The Cheat (1915) and The Story of Sessue Hayakawa

405px-The_Cheat_FilmPoster.jpegEast is East and West is West and never the twain shall meet.

The cinema landscape was still in its utter infancy in 1915. Thus, beyond the monumental impact of D.W. Griffith, The Cheat is another subsequent landmark production for a couple of the talents it helped align.

There would be no Cecil B. DeMille without The Cheat. It was his coming-out party with the viewing public, slating him as a craftsman of delicious dramas gorging themselves on all sorts of sensual themes and pleasures. It meant bang-bang box office receipts and kept DeMille inexorably at the top of Hollywood for years to come.

Sessue Hayakawa must also receive a nod not only as a groundbreaking pioneer in an industry that still doesn’t boast too many Asian performers but also as one of the most important stars of his day. Period.

Simply comparing his style of acting with many of his peers during the silent era bears telling results. In an age, of not only discrimination and stereotypes but also extensive overacting for the camera, his parts are almost reserved in comparison. No doubt this understatement derived from the Japanese attempt to strive for the so-called absence of doing or “muga,” when it came to performances.

Because the teleplay on its own is fairly rudimentary. A well-off wife (Fannie Ward) is pouting because her husband (Jack Dean) won’t give her the funds for a new dress. He needs his investments to pay dividends first.

In being so impatient, she resolves to leverage the red cross funds she’s been entrusted with by her woman’s group  — $10,000 of assets — and hands it over to an acquaintance who promises a sure thing in return. Of course, no one needs to be told it doesn’t bode well and as a result, the wife is out $10,000. She’s willing to turn anywhere, even her regular companion the suave foreigner Prince Haka Arakau (Tori in the original release).

Although gentlemanly and innocent enough at first, the lascivious prince looks to press his advantage, agreeing to give her the money — with strings attached. Extramarital drama and blackmail ensue with the tyrant putting his literal stamp on her as a sign of ownership. It’s actually quite perturbing, especially in a modern world finally looking to cast light on the sexual predation of women.

Beyond this caveat, The Cheat no doubt accentuated contemporary fears of the Yellow Peril as much as it titillated with the handsomeness of its foreign star. So while it’s playing into the long-accepted narrative including diatribes against immigration, it’s also taking advantage of the situation for pure entertainment value. There’s little discounting the purpose.

There’s a shooting that the husband admits to and a subsequent court trial full of sordid scandal-worthy confessions. The problems are ultimately amended and a happy ending found, making for an abrupt denouement meant to satisfy the masses. Given the customary, even archetypal trails the story takes, it feels much more rewarding to consider The Cheat most specifically from its place as a crucial historical time capsule outside the realm of mere plot.

Accordingly, Sessue Hayakawa was such a lucrative star during the early 20th century, it’s almost ludicrous to consider. He was making millions of dollars a year as one of the highest-paid actors of the age to rival the likes of Douglas Fairbanks or even Charlie Chaplin!

The fact that he is barely known in this day and age is a shame though it makes some sense given the cultural climate then and now. He became a screen idol in an age wrought with racial discrimination. His place as a box office smash was based mostly on his foreign allure and attractiveness as a forbidden lover. He was the toast of the town with white audiences as a fantasy character though he was rarely ever allowed to break out of the mold created for him in films like The Cheat.

We are presented with this perplexing dichotomy of this world-renowned actor who feels like an outlier in a tradition that normally emasculated Asian characters, and yet there’s still problematic perpetuations in Hayakawa’s own characterizations. It’s a two-sided issue that, regardless, is nothing short of intriguing given how early in the nascent stages of film he became a star. Dig into his history even a little bit and you are met with a continually fascinating career. For one, he entered acting on a near fluke.

After arriving in Chicago to study to become a lawyer, he was waiting for a tanker to take him back to Japan from California only to bow out and take up with a local theater. He subsequently caught the acting bug. One of the crucial figures in his early breakout was fellow countrywoman and future wife (anti-miscegenation laws forbid cross-cultural marriages), Tsuru Aoki.

Eventually, Hayakawa would emigrate back to Japan in the 1920s and slogged through WWII in occupied France of all places. After the war years, he experienced a resurgence and came to be known to a new generation of audiences for the likes of Tokyo Joe, Bridge on The River Kwai, and Hell to Eternity. For this body of work, he deserves an audience, even today, because there’s no discounting the crucial part he played, not simply in Asian representation, but in the very fabric of Hollywood history itself.

3.5/5 Stars

Accident (1967): A Study in Middle Class Malaise

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There’s little quibbling over what the inciting action in this film might be. It’s titled Accident for a reason. The serenity of an English home is disrupted by screeching tires and then a horrendous, blood-curdling crash following in its wake.

But the sequence is as much indebted to silence as it is noise. All the time director Joseph Losey chooses to immediately call on his audience’s sense of imagination. All we see is the home. Not the car, not the circumstances; at least not initially.

The opening is a textbook example of using what’s not there to his advantage. Because instead of showing the grisly accident, Losey stays neatly framed on this grand manor. Compositionally, he knows full well what he’s doing.  We can trust we are in capable hands from thenceforward.

While the title might be easy, the rest of the picture is a hard-fought, slow-burning exercise in destructive relationships. Though this is a study of the middle-class malaise, it’s indicative of an entire society — even an entire world — disillusioned by the way history has turned.

The aftermath of the car crash is all we are allowed. A man (Dirk Bogarde) — we can gather the man of the house — wanders out to find a car flipped on its side. I’m admittedly not well-accustomed to Dirk Bogarde. I am predisposed to believe him to be out of the mode of James Mason, perhaps slightly more maladjusted — still, his elder fell for a younger girl in Kubrick’s Lolita as well.

The other figure of interest is a young woman (Jacqueline Sassard), nearly catatonic, first climbing out of the car, treading on the face of her dead companion, then slumping her way across the front lawn. We have yet to fully comprehend the dramatic situation nor how these people relate to one another.

The film’s screenplay is realized by famed playwright Harold Pinter though adapted from someone else’s work (Nicholas Mosley). As distilled by his pen, it is all about subtleties and subtext. The performances, as a result, are so restrained — even painfully so — and they fit a world without dramatic musical cues and few cathartic moments of emotional release.

Likewise, it enlists a morose, often drab color scheme of mostly cool blues and grays, highlighted every now and then by lacquered wood desks and door frames. As the film progresses into more mundane scenes, I almost want to compare them with Yasujiro Ozu’s whether drinks or bottles placed in a room or shots of color drawing one’s eye. There is a pleasing attention to detail in such scenes which for all other reasons are the height of banality.

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This is, of course, a story rooted in the past where context can come into play to help elucidate the present. It feels all but necessary. At an earlier time, we meet Stephen (Bogarde), an academic and well-regarded tutor. His pupils include the charming William (Michael York) and the strikingly beautiful heir to Austrian royalty, Anna (Sassard). There’s little question love is in the air. At this point, it feels youthful and innocent.

