Road House (1948)

Road House 1“Doesn’t it ever enter a man’s head that a woman can do without him?” ~ Ida Lupino as Lily Stevens

Jefty’s is quite the joint. Bowling, drinks, floorshows. In a one-horse town, it’s the place to go especially when the establishment’s proprietor (Richard Widmark) brings in the alluring nightclub singer Lily Stevens (Ida Lupino) to liven up the bar. Although he hired her without much forethought following a trip to Chicago, Jefty’s convinced this girl is really something although his faithful right-hand man Pete Morgan (Cornel Wilde) has her pegged from the start.  Smoking and playing solitaire. It sums up her life. It’s true.

They don’t exactly hit it off because he thinks he already knows what type of girl she is and she’s not too happy about getting pushed out of this gig. But ultimately she stays, the general public starts coming in droves, Jefty’s happy, and Pete does his best to keep away from her. But she does exactly the opposite. She appreciates Jefty but really has eyes for Pete and she pursues him.

What the film hinges on is really a love diamond with Ida Lupino and Cornel Wilde at the points. She is the object of desire for Jefty who thinks he could finally tie the knot with a girl. He’s in love no question. But Pete warms to Lily as well and is the one looking to go away with her. There also must be some necessary credit given to Celeste Holm for her performance although she has the most thankless role as Susie, the cashier at the Road House who also has obvious feelings for Pete.

But everything is thrown for a loop when Jefty comes back from a week long hunting trip with big news to spring on Pete. He’s gotten a marriage license. He’s going to ask Lily to marry him. However, over that same week, Pete and Lily have gotten closer than ever. Obviously, when the truth comes out the old friends have it out and the two lovers look to leave town.

The whole film thus far, Jefty has been a bit of a loose cannon but a generally nice guy. Except on a dime, things turn. Soon Pete is being detained for some cash missing from the company’s safe that his old friend claims is missing. It’s Pete’s words (with Lily’s) against Jefty’s with the police in the middle. It seems like a small deal but in a whirlwind sequence of events, Pete is brought to court and convicted of grand larceny. However, in a diabolical turn of events, Jefty becomes Pete’s savior as well as his master following a talk with the judge who agrees to put the convicted man on probation at the Road House. It’s just like old times, the gang all back together again except this time Jefty has Pete in a bind. One false move, one thing that he doesn’t like and Pete goes back to fulfilling his prison sentence. Jefty’s got him on a string and everyone knows it.

It’s in these moments where the remnants of the maniacal cackle of Tommy Udo from Kiss of Death begin to rear their ugly mug. And the next hunting trip Jefty plans with everyone included fills liked forced fun. No one’s having it and Lily and her love look to take one final chance to run away because any life is better than a life under Jefty’s thumb. What follows is a race for the woods and the Canadian border with Susie fleeing after them pursued by the crazed man packing a gun a bit like A Dangerous Game. It’s bound to be a deadly finale. Someone has to lose.

Cornel Wilde always feels too much like cardboard or plastic, whichever you prefer especially when put up against Ida Lupino and Richard Widmark. The latter pair is more at home in the worlds of film noir, Lupino being both alluring and assertive, boasting a gravelly voice perfect for rasping out “One for my Baby (and One More for the Road)” that is enhanced by her smoking habits.

Meanwhile, Widmark always had a handle on the sleazy and embittered characters who were in one moment grinning and in another seething with a cunning anger. There’s a volatile polarity that he taps into that makes most every character he plays enjoyable as we slowly watch their evil tendencies overwhelm any good that is in them (or vice versa). He also likes hitting the sauce. Cigarettes and booze have always been a hallmark with noir and so it is with this film. So if you’re looking for a good time and a bit of uncompromising filmmaking, look no further than the Road House.

3.5/5 Stars

Casablanca (1942): 75th Anniversary Review

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When someone inquires if I consider Casablanca one of my favorite movies, I don’t quite know how to respond. Yes, I do love this film passionately but I feel as if Casablanca is more deeply America’s favorite classic movie. It is not for me to call my own and I will gladly share a joint appreciation for it. Because it’s a film for all of us. As it should be. It’s the perfect articulation and expression of that former Hollywood that existed during the studio age as brought to us by Michael Curtiz.

When we are finally allowed to enter into Rick’s Cafe Americain, it almost feels like hallowed ground. It’s a mythical place that never existed in reality and yet feels so immersive to us as an audience. Curtiz moves through the space with such intent that it makes us completely involved with every person his camera settles on. This is a picture for romantics and sentimentalists to be sure but it caters to those with a cynical edge too. It suggests a deceitful world of pickpockets, unscrupulous officials, and of course, Nazis.

The political tides of the times are reflected in that cinematic bastion of a man Rick Blaine (Bogart). His foreign policy is that he sticks his neck out for no one. But that’s only on the surface. That’s the beauty of the character. There’s a sensitivity and a sacrificial nature that wells up deep inside him, hidden from view. Tortured and embittered as he is, that is not the last word.

There’s also an undeniable undercurrent to the film. Yes, this is not reality. As enveloping as it is, this is wholly a Warner Bros. aesthetic but moreover there’s a sense that the emotions that deluge over Casablanca are very real.

