Silver Lode (1954): More Noir on The Range

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“It looks like Ballard’s past has come to town!”

A brood of leery guns lumbers into the town of Silver Lode. We have an instant clash of temperaments. Because this outside force is menacing and foreboding. Meanwhile, the townsfolk are getting everything together for their Fourth of July bash. They’re downright neighborly. They don’t hardly think twice when it comes to sharing the whereabouts of one of their locals: Dan Ballard (John Payne).

Though that’s not quite right because Ballard is a relatively recent addition to the community having arrived only two years prior and settled down as a pillar of Silver Lode’s community — well-liked by just about everyone. In fact, when the purported U.S. Marshall Fred McCarty (Dan Duryea) starts asking for him, Dan is in the middle of his marriage ceremony to Rose Evans (Lizabeth Scott) who comes from a highly respected family.

There’s no doubting the gunfighters are out for blood though. Although they are stopped in their stride by the even-keeled, rational-minded sheriff (Emile Meyer), they nevertheless have enough pull to burst into the matrimonial bubble.

Because, of course, Ballard knows this man. He killed his brother in California. It was a fair fight; the other man drew first, but McCarty calls it murder. He’s out for his brand of justice, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” The reverend fires right back with the prerogative to “turn the other cheek.”

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The thugs crash the ceremony regardless, the biggest wrinkle is the fact they represent law & order as marshals with a warrant for Ballard’s arrest. Though Dan greatly suspects the validity of the man who knew only as a cattle rustler, he willfully gives himself up. After all, the town is still standing by him. However, that can change.

They begin a grim procession, sullying the cheery proceedings around town, as they make their way to the Judge’s quarters. Dan keeps his buddies at bay even as he voluntarily follows McCarty. The sheriff is put in an uncomfortable position and yet he agrees to form a posse to join the contingent to make sure Dan remains safe in protected custody.

However, things heat up as the decks stack against him. The telegraph lines are conveniently down so there’s no way to verify the marshal’s credentials. There’s also a dichotomy between the respectable, God-fearing hypocrites and other folks, which hasn’t dissipated since the dawning of time.

The saloon matron, Dolly (Dolores Moran), is ever ready to help Ballard — because they had a history once. He doesn’t know who else he can trust. Already the resident Pharisees, with their up-turned noses, are clamoring for Ballard’s removal due to his pedigree as a hardened criminal. They don’t trust him. Dolly’s best retort is aimed at the Reverend, “I think some of your flock needs delousing.”

So she runs interference as Ballard tries to seek a meeting with one of McCarty’s brood. Harry Carey Jr., ever the brittle westerner looks to play the stooge in return for $5,000 and protection. He’s willing to rat, of course. There is a momentary glimmer of light that McCarty promptly snuffs out.

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A barn standoff could conceivably tie up the film in a minute if the sheriff wasn’t conveniently gunned down and the stoolie Johnson follows suit. It seems like the whole town is present, witnessing the guns in Ballard’s hands, again, the obvious criminal. Though winged, McCarty lives to fight another day — maintaining his lie in the process — all but damning Ballard for good.

Twists of wicked fate just keep on coming and McCarty now can wield the townsfolk against their former neighbor, turning them against him outright. It gets so bad he feels no recourse but take on the mantle of the hunted fugitive in order to survive and vindicate himself. Circumstances certainly look dire.

One of John Alton’s best setups is probably when Ballard dashes across town crouching and then sprinting a bit further to reach his destination — pursuers scurrying after him as he returns fire — executed in one uninterrupted dolly shot sweeping left to right across the compound.

We also have the ticking clocks of High Noon, metaphorically speaking. If we mention that film, there is no way we cannot mention HUAC and The Hollywood Blacklist. Because the parallels in the allegory are too apparent. We have good men who are turned upon and likened to criminals for past sins or beliefs that diverge from the pack.

It gets ugly when mob-like hysteria takes over, and there is no wisdom to guide the ensuing actions. Everything is dictated by fear and hate.  Mob violence is the death of any town as McCarty (Joseph McCarthy anyone?) plays on the fears of the people.

Ballard ultimately seeks asylum in the church as the horde almost breaks the doors down. In the end, it’s a showdown between the two men who always had a beef to pick. One defenseless, the other armed and ready to get his revenge and if not revenge, then something even better. In the end, it’s another serendipitous moment, worthy of a Mythbusters episode, that closes the action and allows us to breathe again.

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With every passing movie, I am always astounded by the obvious overlaps between the West and film noir, and it starts with personnel. John Alton was already mentioned. He is nearly as accomplished in color as black & white. Then, John Payne, not usually a western hero, nevertheless spent plenty of time roughhousing in the underworld. Even Lizabeth Scott and Dan Duryea are given a bit of a reunion after Too Late for Tears.

Duryea unequivocally steals the show again with a blistering, continually conniving performance. He truly has a monopoly on these roles, since he pulls them off with such conviction. Unfortunately, Scott while a  dazzling, toxic femme fatale, has a fairly flat and monotone part to play here.

Both the western and noir are also both innately American genres. They have the opportunity to take elements that ring true about our society and really subject them to scrutiny. What are our ideals? How do we treat one another? What dictates our standards of truth and our sense of good versus evil?

There’s nothing that says you need to consider any of these themes to thoroughly enjoy Silver Lode as an incisive, high-intensity showdown, but it’s a testament to movies that work on multiple levels. It still boggles the mind Allan Dwan made as many films as he did. I haven’t seen many of them. Still, this one shows an indubitable competency in the craft. After all, he had a lot of practice.

3.5/5 Stars

Blood on the Moon (1948): A Robert Mitchum Horse Noir

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This is admittedly nitpicky, but the title cards of Blood on the Moon are a bit jarring as the white-lettered names all but disappear into the sliver of light stretching across the otherwise black canvas of the screen. Thus, I missed out on about a fourth of the names in the cast.

Opening credits aside, entering the world itself is an unmitigated pleasure as we are submerged straight into a rainstorm meeting us with a near tactile sense of tone. Against the dark slopes, a solitary rider sits aloft in wet hat and poncho. He’s seeking cover from the downpour.

Though he finds it,  his nice, warming fire essentially gets stampeded by a pack of steers, and a man with a gun comes to oust him. He comes in contact with a not too neighborly outfit led by a man name Lufton who is a part of a longstanding feud between two factions. The age-old animosity kicked up between cattlemen and homesteaders. Lufton is on the side of the cattle.

However, we have yet to know where this stranger — Jim Garry (Robert Mitchum) — falls along the gradient, if anywhere. He has his first run-in with a lady (Barbara Bel Geddes) and sends her packing into the adjoining stream with some nifty shooting. Then, he drifts into a town, which seems cloaked in a dubious conspiracy of its own.

A host of characters sit around a poker table — among them Walter Brennan and Charles McGraw — shooting the bull about the new man. They want to get a read on him through a bit of deception. He reads them like a book, and it still seems like all the thugs are coming out of the woodwork just to take a shot at him.