Likewise, the professor returns home for evenings reading stories to his two adorable children as his gently ribbing wife (Vivien Merchant) works nearby, currently pregnant with their third child. There is a sense this family represents all that is fine and upright about the British middle class.

The film continues to remain minimalist and casually laid back. What follows are moments on a punting expedition which are nevertheless injected with a sleepy sensuality playing out between the trio: the tutor and his pupils. Next, they’re over for lunch and the prospect of a lazy afternoon of lounging and tennis.

Stephen’s dorky and slightly conniving colleague, Charley (Stanley Baker), invites himself along for the festivities. There’s a sense he wants to be in on this, and he proves to be hardly as innocent as he lets on. But we have yet to realize exactly why.

Instead, we can content ourselves with what Losey is building around us as we watch. One particular technique is to start in a close-up only to pull back on that space which instantly becomes a focal point of a far larger canvass. Not only is it slightly disorientating but it does very intentionally guide our focus. It cannot help but direct our eyes.

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There must come a point of no return as the picture enters its most stylish and enigmatic phase, which subsequently becomes the most devastating. With his wife away having the baby, Stephen inexplicably meets an old flame (Delphine Seyrig) and proves himself to be a closet cad, confirming our earlier suspicions.

Except the scenes with the other woman — the daughter of the Provost — extend the sense of dream-like reverie by foregoing typical back and forth dialogue over images. Instead, their patter is conceived in voiceover — nonchalant and smooth. Perfect for denoting the falsity of such a romantic fantasy. It cannot last.

Then, he comes home to find quite the jarring surprise but resorting to its usual tendencies, the ousting of Charley and Anna in a tryst results in less confrontation and even fewer emotions.

It’s like they are constantly being drawn further and further in, cold and impregnable. Stephen’s own detachment might come from catching them in a situation that he just experienced himself. He’s no innocent bystander. There can be no surprise or condemnation because it’s just like looking in the mirror. All he can do is resign himself to passive receptivity.

The depressive atmosphere of this world is irrepressible, reflecting the privileged elite with their frivolous diversions and usual lethargy mixed with deleterious desires. Thus, Accident is distressing, not due to any matter of pacing as much as it is the intentions of the characters themselves. The male characters in particular.

Jacqueline Sassard, as beautiful as she is, does feel mostly like an object of affection in the vein of a Vertigo or other such pictures. Where all the men are ogling over her, secretly dreaming of time spent with her alone. This is indicative of the poison going through the majority of their romantic relationships. If youth has yet to be sullied, as represented by the callow Michael York, middle-age has certainly tainted masculinity.

To the very last zenith, Accident remains the epitome of a slow, torturous burn of a movie that by some form of insanity, manages to end just as it began, almost as if nothing has happened and no change has been enacted. Because what is insanity if not something horrendous happening and then nothing being done to prevent it from happening again? It’s a mad spiral of destruction.

The only thing that makes it worse is the lack of concern. There is no emotional well to be dug into. It’s simultaneously the most perturbing and compelling element of Losey’s work here. It says so much by saying very little at all.

4/5 Stars

The Swimmer (1968): A Fable Starring Burt Lancaster

The_Swimmer_poster.jpgI am tempted to call The Swimmer a pretentious fable about the waters of life. It is set in the upper echelon of Connecticut society, but the same cross-section might hold true in California as well. In fact, one could say this film effectively extends the pool metaphor of The Graduate (1967).

Because it is indicative of not simply prosperity, but “The American Dream” as well, synonymous with plastics and water filters that filter out 99.99 of all solid matter. Whereas Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman) floats along in the water lazily, not quite sure what he is doing after graduation, Ned Merrill (Burt Lancaster) has a completely different experience, though he does live in the same WASP bubble.

For him, he forms some quixotic fantasy to swim his way back up the hill to his home, making his way by taking a dip in everyone’s pool on the road there. It dawns on him that “Pool by pool they form a river all the way to our house” and so he takes a swim down memory lane.

Each new home he comes upon puts him in contact with old friends, neighbors, children, acquaintances who never want to see his guts again, and various social gatherings. We don’t necessarily have enough time to make any judgments on those around him — they might easily come out of Mike Nichol’s film as well — but we do see an awful lot of “Neddy.”

What is extraordinary and simultaneously maddening about The Swimmer is how it blends dream-like, sun-soaked imagery verging on the surreal with these real-world scenarios. We can easily imagine a real-life counterpart to each of these people existing in the flesh and yet the film is never concerned about drawing them out.

It’s playing with the landscape and reveling in its own metaphor. We have refracting light cutting through the trees, deep piercing irises staring off into the distance unblinkingly.  Vaulting bodies and galloping legs provide the continuous motion to propel our picture ever onward even as it languishes in these self-indulgent asides.

Because there are many encounters between all of Merrill’s swimming strokes, the best recourse is to highlight only a few. Julie Ann Hooper (Janet Langard) is the pert young babysitter who agrees to join Mr. Merrill on his endeavor. Between quotations from the lurid Song of Solomon and admissions of girlish crushes, they have a fine time.

But every moment of gaiety is just as easily forfeited when all the pretense of fun and games are lost in the face of ugly reality. Ned tries to play their relationship off as something innocent, but it verges on the uncomfortable time and time again. There comes a point of no return.

Another telling moment comes when he happens upon Shirley (Janice Rule who replaced Barbara Loden), a woman reclining poolside with a magazine in hand. It comes out that they had a messy history together. He was the philandering husband and she the “other woman.”

Her defense mechanisms are those of bitterness and acerbic retorts. Within this context, she feels merciless, and yet one must admit she has a reason for harboring a grudge. Again, it speaks to Ned — this “suburban stud” who has insulated himself with agreeable fantasies. He doesn’t realize how he has harmed others.

His final leg — arguably the most telling — is at a public pool where his decadent delusions are rudely shattered for good. These folks do not have the pretense of all his affluent friends and so they view his life with a certain amount of aversion. They see right through his facades, and they aren’t buying the schlock he’s peddling. It turns out his life is a decaying, crumbling mess on all fronts.

Cocktail parties and rivers of champagne only serve to exasperate the problems at hand as the men and the families they hold up begin to fracture under the weight. Underneath the surface of the water, fissures have riddled his very foundation. He cannot hide them any longer. It’s only in the final minutes we realize how very dire the situation is.

Burt Lancaster, from a physical standpoint, seems like a marvel, defying his age as he streaks through the woods like a youthful buck and churning through the pools with methodical ease.

He’s still capable of making the ladies swoon too but there’s the ever-present undercurrent there. There’s this quality to him — capable of being the cad and somehow tragic in the same sense — that’s ever arresting. Just look into his eyes and you know it to be true. It’s quite a stirring performance and as the most important piece to this drama, he more than accommodates the audience.

