Little Women (2019): Gerwig’s Spirited Adaptation of An American Classic

Little_Women_(2019_film)I once had the opportunity to tour Louisa May Alcott’s house on a family vacation. It’s one of those experiences I’m not sure you appreciate until you have the time and space to look back on it.

However, even then I think there was this innate understanding of how this beloved book was sewn into the very fabric of Alcott’s life and her family home in Concord, Massachusetts. You cannot begin to separate the two.

What’s so intriguing about Greta Gerwig’s adaptation is how it almost conducts an intertextual dialogue with the source material. It frames its story — the creation of a novel and its main character of Jo March (Saoirse Ronan) — in order to map out something of Alcott’s life too. Because, again, they are very much intertwined. 

From what little I know about her, she seemed an equally driven, independent, and brilliantly-minded individual. In her own life, she never got married (unlike her characters) and she also provided for her family.

The movie itself has a brazen free-flowing structure taking material some of us might know intimately (and others not quite so well) and finding renewed meaning. To explore plot feels inconsequential — and not just because it is so familiar — Little Women is, by its very nature, anecdotal. It’s about the passage of time as girls evolve into women without ever being totally beholden to any singular event. 

If I might make a wildly unsubstantiated reference it comes off a bit like Francois Truffaut’s Jules et Jim (1961), at least in form, where wild expanses of time are chopped up and compressed into these fluid increments. It feels like a young person’s version of an old person’s book. It courts the timelessness already present but, far from being stodgy, the movie burst with its own vigor, always lithe on its feet.

But this also funnels down to the staging and characterizations as well. Especially for the scenes set during their early years, it’s obvious the writer-director tries to capture the near-spontaneous, giddy energy that’s often the fuel of sisterhood. It can be an overwhelming force of nature full of emotion, affection, and contention in all the most meaningful of ways.

Even as someone with only a modicum amount of knowledge about Little Women (mostly from previous movie versions) Greta Gerwig shows such an immense appreciation for the material, she almost willfully carries us along with her. Even when we’re not quite sure what she’s doing or where she’s taking us, we learn to trust her decisions. If nothing else, she cares about these characters as much if not more than we do.

It’s true her version starts in what is normally considered the end of the narrative, as it slaloms back and forth from past to present with ease. All the moments, as far as I can recall, have antecedents in earlier versions, but as Gerwig stitches them together, it’s as if they are rejuvenated and given rebirth — a new context in which to be understood.

Perhaps the greatest accomplishment is how each sister in this newly minted construction is given their own definition and the ability to stand on their own two feet. Because, if you recall, Jo March has always been the undisputed star of these movies; she has provided the central protagonist and P.O.V. from which to understand these stories. If we are to believe Gerwig, Jo essentially wrote them after all.

There’s no denying Saoirse Ronan is our through-line in the narrative here as well amid all its undulations and purposeful digressions, and yet it feels like I get to appreciate the other March girls in ways I never have before. I don’t think it has much to do with star power — because traditionally there have been big names in most of the roles. Again, it is Gerwig who gives each a platform and her players graciously oblige.

Florence Pugh modulates wonderfully between moments of girlish cattiness and whining while simultaneously setting her eyes on mature ambitions, whether it be marriage as an advantageous business proposition or aspiring to be a great artist taken to Paris by Aunt March.

Far from simply capturing the past and the present of Amy, Pugh somehow makes the most complicated, even unlikable sister come out, in the end, gaining our deepest admirations (and sympathies). For those unaware of Pugh’s talent, it stands as yet another breakout performance.  

Emma Watson is able as the decent and contented Meg whose life still spills out of the mold of propriety she’s always been relegated to. There’s a bit more to her. Then Amy (Eliza Scanlen) remains the gifted musician and somehow the purest and most naive of them all. Her purpose is to fill the world with goodness and beauty. Some things never change.

Marmy (Laura Dern) — the family’s moral anchor — might come off an angelic goody two shoes quoting scripture judiciously (ie: “Don’t let the sun go down on your anger”). It could be a little much, that is until you realize her love is genuine, and she’s worked on it for an entire lifetime. Meryl Streep could probably play Aunt March in her sleep, and it’s not just a figure of speech; she does. Her performance is generally prickly and imperious while also belying a suspected soft underbelly. 

Laurie (Timothee Chalamet), as always, is found on the outside looking in at the March’s household. Their brand of enveloping community is so attractive you yearn to be a part of it, drawn into the fold as one of their kindred. After obliging with a token of his good-will, he quips “man is not made to live on books alone.”

In truth, I’ve never appreciated Chalamet more. There always seemed to be a pretentiousness drawn about him. Here there was something a bit different. It might have been the merit of Laurie teasing it out, but he felt slightly more animated and alive in a way that makes him likable. Although he is a man bred in affluent spheres, he nevertheless, hates their stuffiness.

He would rather dance a jig with Jo, and he calls out the March sisters when they falter into the general public’s pettiness because he knows the people they really are in the familiarity of their own home. In fact, he has tussles with nearly every sister, but never out of malice; there’s always such genuine care, even love, in its multifaceted forms. 

What I truly appreciate about Gerwig’s relationship with the text is how she openly courts contrasting ideas. Specifically, there are threads of feminism coursing through the narrative even as they extrapolate off ideas Alcott dealt with years ago.

