Chaplin composed his scripts of many great lines, monologues and sonnets where he himself gets to deliver beautiful rhetoric and impassioned rallying cries of truth to anyone who is listening. In this case, it’s the girl who sits despairingly in her bed but it’s for everyone else too. It’s like he took the stalwart speech from The Great Dictator and economized it into smaller bite sized pieces (That’s the problem with the world. We all despise ourselves, There’s something just as inevitable as death. Life! Life! Life!).

But there is something rather tragically demoralizing about watching crowds walk out on Chaplin even if it’s his fictional alter ego because you get the sense that his once faithful viewing public undoubtedly did the same thing–driven by the tides of the times and their own fickle ways.

But even as his fictional self fades, he watches Thereza ascend to the top of the dancing world as a prima ballerina and she looks to take her beloved Calvero along with her. There’s a necessity in life to never subsist, never cease fighting that she learns from him and takes to heart. So the second half is the role reversal. He began as her good samaritan and now in her bounty, she looks to take care of him going so far as professing her love for him and her desire to get married.

limelight 3It’s important to know that he writes off such an assertion as nonsense and one can question whether this is Chaplin’s chance at revisionist history or more so an affirmation of his life’s actual trajectory–working through his current reality that the world questions (IE. Marrying a woman much younger than himself in Oona O’Neil who he nevertheless dearly loved).

It’s ingenious really because there’s positively no way not to empathize with him, no matter our position and as he always was a premier master at, Chaplin once more tugs at our heartstrings in a very personal way–pathos overflowing from his performance one last time. He casts himself as the great sacrificial martyr and stepping down from his post as one of the luminaries of the cinema, his legacy burning brightly in his wake.

It’s also easy to suspect the tragedy of the Blue Angel or the madness of The Red Shoes displayed for all to see on the center stage will reveal itself in due time but Chaplin allows himself go out on his own terms since he’s a master of his own fate, in the film at least.

He’s reflected on his life and deemed it as about as good as it can be. That’s enough. Whether it’s his earlier marital troubles, his current marriage, the criticisms of the public, or even a real or fabricated feud between himself and Buster Keaton if there ever was such a thing. It is all laid to rest. It’s like old times even as the new age begins.

4/5 Stars

 

That Man from Rio (1964)

our man from rio 1

That Man from Rio is a find. It’s a dazzling picture that’s as comedic as it is entertaining bursting with a Brazilian energy that brings to mind the Bossa Nova rhythms of Sergio Mendes somehow married with the world of James Bond. And it’s true, there’s without question a major debt to be paid to Dr. No and From Russia with Love.  It’s a good old-fashioned international thriller in the most delightful sense.

Jean-Pierre Belmondo is one of our intrepid albeit reluctant heroes–more of a Gilligan than a masterclass spy–a bungling Bond if you will.  In fact, Adrien is fresh off a stint in the air force with a week’s worth of leave. And he’s planning on some nice relaxing R & R with his best girl our spunky heroine Agnes (Francoise Dorleac). But that all quickly goes to hell.

Because he doesn’t know what’s going on while his train is rolling into the station. A mysterious statue belonging to the indigenous Maltak peoples of the Amazon Rainforest is purloined from its place at a Parisian museum in the wake of a silent murder. It’s in these opening moments that the film feels strikingly similar to the following year’s caper comedy How to Steal a Million starring Audrey Hepburn and Peter O’Toole.

our man from rio 4

However, the story rapidly leaves behind the museum corridors for territory more at home in, if not Bond films, then certainly Tintin serials. Most memorably pulling from his adventures in South America as well as snatching some eerily similar plot points from Herge’s Prisoners of the Sun and Red Rackham’s Treasure.

Belmondo quickly is thrust into the ruckus as our comical and nevertheless compelling action hero who can be found riding a commandeered motorcycle through the Parisian streets in pursuit of his kidnapped girlfriend.

