In Memoriam: Remembering Kirk Douglas (1916-2020)

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One of the greats is gone. At 103 years of age, Issur Danielovitch, known to movie lovers over as Kirk Douglas has finally left us.

In full transparency, if he was up against Robert Mitchum I would have probably sided with Bob. If he was facing off with Burt Lancaster I might have gravitated to Burt. But there was something so fiery and passionate about Kirk Douglas making him simultaneously one of the great action heroes and villains over an illustrious career.

Because he thrived on ferocity, conflict, and volatility before the days of Brando and company. In the 40s he knuckled down with the aforementioned men in seminal film noir like Out of the Past and I Walk Alone.

His first truly blistering protagonist proved to be the ambitious boxer Midge in Champion, and he would set a beeline for parts channeling the same energy straight to the top. Take anything like Detective Story, Ace in the Hole, and Bad and The Beautiful to get an idea.

If you take stock of these portrayals their altogether fearless. They are not consumed with being likable or palatable. They have sleaze and corruption dripping all over them but they’re also unmistakably magnetic. You can’t take your eyes off them.

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In many ways, Douglas felt as fearless in life as he was on screen. As he gained more clout he used his powers to pick uncompromising material. Paths of Glory, directed by Stanley Kubrick, is one of his finest hours as a stirring statement and morose portrait of war.

Is it an obvious cliche to say he had a Lust for Life in line with the characters he played including Vincent Van Gogh and Spartacus? Certainly, it is, but why belabor the point.

It was the latter film which galvanized his pronouncement for generations of parodies (For me it was in Community). And yet all kidding aside, it was this very same antithetical, and wildly popular biblical epic that helped crush the gates of the blacklist.

Douglas was one of the few men with the guts (and the sway) to call on the irrepressible talents of blacklist poster boy Dalton Trumbo and still get away with it.

If these few passing bits of observation were all his life had to offer, it would be well worth acknowledging. There’s so much more that I don’t even have the time or knowledge to fully cover. I will simply leave you with this. Kirk Douglas will be dearly missed because he loomed large over the industry.

To be fair we aren’t simply paying tribute to him because he was one of the last living testaments to the days of Old Hollywood though that holds true. We are remembering him in part because he had his fingerprints all over the film industry for generations. You cannot talk about the classical period of the 20th century without rubbing up against his influence.

There is a reason he was placed #17 on The American Film Institute’s list of screen legends. Not simply as a token award, but because it was well-warranted. As someone who is invested in sharing the world of classic cinema with others, he will be dearly missed. But the beauty of film is the fact he will not be forgotten.

Those who love or (even in my case) deeply admire his talents, will look to pass them on.

R.I.P. Kirk.

To many of us, you were Spartacus…and there’s nothing wrong with that.

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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

Zelig (1983) and Gordon Willis’s Mimicry of Classical Hollywood

Zeligposter.jpgI never thought I’d be saying this about a Woody Allen film, but it feels more like a technical marvel than purely a testament to story or dialogue. Although The Purple Rose of Cairo did something similarly compelling, Zelig is literally a film relying on a look that is authentic to a time period. Allen even goes so far as using old-fashioned cameras, lenses, and techniques to try and get them as close to classic filmmaking as possible.

Preceding the cutting-edge footage in Forrest Gump, we have Woody Allen as his alter ego, Leonard Zelig, being inserted in all sorts of images. It’s spliced together in such a seamless way we wonder if some scenes were simply chosen because they featured a lookalike of Allen to fit with the rest of the film.

Shot as an obvious mockumentary, which could be likened to Citizen Kane‘s News Marches On segment, one might concede Zelig is humorous in a similar vein. It’s not like Take The Money and Run (1969), Sleeper (1973), or even Annie Hall (1977), each offering genuinely zany and laugh-out-loud gags.

By playing something so ludicrously out of left field, completely straight, Allen has his comedy. He goes to the furthest extreme to make this feel like a real Ken Burns-esque documentary complete with talking heads giving their dry, poorly lit commentary from the present. They lend this credence, this seemingly real-world ethos, to something so utterly ridiculous. This juxtaposition gets at the humor precisely.

The story itself isn’t much of anything at all, loosely tied together over the course of an hour. Zelig (Woody Allen) is a generally non-descript Jewish man (Allen’s usual archetype) with a curious tendency brought on by an undying need for approval.