3.5/5 Stars

Night Moves (1975): Arthur Penn’s Neo Noir

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“I saw a Rohmer film once; it was kinda like watching paint dry.” – Gene Hackman as Harry Moseby

Gene Hackman is still with us but unlike others who are predisposed to continue working, he was content in setting a hard and fast end to his acting career. All that can be said is he is dearly missed. Even a less renowned project like Night Moves suggests how indispensable his talents were to the acting landscape of the 70s and 80s.

Director Arthur Penn was not an obvious practitioner of genre subversion as say, Robert Altman, but if you look at the likes of The Left-Handed Gun (1958), Bonnie and Clyde (1967), Little Big Man (1970), and certainly Night Moves, it’s obvious he took accepted genres like westerns, gangsters movies, and film-noir only to give them a fresh point of view.

It seems fair to assume this film finds its place among the likes of Harper (1966) and The Long Goodbye (1973) because it begins by acknowledging the successive hoops of private investigator films with conscious self-awareness.

However, in such cases, the true entertainment comes in the departures, when it pertains to artistic vision, content, and narrative digressions. Penn shows particular preoccupation in a man at odds with his times and ultimately, a man unable to navigate the world, both personally and professionally.

In one very blunt admission, the lone wolf P.I., Harry Moseby (Gene Hackman), acknowledges, “I didn’t solve anything. It just fell in on top of me.” Later, when asked where he was when Kennedy was shot. He responds wryly, “Which Kennedy?”

This is the perfect sentiment in a Vietnam, Post-assassination, Post-Watergate age where rhythm and reason seem all but cast to the wayside. If things reach a resolution at all — and a fatalistic one at that — it feels inevitable. In one sense, there appears to be little personal agency in the current cultural landscape. It’s no different for Harry.

It’s also imperative Night Moves boast a familiar point of demarcation. The despondent point of view is already in place, but it takes time for it to build up to what might already be a foregone conclusion.

It must begin in what feels like a conventional realm. Moseby receives a request from an aging Hollywood B-Girl whose husband formerly made Biblical epics. Now her free-loving daughter Delly (the saucy Melanie Griffin) has gone missing. The actress entrusts Harry with finding her daughter and bringing her home. It’s everything but a by the book assignment.

In fact, Alan Sharp’s script is equally aware of its traditions. Mrs. Iverson inquires if Moseby’s “the type of detective who once you get on a case nothing can get you off it: bribes, beatings, the allure of a woman.” He responds without missing a beat, “That was true in the old days before we had a union.” His fee of $125 a day plus reasonable expenses is also dirt cheap compared to Jim Rockford.

But this is indicative of his general temperament. Asked about his affinity for some grungy old antiquities from a would-be detective partner, he responds bluntly, “I would if they didn’t all remind me of Alex Karras.” Later, when he traps his wife with his crippled rival, far from the virile adversaries of yesteryear, the man coaxes him to take a swing at him, “The way Sam Spade would.”

He is a P.I. as only Gene Hackman could play one forming a beeline through The French Connection (1971) and The Conversation (1974). The core tenets of each of these varying protagonists are flaws — deep and messy. He is prone to violence and resentment and yet somewhere buried deep is a certain tenderness — a conscience and a moral compass of some kind. This ever-fluctuating identity is key.

He feels like a traditionalist more at home with the gumshoes of old than the new-fangled technology guiding detective agencies now. Hackman even rivals Elliot Gould in The Long Goodbye, but he doesn’t seem as absurdly out of place so much so that it verges on the satirical — even from a visual standpoint.

His emotional and personal framework is what puts him at odds with this current generation. On stakeouts, of course, he occupies himself with chess matches, watching the mark out of the corner of his eye, and it becomes the film’s defining metaphor.

In making the rounds, he questions a mechanic and one of Delly’s friends named Quentin, followed by the hotshot pilot who wooed her away. The last is the veteran stunt coordinator (Edward Binns), all leading him on the trail to his prize.

His primary case seems to be well on its way to a conclusion far sooner than we might have ever imagined. He tracks Delly down to Mexico, following the leads to her step-father (John Crawford) and the in-house dolphin expert (Jennifer Warren) who are making their domicile on the edge of the water. It’s a little bit of quaint paradise, and it feels rather like a dead-end, where crime stories might come to die.

If this is the outcome of the case, it seems anti-climactic at best. Still, something keeps us glued to the screen. We appreciate the characters and there is some amount of intuition mounting. Arthur Penn would not abandon us like this without something more to ruminate over. Night Moves just keeps on getting more and more perplexing by the minute.

It’s because the issues at hand are not localized; they only seem to morph and proliferate with every encounter, folding back on themselves to create more issues through the simple rhythms of character. Fittingly, actual travel is rarely denoted, only implied by varying cars and sudden jumps in location, thus continuously expanding the story.

It starts with Moseby but trickles down to any number of people he crosses paths with. Melanie Griffin’s part, much like Jodie Foster’s role in Taxi Driver a year later, does its very best to get under my skin, as both play squirm-inducing and unforgettable Lolitas.

Meanwhile, Moseby orbits within this confusing solar system of female relationships. It begins with the problems with his wife and patching up their relationship; because he knows what’s happening, but he doesn’t try very hard to fix things. He just keeps on with his work. Paula is the one who truly tickles his fancy; she’s warm and independent — working for Tom Iverson because, in her own words, “he gets nicer, not meaner when he’s drunk.”

Talking to Paula on another evening Harry explains a famous game in 1922 where Bruno Moritz failed to make a handful of knight moves. “He had a mate and didn’t see it.” These words linger in our mind from thenceforward. Because thoughtful films do not lay out these clues without there being a payoff, and it’s true these prophetic lines of Harry’s recall his own failure. The distractions are too many and his faculties are misdirected and diverted in all the wrong places.

At no instance is this more apparent than the film’s ensuing conclusion. A befuddling series of events begin to unwind. There are fluke accidents on a film set, drudged up bodies, outright murder, and aerial assaults at sea. It concludes with what can only be described as a hypnotic, if not entirely haunting final image — for one last time Harry was unable to see the whole puzzle. He stares helplessly at yet another scene that blindsided him.

Night Moves is a film you almost need time to marinate in. Because on first glance it feels like a sloppy, less meticulous Chinatown plot. Revelations arrive when it is far too late. Yet in its own way, Penn’s movie feels deeper than a surface reading and Hackman is a messed-up hero on par with anything Jack Nicholson could muster up.

However, the antagonist and the opposing forces are of a different nature. If not quite as sinister as Chinatown, they’re equally jarring, leaving us with a wistful impact of despondency. Chinatown is made up of a world that we must helplessly accept as passive bystanders.

It can be propped up as one of the finest mysteries of all time like a tightly wound clock of impeccable foreshadowing and interconnections. Night Moves leaves us with a boatload of loose ends still unresolved and unexplained.

