Rocco and His Brothers (1960): An Epic Family Drama

Screenshot 2020-07-12 at 8.02.52 PM

One immediate takeaway from Luchino Visconti’s Italian epic Rocco and His Brothers is its gorgeous, swoon-worthy black & white that’s absolutely magnificent. It shares hallowed ground with films such as The Grapes of Wrath or The Godfather where the palette does yeoman’s work when it comes to informing the drama.

At its most essential level, the movie is about a poor rural family from the South journeying to Milan to make a new life for themselves. Their patriarch is dead and now his wife (Katina Paxinou) heads up north with her four boys to reconnect with the oldest brother.

Vincenzo (Spiros Focás) is courting a dark-haired beauty (Claudia Cardinale) with thoughts of marriage once he gets steady work. Their home feels gay and bright with the roving camera capturing the full expanse of their household. It’s positively overflowing with family, and we expect nothing less.

I think some contemporary critics were disappointed by its sheen which is very un-neorealist. But it does boast its own brand of truth about family and life and love and all the constellations of emotions that we grapple with every day whilst living with other people. In this way, it shares a brand of authenticity with those earlier generations of films.

Francis Ford Coppola was certainly influenced by the picture, not only based on his hiring of composer Nina Rota but also in a more general sense in courting themes about family. It makes for a compelling ensemble telling their stories in a manner that feels totally immersive and honest to who they are as human beings. And yet it’s destined for heightened tragedy akin to Rebel Without a Cause or West Side Story.

Screenshot 2020-07-12 at 9.21.48 PM

What a raucous opening it is; it’s spectacular with the families pitted against one another and by families, I mean the mothers butting heads, while their children are left to pick up the pieces and play peacemakers. It feels all too real. Vincenzo quickly finds himself with an angry mother and a whole pack of brothers he has to find lodging for, no wife, and still no job. Everything goes to hell in a matter of moments.

Despite its sheer expanse, Rocco and his Brothers feels simultaneously well-organized and still free to follow the whims of life. Each brother gets a chapter of sorts and yet each one bleeds into the next. They’re never obvious sections and so it feels more like poetry woven throughout a story than hard and fast rules that must be adhered to.

For the time, Vincenzo lands them a temporary place to live, somewhere they can stay on until they get evicted. It’s not a promising life, but the family does receive a couple propitious bits of luck. Newly fallen snow means work shoveling snow, and the boys wake up early, downing their mom’s piping hot coffee, as they scramble out into the early dawn to bring home some bacon as it were.

Because it becomes a story of each brother exercising their worth. They are valued by the manner in which they are able to provide bread money to the family unit. Rocco (Alain Delon) bumbles his way around a dry cleaner weathering all the young ladies teasing with a good-natured stoicism. Ciro goes the sensible route, conducting his schooling so he can land a suitable job at the local Alfa Romeo factory.

Simone (Renato Salvatori) fancies the idea of joining the local boxing gym as a chance at some easy dough, and he gets the biggest break out of all of them. A trainer takes a chance on him, and he wins his first fight, despite a belligerent temper.

If these scenes are only preliminary, they provide the framework to understand our characters going forward. Simone presumedly lacks the moral prerequisites for a lengthy boxing career: a rejection of drinking, smoking, and women. Rocco is called upon to be his sparring partner and his guardian.

After his glorious showing for the home crowd, the brothers proceed to get embroiled in a street fight only to wander off with the pretty streetwalker Nadia (Annie Girardot). Simone’s behavior doesn’t bode well. Life roles onward and with few prospects, Rocco pursues his military service. It’s far from a digression. Instead, it reflects the passage of time

Screenshot 2020-07-12 at 8.06.38 PM

Rocco is one of those enigmatic figures who watches the world and seems to see everything. Those who think he’s quiet or unfriendly, over time, come to realize he’s perceptive, carrying deep reservoirs to make the most of life and have faith in everything around him. There’s a dashing nobility to him. This becomes even more true when he returns home.

The first person he meets at a sidewalk cafe is a face from his past: Nadia. He, smartly dressed in his uniform. Conservative. She, in her sunglasses looking him over. She’s no longer with Simone — at least they drifted apart — because she was serving a prison term. In Rocco, she finds someone understanding and kind who never demeans her. She feels understood in his company. Pretty soon a subtle romance blooms between them, warm and tender.

What we haven’t taken into account is Simone. The time has changed him as well. Now he’s hardened, disgruntled, and disillusioned with his boxing career. He dedicated himself to smokes, drinks, and pool with the boys. But he’s also intent on ripping Rocco and Nadia apart. Jealousy takes hold, and it’s the stuff of melodrama. To detail it all now would be rote and a disservice.

You need to see it as he brings them down to his level with a wounded tenacity nearly as electric as anything Dean or Brando managed in East of Eden or Streetcar. Suddenly, everything that was so blissfully and right between the two lovers is besmirched. And they cannot get it back. The way the camera clings to them violently as Simone tries to advance on Nadjia feels convulsive. It’s the film’s cataclysmic event.

Screenshot 2020-07-12 at 9.14.36 PM

In its wake, Rocco ascends in his own boxing career channeling his hatred into his rounds in the ring and shedding tears for how the harshness of the world has changed him. 

As Vincenzo settles into his own familial life, it is Ciro’s turn to respond to the fracture between his other brothers. He confronts both on his mother’s behalf, entreating Rocco, “A seed gone bad must be weeded out. After all, trees are meant to bear fruit.” However, the well-meaning boy doesn’t quite know how to apply this teaching into practice.

Rocco continues on the rise in his singular objective. Simone’s sunk into the gutter as not only a malcontent but the laughing stock of the community — his debts piling up and Nadia staying with him, partially out of malice and a promise to Rocco. It is here where the film’s editing comes front and center as the two brothers go their separate ways.

My mind is drawn to a curious interchange between mother and son as they dialogue on the self-destructive nature of the black sheep of the family:

“It’s not for us to judge him but to save him.” – Rocco

“Christ will regret the suffering he visited upon us.” – Mother

“We’re no longer under God’s grace. We’re our own enemies.”

Rocco proves himself again to be this near-otherworldly figure. He has an almost unfathomable amount of grace for others, and yet he’s prepared for penance and to take the burden and sorrow on his back. He is Christ-like and yet unable to be their savior.

It makes for a dismal denouement drained of all hope. Still, the family must pick themselves up out of the muck and the mire and make a way in life — each brother on his own path. Rocco finds his face plastered all over the news kiosks for his latest exploits. Simone has fallen into disarray. Ciro represents a certain hopefulness — what his brothers used to be, and Vincenzo is what they could have been — both settling down with families. Little Luca’s fate is yet to be decided. He’s indicative of the fight still left to be forged.

But I am left to return to my opening metaphor. Whether it’s Tom Joad or Michael Corleone, and in this case, Rocco, these are young men who made irrevocable choices in their lives from which there is no turning back.

The chasm between who they were and who they become couldn’t be more disparate and in all accounts, it has heady implications on their family unit. What they do, they do for their loved ones, and they still see everything they love crumble around them. It’s not a new concept — it’s not novel — but there’s something distinctly profound in this. Because we all experience something of the same.

My final thought is only this. It occurs to me that the Parondi brothers might all represent the seeds in the parable, falling all along the road. I’ll leave it up to you which ones will make their way through the straight and narrow and which ones will bear fruit. Because human beings are often resilient, and they are often granted second chances in life if they accept them. Perhaps they can remain under God’s grace after all or maybe it’s not for us to know.

4.5/5 Stars

Girl with a Suitcase (1961): Claudia Cardinale Shines

Screenshot 2020-07-12 at 1.19.51 PM

It’s a slippery slope when you begin to consider the attractiveness of women in films because the conversation can get needlessly superficial. All I will say about Claudia Cardinale is that God was very good to her. But beyond her immaculate beauty, the joyous discovery of Girl with a Suitcase is unearthing a character underneath.

No, she is not playing herself, but in the figure of Aida is someone we can readily empathize with. We meet her and she’s riding in a fancy convertible with a suave young, smart-aleck named Marcello Fainardi (Corrado Pani). We watch them, and they make a handsome pair, but all the while it’s a matter of deciphering the nature of their relationship.

