Duel (1971): The Stirring Success of a Young Spielberg

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Duel stands as a stirring reminder that this is the same Steven Spielberg who brazenly got himself on the Universal lot because he needed to be in as close proximity to movies by any means possible. There was no other alternative.

Here is a young, brash filmmaker, part Hitchcock, part Truffaut, and all American humanist. Is it wrong to say he is dearly missed? Because this is not to imply films like Bridge of Spies or The Post do not have merit or are not worthy of acclaim. However, it does feel expected of them. If ever a gigantic cinematic undertaking could be termed safe, they are, at least in terms of comparison.

Duel is full of the electrifying exuberance of youth with a director out on the prowl to prove himself. He most certainly does. He cannot help but shape our perceptions along the entire adventure through impetuous moves and constant manipulation. But that is what the directors and the magicians behind films are capable of at their highest potential.

What sets it apart instantly is the point of view. As an audience, we are flying down the streets of what can only be L.A. and the world is being relayed to us from the cab of the car as the radio whirs with the typical chatter.

Baseball scores. The latest exploits of Lee Trevino. A man calling in proclaiming himself a member of the silent majority and simultaneously afraid folks will get the wrong idea if it gets out he’s not his family’s primary breadwinner. His masculinity is in danger of being under attack. Blah blah blah.

It is not a film saturated in dialogue so whatever you hear serves a key purpose either thematically (like in this case) or to define character conflict. This is the first instance where it becomes especially apparent.

The movie, originally a television movie, also fits nicely into TV’s cultural moment with Dennis Weaver of later McCloud fame and Spielberg himself having directed an early episode of Columbo for Sunday Mystery Movie Night.

Our hero is a Vietnam war vet still trying to exorcize demons while grappling with his own faulty sense of masculinity that has his own marriage going down the tubes. What follows is a laughably simple premise executed exquisitely to a fever’s pitch.

Because David Mann (Weaver) is currently being delayed from getting home to his wife and kid due to a business trip. It can’t be helped and seen in this light, Duel might easily be a suburban family drama about the daily monotonies of life as a member of the aforementioned silent majority.

And yet Duel slowly unfurls a more menacing and blatantly overt conceit. Real, tangible opposition is created in the arrival of a flammable tanker and rolling pollution factory belching exhaust. The story as originally conceived by the prolific Richard Matheson preys on the anxieties about L.A. smog and the uninhibited road rage brought to a simmer by the daily commute.

Because soon enough Mann, for some inexplicable reason, finds himself being pursued and bullied off the road by the massive truck. It’s the personification of a destructive vendetta out on the road. It’s vindictive. It feels personal. But we never understand why.

As they begin to make their way across more secluded desert highways and byways, what starts out feeling like a practical joke continually escalates. It follows him to a diner, waits for him menacingly, and comes upon him as he tries to service a broken down school bus. The kids seem to jeer him, a jarring image, given the fact this ominous big rig comes to their aid. Could it be they are in cahoots? The fears begin to proliferate.

However, from a narrative perspective, the true masterstroke is how Spielberg never tips us off to who the phantom pursuer is. He is more a creature of diesel propelled by exorbitant amounts of fury rather than a human being — a cinematic creation more than a real-world entity.  It sounds eerily familiar to a mechanical shark just hopped up on gasoline and plowing down the roadways instead of the deep blue.

Thus, the parallel to Jaws are all too obvious. This is a low budget, compact, and even punchier rendition. However, everything goes back to Spielberg’s fearless inventiveness, whether it’s in the elementary way in which to frame shots or to build up this ever heightening sense of paranoia as the world begins to collapse around our protagonist.

Dennis Weaver embodies this brand of All-American, nevertheless, plagued by demons, and his spells of voiceover, particularly in a roadside diner, lend an added depth to his anxiety.

It is one way we are given license to get inside of his head as he tries to guess which old boy sitting at the counter is the one out to get him. His nerves are all about shot by the end of it and if he’s our surrogate, as an audience we do not fare much better.

Obviously, there are these moments of dialogue, but the sparse moments full of near-wordless action recall Hitchcock quite vividly. A film can be won and lost in how it utilizes these moments, and Spielberg rides them out to great effect.

When the radiator hose breaks, and it feels like sheer desperation time the camera is literally peering up through the steering wheel on the most severe angle on Dennis Weaver yet. Because we have hit the most crucial moment in the picture.

Mann is broaching a precipice of mad despair as he wills his vehicle to not completely fall to pieces around him. He’s physically incapable of running any longer because his wheels have betrayed him. His only hope is making it to the top of an incline so he can coast his way to freedom.

Whether he conquerors the beast or not, the struggle is not without consequence on both our hero and the audience. You would assume Duel is a movie that would feel stagnant and yet even with rhythms that repeat, it somehow manages to maintain a level of tension that must be accredited not only to Spielberg and his cameraman but Weaver’s anchoring performance as he goes through a hellish battle against the steely-beast. TV movies often get a bad rap but Duel is at least one shining example in their favor.

4/5 Stars

Klute (1971): Starring Jane Fonda and Donald Sutherland

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There was arguably no man more well-versed in 70s paranoia thrillers than director Alan J. Pakula and if we want to consider the genesis of his “paranoia trilogy,” we must begin with Klute. Aside from the thematic elements and Pakula’s evolving pedigree, it is the partnership with the ever-meticulous Gordon Willis that truly stitches this loose grouping of films together.