The mystery and focus constantly seem muddled and shifting away from center just as our own focus continually seems to drift. It’s hardly as methodical as its predecessor but this looseness still couches numerous befuddling reveals, as abrupt and disjointed as they might seem.

Of all places, our protagonist’s opinions of art-house cinema provide one last fateful portent. He gets antsy watching a film like Eric Rohmer’s My Night at Maud’s where dialogue takes precedence over action.

But it is also a film of choice — little microcosms that require decisions. It’s apt Rohmer’s characters are creatures of choice. When we look at Harry there are similar issues and yet his choices feel pointless because he has little comprehension of the scenarios at hand.

However, there’s no way for someone like him to experientially understand all the situations and, in the end, he pays dearly for it. If the moral of the story is not learning to like appreciate Rohmer’s cinema, it is, at the very least, a call to appreciate that we are people of choice as much as we are relational beings. Both are crucial to life. Harry never quite figures either out quickly enough.

4/5 Stars

The Last of Sheila (1973): A Mystery Missing Its Columbo

Last_sheila_movieposter“That’s the thing about secrets. We all know stuff about each other; we just don’t know the same stuff.”

The Last of Sheila is an intricate murder mystery with origins in real-life parlor games put on by Anthony Perkins and Stephen Sondheim for some of their socialite friends in New York. While these mapped out scavenger hunts did not involve actual murder, they are easily adapted to fit such a storyline. Because all we need are a group of folks thrown together, some friendly competition involving misdirection, and a boatload of lies, and we are on our way.

James Coburn takes up his position as the grinning master of ceremonies inviting a group of his closest “friends” aboard his yacht. In the wake of his wife’s death from a hit-and-run driver, he plans The Sheila Green Memorial Gossip Game in her honor. Aside from being rather facetious, it becomes obvious it’s a chance to get some wicked revenge.

The rest of the cast reads easily enough. You have Dyan Cannon playing a bubbly talent agent modeled after Sue Mengers (her real-life agent), Richard Benjamin as a struggling screenwriter, and Joan Hackett as his well-off but generally sincere wife. Raquel Welch is her typically alluring self and Ian McShane fills in as her husband/talent manager. James Mason is our final guest bringing his gravitas as a veteran director, probably in the mold of Orson Welles.

Soon enough, they are all thrown together on the yacht, floating off the coast of France. The ever-conniving Clinton (Coburn) develops quite the complex ordeal to throw them into with each obliging player given a specific card because this is a game with double meaning. It is part leisure and the other more sinister aspect is meant to unveil deep dark secrets.

The first clue is a sterling key that sets them off exploring the local digs like giddy school children out for a lark. This is the fun and games portion. Then, the following afternoon, someone turns on the turbines causing a near-traumatic accident or a very insidious murder attempt.

The next locale for the escapades is a deserted island monastery meant to be the showcase for another clue or personal secret. But the frolicking goes awry when our master showman is found dead, brutally bludgeoned to death by a stone column. It becomes obvious one of our company is a murderer. It’s just a matter of deciphering who it might be.

Since this is a type of parlor game, it’s fitting everyone gets gathered together for the obligatory convening to begin sifting through the facts and slipping the pieces together. These new conjectures don’t keep another member from being left for dead in the bathtub. Our number of suspects is beginning to dwindle.

If it’s not exactly a false climax, it does feel like the picture peaks too early, and it kind of peters out. Because there are still some variables to plug in, but there’s nothing astonishing about the final resolutions.

What’s most important to the architects is the stalwartness of the story, making sure all the pieces fit together into a fundamentally sound puzzle. Unfortunately, the characters are then pushed to the fringes and become of lesser importance. When you’re boasting such a wide-ranging and potentially intriguing cast, it does feel like a bit of a waste.

The Last of Sheila is a tantalizing prospect with less than stellar results. The mysteries feel mostly compartmentalized, and they string us along without ever completely gripping us. This is no Agatha Christie who-done-it nor does it have the intriguing characterizations of a Columbo episode holding it together.

The star power is there but not the actual concern in the story. Because there is no Columbo to hold it together with levity and groggy charm. In fact, it’s as if the whole cast is filled out by Mystery Movie guest stars. Any of these players might have easily crossed over. Cannon does the most admirable job of bursting out of a ho-hum characterization to leave a real living, breathing impression.

But again, it is a story of first world problems, of Hollywood glamour, feuds, scandals, and ultimately, excess. Somehow the murders of such people in the context of this film, where we never truly get to know anyone, feels relatively pointless and blase at best. Because these are icy cold individuals. There is no emotion (only Hackett shows a sensitive side); everyone else feels hardened or fickle, made callous by the world and the lives they have chosen.

If it had dipped more deeply into the cynicism earlier, it might be different. But this is hardly a commentary. It’s merely a decent excuse to exercise some mental ingenuity for the benefit of an audience. This narrative could have been so much more, but we are forced to settle for something gleaming with star power and only moderately compelling as a mystery drama. Sometimes high expectations can sour an experience. The Last of Sheila would be another prime example of this phenomenon.

3/5 Stars

Dog Day Afternoon (1975): Al Pacino’s Fury in a Great Heist Film

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We usually think of filmmakers like Woody Allen or even Noah Baumbach for their portrayals of New York. There’s no doubt they have left their imprint on the city, so it’s difficult not to envision it without their influences. However, in his own right, Sidney Lumet also deserves to be viewed in this light, even if it originates from a fundamentally different perspective.

Lumet is a director who seems to know this place intimately, but he hardly sugarcoats it. He gives us something loose and engaging, full of human drama. We saw it in everything from 12 Angry Men (1957) to Serpico (1973). With Dog Day Afternoon it’s much the same.

The film starts with a boat, before making its way across the city with imagery of both the vocational and leisurely activities of the general populous. People are bumping tunes as these city-wide scenes hum with the familiar rhythms of daily life. It seems a curiously wide net to take from the outset, only to make concrete sense minutes later.

Alongside these typical shots is something highly irregular within this same context: The attempted robbery of a local bank. One can easily champion Dog Day Afternoon as the greatest heist film for the very fact it is a comedy of errors because the sub-genre has always been defined by all hell breaking loose as everything eventually goes awry.

This picture never even gets there. It’s the purest articulation of the core tension flowing through any heist movie, going back to the days of The Asphalt Jungle (1950) or The Killing (1956). However, in this case, we are provided none of the same space for a setup or earlier preparation. It’s all the mechanisms of the job going haywire right in front of our eyes. It’s not even that the perfect plan hits a fateful snag or there’s a turncoat or what have you. These robbers are obviously sunk before they’ve even begun, and the story pivots on this, becoming something novel in itself.

It commences with their youngest accomplice who doesn’t have enough stomach to go through with it, and he literally bales on them during crunch time. Sonny (Al Pacino) and his buddy Sal (John Cazale) muddle through because the gun has already come out. They’re committed to what they’ve started. Soon the manager and female tellers are rounded up along with the security guard. No one’s looking for trouble.

