The Raid (1954): Starring Van Heflin

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On first glance, The Raid feels like a punchier, B-grade version of John Ford’s The Horse Soldiers (1959). In time, it winds up being a fairly apt descriptor. The fact that the other Civil War piece is a lumbering giant gives The Raid an unpretentious edge. Because in the casting department it still has a fine ensemble to work with, despite its humble production values. When Lee Marvin is your fourth bill, the prospects for an absorbing experience are great.

Likewise, the story grabs hold of the real-life events, taking a few artistic liberties, but honing in on an interesting theme. It begins as a mere mission movie — a vehicle for revenge — only to evolve into something more nuanced and ultimately, heartbreaking. This time we see the action from the other side, beginning on September 26th, 1864. These are not rogue Union cavalry looking to wreak havoc but renegade Rebels preparing to break out of their prisoner-of-war camp.

In essence, we have Stalag 17 meeting not only The Horse Soldiers but some amalgamation of The Professionals and The Dirty Dozen, except, again, we are working within budget constraints.

Major Neal Benton (Van Heflin) is the calculating ringleader, who gets his men across the border to Canada in order to plot out the next plan of action. The Raid becomes a story of infiltration, watching and waiting for the best moment to strike. The man sent ahead to do the recon is of course Benton. He dons his best gentlemanly duds to make the necessary arrangement and takes on the name Neal Swayze as part of the masquerade.

News of General Sherman’s march to the sea stokes the flames kindling behind their ire. The purpose becomes twofold. They want to avenge their brothers-in-arms as much as they want to become a thorn in their enemy’s side. Their spot of choice is the Northern oasis of St. Albans. The undercover Rebel makes acquaintance with the local bank owner (Will Wright) and finds agreeable domicile in the home of a war widow.

Anne Bancroft’s role is not altogether demanding as she plays the docile love interest. Regardless, she does this well, even getting a few moments to assert herself. After all, she is the enemy with a human face and we care for her as much as we do for Heflin. This equal footing is key. It causes a schism because alliances have been split. We begin to understand the deep fissures running through the ravaged society.

Even with the mistrusting Captain Lionel Foster (Richard Boone), it’s less about him thinking the other man is traitor and more so, his belief Swayze is elbowing in on his territory. After all, he’s known Katie Bishop far longer. He’s protective of her.

So with time, these relationships grow and Swayze receives a generous amount of acceptance. Soon the Confederate forces slip into town incognito, ready to tear it apart and hit the Yankees where it’ll hurt — in their pocketbooks. An auction of scavenged Rebel goods boils the outsider’s blood. It instigates a contentious bidding war that he finally diffuses. It’s not yet the time for action.

Lee Marvin, forever the loose cannon, all but blows their cover, threatening to set off a disastrous chain reaction. After going on an alcoholic binge, he gets it together just in time to stumble into the local sanctuary of worship. Their hard-sought plans look perilously close to being spoiled. Swayze steps out of the house of God a local legend and feeling even more like a heel.

As such, The Raid is this strange jolting empathy machine. This crisis of conscience comes to bear because the enemy has surprised him and welcomed him into the fold as a fellow human being. Of course, he can barely look them in the eye much less take their generosity, knowing full-well what he has been commissioned to do — completely obliterate their homes.

After all, their soldiers did little better to his home in the South. If we were simply to go by the eye-for-an-eye mentality, and the fact this is wartime, he has more than a right. However, this does not make the endeavor any easier. On top of the logistical elements, Northern troops patrolling through, and the need for stealth and efficiency, all of a sudden he has to deal with complicated relationships.

In the form of the widow Anne Bancroft and her precocious son, the local banker Will Wright, and even the standoffish Richard Boone. He starts to soften to these folks. The most impressive evolution is with Captain Foster. He shows a vulnerability and an ultimately retained dignity as the plot progresses. He would be so easy to villainize because Boone, Marvin, and Claude Akins were so good at those parts. And yet they can all be in this picture and function differently. Boone actually comes out looking extraordinarily sympathetic.