Klute is set in New York and though you never forget this fact exactly — we spend a lot of time watching Bree Daniels (Jane Fonda) move around town — the film is not built out of the seedy streets like The French Connection (1971).

The majority of the action takes place within interiors where the low-lighting and limiting factors of the space add a certain psychological depth. There is something unnerving out there reflected in the characters themselves.

In his first film score, Michael Small evokes the perturbing tinkling sounds no doubt found in many Columbo episodes and all such fare from the 1970s. This film does feel like a case of localized dread.

It involves suits and pimps, but the scale is fairly small, even if it’s indicative of situations throughout the city. Next, the conspiracy would get larger and corporate in Parallax View. Finally, it would be at the very top, in the federal government, and in this case, it wasn’t simply fiction; it was real, a la All The President’s Men.

In this particular iteration of the thriller, a top-level businessman has all but disappeared, and his concerned wife is aided by the services of a mutual acquaintance and private investigator: John Klute (Donald Sutherland). He is hired on by the man’s firm to get to the bottom of the issue.

Some incriminating letters to a New York call-girl seem to suggest a Jekyll and Hyde existence that his wife knew nothing about. It’s deeply troubling, but it gives Klute a point of departure. Soon he’s questioning Bree (Fonda), who doesn’t remember the man — she’s in high demand these days — and she’s not about to be pumped for information.

Still, the persistence of this enigmatic out-of-towner eventually gets to her as he doggedly keeps after her with quiet persistence. 2 years prior she was beaten by a client and in the past, she has received a string of prank phone calls, not to mention being tailed on occasion. It comes with the trade.

What’s striking about Bree is how real and pragmatic she is about her life. With her brown helmet of hair and undisputed confidence, she takes the day-to-day in stride. She’s not ashamed about being good at what she does, and it’s even a bit empowering to be in such demand while so easily controlling her emotions. With clients, she’s able to maintain a cool and detached demeanor, totally in control of her situation.

However, she’s also not a stagnant individual, trying to move away from her past, tied down to an abusive pip (Roy Scheider), and a certain lifestyle that comes with the territory. There were formerly aspirations to be an actress, and she spends hours with a therapist talking through her issues. It becomes apparent she is one of the many who is an adherent to external processing.

Thus, John Klute is her perfect foil in all regards. She openly lambastes his kind as “hypocrite squares,”  leaving their ivory towers in the country to look down their long noses in scorn at the corrupt city dweller. The dichotomy of the sinful folk and the methodical morality of this suburbanite is being drawn up.

Still, he doesn’t fit such a convenient definition. His is a constantly unphased, totally imperturbable demeanor. His words are chosen very carefully and sparingly; his actions are taken with a certain purpose. Then again, the same might be said of her. Regardless, their aspirations are of a very different nature.

The title itself seems a near misdirect. One can easily contend the picture is named after the wrong character. After all, Fonda is the undisputed shimmering star of independence. And yet the film is bolstered by all its main characters because out of them the narrative is made compelling and essential, based on the bearing it has in their lives.

Screenwriters Andy and Dave Lewis whip together a script that revels in these figures, even as they themselves play against a larger, harsher milieu. It works in strokes of lingering dread and an unnamed apparition out there somewhere.

No scene is it more apparent than when Sutherland literally chases a phantom out of Bree’s apartment only for the person to vanish into the night without any resolution. It is this open-ended nature that supplies tension.

Except there is ultimately a conclusion and it comes in a very real and present form. Given that we are dealing in a world of call girls, loneliness, and sexual desire, it makes sense our solution would tap into these deep-seated issues.

Without giving away the punchline completely, Klute‘s ending makes my insides crawl. In an admission that might have well come from Norman Bates, one character even acknowledges, “There are little corners of everyone which are better off left alone.” It hints at the dark, rancorous proclivities of human nature. They lay dormant only to erupt in vengeance.

Supposedly Jane Fonda thought the film was preaching a message that if a woman has a good psychiatrist and a man at her side, everything will turn out right. This might be the implicit conclusion of the storyline when we take it out of the confines of what we see. However, there’s also still a sense that Bree has a personality and a will to be her own person. She is strong, at times self-destructive, and she has been through hell and back again.

What resonates is the complexity of this independent person who also has frailty. It’s not simply women but all people who need a bulwark of others around them in order to survive.  When two or more are gathered together something powerful forms.

It is not solely about weakness, or maybe it is, because in some form we are all weak, even if we don’t wish to acknowledge it. We cannot stand up to the onslaught of outside oppressors every waking moment of every day of our life. At some point, we must let our guard down.

Thus, Klute is not a film that leaves us thinking someone is weak for requiring help. Instead, I am reminded of the coarseness of this world and the necessity to find others to help us push through it. Alone we will not survive. We cannot survive.

4/5 Stars

 

 

Parasite (2019): Bong Joon-ho’s Household Thriller

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I heard in an interview director Bong Joon-ho had the idea for Parasite percolating in his mind for a long time, and it was born out of the most curious forms of inspiration. In college, he used to tutor English for the child of a rich family. From that point of disembarkation, he started asking “what if…” and all of a sudden his latest thriller was born.

Whether this story is completely true or not, it gets at what I relish about screenwriting and the inception of ideas in any form. Oftentimes they come straight out of real-life experiences only to be morphed and molded, burnished and extrapolated upon until they take on an existence entirely their own.