Aside from Bogart and the lovely, incomparable Ingrid Bergman, our cast is made up of a plethora of emigres, men and women, who fled the Nazis for this reason or that. Whether they were Jewish or had different political affiliations or just couldn’t bear to live under such an oppressive regime.

Director Michael Curtiz was originally from Hungary and in him, we find someone who totally understood the plight of those fleeing and the context of the moment where Casablanca was only a pitstop for America. Because take the picture out of its context and something would be lost. Firmly plant it in the era and you have blessed the production with something enduringly special.

Furthermore, in the scene where Lazlo (Paul Henreid) calls on the band to play “La Marseillaise” to drown out the German’s proud merrimaking it ceases to be a mere scene in a film but becomes an event that swells with real emotions. You can see it in the very body language, the tears in the eyes, and the fervor that comes over everyone. Madeleine Lebeau (the film’s last surviving cast member who passed away last year) singing defiantly, with the tears freely flowing. No longer acting but pure feelings incarnate.

When so many other minority characters make me cringe in pictures of the 30s and 40s, Sam, the piano man (Dooley Wilson), remarkably rarely does. That’s because he’s endowed with a certain autonomy attributed to him in part by Blaine. They are partners, friends, and they watch out for each other.

His singing holds the love story together. Like many of the film’s greatest faces, he’s not a mere sideshow attraction. There’s a necessity to his characterization that adds another dimension to the world that has been conjured up on the Warner Bros. lot. What would Casablanca be without Dooley Wilson, Peter Lorre, Sydney Greenstreet, S. Z. Sazall, Curt Bois, Leonid Kinskey, Marcel Dalio, John Qualen, etc.? It would lose so much color — so much definition.

Another joy of the picture after you see it too many times to count is the continued relish of the script, waiting for your favorite lines only to be taken with new quips that you never picked up on before. For me, most lines of this nature come from the wonderfully amoral and yet completely personable Captain Renault (Claude Rains). But there’s also so much going on around the edges of the frame. One of my favorites involves the young woman who fled from Bulgaria with her husband. The young lady is played by Jack Warner’s step-daughter Joy Page.

Here we see a relationship that mirrors that of Rick and Elsa in a way that only becomes apparent later on. Because she is a woman desperate to get to America with her impoverished husband. He is trying to win money gambling but it’s a desperate even futile situation.

She loves him so much, she is willing to try and use her own beauty and the influence of another man, Inspector Renault to help the man she truly loves. There’s so much subtext to the scene written with the production codes in mind and the sincerity is immediately evident even if some of the import can be lost on us. The same can be said for the foreshadowing.

Part of what makes the picture’s final act work is the fact that Lazlo is such a decent human being. He loves his wife so much, he’s willing to have Blaine take her to safety by using the Letters of Transit if need be. Thus, this dichotomy is set up and Rick must make a decision. He must do the thinking for both of them but that request from Lazlo saves Rick’s reputation no matter the decision that he makes. We know that either might be right. Even though deep in our hearts, there’s only one denouement we want.

Did I even need to write this review? Certainly not but it’s more for my sake than anyone else’s. Casablanca is a dear friend of mine and after 75 years it still comes up smelling like roses. Its themes are timeless in the sense that it allows romance to be its guiding light while still tempering it with the disillusionment and licentiousness that often is so prevalent in this world of ours. That makes its bittersweet interludes ring with a certain deep-seated truth that never comes off as fake. It’s as evocative and witty now as it was in 1942. Perhaps even more so.

5/5 Stars

Manchester by the Sea (2016)

Manchester_by_the_SeaIn Manchester by the Sea, you can distinctly see Kenneth Lonergan once more translating some of his skills as a playwright and stage director into his film. There’s a very inherent understanding of two-dimensional space and how images can be framed in a very linear way as they would be seen by an audience taking in a stage production. But even more noteworthy than that is his dialogue which functions in remarkably realistic ways. Some will easily write this film off as the sheer doldrums because it’s fairly fearless in its pacing.

But that very structure and the things it spends time on slowly reveal more and more about the characters as if the curtain is slowly being torn away and their guts are being spilled out in front of us, in the most labored way possible.

It’s true that a great deal of the acting is an exhibition in non-emotive near anti-acting. It goes against the normal penchant for histrionics and gut-busting displays of emotion. Those crop up here and there understandably for a story that deals with such heart-wrenching topics. However, this particular study finds the majority of its most illuminating revelations in the minor moments, quiet asides, and soft tears rather than more overt outbreaks.

Sometimes it’s those very dramatic moments that catch our attention but most of the film — most of the instances that we actually come to learn a great deal about these seemingly unextraordinary individuals happens in the moments that initially appear far more mundane.

Crucial to this whole narrative is Casey Affleck as Lee Chandler. His performance is painful to watch because he himself looks so uncomfortable, despondent, and forlorn in every frame. There’s no relief for him. He never gives it to himself and he never accepts it from others. The fact that his elder brother has passed away suddenly is the inciting action that only aggravates his status quo but it’s not the main cause for his current state of being.

Because, of course, the question becomes what happened to him to make him such a misanthrope? That’s one issue because the past informs his present and stoke the flames of his continual discontentment.

The latest revelation is that he is made the legal guardian of his teenage nephew and this among all his other personal demons is the situation he must grapple with. Their dynamic stays front and center.