He’s more than once seen pitifully chasing after a car on foot and his being in the air force must explain why he’s utterly lacking in hand to hand combat skills, more often swinging wildly with blunt instruments and getting knocked to the ground for his efforts. There’s a bit of Indy in him with his own personal Portuguese Short Round, the local shoeshine boy and if rumor serves as fact it’s no surprise that Spielberg supposedly saw the film nine times in a flurry of infatuation. If the influences of Tintin can be seen in Rio, then the film undoubtedly inspired Raiders and its sequels, making it no surprise that Spielberg would produce a Tintin picture of his own.

our man from rio 2

The madcap antics are in one sense reminiscent of It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World also featuring trains, planes, and automobiles of every color and description. It too has an outlandish progression of events that nevertheless make for a thoroughly entertaining adventure.

The stolen statue and murder lead to kidnapping and a spur of the moment trip to Rio where Adrien somehow snags a ride on a flight so he can catch up to his girlfriend. But soon they’re both on the lamb, looking for the missing statue and trying to rescue Professor Catalan (Jean Servais), a friend of Agnes’s late father who as luck would have it, also winds up kidnapped. That’s about all you need to know to latch onto to the workings of the plot as they surge ever onward through crazy chase scenes, frantic escapes, bar fights, and whatever else you could possibly imagine.

Phillippe de Broca’s film right from its opening credits boasts gorgeous photography that positively pops making the most of Parisian streets and most certainly the luscious Brazilian locales that still somehow purport a grittiness. There’s the juxtaposition of the worn street corners that at times feel cavernous and somehow still manage to be quaint with a tropical affability thanks to the myriad locals and tourists who inhabit the world.

Having first become acquainted with Francoise Dorleac in The Young Girls of Rochefort opposite her sister Catherine Deneuve, it was easy to consider her the lesser star despite being slightly older. That’s how hindsight gives us an often contorted view of the past. After all, following her own tragic death in a car crash, her sister Catherine has gone on with an illustrious career that has kept her at the forefront of the public consciousness as one of France’s preeminent cinematic treasures.

But after seeing The Soft Skin and now Our Man in Rio with Cul de Sac still to see, it could easily be questioned whether or not Dorleac or Deneuve was a greater star early on as both were involved in some stellar projects. Umbrellas of Cherbourg probably still gives Deneuve the edge but a film like Rio and its star at the very least deserve a brighter spotlight.

Alongside Belmondo, Dorleac is his comic equal as they gallivant frantically every which way both pursuing and being pursued. And from both actors, there’s an obvious exercising of their comic chops that really becomes the core of this film even with its certain amount of intrigue. In truth, they both perform wonderfully and their work here serves as a light, refreshing change of pace. Do yourself a favor and enjoy it.

4/5 Stars

The Soft Skin (1964)

the-soft-skin-1There might be an initial predilection to call The Soft Skin Francois Truffaut’s most conventional film to date, but for me, it shows at this fairly early point in his career he seems to have grasped the main tenets of traditional filmmaking. Because his first films are full of life, energy, and idiosyncratic verve that easily charm their audience but here we see a film that in most ways looks like other classic works, well constructed and still quite engaging. Because within this very framework Truffaut is able to play around with issues that in themselves are still quite compelling. Love, intimacy, infidelity, and the like. Even with familiar names like Truffaut and Raoul Coutard, it feels very un-Nouvelle Vague. And that’s okay.

We often expect comedy from Truffaut as he shows in many of his other films but here everything is fairly reserved and understated dictated by our gentlemanly protagonist Pierre (Jean Desailly) and accentuated by most everyone else. They are not inserted into the story line to make light of issues but to actually grapple with these real life circumstances in ways that feel quite candid in their humanness.

Furthermore, Truffaut’s films are often, cinematically speaking, very self-aware but aside from a brief foray into a documentary on Andre Gide, our characters seem very much absorbed in their own world with the problems at hand and Truffaut seems to realize that. As audience members, we too become implicit accomplices to this tryst and that’s where the story comes into being.

Pierre is a managing editor of a prominent publication with a lovely wife and sweet little girl. He’s well off and travels across France in high demand at lectures and cultural galas. People want his autograph.