But this is just the beginning. Because when they finally get to the issue at hand — the money in the vaults — there’s barely any cash. It was all taken out in the latest shipment. Strike two.

Though Sonny professes to know the ins and outs of bank work, he’s none too bright and in one of his most gloriously idiotic blunderings, he burns up the bank’s register only for the smoke from the wastebasket piquing attention out on the street. Just about everyone needs to use the toilet; they’re the kind of complications you don’t usally make allowances for in such a scenario.

Meanwhile, the police swarm the sight and Sergeant Eugene Moretti (Charles Durning) takes on the point to strike up a line of communication with the criminals. This is phase two where Dog Day evolves into a story where the aftermath of this event takes the most prominent place but for altogether different reasons than we usually expect. We reach this point of extended stalemate.

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The security guard is plagued by asthma and gets sent as a sign of good faith, but Sonny’s not about to take any double talk. In the galvanizing moment that forever vaulted Dog Day Afternoon into the conversation of anti-establishment cinema, Pacino walks out on the streets and dares the cops to back down.

This is his stand, and it catalyzes the rest of the film’s action. He knows he has power because the crowds are watching him — if not the entire city. In a moment of inspiration, he starts screaming “Attica” and as his chants, evoking the contemporary prison riots, sweep through the onlookers, and they begin to cheer him on almost as if he’s one of their heroes, and he has found solidarity with them.

TV coverage makes everything live and visible to the viewing public, and it’s the same game we can play with Network (1976). If the media was invasive back then, just imagine how much more of a parasite it is now with smartphones capable of capturing everything.

One might say Dog Day Afternoon documents a very specific cultural moment because we have only continued to progress from there with the media getting more and more intrusive as time goes on.

This strange almost absurd strain of insanity becomes acceptable. Where we have stalemates and compromises with people trying to communicate and defuse a situation of the most volatile nature. All because of a measly bank robbery running afoul.

The drama settles into a strange equilibrium where everyone is trying to work with everyone else to get out of the current situation. The captors and their captives on the inside form a rapport over time. A type of Stockholm Syndrome sets in. Then you have the uneasy symbiosis of the perpetrators and the cop on the outside looking to defuse the situation so the hostages get away safely.

It’s a shortlived truce blowing up again when someone tries to sneak into the back and a shot goes off, sending the police and crowds into a frenzy. On the inside, it isn’t much better. Pacino is at his most intense following up the slow burn of the Godfather Part II (1974) with something equally grating. It’s not exactly documentary, but there is a certain sensibility to it that makes it continuously tense and strangely funny, in its most organic moments.

It only falters with its substantial length, because after losing some of its tautness as an out-and-out thriller, it falls into the strangely comically strains of theatrics before getting distracted by any number of things. These are the lulls that are weathered by the sheer ferocity of Pacino’s performance.

There’s the complication of paying for t the sex change operation of his partner. His mother comes to the scene of the crime to coax him to give up, and it’s another distraction he could do without, in between the phone calls he’s constantly fielding with the police.

In his semi-delusional mind, he develops grand plans to get a car to take them to the airfield where they’ll head to Algeria. Sal is menacing but generally composed, played with matter-of-fact sentience by John Cazale. You almost forget he’s there. The only moment he seems obviously perturbed is when the news outlets make out that he’s gay. He wants Sonny to set them straight.

At the center of this insanity, sweating it out and trying to balance all the pressures thrust upon him is the man himself. He orchestrated this whole thing only for it to blow up into a local phenomenon he could hardly control. He becomes the ringleader of his own form of media circus — albeit on the inside — on par with anything whipped up by Kirk Douglas in Billy Wilder’s Ace in The Hole (1951).

The ending wallops equally hard like cold air hitting the face. Again, we met with this weird sense of total equilibrium restored. Life can settle back into normalcy. It’s simultaneously a welcome sigh of relief and still a hollow victory.

Because even if it was momentary, we were in Sonny’s corner too — right there with his hostages — and maybe after spending so much time with him, we were inflicted with a bit of Stockholm Syndrome ourselves. There is this wishful hope that he just might get away and things could turn out. In this austere, pragmatic world of ours, such sentiment seems like folly.

Lumet documents the milieu while Pacino captures its ensuing despondency with his usual unflinching fury. At its best, Dog Day Afternoons is driven by performance, and its director creates an impeccable world for incubation.

4/5 Stars

Mean Streets (1973): Martin Scorsese’s Intimate Crime Film

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Martin Scorsese will always be synonymous with Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, and Goodfellas, but if we want to truly chart his ascension as a singular creative mind, Mean Streets must be our genesis. Because it essentially lays the groundwork for his entire career.

In truth, it’s the strangest gangster film of its kind; it’s emphatically Scorsese’s, full of his pulse and life-blood –his love of cinema. It is a gritty and intimate creature born out of the American New Wave, further imbued with religious imagery and the imprint of something starkly personal.

Though Robert De Niro might seem the obvious figurehead to gravitate toward, in this instance Harvey Keitel is our true vehicle to move through the picture. We get a line on him from his opening lines lying in bed, “You don’t make up for your sins in church. You do it in the streets.”

Because here’s a good kid trying to look out for his friends, while working for his uncle who happens to be a powerful loan shark. There is no grandiose story arc here. At the most mundane level, most of the story revolves around the even-keeled, responsible Charlie trying to vouch for cocky local hothead Johnny Boy (De Niro), who has the continual insolence to dodge his creditors, perpetually trying their patience with his brazen excuses. He’s the type of jerk you’re never going to straighten out.  He just never learns.

The majority of the film has Charlie playing peacekeeper, though he also has the preconception that he holds his own fate within his grasp. The moral issues still gnaw at him. He wants to be his own savior. He’s proud and self-sufficient. 10 “Hail Marys” and “Our Fathers” will not satisfy him. They’re just words. He wants to make his own penance for his own sins.

Meanwhile, his uncle tells him to stay away from Johnny Boy. He starts seeing Teresa (Amy Robinson), Johnny Boy’s cousin (and a lapsed epileptic), which is another rocky relationship, partially due to her own hatred of her cousin. Michael (Richard Romanus), a small-time shark gives him fair warning multiple times; he’s not about to take any more of Johnny’s crap. Somehow Charlie seems able to assuage him.

He hasn’t accounted for just how extreme of a hot-headed punk the kid is. In one isolated event, he finds Johnny Boy on a rooftop firing off a piece just for kicks and giggles. He seems to think it was a perfectly good idea, and he holds no respect for any form of social honor. This is near blasphemy in such a time-honored traditional society.

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As with anything Scorsese, it’s not simply about narrative but form as well, and one of Mean Streets‘ most notable successes is in the cutting of the footage to music. Charlie’s life is brought to us via home movie newsreels and The Ronettes “Be My Baby.”