Together they must navigate all the responsibilities that come after Joe’s death whether it’s signing off on his belongings or setting up his burial with this insurmountable amount of grief still hanging over them. Lee willfully takes his nephew to school and band practice at one of his girlfriends.

But he’s not good at showing affection. He’s difficult and in such a contentious moment of pain they both lash out at each other more than once. But there’s still an underlying sense that they care for each other. Lee wants to protect his nephew but he doesn’t quite know how–he does not know if he will be able to bear the responsibility.

Still, others of note also crop up and play a part in the story including Lee’s ex-wife Randi (Michelle Williams) who has moved forward with her life but still feels tortured for the very way that she treated Lee when they were married. There’s so much hurt there and Lee buries that too.

His now deceased brother (Kyle Chandler) who we begin to meet through flashback is not developed quite as much but he does stand as a symbol of family and how deeply the loss of loved ones is earth-shattering. Because often these are the people who are a perpetual part of your life. You come to love them and accept that they will always but there. Even when your own life is going down the drain at least they remain. Except in an instant, their flames can be cruelly snuffed out.

The story’s visuals not surprisingly cast a vision of a tranquil seaside locale that nevertheless can be a place of bitter cold and blue-collar mediocrity. Lee would be the poster boy of this lifestyle as he spends his days as an isolated handyman janitor grinding away at life. But as with any life, we can never make preconceptions. We need to get to know someone before we judge their character. That’s what a film such as Manchester by the Sea makes us realize as human beings.

Everybody has a story. We all make mistakes. Our flaws are many. No one knows how to cope with guilt and it hurts like a slug in the face sometimes. Even if it is a taxing film and a difficult film to traverse with its share of profanity, Lonergan’s piece is still a nuanced look at what that process is like. Perhaps you haven’t experienced the death of a loved one yet but most definitely you have and you know the pain and the helplessness and the messiness therein.

If any of that resonates with places you’ve been before then Manchester by the Sea might easily speak to you because it understands some of the unassuming power in the human experience and its innumerable complexities. Unsatisfying in the end, yes, but alas that is life so often. People constantly struggling with trials, tribulations, and dissatisfaction til the end of days.

It’s after one particular scene where a very special guest star makes an appearance a man that Patrick notes is “Pretty Christian” while Lee responds that “we’re Christian too. Catholics are Christian.” And he’s perfectly correct. It’s in this passing moment that the film teases on something interesting that it, unfortunately, doesn’t wrestle with more. Spirituality and faith in a God in the midst of suffering. Maybe the characters still need time to get there and that’s okay. But Manchester by the Sea does make us empathize with other people and come to understand their stories. That is crucial if we’re ever going to live together in this world of ours. For that reason alone this story has something to offer us.

4/5 Stars

 

Suddenly (1954)

Suddenly_(1954_movie_poster)In some ways, the sleepy town of Suddenly feels like it could have easily been the prototype for Mayberry (Willis Bouchey’s appearance acting as the one actual tie-in to The Andy Griffith Show). The sheriff wanders around lazily. He knows everyone by name and they probably haven’t had anything exciting actually happen for 20 or 30 years at least. But then they go and have something bigger than Mayberry ever dreamed. No filling station robberies, or shipments of gold, or even a group of out of towners trying to case the bank. This is big. It involves the President of the United States and Frank Sinatra or rather Johnny Baron, the man who`s looking for a big payday from assassinating the commander in chief. But people generally liked Ike and so the Secret Service roll in to take the necessary precautions including cueing in the local sheriff on the particulars and shutting down the town.

But the one family that doesn’t happen to get the memo are the Bensons who just happen to have the property overlooking the town — the perfect point to knock off an unsuspecting president from but, of course, a thought like that would never cross their minds, not in a quaint town like Suddenly. Still, Baron has thought about it quite a lot and he and his cronies make a house call on the Bensons and subsequently take over their humble abode, except the family doesn’t realize yet that this is a home invasion.

It just so happens that one of the Veteran servicemen Agent Carney (Willis Bouchey) goes way back with Pop Benson (James Gleason) and so he and Sheriff Shaw pay a visit to the family but the welcoming committee is far from obliging. After the initial setup, the film evolves into a tense drama involving not only the imminent attack on the President but the very real hostage situation that we are now privy to. The majority of the ensuing drama is crammed inside the tight quarters of the home as all the hostages tensely wait for events to unfold. Sheriff Shaw looks to keep Baron talking as they bide their time.

But even his background in law enforcement cannot fully prepare him for who he is dealing with and that’s a great deal of the enjoyment that comes out of Suddenly. The characters are ripe with possibilities and Sinatra, in particular, gives an electrifying performance off of Hayden’s somewhat uncharacteristic stalwart turn.

Paul Frees as one of the thugs wasn’t quite bad-enough (sorry for the Rocky & Bullwinkle pun) and the other hired gun is constantly clutching his ulcer.

Richard Sale’s script is surprisingly vibrant and it does a lot in a limited amount of time building up connections and backstories of characters that help make each life valuable while simultaneously increasing the stakes, packing a punch on multiple occasions. And although there were more guns than I was expecting it’s far more than a simple shoot ’em up.