Dr. Eudora Fletcher (Mia Farrow) is intent on helping him and confirming her findings that he is indeed suffering from a chameleon-like disorder, causing him to transform his appearance to assimilate with whoever he’s with. It could be politically, socially occupationally, even racially, as he is found speaking Chinese and frequenting an African-American jazz club in two separate instances.

In the good doctor’s presence, he conveniently thinks he’s also a psychologist trying to do therapy with her, even having a fine approximation of the vocational jargon. But this is just a cursory sign to a much deeper-seated issue.

It turns out he’s unwittingly duped tons of people with wives married, babies delivered, and all sorts of other feats and accomplishments undertaken in different lives. He’s the most interesting man in the world who consequently has no idea about any of his accomplishments.

The laundry list of real-life icons is too delightful to pass over from F. Scott Fitzgerald, Charles Lindbergh, Al Capone, Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Bobby Jones, and the list keeps on going and going. William Randolph Hearts himself (a Kane archetype) and his mistress Marion Davies show up along with Charlie Chaplin, Clara Bow, Carole Lombard, Marie Dressler and a host of others I failed to mention. You get the idea. It’s among the ranks of all these folks, Zelig was able to take on his chameleon-like personality and win their friendship.

It also occurred to me that Allen always makes his admiration for Ingmar Bergman fairly obvious. Like the other director’s films, which are always inhabited by interesting female characters, Allen settled on his own muses in Dianne Keaton and Mia Farrow. Farrow in this picture, captured completely in black and white, even gives a striking visual approximation of Liv Ullmann in Persona. I’m not sure, but it seems too close not to be an obvious nod, albeit with a typical Allen twist. The added punchline is that Farrow’s character ultimately falls for her highly neurotic patient. It’s of little surprise.

Like many of the New York-based auteur’s work, Zelig doesn’t leave me with any nuggets I want to hold onto. Conceptually, it’s somewhat arresting and the execution is phenomenal. I can understand with all the credits to his name why Gordon Willis might have considered this to be one of the most difficult he ever undertook.

If I were the director of photography, I would want to pull my hair out too. But his work and attention to authenticity is probably the greatest takeaway from Zelig. Modern films pale in comparison when it comes to mimicking the past. There’s little to no contest. If nothing else, Zelig stands as the crown jewel of Classical Hollywood mimesis.

3.5/5 Stars

Note from September 2018: I did not address the allegations to Allen in this review, but I must acknowledge they now linger over any film of his we watch, especially those seen in retrospect. It’s a topic I do not know enough about, and I do not feel privy to the conversation, so I will leave it to others at the moment.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4/5 Stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3.5/5 Stars

Transit (2018): Casablanca in The Modern Day

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4/5 Stars

Slacker (1991): Richard Linklater’s Ultimate Independent Film

Slackerposter.jpgKudos must be extended to Richard Linklater for actually being proactive and going out to shoot the movie countless of us have doubtlessly tossed around in our mind’s eye. Taking our town — the places we know intimately — and building a portmanteau out of it with a group of friends.

There’s nothing flashy or that original about this universal concept per se, but it always strikes one as more than just a straightforward story. There is a bit of artistry to its execution, while still functioning on the most shoestring of budgets.

Even one of my favorite bands in high school, Reliant K made their own rendition involving a soccer ball. But again, Linklater has time and history on his side, because he was the one who actually got it made. Few others would have the wherewithal to get it off the drawing board.

What’s more, Slacker actually has some genuine life to it by capturing a very specific subculture and locale like a time capsule of 1990s Austin, Texas. It takes pieces of the world he knows and promotes them to a wider audience, which is one of the cool perks of cinema. It’s able to take a localized image and globalize it, despite how humble the reach might have been, to begin with.

Better yet, the up-and-coming director dares to open the picture with his own monologue, musing about his dreams and alternate realities to his uninterested taxi driver. He teases a hypothetical scenario where he was invited into a beautiful girl’s hotel room just for standing at the bus stop. He matter-of-factly curses to himself that he should have stayed behind, before picking up his bags to go, effectively choosing a different fate.

From thenceforward, the camera is on the move as well. Because this isolated sequence is only one among a whole bunch of other asides helping to predict the conversing integral to The Before Trilogy or even a more communal vision like Dazed and Confused. Though the characters nor the dialogue builds that same type of rapport with the audience, one could easily argue they are not supposed to.

This is a near stream-of-consciousness exercise with the camera following its whims, roving around, and taking an almost bipolar interest in everything. You get the sense Linklater knew full-well what he wanted to capture; still, he makes it look organic. There’s this constant mixture of intellectualization and socializing going on.