De Niro certainly makes Johnny Boy pop, but his introduction shouldering two women in a bar, sashaying toward the camera in slo-mo to the pounding jagged edges of “Jumpin Jack Flash” is nothing short of virtuoso. It’s hard to even imagine the images outside of the context now. Because it’s totally indicative of the world Scorsese is introducing, bathed in red hues with a swaggering Robert de Niro, and Harvey Keitel watching from the bar.

The oddly discordant matching of “Please Mr. Postman” with a pool hall brawl instigated by Johnny Boy (surprise, surprise), provides a similar mental association as does “The Shoop Shoop Song” played over a brief image of Charlie just about to stick his hand into the flame of a stovetop. The reason is immaterial. The emotion is what speaks.

It’s true American Graffiti might be the quintessential soundtrack movie, but Scorsese’s soundtrack for Mean Streets deserves laud in its own right. Not only is it packed full of classics, they are such effective pieces of this narrative helping to cultivate the mood at any given point in time.

Obviously, Scorsese is a lover of movies, but in the context of this story, they also have a very personal function. They provide a cutaway from the world — existing as diversions and distractions from the daily grind whether it’s The Searchers or The Tomb of Ligeia. It makes no difference. Scorsese allows a reverence for everything, whether it be on late-night TV or a cramped, musty old movie theater.

Even when taking this into account, it’s easy to write Mean Streets off initially as just another gangster movie, especially if you try and analyze it retroactively. But this could not be further from the truth.

Because while rock soundtracks are the norm now, George Lucas and Martin Scorsese were invariably at the forefront of this trend. They make the sound work seamlessly within the context of their stories. It adds layers that would be lost otherwise. There’s something powerful provided by the music working counter to the typical beats of non-diegetic scoring.

Consequently, I cannot help but recall Scorsese talking about his infatuation with Force of Evil (1948) because, within its poeticism, it manages to be equal parts small-time corruption and family drama, all in one.

The world of Mean Streets is analogous. It feels every day and unsentimental, ringing with an obvious authenticity. Because Scorsese is sharing a bit of his childhood neighborhood with us. These characters. The relationships and the business they find themselves in. There is nothing glamorous about it and when someone is willing to bring us something so close to them, they should be rewarded.

Without a doubt, Scorsese expresses deep affection for Hollywood, but he readily bursts forth with his own shot of individualistic adrenaline. These are the kind of efforts that made The American New Wave a boon of cinematic creativity and Mean Streets, with Scorsese as its maverick, must be kept front and center in the collective conversation. There’s no question the collaboration of Scorsese and De Niro is still one of cinema’s most transcendent.

Mean Streets forces us to extend more love to Harvey Keitel as well. The film could not be realized to this extent without all their talents coalescing. Somehow they share a joint language adding up to a shared experience. They know these people and these places on an intimate level, and it shows.

4.5/5 Stars

Home from The Hill (1960): Underrated Vincente Minnelli Family Drama

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“They just live in the same house and kill each other a little at a time, and I’m in the middle.” – George Hamilton

The beauty of Home from The Hill is how it systematically works against our preconceived notions of what it will be, repeatedly asserting itself in new and dynamic ways. In the opening moments, Wade Hunnicut (Robert Mitchum), a local with major sway in the community, is out hunting with his entourage only to have someone take a shot at him.

The culprit is dragged out into the open. We expect it’s part of a feud, and it is, but he’s a jealous husband fighting for the honor of his wife. The implications are Hunnicut slept with her, and he in no way denies the accusations. Instead of doing anything rough to the boy, he simply sends him away with his rifle. There’s really nothing else to be done.

We already have a line on our main character. He is a hunter of animals and women with a blatant disregard for property lines where either is concerned. It’s an open secret in the community, and his wife Hannah (Eleanor Parker) certainly knows his reputation, so he hardly tries to lie about his “hunting accident.” She knows him too well for there to be any kind of pretense.

The script is another impeccable early offering from writing duo Irving Ravetch and Harriet Jacobs, so well remembered for their lifelong collaboration with director Marty Ritt. Their works are instilled with an appealing plainness — in every way American and in a manner that continues in the traditions of The Long Hot Summer. Mitchum and Orson Welles are different figures, but they both ably play gargantuan men with far-ranging celebrity.

The cadence and rhythm of the southern patois play to a vaguely familiar tune capturing the essence of authenticity. And mind you, these are before the days of Hud and yet somewhere in between Hunnicut and his right-hand Rafe (George Peppard), we find some of the rough shapes and edges of Newman’s later character.

As Home from The Hill comes into its own, the story progresses as a sprawling melodrama with a husband and wife battling over the future of their son Theron (George Hamilton). The only reason Hannah’s stayed in his house was the solemn word of honor that their son would be hers.

She has sheltered him from the ways of his father and as a result, he’s unquestionably a mama’s boy. It’s a territorial war as Wade suddenly takes an interest in him. Father and son forge a relationship founded on imparting his image of masculinity. Is it mixing metaphors horribly to say it’s part Shakespearian with Machiavellian strains?

Because Hunnicut wants a hand at sculpting his boy into a real man who can maintain his legacy. The first test he passes along as a rite of passage into manhood is the killing of a wild boar terrorizing his tenants. It’s a harrowing hunt taking him through briar and bramble with his pack of dogs. But his hand is sure and his grit resolute.

Soon the Hunnicut grounds are packed out with a large scale gathering, the delectable centerpiece amid the clamor and gaiety is a roast boar on a spit. Hunnicut is making strides to gain back his wife’s affections, which she has kept locked away from him. Meanwhile, their poor boy gets rejected by the father of his date (an unrecognizable Everett Sloane). We have an inkling it has something to do with the notoriety of Theron’s own father.

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As George Hamilton goes through the arc of his story, I couldn’t help but compare him to Anthony Perkins. They not only share nominally similar boyish features, but Hamilton is also able to pull off a certain flightiness around women and an insecurity around everyone else.

One of the most curious scenes comes by way of the cemetery where all the locals are very merrily cleaning up the grounds of their kin. These are the burial grounds for the “Good Christians”, and then hidden away overgrown at “Reprobates Field,” Rafe cares for his own.

It hints at something only revealed in one of the film’s few scenes that fully oversteps its boundaries. Parker and Hamilton have it out in an impassioned back and forth that can only be described as histrionic. Even as he grows into manhood, he becomes increasingly disillusioned by the family of privilege he has been born into.

He thinks he loves Libby (Luana Patten), but how is he suppose to progress knowing the past indiscretions of his own flesh and blood? It crushes him.  The second overt moment of theatrics comes when his beau’s father comes to call on Mitchum trying to churn up a shotgun wedding. It feels peculiar within the sequence of events thus far. Still, it’s all part of small-town protocol, whether or not it relies on truth or merely local gossip.

