Big Deal on Madonna Street (1958): A Heist Comedy of Errors

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If you need only one scene to be indicative of everything Big Deal on Madonna Street exemplifies as a caper comedy, the opening scene puts it out on a platter, ready for consumption.

A shrimpy man with a mustache waits on the street corner as a lookout while another named Cosimo (Memmo Carotenuto) busts open a window to hotwire a car. Except he totally bungles getting nabbed by the cops for his efforts. Even as the alarm goes off, he’s too much of a stiff to make a break for it. Now he’s on the inside, and he deserves it, if not for his botched crime, then at least for being a numbskull.

But he’s also an idea man looking to get out of the can as soon as possible. The job now is finding someone to be his scapegoat. It’s not as easy as it sounds. Everyone has their underlining excuses. A wife already in prison. A baby to take care of. Previous prison time. It’s difficult to scrounge someone up when all your dopey friends are two-bit crooks.

Finally, they settle on Peppe (Vittorio Gassman), a beefcake with a glass jaw. He has no prior record and with a dead-end boxing career, he could use the dough. So he goes into the police precinct, lays out his sob story, and proceeds to get handed a prison sentence of his own. Now he’s in the clink to keep Cosimo company.

He requests at least the common courtesy to know why he had to end up in prison in the first place. Cosimo tells him about a golden opportunity in the form of a heist. He’s got it all planned in his head, sans all the gory details. Regardless, it’s going to be the crime of the century, or the decade, or the year, or maybe the month…You get the idea.

When he finally gets on the outside on parole, it’s now Peppe who gathers the usual suspects together to put their plans into action. Their first mistake is probably taking their cues from a lug head, but they’re desperate and a little loopy themselves.

Soon they’re casing the joint and making sure they know what they’re getting into. It’s all very “scientific,” but not quite foolproof. They’ve watched one too many crime movies. The first professional they actually cross paths with is a safecracker (Toto) — a real pro — but he just gives them advice; he’s not actually prepared to take on the job for himself. He’s got his own parole to think about. And so he supplies them some of the tools of his trade and wishes them well.

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Normally heist stories are constructed in a very specific manner. There’s the planning process, then the heist, and the reversal where everything goes haywire. Big Deal is made entirely in its foundation — the best-laid plans that have no choice but to go awry — and their continued complications and digressions only make the scenario more hilarious. Rest assured, we foresee the problems before they ever come to a head. How can we not? But they proceed to get worse and worse.

The vacant apartment they were going to use as their in-road has been filled and so they look to woo one of the tenants so they can gain access. Peppe dons his most charming persona to get a foot in the door, except he goes and falls in love with a maid (Carla Gravina) he’s supposed to be romancing, getting jealous of her steady row of suitors. Then, she gets herself fired and the whole reason she was of value to them in the first place goes out the window. Peppe still loves her.

What ever happened to Cosimo, you ask? He finally gets out, intent on his cut, only to then seek vengeance on his former compatriots, going so far as to ambush Peppe in the carnival’s bumper cars. The youngster Mario (Renato Salvatori) starts his own forbidden love affair with the chaste younger sister (Claudia Cardinale) of one of their co-conspirators. Soon he loses heart and drops out. The family man, Tibero (Marcello Mastrianni), struggles to take care of his son. He also gets his arm broken nabbing a camera for recon. Worse yet, the camera’s worthless.

Their luck never gets better, nor should it. When it comes time to synchronize their watches, of course, they don’t have any. They’re either too expensive or already hocked. A lover’s quarrel heats up, and with it, the lights go on, cutting into the crew’s surreptitious activities up above on the rooftops.  Their timetable is abruptly derailed.

Big Deal on Madonna Street milks comedy from the telling observation that life is never picture perfect and even the most tightly wrought plans have a way of being unraveled or upended by the most unsubstantial wrinkle. These fellows aren’t exactly master criminals to begin with so their brand of setbacks more than fit the size and scope of the crime.

When they do finally get inside, there are leaks. Noises. Cats. Midnight snacks. Major miscalculations. They continue bumbling their way through every waking minute and we wouldn’t have it any other way. Normally heist films go horribly amiss at the most inopportune moment. In Big Deal on Madonna Street, they shoot themselves in the foot countless times, and still, they go for it anyway.

You’ve got to admire their dogged determination and this motley crew is quite likable. It comes from knowing they are criminals who never will succeed. They are armed with a prevailing obliviousness. We can laugh at them and like them, and watch them stumble off into their lives, after having made a complete mess of everything.

Part of this comes with walking with them in their lives and seeing them as commonfolk with all the foibles that come with small-town life. What a lovable pack of misfits and malcontents they are and we learn them to appreciate them for precisely these reasons. They’re unequivocally silly. If nothing else, they provided their audience with some quality entertainment. As a heist film shot as a comedy of errors, Madonna Street has never quite found its equal.

4/5 Stars

The Shop Around The Corner (1940): A Christmas Love Story

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The Shop Around The Corner samples a Hollywood-style Hungary that nevertheless establishes it as a much humbler, quieter picture than seasoned Lubitsch aficionados might be accustomed to. It’s subsequently one of his best efforts for this very reason. There’s an intimacy to it, recalling his own upbringing working in his father’s tailor shop based out of Berlin, during his youth.

Initially, it feels like curious casting — James Stewart playing a Hungarian is absurd and he makes no attempt at an accent — and yet Lubitsch had the foresight to understand his appeal. He lacks all the suavity and urbanity normally associated with the director’s creations. In fact, for an American audience beginning to grow used to Stewart’s own steadily rising star, they connected with his disposition since it was very much the antithesis of stereotypical Hollywood or the highbrow of 1930s Lubitsch pictures. But it is the tone that matters most.

Because, again, this is not Hungary in the flesh — it is out of the mind of Lubitsch, a creation of nostalgia, warmth, and sentimentality — and on its streets, Stewart is more than at home. He fits the spirit of what The Shop Around The Corner cordially represents.

It is not a place right in front of us but just out of reach in the near-beyond of our memories and our imaginations. It represents our hopes and high ideals, even the sentiments of hope wrapped up in the Christmas season. Stewart as a figure — a token — is somehow able to stand in for so many things.

But there is more to it. Stewart delivers something a bit more substantial than his “aww shucks” persona, which was continually teased out leading up to the days of Mr. Smtih Goes to Washington. There’s also a stern assertiveness present, ready to come out; it just needs a spark, some point of instigation.

Enter Margaret Sullavan, his perfect counterpart and sparring partner. Her breathy delivery is quiet and understated, while still somehow implying this spunky resilience residing inside her character. This is what Sullivan brings to the part herself, earning a reputation as a demanding and “difficult” performer who sent shivers down the spines of major studio magnates, knowing full-well what she wanted. As a result, she found initial success though she’s mostly forgotten today.

Accordingly, her Klara Novak turns out to be a crackerjack saleswoman, at first pleading for a job, then proving Mr. Kralik’s rebuttals wrong by turning right around and earning employment. This sets the stage for their prevailing antagonism from which a love story must bloom. 