In some ways, Parasite feels very much related to the previous year’s Cannes darling Shoplifters, directed by Hirokazu Koreeda. In both cases, a story about an impoverished family becomes a handy jumping-off point for social commentary. But that’s just it. The premise provides a jumping-off point and there’s little else we can compare because the stories take drastically different turns simply adjudging from their creators.

Because the Kim family live crowded in a shoddy basement-dwelling leeching off the wi-fi of those who live around them, somewhat contented or at least resigned to their vagrant lifestyle. However, one day their teenage son, Ki-woo is enlisted by a friend to fill his position tutoring the daughter of a rich family.

His family helps him with the con using their skills of photoshop, composition, and dramaturgy to pull off the masquerade and ingratiate themselves. It helps that their mark is a simple-minded, trusting, and generally kind matriarch. There’s a touch of Luis Bunuel in the depiction of this rather naive and vacuous bourgeoisie family getting overrun by the lower classes.

And yet a distinction must be made here too because Bong does not altogether mock them. There is the inkling of affection for all his ensemble even as he teases them. This is one of the keys to the movie’s success. The message is not hammered home at the expense of the characters. 

One thing leads to another and the household vacancies begin filling up. First, an English tutor, then an art therapy instructor, next a new chauffeur, and finally a housekeeper. If the early dynamic is a tad like Shoplifters, as Parasite gears up, I couldn’t help but feel this same pervading unease experienced throughout Jordan Peele’s Get Out. While it might seem like a curious touchstone, what both films fashion are compelling thrillers carved out of the home.

The domicile and symbol of social capital, stability, even the family unit, is turned into this perturbing space that can be easily sabotaged and infested. It doesn’t matter if the main thematic element is race or class. They can both function in an insidious manner as a source of tension throughout the picture, seeping in through the cracks. Where you can live life from the heights of privilege or sunken in the subterranean void below. 

While the cat’s away the mice will play, and it’s at this point we ponder where we could possibly be headed. The Kims succeed in totally taking over the house and lounging in all its decadent luxuries. This could be the end of the story. Thankfully, we are in the hands of someone who knows full-well what they are looking to accomplish. 

Part of the ingenuity of the film comes in how form follows function in this very tangible way. Because the visual and environmental disparity trickles down through the story until it emphatically erupts. The metaphor takes on a very real and concrete form throughout the picture. But for the time being, it’s all about building the mounting suspense to a crescendo.

Bong is a disciple of Hitchcock, and thus he’s taken to heart the pervasive power of dramatic irony. He can both manipulate the audience while implicating us and making us totally invested in the charade at hand.

Though Parasite does have twists — one particularly harrowing in nature — it is built out of this maintained sense of dread and tension. It only works because the director has taken us into his confidence and we know something other characters do not.

The film is also built and developed out of not only its architecture but the sound design helping to create a distinct space and also a rhythm conducive to the action. A chaotic scramble to neutralize, not a gun, but a phone with social media capabilities is the centerpiece of one memorable scene full of struggling bodies, flailing arms, and the like, choreographed to perfection.

There are certain scenes like this one where they cease to be bits of exposition and dialogue, and they feel more and more like they’re verging on visual symphony as we watch images and actions flash by with a very particular cadence. They have the force to carry us away in the moment — cutting to the music — like many of the greats have done, from Hitchcock to Scorsese. 

When the Kim family is finally at their lowest point, sleeping on a gymnasium floor, their patriarch utters the film’s one line which feels like some kind of worldview tucked into a movie that otherwise functions only as a satire, if not an out-and-out black comedy. He says the best plan is no plan because nothing works out the way you mean for it to anyway. It doesn’t matter if you kill someone or commit treason. Nothing matters. Nihilism is alive and well.

Still, the beauty of this is even while Mr. Kim says these things, there is a director behind him — an artistic creator — who has more than a vision for where he will end up. There is a purpose to everything that is happening to him. 

If the majority of the movie is an exhibition in Hithcockian manipulation, then the ending is suitably macabre for someone totally versed in the Master of Suspense. Bong somehow manages to be playful, shocking, thrilling, and a tad somber all in the course of the final hour. The film is lengthy; we don’t always know where it will wind up, and yet it ends up in places that continually lead to further questions.  You cannot unsee it or quite forget about what we have witnessed. 

Parasite has an undisputed climax and still the story continues allowing itself to sink back into a newfound despondency and the original status quo. I still cannot decide if this suits everything we have been subjected too thus far.

Although another joy of screenwriting is narrative symmetry when we can take a movie back to where it began. Because so much has happened. We have weathered so much as an audience, watching and in some perverse way, rooting for this family, only for it to end up back the way it was, under very different circumstances.

All I know is that this is one of the most wickedly sharp and ingeniously pulse-pounding movies I’ve seen in quite some time. It irks me and yet in the same instance, I cannot quite turn away.

If there is any more fruit, broader still, it will come from the phenomenal press the film has received, and in an age where acclaim still guides public opinion, like Bong said himself, maybe this can be the film to help the general public conquer their fear of subtitles. Because if Parasite‘s any indication, it wields the power to open people up to expansive avenues of cinema. This is only the tip of the iceberg.

The joy of making the leap is the realization that you are not being pulled further away from what you know. More often than not, you’re getting closer — closer to the things that feel universal — the human predilections connecting us on an intimate scale. Both the parasitic and the hospitable, the good and the evil. 