When he ditches her suitcase and flees back to his family mansion inhabited by his younger brother and protective aunt, it becomes all too clear. She’s been duped and he led her on, boasting about some business connection of his. It was all a ruse.

As our dramatic scenario becomes more clear, A Girl with a Suitcase suggests a premise not too far removed from Milos Forman’s Loves of a Blonde, both about women who seem to be victims, whether it’s of love or, more broadly, society on the whole.

Forman plays up the comedy to make his story into something, more and the same might be said of Valerio Zurlini’s earlier film. Marcello all but disappears from his movie, and it becomes framed as one of those coming-of-age stories through the eyes of a young impressionable boy. In this case, the eyes belong to Marcello’s younger brother Lorenzo (Jacques Perrin).

He vows to cover for his sibling, although he doesn’t realize the extent of it until Aida shows up on their steps, armed with her suitcase, looking for someone. Instantly he’s conflicted between his initial agreement and the pity he feels for this woman.

In one passing moment, he asks his tutor, a local priest, whether we are responsible for what our relatives do. His mathematics teacher ironically seems generally incapable when it comes to answering questions of morality. In an effort to extend the man some grace, maybe he believes a boy’s problems are never as big as they seem. It takes some perspective, and perhaps he’s right.

However, he also misinterprets the thoughts that occupy his youthful pupil’s mind. There’s an importance and a candor behind his inquiries. You can see the gears turning in his mind because he is a creature of compassion. Youth often knows no other way.

Soon he becomes Aida’s benefactor and confidante. He provides her a loan, invites her to take a bath in their mansion. What’s comforting is how there are no ulterior motives between them and so they relax and come to appreciate one another as equals and as friends.

2020-07-12 at 1.12.31 PM

She in turn tells him of her unofficial fiancee. Sometimes she loves him madly. Sometimes she wants to strangle him for his ego and selfishness. She’s a singer he’s a musician, but he holds antiquated views about a woman’s place; he wants to clip her wings. She says “In art, couples don’t work,” She bemoans the men in her life. One robs me, another dumps me. Only Lorenzo extends her common decency.

I’m no musical savant but the soundtrack is a fine extension of the world with this almost tinny harpsichord quality we often associate with 18th-century drawing rooms. It’s cultured and yet set against the conversations still manages to be intimate.

She becomes more and more loquacious as he eagerly listens to everything she has to say. In the kitchen, they eat eggs and she finishes up the dishes, regaling him with her travails with a troupe of dancers. They frequented the cruddiest hotels on their circuit with nights full of conversations about hopes and dreams, careers, and future husbands. These are the most intimate of things and Lorenzo is let in. They feel a connection.

If there is anything like drama in the movie it’s generally subtle. Aida takes advantage of a big shot and dances with him at the hotel. Lorenzo watches jealous and angry with her for being so phony. Then, her boyfriend returns and it stings a bit more.

Lorenzo’s never had so many conflicted feelings welling up inside of him and so he tells Aida a white lie that might wind up hurting her. There’s a lovely moment on the steps of some museum. She is waiting in good faith. Instead, the father shows up to question her and get to the bottom of what is going on between them. Lorenzo is disconsolate. He came home drunk. Won’t study. He lies.

What can it be but something more than friendship tearing him apart? The movie does well to highlight what an ambiguous task it is to begin making sense of relational boundaries. In one sense it makes sense we do have marriage and dating to try and make sense of romance and feelings. To help us understand our emotions in a manageable context. Still, when you’re in love (and even when you get older), it is such a bewitching force.

How do we describe it? Yes, there is love between them. Is it romantic? Possibly. But there is a level of concern there proving far more genuine than we are normally used to seeing. Because youth often takes people as they are and sees the best in them when others are either dismissive or manipulative. While this is a beautiful thing, it can also lead to heartbreak. Sometimes it happens by accident.

For a good portion of the movie we almost forget about Lorenzo following Aida to the beach as she returns to her lover and then quickly finds a new one. They’re dancing in the cafe and then lounging on the beach together. She’s both obliging but not quite ready to give herself over to him. Then, Lorenzo returns and for the first time in his life, he’s prepared to make a stand to win her.

Screenshot 2020-07-12 at 2.52.19 PM

In everything from The Leopard to The Pink Panther or even Once Upon a Time in the West, Cardinale feels more like a dressing — one element of an ensemble. She does quite well and leaves a lasting impression, but in Girl With a Suitcase, she shines all the brighter.

There’s none of the money or pretentiousness that comes with bigger productions. Granted, there’s nothing wrong with any of the aforementioned movies. I like each one of them, but here it’s different. It’s intimate and alive in its characterizations in ways those other films were never meant to be. That was not their function.

Those were always about Marcello’s story or Alain Delon’s story, Burt Lancaster’s or David Niven’s stories. This is mostly hers. By the time it’s done, we know full well she’s not just a pretty face, but a lovely personality with a beating heart.

To my knowledge, it’s the finest showcase of Claudia Cardinale’s individual talents, and she deserves to be remembered in her own right: As a supernal, full-bodied beauty, yes, but also a tender, joyous personality. She is more than a pretty face. With that beating heart come fears and desires bubbling up through her character. And she’s beautiful inside just as she is broken. They are not mutually exclusive. In fact, they might even be interconnected.

Lorenzo learns this truth even as he grapples with his own affections and desires. Because the ending of the movie is reasonably dismal. If you’ll pardon the liberty, I’m reminded of a phrase: Foxes have holes, birds have nests, but the girl with the suitcase has no place to lay her head. In her case, it might be partially self-inflicted though not all her own doing. The society around her exacerbates her struggles.

I’m not sure if I know an Aida personally, but I can imagine her. A woman who is used or taken advantage of, who wanders or has no one who truly wants them or loves them, so they keep on looking, keep on searching, and continue getting hurt. It’s a downbeat cycle — totally futile — and yet in the youth of Lorenzo is still a resilient hope and a prevailing decency. This is what we must cling to for the future. Otherwise, there is no possible response other than despair.

4/5 Stars

Marnie (1964): An Inflection Point in Hitchcock’s Career

marnie red

“You don’t love me. You just think I’m some kind of animal you trapped.”

Forgive me if you disagree, but Marnie has wrapped around it the full confidence of Alfred Hitchcock with all his trick and thematic ideas. Its use of visuals to cue the action. The intensity of both color and the swirling score of Bernard Hermann (indeed, his final with Hitch), creating this almost obsessive fever dream.

Tippie Hedren returns as an icy, calculated blonde more like Vertigo than The Birds, and it feels like with the talents at his disposal and his harnessing of all the studio system has to offer, he’s able to make it sing like a finely wrought orchestra. While not his best film, it stands proud and tall next to his most identifiable works.

If we are to tinker with the auteur theory, we must also acknowledge cinematographer Robert Burks, who had worked on over a dozen Hitchcock pictures. This would be his last. Then, editor George Tomasini, who had a stellar run with “The Master of Suspense” in his own right, would die in 1964. One could see how you could easily situate Marnie as the end of one of the most fertile periods of filmmaking and also the most terrifying.

These words are chosen purposefully. Because Marnie is not another man on the run thriller or even a game of romantic cat-and-mouse like To Catch a Thief. It fits into the lineage of the Vertigos and Psychos where it feels like Hitchcock is dipping into perturbing territory, partially because it feels self-reflexive, and it deals in the potentially grotesque and unseemly sides of humanity.

Marnie opens on a bag. The back of a woman walking to a train station. We don’t see a face before we cut to a man who bemoans a bank robbery. His secretary ran off with some of his funds.

Eventually, we learn this woman is prone to such behavior. She’s taken many such jobs and undoubtedly committed many such infractions under different aliases. However, her true name is Marnie and like a dutiful daughter, she turns up on her invalid mother’s doorstep to check in on her, give her gifts, and try to earn more of her affection.