The fact that these characters become more and more like human beings, makes his mission all the more perplexing. This very element gets at the core dissonance of the Civil War because we were literally turning brother-against-brother, sometimes across arbitrary lines of distinction.

What this film suggests is that we have more bringing us together than separating us. Still, we stand doggedly to our presuppositions. Certainly, we cannot downplay the crucial issue of slavery (though it doesn’t play into this tale at all), but I think there are already some intriguing implications.

The line between feelings and duty become perilous roads to traverse. Van Heflin, while never the classically handsome lead, had something far more compelling. There’s an inherent honesty within his stock. He can be genial, pragmatic, even harsh and unfeeling. Whatever he is you never feel like he’s being inauthentic as both hero and villain. This ability carries the picture’s emotional core opposite Bancroft and the stellar troop around them.

Events run their course and yet there is an unquestionable toll to them. A war picture often fails if we don’t feel abhorrence for the violence. But there also needs to be a human connection. The Raid somehow manages both with relative ease. Movies such as this never grow tiresome because they carry with them an invigorating life, in spite of the inherent restrictions hoisted upon them.

3.5/5 Stars

7 Women (1966): John Ford’s Final Film

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7 Women is an oddity that nevertheless deserves a more prominent reputation. Here we have the inauspicious final film of John Ford, becoming the capstone to a career spanning decades and plenty of classics.

However, there’s no John Wayne in this picture nor western panoramas. Nevertheless, it sticks with you and delivers a considerable drama chock full of immense potentials in such a short span of time.

The story takes place in, of all places, a Christian mission situated in China near the Mongolia border. The year is 1935. Though the territory has some protection, there is still a world of feudal violence brooding around this stronghold of Christian virtue.

The religious subtext alone has enough thematic intrigue to keep the story continuously intriguing. On top of this, you stack the rather unusual circumstances (both then and now) of having an entire cast stacked with top tier women performers.

What sets the picture apart is how it becomes a kind of battleground for morality as people of different breeds chafe against each other, further exacerbated by the harrowing backdrop all around them.

Miss Agatha Andrews (Margaret Leighton) runs her compound with puritanical virtue that would be off-putting if there were anyone to stand up against her. Instead, all her cohorts take her pharisee-like fervor benevolently because they share faith in the same God.

Among them is the right-hand Miss Argent always prepared to pay her services.  Sue Lyon is able to subvert her image as a youthful seductress in Lolita for that of an angelic missionary, who is taken under Andrew’s wing. She leads the orphans in renditions of “Jesus Loves Me” and is a sheltered young woman of genuine faith.

Eddie Albert feels strangely cast as a teacher — especially since it’s the Green Acres era — but bless his soul, he’s still as wonderful as ever. He could do it all, and he’s the perfect counterpoint to all the women in his stead, including his peckish wife, the pregnant Florrie (Betty Field).

Their lives could very easily continue in relative peace if not for the arrival of a lady doctor named Cartwright (Anne Bancroft as a last-minute replacement for Patricia Neal). It becomes apparent all too quickly she is the utter antithesis of all that Miss Andrews aspires for her immaculate city on a hill to stand for.

They immediately have it out over everything from cigarettes at a dinner table (ironic for a doctor who is supposed to care for the human body) and the liberal use of coarse language unbecoming a woman. They very much represent two distinct worldviews, and they have an impasse. Dr. Cartwright won’t agree to be shipped out; she has a job to look after Florrie’s baby, while her employer isn’t about to let her camp become a house of sin.

Her protests are final, noting the good doctor will never fit into “a Christian community,” and she takes this as a personal affront, asking the impressionable Emma if she wants to live in Dr. Cartwright’s world.

Admittedly, her points aren’t entirely unfounded as their new apothecary proclaims spiritually is dead because she’s never seen God take care of anyone. It’s the pragmatic truth as she sees it but to such an ardent zealot as Miss Andrews, these are blasphemous words.

While Ford never strikes me as a persistently religious figure, he was raised Catholic and his pictures from 3 Godfathers and The Quiet Man to 7 Women do provide portraits of different figures of the faith. This is arguably the most robust conversation, a heavy indictment of holier-than-thou morality versus actual sacrificial lives lived out of love.