But that comes a bit later. The movie opens with all the staff of Matuschek and Co. congregating outside before the workday commences waiting for the front door to be opened by their employer.

Frank Morgan is Mr. Mathuchek, a blustering and a demanding fellow who can never quite make up his mind about the shop’s inventory. For that, he trusts his most faithful and pragmatic right-hand man Kralik (James Stewart), who has been the company’s longest-serving employee. If there are any decisions to be made, he’s the man to make them.

Felix Bressart is a fine family man and friend who always has a habit of fleeing the scene when the boss is requesting personal opinions. What he provides is quiet stability and an encouraging ear to Kralik.

Among the other current employees is the brownnoser with fine threads Vadas and the precocious errand boy Pepi (William Tracy) who does everything in his power to get ahead. With their communal workspace, a number of things come to pass. The relationship between Kralik and Ms. Novak continues turbulently as she manages to sell one of their useless purchases to an unsuspecting customer — a cigarette box that plays “Ochi Chernye.”

Simultaneously, Mr. Kralik is maintaining letter correspondence with an unknown paramour who engages his intellect on ideas of art, culture, and literature. One is reminded how The Shop Around The Corner extrapolates the axiom of not judging a book by its cover. Closely related is the fallacy of getting caught up in books such that you fail to see and comprehend the reality playing out right in front of your nose.

You read Anna Karenina, Madame Bovary, Dostoevsky, only to realize the people living and breathing right beside you are not only more than what’s meets the eye — they are simultaneously writing their own stories. We can’t always mold them to fit the narratives we know. Both Ms. Novak and Mr. Kralik seem to know these issues intimately without realizing it.

Because this is a Lubitsch picture, irony comes into play quite early; although it’s difficult to know if Stewart or the audience come up with the answers first. Maybe it hits us at the same time. If you don’t already know what it is, I’m not licensed to say. Allow it to happen to you.

Meanwhile, for some unseen reason, Mr. Matuschek grows cold and distant — going so far as relieving Kralik of his post in an uncharacteristic move. It’s the film at one of its lowest points. This was the fountain of all Kralik’s joy until he is so unceremoniously plucked from his position. Because we realize this job is his life, these people his extended family. Even Ms. Novak feels sorry that they must say goodbye, though patching things together might be altogether too little too late.

Sampson Raphaelson’s story kindly reconciles this conflict as Kralik and Mr. Mathuschak smooth out the situation. What still remains is the meeting with his mysterious correspondent. The Christmas season is upon the shop, and they work tirelessly to have the biggest sales in Christmas Eve history. They succeed. It’s punctuated by holiday bonuses for everyone, a soft powdering of snow, and genial celebrations all around — even for lonely Mr. Matchuchek.

This could be the end, but of course, we cannot forget the main reason Lubitsch has cast his eye on this inauspicious shop. Among many other things, it’s to unpack themes of love. The lights are low in the backroom, and Kralik is trying to get the words out, playing up the piece of jewelry he bought for his unseen beau.

Ms. Novak tries to accept her own fate with fortitude as her former rival tramples over her dreams with a reality check. Their words meet midsentence as she recites the recitations from her own dream suitor:

“True love is to be two, and yet one.”

“A man and a woman blended as angels.”Heaven itself.” That’s Victor Hugo. He stole that.”

“I thought I was the inspiration for all those beautiful thoughts. Now I find he was just copying words out of a book. He probably didn’t mean a single one of them.”

“I’m sorry you feel this way about it.”

She’s been led to believe he’s a balding, chubby fellow playing at a great romantic. As it turns out, he’s lanky and bowlegged, but not without his charms; he meant every single word. He says to her, “Take your key and open the post office box and take me out of my envelope and kiss me.” His proclamation of love stops her cold as the recognition comes over her face. She follows suit soon enough, and there you have it…

No more fanfare is necessary. We have the cathartic moment as a romantic tree-topper that Stewart and Sullavan more than earn. Even right here, it’s the same old Lubitsch with an unequivocal knack for finding the most satisfying conclusion, whether in drawing room comedy or backroom romance.

4.5/5 Stars

Note: I wrote this in conjunction with a series of reviews on the films of Margaret Sullavan released earlier this year.

Christmas in Connecticut (1945): Yuletide Cheer and The War’s End is Here

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Christmas in Connecticut functions as a fine way to cap off 1945, a year full of jubilation and relief for the American public. The war was finally over! Given this context, the setup might feel familiar. A sailor who was shipwrecked out at sea in the Pacific was rescued. Now he’s seeing the war from the sidelines in a hospital.

Because in the mind of the viewer the war is already won, it feels like a relief. Jefferson Jones (Dennis Morgan) is an American hero, and all he has to worry about are building his strength and getting to know the pretty southern belle nursing him back to full health. Still, with the holidays approaching, he can’t help yearning for a little bit of good old-fashioned Americana, the down-home comfort and hospitality he’s missed out on overseas.

A letter of request gets sent on his behalf and the old battle-ax, famed magazine publisher, Alexander Yardley (Sydney Greenstreet) catches wind of it. The idea is to serve up the soldier a meal in the home of famed columnist Elizabeth Lane, known for her idyllic farm, snow-covered nostalgia, and domestic tips and tricks. (The character was based on real-life Gladys Taber of Family Circle Magazine who actually lived on a farm in Connecticut)

As he could use a bit of comfort and home cooking himself, Yardley thinks it’s a fine suggestion, and he’s prepared to invite himself and the soldier out to the country for the holidays. He has no thought that it might be an inconvenience.

But of course, this is hardly the problem. It’s worse than that. Elizabeth Lane does not exist, at least not as vividly as she does on the pages of Yardley’s magazine captivating nationwide audiences coast to coast.

In truth, she lives in a drafty apartment overlooking the outside laundry as she knocks away at her typewriter eating sardines for breakfast. Because she’s no cook nor a wife with a baby and a farm. She’s more of a city girl living off a diet of independence and mink coats. Of course, no one knows about the sham aside from her and her editor.

What makes it worse is the fact Mr. Yardley is a very principled fellow and a stickler for printing the truth. If he ever caught wind of this charade, it would be the end. So to take stock of the damage, her boss is about to show up on her doorstep (one which she doesn’t have) for Christmas eve with an unwitting soldier who believes in what she comes to represent.

Barbara Stanwyck dons this kind of part with ease as the street-wise lifestyle columnist. She rides out the comedy with her usual aplomb, but she can play romance and the sentimental in a manner that doesn’t totally rob them of their import.

Men vying for her affection will be an ongoing theme throughout the picture and why not because Barbara Stanwyck is the picture of self-confident beauty with an undisputed vivacity.

The film is salvaged — from solely a narrative perspective — when she impulsively accepts the routine marriage proposal from her suitor, the wealthy businessman John Sloan. He’s been trying to get her hand in marriage for a time. This time she acquiesces and accepts. Might as well have some stability.