Sinatra’s character is tormented by demons, constantly referring to his own war record and the silver star he won, and in the same breath writing off the hit on the President as just another job for him. It’s true that the specters of World War II seem to affect everyone. Likewise, Ellen Benson (Nancy Gates) must grapple with her own hatred of violence and guns as a result of her husband’s death in the war that keeps her from allowing her spunky son Pidge from seeing war movies or playing with firearms. She’s also hesitant to indulge the calling of Tod because she’s not ready to move on. Each of these aspects underlines the film’s main conflict.

There’s also some striking connections that can be made to the Manchurian Candidate (also featuring Sinatra) as well as the realization that this was the pre-Kennedy era, meaning no one knew what was possible. In some ways, the film’s premise seems rather incredible but then again maybe it was more credible than even the makers of the film realized. Just a few years down the road our President would be killed, the man Frank Sinatra would sing a campaign slogan for.  So, Suddenly comes off as a B-picture but it rises above those meager expectations and turns into a fairly impressive thriller with some stalwart talent and moral issues anchored in its plot.

3.5/5 Stars

 

Blade Runner: 2049 (2017)

Blade_Runner_2049_poster.pngThe finest compliment that can be paid to Blade Runner 2049 is that it is indubitably the most enigmatic film I have seen in ages. Typically, that’s newspeak for a film that probably deserves multiple viewings, because its intentions, much like Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982) are not always clearly laid out. Especially in this day and age when we often expect things to be given to us and our hands to be held as an audience.

For that very reason, those who admired the original will potentially find a worthy successor in Denis Villeneuve’s rendition but this cult franchise might be hard-pressed to convert a new fanbase. Because while the greatest cinematic achievements are often equally artistic endeavors and continually entertaining, Blade Runner is worthy of the former while still lacking the kind of visceral fun that will grab hold of a new generation.

Still, there’s a necessity to draw up a distinction between faulty pacing and a film that is completely comfortable moving at the pace it deems important. The film paints in panoramas and epic strokes that the Ridley Scott’s original simply could not manage. Though perhaps more importantly, it did develop a cyberpunk, tech-noir aesthetic that created a new template for so many future projects.

The veteran cinematographer and Villeneuve favorite, Roger Deakins, produces visual splendors of the first degree with his own brand of photography. They are the kind of immaculate frames where shot after shot can be admired each one on its individual merit as if perusing a vast gallery of paintings. One important key is that oftentimes we are given enough time to take them in without frenetic editing completely cannibalizing the pure joy of a single image.

It can similarly be lauded as not merely a piece of entertainment for thinking people but a piece of visual art and a philosophical exploration. That last point will come up again later.

But it’s also quite easy to liken this installment to George Miller’s Mad Max Fury Road (2015) which was able to provide a facelift to its material by successfully expanding the world that had been built in the original Mad Max trilogy. Likewise, this movie maintains much of the integrity of its predecessor by seeing the return of several cast members, screenwriter Hampton Fancher, and even Ridley Scott to a degree as executive producer.

Our story in this addition begins with a new model of replicants, Nexus-9, who are used as the current force of blade runners as well as other more menial duties. Among their ranks is K (Ryan Gosling) an officer assigned by his boss at the LAPD (Robin Wright) to track down the last remaining rogue models of “skin jobs” still surviving.

Simultaneously the Tyrell Corporation has been replaced by a new organization led by a visionary named Wallace (Jared Leto) who has aspirations to create an even more magnificent android in search of true perfection of the human form. He’s also very much interested in a mysterious discovery that K makes while performing his duties.

Wallace sends out his henchwoman (Sylvia Hoeks) to do his recon for him. Meanwhile, K travels far beyond the metropolis of Los Angeles with its unmistakable imagery full of Coca-Cola ads, Atari game parlors, and countless women walking the streets looking to pick someone up.

It’s comforting to know that my home away from home, San Diego, has been turned into a giant rubbish heap while Las Vegas looks more like the Red Planet than any earthly locale though still strewn with the remnants of the strip’s sleaze. If we ever took for granted that this is an apocalyptic world then we don’t anymore.

In keeping with the integrity of the picture and the curiosity of the viewers, it’s safe to say that Edward James Olmos makes his return as Gaff still partaking in his origami-making ways though his subject matter has changed slightly. And of course, the man everyone has been waiting for, Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) is of crucial importance that becomes at least a little bit more clear as K progresses in his search for concrete answers. The cornerstone of the story is, of course, Deckard’s beloved Rachael and the life of anonymity he has taken up since his retirement as a blade runner.

But until its very last frame Blade Runner 2049 feels cryptic and mesmerizing in a powerful way. The narrative is so expansive and grandiose making it questionable whether or not the film is able to maintain a cohesive core with a singular purpose but some potentially profound ideas are undeniable.

Plenty of spiritual imagery courses through it and hardly by accident. An almost Christ-like birth of a supernatural nature remains at its center and what we can presume to be several very conscious references to the book of Galatians —  a letter that not only tackled the so-called “fruits of the spirit” but Gnosticism or the idea that the Creator was a lesser divinity (not unlike Wallace).

Upon reflection, I’m still partial to the original because while both films grapple with the dividing line between the human and the non-human, the first Blade Runner came from a human perspective and that’s even in how it was shot and the technology of the time. It looks like our world, dark, dank, and gritty as it may be.