Although they couldn’t be a more diverse company, you see it in Hitchcock (a Brit), Koreeda (a Japanese), Bunuel (a Spaniard), Bong (a South Korean), and many others. Go watch them if you have the chance. My hope is you will be glad you did. 

4.5/5 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

 

 

Mirage (1965): Gregory Peck 20 Years After Spellbound

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“Most people will do in the dark what they never would think of doing in the light.”

Mirage takes full advantage of one of those grab-you-right-away openings. The scene commences in the dark, there’s a power outage, candles are flickering, and voices call out up and down the corridors as people mill about.

Among the bystanders whose work has been disrupted is cost accountant David Stillwell (Gregory Peck), and within a minute, he receives an invitation to a braille party (touching only) by two giggly women. Then, one minute he’s talking to his chipper colleague (Kevin McCarthy), and the next he’s climbing down the stairwells with a woman (Diane Baker) who had the same idea to get out.

As they walk and talk, they comment on how everyone is looking to “rescind the 10 commandments.” The cloak of darkness has a strange effect on people. Of course, when the lights do go on, this phantom woman vehemently asserts they know each other. Stillwell’s never seen her before in his life. Now we know something must be up. They cannot both be correct.

For a movie from the 1960s, it’s awfully noirish and that we can easily enough attribute to Edward Dymtryk who, before becoming a Blacklist casualty, was behind such pictures as Murder, My Sweet (1944) and Crossfire (1947). It continues with the bleak black and white tones for the rest of the picture, the complete antithesis of comparable thrillers like Charade or even Arabesque.

A shocking suicide impacts the street below the building Stillwell works in, attracting hordes of onlookers. He has more pressing issues like disappearing floors in buildings he cannot find. More peculiar interactions follow with not only the same woman, but bartenders, security guards, and just about everybody else.

The story is blessed by a plethora of oddball characters shuffling about who might or might not be a part of some sinister plot. That or they’re just your typical New York eccentrics. They are indicative of a world full of strange circumstances that cannot be unrelated. It’s all uncanny.

Next, he’s getting held hostage at his own apartment. Could it be he’s some type of doppelganger — living a double life of sorts? One cannot help but think of Roger Thornhill’s predicament in North by Northwest. However, in this case, it comes out Stillwell cannot remember his life from two years prior.

The most fortuitous decision he makes is to visit the AAA Detective Agency run by an amiable shmuck of a P.I., Ted Caselle. With these forthcoming developments, Mirage becomes almost a buddy film — the buddy is no other than Walter Matthau — and it’s the most delightful interlude while still being injected with this same perplexing conspiracy.

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All of a sudden, our solitary hero has someone at least willing to listen to his predicament. Someone who is in the dark just as much as he is (and we are). They get whisked and weaved all around the city, so much so that detailing it all won’t do any good. There are gunmen and murders and even a little girl named Irene who gives them asylum. She makes them a make-believe cup of coffee while they wait it out. Screenwriter Peter Stone, by this point, is relishing every unique aside he can wring out of the utter convolution.

Scenes are constantly intercut with earlier conversation all of sudden becoming illuminated — as the puzzle pieces start falling into place in the present — only making the past all the more perturbing. We are not allowed to forget anything, knowing it all ties together into this patchwork that has yet to be revealed. This is the source of the continual tension.

Mirage and then Arabesque from the following year might both be in the running as the unofficial sequel to Charade (1963). Mirage, of course, carries over such supporting actors as Walter Matthau and George Kennedy while retaining the services of Stone’s screenwriting. Arabesque was actually meant for Cary Grant (though Peck ultimately ended with the role), and Stanley Donen reluctantly was enticed back by the star power of Sophia Loren and Peck in color.

Neither of these pictures is on par with their predecessor, but they hardly need to be. Likewise, one might easily concede Mirage is Hitchcockian in plot but not execution. Again, it’s not an outright criticism. Instead, it leans more toward a sparse, unsentimental spy drama like Martin Ritt’s The Spy Who Came in From the Cold.

It is about human beings who are frail, jaded, and scared. But most of all, deep, trenchant flaws are revealed. It’s not quite a full character study, but it is inching in that direction, even as the labyrinth is laid out for us to rack our brains over.

A psychiatric appointment allows space for scientific and ethical terms to be traded like “insanity,” “right and wrong,” and “good vs. evil.” Mirage is not a top tier social commentary — it works best as a bewildering thriller — but it’s admirable in its attempts to say something. Human psychology plays a part as much as human malevolence and avarice.

Despite the wide chasm of time between them, Mirage does conjure up Spellbound,  which by now feels like a dusty old entry on psychoanalysis. Thankfully, 20 years on, Gregory Peck still makes an interesting mental case and Edward Dymtryk is still a capable director. The most honest assessment proves Mirage to be a flawed yet deeply underrated thriller.

3.5/5 Stars

Ministry of Fear (1944): Nazis & Noir

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In screenwriting 101 they always say engaging movies employ ticking clocks from start to finish. Ministry of Fear takes this quite literally, opening with the tick-tock of a clock face as Stephen Neale (Ray Milland) sits in rapt attention, waiting for the bells to chime.

At first, we’re not sure where we’ve found ourselves. What’s going on? Why is he so on edge? Then, he makes his way through some stone gates and the word “asylum” is emblazoned on the front entrance. We instantly know more about him. He has a past but it seems, at least for the time being, this man has a clean slate to work with.