However, it’s also the decision leading the shambles around her to all slide into place. It gets to the point where they might have a fighting chance making the impression stick at least for a weekend. John will be her husband because he is, isn’t he? They’ll conveniently use his farm. Check. Uncle Felix (S.Z. Sakall) will come along to cook the meals. Now there’s just the issue of the baby…

They assemble everything to make a go at the charade. They call out a judge to perform the marriage before their arrivals show up. There’s one hitch. Jefferson shows up early! It’s a scramble to pull everything together but the game is on whether they like it or not!

Morgan is an old star I always find to be a bit blah if generally genial. Thankfully, the film is replete with a formidable supporting cast to round out the holiday household. Not least among them Sydney Greenstreet (in a rather uncharacteristic role), then S.Z. Sakall, and Una O’Connor.

Felix and Norah go to war in the kitchen with their equally pertinacious attitudes. After all, Sakall is the king of the kitchen and catastrophe while subsequently becoming the film’s most lovable secret weapon when the story gets convoluted and a savior is called to bring it back around.

The many scenarios are easy to list off: bathing the baby with company on hand, flipping flap jacks at the behest of Mr. Yardley, putting the cow to bed, and the most calamitous of all, the baby swallowing a watch! It’s the actual unraveling of the scenes which become most delightful because Stanwyck rides them out with her typical flair for situational comedy.

A major turning point comes at a festive dance where love blooms though it does give a strange impression to outsiders looking in. The “married” Mrs. Sloan looks to have taken a shining for the tall man in uniform and the feelings are mutual. But that’s quite out of the question. Think of the scandal. This would never do totally dousing the prevailing happiness brought on by the cessation of war.

Still, they take a magical sleigh ride together. Because one of them knows they are unattached and Morgan’s character is just naive and self-effacing enough for us to believe he would never have presumptuous intentions.

However, everything must come to a head as this is tantamount to Murphy’s law in cinema. In this movie, it’s thanks to a miscommunication and a kidnapped baby. One of the highlights of the movie is observing the subtle antagonism of Sakall toward Greenstreet. He mutters “Fat Man” which might be a fairly blatant reference to his incorrigible part in The Maltese Falcon.

However, they also go at it in the kitchen because Sakall is the glue and the matchmaker — everything required to hold the story together and see it to the desired ending. It means stopping Yardley in his tracks. In fact, these scenes are only topped by Stanwyck laying into the Fat Man of her own accord and then falling for Dennis Morgan as it’s meant to be. They really are 1 and 2 on the film’s greatest attractions.

In a movie such as this with snow, sleighs, a warm hearth, and friends and family, not to mention the end of WWII, what would the ending be without our protagonists wrapped up in each other’s arms? If you’re like wartime audiences with generous spirits, it’s excusable to find Christmas in Connecticut to be agreeable holiday entertainment as the mood strikes you.

3.5/5 Stars

Black Narcissus (1947): Another Archers Masterpiece

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Under their collaborative umbrella, The Archers, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger formed one of the most mystifying and extraordinary partnerships within the annals of British cinema history. Black Narcissus is just one of the many enchanting jewels in their collective crown.

Part of the acclaim must be heaped on Jack Cardiff because there’s little doubt; his compositions are absolutely stunning front to back. It starts with this gorgeous even intoxicating brand of Technicolor mingling the real and artificial in a manner on par with anything Hollywood was cranking out at the same time.

Whether through miniatures, grandiose matte paintings, or Pinewood Studio sets, it creates a spectacular illusion as a cinematic representation of the Himalayas. In perfect juxtaposition are the sculpted interiors with columns and facades bathed in this equally mesmerizing patchwork of glowing light and meticulous shadows. Not in the sleazy low-grade setups of film noir, but rather like the Rembrandts and Carravagios might have done it in their Baroque works.

One of the earliest images to leave an impression comes from the POV of two nuns as they gaze down at a cruciform table with nuns moving about for their daily meal.

Deborah Kerr as Sister Clodagh comes off somehow regal in her white habit, proud and imperious, even as she sets out assiduously to manage the task at hand. The Sister Superior divvies out her allotted help scrounging up a task force of sorts, within the convent walls, to send out into the world and form a community.

Admittedly, the veteran sister has her doubts about the youthfulness of her counterpart, chiding her pupil, “The superior of all is the servant of all.” This is her word of admonition as they head off to face the unknown set before them.

I’ve never fully considered the methodology of the habit and yet purely from a cinematic perspective, what it does is put all the focus on an individual’s face — their features and, thus, their emotions speak for them. Then, of course, hidden under the garb is their heart and this is the seat of all their actions whether sympathetic or callous. Otherwise, they might all look the same. But of course, the head and the heart are what set us all apart.

While they are nestled in the Himalayas, there is some mention of Darjeeling, India as a stepping stone to civilization, and yet otherwise they are quite secluded. Still, they make it clear they are not merely looking for a place of solitude to live out a reclusive existence.

Mr. Dean (David Farrar), the knowledgeable yet resident cynic, is meant to be their point of contact to help them settle in, but his brusque often insinuating comments lingering in the air don’t begin the relations in a cordial manner. The fact he’s a handsome, strapping young specimen creates yet another layer of unspoken tension.

He explains the local General used to keep his women there — his concubines and wives — in a place where the nuns have plans to turn into a medical dispensary with a school and a space to minister to the needs of the local populations.

But there are numerous reasons to be uneasy. The people pile into their compound with their sick and old overwhelming the newly installed outpost. There’s also the wind, altitude, and disease which have a curious joint effect on the new transplants still trying to gain their legs.

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The sisters find everything distracting, even disturbing, and Sister Clodagh, for the first time in ages, finds her mind clouded by past memories — triggering flashbacks from her former life. Could it have been a mistake to join the order? Are these her nagging regrets come back to haunt her? She yearns for the liberation of a normal life, and she’s not the only one.

Likewise, the best encouragement she can muster against the elements and spiritual forces working against them is to, “work hard, work until you’re too tired to think of anything else.” She hasn’t been equipped by any other means, and it becomes obvious she will not be able to succeed with such a plan.

At the same time, they receive requests to take in a local outcast Kanchi (a bedazzled and brown-skinned Jean Simmons) known for her meretricious ways. Also, a young prince (Sabu) inquires about being a pupil within the establishment, which normally only caters to women and children.

We see the remnants of imperialistic disdain especially in Sister Ruth (a wildly manic Kathleen Byro). Far from being all marked with the image of a higher being, she sees the indigenous people around her as lesser beings whom she deigns to help in all their ignorance. It is this relationship between the enlightened few on Christian mission and the impoverished heathens.

We must come to terms with this complicated relationship even with Sabu playing opposite the Anglo Jean Simmons in brownface. Effectively a cross-cultural attraction forms between them even as he is her social and patriarchal superior within the storyline.

The aftermath of WWII also meant many displaced people groups were readily available to serve as extras in the picture, and in this regard, the film is blessed with some genuine sense of authenticity around the edges to counteract the whitewashing represented by Simmons, Edmond Knight, and May Hallat.