Finally, he reconnects with his old comrade Tate Riling (Robert Preston). Their past is all but unspoken yet we understand they’ve been through some times together. Thus, it’s no less jolting to learn this man Tate is on the other side of the feud. He has sided with the local ranches and a government agent (Frank Faylen) to push Lufton’s cattle off the land. An awfully crooked Preston is girded by that age-old charisma of his. He somehow still gives off an aura of likability in a not too trustworthy sort of way.

So Garry has been unwittingly been called upon as a de facto gunman to help make the transition stick. He initially goes along with it, because Tate used to be his pal. What makes the story an interesting one relies on the fact Garry has that age-old deficiency — a human conscience.

The plucky rancher he shot at before was one of Lufton’s daughters, Amy, who though sore at him, eventually warms up when his integrity becomes apparent. She realizes he is a different breed than the rest. However, her sister Carol (Phyllis Thaxter), as fearful as Amy is fierce, falls for another man, making for the most intriguing foil in the movie.

Walter Brennan’s place as one of the ranchers taken in by Tate’s promises remains relatively understated and minor next to all the greats he’s played (especially given my last picture of his was The Westerner). Likewise, Charles McGraw isn’t given much to do aside from being gruff though he was still in the nascent stages of his career.

The stakes have been set for a surprisingly complicated interplay even as the cursory beats of Lillie Hayward’s script look all too familiar. It seems Robert Wise has the right pedigree for the material as does cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca because whether deliberate or not, this 40s oater is cloaked by film noir sensibilities through and through.

While not the cleanest of prints, there’s no denying the scope of the terrain nor the layers of atmosphere they’re able to draw out of the scenery, between shadows and light. If it sounds familiar, these are the shades of noir embodied as much in the character of Robert Mitchum as any of the mise en scène. The iconic lazy-eyed indifference of Mitchum transfers seamlessly from Out of the Past (1947) — coincidentally, also photographed by Musuraca.

Again and again, we must fall back on Mitchum and in all the RKO pictures he made, the onus usually landed on him because fewer resources meant more was asked of him. Aside from being a workhorse, Mitchum has the gumption and the unflinching enigmatic cool to bear the story upon his shoulders. It relies on precisely this quality dwelling within him, shifting so easily between attributes of self-service and integrity.

As far as psychological westerns go, I find the compact punchiness of Blood on the Moon far more appealing than Pursued (1947), starring Mitchum and Teresa Wright whom I adore. However, this story is not simply an excuse for deep-suited psychological issues. What the picture doesn’t skimp on are fairly complicated human relationships. There it finds a heady weight to carry it through to the end even if it does falter a little.

Mitchum has it out with his old pal in a deserted bar with near Anthony Mann level fighting, verging on the fanatically crazed. It’s a beautiful piece of stylized brutality. There’s disheveled and then there’s Robert Mitchum’s appearance after the altercation.

He was never one to be an untouchable white knight, preferring shades of gray. It’s a brilliant moment of pitch dark adrenaline. The film never quite regains this same energy, but there is still work to be done.

Garry, Amy, and the rancher Kris Barden all have a personal reason for wanting to get rid of Tate for good. The inevitable showdown occurs after a snowcapped chase, leading to a shootout in a forest with a wounded Mitchum and his two compatriots looking to hold down the fort.

I already mentioned this picture heavily relies on Mitchum so what would the final moments be without him going after his adversary systematically, injured though he may be, to finish this business for good? A happy ending lightens the impact, but it’s a small price to pay for this underrated horse noir from Robert Wise. He surely could make a gripping movie.

3.5/5 Stars

Slightly Scarlet (1956): Starring Arlene Dahl and Rhonda Fleming

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It’s a grievous offense, but I must admit to clumping Rhonda Fleming and Arlene Dahl in a category together. They are both redheads of immense beauty, around the same age, and while they both featured in some quality films, they never quite reached the apex of a Maureen O’Hara or a predecessor like Greer Garson. It’s highly unfair I know. Still, in an effort at transparency, it’s inevitably the truth.

However, it’s this very element that makes Slightly Scarlet so enthralling, because it’s as if the very premise is playing with my preconceptions. Maybe I am not the only one who holds these feelings.

Here we have (Arlene Dahl) coming out of prison after serving a stint thanks to some petty jewel thievery. Her big sister (Rhonda Fleming) is there waiting for her as the fawning, motherly figure resolved to keep her wayward sis out of any more trouble.

Together in the frame, bursting with natural color, they fit so exquisitely opposite one another. This alone has intriguing elements to it, but thankfully there is more. Because Slightly Scarlet is also a film belonging to John Payne, director Allan Dwan, and cinematographer John Alton. At 70 years old, Dwan at this point in his career had logged nearly 400 features — an utterly astounding benchmark.

Payne, meanwhile, had forsaken his clean-cut image, working with the likes of Phil Karlson and Dwan to churn out some truly gritty performances. Look up John Alton and you have one of the finest starting points for film noir imagery, period. Even in color, he manages to make it clouded with shadow.

Because Technicolor noir most certainly exists — albeit with lesser frequency — though Slightly Scarlet also has origins in a James M. Cain short story, lending a certain pedigree for sleazy criminals, even if liberties were taken. The picture simultaneously proves worthy company to the ripe feasts of Douglas Sirk and Nicholas Ray from Written in The Wind (1956) to Party Girl (1958). The obvious discordant nature is a draw.

What looks to already be a lurid woman’s picture is met with an undercurrent of political graft and corruption. John Payne is a bit of a hatchet man for a local mobster (Ted de Corsia), integral in influencing all his local operations. He’s derisively nicknamed ‘Genius’ for his shrewd tactics, and yet his boss thinks he will never get on the top of the heap. He’s always out for himself, selfishly.

However, the words prove prophetic as Ben Grace (Payne) all of a sudden does switch sides. Here our narratives get tied together because Ms. Lyons (Fleming) is secretary to up-and-coming mayoral candidate, Frank Jansen (Kent Taylor). Grace is able to supply the dirt to run the gangster Caspar out of town. He’s conveniently found a tape incriminating his former boss in a murder. It’s a surefire way to win an election, and he’s not above such tactics.

The staging is exaggerated from the outset, and the photography is lush — part Technicolor galore the other old tried and true Alton chiaroscuro, which he somehow manages in a entirely color production. At its best, the movie revels in the sordid details and over-the-top theatrics, milking every bit of drama out of the scenario. There’s nothing half-baked or tactful about it. Still, it’s armed with pizzazz aided by a hammy, ever swirling score.

Dahl, playing the sex-crazed klepto of a younger sister, literally gets dragged out of her house for her latest offense. In another scene, when she’s slapped across the face, she simply purrs at the man with beguiling eyes, “You play rough too!” As her latest companion tries to lay his mitts on the goodies inside a safe, Dorothy lounges around the abandoned beach house before setting her sights on a harpoon gun, which she has a frisky bit of fun with. It’s all a gag to her and played against the relentlessly somber, hard-bitten Payne, it only accentuates the inordinate oddities.