But in a moment he meets someone. Truffaut allows them to interact and pass each other by without anything happening. That’s the key. As I imagine it is with real life, moments go by and it’s in those passing moments that things begin to unfold. Pierre is taken by the stewardess (Francoise Dorleac) he now sees in the elevator and then invites her for a drink awkwardly. It begins there. He’s clumsy about it but his respectability and candidness probably attract the girl.

The title, of course, implies the very physical nature at the core of an affair. It’s the touch, the feel, the intimacy that is longed for. But it runs awry because that very thing that is craved becomes muddied by deception and infidelity that threatens to tear relationships apart. Not just with spouses and friends but the very people who are caught up in the throes of the affair. There’s the necessity to keep them hidden, skip out on them at a moment’s notice so as to not raise suspicion.

Everything is clouded and nothing is pleasurable anymore. There’s a moral repugnance that often goes with the territory. Of course, the one individual that we might do well to feel the sorriest for is the one we rarely see, the third party who is deceived, in this case, Pierre’s wife.

Still, Pierre is so sincere and Nicole much the same that it’s somehow easy to feel sorry for them as well as Franca. As Nicole notes to Pierre, “you made a real mess of things” partially because he’s having trouble leaving his wife after 15 years and he still wishes to see his little girl Sabine every day. He’s not much good at the whole affair business. Whether it’s leaving his wife or staying with the girl he’s found.

Perhaps the most poignant scene comes with Nicole on the balcony confiding in Pierre because we understand what she’s trying to hint at. And we don’t see Pierre but you can guess where his thoughts are at that very moment. In not so many words she is saying this thing they have won’t work anymore and that’s the end of it — at least in the way he envisioned it all, with marriage, a home, etc. It cannot exist.

And of course he has no recourse but to return to his wife and beg her forgiveness and it seems like a road worth the risk but in his unassertiveness, Pierre puts it off just long enough for it to be too late. There’s no getting it back. Because infidelity, no matter the strain, can be thoroughly insidious undermining trust and planting seeds of doubt and bitterness. That is rocky soil to maintain a relationship on and in cases like this, it can only end in tragedy. It’s true that The Soft Skin blows us out of the water in the end but what makes us stay is the great care it takes in getting there.

4/5 Stars

Review: A Streetcar Named Desire (1951)

Brando_-_Leigh_-_1951Blanche Dubois and Stanley Kowalski. They’re both so iconic not simply in the lore of cinema history but literature and American culture in general. It’s difficult to know exactly what to do with them. Stanley Kowalski the archetypical chauvinistic beast. Driven by anger, prone to abuse, and a mega slob in a bulging t-shirt who also happens to be a hardline adherent to the Napoleonic Codes. But then there’s Blanche, the fragile, flittering, self-conscious southern belle driven to the brink of insanity by her own efforts to maintain her epicurean facade. They’re larger than life figures.

In truth, A Streetcar Named Desire is one of those cases where play and film are so closely intertwined it’s hard to pull them apart. And there’s so many connecting points. Tennessee Williams helped to adapt his initial work and Marlon Brando, Kim Hunter, and Karl Malden all transposed their original stage roles to the screen while Elia Kazan took on direction once more.

As such it became the showcase of The Method, the shining beacon championing that long heralded yet controversial movement born of Stanislav Konstitine and disseminated in the U.S. by such instructors as Lee Strasberg and Stella Adler. It was from this latter teacher from whom Marlon Brando honed his craft and it’s true that he was one for the ages. The Greatest by some people’s account.

But before this film, Vivien Leigh was the biggest name on the marquee and she, of course, had ties to Laurence Olivier, the apex of Shakespearian actors and arguably the most reputed actor of the age until Brando came along. In Streetcar, you can invariably see the thin link connecting such luxuriant Hollywood offerings as Gone with the Wind to the evolution of cinema with later classics like The Godfather because it’s physically there on the screen.