A mother is run over by a car. A husker sings his tune on a street corner. People run into each other serendipitously. Handheld walk-and-talk scenarios make the action simple and fast.

Some of the characters are definitely “whack,” but that’s all part of the fun. The dialogue grabs hold of any weird quirk or a bit of oddness it can from conspiracy theories, aliens, television, the JFK assassination, anarchy, literally anything at all.

This one is an important landmark of indie filmmaking right up there with Cassavetes works or Soderbergh’s Sex, Lies, and Videotape (1989), paving the way for everything from Clerks to the wave of indies that came to fruition in the mid-90s and early 2000s.

While I don’t find it quite compelling in this given era, there’s no way to underplay what it means for movies. Many are indebted to Linklater, and the beauty is that the director is still churning out quality work, both personal and commercial.

In fact, I’m a little in awe of him, because it seems like he’s constantly managing to make the projects he wants. He will not give up on his own artistic aspirations. In the age of the blockbuster, those are admirable motivations.

3/5 Stars

Garden of Evil (1954): Starring Gary Cooper and Richard Widmark

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It does feel like one of the grand old westerns we left behind in more recent years. It’s a big picture in the horizontal majesty of widescreen, Glorious Technicolor, backed by the only score Bernard Hermann would ever arrange for the West. There’s little doubt we are in for a spectacle of the highest order.

Maybe Richard Widmark doesn’t look as good in color as the shrouds of noir, but he can act. Here he’s a poker player who fancies himself a poet on the side. As he gets off at an isolated Mexican outpost, he’s yakking away to the typically taciturn Gary Cooper. The taller fellow plods by his side quietly amused by everything coming out of the Widmark’s mouth.

They are joined by a third man (Cameron Mitchell) biding their time en route to the goldfields of California by listening to the floor show (Rita Moreno) at the local cantina. I do relish films that take place in multiple languages; perhaps it humbles me. Because as I’m no longer living near a Latino community and I haven’t studied in a long time, my Spanish is rusty, so I can only pick up bits and pieces. I am at the mercy of others.

But it also means Gary Cooper can pay a major service to the audience. He translates for us and with that comes an added depth to his character. He’s knowledgeable and must have been around. How does he know the language? We don’t know right off so it teases us to stick around in order to find out.

It’s quite relaxing until Susan Hayward bursts in on the men, effectively dropping the whole reason for the picture right in their laps. An adventure is afoot, and they take it up with few reservations. It doesn’t seem to cross their minds to question any of it; the compensation waved in front of them is high enough. Maybe they maintain their own private reasons. Soon they’re journeying through a mountain pass in order to help save the woman’s stranded husband (Hugh Marlowe).

A perfect moment on the road — making sure we’re aware of the stakes — features a dislodged frying pan clattering down below, ricocheting off the rock faces, and echoing through the canyon as it makes its descent.

As things progress, it becomes apparent the fine line between brooding and dull is a difficult one. It certainly is, more often than not, a slow burn with Widmark waxing philosophical and Cooper projecting an air of constant clear-sightedness about the world. He never loses his head. The rest of the time we’re waiting for something.

The confrontation between Hooker (Cooper) and the hothead Daly (Mitchell) is a particular sequence to relish as the young gun not once, but twice, is sent somersaulting on his back — his butt nearly putting out the fire and getting singed as a result. By the end of his drubbing, he’s practically rolling in it, and he’s been made to look terribly foolish.

But like Way of The Gaucho, the on-location shooting is what the movie can boast about the most. The action is middling and dull at best, because it’s a long haul to get a payoff.  We are waiting for things to come to a head and while Indians are said to be brewing up in the hills, they only show themselves briefly.

Oddly, Susan Hayward is thanklessly cast as the villain-turned-hero. Maybe it has to do with the time the picture came out since she hardly gets the delicious part of a femme fatale. More often than not, she feels like a scapegoat, that is until everyone realizes how faithful she is. It’s too little too late.

By the end of the story, the emotions lack resonance, because they haven’t built up into anything truly believable with continuity we can easily trace. It does feel a bit like running through the paces just to get to the marks, and it’s difficult to say given the talent on hand. They are a fine host of actors.

It’s possible to cast a bit of the blame on Frank Fenton’s script, which has fun with some dialogue — getting a bit profound about male avarice and passion — while supplying the actual plot little meat.