And yet in the same instance, she does not shy away or completely dismiss romantic love or a more traditional desire for marriage. Case and point is Meg who is genuinely glad to be courted by a decent man she loves before raising a family together, in spite of their poverty. For Meg, this life fills her up with joy

So in some sense, Gerwig’s having her cake and eating it too paying deference to a timeless piece of American Literature while still perceiving it through her own personal creative lens.

You might say this even from a casting perspective with Ronan, Chalamet, and Tracy Letts all being holdovers from Lady Bird (2017). It might be the importance placed on female relationships, or the buoyancy frolicking with a sweeping passion through the storyline.

We get the happy ending if we so choose while also being allowed the space to consider an alternative. It doesn’t feel wishy-washy. Instead, it’s engaged with the enigma of Louis May Alcott herself even as it’s engaged with the process of creating art.

For me, it has the best of both worlds. Little Women has not been compromised and yet we have not been gipped of Gerwig’s own cinematic vivacity. While it’s not a perfect adaptation — not always intuitive to follow — it never scrimps on life-giving vitality.

You can note the humanity in profound new ways mined from a novel that’s been culled through and cherished for generations. I’ve never believed Little Women was a “women’s picture” or just for an American audience.  It is, in fact, universal. 

4/5 Stars

Arabesque (1966) with Gregory Peck and Sophia Loren

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I was trying to recall if the actual word “arabesque” was ever uttered in the movie. Granted, in a narrative like this, it’s just as easy for something to fly over your head. There’s comparable lingo bandied about pertaining to ciphers and hieroglyphs, mentioned in the context of coded messages and bits of secret information. You can hardly have an international spy thriller without such prerequisites, and yet this isn’t the fun of it.

Nor is it a foreign prime minister’s plight or the dubious intentions of a peregrine falcon-loving mastermind who holds a ravishingly beautiful woman in house arrest (in all cases Middle Easterners are played by Westerners). Because for any such story, the lasting enjoyment comes in the road traveled and the people we get to follow along with through every twist and turn.

It’s the saving grace of Arabesque, a movie with an overhauled and doctored script tinkered on by many hands including Peter Stone (writer of the similar Charade and Mirage). All this work produced a simultaneously mind-boggling and messy plotline. It doesn’t take a genius to recognize the particulars barely add up.

All that must be know is Professor David Pollock (Gregory Peck) finds himself on the run from any number of villains, all with their own selfish, nefarious schemes to employ. At the center of this sinister web of mayhem is an alluring spy (Sophia Loren) who is constantly switching and shape-shifting under every given circumstance. Our protagonist doesn’t quite know what to do with her.

One might note Arabesque has another memorable shower scene after Charade’s. However, this rendition is decidedly more awkward and tense as Pollock finds himself under the hospitality of a sinister man, and Yasmin Azir (Loren) is under his watchful gaze as well. They wind up playing footsies with the soap in an effort not to raise suspicion.

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Arabesque tries to make it extremely evident all this peril is being thrust upon our heroes as they travel through the heart of Britain. It can be little more than a nod to The Master of Suspense to have our characters running through first a zoo and then a local aquarium, recalling the museum pieces in Blackmail (1929). There’s even an overt nod to North by Northwest, complete with cornfields, this time patrolled by deadly threshers instead of a crop duster.

Stanley Donen’s solution to the so-so storyline is to do just about anything he can to mix things up with kaleidoscope prism shots, angles through glass tables, reflections, unique framing, and on and on. In one sense, it is inventive, but there’s no unified purpose to it. It feels precisely like he’s trying to do whatever he can to distract from the material when it gets dull. Of course, the fact that this is the 1960s doesn’t hurt the aesthetic with enough drugs and hallucinations to pass the decade’s quotas.

In one particularly otherworldly vision, Peck becomes a hallucinogenic bullfighter on the motorways causing a major traffic jam. It adds little to the plot, but it certainly creates an impression. Still, I’m not sure if the merits of form over substance apply in this situation, even if Donen is ceaselessly creative. It gets to be almost too much. It could easily verge on out-and-out camp — considering the ludicrous nature of scenes — though it knuckles down when it matters most. An assassination plot must be averted, and it does offer a decent payoff in the thrills department.

Peck admittedly feels a bit miscast, although this could just as easily be my subconscious speaking since Cary Grant was earmarked for the role. Because one can imagine, even with his advanced years, Cary could have pulled off the wit marvelously. God love him, but Peck is almost too regal, and he has too much presence if that can possibly be an impediment. Sometimes it’s difficult to take him lightly. He does make an admirable go of it and the hint of Indy, an educator by trade, does not hurt his image.

Sophia Loren is absolutely scintillating carrying scenes with her usual poise owning every line and effortlessly building the needed chemistry with Peck, even as she sends him bouncing all over the place. He needs her for this picture to work, and she delivers.

When it ends, there’s some amount of contentment. Not because we saw a perfect movie by any means or even anything quite on par with Hitchcock or Sean Connery’s Bond, but we got to spend some quality time full of mayhem with two sublime personalities. It is all worthwhile because Peck and Loren are together.

After all, who wouldn’t want to swim in Oxfordshire with them? Maybe the days haven’t quite left us entirely, but I do crave more pictures that could coast on the charisma of their stars. Without question, Arabesque overrides its flaws through sheer star power.