Because it becomes immediately apparent this woman has attachment and mother issues; she’s an independent woman yes, who is also independent of men, but she hangs onto her mother’s love. Even covets after it and clings to it jealously when maternal affections are directed towards a neighbor’s little girl. And then, she leaves as quickly as she arrives.

marnie connery and hedren

Her cycle begins again when she’s up for a new job at Rutland & Co. The exchange during her interview would be banal if not for a certain undercurrent, the dissonance at the core of the entire picture. They’ve done business with her former employer, but she has no way of knowing that.

The one man who knows her secret is there too. His name is Mark Rutland (Sean Connery). He looks on rather bemusedly as she explains her backstory to her interviewer. Something about a deceased husband and leaving Pittsburgh behind for more demanding, interesting work. As Rutland watches her, it serves a kind of dual-purpose, giving rise to our conflict while also highlighting this kind of queasy sexism in the workplace. Where women are hired as objects and often viewed as such.

He knows and still hires her out of curiosity — is that the case? However, there’s something more — a kind of kleptomania — and Hitchcock funnels the entire movie through Marnie’s private obsessions. So as a secretary drones on about some HR forms, we are busy watching the office manager pull out his key and unlock the safe. We vicariously take on the obsessions of Marnie — caught in the same vortex thanks to Hitchcock’s camera — a camera that enters a fevered frenzy whenever she sees the color red. It’s akin to Jimmy Stewart’s Vertigo in how it totally usurps the picture in an instant.

On a very different note, it’s always a pleasure to see Mariette Hartley, a personal favorite in TV reruns, and assuredly in Ride The High Country. But it is Diane Baker who might be the unsung hero of the movie and Hitchcock, if anything, sets her up as an integral figure to cement the film’s core drama. She is Marnie’s foil and ready to protect Mark even as she’s intent on winning him over.

But the relationship between Rutland and Ms. Edgar continues to vacillate, exemplified by very pointed snatches of dialogue. Take for instance, Rutland’s training in Zoological science or as he puts it “instinctual behavior.” He likens predators out on the Sahara to “the criminal class of the animal world,” and he’s as fascinated by Marnie as he is passionate about her.

They go to the races and then to see his father’s stables maintaining these implicit themes of husbandry and animalistic desires raging through Marnie’s core. She cannot help these impulses.

It’s true the film boasts some phenomenal wide shots: The first I’m thinking of is inside the stable before cutting to a close-up to the passionate embrace of our romantic leads. The second is an exercise in irony. Marnie is in the midst of her first burgle of the company safe. She snuck out of a bathroom stall after hours. Just around the partition, the night cleaning lady goes about her duties. To each her own.

For several minutes it is a silent movie. No music. I don’t think Hedren makes a sound. Because of course, Hitchcock is milking the moment only to magnify it seconds later. It reminds us how marvelous he was at punctuating the drama, lest his filmmaking ever be mistaken for realism.

Marnie continues in its duplicity as Rutland first accuses his employee of her theft and then comes right back around with the proposal of marriage. It drudges up the unseemly realities of sexual harassment and powerlessness as Marnie cries out about how she can’t bear to be handled by men. She doesn’t want to get married. It’s degrading. Even animal.

“You say no thanks to one of them and then bingo, you’re a candidate for the funny farm.” It breaks my heart even as I feel implicated in the issues. No, I wasn’t born then, but the indiscretions against women have not totally been expunged at least while men still have lust in their hearts. Hitch is part of the problem. I am part of the problem by any sin of omission or even passivity.

Before there was a mystery plot to hang its hat on in Vertigo or the money propelling Psycho. With Marnie, it hardly feels as if there’s a pretense to the often demented predilections of humanity. Husband and wife are “playing doctor” and free association with Marnie feeling as if she’s continually being needled by her spouse’s callous analysis. Is this love or torture?

diane baker and sean connery marnie

We mentioned Diane Baker before and it’s worth acknowledging her again. She is slightly impetuous and a bit impish — ready to go to war for her man. Hitchcock even gives her a line to mirror Norman Bates from Psycho as she offers observation on Marnie (A girl’s best friend is her mother). But she also eavesdrops because it’s this that allows her to know the film’s main secret and look to bring it to the surface.

The next sequence opens with that unmistakable Hitchcock high angle, at the party. It’s Notorious rehashed and yet instead of a key in the hand, it is the front door because through it will come a very important person: Someone who can implicate Marnie and unravel the stasis Mark has willingly corroborated for her. They must find a way to get out of this, to come to a mutual agreement, or else Marnie is sunk.

I must admit, this and the sense of suspense anticipated by the climax, are of the most intriguing since the psychology the final flashback relies upon feels too convenient. Maybe Hitchcock does not really care about any of this. It is a bit like Spellbound, but now it feels even more antiquated, whereas the moments leading up to the reveal of the trauma are contorted and alive, horrifying and convicting all at once.

Others could do it better, but I would be remiss not to mention the storyline of Hedren and Hitchcock, who harassed her all through the shoot. It’s an unsettling reminder of how he would control women and beyond that, how toxic masculinity has fueled our society and industries like Hollywood. It reveals the underlining brokenness in many of us that come out compulsively. It’s almost like we do what we do not want to do or we give ourselves over to them entirely. And what a nightmare that is.

Psychology cannot completely dispel our fears nor does it warrant a society and social spheres where men take advantage of women and where women feel fearful and scandalized. Forget his films. Hitchcock himself is emblematic of problematic fissures in society. That’s a great deal of what makes his film’s so disconcerting.

However, just as he tanked Tippi Hedren’s career, Hitchcock would never quite be the same. Not because of this mind you, unless there was some force of karma working against him I’m unaware of. Instead, the industry was changing and also the structures around him that he had to work with.

Torn Curtain and Topaz are passable films with glimpses of his cinematic eye, but they never amount to the same kind of intoxicating, bewitching drama we would see during his high point during the 1950s and early 60s. Of course, Frenzy was what some called a return to form, but it was, again, back in his native England so it’s obviously laced with a different flavor. His final film was in 1976 — Family Plot — and if it wasn’t evident already the industry had changed.

By then, he was a revered master but more of a relic than an up-and-coming auteur. No, Marnie feels like an inflection point as if it’s catching his very particular genius in a moment in time. It’s also a startling caveat to the career of one of the most lauded directors Hollywood has ever known. We cannot fully speak about one without reflecting on the other.

3.5/5 Stars

Targets (1968): Orlok Makes You Scream

targets karloff bogdanovich

The story goes Peter Bogdanovich met Roger Corman sitting in a screening of Bay of Angels (1963). What came out of that was an apprenticeship of sorts on Wild Angels (1966) in the Corman Film School where Bogdanovich did everything you could possibly imagine from script doctoring to location scouting etc. What he got for his troubles was hands-on experience but also the chance to direct his first feature…with a couple stipulations.

Corman gave him full control of his own movie as long as he reused some footage from an earlier Boris Karloff picture, The Terror, as well as utilizing the veteran actor’s two days of service he still owed Corman. There you have the birth of Targets, which manages to amount to far more than these contrived beginnings might suggest.

Because Bogdanovich found a way to make these haphazard pieces work — where it feels more like a meditation than a constraint — and the movie uses this to its advantage. It’s like a ’60s rendition of the poverty row pictures of the ’40s where necessity is truly the mother of invention. Sometimes you get a diamond in the rough.

The irony is while the big pictures were giving us entertainment that would become emblematic of the times like The Graduate, Bonnie & Clyde, or 2001: A Space Odyssey, it’s a movie like Targets placing us in the times themselves. In this way, it functions more like contemporary television.

What we are provided is a very concrete sense of Reseda in 67-68. There’s the “Real” Don Steele on the radio waves. Otto Preminger’s Anatomy of a Murder is a modern classic featured as the Saturday night movie on channel 7. A family sits down in the evening together to take in Joey Bishop and sidekick Regis Philbin. And, of course, there are drive-ins.

If this sets the stage and places Bobby Thompson (No, not the ballplayer) in a vaguely familiar landscape, the movie itself comes flowing out of the persona Boris Karloff provides free of charge.