But in this narrative, while a further extension of that same world much of what we know is in question and it hardly feels like we are taking on a human point of view anymore but we are put in the place of a replicant — an android — even if he has a desire to be human. And again, that lack of humanity reveals itself in the very frames of the film full of unfathomable sights acting at times like a tomb-like mausoleum– so bleak and austere and cavernous.

That is to say that the original even in its darkness still managed to have a soul in the incarnation of Deckard. This picture though trying so desperately to do likewise feels even more detached. It, in some ways, brings to mind Gosling’s Drive character who was very much the same. And yet the other side still deserves some acknowledgment because there is an underlying sense that K does evolve into a more sympathetic individual as time passes. The case can be made that he is the most human.

Going beyond that, it’s also an exploration of how the world is saturated with sex and probably even more so than its predecessor. There’s a particularly unnerving scene where a man tries to combine fantasy with physical intimacy in a way that feels all too prevalent to our future society and consequently it brings up similar themes to Her (2013).

Even in such a future, it’s comforting to know that Presley and Sinatra live on in the hearts and the minds of the populous though that reassuring truth cannot completely overshadow the myriad of issues still to be resolved.

The final irony remains, the problems do not begin with the replicants themselves but in the hearts and souls of mankind. I see that central complexity of the film very clearly reflected in the two iconic objects. One an origami unicorn, the other a wooden horse.

Because we can read into the first if we want to as an indication that Deckard is a replicant and we can see the latter as confirmation that K is, in fact, human and yet on both those accounts we might be gravely mistaken. It comes downs to our own personal perceptions. Whether these beings were “born not made” or vice versa.

It gives more credence to the assertion that the eyes remain the window to the soul. That is never truer than in Blade Runner a film that fittingly opens with a closeup of an eye — the ambiguity established in the first shot. As K notes later, he’s never retired something that was born. Because “to be born means you have a soul.”

Of course, that razor-thin dividing line can be very difficult to dissect completely and that’s Blade Runner 2049 stripped down to arguably its most perplexing issue. Could it be true that an android could act with far more humanity than any human? The verdict might well be out far longer than 2049.

4/5 Stars

A Few Good Men (1992)

A_Few_Good_Men_posterUpon watching A Few Good Men for the first time, it was hard not to draw parallels with An Officer and a Gentlemen for some reason and it went beyond some cursory elements such as both films involving branches of the military. Perhaps more so than that is the intensity that manages to surge through the plot despite the potentially stagnant battleground like Cadet Schools, Courtrooms, and the like. And that can in both cases is a testament to the stellar performances in front of the camera.

Instead of a seething Richard Gere, we get the smart aleck wunderkind Tom Cruise as Daniel Kaffee. The full-throttle turn by Lou Gossett Jr. is matched in this film by another sneering tour de force from none other than Jack Nicholson as Colonel Nathan Jessup. Most refreshingly of all we trade out the heartfelt yet admittedly schmaltzy romance of Gere and Debra Winger for the professional tension that underlies Kaffee’s relationship with his colleague Joanne Galloway. Demi Moore, surprise, surprise, is more than a love interest even if Cruise is in the driver’s seat and that is a commendable creative decision by screenwriter Aaron Sorkin. Because their characters have two feet to stand on without having to dive headlong into a full-fledged romance. There’s already enough at stake without having to enter any further into melodramatic territory.

The men involved are two young U.S. Marines stationed in Guatamano Bay who are charged with the murder of one of their compatriots, one William Santiago. Galloway is eager to play point on the case, only to get passed over for Daniel Kaffee a plea bargain king who nevertheless has little courtroom experience or passion for his work. His stint in the navy seems only to be in respect to his late father, who was one of the preeminent judges of his day. Daniel will forever live in his shadow and instead of taking his work seriously, he devotes his efforts to the company baseball team.

Still, joined by Joanne and the veteran support of Lieutenant Sam Weinberg (Kevin Pollak), he begins to realize that there is more at stake in this case even if he doesn’t want to deal with it. As the young marines constantly beat into his skull this isn’t about getting the cushiest deal, it’s about their very honor, the code that they live by as united states Marines.

While hesitant Kaffee agrees to bring the case into the courts realizing what is at stake but it’s also in these precise moments that he realizes the need to man up instead of taken the path of least resistance as has always been his M.O. But of course, doing such a brazen thing has consequences for the young Lieutenant bringing him up against people much bigger than he is, namely the aforementioned Colonel Jessup. Because there is something running down the line of command that simply does not add up going from Jessup, to his Lt. Colonel Markinson (J.T. Walsh), one Lt. Kendrick (Keifer Sutherland), down to one of the accused Lance Corporal Dawson (Wolfgang Bodison). Kaffee takes a chance on the truth and that’s where the film blows up.

In our sound byte culture “You can’t handle the truth” has been perfect fodder for parody and the like. But doing so we take it out of context and as a culture we seem to be very adept at doing that. Misconstruing information and ultimately succeeding in draining words of all their impact. But when Colonel Jessup lets the words fly under tense interrogation from Lt. Daniel Kaffee there’s so much rooted in those words.

The film probably does not dig into this issue enough but it does imply something. As Americans who take pride in our freedoms, in our very Americanism, are we so naïve as to believe that it does not come without a cost? Not simply of human life but of perhaps darker realities that are kept under wraps for the good of the people, for the betterment of society. It’s a cliché saying, but the old adage goes that you cannot make an omelet without breaking a few eggs and I know that’s a rather callous statement, how far from the truth is that actually?