Mitchum is hardly ever caught in such a state, nor George Peppard for that matter. The veteran actor is low with grounded core strength in every interaction, while Peppard is self-possessed in his own right. To their credit, they remain tempered and really stay ever steady in their roles. The patriarch exhibiting his unabashed egotism and the latter character embodying a necessary pathos in the film. He keeps it from cycling into a downward spiral of pure despondency.

While I have to admit it does feel like on a few crucial occasions Eleanor Parker overdoes her performance, most of her scenes opposite Mitchum are equally measured and beautifully layered with feeling. The history between them is rich even as their present is so resentful. However, the greatest accomplishment of the picture is how they hardly steal the movie.

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As events progress, the brunt of the family drama falls equally on the shoulders of George Hamilton and George Peppard who capably carry the load placed on them. In fact, considering the trajectory of Peppard’s career, in particular, it amazes me his clout as a film star was never larger. Perhaps he arrived on the scene half a generation too late after the likes of Clift and Newman.

When we think of Vincente Minnelli at his most quintessential, it always entails musicals with lavish set designs and costumes. But more generally, he was fully adept at examining familial relationships and two of his best, and subsequently underrated efforts, are Some Came Running and Home from the Hill. What becomes apparent in this one is a sensitivity pervading even the potentially callous material.

Rafe is one vehicle, so pleasant and loyal — completely void of the malice or entitlement others are clouded with. His life is never defined by his bad breaks, but by the contentment he finds in his current reality, gradually carving out a fine life for himself.

Minnelli takes care with all his characters cultivating their romances on the screen into quantifiable entities even as it ties your guts in knots by the end. Because it goes out with some sense of family and a reaffirmation of relationship even on the rocky Texas soil of this picture.

There are so many avenues of rancor cropping up on all sides, it almost seems unbearable. Yet when it’s all said and done, with the drama and hate and killing, Home from The Hill hints at some semblance of peace.

4/5 Stars

On The Beach (1959): Peck, Gardner, Astaire, Perkins, and Apocalypse

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I recall my dad sharing a recollection about On The Beach. Back when it came out he went to the drive-in with his family, and they took in the movie. He fell asleep part of the way through only to wake up and the movie was still going. While not necessarily a profound observation, the film is unequivocally long. For some, it will verge on the doldrums, especially for a story about the end of the world.

However, I am tempted to like it for some of the creative decisions it chooses (and in my father’s defense, he never said he outright disliked the movie). It acts as one of the first prominent films detailing the aftermath of a nuclear war. Also, unlike many of its contemporaries, it leads with a cold open closeup on Gregory Peck’s face as he commands a submarine. The camera is quick to maneuver through the space showing us all the levers and nobs with shipmen scurrying around carrying out their various duties.

It’s already a different feel than something like Run Silent, Run Deep (1958). We can actually breathe because there is no suffocating atmosphere to speak of. That’s what makes the emptiness of the space on the outside so startling. It’s almost too open; it’s all but void of meaningful life except for small envoys existing far enough away from the disaster zones.

Conceptually, the apocalyptic near-future is an intriguing world to come to terms with, just as it is frightening. Because it’s a hybrid society still existing in the world and only time will tell if it can subsist.

We familiarize ourselves with a segment of humanity now living in Australia, and America seems to be decimated. Everyone refers continually to “These Days” — it implies the allowances made in such extreme circumstances. People cannot go on living the way they always did, and things formerly unheard can happen without so much as a bat of an eye.

Shortage leads to a random assemblage of old and new technology to get by. For transportation, electric trains and horse-drawn carriages have a function. And yet for amusement, folks still have beach days soaking in the sun as if nothing is awry. It seems like small consolation for the 5-month expiration date being put on the world.

At first glance, On The Beach doesn’t seem to be about much. It’s really about one major event scattered with the residuals of human relationships. One of our main players is Commander Dwight Towers (Gregory Peck), a widower who lost his family to the catastrophe while he was on duty. Currently, he has come to Melbourne to receive a briefing from Admiral Bridie (John Tate) on what they might possibly do next.

Struggling with survivor’s guilt, Towers strikes up an intimate relationship with one Moira Davidson (Ava Gardner). A radio signal originating in San Diego calls him back to the sea, and he heads out, unsure if he will ever see her again — yet another person he must reluctantly say au revoir to.

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Anthony Perkins fits into the story as a younger version of Towers, Lieutenant Peter Holmes. He still clings onto his young family while worrying about what might happen to their slice of marital bliss. Because she is less-remembered, I am apt to especially be interested in Donna Anderson who gives a sincere performance as his wife (though it starts to unravel as the clock ticks). Mary cannot bear the implications of their society, as they have a newborn and with her husband away, there will be no telling what will happen to them. It unhinges her.

The most ominous shot during the voyage is an eerily empty Golden Gate Bridge, indicative of the entire West Coast. It’s literally dead. When they finally arrive in San Diego, it proves to be a near ludicrous dead-end involving a window shade and a coke bottle. Even Yankee know-how wasn’t able to avoid utter destruction.

It occurs to me On The Beach is not trying to exploit the situation, but it is using the backdrop to say something as Stanley Kramer always tried to do with his pictures. While he’s not the most virtuoso of filmmakers, his intentions are always upfront, which is admirable.

The director always aligned himself with fine acting talent even affording a trio of former musical stars shots at dramatic parts to reshape their prospective images. That in itself takes unwavering vision. In this one, Fred Astaire gets his chance as the hard-drinking, chain-smoking, acerbic scientist Julian Osborn. You’ve rarely seen him this way before. Whether it entirely suits him is relatively beside the point. Gene Kelly and Judy Garland would follow in a pair of uncharacteristic departures in Inherit the Wind (1960) and Judgment at Nuremberg (1961).

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Whereas the source novel apparently laid out who was to blame, the film develops a level of senselessness because no one — even those holding the highest clearance levels — seems to know how the tripwire was set off. They can only speak to their current reality. It makes an already disturbing situation a little more unsettling since there is a sense of universal ambiguity.

The questions linger. Might it have been an accidental mistake leading to the annihilation of our entire world, people all but expunged from the surface of the earth? It’s a chilling thing to begin admitting. Julian (Fred Astaire) is forced to acknowledge he doesn’t know.

It could have been some bloke who thought he saw something on a radar screen knowing if he hesitated his people would be obliterated. If this were the case, he would have only succeeded in setting off the dominoes. In fact, this nearly happened in real life one fateful day on September 6, 1983, to Stanislav Petrov, though he chose to wait, and it proved to be a faulty signal from his equipment.

It’s evident mutually assured destruction is a horrible system to wager on. And once you are past the point of no return, the apocalypse is a horrifying entity if there is no sense of hope. Most films must choose between inevitable doom versus some kind of hope.

In the waning days, we are antsy for finality, and it makes you realize just what the circumstances bring out. Waiting around for the end of the world sounds awful. And yet On The Beach manages to land the dismount even if the interim is slow-moving. True, there aren’t a flurry of events and there are a few asides — like Astaire winning the Grand Prix — which feel slightly superfluous to an impartial observer.