3/5 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

Yesterday (2019): How I Longed for a Bit More

Yesterday_(2019_poster)The majority of movies have to fight to earn our allegiance. However, Yesterday really does have a foolproof premise because, from the outset, it can bank on a viewership who will already have memories crowded with the Beatles and as the Fab Four play a key role in the story, you already have a huge cross-section of humanity as a potential fanbase.

Then, for good measure, you have Ed Sheeran for any of the younger folks who might not be old enough to remember the good old days. If its goal was to come out a little better than even, it would almost be there before the movie began. Although this might be too cynical an outlook for such a delightfully sentimental endeavor like this, and Sheeran is actually quite likable having a go at playing himself.

Regardless, Yesterday is the definition of a high concept storyline. Imagine something like this. You woke up tomorrow, after a freak of nature, and you were the only person in the world who knew The Beatles. All credibility aside, it does tickle one’s fancy and Danny Boyle and Richard Curtis work accordingly during some of the movie’s best bits.

There are endless possibilities to explore including other pop cultural staples also getting disrupted in a similar vein. The film chooses a few that feel completely arbitrary but no less enjoyable: cigarettes, Coca Cola, Oasis, and you guessed it, Harry Potter.

The other component a Beatles saturated audience will appreciate is Jack Malik’s (Himesh Patel) daily struggles to drum up all the lyrics to tunes like “Eleanor Rigby.” Because, of course, he doesn’t have the safety net of the internet to help him recall “she was picking up rice in the church” or that “Father McKenzie was “darning his socks in a nigh where there’s nobody there.” He must go at it — quite comically — by trial and error.

In this way, Yesterday manages to touch the surface of its potential though it admittedly doesn’t feel complete — at least in a satisfying manner. Granted, I only feel an obligation to point this out since it proves such an agreeable film, directed by a veteran like Danny Boyle, that also happens to be bolstered by the catalog of the greatest band of all-time.

Richard Curtis remains the great British romantic, and we see this throughout the movie. It always seems to be his greatest asset and also his major undoing. In his favor, Patel and Lily James have an unadorned if altogether amiable chemistry. There’s little legwork to get us to like them, and so we can cheer for them unabashedly.

We can say much the same about their peanut gallery (including Sheeran), although there are a few misses. Their roadie Rocky ups the oddball quota as the dysfunctional sidekick while Kate McKinnon, a particularly irksome American road manager, feels like less of a much-needed antagonist and more of a pale imitation to lampoon a self-possessed music industry.

The core romance is a crucial piece, but it felt like it might have come off more substantially had there been more supplementary elements. I can think of a couple areas going beyond simply playing with the new reality more extensively. Themes of fame, art, and authorship in a generation drunk of social media, 15 minutes of fame, and remixes also come to mind. We start to see how it impacts Jack, but it never feels like it gets to its fully-realized potential.

The closest I can come to explaining it is the fact Yesterday never earns its Groundhog Day finale. Because, like Phill Connors, Jack is given an extraordinary power — in this case the Beatles’ catalog — but it never feels like he reaches the same depths of despair before he is granted his revelation and the love of his life.

It feels like Yesterday takes liberties or short cuts with its story, since it thinks we already understand, and instead of wanting it to go anywhere more challenging, we’re here for the music (which isn’t entirely false).

Whereas Jack is only one individual, what made the Beatles was the fact there were four of them. He sings the whole catalog and yet they belong to this group who rode the wave of Beatlemania, fame, critical success, and impending discontentment together.

Malik does get a brief moment with two people who at least share the same knowledge he has and yet in all other regards, he’s by himself as a singer-songwriter. We never really comprehend what one would imagine is the sheer debilitating weight of loneliness in its full force.

I am intrigued by Jack Barth’s original story and where it might have taken the conceit. Logistics or licensing aside, what it Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr actually did come out of the woodwork to oust the imposter (instead of merely being teased in the James Corden dream sequence).

What if the two Beatles fan who actually did still remember the old songs came not bearing olive branches in the form of a yellow submarine, but some malicious intent? It’s not much and yet would it have at least given Jack more hurtles to work past?

As is, a lot of the movie feels like clip shows featuring montages played to iconic tracks. It’s easy enough to get away with it because the songs are beautiful, Patel is charismatic and a fine vocalist and nothing else ever ruins the mood.

SPOILER ALERT: What could be better than bringing John Lennon back from the dead to share a bit of sage advice to the pilgriming stranger he doesn’t know? He feels like a wonderfully insignificant man of 78 living a peaceful life of contented solitude. It’s another agreeable invention.

And yet, if I’m honest, I’d rather listen to McCartney’s own remembrance “Here Today.” Then, instead of seeing Jack go gallivanting around Liverpool for inspiration or trying to fake to Ed how he was inspired to write “Hey Jude,” I’d rather see Paul return to his roots with James Corden in Car Pool Karaoke.

That’s it isn’t it? The Beatles are so much about context and what we bring to them. In one way, Yesterday works so well because even the titular track allows us to wax nostalgic by tapping into what we carry with us.

But it can’t quite get us over the hump, because it is an imitation; it is not the real thing, and part of what makes these songs great is where they come from and the lads who brought them into the world. Their fingerprints are all over every one and so history is not some plug-and-chug phenomenon where any four fellows could have been stuck together to become the Beatles.