His first adventure upon purchasing a ticket to London is popping over to a local carnival put on by all the nice ladies of the town. But this British-set noir, directed by Fritz Lang, and based on a Graham Greene work, also begins employing a time bomb…in the form of a cake.

After an enigmatic tip from a lady psychic, Mr. Neale unwittingly acquires said confection and soon gathers he’s gotten involved in something way over his head. The MacGuffin has been brought into circulation.

It proves to be an eventful trip to London, to say the least, and not just because of the Nazis raining down bombs overheard. There’s some homegrown drama as well. As Neale starts dropping cake all over the train compartment, he subsequently welcomes in a bland bloke, only to have the mystery man run off with his dessert.

For the time being, there is nothing to do. In London he calls on a stodgy old investigator (Erskine Sandford) to back him up; he obliges only when money is waved in front of his nose. Then there’s the giggly introduction of an amiable brother and sister duo (Marjorie Reynolds and Carl Esmond) who escaped from Austria.

Mr. Neale is led to believe their business is unwittingly being used as a front for some clandestine activities involving The Mothers of Free Nations. They always were shifty characters.

Meanwhile, Reynolds dips in and out of her accent; she probably would have been served better without it. Though she is winsome enough, I’m inclined to believe the film could have been more twisted if she was, in fact, a more duplicitous dame. Admittedly, the rogue gallery is still quite busy without suspecting her.

The imposing, austere beauty, Mrs. Belaine, leads a seance joined by the foreboding Dr. Forrester (Alan Napier) and dropped in upon by a Mr. Cost (Dan Duryea), who has a very familiar face. The good doctor holds a particularly high position in the ministry of propaganda.

The unearthly environment is textbook high contrast cinematography with visages almost incandescent while otherwise shrouded in darkness. Unfortunately, there’s a shot in the dark (no Clouseau available here) and our hero must be on the run again. We have yet another tip-off that an international conspiracy akin to Foreign Correspondent is afoot.

We are treated to a Hollywood version of a wartime Underground bomb shelter as Neale looks to evade capture with Carla. We get another visual tip on Dr. Forrester thanks to ominous swastikas projected on the wall. His newest analysis “Psychology of Nazidom” is the culprit. One gathers he might have a closer relationship with the Third Reich than he’s letting on. Unless it’s someone else…

Given these details, it’s difficult not to also consider Lang’s harrowing Hangman Also Die! which tackled the Nazi menace right from the interior. The fact that the enemy might have infiltrated and live all but undetected among us is even more frightening (though these themes are not considered in length here).

Because, like Hitchcock’s best British films, Ministry of Fear is all thriller, and its main allegiance is to entertainment rather than pure propaganda. I think the years are kinder to it for those very reasons. It does not give us a completely false sense of the piety found in the world — especially in the midst of something so troubling as WWII.

There are further bomb explosions and the involvement of Scotland Yard leading to a very familiar face turning up once more. The emblematic shot of the whole picture comes when a door is closed behind a fleeing fugitive and a shot rings out, with one solitary beam of light emanating through the bullet hole. It explains the whole scene, and what has happened, in the most dramatic way possible.

A chase up to the roof ensues, where, upon being pinned down, Neale and his gal shoot it out with the enemy, the rain pouring down in torrents overhead. It looks like dire straights if not for some fortuitous help. In literary terms, I believe the accepted phrase is a deus ex machina. Because closure, as such, is hardly arrived upon so easily, we conveniently edit through the climax to explain it away.

Instead, there is a hastily cut-together ending with one obligatory mention of a forthcoming church wedding and of course, a wedding cake…It is a glib reminder noir can often bleed into the most mundane environments.

As forced as it may feel, this happy ending leaves us with nervous laughter. Otherwise, we might still be trembling considering what might have happened. I can only imagine the reactions of a wartime audience — no matter how farfetched the plot — they were living through this very real fear.

3.5/5 Stars

The Third Man At 70

Oh, how I love The Third Man (or The 3rd Man). Regardless of how you write it, Carol Reed‘s post-war noir is one of those special films that was a case of love at first sight.  I knew some of the reasons already, but watching the film with a friend (on his first viewing) teased them out even more so. It was a nice reminder of why this film continues to enchant me and engage me on fundamental levels time after time.

Dutch Angles in Post-War Vienna

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My buddy was right. The Third Man is inherently disorienting. Visually the film presents all of its subjects from a stilted perspective. They’re always slanted, featured in crammed together close-ups, and never quite sitting square in our line of vision from the camera’s uncomfortably low angles. Whether we realize them or not, there’s no doubt the dutch angels (from “Deutch” or German) manipulate how we experience the action.

Starting with these formalistic elements, the mood is perfectly ingrained in the fundamental building blocks of the story with the crumbling city sectioned off into its uneasy alliances between the WWII victors. We have a crosshatching of districts and a melting pot of language and objectives.

Thus, when the blundering American author Holly Martins walks into the story, he, like his audience, has very little understanding of what is going on. His level of comprehension is lost in translation even as he goes around trying to get to the bottom of the scenario. Joseph Cotten does a fabulous job in the part effectively becoming our eyes and ears in the environment.

And this strong association is part of the reason I so vehemently decried Netflix’s tampering with the original film’s ambiguity. If you’re like me and Holly Martins, you’re no polyglot, aside from a few token phrases here and there. When the old man or woman in the house rattles off something, you’re lost in the unfamiliarity. You’re waiting for someone to explain it, even trusting on the good graces of others. In some regards, you are helpless.