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While Rhonda Fleming holds down the necessary role as the conflicted central figure and Payne is one of the suppliers of the hard-boiled elements, it is Dahl who titillates and has the most gratifying task as she is given range to be saucy, unhinged, and altogether uninhibited. It fits the scenario.

The subsequent developments are manifold. Mainly that Dorothy starts vying for her sister’s new man, even as she skips out on her therapy sessions. The compulsion to steal exerts itself again with dire consequences, especially in the wake of the political election.

However, as it turns out, Payne is not quite as reformed as he might have led everyone to believe. He’s as pragmatic as he is cynical, getting a ‘Yes Man’ installed as the new city sheriff as he moves in on the mob’s old territory, turning the racket into his own.

Our heroine finds herself utterly conflicted. Between the man she’s fallen for who’s no good — and seems to be in company with her sister — and then the white knight who loves her dearly. The final confrontation, returning to the beach house, does not pull its punches, between spear guns, handguns, and sadistic, even masochistic inflictions of pain.

It’s a fitting shot of volatile adrenaline to cap a movie daring to fluctuate wildly all over the spectrum. It’s not a dignified or a particularly measured effort by any stretch of the imagination, but in pushing its melodramatic tendencies to the max, Slightly Scarlet proves itself more than capable of diverting stretches of crimson entertainment.

3.5/5 Stars

Friendly Persuasion (1956): Gary Cooper’s Quaker Clan

220px-Poster_-_Friendly_Persuasion_01The when is 1862. The where is Southern Indiana. We find ourselves in the throes of Quaker country as envisioned by novelist Jessamyn West and brought to the screen by his eminence, William Wyler.

What follows is a lovely opening gambit with a goose about as anthropomorphic as they come without completely shattering the sense of movie realism. He nips our little narrator, a Quaker lad named Jess (Richard Eyer) in the seat of the pants to punctuate our mellow tale on a comical note.

Authenticity, historical, religious, or otherwise, is not what Friendly Persuasion is concerned with. We might call it into question on any number of accounts. Still, it is packed full with enough tweeness for every “thee” uttered by the kindly Quakers who exist within the frames.

The gentle satire is of a certain warmth and unassuming candor, we cannot help but smile at because unadulterated goodness leaves behind a luster. Indeed, it is one of the finest attributes of the picture. Their matriarch (Dorothy McGuire) is zealously religious and abhors violence, but we can hardly label her unkind. Meanwhile, the man of the house (Gary Cooper) is about as genial as they come.

As with most small-town communities, about the most exciting experience you can possibly partake in is a traveling carnival. Imagine you’re a Quaker and then every stray stimulus and forthcoming attraction becomes 10 times more novel.

The ascetic folks pushing the boundaries of their normal sensibilities is played for a bit of humor. It might be dancing a jig gaily with a handsome beau, trying a hand at a musical instrument a salesman is trying to peddle, or a young boy getting the itch for gambling in the form of the ever-dubious shell game.

Cooper winds up winning a pair of sleeve holders, which look eerily similar to a pair of garters, while a stocky Quaker boy gets caught up in a wrestling match only to back down as it begins to impinge on his beliefs. He has vowed like all his brethren never to hurt anyone. From an outsider’s perspective, it is perceived as weakness and worse yet a dereliction of duty when it comes to fighting for your country. Because the Civil War is on everyone’s mind.

Friendly Persuasion becomes a diluted effort due to its length, which, while giving adequate time for many asides and quaint observations, takes away from the import of the material. It’s not quite capable of navigating the straights between social issues and jocularity — it’s never quite assured — settling for a rocky path.

The young soldier, Gard (Peter Mark Richman), is the force tying the family to the war directly as he has eyes for their daughter, while still maintaining his duty toward the Union Army. It stays in the periphery for a time. However, it’s inevitable, with the extent the war is spreading, they must make decisions of their own. This is what is being set up for each individual character, and they must react accordingly.

However, this is not solely about a message of pacifism, but in a society split up of many religious sects and political factions, it is a film with some sense of continued relevance. It even dabbles with the same dichotomy as Sergeant York (1941), having to do with the commandment entreating the adherents not to murder. The question remains: is there a semantic difference between murder and killing? More important still, is there a difference in the hearts of men. The film has to forge its own path.

Separately, Gary Cooper and Dorothy McGuire appear suited for the material as they both bring a certain sensibility and ingrained honesty to nearly every part. Side by side, the chemistry between the two of them seems relatively absent and not simply because of their mundane temperaments. It could do with the fact Coop never wanted the actress to play opposite him, to begin with. Ingrid Bergman was his choice, but she passed on it.

Anthony Perkins’ role is slight in the way all his performances seem to be, and yet their unassuming skittishness somehow imbues them with their own brand of resonance. It’s true, after only his second film, the writing on the wall said he was destined to be a great star. They weren’t wrong; his career just didn’t end up quite as people might have expected. Of course, Norman Bates was a jarring subversion of his image, simultaneously redefining (and typecasting) it for all posterity.

While it’s easy enough to think of them as being on different strata, Perkins feels like he could easily be an earlier version of Tommy Kirk from Old Yeller (1957). Where a boy is put through the gauntlet and must come to terms with harsh realities of life. Of course, McGuire would again play the maternal figure in the latter Disney production.

In this picture, she gets her moment with the homestead being overrun with Rebs. Doing her best to keep her composure through hospitality, she nevertheless lets one of them have it over the head with a broom for going after the family goose. Cooper’s own confrontation with a Rebel soldier occurs in an open clearing, serving as his final test and a bit of a case study the film puts in front of us.

He passes, and it’s not what we usually expect from Cooper. Not only were audience expectations undone, but Cooper himself seemed to think the hero he was, and played on-screen, would have normally acted differently. We can make a judgment call on whether or not he was right.

One is reminded High Noon (1952) succeeded in its storytelling with a lean running time featuring a very concrete progression of scenes. Coop was an archetypal hero, even one of the western greats in Will Kane, but we also know where we will be going when the clock strikes 12. There is not the same urgency to Friendly Persuasion — it’s much looser  — ultimately too good-natured to hammer home its themes with any amount of authority. There’s no fault in a lighter tone per se, but it could have amounted to a whole lot more providing there was tauter plotting.

3/5 Stars

The Holly and The Ivy (1952): More Than a Christmas Tune

holly and the ivy.jpgGrowing up in a household indebted to British everything, you get accustomed to certain things. Numerous everyday knickknacks and antiques imported from The U.K. Muesli Cereal in the pantry with copious amounts of English Breakfast Tea. Beatrix Potter, P.G. Wodehouse, and Postman Pat become household favorites.

Particularly at Christmastime, this meant, no, not figgy pudding, but British Christmas Carols on record. Some of my personal favorites are probably “Sussex Carol,” “Ding Dong Merrily,” “Past Three O’Clock,” and of course, “The Holly and The Ivy.”

This is where the film gets its namesake as it follows the Gregory family during the holidays. It’s that time of year with everyone convening for Christmas at a vicarage in the cozy town of Wyndham, nestled in Norfolk.

It sounds like a delightful experience, and it gains even more prominent meaning for a lonely old matron — airy and grandiose of tone — as she’s grateful for the letter from her brother-in-law confirming she will not have to spend the holidays alone. Cue the swelling music.