Vivien Leigh, forever synonymous with Scarlet O’Hara and Brando’s own brand of sometimes brutal authenticity. She wavers and sashays through her scenes, clinging to the set and delivering her lines as pure searing drama. Whereas Brando just is. This animalistic force of brawn stuffing his face with chicken and moving through his home like he actually lives there. It’s social realism but it’s also a conflict on multiple levels that goes far beyond the main tension within the film itself.

Within the narrative, it is certainly a clash of culture, dialect, and acting styles and we’re never allowed to forget it anytime Stanley (Brando) or Blanche (Leigh) are in a room together. Still, they are not the only players in this film and Kim Hunter lends an added layer to the conflict as she simultaneously yearns for the romantic passion coursing through Stanely while wanting to protect her sister from harm. It’s a precarious tightrope to walk and Hunter makes it heartwrenching. Beyond her, Karl Malden plays Mitch, one of Stanley’s old war buddies who nevertheless exhibits a softer side that is easily taken with Blanche’s cursory level of class.

So in the end, Blanche’s fall not only harms Stella but Mitch too as he sees his heart get hurt and he feels lied too. But the one who fairs the worst is, of course, Blanche herself as she becomes completely overtaken by her delusions of grandeur. The fact that she goes for magic over reality ultimately becomes her undoing.

Today Streetcar does come off as stagy and yet Kazan is still able to personify the sticky, grungy, sweaty atmosphere of New Orleans — palpable with its billowing cigarette smoke and humidity. It somehow functions as this odd dichotomy between the theatrical and utter realism. In one way at odds and in another married perfectly because the juxtaposition only draws out the drama even further.  And the fact that the film pushed the boundaries as far as content easily heightens the drama. Stanley’s attack on Blanche is not only in a verbal or emotional sense but physical as well and we have little problem believing Brando in his role.

It also struck me that in her final moments Blanche feels hauntingly reminiscent of Norma Desmond in Sunset Blvd only a year prior. But her delusions are far more pitiful because she never was anything and yet she still tries to cling to this sense of pride in her upbringing and the looks that once were. She constantly needs the affirmation and adulation of others to reassure her in her fears and frailties. Always putting on a pretense — a face to get by — but she’s the only one she’s able to deceive in the end. It’s one of the preeminent tragedies of the 20th century and its actors guide it into transcendent territory.

4.5/5 Stars

Cat People (1942)

cat-peopleCat People has one of those sensationalized B-picture premises and there are moments when its meager aspects let slip that this is a low-budget effort, but within those restrictions, it moves with a certain purpose and chilliness. It’s true that producer Val Lewton had a B-movie renaissance going on at RKO Studios and Cat People is one of his treasures.

At its core is a streamlined love story between a Serbian artist/fashion designer and the local New Yorker who falls smitten for her in a whirlwind. Simon Simon is simultaneously sweet and bewitching as Irena Dubrovna who intrigues Oliver (Kent Smith) as much for her exotic mystery and feline figure as she does for her genial demeanor.

In several candid moments, Irena explains to her new admirer that she is a descendant from a long lineage of cursed individuals. The stories she tells of immense evil and witchcraft have the ring of gothic horror stories to Oliver and the audience.  Certainly nothing to be taken seriously. They’re legends, after all, except for Irena they are strikingly real.  And her palpable apprehension about such things allows an impending dread to set in and reach us.

With these strategic bits of exposition and foreshadowing, Cat People sets its story up well, revealing just enough to give some teeth to the impending doom as the narrative slowly descends deeper and deeper into the haunting darkness hinted at early on. But it’s the very fact, that that is not where it dwells all the time. It finds its plot in very mundane and ordinary things. The romance between two individuals. A young woman who is taken with walking through the Central Park Zoo to observe the animals.

cat-people-2At Oliver’s work, talk around the water cooler is made compelling in that his best pal and colleague is the sensible Alice (Jane Alexander) always ready to lend a listening ear. She’s genuine in accepting Irena for who she is because she can tell that Oliver earnestly loves her. But at the same time, she serves as a contrasting figure — someone who is completely different than this enigmatic creature.