Gary Cooper and Richard Widmark too were always men of action, but there’s not enough here for them to accomplish. By the time they have chances to do what is purportedly brave and heroic, the deep recesses of meaning looking to be excavated are hollow — even strangely so, because we truly want there to be more, and there isn’t.

3/5 Stars

Rawhide (1951): Tyrone Power and Susan Hayward

220px-Poster_of_Rawhide_(1951_film).jpgThough it’s easy for this film to be overshadowed by Clint Eastwood’s Rowdy Yates, in retrospect, Rawhide is a spare outpost western nevertheless loaded with tension and talent. It is set against the backdrop of a network of stagecoaches transporting mail across the continental United States.

Rawhide Station is one such spot looked after by old-hand stationmaster, Sam Todd (Edgar Buchannan). He has been entrusted with training up young Easterner Tom Owens (Tyrone Power), whose father is division manager of the overland mail. This is a bit of on-the-job training before he moves back to the comfort of the East.

Power is slightly past his matinee idol prime, but he can still pretty nearly fake it with his dashingly handsome good looks. Meanwhile, Buchannan is always ready to be called upon, in a pinch, to play such a scraggly type, aided by his gravel-filled throat. It gives him instant credibility.

For whatever reason, Henry Hathaway is rarely remembered as a director, but when you take stock of his work, both in westerns and noir films, he really does have quite the catalog to his name over a very prodigious career spanning decades. Scriptwriter Dudley Nichols had a prominent career of us own as did cinematographer Milton Krasner. Thus, the technical credentials on the film are quite an impressive array.

But what makes Rawhide actually take as a contentious tale of the West is the rest of the cast. My, oh my, is the cast good. It’s stacked with a steady, reliable group who know their parts and play them handily. It’s tough to choose a standout.

Because Owens finds himself being held hostage by a pack of escaped convicts on the trail for gold. It just so happens a feisty young woman (Susan Hayward), toting a child back east, also has the unpleasant fortune of getting caught in their crosshairs.

This man, still fresh-behind-the-ears, is forced to grow up right quick in the face of such a dubious bunch. Hugh Marlowe plays an exceptionally perceptive bandit calling the shots, saddled by the trio of incompetents he broke out of prison with.

Jack Elam, with that wall-eyed stare of his, made a living for himself as one of the great heavies of all time, right up there with Lee Van Cleef. Because their eyes say it all. He’s the most lascivious of the bunch, prone to violent acts and leering at pretty women. Zimmerman has his hands full because while his other two cronies are older and more obedient, they’re no less dumb. Dean Jagger plays a near grandfatherly old coot while George Tobias is the scruffy foreigner Gratz.

As we settle in for the long hall, Rawhide becomes a game of survival in pursuit of incremental victories like trying to sneak S.O.S. notes to incoming travelers. Then, they manage to swipe a knife from the kitchen to begin chiseling an exit out of their room on the road to escape. All the while, in the back of their mind, they’re thinking about staying alive so they can find the gun dropped out by the corrals. It’s the faintest of hopes

They are further concerned with protecting the young progeny Vinnie has vowed to take care of ever since the passing of her sister in California. It all matters because each individual piece is a single entity in this entire patchwork of cat and mouse — a chess match playing out on all sides. What hangs in the balance are the lives of all those involved. When those are the constant stakes, it’s extremely difficult to have a tedious story.

In a single instance, the tripwires start going off, and the bodies start tumbling. We hold our breath to see who will make it out alive in such a precarious showdown. It plays its hand well. Power readily accepts the challenge at hand with grit and determination, while Susan Hayward has nerves of iron packing a shotgun to finish the job.  The harrowing adventure gives us two stalwart heroes in the end.

In considering our leads, it does feel as if Power is making a concerted effort to maintain his box office pull, while Rawhide feels more like a stepping stone for Susan Hayward as her career progressed to continually more interesting parts in the 50s. But in neither case does it feel like we’re dealing with preening stars. They ably claw and fight for survival with the pack of criminals in their stead.

I will admit the way the story is bookended as just another tale along the “jackass mail” line from San Francisco to St. Louis, “Oh Susannah” playing in the background, somehow cheapens what we’ve witnessed. It seems to momentarily lose its credibility as a grind-it-out western. Maybe we can just say it’s faulty advertising and leave it at that. Otherwise, Rawhide has more in common with the lean constructions of Budd Boetticher than any kind of superficial high-adventure cowboy picture. It comes with real guts.

3.5/5 Stars