At this point, if you assured me The Holly and The Ivy wasn’t a sentimental movie I probably would have disregarded you. This is before the rug is literally pulled out from under us. For now, we still have a ways to go.

Quite by chance, during the pilgrimage aboard a train, she bumps into the other aunt, the acerbic and proud Aunt Lydia a world-class misanthrope. Despite they’re differences, they do well to cancel each other out. You can only imagine what might happen if you put them with others.

Sure enough, there’s a philandering young soldier who is caught by his superior with a girl and winds up in a whole lot of hot water. However, by some curious circumstance, he’s able to worm his way out and get leave to see his family for Christmas. This rapscallion is, of course, Michael Gregory (Denholm Elliot). It is his father who runs the local vicarage in Wyndham.

Jenny Gregory (Celia Johnson) is the devoted daughter who runs her father’s home and takes care of all his affairs. She feels it is her duty to take care of while he is still working and his other sister lives away in London all but detached from the rest of her family. The main complication is the man she loves is about to realize his lifelong dream of working in South America. It will be five long years and though Jenny is dying to go with him, her hands are tied.

When we finally meet Reverend Martin Gregory (Ralph Richardson), it becomes apparent he’s a bit absent-minded and quite the chatterbox. He goes on and on about his fascination with the Incas and their ingenuity in using Guano (bird droppings). He, of course, knows nothing about his daughter’s situation because no one has told him anything and so he remains oblivious going off to view the nativity play at his church (a fine precursor to Charlie Brown’s Christmas).

This is one of the great tragedies running through the story. The vicar himself bemoans the fact parsons are set apart and isolated because of their vocation. There is an inherent awkwardness going out into the world as a man of the cloth. People don’t want you around. It makes them feel uncomfortable and yet in the same breath, they hold you to a different standard because you are meant to represent religious piety for all.

But there is also an undercurrent in his home. His children never tell him how they are really doing. They equivocate and keep things hidden in order to not upset him or receive his scorn. Because that is how they see him. He is a killjoy, someone put in their life to chide them and scold them for every one of their individual sins. The fear is if he actually knew what his children were like, he would be unbearable. It certainly is a problem in conservative environments where exteriors don’t mesh with interior issues.

It comes to a head when the sister Margaret straggles in late to the festivities. They made up a lie about why she wouldn’t be able to come and yet the real truth is she did not want to see her father. But the wounds and the hesitance run deeper still. She is an alcoholic and something else happened to her. Those who love her, note she crackles like ice — a frozen ice queen out of a Hans Christian Andersen story.

Reverend Gregory has reason to be dismayed Christmas in merry ol’ England is now ruled by the boars and the retail traders who have gotten hold of the season. He laments, “It’s all eating and drinking and giving each other nicknacks…No one remembers Jesus Christ.” It teeters along the precipice of righteous indignation.

Because he looks at the same people and sees how little use they seem to have for him even when he sees, what he deems to be, great need. He’s there to marry and bury them only. His church is only an architectural center, not a spiritual one. This right is reserved for the local movie house with all its enticing bells and whistles.

While he might have a point, he is just as implicated in the problem; he has exasperated society. The case study is his very family. We see it in so many cases. The religious figure is measured by a separate set of principles and yet because of what we place on them, they feel distant and unreachable. They make us feel dirty and ashamed of our improprieties.

David blasts his father telling him, “You can’t be told the truth. That’s the trouble!” It’s films such as these that make me realize how difficult it would be to be a religious leader. Likewise, it’s just as difficult to have to live life alongside them — at least in a case like this.

Where “every conversation goes back to the creation of the world” and our only way to keep up appearances is lies and concealment — a life of false pretenses just in time for the holidays. The holidays only serve to magnify the tensions brooding for so long.

Because sons find the faith and fairy stories antiquated. Fathers are vexed that everything must be seen and touched in this generation before it can be believed (Can you touch the wind?)

The beauty of the exploration is in how both sides are given some credence. How can parsons expect to be told the truth when one can’t even talk to them like ordinary human beings? How can common, everyday people who make mistakes be free from guilt and shame when the most common judgments are full of condemnation?

While not of the same technical prowess, it nevertheless reminded me of Ordet another film based on a stage play with deep recesses of spirituality. There are a myriad of relationships undone by doubts and perceived areas of incompatibility. In fact, it falls somewhere between Ordet and Calvary because it has a dose of empathy for both the parson and his family.

The miracles revealed are ultimately conversational and sweet, reviving family relationships and salvaging the season through reconciliation. Wounds and secrets so long harbored and festering are finally allowed into the light. The extraordinary thing is, far from sowing more discord, the honesty gives way to the first true peace they’ve had for years.

My only qualm is I rather am curious to hear Ralph Richardson’s sermon. Like David Niven in The Bishop’s Wife, there’s a sense it might have been something magical and deeply impactful to behold. More powerful still, his words live on in the imagination.

The ending comes rapidly but it is reassuring to get one final image of the church with the newly minted couple destined to be together — most everything restored. Because filling in the ending, especially under such jocund circumstances, is often one of the greatest gifts that can be extended to the audience.

4/5 Stars

Marriage Story (2019) and Being Alive

MarriageStoryPoster.pngIn full transparency, I’ve often considered Noah Baumbach as heir apparent to Woody Allen and a lot of this attribution falls on their joint affinity for New York City. It is the hub of their life and therefore their creative work even as the broader art world often finds itself seduced by the decadent riches of Los Angeles.

Allen most famously set up the dichotomy between the two places in Anne Hall (1977), where Annie and Alvy ultimately part ways because the woman he liked decided she likes L.A.; he loathes it above all else.

It’s hard to get these elements out of my head even as this film features two former Allen collaborators in Scarlett Johansson and Alan Alda. And yet, to his credit, Baumbach has allowed for a more robust dialogue between two people. It’s not merely a humorous juxtaposition, it becomes indicative of so much more.

Audiences should be forewarned Marriage Story is about the messiness of divorce full of hurt, troubled communication, and explosive moments of lashing out. It also features some of the most substantive and sustained pieces of fearlessness you’re probably going to see this year in terms of acting.

Scene after scene is carried by one or two performers in tandem. In fact, with the extended takes, fluidity, and intimate interiors, the relationship between film and the stage is close, going so far as to break up sequences with curtain-like fade-outs.

Yes, this makes Marriage Story unwieldy as it ranges all over the place. It somehow strikes this agreeable adherence to Baumbach’s intuitions as both writer and director, while still relying wholeheartedly on what Adam Driver and Johannson bring to their respective roles.

Right at the center of it all are their soulful performances lithely running the gamut from devoted affection to bitter resentment. But it’s the notes in between which become so crucial. Because it goes beyond mere technical ardor; there’s another kind of palpable investment present.

Their story is set up exquisitely by the words they use to recount one another. Perfect trailer fodder in fact. What they provide are observational affirmations of each other’s characteristics. Nicole is an actress. She is a mother who plays. She’s brave, knows how to push her husband, and she’s competitive. Charlie is a theater director. He really likes being a dad. He’s driven, neat, and always energy conscious. He’s also very competitive.