The film implicitly dances around these ideas. One moment the fiery-eyed Sister Ruth dismisses the young general as vain and black like a peacock. Although she does seem utterly tantalized by his lavish clothes and his pervasive scent: the titular black narcissus.

He’s also the one who on Christmas night says with all candor, ” I am very much interested in Jesus Christ.” Sister Clodagh extends him some leniency for speaking of their Lord and Savior with such familiarity. Ironically, it is the half-drunk Mr. Dean who chastizes her in the very same moment: “He should be casual and as much a part of life as your daily bread.” Truthfully, she doesn’t like it; it hits far too close to home, especially from a man of such ill-repute.

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While not quite the same sentiment as Luis Bunuel, there is something about the movie that proves unsettling in a religious context. There’s some unseen force, whether merely ill-fortune or closer still spiritual warfare, taxing them and splintering their meager enclave apart.

The two defined poles have been made obvious. Either you give yourself up to the world like Mr. Dean or live like the Holy Man. Neither will do for the Nuns who are stuck in the middle as the emblem of Christ in this far-off land.

After, the locals are scared off by the death of one of their infants and leave the Sisters all alone, hysteria sets in. With time, the impending psychological drama fills the world with unease. It has all these unnerving undercurrents accentuated by Cardiff’s own striking palette bursting with this vibrant even violent color scheme.

Mr. Dean matter-of-factly notes there is “something in the atmosphere that makes everything feel exaggerated.” The comments feel strikingly self-reflexive of the film’s own art direction burning images deep into our retinas.

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Still, the sisters are left drifting and dreaming through the world. It matches the, at times, hypnotic often queasy psychological torment in Hitchcock’s Vertigo to the point it pulls you in and wears on the psyche. That’s before even getting to the climax, which coincidentally also relies on a bell tower. It manages so much out of the very fact it is being manufactured to create a heightened impression of reality by manipulating the audience.

Even in the final scene, as the clouds envelop the castle high above and the Nuns are led off dejectedly in their little caravan, there’s nothing but this residual innervation. They must give up their mission and be humbled knowing they will be sent to other lowly assignments having failed by the world’s standards.

While India isn’t central to this story there is this lingering sense of colonialism as missionaries were often tied up with this since they were such a staple of the British Empire. There are enough movies to suggest this is true including The Bitter Tea of General Yen, Keys of The Kingdom, and 6 Women.

The rain starts to pour down in sheets as if signaling the end of something — something being totally overrun. Could it be the British Empire collapsing right in front of us? If you were curious like me, India officially gained independence in August 0f 1947. This was after Black Narcissus‘s release in the U.K. and during its run in the U.S.

Somehow they feel interlinked even as this story bursts out of the confines of reality under the exhilarating vision of The Archers. It remains an astounding feat in cinematic magic verging on the otherworldly, positively possessed by color. Like all the most enduring films, it stays with you long after the credits roll like a bewitching fragrance.

5/5 Stars

Marnie (1964): An Inflection Point in Hitchcock’s Career

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“You don’t love me. You just think I’m some kind of animal you trapped.”

Forgive me if you disagree, but Marnie has wrapped around it the full confidence of Alfred Hitchcock with all his trick and thematic ideas. Its use of visuals to cue the action. The intensity of both color and the swirling score of Bernard Hermann (indeed, his final with Hitch), creating this almost obsessive fever dream.

Tippie Hedren returns as an icy, calculated blonde more like Vertigo than The Birds, and it feels like with the talents at his disposal and his harnessing of all the studio system has to offer, he’s able to make it sing like a finely wrought orchestra. While not his best film, it stands proud and tall next to his most identifiable works.

If we are to tinker with the auteur theory, we must also acknowledge cinematographer Robert Burks, who had worked on over a dozen Hitchcock pictures. This would be his last. Then, editor George Tomasini, who had a stellar run with “The Master of Suspense” in his own right, would die in 1964. One could see how you could easily situate Marnie as the end of one of the most fertile periods of filmmaking and also the most terrifying.

These words are chosen purposefully. Because Marnie is not another man on the run thriller or even a game of romantic cat-and-mouse like To Catch a Thief. It fits into the lineage of the Vertigos and Psychos where it feels like Hitchcock is dipping into perturbing territory, partially because it feels self-reflexive, and it deals in the potentially grotesque and unseemly sides of humanity.

Marnie opens on a bag. The back of a woman walking to a train station. We don’t see a face before we cut to a man who bemoans a bank robbery. His secretary ran off with some of his funds.

Eventually, we learn this woman is prone to such behavior. She’s taken many such jobs and undoubtedly committed many such infractions under different aliases. However, her true name is Marnie and like a dutiful daughter, she turns up on her invalid mother’s doorstep to check in on her, give her gifts, and try to earn more of her affection.

Because it becomes immediately apparent this woman has attachment and mother issues; she’s an independent woman yes, who is also independent of men, but she hangs onto her mother’s love. Even covets after it and clings to it jealously when maternal affections are directed towards a neighbor’s little girl. And then, she leaves as quickly as she arrives.

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Her cycle begins again when she’s up for a new job at Rutland & Co. The exchange during her interview would be banal if not for a certain undercurrent, the dissonance at the core of the entire picture. They’ve done business with her former employer, but she has no way of knowing that.

The one man who knows her secret is there too. His name is Mark Rutland (Sean Connery). He looks on rather bemusedly as she explains her backstory to her interviewer. Something about a deceased husband and leaving Pittsburgh behind for more demanding, interesting work. As Rutland watches her, it serves a kind of dual-purpose, giving rise to our conflict while also highlighting this kind of queasy sexism in the workplace. Where women are hired as objects and often viewed as such.

He knows and still hires her out of curiosity — is that the case? However, there’s something more — a kind of kleptomania — and Hitchcock funnels the entire movie through Marnie’s private obsessions. So as a secretary drones on about some HR forms, we are busy watching the office manager pull out his key and unlock the safe. We vicariously take on the obsessions of Marnie — caught in the same vortex thanks to Hitchcock’s camera — a camera that enters a fevered frenzy whenever she sees the color red. It’s akin to Jimmy Stewart’s Vertigo in how it totally usurps the picture in an instant.

On a very different note, it’s always a pleasure to see Mariette Hartley, a personal favorite in TV reruns, and assuredly in Ride The High Country. But it is Diane Baker who might be the unsung hero of the movie and Hitchcock, if anything, sets her up as an integral figure to cement the film’s core drama. She is Marnie’s foil and ready to protect Mark even as she’s intent on winning him over.

But the relationship between Rutland and Ms. Edgar continues to vacillate, exemplified by very pointed snatches of dialogue. Take for instance, Rutland’s training in Zoological science or as he puts it “instinctual behavior.” He likens predators out on the Sahara to “the criminal class of the animal world,” and he’s as fascinated by Marnie as he is passionate about her.

They go to the races and then to see his father’s stables maintaining these implicit themes of husbandry and animalistic desires raging through Marnie’s core. She cannot help these impulses.