I’ve heard a quote attributed to Winston Churchill something to the affect that Truth is so precious she should be protected with a bodyguard of lies. And if this film is any indication, not only truth but our very freedoms or the things we use to define freedoms like honor and codes are indubitably hidden away and swept under the rug.

So A Few Good Men ends on a poignant note because at the very basic, ground level it is an underdog story played out in a courtroom. It has Tom Cruise playing the young Tom Cruise character we know (and maybe love). And that brings me to the final general parallel I found with Officer and a Gentlemen. Both films are invariably predictable and they play to our sensibilities as an audience, yet despite those very things, they manage to be moving and strangely compelling human dramas.

Rob Reiner might not be called an auteur and we unfortunately, are still waiting for his next great picture but his string of modern classics during the 80s and 90s are a joy for the very qualities mentioned above. Everyone can enjoy them and A Few Good Men is yet another example of that.

4/5 Stars

 

The Big Steal (1949)

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Granted you have star power but it’s easy to assume that The Big Steal will be a no name picture. A minor triumph at best. Not so! This film fares far better than countless of its bigger competitors.

It proves to be a winking romp full of bedroom brawls, car chases, and twists and turns every which way that send us whipping through Mexico. Equally important to the pace of the action is the levity of the script from Daniel Mainwaring (under a pseudonym) that gives our stars something to do and they do it effortlessly.

Robert Mitchum and Jane Greer (partnered again after the undisputed classic Out of the Past) meet as the two obvious foreigners in a sea of locals as Mitchum is getting accosted by a street vendor to buy a parrot. He’s one of those foreigners coming off as a buffoon navigating other cultures and the languages that go with them. Though I can’t ride him too hard as one of those blundering Americans myself. Still, his Spanish is mediocre at best and she is aghast at his cultural insensitivity. So right there you have the needed romantic tension and things only get better going forward.

Because their association doesn’t end there. Of course, it doesn’t. Duke Halladay is out to nab the man named Fiske (Patric Knowles) who absconded with some of his hard earned cash and Joan had a similar job pulled on her — the man of questionable integrity also just happened to be her boyfriend.

The unlikely partnership is formed after Mitchum leaps for the running board of the other man’s fleeing vehicle and winds up dragging Greer in front of the Inspector General to explain the public disturbance.

The Inspector General (Ramon Novarro) happens to be a budding pupil in English as his second in command (Don Alvarado) attended the University of California which while being convenient for the story also manages to make our Mexican characters into actual individuals who are endowed with an animated quality all their own.

If the main chase is our leading couple trying to track down Fiske, who gives them the slip on multiple occasions then the scenario simply gets more convoluted as Duke’s superior (William Bendix) is tailing him. They have some unfinished business to attend to because Blake believes the other man took part in a theft of his own. Thus, The Big Steal is just that. Even the soft-spoken John Qualen (probably best remembered for Casablanca) gets in on the party and flaunts a bit of a villainous side.

Some of the finer moments are the lighter ones. There’s the ongoing patter of the dialogue firing off between Mitchum and Greer which couldn’t be better and it comes from the days where a guy could call a dame “Chaquita” and it’d stick. But the beauty of their relationship is Greer with that quizzical look of hers can dish it right back in Mitchum’s direction.

Likewise, during a winding car chase, the same character can quite seriously exclaim “Watch out for the cow” only to turn right around and create a livestock blockade of his own. Or because we are in rural Mexico cars can get stuck behind a caravan of hay wagons ambling along leisurely. They have no respect for the drama at stake. On another note, I’m flabbergasted that the cars involved survived at all with the dubious amount of off-roading they managed. I guess in the 1940s they built things to last.

There’s one hilarious roadblock in particular where Jane Greer uses her Spanish and Mitchum’s obliviousness to tell a local road worker (Pascual Garcia Pena) that they are madly in love and running away from her disapproving father. They must get through at all costs and it just so happens that Captain Blake is right behind him and receives a fine welcoming committee.

But the key is that the film ends not on the downward plunge but on the upswing as our two lovebirds observe the local mating rituals and give it their own twist. What a great picture and sure, it’s no Out of the Past but no one needs it to be. We already have one of those and The Big Steal is a leisure ride of its own making.

Set this against a backdrop beyond the Mexico border, a spliced together version of on location atmospherics and studio shots, and you are blessed with the wonderful patchwork of authenticity and artificiality that old Hollywood was known for in the 40s and 50s.

What’s more fascinating is that The Big Steal at least in this form might never have been. Robert Mitchum was hot off his notorious jailtime term because of marijuana possession, an event that undoubtedly solidified his reputation as an antihero. Meanwhile, not too happy with Jane Greer, RKO studio head and temperamental mogul Howard Hughes gave her this role out of spite.

How could a picture this small be any good with a leading man saddled with bad publicity? I cannot speak to contemporary audiences but today The Big Steal plays quite well. We have our stars and screenwriter to thank as well as a young up and coming director named Don Siegel who started out as a montage man and transitioned into B-pictures.

What makes him a wonderful worksmith is how he always seems to have a pulse on the action and he turns situations into truly dynamic entertainment even when it’s on a small scale. He didn’t need a big budget to still make a rip-roaring good time. The Big Steal is a stellar testament to what the Classic Hollywood studios were capable of with meager means. It’s an absorbing effort.