However, they never get to share these words because now they currently sit in the therapist’s office drifting apart. It looks like they’re already too far gone to salvage the thing. What could have been the passionate musings of love letters exchanged in a bygone era, instead find them at the precipice of separation.

The point of no return is dropped in Charlie’s lap in an oddly hilarious scenario of dramatic irony — somehow worthy of a Hitchcockian time bomb — where Nicole enlists the help of her good-natured mother (Julie Haggerty) and sister (Merritt Weaver) to help her serve notice. As can be expected, it unfolds in the most cringe-worthy and somehow the most perfect manner to suit the story.

It’s one showcase among a plethora of long takes supplying a formidable framework for the script to rest on. As such, it relies so heavily on its stars to be up for the task and to any degree we might adjudge as an audience, they come at it with impeccable aplomb.

Soon what looked to be an amicable dialogue between two rational human beings is being overhauled with lawyers. We begin to see how what started as a riff, between two solitary individuals, soon becomes complicated by well-meaning legalese, fees and the aggravation incurred from the middleman now bargaining between the former couple.

It gets to the point the relationship feels so far removed from where it began. You begin to question if any of it was worth it. Words get twisted. Feelings get hurt. They’re doing things because their lawyers say to and they become suspicious of motives. I was reminded of how our language makes it so arguments are literally equated to a war. There are winners and there are losers as the two sides become further alienated. The void in the courtroom never felt greater.

Laura Dern has an impeccable pulse for the kind of cajoling attorney with business acumen and bedside manner to get what she wants. Namely, the best for her clients. She’s ruthless yes, but it’s all within the confines of the game. There’s still a person there who has a life outside the 9 to 5.

Ray Liotta seems equally built for this cutthroat business-minded artificiality. We despise him even as we realize — much like Charlie does — he’s very good at his job. If you want to get out with you’re shirt, you’ve got to put up and buy into the game.

Alan Alda gets a bit as a sagacious saint of a man who plays as the antithesis of a lawyer (or any of his rivals). His spot feels like a hallowed place in a film filled with other prominent names who probably get to do more. He gets to be warm and wise, reminding us why he is such a dear soul to us all.

I came into Marriage Story expecting callbacks to Kramer Vs. Kramer (1979). Certainly, this is a film about parents and divorce and how they must tiptoe around their issues for the sake of their kids. But this is a bit different than the Hoffman picture where Meryl Streep at times feels non-existent. At least I always remember it as a father-son film.

This rendition is meant to provide equal footing two both parents with the onus of victimhood and blame distributed. Because that’s just it. You can’t draw it up so easily. Everyone contributes to the problem in some way.

There are also no clean breaks because time has a curious way of working on the human psyche. When you’re used to spending time with someone, you know all their quirk, and it’s hard to let them go. They drive you up the wall, and they fill you with that electrifying energy sending your heart aflutter. Their family becomes your family. You can’t snap that wishbone without some residual effect. Try as you might, it’s impossible to totally obliterate the memory.

It feels as if Scarlett Johansson has laid herself bare, extending herself like never before, and we see the flaws coursing through Adam Driver to go with his finest everyman attributes. Their urgency and honesty become brutally transparent and that is the utmost of compliments.

I couldn’t stop thinking about Contempt (1963) — Jean-Luc Godard’s film about moviemaking that famously documents the dissolution of a marriage (between Brigitte Bardot and Michel Piccoli), taking place within their house in one extended scene. These are the lengths Baumbach reaches towards in his own way through blocking and the relationship between his stars and the camera.

In one climactic confrontation among so many corkers, Driver and Johansson have it out in a fully ballistic, double-edged assault unearthing every wound and targeting every sore spot imaginable. Hurting each other in ways only they know how because they’ve been so intimate for so long. It ends with them red-eyed and huddled together on the floor totally spent. This is never what they wanted nor what they expected.

Where is the ending exactly? Because the film is substantial; it covers so much territory and the themes are wide-ranging from parental devotion to lingering love under new parameters. But with everything the movie allows us to be privy to, it’s obvious there is no easy resolution. Thus, with so many disparate reference points thanks to 80s icons like Julie Haggerty, Wallace Shawn, and Laura Dern, why not mention something altogether different.

In Hirokazu Koreeda’s After The Storm (2012), you have a vagrant husband trying to win back the affections of his wife even as they figure out how to raise their kid. They’ve entered a new chapter of existence, and sometimes that’s hard to cope with. So when they walk off into the sunset it’s hopeful, but something’s inexplicably altered. There is reconciliation and yet they cannot undo everything. This movie, again, is also about moving forward from the most painful fission imaginable: between two human beings. It’s a work in progress.

To this point, I’m fascinated by the choice to have the movie called Marriage Story. Because if we wanted to, we could look at it purely from the point of view of divorce. After all, surely this is the all-important final outcome. How could we see it any other way? And yet it becomes so difficult to break two human beings apart from one another.

Interrelated is the impassioned statement made by Nora in one of her sole lapses in composure. Within an otherwise irreligious picture, she says the following:

“The basis of our Judeo-Christian whatever is Mary, mother of Jesus, and she’s perfect. She’s a virgin who gives birth, unwaveringly supports her child, and holds his dead body when he’s gone. And the dad isn’t there…God is the father, and God didn’t show up. So you have to be perfect, and Charlie can be an f—-up and it doesn’t matter.”

The misunderstandings in her statement feel immaterial, and I’m not invested in pulling them apart now. Instead, it teases some private hurt we cannot hope to know, but it also triggers ideas some might recall from the Judeo-Christian texts, which are pertinent to the conversation.

In discussing the union of marriage, it says, “A man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh.” This is both mentally, spiritually, emotionally — in every way imaginable. People are meant to be together. But if Marriage Story is a reminder of anything, it’s that pride, pettiness, and imperfection get in the way of our joy.

For Charlie, for Nicole, for all of us. It also cannot completely quell the love we breed in our hearts. Yes, our love is imperfect; still, it can see us through a lot. It can be a beautiful even an extraordinary entity. It’s part of being alive.

4/5 Stars

 

Someone to hold me too close.
Someone to hurt me too deep.
Someone to sit in my chair,
And ruin my sleep,
And make me aware,
Of being alive.
Being alive.
Somebody needs me too much.
Somebody knows me too well.
Somebody pull me up short,
And put me through hell,
And give me support,
For being alive.
Make me alive.
Make me alive.
– Being Alive

Bigger Than Life (1956): Nicholas Ray and George Mason Fit The Bill

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James Mason gleaned the idea for Bigger Than Life from a contemporary article featured in The New Yorker by a medical writer named Berton Roueché. He detailed the side effects of the drug cortisone featured in real-life horror stories.

The title is certainly far from a misnomer and James Mason gives a performance to fill up the expanses of the screen bursting off it with furious abandon in all sorts of unwonted ways.