Looking at them without context, there are so many elements of Targets that might leave one mystified. For instance, this white-haired gent with the booming voice. If you put the movie in a time capsule, those who find it probably wouldn’t know this is Boris Karloff. His Byron Orlok isn’t an anagram, but it feels like one.

Although he’s an acclaimed name, he’s resigned himself to a sorry fate. In his own words, “I’m an antique, out of date — an anachronism. The world belongs to the young. Make way for them, let them have it.” He might have seen Bonnie and Clyde and The Graduate too.

Still, he’s continually in dialogue with his own personal legacy and very aware of it. Just as he watches a version of himself on TV. His character recalls a tagline from his heyday, “The Marx Brothers make you laugh. Garbo makes you swoon. Orlok makes you scream.” It’s all part of this persona closely mirroring Karloff’s past.

Likewise, Sammy — that guy’s not much of an actor — although it changes instantly if we know this is Bogdanovich himself. The young screenwriter walks in, sees the TV, and right on the nose says, “It’s Criminal Code. I saw this at the Museum of Modern Art. Howard Hawks directed this. He really knows how to tell a story.”

They become these dueling pawns, partly fiction, partly reality, as Orlok bemoans the fact he has become high camp; he can hardly play it straight anymore, and Sammy coaxes him that the role is something he can do (Targets?). Otherwise, he’ll offer it to Vincent Price.

It’s as if the director beat Orson Welles to the punch with this kind of intratextual dialogue between the medium and its real-life players. Surely history helped out because Targets was just his beginning followed by a whole slew of classics, albeit disrupted and undermined by his own turbulence and troubles replicating his most supernal successes. All these things and more are what make Targets so riveting when it has little right to be.

Targets Boris Karloff and Nancy Hseuh

Orlok’s secretary Jenny (Nancy Hsueh in a charming role) is romantically attached to Sammy, but also has a staunch devotion to Orlok. She doesn’t want the old man to just give up and she feels slighted when he lashes out at her — one of the few people who genuinely cares for his well-being.

He’s ready to turn his back on it all only to reluctantly agree to make a public appearance. He’s fallen to the low of the Drive-in Theater circuit, living off the residual celebrity of his waning fame.

Meanwhile, Bobby has gone through his daily paces. He seems like an All-American boy. He’s married but lives with his parents. He likes guns, and he’s been taught a healthy (or unhealthy) sense of competition. There’s an underlying angst supplied by this deceptively pristine life.

He stakes out on top of an oil well, brown bag and a soda pop in hand, as he sets up overlooking the freeway, prepared to pick some people off. Bogdanovich captures the evolving sequence with a Sam Fuller sense of grab-and-go photography, on the side of the freeway, with a brazen even outlandish sense of drama.

This is real traffic and real places and the director plucks out his shots from these pregnant moments of simulated reality. Between the crosshairs, gunshots, swerving vehicles, and flailing bodies. The scene evokes the Texas tower shooting of 1966 where killing becomes this indiscriminate force of violence.

The Sniper (1952), from over a decade prior, was a picture that, no matter its effectiveness, was meant to elicit a social response. Stanley Kramer’s movies can be strongly identified by this sense of responsibility toward the viewer. Targets hardly feels like a political statement of any kind, but its themes are no less intriguing — probably because it never feels like it’s preaching something. Instead, it allows us to consider its various digressions and still be gripped.

The drive-in finale actually does a solid job of reconciling the two disparate story strands. Bogdanovich had watched enough Hitchcock, heck, he’d interviewed the Master of Suspense, and put in this position calling for such a setpiece, he seems to know intuitively what he has to do.

What’s more, it signaled the young director’s ascension as a New Hollywood darling. What’s so striking is how it marries Classic Hollywood with the contemporary climate and does it with a startling sense of command. If you needed a picture to try and sum up Bogdanovich himself, then there is no better lodestone.

He wants to revel in the days of Karloff and Hawks of old — when violence meant monsters and gangsters — and yet he brings it into the 60s. Because violence still existed but in a different form. In the age of social tumult and assassinations, the landscape of the 1960s feels a lot more futile and incomprehensible.

And the images make you shutter as we are implicated in this alongside a killer even as we sympathize with Orlok trying to bow out gracefully. I’m not sure which aspect is more telling. The power is that we need not pick between them. We are presented horror in its various forms, old versus new, and the person who unifies them so evocatively for us is Peter Bogdanovich. It’s quite a stunning feat of ingenuity.

4/5 Stars

Freud: The Secret Passion (1962): Directed by John Huston

freud monty clift

Freud: The Secret Passion is made by John Huston’s sense of narrative posturing. In fact, he goes so far as to narrate the opening himself, relating how men like Copernicus and Darwin boldly went against the conventions of their day to help revolutionize people’s conception of the world. Into this category, he adds a third individual and with him a third frontier.

It was Sigmund Freud who effectively caused mankind to venture to “a region almost as black as hell itself: man’s unconscious.” What a bit of methodical showmanship it is and the styling is something that might only be pulled off by a man like Huston or Orson Welles. There’s a gravitas and a charisma wrapped about him that carries a certain commanding ethos. Sadly, it never has the same impact from thenceforward.

Although the subject comes with its own sense of obvious intrigue, it somehow doesn’t seem to play to Huston’s own skills, restricting his talents to a very specific arena even if it was not slated to be a straightforward biopic.

In fact, his collaboration on Freud: The Secret Passion began with a call on the talents of Jean-Paul Satre to pen a screenplay. Even though the eminent philosopher crafted the skeleton of the story, Huston ultimately parted ways with Satre because the mammoth script he provided was unshootable.

To play Freud, he brought back Montgomery Clift from The Misfits, which immediately seems a strange choice. Clift supplies a sensitivity I would have never attributed to Freud. Granted, this is based on the little I know of him from merely studying his influences on the field of psychology. That and his penchant for cigars.

Though Clift hardly seems the image of Freud nor Huston quite the man to bring the story to fruition, if nothing else, it should quash any rumors of Clift being totally sunk by the end of his career. Despite the fallow years that came following Freud, he is still the picture of distinguished vulnerability. Admittedly, the backstage complications might elucidate a different story. However, I’m not Sigmund Freud so I couldn’t tell you. I only have the film to go by.

Although the world around him appears relatively simple, the black & white baroque style accentuates the metaphors of the light and darkness at war in the human psyches. Even the eery scoring, infused with rumbling drums, denotes similarly dark caverns in the mind.

In the early years of his career, beginning in 1885, Freud starts kicking around ideas as he comes to understand the subconscious and begins to dabble in hypnosis, “a dark art” many of the most prestigious practitioners in Vienna scoff at. Their subset is embodied most obviously by Professor Meynert, who sees such ideas as being beyond the scope of their profession, “Are we theologians or physicians?”

But while Freud wants the support of his colleagues, he’s not needlessly seeking out vainglory. His research and inquisitive mind prove his guiding light. He shares a conversation with a colleague who notes what a splendid thing to descend into hell and light your torch from its fires. Thus, encouraged, Freud goes into the heart of the darkness, prepared to slay the dragons he might find there. It sounds more like witchcraft than human psychology, and I suppose in 1885 it might as well have been.

The majority of the movie is built around his work with a case study named Cecily (Susannah York); she was a patient of his esteemed mentor Joseph Breuer (Larry Parks). He passes her well-being to the care of his pupil because he has his own issues. It gets to be too much as she transfers her affection first to Dr. Breuer and then to Freud himself.

As they go deeper, Freud, using hypnosis, finds out she is infatuated with the memory of her father. Together they wade through her issues from sexual repressions, nightmares, and childhood traumas.

Even Frau Potiphar and Joseph are brought up as symbolic figures in a parable — well, it’s a case study for Freud really — explaining a bit of Cecily’s buried angst through Biblical allusion.

freud the secret passion

However, to crack his theory, he must come to terms with his own history, and it proves a taxing ordeal for his wife (Susan Kohner) who worries she might lose her “Sigi” to his work or, worse yet, one of his patients.