It’s true the film boasts some phenomenal wide shots: The first I’m thinking of is inside the stable before cutting to a close-up to the passionate embrace of our romantic leads. The second is an exercise in irony. Marnie is in the midst of her first burgle of the company safe. She snuck out of a bathroom stall after hours. Just around the partition, the night cleaning lady goes about her duties. To each her own.

For several minutes it is a silent movie. No music. I don’t think Hedren makes a sound. Because of course, Hitchcock is milking the moment only to magnify it seconds later. It reminds us how marvelous he was at punctuating the drama, lest his filmmaking ever be mistaken for realism.

Marnie continues in its duplicity as Rutland first accuses his employee of her theft and then comes right back around with the proposal of marriage. It drudges up the unseemly realities of sexual harassment and powerlessness as Marnie cries out about how she can’t bear to be handled by men. She doesn’t want to get married. It’s degrading. Even animal.

“You say no thanks to one of them and then bingo, you’re a candidate for the funny farm.” It breaks my heart even as I feel implicated in the issues. No, I wasn’t born then, but the indiscretions against women have not totally been expunged at least while men still have lust in their hearts. Hitch is part of the problem. I am part of the problem by any sin of omission or even passivity.

Before there was a mystery plot to hang its hat on in Vertigo or the money propelling Psycho. With Marnie, it hardly feels as if there’s a pretense to the often demented predilections of humanity. Husband and wife are “playing doctor” and free association with Marnie feeling as if she’s continually being needled by her spouse’s callous analysis. Is this love or torture?

diane baker and sean connery marnie

We mentioned Diane Baker before and it’s worth acknowledging her again. She is slightly impetuous and a bit impish — ready to go to war for her man. Hitchcock even gives her a line to mirror Norman Bates from Psycho as she offers observation on Marnie (A girl’s best friend is her mother). But she also eavesdrops because it’s this that allows her to know the film’s main secret and look to bring it to the surface.

The next sequence opens with that unmistakable Hitchcock high angle, at the party. It’s Notorious rehashed and yet instead of a key in the hand, it is the front door because through it will come a very important person: Someone who can implicate Marnie and unravel the stasis Mark has willingly corroborated for her. They must find a way to get out of this, to come to a mutual agreement, or else Marnie is sunk.

I must admit, this and the sense of suspense anticipated by the climax, are of the most intriguing since the psychology the final flashback relies upon feels too convenient. Maybe Hitchcock does not really care about any of this. It is a bit like Spellbound, but now it feels even more antiquated, whereas the moments leading up to the reveal of the trauma are contorted and alive, horrifying and convicting all at once.

Others could do it better, but I would be remiss not to mention the storyline of Hedren and Hitchcock, who harassed her all through the shoot. It’s an unsettling reminder of how he would control women and beyond that, how toxic masculinity has fueled our society and industries like Hollywood. It reveals the underlining brokenness in many of us that come out compulsively. It’s almost like we do what we do not want to do or we give ourselves over to them entirely. And what a nightmare that is.

Psychology cannot completely dispel our fears nor does it warrant a society and social spheres where men take advantage of women and where women feel fearful and scandalized. Forget his films. Hitchcock himself is emblematic of problematic fissures in society. That’s a great deal of what makes his film’s so disconcerting.

However, just as he tanked Tippi Hedren’s career, Hitchcock would never quite be the same. Not because of this mind you, unless there was some force of karma working against him I’m unaware of. Instead, the industry was changing and also the structures around him that he had to work with.

Torn Curtain and Topaz are passable films with glimpses of his cinematic eye, but they never amount to the same kind of intoxicating, bewitching drama we would see during his high point during the 1950s and early 60s. Of course, Frenzy was what some called a return to form, but it was, again, back in his native England so it’s obviously laced with a different flavor. His final film was in 1976 — Family Plot — and if it wasn’t evident already the industry had changed.

By then, he was a revered master but more of a relic than an up-and-coming auteur. No, Marnie feels like an inflection point as if it’s catching his very particular genius in a moment in time. It’s also a startling caveat to the career of one of the most lauded directors Hollywood has ever known. We cannot fully speak about one without reflecting on the other.

3.5/5 Stars

The Trouble With Harry (1955): Hitchcock, Humor, and The Macabre

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Idyllic is the word for The Trouble with Harry, and it positively crackles with the autumnal delights one can only know in locales where the seasons give way one to another.

Alfred Hitchcock’s filmography boasts many opulent and gorgeously shot sequences, but Trouble With Harry might have some of the most supernal. Part of this comes from the fact it comes in such stark contrast to his environs in Northern California.

Because the East Coast — Vermont in particular — affords him a very particular canvass and he uses them to full effect. The story goes that he went so far as to have leaves pinned back onto trees to try and replicate the shots on a sound stage. Whatever the techniques it boasts something distinctly tangible.

If the locale is not entirely functional, it still manages to be another integral character in the story just as the satisfying crunch of leaves underfoot or the thought of a lemonade out on the porch conjures up visions of a very specific sort. But of course, all of this connotation would be for naught if it was not juxtaposed with the typical Hitchcockian proclivity for the darkly macabre.

The Trouble with Harry might offer his lightest touch — it’s spritzed more evidently with humor than a great many of his movies — but the blackness at its core cannot go unnoticed. Take, for instance, that opening sequence. It’s emblematic of the whole picture. There’s tiny Jerry Mathers freakishly young (even before the days of Leave It To Beaver).

He’s running off on some boyish adventure his toy gun in hand, only to stumble upon the corpse of a man named Harry. The man’s nicely dressed. Laid out in the middle of an open pasture. More importantly, he’s dead.

Hitchcock employs a trick from the painterly masters using foreshortening to make the man’s body envelop the screen as the little boy stares down at him rather inquisitively, ready to run off and tell his mother. From the outset, Bernard Herrmann’s scoring is both rigorous and rather jaunty, perfectly in tune with the sense of place and tone.

But this is no conventional tale of malice or ill-blood. It is, however, the Macguffin to kick our story off. Edmund Gwenn is another fellow who comes upon the body quite by chance — he was out shooting rabbits unsuccessfully — could it be a stray bullet that took Harry out? He thinks it’s better not to risk it and decides to drag the body to more secluded terrain.

However, he’s met by one of his neighbors. John Michael Hayes’ script does splendidly in moments like these. It’s able to place small-town pleasantries up against a grisly murder as if it’s a small trifle — a mere afterthought to be dealt with in the manner of a pothole or a roach problem. In the end, Captain Wiles (Gwenn) and Ms. Gravely (Mildred Natwick), a kindly spinster, set up a date for afternoon tea with the promise of blueberry muffins and genial company.

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What of Harry? It’s true the whole world seems to turn up to find him. Soon little Arnie returns with his mother (Shirley MacLaine), and she hardly bats an eye. A local professorial fellow — his nose always in a book — trips over the body without much of an acknowledgment. Even local artist, Sam Marlowe (John Forsythe), has time enough to sketch a crude portrait of the dead man.