If my memory serves me correctly, there’s a shot at the entrance of the school where he’s being dropped off by his wife (Barbara Rush) who demurs that he’s always been 10 feet tall to her. The shot following has to be about the lowest angle conceivable with Mason positively towering over us until he walks forward and things become normalized.

It’s almost playful and still a disconcerting manipulation of the typical visual field. It’s indicative of much of the film. On the top layer, it’s the portrait of 1950s suburbia seen over and over again. There’s even an inadvertent connection to the quintessential nuclear family thanks to a pint-sized cameo from Jerry Mathers. But there’s also something pernicious gnawing away at our protagonist.

The film readily brings back the palette of Rebel Without a Cause we know and love, using the up-and-coming widescreen Cinemascope format, typifying the luscious productions of its era.

Ed Avery (James Mason) is a school teacher, one of those shining beacons of pedagogy and some things certainly have not changed. For such a noble profession, he can’t claim to be affluent. In fact, he’s moonlighting a couple nights a week in a cabbie service to make a bit more money. His wife Lou has a sneaking suspicion he might be cheating but how could he? He’s an utter angel.

His relationship with his best friend is borne in an introductory shot. Wally is played by none other than Walter Matthau. If that’s not enough, we meet him in a school corridor with a catcher’s mask strapped over his head and baseball gear filling up his hands. It’s a fairly slight part but as Matthau had a lengthy pedigree ahead of him, it’s a satisfying morsel to start.

Meanwhile, Barbara Rush gets few laurels as an actress, but she works handily as the loving spouse who Ed returns home to every evening. It feels strangely ironic because I almost unconsciously traced the line between Magnificent Obsession. It lies in their deep abiding roots in medical melodrama.  The first features Rush as a grown daughter and now she has progressed to a maternal figure, but the trauma remains constant.

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Because, as it turns out, Avery is a fairly sick man with the clock ticking away on his life. Thank goodness there’s a miracle drug, “Cortisone,” which while still widely unknown has been used with some success on such cases as his. At first, the unassuming pills seem to be doing the trick.

Riding a generous streak, he takes his wife out to a dress shop to buy her the finest things and then gets his son a shiny new bicycle. James Mason is a riot in the store leaving his family speechless. He’s walking on cloud nine. Positively the picture of good health and yet every bit of heightened euphoria is a hint of something far more ruinous working underneath the surface.

Because the changes are no longer comical or imperceptible for that matter. It comes to tossing the football in the living room chiding his son’s lack of ability and resolve. There are unwarranted mood swings to follow and the broken shards of a mirror blatantly suggest what is to come.

Back to school night is highlighted by an uncharacteristic rant about the woes of childhood and the claptrap of modern education, which has parents in a huff. It’s the most recent sign of coming attractions. Megalomania begins to overtake him with ensuing ravings about new missions and leaving matrimonial shackles behind with increasingly radicalized rhetoric injected with delusions of grandeur.

Now his only resolve is to rear his son in the pursuit of self-efficacy as he begins to enact a dictatorial behavior over all his domain, berating a wayward milkman, turning an uninterested eye on food, sleep, feelings, or anything else that might get in his way. To get psychological, he blatantly disregards Maslow’s hierarchy of needs leaping straight to the pinnacle.

Meanwhile, his wife is scared stiff. Worried for her husband’s well-being as much as she is for her boy. And yet, if it gets around about mental trouble in the family, there will be no reprieve and so she tries to weather the storm. It becomes a suburban horror tiptoeing along an impossibly sickening tightrope. You couldn’t contrive something more calamitous if you tried.

Would you cope living with an utter tyrant if it meant your spouse and father could go on living? If pain was the only issue, then the answer seems ridiculously simple, but sometimes those conundrums are the most devastating to crack. In fact, it makes me sick in the stomach watching the mental breakdown exacerbate.

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Overwhelmed by his psychosis, Ed begins spouting off scripture, one moment contemptuously, the next clearly intent on following Abraham’s lead by sacrificing his son without a second thought, twisting the words into another perverse commitment. He states his sentiments quite bluntly in one sequence as his wife hopelessly pleads in favor of compassion, “God was wrong.”

Turgid melodramas grow tiresome by the minute, and yet that fails to be the case when a film has far more to offer us whether it be artistry, irony, or social commentary. Equally compelling is a stirring dramatic situation at the core of Bigger Than Life.

Like the best films of Douglas Sirk, Nicholas Ray is able to pull off the histrionics of such a derided mode of filmmaking and allow it to remain enduringly interesting — even resonant today — to the extent possible. Far from wearing it thin, the passage of time makes it seem more horrifying by the hour.

However, as comes with the territory of such ludicrous dramaturgy, it easily becomes a hit or miss proposition. It will go too far for some and for others just far enough to make it compelling. I think I fall in the latter category because this is not just a sitcom episode. It surpasses those rhythms for something more substantial.

In its final moments, Bigger Than Life morphs into a frenzied Hitchcock thriller in a weird, insane way as we watch a banister snap like matchwood in the midst of chaos and a deranged man is caught in a frantic confrontation with his best friend.

And as inauspiciously as it began, it comes to an end like the lingering remnants of a bad dream, resolved and forgotten just as quickly. The status quo falls back into place in the culminating shot and wife and son reaffirm faith in their family unit, cradled in the loving arms of the man of the house.

James Mason is generally remembered as a suave villain, but he proves his merits equally so as a family man gone off the rails. His performance seamlessly hits all these beats that are simultaneously heightened, while still ringing with some note of inner truth. He is a tragic hero of the post-war, suburban age.

All of a sudden, evil comes not from within man himself but from outside stimuli. Though one could easily infer that such behavior indicates the perversity lying dormant, just waiting to be unleashed. It simply takes certain chemical triggers to send him hurtling back toward his darkest inclinations. Regardless, it’s a terrifying portrait of instability in technicolor. Often real-world nightmares are the worst of all.

4.5/5 Stars

Run Silent, Run Deep (1958): A Streamlined Submarine Drama

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Run Silent, Run Deep features what amounts to a cold open, set in the Bungo Straits, near the coast of Japan in 1942. The foreboding sonar-infused score by Franz Waxman suggests this will be a no-nonsense war drama and sure enough, within the first 5 minutes, a submarine commanded by one P.J. Richardson (Clark Gable) has been sunk in its mission to destroy an enemy ship, leading to the capsizing of the entire crew.

As Richardson looks back at his receding enemy, we see the film’s objective right before us. He is bent on revenge. Given the situation, this is not a film so much about survival but returning to finish a job no matter the circumstances, dangers, or counter-orders standing in the way.

After a short leave of action, Richardson talks his way into another command, this time taking over from Jim Bledsoe (Burt Lancaster) who has already formed a close-knit rapport with his men. They don’t look too kindly on a new man taking over and Bledsoe broaches the subject bluntly with his new superior.

Richardson is hardly going to be dissuaded by a minor thorn in his side and his new crew begrudgingly take to the grueling regiment of drills he has them on. No one is looking to make any friends. This is hardly a film about buddy, buddy or camaraderie. There isn’t time. The one thing the commander does instill in them is discipline and well-oiled efficiency. It’s probably the greatest gift he can give them based on the circumstances.