And still, he keeps probing — daring to wade into his own trauma to better understand Cecily. The most telling imagery comes with Clift spelunking by rope into the depths of a cave searching out his deepest memories. Finally, there is a breakthrough. Finally, he can try and free this girl from her baggage.

He brings his latest findings before the counsel of his peers once more and is jeered for his observation on oedipal complexes and the like. What’s striking is how even today though Freud formed the bedrock of modern psychology, many of his ideas are still considered dubious. They aren’t backed conclusively by empirical findings like other scientific methods.

What’s more, he loses his greatest ally. Dr. Breuer simultaneously stands up for Freud’s brilliance and personal integrity but still cannot help but walk out the chamber doors. The greatest fault of Freud, in the end, is the fact it feels like a story of little consequence on its own. We leave the man and it feels as if very little has transpired. Only with this context supplied by Huston do we attribute any greater meaning.

Huston’s final line is meant to be a telling statement. Know thyself. Our single enemy is our own vanity. Certainly, there is truth in these words. The Secret Passion is one of the more emotionally rich films I’ve seen to deal in themes of human psychology, the subconscious, and psychosexual themes, although the landscape feels generally sparse.

I am reminded of one scene where Clift’s psychoanalyst commiserates about the innocent entering a world of sin, foredoomed to this lot in life — on this earth. We might differ slightly in our interpretations here. Our world is flawed just as we are flawed. We do not come into existence as a blank slate as Locke posited. But we are doomed. Each of us has our own private conclave of demons, and we cannot heal ourselves. Once we give up our vanity and put on a cloak of humility, we often realize we need others — we need help outside ourselves.

3/5 Stars

One-Eyed Jacks (1961): Good and Evil is in the Cards

one eyed jacks Brando Malden

One-Eyed Jacks acts as a bit of an anomaly. It was originally meant to be helmed by Stanley Kubrick. Instead, Marlon Brando himself oversaw direction — his one and only time in the director’s chair. The results are as vibrant and totally Brando as they are messy, devolving into something more than indicative of its creative nucleus.

To its credit, the movie, set in the 1880s, earns its world more than Viva Zapata because there is an understanding of cultural differences inherent in the landscape. It does not try to insensitively blur ethnic lines with whites playing Mexicans.

Even Brando’s sense of Zapata, although plaintive, potentially falls prey to this blind spot. But One-Eyed Jacks is as much about the meldings of the cultures as anything. Yes, there are still obvious hierarchies and spheres of existence.  Chinese, for instance (represented by Philip Ahn), are tertiary characters, and the Latino cast is certainly secondary to the Caucasian leads, but this is indicative of the structures in place. There is some attempt at character definition that goes beyond menial stereotypes.

The scenes that strike me, in particular, are between Katy Jurado and Pina Pillicener. Instead of copping out, making these two women converse in English for the benefit of an English-speaking audience, there’s enough confidence in the emotion engendered (even if your Spanish is not up to par to catch every word). It feels wholly honest compared to typical Hollywood convention.

But, in order to explain this world, we must start 5 years earlier with a couple of outlaws. Before the days of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Rio (Marlon Brando) and Dad (Karl Malden) are a pair of womanizing bandits robbing banks all over Mexico, living a merry life of crime constantly on the run from the authorities.

It does eventually catch up to them as they are left stranded out in the desert with Federales hot on their heels. The fateful choice to send Dad off to find horses while Rio stays behind winds up altering their steps for good. Rio gets captured and shackled up in a local prison with his compadre Chico (Larry Duran). Dad rides off to start a fresh life for himself without any kind of penance being paid. Their divergent roads spell out what the future must hold.

Even when it lumbers along or willfully bides its time — for instance, watching a couple thugs waiting it out on a porch by the sea — the color scheme as captured by Charles Lang is gorgeous. It’s one of the film’s persistent attributes though it has a handful of others.

My mind drift’s to a shot far later in the story when Brando rides his horse past a gnarled tree right out of Sleepy Hollow. Unbeknownst to him, one of his faithful companions lies shot to death only meters away, and he is riding toward doom — for crimes, crimes he didn’t even commit.

Brando often surrounds himself with interesting folks. Some are tried and true — allies he’s been able to rely on for a long time — like Karl Malden (reunited again after A Streetcar Name Desire and On the Waterfront). And yet even the likes of Katy Jurado and a promising international newcomer like Pina Pellicer bring their own sense of sober candor to the picture. She’s a striking contrast to her leading man even if they share a core sadness.

one eyed jacks

The Ben Johnsons and Sam Gilmans round out the assemblage of talent with the gruff essence of imposing masculinity. Slim Pickens, on the side of law and order, is his own version, equally snide and opportunistic — creating the kind of evocative characterizations that westerns thrive on.

It’s this kind of duality — represented foremost by Brando and Malden, then accentuated through their posses — causing one to mull over the meaning of One-Eyed Jacks. The phraseology is not something that gets used too often today. But its origins are from the profile image on a playing card. In this context, it comes to symbolize people who show off their “good side” while conveniently hiding all their faults through duplicity.

Rio is a pathological liar even in the context of people he likes. He knows no other way to go about it, holding onto his anger and letting it direct him toward revenge. But in one sense, he’s straightforward because he’s always taut with tension and the kind of angst Brando built a dynasty out of. There’s always sensitivity on the other side.

Dad is a jovial character. He’s made a life for himself and he has “reformed,” now on the side of the law. But the stroke of fortune that allowed him to get away from the federales 5 years ago and make a new life for himself, has never really left him. He’s a wheedling even deceptive fellow with a merciless, self-serving edge. He’s a man to be feared because he has popular opinion and legitimacy on his side. It’s a far more terrifying prospect.

Here’s yet another western playing with the conventions of heroics and villainy with this newfound muddied and greying sense of morality as Peckinpah would continually work through in the ensuing years. Because the final act is about a man sentenced to be hanged and the root of justice behind it remains totally immaterial. Brando is cast as a local villain even as he remains part victim to the audience. Malden and his crew are symbols of justice — swift and sure — with at least a couple of caveats.

Up until the final shots, One-Eyed Jacks remains a fairly engaging morality play rooted in a host of fine performances and its provocative imagery. Given the circumstances — how an inexperienced Brando captured exorbitant amounts of footage and remained indecisive in his directorial decisions — it feels like a bit of a marvel we got something as passable as this. Its imperfections only make its virtues all the more fortuitous.

3.5/5 Stars

Jean-Paul Belmondo: Up To His Ears, Le Magnifique, The Professional

Because of his meteoric ascension in Breathless, patterning his insouciant hoodlum on the Hollywood image of Bogart, Jean-Paul Belmondo is easily identified with his predecessor. He was a tough guy — gladly so — and he offered up a long line of memorable performances over a stellar career.

Pierrot Le Fou (Godard) and Le Doulos (Melville) quickly spring to mind, but then you only have to look at something like Leon Morin, Priest, where he plays the eponymous clergyman, to recognize the range he was capable of.

In honor of his career, we wanted to highlight three of his later action films. They are not his most acclaimed pictures, but they are defined by his legacy so it seems fitting to acknowledge them.

Up To His Ears (1965)

Up to His Ears is cut out of the same cloth as Philippe de Broca’s prior film with Belmondo from the year before: That Man from Rio. It’s a globetrotting picture all across the orient with madcap chase sequences and quite a few attempts at Bond-like intrigue.

Overall, it bends more toward dated gags and goofy antics than out-and-out thrills, and it seems mostly content with this. When they flee an onslaught of Chinese gangsters, Belmondo and company sneak down into a pillbox, down to an underground tunnel, and on and on. There always seems to be a fortuitous out for them.

If their good fortune and the fact they aren’t completely annihilated seems farfetched, then you don’t understand the ambitions of the film. It’s all sendup. Belmondo seems to be enjoying himself, and his adventures lead to a desert island with Ursula Andress. He can’t believe his luck.

Obviously, the movie cannot quite muster the same glory as That Man from Rio, but Belmondo is still a great action hero able to play the crazy comedic moments and still move through space with vim and vigor. It ain’t Godard, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

3/5 Stars

Le Magnifique (1973)

Also known as Our Man in Acapulco, and its dashing hero, Bob Saint-Clar (Jean-Paul Belmondo) feels like an amalgamation of ’70s era Bond (Moore and Connery) with a lot of Get Smart thrown in for taste.