Jack realizes something along these lines, which is part of the reason he makes the final decision he does — to crowdsource them, in a sense. But for the sake of the movie, there’s nothing to be done about it. We’ve spent the entire film listening to a stand-in, though the love story does leave us some breadcrumbs to pick up and feel warm and fuzzy about.

It was partially a joke when I told myself the end credits were the best part, but I got to listen to the real “Hey Jude” for seven glorious minutes. There’s nothing that can beat that. If you’re a Beatles fan with a generous streak Yesterday might very well be an unmitigated delight. There’s a lot to like. Whether it’s entirely greedy or not, I found myself wanting a bit more.

3/5 Stars

Love in The Afternoon (1957): The Wilder Touch

220px-Love_in_the_afternoon_(1957)_-_movie_poster.jpgBilly Wilder, more than any screenwriter I’ve ever known, has a knack for voiceover narration. What other novices consider a crutch to feed us information, he uses as an asset to set tone, story, and location, while offsetting the image with the spoken word.

Take the beginning of Love in The Afternoon, for instance. The voice is unmistakable. The place too. The tone, typical Wilder. We are given a tour of the Left Bank, The Right Bank, and in the in-between, where men and women can be seen in the throes of “amour,” as it were.

The presence of Maurice Chevalier is unquestionably a nod to Wilder’s hero Ernst Lubitsch who utilized the dashing Frenchmen in many of his most successful operettas. Now, although graduating to a more mature part, he nevertheless maintains a similar persona. He is suave, charming, and still embroiled in romantic trysts, albeit on the outside looking in, literally — as a highly adept private investigator.

Already in the opening sequence, although this might be the closest Wilder ever got to his idol in content, it becomes obvious their definitive styles could not be more diametrically opposed. “The Lubitsch Touch” was very much trying to put a name to an impeccable sense of visualizing comic situations with a kind of shorthand, provided the audience is in on the joke as well. Not that Lubitsch’s work with screenwriter Samson Raphaelson lacked verbal wit or that the younger filmmaker’s oeuvre lacked visual flair. Far from it.

However, Wilder’s style is predominantly devoted to the written word, imbuing the comic situations with a bite and wittiness, which under other circumstances might be stale. The beauty is one approach is not inherently better than the other and as time has been fairly good to both men, it’s needless to pick favorites (though I do love Wilder).

John McGiver, by all accounts, is in his debut, but he’s got the flustered British husband down, fully intent on finishing off his rival who has stolen away his wife from him. He called on the services of Claude Chavasse (Chevalier), and the man’s almost too successful.

Legendary international playboy extraordinaire Frank Flannagan (Gary Cooper) almost ends up shot to bits, if not for Chavasse’s own daughter. His pride and joy, Arianne (Audrey Hepburn), is currently attending a music conservatory, and her father has kept her shielded from his sordid work life. This has hardly kept her from sneaking into his files and being enraptured by the romantic trysts and fairytale romances found within his records.

The cream of the crop is Flannagan who is experienced in the ways of the world and romancing — an attractive existence she can only dream of. It tickles her fancy and so she goes to save him. It’s her good deed, to allow his life to continue as is.

One invaluable component of his seduction is the four-piece ensemble “The Gypsies” and their tune “Fascination” becomes a bit of a code word for the certain je ne sais quoi that happens between two people caught up in passion.

Billy Wilder has an equally astute ability in using music to punctuate his comedy through frenzied strings, featured in everything from Love in The Afternoon to Some Like it Hot and One, Two, Three. If those tactics don’t quite pan out, he inserts a handy bit of Americana like Mickey Mantle’s batting average.

The greatest development in this rom-com occurs when Flannagan finds himself enthralled by the peculiar girl who wound up on his balcony and saved his neck. She is so sensitive, a wisp of a girl, so different than the women he has known before. He also knows very little about her but desires to entertain her along with his other conquests.

Not to be outdone, Ariane strives to play a part worthy of his reputation. She takes on the facade of a femme fatale with rows of lovers of her own to rattle off in her dictaphone for his bemusement — completely turning the tables on him. Truthfully, she couldn’t be more in love with him, but she suspects a man of his reputation is not quick to change his womanizing ways.

Before getting to the goods, it seems necessary to mention the elephant in the room. Gary Cooper was about 56 years old when this picture came out, and Audrey Hepburn was 28. Just looking at the numbers makes one cringe a bit, and the most uncomfortable thing is how it shows up onscreen.

I do adore Audrey Hepburn. She’s so innocently sweet with the same demure eloquence and pristine diction exhibited in every one of her pictures. Crawling around in her elegant attire looking for her lost shoe is as endearing as any moment she has. It makes us appreciate her all the more. Because she is so very lovable.  And Gary Cooper is usually fine — everyone knows him as the 20th-century representation of All-American manhood — but together it does feel a bit stiff and uninspired.

Our star does his best but he was never a romantic comedy lead in the manner Cary Grant was. There you have part of his problem. Because even the two Lubitsch comedies he appeared in — Design for Living and Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife — were hardly the preeminent offerings from either man.

In some cases, one plus one does not always add up sufficiently. Although it’s the greats who often transcend such equations to give us something of exponential worth. Unfortunately, Cooper plus Hepburn is fine but never enters any purely magical, uncharted territory. Like she did with Gregory Peck or maybe even Cary Grant. It’s not simply a matter of the uncomfortable age discrepancies. It has to do with out and out compatibility.