The stakes are obvious as the death trap, Area 7, has led to the loss of four separate Allied subs, including Richardson’s previous command. What the story devolves into is a fairly straightforward WWII drama which is nevertheless riddled with tension as they knowingly enter perilous waters.

It’s true a submarine serves as an impeccable locale because its very form functions in constraining the action and ratcheting up emotions. There is no release valve and all these crewmen are literally submerged underwater for hours at a time. If that isn’t nerve-wracking I’m not sure what else qualifies.

Combine this environment with men who are already in tight quarters only to become more contentious over a major distaste in their commanding officer. It’s easy to envision him as a modern-day Captain Ahab. His white whale is the infamous Japanese Akikaze, Bungo Charlie, that he’s already has a deadly history with. The seafaring setting and power dynamics also hint at the traditions of The Mutiny on The Bounty though the story foregoes this exact demarcation.

While there are few flourishes or subsequent surprises from director Robert Wise’s film, there’s no question in labeling Run Silent, Run Deep an immersive experience, even for such a streamlined endeavor. In fact, that more than anything plays to its advantage. This allows it to be compact actioner extremely aware of its outcomes and not content until its mission has been accomplished. While it does not leave a great deal of leeway in the area of character development, our cast is a varied and compelling ensemble.

Obviously, the central figureheads are Gable and Lancaster, two hard-bitten battlers who are also consequently, far too old to be playing their parts. But this is Hollywood, after all, so it’s easy enough to make allowances when you’re getting top tier talent.

However,  surround them with the likes of Jack Warden, Brad Dexter, Don Rickles (in his film debut), and Lancaster’s long-time collaborator Nick Cravat, and you have something quite engaging.

The key to the success of both the mission and the film is that it ends as quickly as it begins. It gets in and gets out with striking precision, taking little time to rest too long on its laurels. Between the flurry of malfunctioning torpedoes, the barrage of enemy depth charges, and bombs raining from up above, there is plenty of flack to provide antagonistic interference. By the end, it seems a miracle our men get through at all but of course, it’s not without a toll, both physically and mentally.

Because even when you cannot see the enemy in the flesh, the capability to do harm hardly slackens. In some cases, it proves even worse. What is easier to exterminate, an enemy who lacks any type of form or personage or one that is living and breathing? In this regard, Wise’s picture is sterile and impersonal. It’s not so much a flaw as it is a sobering reality.

3.5/5 Stars

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (2019): Mr. Rogers as The Helper

A_Beautiful_Day_in_the_NeighborhoodAs of late, it feels like the world has entered a bit of a Mr. Roger’s Reinnaissance. He’s been gone since 2003 and yet last year we had Morgan Neville’s edifying documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? There are podcasts galore including Finding Fred and then Mr. Rogers’s words, whether before the Senate Committee or pertaining to scary moments of international tragedy, seem to still provide comfort and quiet exhortation to those in need.

Now to the array we can add A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood. Although partially fictional, it borrows inspiration from Fred Rogers and his real-life friendship with journalist Tom Junod. Their interview and subsequent meetings became the basis of a front-page spread in Esquire Magazine. That was back in 1998.

Surely, this cannot be a mere chance at publicity. Too much time has passed in this regard for it to make a shred of commercial sense. And yet here we are in 2019 welcoming in yet another tribute to Fred Rogers. The man who taught many of us once upon a time (including this viewer) what it means to realize you are special, that there are ways to deal with feelings, and what a lovely thing it is to be a good neighbor and reach out an inquisitive hand to learn and ask questions.

What Marielle Heller’s gently radical film does well is capturing the spirit of the man. He was always so caring and engaged with others as a listener and concerned friend. There was real intentionality present and a candor toward both children and adults within him. But he was also humble and deferential. These qualities are much admired and somehow so difficult to replicate in our own lives. But the beauty of this portrait is the reminder that no one’s life is picture-perfect.

Lloyd Vogel (Mathew Rhys) is a man with a lot of pent-up, unresolved anger. He’s married now and has a child. But he still holds onto the grief of a beloved mother who died when he was young and an estranged father (Chris Carter) who was never around and is now trying to make an effort at reconciliation in his old age. Lloyd must come to terms with his own issues. But simultaneously his editor has enlisted him to write something out of his comfort zone. It’s an article on a hero: Fred Rogers. Here is the crux of the story.

So Mr. Rogers isn’t necessarily the focal point inasmuch as the film has his fingerprints all over it. In screenwriting terms, he is the helper and in life or film, there is no better title for the man. Because in Lloyd’s own family issues and private hurts, we see a projection of all of us sitting out in the dark.

In fact, just as the man in the red cardigan spoke to us throughout our lives, he’s speaking to Lloyd; he forms a relationship. This is not a television neighbor. He is a cinematic one, but it’s purely semantics because it doesn’t make much difference when Mr. Rogers is concerned. As you might have guessed, he likes Lloyd just the way he is. We witness the man change from a cynical, distant workaholic to someone who is trying to change and reach out to others in love. It’s imperfect, but it’s a start.

Tom Hanks in many ways is too much Tom Hanks for me to lose him in Mr. Rogers and this works out fine. Again, he captures the spirit of the man. As best as can be gathered, it comes down to two integral pieces. First, there is the genuine candor.

The words coming out of his mouth, the salutations, the affirmations, even the words spoken with a puppet on-hand (like Daniel Striped-Tiger) run the risk of sounding insincere and making a joke out of Mr. Rogers. But that would run contrary to the man himself who gave attention and respect to everyone no matter who they were. Thankfully, Hanks extends his subject the same courtesy. The words leaving his lips don’t sound exactly like our television neighbor, but they feel like him.

Equally important, Hanks gets down the rhythm of Mr. Rogers. So much about him comes down to how to utilize time, slowing down and being okay with stillness and silence. Heller aids with one brazenly unassuming scene where Rogers entreats his friend to take a quiet minute (as he famously did at the Emmys) to think about the people who got him there. The movie obliges including a brief cameo of fan favorites Joanne Rogers and David Newell. Again, in 2019 it all feels a bit quaint and yet — if I speak for myself — it’s also appealing.

Here is the man who built his life on disciplines. He woke up early to pray for his acquaintances and read his morning devotionals. He swam daily at his local pool. Letter correspondence was a rich part of his relationships. But they weren’t disciplines for mere discipline’s sake. All these things beget goodness and kindness toward other people. Because Fred followed the greatest rule: Loving others as you love yourself.

Yet the movie points out he wasn’t a saint. Not that there are hidden caveats to his characters. (For the record, he wasn’t a marine and he didn’t have tattoos.) Rather, he was human like each of us, and it is possible to grow in these same skills no matter the skeletons we have in the closet and the messiness under our rugs.

The movie has a couple bizarre dream sequences, but these are Lloyd’s and not Mr. Rogers. They are part of his emotional journey, tapping into his various attributed issues going back into his own childhood and a bit of his mind’s own neighborhood of make-believe.