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If all this back and forth is playing out in the foreground, the background begins to heat up with word of marauders ravaging the territory.  Miss Andrews’ own hypocrisy is laid to bear when missionaries from differing denominations (among them Anna Lee) are begrudgingly allowed asylum.

At least Dr. Cartwright is a straight-shooter. It’s when the real crisis strikes, true character is always revealed. Our suspicions are confirmed as the real heroes come out of the woodwork.

When the compound is overtaken by cholera and drastic measures are in order, the Dr. takes charge for the sake of everyone. Then, the local Chinese garrison flees, leaving them as sitting ducks. It’s inevitable. The feared Warlord Tunga Khan will soon be on their doorstep.

What we don’t know are the results of this impending invasion. To its credit, 7 Women does not spare us from the senseless killing; it is a horrible feeling to know no life is sacred in a film. Those who are spared are locked away to watch the bloodshed.

Mike Mazurski and all his Mongolian cronies are the film’s one obvious blind spot. It’s a moment where the film acts its age. And yet even underneath this apparent flaw, you have this strange counter-story as if in an alternate reality Woody Strode, former UCLA star, is going head to head against Mazursky who was himself a professional wrestler. It’s this weird subtext that’s strangely riveting as they battle for control of this rowdy assemblage of bandits.

With time, Miss Andrews becomes completely unhinged spouting off scripture and losing all pretense of a peaceful, righteous figure. She finally gets put in her place by one of her closest companions. (“What right have you to shout abuse behind our celibate walls”). She sees the Pharisee for who she is.

Again, it is the heathen — the woman of the world — who shows wells of affection when it comes to protecting the weak and the helpless and even those who despise her guts. There is another verse pertinent to her character, redeemed as she is, in her unapologetic profaneness. “There is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” The actions are what speak on her behalf.

In her final hour, Ford christens Bancroft with what should be remembered as an iconic doorway shot all her own because she knows what she has done, sacrificing herself for everyone, ready to drink the cup of wrath.

She goes out as fiery as she came in. In fact, Anne Bancroft kills it, despite Ford christening her with the rather unflattering moniker of “The Maid of Monotone.” This movie would lose so much fury without her husky heart and soul at its core.

The 7 Women is a fitting final twist in an illustrious career. In a mountain of westerns revolving around men’s men where only a few sturdy lasses on par with Maureen O’Hara were ever able to break in, Ford goes and makes a film populated with women.

What’s even more rewarding is how much there is to cull through. While it might have unceremoniously become the bookend of Ford’s career, it’s no less of an achievement. Taking stock of everything, it’s a criminally underseen gem that adds yet another compelling contour to the old coot’s already complex career in Hollywood.

Once asked in an interview about his favorite picture of Jean Renoir, Ford always the eloquent elocutionist responded curtly, “I like all of them.” We certainly can attribute this to the usual irascibility of the director, but it seems like a fitting way to consider his own work.

While pictures like Stagecoach and The Searchers get their due, even an offering like 7 Women, seemingly minor, taken as part of a broader career, is still full of Ford himself. “If you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all” could not be further from the truth.

With Ford, it’s like each individual picture is giving you another side of him; artistically and thematically he is a part of these movies. The images speak on his behalf. All the better for someone so notoriously difficult to pin down. Look at his films if you want to know the man.

4/5 Stars

Nightfall (1957): Jacques Tourneur’s 50s Noir

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To begin to compare Nightfall with Jacques Tourneur’s Out of The Past (1947), his film noir masterpiece from a decade earlier is a deeply unfair proposition from the outset. One could argue the films feel nothing alike — like apples and oranges — and they came into being in two very different environments. The former is in the world of gumshoes and femme fatales, what we consider now the archetype of noir and it’s true the picture, known as Hang My Gallows High, is a landmark with its photography from Nicholas Murucacas, iconic even on its own merit.