There is another major qualm too. Namely the mammoth length of the narrative seemingly dragging leaden in the middle. Because it relies on the chemistry of our leads more than any other element or supporting character, the subsequent weaknesses become all the more evident.

However, you might remember a few years after starring with Audrey Hepburn, Cary Grant had one of his first non-romantic rolls playing matchmaker in Walk, Don’t Run. Maybe it’s a thankless job, but without the piece (seen also from Charles Coburn on occasion) you would not have the glue to hold the movie together. Here Maurice Chevalier swoops in lithely again to bring the story to its closure.

He puts the ball in Cooper’s court, to evoke an American sporting metaphor, giving the man his daughter is in love with the license to play with the dramatic irony. Their relationship is only resolved in the last possible moment. In the nick of time, Frank Flannagan saves his reputation — maybe he’s not a bad sort after all — though the final kiss is still a bit disconcerting. (What I wouldn’t give for Jack Lemmon right about now.)

We can concede Love in The Afternoon comes in for a final landing tying everything together along those two lines, with the Parisian passion shrouded by the Wilder malaise and yet supplied a touch of tearful sentimentality. In the end, Ariane and Frank spend a life sentence together of the best sort. If you’ve been in love you know what it’s like. You don’t need this movie to show you.

3.5/5 Stars

They All Laughed (1980): Peter Bogdanovich’s Melancholy Screwball

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A version of this review was published over at Film Inquiry.

I recently watched an interview between Peter Bogdanovich and Wes Anderson reminiscing about the film. One of the most striking suggestions is the inferred sadness in “They All Laughed.” It takes its title from a song but while we think of laughing as an action full of joy, the past tense of the word sets it off. It is something transient — bound to change at any time. Unwittingly it becomes the perfect encapsulation of this most intimate project.

To describe it as a private investigator infused screwball romance is merely confining it to typical genre fare. Realistically, it is none of the above. At least not in the sense we might expect.

We have to play catch up with most of the story although we do settle in eventually. What helps are not only the characters but the actors themselves who are of a generally affable breed. We like getting to know them even when we don’t quite grasp their circumstances.

Also lets clear this up. This is not What’s Up, Doc? (1972). It’s lacking all the goofy witticisms of screenwriter Buck Henry or the wonderfully epic set pieces. Many have probably written it off because of this; furthermore, it was not very commercially successful upon its initial release (this must come with an asterisk).

However, They All Laughed is a surprisingly good-natured effort and some of the same cadence can be found, especially in Charles (John Ritter) and Christy’s (Coleen Camp) conversations, mirroring Howard and Eunice from the earlier picture. Names are swapped with every other sentence while their patter is frantic and harried in a similar manner.

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Is it wrong to see a bit of Robert Altman’s Nashville (1975) in between the lines as well? Perhaps it’s the obvious strain of country music that cuts through the New York scene, of all places. If anything, it is a condensed version of the former film shot on the streets of New York with a skeleton crew and fewer actors. The same fresh near-improvisational feel is present with interweaving narratives.

Camp probably gets her best scenes not with dialogue but when she’s singing and simultaneously giving people wandering by an evil eye or a wink of acknowledgment. Like The Last Picture Show, we have another musical collage of classics composed of Jazz tunes of Benny Goodman, Louis Armstrong, and Sinatra with the more earthy diction of Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings. It just works.

It’s not executed in the same fashion as Nashville, with fewer moving parts and lacking the same brand of weighty commentary underneath the humor but nevertheless, there’s something here. It’s memorable just for the characters and moments and themes of love Bogdanovich seems to be having a grand old time playing around with.

The relatively plotless meanderings might test the patience of some viewers, but if your itching for authentic views of New York and a handful of hi-jinks and neurotic characterizations, you will get some.

Ben Gazzara is the quintessential dashing philanderer who holds something quietly mischievous in his eyes while still providing a sense of regret. He has two young girls from his first marriage and rarely sees them. We understand the scenario.

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John Ritter exerts his comedic chops as a gutless private eye on a tail. From a purely visual likeness, he can easily be seen as a stand-in for our director who was himself in love with Dorothy Stratten. Like Antoine Doinel’s attempts at private-eyeing, he seems like a hopeless case, but once again, the film is hardly about his day job. Nor is it about Gazzara, another P.I., or their partner in crime, the frizzy-haired, roller skating, joint -smoking pick-up artist Arthur (Blaine Novak).

It’s all merely a pitch-perfect excuse to further complicate the scenario by throwing all sorts of situations together. And if there are glimpses of Doinel in Ritter, by transitive property there must be Tati-like scenarios as well, not least among them positioning the viewers on the outside looking in at apartment buildings seemingly made entirely of glass.

Like the worlds of these French filmmakers (Jacques Demy included), the version of New York depicted here verges on the most agreeable of romantic fantasies where relationships are forged in meaningful even momentary encounters. There is a sense of preordained fate wafting through the air even as a wistful malaise lingers too.

Dorothy Stratten manages to be an ethereal beauty of simultaneous youth and maturity. Bogdanovich’s obvious affection for her is on display in every scene she is in front of the camera.  Meanwhile, Patti Hansen — Mrs. Keith Richards — has a part to play as “Sam” the cabbie, which is no less charming. It does appear as the world is made up of attractive women although she is someone with a different type of experience. She’s been around and you cannot phase her. There’s something simultaneously charming and disarming about her self-assured confidence.