4/5 Stars

Reign of Terror/The Black Book (1949)

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Depending on where you look Anthony Mann’s 1949 film comes under two different titles that are both equally apt. Reign of Terror denotes its roots in the French Revolution of the 1790s that saw the ousting of King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette while putting Maximilien Robespierre at the helm of one of the most ghastly mobs known to man.

Any lover of history can call most everything in this picture into question but that’s almost beyond the point. This is not a tale that claims historical accuracy but a story of claustrophobic intensity that takes an era and builds an intriguing and gritty little drama out of all the sordid, twisted details. Perhaps more importantly than that it begins to draw parallels to the contemporary moment and that’s where the second title comes in.

The black book is the object that causes men to kill and lie and deceive one another because within its pages dwells great power to dictate the outcome of this kingdom on the precipice of something new. Whether or not that proves to be an optimistic direction very much depends on who gains access to said book. Robespierre (Richard Basehart) has lost it, the chief of the secret police Fouche (Arnold Moss) is intent on acquiring it for his own, as is a ring of staunch patriots looking to pilot their beloved nation back toward stability. That is only the main narrative thread. It seems like little coincidence that a black book shares great similarity to a blacklist.

In the 1950s, whether a concrete document existed hardly mattered because having your name added to this industry list was enough. Though not the same as being sent to the guillotine, for an actor or director it was tantamount to the death of a career as many found themselves out of work for years afterward.

While High Noon is often noted as one of the most high-profile blacklist allegories, The Black Book might be one of the most striking since it dares to find a point of reference between volatile and bloody history many years prior and the current reality. There’s nothing subtle about it.

Thus, whatever you want to label it, Reign of Terror or The Black Book, it proves to be a fascinating amalgamation of historical drama, film noir, and political allegory. Somehow it manages to be a low budget epic combining some wonderful talents that go beyond just Anthony Mann but to producer Walter Wanger, legendary cinematographer John Alton, and set designer William Cameron Menzies.

On the whole, it’s an unsentimental portrait comprised of severe low angle close-ups and shadows that spell film noir forwards and backward. It’s deliciously atmospheric, brooding with darkness and matched by ferocious stylized violence that sizzles in every moment of conflict. The sequences in front of the guillotine against the backdrop of the masses even conjure up the frames of Dreyer’s Passion of Joan of Arc and it’s true that this picture ironically recycled sets from Joan of Arc from the year prior.

Looking at film from the perspective of a historian, one of the greatest enjoyments comes when I am able to view content that has a similar theme running through it whether a specific director, actor, genre, or subject. In a flurry of activity, I’ve been able to derive a greater appreciation for the talents of Robert Cummings in particular.

Though this might sound reductive, much in the way that Joel McCrea is called the poor man’s Gary Cooper, Cummings just might be the poor man’s Jimmy Stewart and I say that because he has the same type of everyman quality that’s easy to latch onto.

Although I could never see Stewart pulling off a period role like this and though not entirely authentic, Cummings is a fine protagonist navigating the back alleyways and roads of deception and treachery that dictate the life of a citizen of the New Republic. Even when he does something that might be suspect there’s inherent trust the audience attributes to him.

Meanwhile, stunning Arlene Dahl looks ravishing in period costume but she also becomes a multifaceted companion of Charles D’Aubigny (Cummings) and one of his only points of contact who proves reliable and resourceful. Otherwise, the picture is crammed full of all sorts of characters with varying allegiances and intentions, not to mention cameos from such figures as the Marquis de Lafayette and Napoleon.

If it’s not quite like the blacklist then you figure out how very easily it could be. The film takes so many about faces and turns by the denouement it’s hard to know who is in the right or wrong or more important yet who ended up on the right side of history — the ones who wrote the victor’s narrative — because oftentimes they are the ones who go down as the heroes. Whether that is true or not is up for considerable debate.

4/5 Stars

Hellzapoppin (1941)

Hellzapoppin_movie.jpgIt essentially begins with a fourth wall break. That’s all you need to know. Because that gives you exactly an idea of what you’re in for with Hellzapoppin’ or rather it gives you no idea whatsoever what you’re in for but really they’re one in the same. I’ve seen the movie and I still don’t quite know what it was.

If you wanted to put labels on it, I think it would be relatively safe to say that this is a comedy. In some small way, it transplants the feel if not the entire success of Ole Oleson and Chic Johnson’s Broadway hit of the same name. And Hellzapoppin’ was a big hit. It only makes sense that Hollywood would want to try and commoditize it.

But fearful of such a fearless anything goes endeavor the studio got cold feet and wanted some “substance” too. And not to be outdone the film’s two stars gave them a plot, ironically, about Ole and Chic finding a plot for the movie they’re in. So there you have it. Problem solved and everyone’s happy. The two nutcases go from an opening routine in hell with a steady barrage of gags to a mediocre plotline at a stately mansion still strung out with a line of gags and it wears its movie within a movie reality right on its sleeve, brazen enough to bring in its director and plucky screenwriter (none other than the always imposing Elisha Cook Jr.). So it’s as close to an “Anything Goes” musical as you can actually get. Yes, you heard that right. Cole Porter eat your heart out.