Nightfall is certainly a B-picture but that in itself is a delight. Put it together with a fledgling group of underrated classics like The Burglar (1951), Crime Wave (1954), Kiss Me Deadly (1955), The Lineup (1958), and Murder by Contract (1958) as showcases of how exquisite this genre can be in its very gritty economy. Because we have moved on from the expressionistic facades of the ’40s into a period of more authentically hewn pictures, which were ultimately blessed not simply by the low lighting of studio sets but on-location exteriors.

The script itself by Stirling Silliphant, who consequently would also pen The Lineup, is not altogether extraordinary but it hones in on one man who was caught up in a very unfortunate moment of fate and now has it following him wherever he goes. So we can concede that it shares that same cloud of darkness following Jeff Bailey in Out of the Past.

But for Jim Vanning (Aldo Ray), from when we first meet him on an L.A. street corner, it becomes apparent that other stories are being grafted in with his and it starts long before we meet him. He steps into a bar and on pretense is introduced to the working model Marie (Anne Bancroft) sitting next to him.

We wonder where their conversation will end. A good bet is some sort of romantic tryst or at least a future date, except, instead it’s into the grasp of two thugs who seem like they’ve been waiting for him. Eventually, we learn through a flashback what happened.

He was having a quiet weekend away with his good friend, a doctor (Frank Albertson). The scenery around them is gorgeous, the snow peaks of Teton country poking up behind them in their white-capped winter majesty extending as far as the eye can see. But against that, a truly harrowing development arises.

They see a passing car careen off the road and they go over like any decent citizen to provide aid only they are met by a pair of bank robbers who have a cutthroat mentality seeing as they ran off with $350,000  worth of cash. Almost instantaneously Jim’s reverie is shattered by the worst reality check he’s ever been stabbed with.

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By some miracle, a fortuitous piece of counter fate, he escaped with his life. However, despite a change of location, name, and even occupation — he’s an advertising artist now — like clockwork John (Brian Keith) and Red (Rudy Bond) caught up with him.

He thought Marie was in on it as well and confronts her about it but the romance blooming between them and the fact she’s an oblivious bystander throws them back together. Jim’s resolved to take a bus ride back out to Wyoming to recover the money because his hand is forced. He knows the two robbers will be after it. He doesn’t realize at first they’re not the only ones. A personable insurance investigator (James Gregory) has some vested interests of his own.

Nightfall is generally more fascinating for its locations and elements of style and atmosphere than its actual plotline but sometimes with B noir that’s admissible. The stark contrast is stunning taking us through ’50s era Los Angeles and providing an excellent time capsule juxtaposed intermittently with the snowy scapes of Wyoming.

In a particularly terrific moment, we watch as the noir world seeps into the refined elegance of a ladies’ fashion show where Marion is working the runway. It’s this lovely collision of peoples and settings we are not used to seeing together in the same frame. Meanwhile, the continually dueling voices of Aldo Ray and Anne Bancroft prove a simple pleasure in their own right with such rich tonalities of character that distinguish them fully. Perhaps it’s a mere consequence of cigarette smoke.

Not terribly unlike Nicholas Ray’s On Dangerous Ground (1951), the picture goes back to the powder of the Wyoming winter and climaxes in a snow plow finale, which is invigorating as much for its backdrop as it is for the action. Some will note the character arcs have been much revised from Out of the Past and we get our hero’s happy ending. Nevertheless, it traverses a brutal road in its own right.

3.5/5 Stars

Don’t Bother Knocking (1952)

Don't_bother_to_knockYou’re silk on one side and sandpaper on the other.” – Richard Widmark as Jed Powers

For a film so short, Don’t Bother Knocking is overflowing with wonderful talent from Richard Widmark to Anne Bancroft to a haunting performance from Marilyn Monroe. Then Elisha Cook Jr. shows up as the obliging doorman, Jim Bachus as a young girl’s father, and even the prolific Willis Bouchey takes a turn as the bartender. It’s one of those story’s that revels in the classical age of the Hollywood studio actor. The familiar faces carry with them a certain amount of depth that allows the characters to mean so much in only a few fractions of the time normally required.