Philippe de Broca’s at the helm again offering up some of the most self-reflexive parodies of the hypermasculine, suave international spy genre. It pulls out all the comic book scenarios — with dastardly villains et al. — and the resolutions, seeing our hero always prevail. He must live to fight another day.

Broca himself readily contributed to this spy phenomenon during the ’60s with Belmondo to boot. However, it’s so over-the-top to the point of being offputting. Then, we realize our secret agent is being dreamed up by a hack writer, named Francois (also Belmondo) on a strict deadline!

Suddenly it breathes new life into the premise with a renewed perspective, and these long-trod pulp-bound conventions become only part of the gimmick and, hence, only part of its appeal. Not to be outdone, he’s taken the English sociology student (Jacqueline Bisset), who lives across the way and dreamt her into his story as the beautiful Tatiana. His supervillain is none other than his own pompous editor (Vittorio Caprioli).

We’ve followed his story umpteen times before. Although he writes pulp trash for a rapt audience of many, his active imagination all but compensates for a fairly nondescript private life. He’s got a bit of Walter Mitty in him. In the most fated of meet-cutes, Christine (Bisset) accidentally picks up one of his works and finds herself instantly inspired for her college thesis.

Soon she’s dropping by to blow through whole shelves of his novels. And then the idealized man dreamed up on the page, must take a stand in his own life. For what it is — plagued by many of the shortcomings of its genre and the era — I can’t help but appreciate Le Magnifique.

It mostly comes down to Belmondo’s dual role and his rapport with Bisset. Again, they’re having palpable fun taking it over the top, and like any great screen icon, Belmondo gets the girl — twice.

3.5/5 Stars

The Professional (1981)

It feels like your prototypical dated ’80s blockbuster replete with gratuitous violence, a rogue’s gallery of heavies with all the other corny ingredients mixed in together. Belmondo is an agent, undercover in an African country, prepared to assassinate their leader only to be drugged and sent to a labor camp.

He escapes and ultimately returns to France as a kind of rogue operative on the lam. His former superiors want to do away with him, but he’s always one step ahead. He’s not going to be eliminated that easily.

Although it’s not a Bond movie, there are pretty girls, and he seems to know them all intimately all while slinking around to preserve his own skin and complete his objective. Belmondo is undeniable, handling everything from fisticuffs, stunts, and seduction with his usual roguish charisma. He never takes himself too seriously. It’s as if he’s in on the joke of it all and enjoying himself in each individual moment.

The final car chase changes my whole verdict of the picture because it really does take my breath away. It’s yet another showcase for Belmondo the consummate action hero, effectively taking the film by the horns and really living and breathing the part.

While the score isn’t prototypical Ennio Morricone, it gained a new life and legacy in The Professional. He receives what might be termed the briefest of homages as the film’s main leitmotif comes to life between crosscut closeups of its hero and villain a la Leone. It’s like a mini showdown transposed to the world of French secret agents.

There is so much of Bourne here beyond the car chase, and it comes down to the inexplicable predicament of the protagonist. He is thrown into a world that is not right-side-up, and his only choice is holding fast to what he knows. He’s smart and cunning, making a real go of it.

But sometimes the world in all its order and pragmatism doesn’t make a shred of sense. At least, to the very last minute, Belmondo looks cool doing his job. In a movie like this, surely that’s all that matters. Adieu, Jean-Paul. Thank you for what you gave us.

3.5/5 Stars

The Night of The Iguana (1964) and The God-Shaped Hole

night of the iguana 2

It’s a Sunday morning in St. James Episcopal Church. The minister pulls his sermon from Proverbs 25:28: “A man without self-control is like a city broken into and left without walls.” But there is an elephant in the room, an unspoken force coming between the shepherd and his sheep. He starts to stutter before he erupts in an indignant tirade lambasting his parishioners.

There’s something unsettling in seeing Richard Burton as a minister. I would have felt a similar unease with Peter Finch as a preacher (he was a surgeon in A Nun’s Story). Although it’s true, the similarly resonant actor, Richard Todd portrayed one of the most sincere clergymen ever in A Man Called Peter.

But Burton has the largest and most volatile personalities of all three.  So when he loses his train of thought during his Sunday sermon, perched from his pulpit, it’s not altogether unwarranted watching him implode on the spot. We expect as much.

It feels like Reverend Lawrence T. Shannon (Richard Burton) has inherited the lectern from Barabara Stanwyck in Miracle Women, though his conflict is more difficult to sort out. It’s as much about the watch-dog hypocrisy in his own church as it is his personal crises of conscience. We don’t know what his presumed sins are, but as the pews clear and he thunders down the aisles, he calls out the fleeing congregants, denouncing them thusly:

“You’ve turned your backs on the God of love and compassion and invented for yourselves this cruel, senile, delinquent who blames the world and all that he created for his own faults! Close your windows. Close your doors! Close your hearts – against the truth of our God! ”

Be that as it may and totally regardless of his innocence or guilt, the next moment we see Shannon, he’s fallen to a new low — taking a busload of Texas schoolteachers down through Mexico so he can serve as their tour guide past all the religious relics below the border.

night of the iguana 3

What a sorry figure he is — a tortured, broken, smarmy man just trying to get by. This portrayal is generally enhanced by the realization that Richard Burton, though he probably grew up in The Church of England, was at the very least a cultural atheist. Nor does he come off as a ministerial type. He was notorious for drinking like a fish. Meanwhile, his highly publicized off-screen tryst with Elizabeth Taylor was commanding the contemporary tabloid covers. It all fits into this conflicted, mercurial performance of his. Hardly likable but strangely compelling for all its wild instabilities.

James Garner is said to have turned down the role because “it was just too Tennessee Williams” for his taste. He’s not wrong and frankly as much as I love him to death, the part wouldn’t have fit. Burton can carry it off because his demons, whether real or imagined, are far more visible onscreen.

However, there is another pressing question. How in the world do you get the creative marriage of John Huston and Tennessee Williams? I’m not sure if you could call it a perfect match, but it’s ceaselessly interesting. It’s a new side of Mexico — in the fishing village of Puerto Vallarta — well after The Treasure of The Sierra Madre. Consequently, the setting seems a bit left-of-center for typical Williams fare even as the sordid dramatic content is much what we would expect. In the middle somewhere the two men meet.

The words from Proverbs are easily recalled as the disgraced Reverend finds himself being pursued by a loquacious young blonde (Sue Lyon continuing in her Lolita vein). She finds him easy to talk to and fascinating — his life is engaged with people’s souls and yet he’s young and virile. Charlotte takes a dip with him innocently enough and still notes she could never do this with the preacher back home in Texas.

It’s the first sign of hot coals. He wants nothing of her coquettish advances even as the acerbic chaperone Ms. Fellowes (Grayson Hall) watches him like a hawk — ruling over the girl with an iron fist of ascetic repression. It makes her a tiresome thorn in Shannon’s side; he’s about ready to go mad. Eventually, he does.

Having just about enough of their campfire songs and rigid drudgery, he shanghais the busload of priggish Baptist schoolteachers, taking them on a harrowing ride, bumping their way down the dusty backroads. He screeches to a halt, jumps out, rips out the distributor head, and proceeds to streak up the hillside with his suitcase. They might as well be in the middle of nowhere.

For the sake of this movie, they are not. The tropical Costa Verde hotel is hidden up in the forest overlooking the water, and it just happens to be run by an old friend of Shannon’s. Fred is dead, but his wife, the larger-than-life Maxine Faulk (Ava Gardner), is still running the place. She’s an earthy force to be reckoned with indebted to Gardner’s lively showing.