It’s part of the way the film toys with us. You realize the whole time maybe you’ve been played and a whole level of the film’s context has flown over your head. Subtitles alleviate our ignorance but also cause us to lose out on some of the perplexity felt as a result of such a global battleground. The Third Man capitalizes on the richness of these cultural ambiguities.

The Zither & Herb Alpert

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The music is next on my list. My friend was right again. The title song’s awfully familiar and after Anton Karas got plucked off the streets of Vienna to provide the lively but strangely hollow and foreboding soundtrack, it would go onto some acclaim on the music charts (including a guitar rendition by Guy Lombardo).

The tune is one of a select few early movie themes to hit the mainstream remaining fairly recognizable even today. This is even more surprising given its inauspicious roots. My friend connected the dots later only to realize he’d heard the particularly Latin-flavored version by Herb Alpert and The Tijuana Brass on their album !!Going Places!!  He taught me something learned new, but you learn a lot being friends with an avid record collector.

Quick Pacing

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It might be a mere generalization, but I feel like there are often complains leveled at films of yore that they languish, there’s too much talking, and they don’t boast enough action. But I think my buddy was spot on once more. The Third Man has surprisingly timely pacing (aside from the deliberate final shot).

One of the practical reasons for this might have been director Carol Reed literally being hooked on the stimulant Benzedrine to get through his hectic shooting schedule around the clock. This might be one explanation for the zip, even in the opening monologue. However, there’s also an undeniable drive to The Third Man because it’s stuffed with questions, mystery, and underlying tension.

As information begins to reveal itself, we have screeching taxi rides, reveals, harrowing meetings on Ferris wheels, and climactic chases sequences clattering through the rubble-strewn streets and labyrinthian waterworks. But the reason it grips us has to do with falling in with intuitively compelling characters. That’s as good a place as any to bring him up…

Harry Lime: Super-Villain?

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The final observation I found to be particularly interesting was my buddy’s acknowledgment that Harry Lime felt surprisingly modern, a precursor even to the current villain. I want to tease out this idea even more because I’ve been drawn to movies that layer their menace. I can think of the likes of Black Panther or Mission Impossible: Fallout as two recent examples.

However, what I mean by this is how you don’t quite know where the trouble is going to come from, who you can trust, and who will betray you. It makes for a glorious puzzle to navigate. Is Calloway someone we can give our allegiance to? He’s an awful stickler for the law without clemency.

Mr. Crabbin is an unnerving chap before we ever learn who he is and the shifty-eyed likes of the Baron, Dr. Winkel, and Popescu have far more to tell than they willingly divulge. The woman Anna (Valli), who loves Harry, is almost delusional with her unwavering love for a scoundrel. Even Cotten, our initial hero, lumbers around like a drunken idiot, thinking he has everything figured out.

And of course, there’s Mr. Harry Lime himself. The most iconic charismatic, machiavellian anti-hero. Orson Welles makes him a dashing shadowy specter, larger-than-life and theatrical. But there’s no discounting the mercilessness pulsing through him. None of these characters are straight-laced by any stretch of the imagination. They have some flaw, evil, or vice dragging them down. Lime just remains the mastermind and the poster boy of it all.

The one character who seems like a generally agreeable chap is, of course, the one who SPOLIERS gets it. Somehow it fits the times and the world. It couldn’t be any other way.

So 70 years on The Third Man still remains one of the preeminent examples of a quality thriller, pulsing with atmosphere, style, romance, and intrigue. To say they don’t quite make movies like this anymore is immaterial.

What’s truly staggering is how brilliantly Carol Reed’s film still holds up. I look forward to many more viewings to come, preferably with a friend or two. After all, they’re the ones who help me appreciate classics like these with new eyes.

Happy 70th Year to The Third Man! You’re still looking great!

I’m also proud to be a part of the Classic Movie Blog Association celebrating 10 years of existence. Here’s to many more.

Searching (2018)

Searching.pngSearching is a film promoting a certain plotting device in this social media age of ours. An Up-like introduction played through old computer memories and hard drive data is surprisingly poignant. It provides the backstory for a parent-child relationship to play out, albeit with the mechanisms of a thriller.

The opportunity to see an Asian-American family front and center in a film like this is too much to pass up. Once more, after Columbus, John Cho proves — not surprisingly — he’s more than capable of anchoring a movie with a lot of intriguing potential.

Because this is a story of a father who thinks everything is normal — aside from his wife no longer being with them. So when his daughter doesn’t message him one evening and forgets to take out the trash, he shrugs it off as the usual. But the hours continue to tick away and still no response from Margo.  He’s getting annoyed and finally very, very worried.

It reaches the point his daughter is pronounced missing, an investigator named Rosemary Vick comes on the case, and David starts seeing a side of his daughter he never knew existed — namely because in the aftermath of his wife’s death (her mother) — they have never found the time to talk about it.

Instead, like many good conservative families, all put together and everything, they keep on living life like nothing’s wrong while loneliness and different types of rancor take hold. It hits a fever pitch when his daughter Margot is simply not responding and none of her “friends” have seen her in a couple days.