But another thread involves Irena’s time spent in the counsel of the psychiatrist Dr. Judd at the behest of her love. And when she comes to him with her personal troubles it becomes evident that there is a great deal of trauma buried deep within her as there is with many of us I can imagine. The doctor rightly extrapolates that “childhood tragedies corrode the soul and leave a canker in the mind.”

It’s this that becomes the source of the horror. Because certainly, this is a fantasy on more levels than one– the man’s never been unhappy in his life until now (That’s a laugh) and the woman has unnatural impulses (You fear the panther, yet you’re drawn to him again and again). But it’s rooted in some sort of fact, whether personal, mental, or spiritual.  And, ultimately, it is a harrowing amalgamation of psychological duress, sexuality, and spirituality that makes for a spooky outcome indeed.

It even taps into the apocalyptic biblical literature (Revelation 13:2) to lend a certain amount of ethos to its story. And even if the interpretation of the texts is broadened and pulled completely at of context, as a narrative device, it works wonders.

One of the film’s greatest and perhaps most obvious assets is its aesthetic with a crepuscular atmosphere courtesy of cinematographer Nicholas Musurasca. He would partner with Jacques Tourneur later on in the decade with the much-revered film noir Out of the Past.  And what it truly adds is character, making the fears of these individuals actually legitimate and heightening the tension. Cat People does not pop out at you or repulse with gratuitous gore but it’s a completely unnerving picture all the same.

4/5 Stars

Thelma & Louise (1991)

thelma__louiseposterThemla & Louise hardly feels like typical Ridley Scott fare but then again, neither is this a typical movie. It pulls from numerous genres that have been depicted countless times before from buddy movies to caper comedies, road films, and the like. But perhaps the intrigue begins with the two leads.

It’s not simply the fact that they are two women sharing conversations together although that is often not a common enough occurrence in a world where the Beschel Test is often a stumbling block, but it is the fact that the two women are played so exquisitely by Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis.

They start out as two people stuck in a deadend world and they feel like the heirs to some of Altman’s heroines in films like Nashville and 3 Women. In fact, it’s a rather ironic development that screenwriter Callie Khouri went onto another project called Nashville. Still, when we look at their lives one is a small town waitress with a gruff boyfriend (Michael Madsen) the other a bit of a bubble-headed subservient housewife married to a grade A jerk. It’s easy to pity them and to want something better for them–at least some kind of escape from their everyday monotony. In one sense, that’s what the entire length of the film gives them and much more.

A single weekend away in a single irrevocable moment of decision evolves into not simply a gripping film but a rather astonishing adventure where they get to step out in ways that they never knew possible. True, there is murder and armed robbery involved but what makes the movie work at all is the very fact that we still care a great deal for these individuals. They tiptoe across boundaries but it never feels brazen. It’s accidental, brought on by necessity, fear, and the like. Even to the end,  it’s as if Thelma & Louise naively believe that they are a notorious pair of outlaws but they don’t quite know how dark a place the world can actually be. It’s neither Bonnie and Clyde or Badlands. For good reason, they are simply Thelma & Louise.

One of the most memorable sequences involves Davis robbing a gas station register just as nice as you please using the pithy monologue she learned from the charismatic charmer J.D. (Brad Pitt in a key role early in his career) who always sports a cowboy hat and also ran off with all their dough. She feels completely out of place committing such an act, waving her gun around as the attendant empties the cash register into her waiting bag. But still, she does it and it epitomizes the inhibitions the two women begin to cast off.

But it’s also the same rascal J.D. who rats on them as they look to make their way to Mexico away from the authorities they believe are hot on their tail. Louise is paranoid of such things and Thelma is still just looking for fun but they’re together and that’s the important thing. Except the authorities on the other end of the line, digging around for answers, are actually led by a cop with integrity (Harvey Keitel) who seems generally worried about their well-being. He sees so clearly that their situation is atypical. They are not criminals even if they want to be.