If not for her, Burton would probably steal the show, but he’s met with another gale storm of enduring cheerfulness and utter obstinance. Their impact is such you almost forget about Deborah Kerr. Sure enough, she appears on their doorstep as the peripatetic painter, Hannah Jelkes, who travels with her grandfather, a diminutive, 98-year-old poet.

night of the iguana 1

Though the other two dominate the screen, she quietly commands it. When Gardner and Burton get to shoving the drink cart at one another, it is Kerr who becomes their unofficial mediator. Because she is a voice of reason, an artist with a pensive gaze, and a surprisingly lucid perspective despite her meager lifestyle.

Later Charlotte bursts into Shannon’s room yet again causing him unwanted torment as she tries to get him to go away with her. She’s very good at stirring up men’s hearts and instigating mini scandals in the process. In another scene, a fistfight for her affections breaks out between the tour’s bus driver (Skip Ward), and some local boys replete with music, maracas, and stereotypical flourishes. Huston plays it for a laugh. It’s inconsequential if not altogether inane.

Because it is from the stage, The Night of The Iguana does seem to stall. Eventually, the bus leaves without Shannon and the second half of the story feels like an existential dialogue more than anything else. It could be a dead-end, though on the merit of our three established stars, it remains something intermittently though-provoking if not entirely compelling.

The curious thing is how the adversary melts away. True, the bus leaves with both his temptation and condemnation and yet he has pity even on his adversary. “Miss Fellowes is a highly moral person. If she ever recognized the truth about herself it would destroy her.” He recognizes her as another conflicted, constricted creature — a fellow Iguana tied up to a post.

With the bottom dropped out of his life, Shannon wants to swim to China, seemingly a handy euphemism for ending it all. He’s taken to the brink of his wits, lashing out at Maxine and anyone else who will avail him. It’s Kerr who rules the final act amid the paucity of moral rectitude. She perceives that his version of Golgotha is on a green hillside overlooking the water. His cross being strung up in a hammock on the verandah. In comparison, it seems like a fairly cushy alternative. She strips him down to who he really is.

Far from condemning him, Jelkes feels strangely sincere and genuine, particularly for Williams. She perceives that his problem revolves around “The need to believe in something or in someone — almost anyone — almost anything.” It’s Augstine or Pascal’s God-shaped hole rehashed. Likewise, she deflects his metaphors. She is not a bird but a human being. Nothing human disgusts her except if it’s unkind or violent. What extraordinary statements they are, and Kerr delivers them with a perfectly composed performance.

As each person tries to decipher their own religion or least some semblance of existential understanding, whether through legalism, drink, or sex, even cutting Iguana’s lose as a private act of personal Godship, she’s the one character who brings down the thoughts and words of the wise and makes them feel foolish.

For a film suffused with a great deal of religiosity, she’s startling unprepossessing. And yet in her words and in her humanity are the roots of something bountiful and beautiful in their very simplicity. It’s the kind of simplicity that can help loosen the Iguana from the hitching post, where we find out by sojourning, it’s possible to fill up the vacuum inside each and every one of us.

4/5 Stars

Seven Days in May (1964): A Twilight Zone America Strikes Close to Home

Sevendays_moviepThe opening images of Seven Days in May could have easily been pulled out of the headlines. A silent protest continues outside the White House gates with hosts of signs decrying the incumbent president or at the very least the state of his America.  We don’t quite know his egregious act although it’s made evident soon enough.

The scene at hand rapidly escalates to violence. There’s an immersive cinema-verite quality to the mob that breaks out between rival protesters. It instigates the film’s overt sense of technical style even if it’s not always straight to the point.

What becomes imperative to John Frankenheimer’s movie is how this showmanship frames the performances at its core because the movie is driven by its robust melange of characters. Fredric March is president Jordan Lyman. He’s getting middling reviews for headlining a nuclear disarmament deal with the Soviets. This includes backlash from his highest-ranking military officials, and they’re not going to sit around while he lets America get annihilated.

It might seem like a slightly peculiar (if not entirely unfounded) reaction, seeing as in real life so many people would soon call for peace. Except in this world, the Cold War is literally reversed; now they have peace, and the outcome still remains the same. Everyone’s suspicious of what might really be going on behind the Iron Curtain.  If it’s not evident already, Seven Days in May effectively becomes an off-shoot of your typical Cold War doomsday drama.

Somehow it seems fitting Rod Serling adapted the script from the titular novel because this is a story planted in an inconspicuous and generally subtle near-future. It is its own Twilight Zone in that the logic feels slightly tweaked from what contemporary America was familiar with. At any rate, it’s concerned with an entirely different outcome than President Kennedy was currently faced with. What makes it truly startling is how much of a hop, skip, and a jump it feels from reality.

While it’s unfeasible to totally encapsulate public discourse during the early 1960s of the Kennedy administration, it’s often true movies act as an echo chamber of the times, reverberating the current issues in fundamentally different ways. I cannot speak to the anxieties Seven Days in May explicitly illustrates. But there are tinges of very real conditions, be it public protests and national marches (with the civil rights movement) and certainly the ongoing frozen-over politics of The Cold War.

Foremost among the detractors is General Scott (Burt Lancaster), who adamantly believes nuclear disarmament is a dubious peace — a sign of America’s weakness as they roll over and cave to Soviet interests — leaving the nation vulnerable. And it’s not an isolated opinion with close associates including Colonel “Jiggs” Casey (Kirk Douglas) sharing his line of thinking.

However, even their own private allegiances dictate drastically different courses of action. There would not be a movie if “Jiggs” did not uncover General Scott’s covert operations. Namely, a garrison of men training at an undisclosed facility in El Paso. It’s the first of several red flags.

The Colonel immediately brings a line of communication straight to the top triggering mistrust and paranoia as the inner circle of the president is overtaken with consternation. Although he seems admittedly quick to sound the alarm, it is indicative of the times. Especially because their fears of a military plot to take over the government seem overwhelmingly well-founded. Such a coup d’etat on the oval office almost feels unthinkable in the modern age of America; maybe this fits a more Twilight Zone sense of our government structures.

Regardless, Lyman heeds the warning and sends one of his closest allies, old southern boy, Ray Clark (Edmond O’Brien), to check out El Paso. Another oval office insider (Martin Basalm) ends up tracking down the one standout from the conspiracy — an admiral currently based out of Spain — who gives a signed statement of foreknowledge. Meanwhile, The Colonel is asked to continue in the uncomfortable position of an informer. The President must bide his time until he can back up the claims, lest he be seen as a raving madman by the general public.

While Lancaster might have the more high-profile post, it is Douglas who feels like the sinews holding the movie together, and rightfully so, because he was one of the major forces behind the film’s production. To his credit, it shows his ability to play a more restrained part — close to the vest — which still remains deeply impactful.

His scenes with Ava Gardner feel like a minor side note to this covert conspiracy of international importance, and yet it’s a tribute to both of them; it feels real and devastating in its own right. Their shared context means something.

Given the era, it’s hard not to consider the likes of Advise & Consent and then the more nuclear-oriented dramas like Fail Safe and Dr. Strangelove. And of course, John Frankenheimer had a well-documented pedigree with the political thriller from one of the most high-profile contenders, The Manchurian Candidate, and the criminally overlooked Seconds a few years down the road.

If we were to take his loose trilogy and compare it with Alan J. Pakula’s trifecta of thrillers from the 1970s, we can somewhat trace the evolution of the genre from one decade to the next.

As Lyman notes, the electorate is looking to elect a personal God for the duration, whether a McCarthy or a General Walker. They clamor for such a person to assuage their fears. The enemy is not other men but the nuclear age. We suspect infiltration and that the enemy is trying to blow us off this rock. Not until later would our own government be implicated, and then big business and our own systems be seen as a source of the problems.

Some of the best scenes take place in the privacy of the oval office because we sense the tension provided by the stakes. However, the whole drama is brought down to a manageable scale that can be quantified and understood through human relationships.

The intimate confrontation between March and Lancaster is probably a pinnacle of the storytelling, far more impactful in fact, than watching a full-scale conflict play out. Instead, it’s the whole movie hinging on one showdown between two incomparable forces, and what a showcase it is.