Anne Bancroft’s nightclub singing (in her screen debut) sets the background mood for everything going on within the  McKinley Hotel — a seemingly upstanding establishment. It’s precisely this aloof demeanor established by the music that lends itself nicely to the strangely haunting aspects of the film.

All characters seem to lack passion, emotion, and most any type of energy except the bubbly camera gal who goes around trying to sell snapshots to patrons. Widmark is at his morose dirtbag best yet again as Jed Towers, a guy who can’t figure why his girl has dumped him.

It’s a chamber piece, and while not a man on a ledge story like Fourteen Hours, it still uses the corridors and diegetic street sounds to create a mildly intriguing environment for some minor noir thrills. You can see the lust in Widmark’s eyes when he looks out the window at Monroe prancing and swaying about seductively. Little does he know what her deal is. His frustration with life and love is right at the center of this film and he must rectify his situation one way or another.

For her part, she has some telltale signs of psychological distress aside from a constantly glazed expression. Namely, scars on her wrists. Strings of little white lies, compulsive fibs that trickle out and a flustered edge that slowly becomes more and more demented by the minute.Whether it’s Monroe’s best performance is up for interpretation but it’s certainly her most terrifyingly dramatic.

She becomes the lightning rod for all the drama, lashing out against the little girl put in her stead and distressing her uncle (Elisha Cook Jr.) who got her this gig, despite her utter lack of experience. Nell Forbes flutters so quickly between fear and hysteria, at first wary of Towers and fawning all over him the next moment — afraid that he will leave her.

It’s her histrionics that force a reaction out of Jed. He must choose what type of guy he wants to be, whether he chooses the tame or wild side of life. And as it turns out, there’s absolutely no contest in the end. He knows full well which girl is for him.

Unfortunately, the ending is a bit of a cop-out, because it is the relational and psychological dysfunction of the characters that becomes most rewarding and, in the end, most indicative of the noir malaise. A happy resolution, therefore, does not stay true to the heart and soul of this film. Stone cold and depraved. Still, this one’s a winner at 76 minutes.

3.5/5 Stars

The Graduate (1967)

thegraduate1“You’re living at home. Is that right?
Yes. 
Do you know what you’re going to do?
No.
Are you going to graduate school?
No.” ~ Elaine Robinson to Benjamin Braddock

As a recently graduated person, I thought it was only pertinent to return to this landmark film to see if I could glean any new insight. In many ways, the main premise of The Graduate always repulsed me. I couldn’t get behind the comedy because it seemed so at odds with what is going on onscreen.

But now I think I more fully understand Mike Nichols’ style as he leads us through Buck Henry’s script. There certainly is a wicked wit dwelling there, but there’s also more to it. He’s trying to undermine social mores and say something by switching tones on us. In this case, it seems like he’s talking to all those listless souls just set adrift after college. He was their elder, but in the characters of Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman) and some respects Elaine Robinson (Katherine Ross), young people found their equals.  People they could relate to in their own anxiety and at times apathy about the future. And it’s as much Elaine’s story as it is Ben’s since they both are riding off into the great unknown of their future together.

Thus, this isn’t just about an affair, though that did help to shatter the Production Codes. There is so much more that actually causes Benjamin to get involved with Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft). The implications extend far beyond.While The Graduate‘s main hook seems rather curious, the rest isn’t all that crazy. In fact, it’s quite relatable.

We get our first view of Ben, sullen and anxious as he rides the moving walkway in the airport terminal. The haunting vocals of Simon & Garfunkel’s “Sound of Silence” ring in our ears, but there’s also that almost comical voice reminding travelers to use the handrails.

It’s when he touches down and gets home that things become all too real. He’s entering back into his parent’s world which is reinforced by this general theme of suffocation and in some sense alienation, fawned over by parent’s friends and encased in a scuba suit. Ironically, he’s no hippie or counter-cultural revolutionary, but he still feels at odds with the community he finds himself in. There’s a generational gap, and even Hoffman’s own portrayal is so contrary to this WASP society. In casting Hoffman, not a particularly handsome young man, an atypical example,  Nichols is ratcheting up the irony.

thegraduate2Then Mrs. Robinson coolly enters his life. It’s perhaps best signified when she tosses him the keys. They end up in the fish tank almost as if on purpose and after that she has him reeling for good. Soon he’s walking into the lion’s den (or lioness’s) as she expertly manipulates and elicits the precise response from him. In these moments the film is elevated by the awkward, huffing and puffing, and nervous chattering of Hoffman. We often forget the second part of his famed line, “Mrs. Robinson you’re trying to seduce me. Aren’t you?” His general naivete and hesitancy say it all.