Importantly Thelma & Louise remain friends to the end, even going so far as to visit the grand canyon together one final time. And that brings us to the film’s conclusion. While not wanting to sound too cryptic and simultaneously not wanting to spoil the experience for others, I can only say I wish Ridley Scott would have chosen a more brazen denouement or otherwise done away with his conclusion altogether. What he comes to is a compromise of an ending that lacks any satisfaction. But then again, maybe it reflects Thelma & Louise. They thought they had so much–that they were such big, bad people–except what did they end up with? Nothing at all aside from a polaroid picture to forever immortalize the craziest of road trips.

4/5 Stars

Hoosiers (1986)

hoosiers_movie_poster_copyright_fairuseThe last time I saw Hoosiers it was on VHS and I was only a boy and I hardly remember anything. Gene Hackman yelling. Dennis Hopper as a drunk. Jimmy the boy wonder, “The Picket Fence”, and of course Indiana basketball at its finest. But in those opening moments, as he drives into town and walks through the halls of his new home, I realized just how much I miss Gene Hackman. Yes, he’s still with us but the moment he decided to step out of the limelight and retire from his illustrious career as an actor, films got a little less exciting. His passionate often fiery charisma is dearly missed.

Norman Dale is a character who precisely reflects those very inclinations. He’s a man who had a long stint in the Navy following a lifetime ban from collegiate basketball. Supposedly he punched out some kid. The particulars aren’t all that important but what the town of Hickory represents for him is a second chance, a clean slate to leave his mark on.

And through a no-nonsense philosophy coupled with tough love he looks to get his pistons firing on all cylinders, the ultimate goal to lead his team to a winning season. However, his tactics early on receive the ire of most of the local fan base as well as many of his players who willfully walk out on his new regime.

Barbara Hershey is the skeptical love interest who is nevertheless a cut above most of the other locals. She went away for college and returned home in an effort to care for her family. She has the coach pegged early on but he is an individual who meets the pressure of the town’s expectations and combats them the only way he knows how, by coaching hard, fundamentally sound basketball.

Certainly, at first, his boys have their misgivings but once they buy into his system and realize that he will fight for them to the end, they really do become a team–the very word that they chant every time they leave their huddle. It’s meant to define them in every game they play. Hackman’s screaming tirades are just as good as I remember as he berates referees about every call imaginable, all in an effort to intercede on behalf of his players. Meanwhile. Dennis Hopper falls into the role of disgraced father catapulted to redemption with tremendous ease showcasing his typical savvy as a character actor.

Sometimes I consider the 1980s (rather unfairly) an era devoid of quality filmmaking but a film like The Hoosiers in its goodness, as sentimental as it is, feels so utterly sincere in all of its endeavors that it hard not to be won over. The rhythms of the plot are all there to develop one of the lasting feel-good stories of a generation and Hoosiers simultaneously set the groundwork for numerous subsequent and, more often than not, lesser sports films.

There’s one scene in particular that resonated with me. It’s not necessarily crucial but it’s poignant speaking to the character of the man before us. A young man comes to not only his teacher but to his coach questioning why Dale is giving the boy’s drunken, ostracized father a chance as an assistant coach. And essentially the answer has to do with grace. No one else will give the man a second chance. No one. But doesn’t he deserve it? Maybe not at all but Coach Dale is willing to give it to him. You get the sneaking suspicion he feels precisely this way because no one ever offered him any grace when he faltered. Small towns can often be rigid, set strictly in the ways of tradition. There’s no room for errancy or disgrace of any type but then coach comes to town and changes things. Redemption is possible.

As was commonplace at the time, every day is rife with Biblical imagery no more practical than an illusion to David versus Goliath in the State Championship. Because coach Dale and his boys are big fish in a small pond transported to a veritable ocean. But he says it all when with hands together in one final huddle he says proudly, “I love you guys.” At this point, the results really don’t matter though they play a good game. Something to be proud of, reflective of everything they’ve done the entire season, one last final exhibition of what they are — a team — first and last.

I was never a gifted basketball player hailing from the Kurt Rambis school of hustle and hard knocks and that makes me thoroughly appreciate this film. It’s fundamentally sound on and off the court. It also helps that I’ve always been a sucker for nostalgia. Whether they like it or not Indiana basketball will always be defined by Hoosiers.

4/5 Stars