A story about a disconnected father and daughter all of a sudden becomes fodder for our thriller with more heady implications. There are compelling aspects to this film beyond the taut pulses of tension stretched for all they’re worth. I won’t make any claim this is an Ozu-like examination of familial relationships — the palette is not nearly as meticulous — but it’s trying, even going so far as to tackle the aftermath of grief.

More so, Aneesh Chaganty’s movie is made for The Internet Age. We exist in a world full of “catfishing” on the internet. So much gets promoted, lied about, and falsified in this identity theft, fake news, self-promotion era that we now live in. Where we share our condolences and show our grief to gain likes and follows but it feels like there’s no true investment — no authentic concern for loved ones and others being affected.

All these elements could not be more pertinent than right now and Searching makes the point of reminding us how much of this technology has blown up during our very lifetime. In some regards, the course this story takes as far as computer advances and windows desktops are concerned are akin to my life.

There is a chill factor that has the titillating tinge of Gone Girl but unfortunately, it is not capable of paying off in the same bone-chilling manner. The final twist — because there most assuredly is one — feels too much like the conclusion to a movie trying to find the perfect bow to tie everything together. The logic is not quite right as it fits the clean contours of a screenplay more than reality and as a result, it does not feel nearly risky enough.

The underlying problem begins with the concept, because such a conceit as this, playing out over social media, video, and with the always dubious screens on screens approach, runs the risk of feeling like a gimmick. Searching does well to use its assets in the opening minutes, setting up this family and this life and dropping hints of things that don’t seem quite right.

However, it becomes a slave to its own storytelling devices which hinders the scenario instead of aiding in the resolution. Because it is never willing to break out of this perspective even once and resultingly, the narrative does feel quite limiting, even cold.

Surely, technology does this to us — we could easily make this argument — but for the sake of the story, it starts feeling stagnant and repetitive, verging into seemingly more unrealistic territory as time goes on. The gimmick becomes a weakness instead of a powerful tool for creating a world itself. Unfortunately, the film suffers, no fault of Cho who does a valiant job.

Even with technology being so prevalent as a narrative device, it leads to more chinks in the armor so to speak. Because what begins as something fairly authentic and relatable starts to show more and more aspects that don’t feel like our lives anymore. Not simply someone going missing but how technology is utilized even in the everyday. These subsequent scenes feel slightly unnatural whereas the opening interludes where full of recognition with moments we all probably relate to.

The core issue is the human aspect being gone. It loses a heartbeat on its characters who are meant to make this thriller something to really get invested in. Searching never quite got me there, where I felt an innate connection. Again, noting the obvious irony, the screens got in the way.

3/5 Stars

Mission Impossible: Fallout (2018)

MI_–_Fallout.jpgTom Cruise is the closest thing we have to a modern marvel on the current cinema landscape. Despite being over 50 years old, it seems like he continues to redefine what it means to be an action hero in the 21st century. A lot of his brilliance stems from taking a page out of the playbook from generations gone by.

He is by no means Buster Keaton but he channels that same fearless energy that makes the movies feel like an arena of adrenaline-filled possibility. The important distinction is the very fact his films do not shy away from CGI and yet they find this perfect medium between real and practical stunts, paired with the limitless canvas current technology allows for.

Despite the obvious implications, it’s hard not to think of the double meaning of Fallout as Cruise finds himself skydiving, fighting, chasing, leaping, and bounding his way through his mission. He hangs suspended from an escaping helicopter in one perilous stunt that looks deserving of our trepidation.

There’s the noted seismic jump that literally leads to him breaking his leg because his convincing flailing momentum took him right into the side of a building — clinging to its edge — instead of lifting him over. Any number of toils and sacrifices he takes for the movie pay heavy dividends. As an audience, we can see his effort and applaud him for it.

Like Keaton before him, there is something attractive about a hero who is implacable. Nothing can stop them. Cruise even gets a motorcycle chase of his own no doubt worthy of Steve McQueen, if not even better (I can’t believe I said that).

It’s always a pleasure to admit a film has some stellar twists and Fallout more than delivers in this regard. Some are easily foreseeable and a couple might catch just about everyone off guard. As it should be. However, at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter because the story does not put all its eggs in this single basket. Once the twists are done with, there are still so many other reasons to stay engaged.

If we are to believe Hitchcock, it is not about these sudden payoffs but this maintained sense of constant tension and impending doom. Fallout grabs us in its opening scene and will not dare let up. Writer-director Christoper McQuarrie is in such a unique position because, with the aid of Cruise, he has created his own personal sandbox to work with, while running with Ethan Hunt and the Mission Impossible universe that has been bequeathed to him.

He feels more than comfortable with these characters and the world and this allows him to employ a certain amount of torque and elasticity to stretch it to its utter limit. This is far from Bruce Geller’s franchise headlined by Peter Graves in the 1960s. MI has been cross-pollinated with Bond, Bourne, and anything else you can imagine from Jackie Chan to the plethora of modern spy TV programs on the airwaves.

What sets it apart is the specificity of this world and this we can attribute back to McQuarrie. Vagueness, austere execution, and bland beats will get you nowhere in this day and age. Sure, we have the overarching MacGuffin. There are the three plutonium cores being bandied about for the life of Ethan Hunt’s nemesis Solomon Lane, underlined by the threat of mercenary terrorists operating based on his influence across the globe.