He’s your conventional starving artist. Kindly Ms. Wiggs (Mildred Dunnock) puts his particularly exuberant paintings out for sale near her Emporium, though he doesn’t stir up much business from the cows lingering across the pasture.

Ms. Rogers meanwhile is a twice-widowed young woman, and she admits her last husband was too good to live. She’s pursued by Mr. Marlowe even as the old-timers look to start courting in their own way.

The source of the frivolity and the casual delightfulness comes in painting the town as Hitchcock does — this combination of coloring the idiosyncrasies of the quainter side of life as well as the open-air mise en scene, whether pure illusion or not.

What’s lovely about Hitch is the way every movie becomes a sort of game or puzzle in its own right. Because The Trouble with Harry will never be held in the same regard as many of his most obvious successes — movies from this same period of time — but it’s ceaselessly interesting.

Audiences of the 50s would have had a time pinning it down in a conventional sense because it employs fairly frank dialogue whether riddled with innuendo or not, but it also lacks the kind of obvious star power big studios often banked on to sell tickets. Surely Hitchcock could have garnered the best talent and yet he chose not to.

This is a character piece, and it wasn’t meant for the Cary Grants or Jimmy Stewarts of the world — at least not in 1955. It called for something more mundane. And what of the humor? First of all, there are certain expectations from “The Master of Suspense,” and it’s hard to say they are met; it’s almost like he swapped the formula. He leads with the comedy with accents of suspense and the macabre.

A body buried and excavated, put back in the ground, and exhumed time and time again over the course of the day. It’s the film’s prolonged gag. One of the things that makes it feel continually comedic is the lack of a true villain of any consequence.

The closest candidate is Royal Dano, a slightly curmudgeonly sheriff who has a penchant for old cars. He’s sniffing around, always on the side of law and order. No, this is most definitely a comedy, and the two couples join forces to keep their local secret. Because they know quite literally where the dead bodies are buried. Though it’s quite possible none of them is the actual culprit. It’s typical of Hitchcock that his inclinations of Vermont are informed by murder instead of moonlight.

He is, after all, the man who keenly observed that the medium of T.V. “brought murder back into the home where it belongs.” The Trouble With Harry plays with the same form of morbid levity.

3.5/5 Stars

Stage Fright (1950): Hitchcock and Dietrich

wyman and dietrich

It’s true that “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.” However, dress it up with murder and life becomes a series of stages and varying performances you’re putting on for different audiences — trying your best to play your audience — while not giving yourself away.

Stage Fright feels very much like Hitchcock getting back to his roots; there’s something simpler and yet still charming about the milieu he’s able to drum up evoking the British Isles. In reality, it was a convenient excuse to spend more time with his daughter Patricia currently away at school in the U.K. She even earned a small role. It’s also propitious he seems to be having good fun with the conceit: the combination of play-acting and murder with actors trying their hands at amateur sleuthing.

We are thrown into an almost instantaneous thriller. It dispenses with the lead-up altogether by showing a couple on the run in a car. A fledgling actress, Eve (Jane Wyman), is the complicit accomplice and Richard Todd is a man fleeing the authorities. Through an extensive flashback, he relates how he was pulled into the web of murder spun by his lover — the famed and gorgeous prima donna Charlotte Inwood (Marlene Dietrich).

He tries to touch up the crime scene she’s left behind only to get spooked by her maid turning up on the scene. The murder investigation commences in earnest including a respectable detective named Smith (Michael Wilding).

Eve sets the fugitive up with her father, out of harm’s way, before turning right around and hatching a plan to get to the bottom of the whole thing. One minute she’s trying to get close to the aforementioned policeman to somehow pump him for information with her damsel in distress act. The next moment, she’s putting her thespian training to good use posing as a cockney maid (and temporary replacement) for dame Charlotte herself.

It has some of the dynamics of an All About Eve between actresses though it’s admittedly hinging on cloak-and-dagger antics opposed to true backstage drama. Because it’s on this plane of performance that Hitch seems most intrigued — where acting becomes a conduit for understanding the mystery at the core of this movie.

sim and wyman stage fright

If there were any undisputed secret weapon, my bet is up for Alistair Sim. He was always a mirthful co-conspirator if I’m to recall a movie like Green for Danger. He’s eminently likable, though the spark in his eye suggests he’s ever prone to mischief. This accords him all the prerequisites to play a fine father figure opposite Wyman if only for the primary reason they both seem to relish the game and being a part of it together.

They have the most instantly vibrant relationship within the picture, and they give it the comic underpinnings one comes to expect from the director. Sim himself meets the macabre of Hitchcock thanks to a bloodstained dress on a carnival doll used to shock Dietrich out of her performance of “La Vie en Rose.” It mirrors the ugly token of her secret transgression.

In another sequence, the wanted man shows up during her performance — a particularly saucy rendition of Cole Porter’s “The Laziest Gal in Town.” Before this interruption, the scene is pulled out of the Hitchcockian world momentarily. It’s an individual moment where an auteur like Hitch gets totally overpowered by Dietrich or, in many ways, he acquiesces allowing her to be her scintillating self in the golden limelight before the mechanisms of the plot are meant to take over once more.

Stage Fright feels perfectly comfortable being so theatrical. However, the ideas never feel fully wrought; it’s a bit scattered and inconceivable — nor is Jane Wyman the most compelling Hitchcock lead. Mind you, I’m not expecting her to be a Hitchcock blonde or Ingrid Bergman, but she’s not quite on par with even someone like Teresa Wright in Shadow of a Doubt.

Likewise, the theater finale is terribly abrupt though it functions on the tenets of many of Hitchcock’s grandest setpieces by taking a novel environment and turning it into a thrilling locale for drama (Donen would rehash a similar sequence in Charade). The scenes in the build-up are of all shapes and sizes as Wyman rather coincidentally juggles a double life. It’s all highly circumstantial.

As it turns out, the lynchpin scene is right at the very beginning. Of course, we don’t realize that until the end, but right there is Hitchcock’s point. To see it any other way is a mistake. Because obfuscation and chicanery are the building blocks of not only acting but murder as well. Perceptions can change so quickly, and he was one of the greats at visual audience manipulation. In Stage Fright he takes it a step further. He lies to us outright on the screen.

3/5 Stars

After Hours (1985) and Scorsese’s Cinematic Purgatory

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Assume what you will, but After Hours is the Scorsese movie that feels most firmly planted in the 1980s. It’s of its time and functions quite differently than what we have come to expect from him. Mind you, this is hardly a criticism. More so, it shows his range and the eclectic road his career has taken.

A jaded word processor (Griffin Dunne) is teaching a young idealist the ropes. He still has dreams of being a publisher — to create a magazine as a forum for writers and intellectuals — and he’s not planning to be stuck behind a desk his entire life. Paul Hackett starts to zone out. As it happens, he won’t be sitting at a desk for much longer either. At least for a night…

Next, is the beginning of what can be described as the plot. It gives the sensation of a meet-cute as he starts talking with the pretty young woman (Rosanna Arquette), sitting a table way, as they bond over an appreciation of Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer. And yet even this conversation already feels somewhat uncanny. It doesn’t function quite as we expect and this is just the beginning.