I also made a startling discovery. Ben doesn’t have any friends! Or else, where are they? The inference perhaps being that he spent so much time being a track star, being on the debate team, and being editor of the paper that he never stopped to do the other things that college is all about. Building relationships with other human beings your own age. When he gets out and realizes his directionless anxiety, he tries to remedy it in other ways. The most obvious way is sleeping with Mrs. Robinson.

thegraduatesBut when he meets Elaine Robinson and finally begins to connect with her on a peer-to-peer level, it’s something so profound to him. Having someone his own age that he can relate to, who feels the same unnamed apprehension and angst that strains on him. It’s what makes Ben become so mixed up. He has true feelings for her, while his affair with Mrs. Robinson only serves to poison all that could be good. And his illogical, unhealthy pursuit of Elaine continues to Berkeley where she is attending school. Still, Mrs. Robinson and her now estranged husband look to send their precious daughter far away from Benjamin Braddock.

thegraduateThat’s what makes his final Herculean effort all the more climactic. He bursts in on her marriage to another man and whisks her off to another life altogether. A life that seems exciting at first, because, oh how great it is to be young and in love. But once they climb aboard that bus in their tattered garments, have a chance to sit down and really think about what they are embarking on, you see something else in their eyes. The laughter slowly dissipates and as they look around nervously, they begin to somber up. True, Ben is no longer alone in an airport terminal, he has a fellow traveler, but that does not make the future any less unpredictable or scary for that matter.

That is the life of a graduate. In so many ways feeling like an outsider, a foreigner in a land that you used to know. You’re living at home. You don’t know what you’re going to do and you’re not going to put off the decision by going to grad school. We’ve all been in a similar place one time or another and that’s why this film resonates, not only with the generations of the 1960s but even to this day.

What truly elevates The Graduate above Nichols’ other films, aside from this universal quality, is the stellar soundtrack courtesy of fellow New York natives Simon & Garfunkel, who became icons of the folk scene during the 60s and 70s. Their album Bookends is still a classic, featuring the fully polished version of “Mrs. Robinson.” While not all the lyrics are here in the film, it became an anthem, reflecting the gap created between the older generations and their kin. While the likes of “Sound of Silence,” “April Come She Will,” and “Scarborough Fair” lend themselves to the more introspective moments of the film like no score ever could. It’s part of what makes The Graduate a cinematic watershed of the 1960s.

4.5/5 Stars

The Graduate (1967)

Some may see this film as a comedy drama that is not in the category of great movies. However I feel if nothing else, The Graduate is culturally significant because it ushered in an age in the late 1960s where films focused on trying to attract younger audiences. Along with its good writing this film was one of the forerunners in using popular music in its soundtrack.

*May Contain Spoilers

Starring Dustin Hoffman, Anne Bancroft, and Katherine Ross with direction by Mike Nichols, the film opens with Benjamin Braddock returning home from college. He has excelled in many ways and yet he feels bored and alienated from his parents. However the naive Benjamin soon finds himself in an affair with an older woman. This further confuses him as he figures out what to do with his life. His unknowing parents want him to date a girl attending Berkeley. Things become complicated since it turns out to be Mrs. Robinson’s daughter. Not wanting anything to happen between Benjamin and Elaine, Mrs. Robinson sabotages the relationship and tries to marry her daughter off while her own marriage goes down the tube. Benjamin who is ultimately in love with Elaine crashes the wedding and takes her away to face an unknown life ahead. With the help of a memorable Simon and Garfunkel soundtrack, this film ushered in a new age geared toward the younger generations.

4.5/5 Stars