A plethora of covert organizations all have a hand in these international affairs. One of them is MIA headed by Alec Baldwin, another the CIA with Angela Basset. She has brought in her own man (Henry Cavill) to finish up business. In her eyes, Ethan Hunt has already jeopardized the job; he cannot be trusted to see it to completion. If these organizations are purportedly on the same team (along with MI6), one can only imagine what happens when they cross paths with their real enemies mixed in with social terrorists and opportunists like White Widow (Vanessa Kirby). But every antagonistic, tension-filled dynamic is all crucial for there to be a story of any conflict and consequence.

However, the meaning is aggregated because of what our hero is up against. Stakes of a personal nature are almost imperative because they take these broad social issues with heady implications and place them right in the wheelhouse of a hero. It’s no coincidence Ethan Hunt is touted for caring for individual people around him because this influences how he saves the world. It’s full of humanity. It also complicates his life like nothing else.

Not only is Lane still on the loose, conducting a mission of not simply anarchy but out and out revenge, he’s after Ethan and those close to him. Because the friendships of Luther and Benji run thick and deep. He will do just about anything to protect his buddies. The same goes for Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson) who inevitably ties into the action. In my estimation, Ferguson remains one of my favorite action heroes, full of resiliency, wit, and most important of all, a believable amount of humanity.

In this particular story, their relationship is plagued by the hazards of such an occupation, making excruciating choices, and finding people you care about on the other end of a kill list. But to Hunt, the important differentiation is that these are not liabilities (although they might seem to be), as much as they are what sets him apart. And if you thought the connections end there, you’d be very much mistaken. Someone else very important to him (Michelle Monahan) turns up again.

This film is constantly twisting and turning, bursting with movement and setpieces galore but it simultaneously builds to a genuinely satisfying crescendo. This would not be possible without the legitimate character dynamics built over the years. Even someone like me — a relative latecomer to the franchise — can feel the gravitational pull between these people. There is a weight to the relationships even within this context of cloak and dagger danger.

In the end, the final act feels like a textbook example of cross-cutting because we have three strands that we’re constantly invested in. We care about the characters in peril but also about their objectives. Each one ties into this greater mission and the ultimate resolution of our story.

Disarming a bomb is a staple and alone it would seem trite. It’s reinforced by the other parties tracking down the second plutonium core conveniently stationed with a clandestine Lane, now in hiding.

Simultaneously Hunt fearlessly tracks a helicopter carrying the prop that must be retrieved if all the other tasks are not to be for naught. It’s a throwaway object really but what makes up for it is the continued tenacity of Cruise to take on the stunts and make the action sequences compelling — that and special effects, of course. But we don’t feel completely bloated by them. There is enough personal interaction to make it feel accessible even on this harrowing scale.

We finally reach the peak and just as it seems we’ll either be blasted to oblivion or tossed over the cliffside, the release valve is hit with ultimate satisfaction. This is without a doubt one of the most exhilarating rushes available over the past summer. There’s little left to do but be flabbergasted by Tom Cruise. Top Gun was so long ago. Even the original Mission Impossible is now over 20 years old. Yet he remains as a lucrative action star and for the time being, he isn’t going anywhere.

4/5 Stars

Night Nurse (1931)

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We’re introduced to the day-to-day in a hospital ward with mothers giving birth, delinquents under police custody, and bootleggers coming in on the lamb with mysterious ailments. Barbara Stanwyck arrives in the office inquiring about a position as a nurse and she is flatly rejected for her references and lack of a full high school education.

Reluctantly she exits only to make a connection in the revolving door with a white-haired genial doctor (Charles Winninger) who pulls some strings and lands her a spot as a trainee. Her roommate and guide to this new existence is the lively Maloney (Joan Blondell). The male interns send her a warm welcome too. Namely a skeleton in her bed which gets her in particular trouble during a late night bed check from the head nurse who rules the nurses quarters with an iron fist.

This is all only a setup of the films main concerns which have roots in sordid drama and soap opera-like thrills. The melodrama comes into full view as we are introduced to none other than a mustache-less macho Clark Gable who upon being asked who he is, replies “Nick the Chauffeur” only to be captured in closeup while eliciting a gasp from a night nurse.

It’s textbook stuff and then he proceeds to wallop her as she tries to use the telephone. But a smidgen of context is in order. Lora starts her first shift as a night nurse looking after two darling little girls. But from what she can tell they are systematically being starved and their perpetually tipsy mother, Mrs. Ritchie, seems to have very little input. Meanwhile, the doctor who took over the case when Dr. Bell was deposed is shady at best. All the while, Nick leers and strong arms his way around, making sure that Lora doesn’t do anything against the doctor’s orders. Conveniently that means no nourishment.

But “Little Miss Iodine” doesn’t go down without a fight. With the girls slowly wasting away upstairs and needless extravagant parties being held continually downstairs with booze freely flowing, Lora lays down the law. She smacks the girls’ mother around a little for her parental negligence. Also, it turns out that Lora’s new boyfriend comes in handy when he’s not bootlegging. They make a swell couple.

On the whole, this picture of emaciation is slightly disjointed and hyperbolic in its own right. There’s also probably too liberal an amount of undressing on camera. Because it’s only purpose is to be provocative.

I’m not quite sure if I ever figured out the mechanics of it all but there is an undeniable fury to it and William Wellman directs it as such through every beat from comedy to romance to mystery thriller. So with stalwart performances by Stanwyck and a no-good Clark Gable on the rise, matched by a certain enigmatic potency, there is enough meat here to make it a mildly diverting Pre-Code effort.

3/5 Stars