After Hours will only spiral out of control dispensing of all pretense when it comes to straightforward narrative. There is a sense this is precisely how screenwriter Joseph Minion conceived it as he was penning his thesis at NYU film school. It functions as the worst night ever in Soho as our hapless stand-in, Paul Hackett, visits a girl’s apartment and then tries with all his might to get home. The evening gets in the way.

When the rain starts, a waitress (Terri Garr) invites him over to her apartment, but she’s not impressed with his “doom and gloom” attitude and soon takes affront at his treatment of her. If it were possible, he’s being over-accomodating. And so he flees as soon as he can. But he has no money.

He can’t get on a train. So he has to walk, but that poses unimaginable complications. Already you see the treadmill he’s on. Every step forward is a few more steps backward and sideways — to the same diner, a bartender’s apartment, or the Club Berlin. Is it a spoiler to point out Cheech & Chong also show up?

If you would allow me the shorthand After Hours exists somewhere in the ballpark of Kafka and Hitchcock. The perplexing plotting is an abstruse roundabout of after midnight mayhem. The Hitchcock element is supplied by Martin Scorsese as he busies himself with numerous camera movements executing a visible showmanship behind the scenes. There are a few obvious nods as well from dolly zooms on telephones that might as well come out of a film like Strangers on a Train or Dial M for Murder. Likewise, there’s even toilet bowl cameos reminiscent of Psycho.

What’s more, after Hackett is caught out on the street and labeled as a burglar by the local mob of residents led by Catherine O’Hara, a momentary man on the run thriller is created with no concrete conclusion because that is never the point.

Inevitably Hackett falls down on his knees, in the middle of the street, head raised to the heavens saying, “What do you want from me? I’m just a word processor!” It’s as if God is laughing at him and deigns to keep him in this constant state of New York purgatory. Will the madness never end?

If it’s not apparent already, form is so closely tied to function in After Hours and its conjoining worldview. Watching a movie like this makes one beg the question: What’s the point?

Scorsese proves his skills once more under very different circumstances and if you watch After Hours off the cuff, it shows the breadth of his filmography. It was a period where he had to get creative as far as funding and the projects he pursued.

But, regardless, it still feels like a bit of an outlier, and it never engages with me in the same manner as his other works. It has nothing to do with it being slow or prozaic. Those are not words I would use to describe it. But as with anything Kafkaesque (I admittedly haven’t read Joyce so I can’t make that comparison), there’s a pervasive all-compassing sense of fateful pointlessness.

In one manner, it’s so very much of the ’80s in creating and establishing an environment for its main protagonist. And yet it goes beyond any sense of reality, gladly becoming this bleak, otherworldly metaphor for life. Minion happily takes the story to surreal digressions of dark and still comic proportions.

It lacks the timelessness of Scorsese’s greatest and most personal achievements and there is not the same human connection. Certainly, being different is not always bad. There are few qualms with enjoying the utter lunacy. However, somehow it only manages to be something to be admired from an aloof distance. Like a paper mache statue or a bit of Mozart or Bach, at least how they are applied here.

They impress me, but in a manner of speaking, I never feel touched and animated in any way. If we are to consider the film’s remaining metaphor, we do not leave the movie changed. We are right back where we began no doubt asking ourselves, where does this leave us? I suppose it’s better than being encased in paper mache for eternity. That’s some consolation.

3/5 Stars

The King of Comedy (1982): Celebrity or Notoriety

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“Better to be king for a night than shmuck for a lifetime.”

The opening moments of The King of Comedy, as iconic star Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis), is ushered to a waiting car surrounded by the chaotic frenzy of thrill-seekers, capture the essence of celebrity in the modern age.

Jerry gets shoved about and manhandled as an obsessive young fan sneaks into his car and nearly squeezes him to death. The freeze-frame credits capturing her outstretched hands on the windowpane of his car has Scorsese’s sense of the cinematic. As Ray Charles’ “Come Rain or Come Shine” plays, we become increasingly aware of film’s ability to capture time and halt it completely.

The punchline comes in the form of one Rupert Pupkin (Robert De Niro). He’s an avid admirer of Jerry Langford in his own right, and he just happens to sneak into the car with Jerry as it drives away, leaving the hordes behind. Now he has his chance to consort with his agitated hero.

Rupert lets him know how he’s biding his time until he gets his big break. He’s trying not to be pushy, but he still manages to cross some invisible like as he uncomfortably follows Jerry all the way up to the steps of his apartment.

Lewis builds his performance out of playing it straight and a bit harried and belligerent. He feels much more close to home than one of his prototypical clowns. The buffoonery is mostly left for Pupkin. What Jerry Lewis brings is true-blue Hollywood pedigree and celebrity.

Meanwhile, Rupert has his own private delusions. For example a lunch with Jerry Langford where the old guard is positively begging him to take over the show for 6 weeks. This is the scenario he plays out in his head.

He also shows up at the bar presided over by a pretty girl — Rita (Diahnne Abbott), who he knew from school — and they wind up going out to dinner together (probably). Because at first, we question whether this is an illusion as well. Does it matter?

Because Rupert is enveloped in a world of hero-worship, although he takes it a step further. He wants to get to the top of the mountain with his heroes — to be one of them — with the same kind of praise and adulation. He’ll be the new king of comedy.

And yet we get a sense of how ludicrous this is. He is a man who’s done of up his living room with cardboard cutouts of Liza Minnelli and Jerry Langford (Lewis) to look like his own personal talk show. In the day before mobile phones, he clings to a payphone like a security blanket hoping to get a callback. Jerry’s going to call him back. He just knows it.

It functions as an extension, or a further perfection, of Taxi Driver‘s melding of fantasy and reality. What sets it apart is De Niro’s truly unprecedented performance; it feels more off-kilter and oaffish than we’re accustomed to seeing from him. He’s an alienated outsider, yes, but also a shmuck.

The scenes between Jerry and Rupert somehow are the richest for me because they remain at the heart and soul of his fantasy — his desire to be well-liked and accepted as a comedian — this want to actually break bread and be buddies with his hero. Haven’t we all been there? But for Rupert, it is a legitimate obsession.

There’s an imaginary marriage sequence presided over by his old high school teacher with the wedding march supplied by none other than Victor Borge. In another sequence, he gets thrown out of Jerry’s office after the umpteenth time only to show up at Jerry’s house with his girl in tow.

How did we get from one moment to the other? In the brain of Rupert Pumpkin, it’s not difficult to extrapolate. As this prolonged agony gets strung along, it becomes more and more uncomfortable and cringe-worthy with each passing minute. The servants let them in. They make themselves at home. Only for Jerry to return from the golf coursed miffed.

Because it becomes more and more apparent how unsubstantiated any relationship between Jerry and Rupert actually is. For the actors, it is par excellence with De Niro and Lewis riffing off each other for minutes on end — keeping this grating sense of conflict going.