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But, of course, I must save the best (subjectively speaking) for last — it’s time to talk about Audrey — who gets top billing, understandably so. Though I barely recognized her at first behind her shades, she still maintains the same congenial elegance, even in eighties attire. If anything she’s more grounded. Somehow she almost doesn’t belong but she didn’t belong in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961) either and yet her warmth made the movie special.

In fact, it struck me momentarily, this picture is a full 20 years after Tiffany’s and New York, while it has evolved, still holds a nostalgia about it. Because looking back in time with rose-colored glasses, we cannot help seeing it in such a light — not like the grungy, noisy dump of the here and now.

With every one of these characters, there manages to be utterly transparent shades of reality. The details are there if you’re willing to look at them in the most personal light possible. It’s a prime case of when real life seeps into fiction and they feed into each other in a continuous loop. Where one ends the other seems to begin and vice versa.

Take each character and examine their reality and see what sings with the sound of truth. I think Bogdanovich would heartily acknowledge the best films and the best actors are in some way, shape, and form audaciously personal — in this way, they bear something and offer it to the audience.

But even in its themes of infidelity, heartache, and loneliness, They All Laughed somehow manages to cling to the humor found in its title. There is a pervasive conviviality that might feel counter-intuitive to both our plot and the location our story takes place. But it’s indisputably light.

Due to a lack of commercial success — Bogdanovich tried his luck distributing the film himself unsuccessfully — They All Laughed is considered to be one of the ending markers of The New Hollywood Era instigated by a generation of dynamic, young American directors. No one can completely blame him for his decision as he was stricken with immense grief at the time. Because of course, the aftermath of such a warm picture was marred with a tragedy of the worst kind — the murder of rising talent Dorothy Stratten. It proved to be the darkest possible closing note on this story.

Then, for New York a full 20 years after this film came out, The Twin Towers (visible in the opening credits) would be gone. There is so much suffering visible and yet invisible at the same time. Because They All Laughed is a film managing to capture a happy time even if a sobering road was waiting up ahead. Sometimes we need light, frothy movies to remind us of such things.

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When Peter Bogdanovich revisited the film at a public screening, he was openly emotional to the point tearing up. One can gather it was not simply because of the pain at the loss of someone dear to him, but also because those were happier, dare we say more innocent years. We can never have them back as they were before. Still, no one can take away the memories.

For others on the outside looking in, The Last Picture Show, Paper Moon, or even What’s Up, Doc? might ring of superior film stock but it’s not too difficult to understand Bogdanovich’s own sentiments. This is about as personal as a movie can come even as its weaved into a hybrid private eye screwball tale. It’s not the content speaking, but the moments and happy accidents with friends and people he deeply cherished.

This palpable exuberance exuded by the director and his cast is infectious if also a bit doleful. Bittersweetness has to be one of the most maddening of human emotions. It points to something not yet satiated within us. We are always waiting for the next time we will laugh again or better yet when we never stop laughing.  The tears won’t hurt as much then.

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

Design For Living (1933): An Atypical Lubitsch Comedy

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“Immorality may be fun but it’s not fun enough to take the place of virtue and three square meals a day.” 

All director Ernst Lubitsch has at his disposal is a train compartment and three actors. Yet the opening scene of Design for Living positions itself as one of the most delightful moments in this entire picture. It’s a pure testament to bold visual filmmaking with nary a word spoken for at least 4 or 5 minutes. Few modern filmmakers would have the gumption to attempt it.

Lubitsch knows exactly what to do with such situations, and he was bred not only in sophistication but silent comedy. Because you see, the ultimate joke is when they actually start conversing with one another these three very familiar faces open their mouths and French comes out (Gary Cooper apparently was fluent).

Simultaneously, the director has also set up the relational dynamic of the film without a peep of dialogue. It really is a superb opener. However, this opening scene is almost too delectable for its own good. The film cannot possibly sustain such a  level of perfection. But more on that later.

When the three expatriates finally switch over to their native tongue, we have an uproarious discussion on art versus commercialism, Napoleon wearing a coat, and Lady Godiva riding a bicycle. Don’t ask for any explanation. In the parry and thrust of their conversation, we find out one is a painter (Cooper), the other is a playwright (Fredric March), and both are failures for the time being.

We are instantly reminded by a certain level of sauciness this is the Pre-Code era, though we are on the cusp of harsher censoring to come. For now, the picture is able to nonchalantly hang its hat on a central plot point involving our leading lady (Miriam Hopkins) and her two men embroiled in a menage a trois — a so-called “Gentlemen’s Agreement.” Her conundrum is very male and libertine in nature. She has different men to try and she likens them to hats she wants to put on.

Yes, there is innuendo and some contemporary audiences might have shuddered at the admission they mention the word “sex” out loud on multiple occasions. And yet none of this titillating attraction speaks to much of the underlying allure of this picture.

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Look at who we have assembled on top of the acting talent. It sounds too good to be true. If the name Noel Coward doesn’t carry emphatic weight in your life, you might as well cross it out and consider this a Ben Hecht picture. He was, of course, one of the great purveyors of Americana through aphorisms and pervasive wit.

He famously scrapped all of Coward’s play aside from a single line of dialogue. Leaving a mark on the material in a way that was far more suitable to not only Lubitsch but an American audience.