Otherwise, Heller’s film does well to bring satisfying touches of the original show. There’s that unmistakable tint to the camera on-set that takes me back. That front entryway. The closet. The zip of the zipper. The toss of a shoe.

The script penned by Noah Harpster and Micah Fitzerman-Blue uses this familiar format of the program as a comforting window into Lloyd’s story. It allows us back into the world even as it puts us in touch with someone existing in our own.

Miniatures were also always an integral part of the show indicating Mr. Rogers’s home and where he was off to in the neighborhood. The movie entends this by utilizing models to chart the majority of Lloyd’s travels between Pittsburgh and New York. One other unique commute has Lloyd and Mr. Rogers receiving an impromptu serenade of “Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” on the Subway.

Fittingly, music holds such a special place in the film, both the television set sequences and outside its scope. Johnny Costa’s distinct jazz playing always colored and left such memorable accents on the show’s myriad of interludes, whether it was the opening and closing tunes, the skittering of fish, or ready-made trolley sound effects. Mr. Rogers had such a gift for music as well. His compositions and aphorisms were deceptively simple but filled with so many brilliant articulations of content (“Everything mentionable is manageable”).

If they are gauged toward children that’s wonderful. I was struck by “Just Do It” playing over the credits — a less-remembered song I probably hadn’t heard since childhood; it all flooded back in a euphoric moment of recollection. Only as an adult do you begin to realize the impact this man had, how formative a television program could be. We want to write it off and cast off “childish things” and yet give him a second look and you realize how timeless he is. Why else would we be coming back to his well of modest wisdom?

It doesn’t seem like a coincidence, in a landscape that feels more antagonistic, mean-spirited, and divisive than ever, Mr. Rogers feels like a beacon from a happier time. During the film, I thought 400 words were far too short to chronicle the man. Sure enough, Lloyd took 10,000 instead. I would probably be capable of doing much the same. I can only gather many of us have a story about Mr. Rogers and how he impacted us.

For me, it was a photo signed and addressed in his immaculate calligraphy: With kindest regards from Fred Rogers. That was in 2003. He would pass away from stomach cancer in February of that same year. I lost a good friend that day…

When I was frightened after 9/11 he provided reassurance, when I doubted he reenforced my worth, when I didn’t know how to love my neighbor he showed me the way with graciousness. Because the brilliance of Mr. Rogers is how he backed up words and songs with action and feelings of radical affection. I want to be like that. I want us all to be like that. It can still be a beautiful day in the neighborhood. Sometimes we just need a reminder. We are all human. Just like Mr. Rogers. But we’re also special just the way we are.

4/5 Stars

I Want to Live! (1958): The Anomaly of Barbara Graham

220px-I_Want_to_Live!I Want to Live! calls upon the words of two men of repute to make an ethos appeal to the audience. The first quotation is plucked from Albert Camus. I’m not sure what the context actually was but the excerpt reads, “What good are films if they do not make us face the realities of our time.” This is followed up by some very official-looking script signed by Edward S. Montgomery, Pulitzer Prize winner, who confirms this is a factual story based on his own journalism and the personal letters of one Barbara Graham.

So the film asserts its authenticity right off the bat before even showing an image. It’s obviously hewn out of the tradition of the real crime docudramas popular at the time. And yet with any type of project, perhaps especially those that make such a claim, we must still call details into question and take them with a grain of salt.

Director Robert Wise is at it again handily developing an environment that feels lived in, opening with dutch angles to give us a slightly disconcerting introduction to a jazzy hole-in-the-wall joint. The crime maestro is at his best when he is working with locales he can play around with and in this case, the world gives way to character.

Meeting Susan Hayward in this picture is reminiscent of meeting Burt Lancaster’s Swede in The Killers. They’re in an upper room, a bedroom, cloaked in shadow and we know they have a tragic end in sight. Where we find them is almost as important as the characters themselves because it acts as an extension of who they are.

Graham is a different type of flawed figure who we find not in a lover’s room but some random bimbo. Though the word is never said outright, she’s undoubtedly a prostitute with police looking to nab her. This is our initial image of her, and it is telling.

However, the rest of her story is sutured together with whirling whip pans and mementos from photos to newspaper clippings to TV coverage, providing snapshots of a life through intermittent scenes. What we are given is admittedly jarring and not altogether cohesive, though one could easily concede no life is ever straightforward to piece together. So it is with this one.

Before seeing either film, I always mentally confused Caged and I Want to Live! because of the superficial similarity of women criminals behind bars. However, there is a substantial difference in Eleanor Parker who is able to lead her character through a visible transformation. With Hayward its more about reconciling and portraying the varying entities of this befuddling human being: Barbara Graham.

Soon she is styled as “Bloody Babs” by the media, initially lambasting her as a brazen killer with a past full of criminal activity and impropriety. But at least one man, Ed Montgomery (Simon Oakland), begins to change his tune and crusades tirelessly for her innocence. His help, along with the support of a benevolent psychologist (Theodore Bikel), just might turn the tide. Maybe…

Again, the most enjoyable aspect seems to be the mimetic world that has been evoked because to recall the Camus quote, “Here is the reality of our time, and we have no right to be ignorant of it. The day will come when such documents will seem to us to refer to prehistoric times.”

The people (including a young Gavin MacLeod), their clothing, the interiors of rooms, the press, and the mechanisms of the criminal justice system, are all touchstones of some kind. There’s always something we can learn from each even as we must be suspect of how authentic they really are.

Thus, the real star is the direction, featuring some of the most visual flourishes I recall in a Wise picture, further complemented by the jazzy scoring of Johnny Mandel. But its all elemental in creating a backdrop for the story.  Black & White serves Wise particularly well.

The final act initially stalls because the story is played from a waiting game angle, trying to ratchet the tension, although the ending is an already foregone conclusion. Everyone is waiting around. I would have thought the ending would go to Susan Hayward. Because until those foreboding final moments, her character hardly feels established even after all we have witnessed. But sometimes one scene can be galvanizing and emblematic of an entire picture.

However, this is not a boisterous exclamation point but an oddly entrancing death scene and this seemingly purposeful decision proves consistent with most of the picture. It foregoes dramatic and visual hyperbole for leaner more understated beats that bear markers of truthfulness. In the end, life doesn’t go out with an explosion but a drop off into somber nothingness.

With such a conclusion we certainly feel sorry for Barbara Graham. However, I’m not sure if we can completely empathize with her. Nevertheless, like any such high stakes story, I Want to Live! calls into question the American justice system, the death penalty, and our understanding of guilt in this country. So was Graham guilty or innocent? I would have to do more outside research to corroborate the facts though the film implies its own position quite overtly.

Regardless, maybe the picture is about larger themes altogether. Issues that go deeper still into the very fabric of how we enact justice, how we perceive it in the media, and even socially, how certain people seem to get raked over the coals.

Why Barbara Graham? Why not someone else? Why like this? It’s an issue that goes beyond superficial terms like good or bad. As a people, I think we are fascinated by individuals who are layered anomalies not to be understood with a cursory glance. Barbara Graham seems like such a person. We cannot write her off with a convenient stereotype.

3.5/5 Stars