Anyhow, it’s a testament to the front half of the film, it’s so wonky and zany with wall to wall gags, non-sequiturs, and bits that by the film’s latter half it just cannot maintain that same frenetic pace. And how can you blame it? It does absolutely, insane, inane, and absurd things in the course of an hour or so.

To begin with, it’s barely functioning as a story or if it is a story only for the purposes of its fourth-wall breaks, sight gags, stupid puns, slapstick, and general stretching of all narrative conventions for the sake of some guffaws. But it also happens to be absolutely uproarious in nearly all the right ways — a sheer delight of pure nuttiness.

It’s a comedy disguised as a musical on top of a romance all wrapped up in a metanarrative that will make you scratch your head again and again. You’ll have no idea what you’re watching. You’ll question if the real-life director (not the one in the film) went through a midlife crisis, or if the scriptwriter (again, not the one in the film) was on something, or the projectionist (also not the one in the film played by Shemp Howard) accidentally spliced together multiple reels from different movies right before the film was sent for mass production.

As such, there are no comparisons to be made. Nothing comes close. Maybe Night at the Opera (1935) is the closest I can come– somehow matched with the fourth wall breaking of Rocky and Bullwinkle serials and the metaness of some of Community’s most self-aware episodes. Unfortunately, that’s the best I can do.

When you keep throwing mud up against a wall hoping it sticks comedically speaking, making funny faces, having random people walk in front of the camera, talking to people behind said camera, inserting a storyline to give the pretense of narrative, using every kind of prop imaginable, all while taking some allotted time for song and dance and random asides, this is what you get. Nothing more. Nothing less. That’s all I can say. Because there’s no possible way to even begin to describe what this is.  It’s Hellzapoppin. That’s what. Just watch it. Unless you’re Stinky Miller. Then, go home. Your mother’s calling you (wink, wink)…

3.5/5 Stars

The Lineup (1958)

Thelineupmovieposter6nfIn style if not entirely in execution The Lineup exhibits some similarities to Murder by Contract from the same year. Both films choose to take hit men as their main characters and it becomes a surprisingly intriguing way to look at a crime. Because the killers are a certain brand of sociopath who make film criminals all the more compelling based on not only on the way they carry themselves or the actions they take but the very words that leave their lips.

For the modern viewer, it’s very possible to miss the fact that The Lineup was a Dragnet-like detective show of the 1950s and this film installment carried over some of the same hallmarks from the program.

The police lieutenant is played by a no-nonsense Warner Anderson who utters every word as if he has marbles crammed in his throat. The other man (Emille Meyer) is what you expect from a second fiddle, a bit more flabby, a rounder face, and a funny intonation to his voice. Still, together these two men represent the arm of the law in San Fransisco, only two hardworking men in a vast force of crimefighters.

Don Siegel does well in all facets of the film from the opening mayhem on the streets of San Francisco that set the groundwork for all the rest, guiding the plot through the rhythms of procedures, hits, crime scenes, and casings. The climatic scenes on the Embarcadero pack the type of gratifying wallop you would hope for.

Meanwhile, Stirling Silliphant’s script has an odd cadence to it that’s particularly entrancing. It’s not hardboiled patter and that’s perhaps signified best by the fact that we meet our two main villains mid conversation on an airplane. One lauds the use of proper grammar and diction while the other, an out of town killer only known as Dancer (Eli Wallach) reads a grammar book to improve himself. After all, who’s ever heard a killer who knows their subjunctives?

From one end we follow the police as they look into a few big payloads of heroin that are being shipped in from Asia using unsuspecting tourists. There are no solid leads but they have enough competency to know something is up. They do all the things that they’re supposed to in order to nab the wanted parties. But it’s not that simple.

Because we also see a bit of what’s going on with the other side of the law. Dancer and Julian (Robert Keith) are called in to retrieve the payloads for a shadowy Mr. Big orchestrating everything from the background. And these are two of the most peculiar criminals you’ve ever known.  Dancer’s a bit of a tough guy and he’s almost never caught without his trusty briefcase that carries his silent killer. He’s not about to take any flack from their chatty wheelman (Richard Jaeckel) either.

Except Dancer listens to Julian, an older fellow (obsessed with last words) who seems to serve little purpose except to be Dancer’s constant voice of reason and his coach giving him pep talks and guidance from every location. First, a Seamen’s club near the Bay, then a local residence, and finally an aquarium where they track down their last unsuspecting carrier, a young mother (Mary LaRoache) traveling with her little daughter.

But all great crime pictures must have some kind of twist, a wrench in the plans or an about face and The Lineup likewise begins to tear at the seams. Except it actually begins to mean something because in some ways we’ve built more of a connection with the criminals than the good guys.

With its surprisingly authentic images of San Francisco preserved from the 1950s, you can definitely trace a line between this film and Dirty Harry another Siegel picture that made extensive use of SF’s iconic terrain as well. Silliphant also graduated to several big crime films most notably In the Heat of the Night. But there should always be a place for smaller gems like this because they must differentiate themselves from the pack in the ways they draw up their characters and how they choose to rehash themes that have existed all throughout the tradition of gangster flicks and film-noir. That is the only chance they have to be remembered. The Lineup certainly stands out amid the fray.

3.5/5 Stars