All the gloriously tantalizing pieces are in place but the question remains, Is comedic cohesion possible? Understandably, Hopkins and Edward Everett Horton take up their allotted positions with ease invariably suiting them. Though their own personas aren’t on par with Chevalier or Herbert Marshall, the two American lads do their darnedest. The fact Cooper always feels so awkward in comedy somehow even plays a bit to his favor.

Unfortunately, it just doesn’t take. Again, we are putting it up rather unfairly against the likes of Trouble in Paradise or even The Smiling Lieutenant. Those are high benchmarks indeed. Put simply, the buoyancy is not there frequently enough.

Instead, we have a residual wistful melancholy that feels atypical for your usual Lubitsch drawing-room comedy. Cooper and March become a pair of “Gloomy Gusses” as Hopkins winds up marrying Horton to save them all grief. Even before that, the trio has their share of disagreements simply sorting out their inevitably complicated relationship.

If anything, it suggests in more rational terms that such an existence, as bohemian and open-minded as it may be, also becomes one of the most emotionally taxing. Not to mention relationally murky. In real life that is.

But when you expect something effervescent and gay, Design for Living is a bit of a letdown as a movie. After such a strong charge out of the starting gates, the storyline feels wanting in the middle, sluggishly rolling into the final act. One could wager whether or not plucking more out of Coward’s play might have been the most prudent choice. It’s possible it might have made the setup even droller. I can’t say.

Then again, maybe my own comic proclivities range toward screwball and the overtly visual far too much. It is true it often takes finer sensibilities to appreciate ironies and an astute sense of perception to read between the lines. An appreciation for wit and not solely physical comedy is key.

At least in my estimation, the movie is aided by a final party crashing in an attempt to get their girl. These bookends at the front and back half of the picture are vitalized by our stars being brought together. In such close quarters, there’s this inherent possibility for inspiration.

Lubitsch or not, if you have Gary Cooper, Miriam Hopkins, Fredric March, and Edward Everett Horton together in a room, it’s infinitely better than watching grass grow. The same might be said of Design for Living because if it speaks to anything, the final notes impart a lightness of camaraderie and lithe romance rather than any morose confusions. As it should be. Though it winds up being too little too late.

3.5/5 Stars

Party Girl (1958): Sumptuous Visuals for a So-So Gangster Flick

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Party Girl is yet another sumptuous Metrocolor feast from Nicholas Ray though the circumstances were admittedly less conducive for another masterpiece. In need of money, Ray took the job but instead getting his accustomed input on the script, he found himself being partnered with a producer he had no history with (Joe Pasternak) and two musical numbers he had little control over.

For someone like Ray, used to taking such middlebrow fare and making it inherently more interesting, the only plane he could really play on was the visual. So Party Girl is a minor success continuing his forays in expressionistic color schemes.

The film sets the scene in 1930s Chicago falling a few tiers under the Warner Bros. gangster flicks of the 30s or a hilarious homage like Some Like it Hot (1959). In this particular scenario, worldly-wise dancing girl Vicky Gaye (Cyd Charisse) is always ready to impart wisdom, and she’s too tough to get hurt by love.

While it can’t necessarily keep company with Ray’s most captivating works in terms of personified emotion or intensity, there are still elements to be thoroughly enjoyed. Cyd Charisse for one is as sultry as ever and if it weren’t for their almost abrupt nature, crammed into the story as they are, her two dance numbers do immense justice to her iconically svelte form. She’s still extraordinary.

Robert Taylor for another is compelling as a defender of criminals, capable of getting mobsters off the hook and willingly working for a big-time kingpin named Rico (Lee J. Cobb). Tommy Farrell’s major calling card is a debilitating limp that forces him to use a cane. But it never feels like a mere gimmick.

Ray consequently praised Taylor’s commitment to the role, gladly studying up on his part so he could convincingly play a cripple. The director even said the older man was on par with any of the Method adherents he had ever had the pleasure of working with. There you have commendation enough.

In trying to categorize Party Girl, you quickly realize it’s a bit of a disconcerting hybrid of a film. Some might say discombobulating more than anything, as it plays at the crossroads of different genres, not to mention different eras.

Taylor and Charisse were purportedly the final two contract players signed to MGM in 1958 and so more than anything, the picture was a justified excuse to put them to use before their contracts expired. But all things considered, their chemistry isn’t bad per se, and they both look lovely under the gaze of the camera.

Meanwhile, Lee J. Cobb is capable as a thinly-veiled Al Capone facsimile. He’s not uninteresting, but the part seems to have nothing surprising to boast. By the finale, the story has run its course and most of the air has left its sails. Aesthetically, the harsh colors somehow don’t play against onslaughts of gunfire the way black and white did in the days of yore.

Maybe unfairly it’s easy to criticize the film because it doesn’t quite stand up to the gangster flicks of old and yet, there’s no way to call it a full-fledged musical. But for any aficionados of the director or his starring players, they might be reason enough to revisit this minor cult favorite. Be assured, it’s by no means a cardboard, cookie cutter piece of work.

3/5 Stars

The Lusty Men (1952): Nicholas Ray Transcends His Material Again

TheLustyMen7.jpgThe connotation of the film’s lurid title feels slightly deceptive. Because The Lusty Men might have basic elements of men who desire after women but it’s fairly restrained in this regard. At least more than I initially conceived. However, it is a film characterized by a zeal or a lust for life. The male protagonists are intent or were formerly driven in the pursuit of high living with all the benefit such a life affords.