However, again, some kind of statement is being put to the fore, more nuanced than we might initially give it credit for, if not altogether succinct. It’s not simply an alarmist diatribe but there is a sobering urgency to it. The film foregoes the austere religiosity of the street preachers for something perceived to be much warmer.

Ava Garner standing on the shore, kerchief waving in the breeze, watching the receding figure of Gregory Peck on the deck of his sub is the movie’s indelible image. We need people around us to love and be loved by. Of course, some ill-advised individuals (myself included) live their everyday lives just waiting around for something. Hopefully, it doesn’t take nuclear devastation to kick our lives into overdrive.

3.5/5 Stars

Transit (2018): Casablanca in The Modern Day

Transit_(2018_film)Ever since the days of his James Cain-infused Jerichow, it’s been apparent German writer-director Christian Petzold is indebted to the written word when it comes to his brand of filmmaking. However, this time around he takes an oddly unnerving stroke of brilliance by setting his usual period piece in a version of the present, or is it a version of the present trapped in the past? Regardless, outside police cars — sounding eerily similar to Gestapo automobiles — rush through the streets while a pair of men have a hushed conference at a bar.

The scenario could nearly be mistaken for a dystopia if it weren’t for the cold hard facts the story was adapted from Anna Seghers eponymous wartime novel from 1944. What drives it forward is this compelling simplicity in the manner Petzold always seems so capable of. It’s part of the reason it’s so easy to be drawn into his films once you’re accustomed to the cadence.

The men bandy about talk of a letter and papers giving the hush-hush feel of a Casablanca, but Transit has the same restraint as Barbara (2012) and the wartime malaise of Phoenix (2014), albeit without the inimitable Nina Hoss. Georg (an unadorned yet haunting Franz Rogowski) is our protagonist, and we surmise soon enough he is on the lam from the authorities. Like many others, he has experienced the unknowable horrors of mechanized oppression.

He lives in a constant state of police-fueled paranoia brought on by the occupation, the details of which are kept purposefully murky. What we note are the resulting factors. The hotels are crammed with displaced folks trying to get out of the country, clinging to the faint wisp of hope in escaping to some far off place: the port of Marsellaise then Mexico or maybe America.

He is one of the displaced even as he’s aided in fleeing by cattle car and has a wounded colleague huddled next to him. It gives rise to the kind of pulse-pounding life or death scenarios reliant on both ingenuity and bouts of good fortune. It’s also perturbing to watch them unfold in the present.

His flight leads him to an abandoned roadside where he’s nevertheless invited to play football (soccer) with a precocious neighborhood kid named Driss. They build an instant rapport and their connections run deeper still, as we soon find out.

Whenever Georg stays within the confines of the city limits, he’s subject to the related police raids casing each room. If you don’t have your papers, you’re unceremoniously dragged away. By now it’s a daily occurrence. What becomes apparent is the rising sense of shame among the onlookers who watch and do nothing. What power do they have in such a world?

Georg lends a reluctant ear to fellow sojourners telling him their stories. Everyone seems weighed down by worries and troubles brought on by the tribulations of the times. They’re surprisingly forthcoming or rather they seem vociferous compared to individuals in Petzold’s previous movies. Although another distinction must be made.

His hero is fairly guarded as are a couple of the other central figures. It is the supporting characters who gladly use them as sounding boards to cast their thoughts on in this restless age. Even the narrator — an uncommon device for Petzold’s brand of restrained observational filmmaking — has his own insights to bring to the events.

The key again is how those central characters carry a bit of this pervasive despondency — this enigmatic nature holding us off but not completely alienating us. On the contrary, we want to know more about them as viewers transfixed by the fateful decisions they make and the encounters that befall them.

To begin with, Georg falls into a bit of luck donning the identity of a deceased writer and with it, the coveted opportunity at transit out of the country. The deceased man’s wife (Paula Beer) is a woman who drifts uncannily through his life throwing him glances as she motors on about her dutiful pursuits. What they are we have no idea. Although, with time, it’s easy enough to imagine.

That’s just it. Petzold is always toying with the arcane both in plot and characters because it’s in the ambiguities where his stories seem to come alive. It could be the first glance of the smartly dressed young woman on the street who touches Georg’s shoulder when the whole rest of the passing world seems not to pay him any heed. He’s invisible. And yet for some inexplicable reason — some cinematic kismet — she reaches out to him.

True, for the majority of the picture, it feels like she spends the movie walking in and out of places to build this air of mystique. Is she more of an object than a person? It’s easy to cry foul if only for the comfort of Petzold’s earlier collaborations with Nina Hoss. A mystifying woman put front and center can still stump us. What’s more, in the final act Marie becomes a living, breathing human being of fears and passions that turn strikingly palpable.

After she lost contact with her husband, she never gave up hope checking the consulate every day for any sign of news. Along the road, she was given a kind turn by an altruistic physician (Godehard Giese), and in a bedeviling world, they looked to one another for some amount of solace.

Their Rick’s Cafe becomes a corner pizzeria. Georg would always eat a Margherita there and find Marie stopping by. Later it becomes a meeting place with Richard — so mundane and typical, and yet it fits the context of the story.

As we find out, noble decisions aren’t so cut and dry here; they’re not capable of making our heart swell in the same romantic manner of Casablanca. We are constantly left questioning. What if the matrimonial ties aren’t so strong and beholden to the Hays Codes? What if Ilsa or Laszlo decided to stay behind at the last minute, making a grand sacrificial act null and void. What if the plane crashed en route? After all, the very thing happened to Glenn Miller over the English channel in 1944…

Speaking of music, it’s been so very long since I’ve seen Phoenix. Aside from the Vertiginous thematic elements and this same lingering sense of malaise, it seems I remember very little. It’s the impression that lasts and one scene — the scene where Nina Hoss sings “Speak Low” to her husband — imbued with so much subtext and bewitching power.

Down the road, years from now, the same lapses might happen with Transit. But I will remember the mood, this very concrete Casablanca-like mentality, and then another song. In a similar manner, the normally delphic Georg has a breach in character and shares the lullaby his mother used to sing to him. Hearing it on the radio brings the memory flooding back.

Or perhaps I will recall the other moment when, impersonating another man, he tells the consulate officer he’s done writing after all he’s seen. He wrote too many essays in school about vacations, holidays, and experiences to totally quash and trivialize everything substantive about those times.

To write about the atrocities he faced would be akin to that same sin. He’s not about to write another school essay. Even as the lines are spoken under an assumed identity, the words once more ring with an underlying resonance to denote a shared world.

The chilling edge of Transit is how it brings these obvious markers of the Holocaust into this out of body representation of our certain present. They feel poles apart until that creeping voice whispers doubts in the back of our minds. This is what I will remember. This is what will stay with me.

4/5 Stars