What makes the film smoke with legitimacy is how both men suggest, in their heart of hearts, that they are right and justified in what they are doing. And that’s what the great actors can do. Lancaster, in particular, is easy enough to cast as the power-hungry, possibly sleazy villain with a Napoleonic complex. But Lancaster’s ferocity is only matched by his steely delivery. There’s never a suggestion he is phoning in those lines of dialogue. They come off real and true and unflinching.

In the eleventh hour, there’s a sigh of relief and an equally perturbing sense of unease. We conveniently never find out if the peace treaties were a ploy by the Soviets. All we’ve done is live to fight another day. Tomorrow could signal oblivion. For this early in the decade, it feels surprisingly downbeat signifying the times certainly were a-changin’. The shift was inexorable.

4/5 Stars

*I wrote this review well before events at the Capitol on January 6th, 2021. 

Pale Flower (1964): A Stylish Japanese Noir

Screenshot 2020-03-13 at 84635 PM

The images aren’t unfamiliar to those acquainted with Japan’s metropolis. A voice surmises over images of the bustling train station. “Back in Tokyo. 3 years. It makes my head spin. Why are so many people crammed into cage-like boxes?”

I couldn’t agree more with our narrator. The sentiments aren’t lost on me from my time living abroad and riding those very same trains with some of those same people. However, he goes further still.

They are strange animals, their faces lifeless — even dead. Later on, he equates step-fathers with pigs and young lovers in a darkened movie theater are much the same. His is quite the high view of humanity. If all of this feels detached and unequivocally unfeeling, then you’ve caught on to the despondency at the core of Pale Flower.

We realize we are in the presence of some sort of present-day philosopher. Of course, Muraki ((Ryō Ikebe) just happens to be a member of one of the local Yakuza gangs. This is his turf. Someone has died since then — someone he killed — but otherwise, nothing has changed. It’s the same place he left during his stint in prison. He returns to the gambling dens to seek out the former crowd.

What’s immediately apparent about Pale Flower, at least from a visual perspective, is the texture of the images. They are pristine and drop-dead gorgeous if generally detached. They come off as silky smooth as their protagonist, who sits down with the other gamblers just like old times catching the eye of a lucky young woman (Mariko Kaga) with quite a winning streak.

Already, it gives off the smoky, self-assured vibes of an old Paul Newman or Steve McQueen movie — something like The Hustler or the Cincinnati Kid — films that had atmosphere and residual cool in spades.

It starts with our hero Muraki. If he’s a little of Newman, he might be a bit of Robert Mitchum too with a cigarette perched between his lips. Or he’s casually walking the streets in his shades like a mature Alain Delon. In a word, it’s the kind of confidence you don’t teach. It feels like it’s been inbred.

As a filmmaker, Masahiro Shinoda displays a few of the same characteristics. Some of his shot selections are awesome feats quickly garnering appreciation. I would be remiss not to mention an overhead shot of all the players gathered around the gambling table, a bold portrait of visual symmetry. It requires a resolute confidence in what your frames have to offer on their own merit.

Recently, I watched Seijun Suzuki’s Youth of The Beast, and it showcases a very different kind of artistry. He willfully blows through all the rules with a blatant disregard and bombastic energy verging on the absurd. This is his calling card throughout his most well-received offerings like Tokyo Drifter and Branded to Kill.

Shinoda’s film takes an entirely different approach, sliding casually through conventions without ever losing their sense of cool. Both give us defining portraits of yakuza cinema, but there’s a seriousness even a solemnity present that carries through, down to the black & white imagery. Suzuki would rarely be caught dead with such dourness. Here it works.

It’s also totally reinforced and enhanced by its use of sound, whether clocks, flowing water, clacking tiles, whatever it may be — there’s something about the cadence adding a pace and an innate rhythm to the beats of the story. They’re not always fast, but there is a purposeful confidence in them as they move from one to another. And sometimes, there’s silence — just street noise or feet clopping — other times the bold screeches and scrapes of the score.

If we’ve skimped on plot, it’s because Pale Flower doesn’t necessarily need much to remain effective. Aside from gambling houses, Muraki can be found at the racetrack or paying a visit to his old boss — an unassuming, aging man who takes frequent trips to the dentist.

Coming back, the faithful mobster has come to realize some things have changed in his absence. The two-sided gang war serving as the bulwark of the underworld now has a third party from Osaka complicating the works as they gain ground.

He’s also got a girl waiting for him — a girl who loves him — even as a sensible salaryman asks for her hand in marriage, and Muraki gets distracted by so many things. There’s his work and then other women. For one, Saeko the doe-eyed baby-faced beauty leaves quite an impression wherever she goes. Maybe that’s what happens in an entirely paternalistic society. Regardless, Muraki takes particular interest in her.

She, for one, is young and totally bored with life, riding the highs of gambling, although they can never get quite high enough. One is reminded of the compulsive steadily rising addiction and gambler’s fallacy at the center of Jacques Demy’s Bay of Angels.

Still, Saeko needs something else. She’s insatiable. When she can’t gamble anymore, she lets herself get carried away racing down the highways — drunk on adrenaline — and when that still doesn’t satisfy, she needs something more to get off on. She and Muraki in some ways are alike. Up to a point.

He scoffs at the ghostly-faced gangster Yoh. He’s a sleazy dope addict, who always sits in the corner like a gaunt specter. His brand of small-time criminal is a far cry from what Muraki knows. Saeko is drawn to him because he is a concrete gateway to drugs, her latest hobby.

Then, one day Muraki’s ambushed by a young punk at a bowling alley, and he proceeds to beat him to a pulp as other thugs drag him off to the tranquil melody of “Mona Lisa” playing the loudspeakers. It means very little to him even as he considers the cause of the pitiful retribution.

He opens up to the girl. I killed a man I had no reason to kill. It was just a business matter; his number came up. He felt the same exhilaration in the act of violence. It made him feel alive. Now he plays cards because what else is there to do? It’s as defeatist as it is depressing.

At the same time, Muraki’s not the most charismatic figure. He’s not about to be a PR man or make amends for past grievances. It’s not his style even as he’s called on to fill in for the boss in their latest business proposition.

However, this is not all that unnerves him. There’s an eery confrontation in a back alleyway showcasing the apogee of the film’s style. He has nightmares about Saeko, feeling more protective of her than ever. Worst yet, their cohort Tamaki is knifed.

The boss calls out his men. Someone needs to avenge the death of their own and everyone’s hesitant to take on the job. It falls on the shoulders of the one man who is a traditionalist — unswerving in his devotion to duty, honor, and all those unflinching codes.

Very rarely does it feel like the plot is imposing its will on the movie. Much of what Shinoda is doing is not only an exhibition in style but totally invested in creating a tactile world. This allows the pervasive worldview and the characters to dictate what we spend our time seeing and doing.

Gambling, driving fast cars, smoking, and throwing around a bit of shop talk in bars and backrooms. There’s not much to it on paper, but you have to witness it to really appreciate what’s being accomplished.

Even in the lingering moments, we begin to realize we’ve very rarely seen Muraki do anything. Instead, it’s his reputation that proceeds him, including his three-year jail sentence. And yet to watch him in his natural habitat, there is a certain dignity and undoubtedly a kind of code dictating his life. He feels beholden to something.

His final actions are as dutiful as they are fated. He knows what he is going to do, and the scene gives way to what feels like a choreographed dance, playing to the music as only a Yakuza film could pull it off. It’s gut-busting and shocking as a solemn final coda to the film. In some perverse way, it’s his final passionate offering to Saeko. And there is obviously a consequence.

He pays for his crime with another stretch. While he’s on the inside he hears the news. Saeko is dead. His pale flower gone. Muraki’s nightmare proves more prophetic than he’d ever wish to acknowledge. And why should it matter now? It doesn’t. It makes no difference who she was. Life cannot be redeemed by a few all-encompassing words. Not “Rosebud” nor “Pale Flower.”

After all, life is, in the words of the characters, “pointless.” For those folks lifeless on the train. For the young women deadened by drugs. For the gangsters beholden to a code and a lifestyle that feels so senseless. It’s noir sentiments laid bare in the heart of Japan.

4/5 Stars