It’s already been alluded to that The King of Comedy is about this kind of idolizing and super fandom, but it also examines what happens when fellow lunatics clash or worse yet join forces. In this picture, Rupert has Masha (Sandra Bernhardt). He makes every effort to differentiate between the two of them, but who else would hatch a nefarious scheme to kidnap Jerry Langford?

Of course, that’s what they do. There he is duct-taped in his chair — and they really do a job on him — he’s practically mummified, stuck to the seat of his chair. It’s the first phase in Rupert’s plan to get his face in front of the biggest audience possible. Forget about guest host Tony Randall. He’s going to be the new talk of the town, at least for an evening. If not for his middling standup, then certainly for kidnapping one of America’s most beloved public figures.

The key to The King of Comedy is how Scorsese seems to understand what it is to be the TV generation and to be raised on the medium of the small screen. Although he is considered one of the great cinematic directors of our times, he also understands the world a film like this engenders. Case and point is Rupert Pupkin’s climactic monologue.

He cuts away before we ever see it live. Instead, it is shown later from a bar over the fuzzy frequency of a television screen as it was meant to be. In this augmented reality of canned laughter and studio audiences, people can become like family, and they are household names. But there’s also something phony and uncomfortable about it if it’s done poorly.

Because it’s become more and more apparent there are people out there who are not looking to accumulate a currency of trust with their audience. They only want their 15 minutes of fame.

I’m not sure if The King of Comedy always works, but it does leave a lasting impression with its meandering road of awkwardness where Pubkin is a man who seems delusional, shrewd, and overwhelmingly conventional all at the same time. The final punchline is how he gets his wish and becomes a celebrity. Notoriety might be a better word for it, but in our modern landscape aren’t they really one and the same?

3.5/5 Stars

Dune (2021): The Archetype for Modern Sci-Fi

For being such an influential piece of Science Fiction storytelling, I must admit I have very little history with Frank Herbert’s Dune. I was aware of David Lynch’s adaptation, and I’ve recently been dipping my toes into the impressive mythos of the original novel. 

It works in archetypes that feel exceedingly familiar because they’ve helped lay the groundwork for modern sci-fi as we know it. In a contemporary landscape that’s shifted toward stories highlighting the universality of heroism, there’s something intriguing about a story willing to dig into the ancient monomyths that have remained foundational for many cultures. 

There’s the tradition of the chosen one – in this case, young heir apparent Paul Atreides (Timothee Chamalet) – who has untapped potential as well as pedigree that might make him the Messiah who has been prophesied about for generations. 

This overtly spiritual language would certainly inform the worldbuilding of Star Wars and the hero’s journey of Luke Skywalker, conceived by George Lucas and ultimately captivating the world over. This is how Dune indirectly affected my entire childhood and I see it so clearly now. 

Because Dune’s reputation precedes it and for people like director Denis Villeneuve, the passion for this material is palpable. Obviously, his aspirations are to do justice to a piece of literature while giving it a visual resonance for a new generation. 

As this is the man who gave us the worlds of Arrival (2016) and Blade Runner 2049 (2017), Dune is hardly an aesthetic surprise. I know, since he is an avid cinephile, Lawrence of Arabia is a major touchstone for his latest film, and given the indelible desert locales, the comparison seems inevitable. After all, both of these films aspire for vast grandeur with the kind of scope other films merely dream of. 

Villeneuve’s sleek metallic drabness serves him again. It’s at one time immaculate and sometimes a bit soulless. However, this is less a full-on criticism and more so indicative of epics in the 21st century. In other words, it doesn’t have the vibrancy of Lawrence or the golden hues. Still, there’s a vague kind of wonder when we watch it blending real-life locations with digital magic while also underlining this ominous sense of oppression.  

My mind drifts easily to the oddly bewitching bagpipe and drum-infused score of Hans Zimmer. Like the organ in Interstellar, this rather unique choice does wonders in providing a layered soundscape to evoke the ever-expanding world in front of us. Zimmer’s work takes the individual images and transforms them into a full-bodied experience, lending some drama and emotion to a mise en scene otherwise running the risk of aloofness. 

Equally important is how famed elements like the sandworms or bits of technology are realized onscreen. Oftentimes this can be a detriment because these visions no longer live in the mind’s eye, once a creator has brought them into reality. However, that doesn’t mean we can’t marvel both at Herbert’s imagination and also how they have been brought to us. 

Although Timothee Chalamet is not my favorite actor, he functions as a fine avatar throughout this movie. Because he is the character Villeneuve identifies with, and he is our way into a story. Paul’s father (Oscar Isaac) and his family are displaced and called upon to govern the planet of Arrakis vacated by the Harkonnen, a brutish people who gained exorbitant wealth, but not without repercussion. 

Like all the grandest stories, it has this galactic scale but maintains a level of relational intimacy. It could work in no other fashion. It’s a pleasure to see Rebecca Ferguson given such a striking role that at first glance feels so subordinate but is almost covertly imbued with so much power. Because she is a member of the line of female Truth Sayers, even going so far as to pass down their sacred abilities to her adolescent son. In some fashion, Paul is a two-culture kid, different from others, and situated to be a priestly king, blending his two unique bloodlines. This pervasive biblical language is hard to totally dismiss. 

Stellan Skarsgaard and Charlotte Rampling show up almost unrecognizably and since I have no context for their characters, I appreciated their level of menace. It makes no difference whether they are good or bad. They are not to be trifled with. Jason Momoa arguably has an easier role, but still, he must be a likable mentor figure and a formidable warrior. He handles both with casual aplomb bringing a refreshing lightness to the movie which could otherwise be a completely dour affair. 

It is these characters against this backdrop who begin to suggest the primary thematic ideas passed down from Herbert and taken up by Villeneuve. There are themes ranging all over the spectrum from familiar social and political dynamics, wars of cultural influence, and certainly religious omens. There’s is something somehow Medieval and Machiavellian about it. It is a world of royals, serfs, and fiefdoms, and stratified hierarchies jockeying for survival. 

As alluded to before, one of the most overt representations has to do with the Fremen, a people native to the desserts of Arakkis who called the sand-swept world home long before their captors came to rule it. The Fremen, identified with a mostly illusory Zendaya, are rather reminiscent of the Tusken Raiders, although they are more charismatic and given a human face. They are fierce, loyal, attuned to the desert, and they know the treachery that comes with betrayal and the fundamental struggle to survive. 

The most unsurprising spoiler might be that this is, in fact, only part 1 of what’s envisioned to be a long saga. I’m hopeful that it might lithely move through the imminent films ahead instead of totally obliterating everything in its wake like a giant sandworm. Because this is the perpetuated fallacy of many serialized blockbusters. Hopefully Herbert’s work won’t suffer the same grisly fate signified by bloated runtimes and oversaturation. If you remember, David Lean only ever made one Lawrence of Arabia, and somehow I’m content with that.  Star Wars is a slightly different story, but that’s a subject for another time.  

4/5 Stars