We recognize this outright from a parade rolling down main street and then “The Wildest Show on Earth” that features the finest rodeo entertainment the world over. It’s high stakes and highly dangerous but also invariably lucrative. Many men are drawn to it greedily like moths to a flame.

Nicholas Ray sets up a high-octane environment of thrills that proves hardly as straightforward as one might imagine. Because the first man we meet is Jeff McCloud (Robert Mitchum), a lifelong rodeo man who, after his latest throw, has decided to take a break and leave the tantalizing life behind while he’s ahead. It’s a young man’s dream, but only the veterans live to make it a profession.

Coming from restless stock, he returns to his dilapidated childhood home now owned by an old homesteader (Burt Mustin) only to find the old tin can he buried two coins in when he was a kid. They’re still there and they’re also the only true assets he has to his name. Instantly we have a read on him. He has no possessions, a drifter, laconic in speech. You know the type and better yet you know exactly who he is with Robert Mitchum playing him — his true bread and butter.

He meets a pair of newlyweds, the Merritts, and manages to grab a job as a ranch hand. The husband Wes (Arthur Kennedy) is taken with the aura of the older man who has quite the reputation. For the time, Jeff takes it in stride.

It seems every film I see Susan Hayward in has managed to slip past me for a long time. But she fills the screen with an undoubted strength of her own. There’s something about her upper lip that I can’t quite put my finger on, but together with her near imperious gaze, you have a face capable of supreme expressiveness. She and McCloud both latched on to something. For her its a husband striving after what she wants. For him, its a man who can help him. It’s reciprocal.

This dynamic makes Kennedy’s character the most obvious and least interesting though, like Rancho Notorious, he’s meant to be playing a young man and manages to imbue the part with a cocky ebullience. He’s intent on a certain life and even if he seems a straight enough arrow, his way gets clouded by these aspirations.

We received glimpses early on, but The Lusty Men is also the most visceral and intensive rodeo movie I can recall. What follows is an ugly evolution in our characters; Wes most obviously. The distinction being, everything he is happens right before our eyes as he calls on the expertise of McCloud to help him conquer the rodeo circuit.

Everything Jeff exists as finds its origins outside of the frame, based on years and years as a rider with an unspoken history we can never completely comprehend. Mitchum carries the onus of time well, and it makes him continually intriguing.

We can’t quite get a line on him. He seems to go around as nice as you please. Maybe a fresh word or two but that’s just his personality (Hasta Luego. That’s Spanish for, “If the shower don’t work call McCloud”). There’s hardly an advance and yet you half expect him to be working a David & Bathsheba angle, except a battlefield has become a rodeo. He keeps the cards close until the last possible moment.

There’s a pool of weathered supporting players he reunites with including the broken but resolutely chipper Arthur Hunnicut, who maintains a taste for the rodeo even though he’s long since left the corral behind. Then, you have the likes of Al (Frank Faylen) and Rosemary, a match made in heaven, as they have all but resigned themselves to the life. It might as well be in their blood. The beauty is how their characters are almost contours but we want to know them more than we have the chance to.

Whenever you have a group of people who have bought into some sort of madness whether the stage, aviation, rodeo, or anything else, there is a near-insane amount of devotion put into the lifestyle. Look at Stage Door, Only Angels Have Ways, or West Side Story to see have a certain mentality easily pervades the world to create a collective consciousness of sorts.

This lifestyle becomes the status quo, and they have become so used to it and callous to the hardship, any trauma can hardly shake them out of it. Not unsurprisingly, such a dangerous profession comes with deadly repercussions. These hardships are what shake a person out of their reverie to decry the hazards at hand. It seems inconsequential to document them here because you can probably imagine them already.

With every person, it becomes a matter of weighing the pros and cons. There’s the choice of getting out of the cycle and ridding yourself of the dangers or otherwise willingly submitting yourself to the consequences.  Mitchum is such a curious individual because he seems to have made his peace and yet a woman he’s only pursuing half-heartedly leads him to take uncharacteristic risks.

But far from being regretful, in the end, he takes the tragedy thrust upon him with his usual coolness and casual indifference. Bitterness is not in his vocabulary, and he goes out just as he came into the film, aloof and yet somehow still showing a certain vulnerability. Because he allows affection to best him. There’s nothing shameful in that.

Rather than let the same lifestyle savage their souls, the Merritts get away too. Wes is shaken free of his bull-headedness, realizing in an instant there are far more important things than fast cash. What springs to mind are the care of a loving wife and the ability to grow old and gray together without the fear of constant peril.

The resolution is almost expected, but the actors shine as Nicholas Ray guides us through yet another outsider’s tale infused with authentic emotional longing. The film is constantly shifting between what we might easily call tropes or commonalities until it comes away with something different. It helps when you have three leading stars more than capable of playing the scenes with resonance, emoting when its called for and providing their characters with a greater tangibility.  Ray is one of those directors who continually manages to transcend his material.

The Lusty Men predates many similar films that spring to mind from Giant (1956) to The Misfits (1961) and even Hud (1963). Each one details a modern depiction of the West — having totally relinquished its glorious image and succumbed to real-world issues of aging, isolation, and decay. If you can believe it, The Lusty Men just might be the least ostentatious of them all, but it’s equally ripe for rediscovery.

4/5 Stars