The Young Lions (1958): Humanity in Epic Scale

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The opening of Edward Dmytryk’s The Young Lions, based on Irvin Shaw’s titular novel, could be plucked out of an earlier picture like The Mortal Storm. It’s New Year’s Eve 1938 in Bavaria, Germany. Young lovers ski and frolic in the snow as locals make merry indoors.

Marlon Brando is a sympathetic German or closer still a principled man named Christian, currently sharing the company of a beautiful American — one Margaret Freemantle (Barbara Rush). For her, the evening is quashed with the word of Hitler. However misguided it might be, he has a genuine optimism about what Hitler can and will do for his country. Christian is not a monster. Likewise, he believes if lives have to be sacrificed for the sake of peace, he will gladly go to war.

Although these two people will never share the screen again, this is the beginning of everything. Because of course, we know what happened next in the history books. War did come. First in Europe, making its way to France, then Britain, and finally, the U.S. got involved. Christian gets his start policing the streets of France, upending their derogatory view of the enemy, even as he struggles with the perils of radical ideology.

It occurs to me, part of Brando’s success comes with how his social consciousness paired with his acting prowess. Because when he still seemed thoroughly engaged with his career, he sought out parts of such diversity, bringing humanity to all sorts of disparate people. They didn’t always hit the mark (I think of Viva Zapata and Tea House of The August Moon), and yet during this same period, he played an informant, a southern ace who falls for a Japanese girl, and here a sympathetic German during WWII.

There’s a calculated empathy to the adaptation, casting a German and a Jewish man as two of our most prominent protagonists. It’s difficult to begrudge The Young Lions its inclinations because they seem genuine and earnest, especially in the capable hands of Brando and Montgomery Clift. Yes, we must take a moment to mention Clift now.

The older actor is sometimes clumped with Brando, but even in the context of this movie, it’s fascinating to begin comparing them. Brando burst onto the scene and ultimately let himself go — becoming disinterested and disaffected by his screen career. Clift, likewise, was an incandescent talent transplanted from the stage, but he was totally engaged in his craft.

His own setbacks were initially out of his control: a car accident that left him dependent on drink and pain killers. He considered Brando a squandered talent for all of his abilities, but if anything, it shows how devoted Clift was to his art, doubling his efforts even after his injury.

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While they’re not exactly “young” lions, Dean Martin and Clift are a pair of compelling ones as they are drafted to be sent out overseas. You would never think of putting them together. Their personalities seem so adverse to one another, and yet there is a component of loyalty found in their performances bleeding out into real life. They were there for each other, forged by fire as they were.

Dean Martin was two years removed from his split with Jerry Lewis, and The Young Lions was his first big chance to redefine his image as an actor. He gives it a valiant go in a performance that maintains shades of his persona. In this case, Michael is a stage entertainer hesitant about going off to war and looking to dodge culpability any way he possibly can. He jousts with his girlfriend Margaret (Rush), who simultaneously doesn’t want him to die even as she disapproves of his dereliction of duty. When the time comes, he proves his mettle and his steadfastness.

Maximillian Schell was a revelation to me quite a number of years ago when I first saw Judgement at Nuremberg. Because in a picture with such contentious stakes and with so many prominent acting powerhouses, for me, he is the film’s standout with the most spectacular stand. In The Young Lions, he plays Brando’s superior espousing the typical rhetoric: The German army is invincible because it obeys orders and it harbors no sentimentality, moralists, or individualists.

In one sense, he constantly castigates Christian for his lapses in judgment, for this softness he has, but for all his perniciousness, Captain Hardenberg still comes off as a human being.  He has a flirtatious wife (May Britt) waiting back home and a life ultimately crippled by injury. If Martin holds his own up against Clift, then Schell — learning his lines phonetically no less — certainly proves himself a compelling presence opposite Brando.

They get reassigned to Rommel’s Afrika Corps in North Africa working behind enemy lines. It’s in these moments, in particular, as they bomb and mow down their unsuspecting enemy, we get a gutting portrait of how merciless the world can be, but that lets people off the hook too easily.

Human beings — myself included — can be petty, mean-spirited, and cruel to one another, and The Young Lions is not only about this global scale of war between nations. It’s about the conflicts and schisms formed in what’s supposed to be a united front — a shared cultural identity. Whether it’s a German with a heart and soul or a Jewish man who is ridiculed and discriminated against in his own country for something that is out of his control.

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The onslaught of Allied forces sweeping across North Africa — the Brits with their bagpipes and Patton with his tanks — is a force to be reckoned with even as the homefront is ripe with the division. Even as Noah (Clift) finds himself a lovely small-town girl (Hope Lange) to wed, the systematic bigotry of his barracks-mates and his superior officer is crippling. He faces it with a lion-hearted resolve as Michael does his best to back him up.

The tide of the war finds Brando and Schell fleeing on a motorcycle to escape the steadily advancing enemy forces. Christian eventually loses his commander and must face the man’s wife with a renewed disillusionment. Even a return to Paris and greetings from old friends (Parley Baer and Liliane Montevecchi), show him the world has changed dramatically. He has as well.

On the Allied front, Michael finally asks to be sent to Normandy, and there reunites with Ackerman to liberate a concentration camp. It is the same camp that has opened Christian’s eyes about what the Germans have been perpetrating for the past 5 years under the guise of Nazism. While not a totally graphic scene, it’s no less of a gut punch as each character is forced to meditate on what is before them.

There’s this driving sense of fate as The Young Lions mounts to highlight one of the monumental absurdities of war. Here we have spent an entire film — through all its peaks and valleys, heartbreaks and reveries — and we finally bring together our three primary leads.

They are on opposites sides of the conflict though they are all men of a certain stock and decency. And yet because of war and how factions are aligned, they are meant to kill one another. They will never have a chance to sit down at a table together and know how similar they really were. This is the great tragedy The Young Lions underlines.

Not only does it exhume the hidden evils of the human heart, but it also annihilates all sense of common humanity, forcing us to only see a demonized enemy opposed to men and women who are not unlike ourselves.

In a better world or even in a world before the war, these three men could have been friends or compatriots. Alas, it was never to be and what’s crueler still, they will never know what they have missed out on. They already have so many traumas; it’s difficult to discern if these thoughts will plague them. But that is not the purpose. The film is constructed in such a way, it’s meant to commend us to cast off war altogether and this is far more telling.

The impression I am left with has magnitude. It’s a minor miracle how the grandiose scale of a cinemascope epic, backed by performances from such renowned talents, somehow still manages an immediacy and intimacy. The Young Lions might be lengthy, but it never loses its protagonists in a mass of humanity. Instead, it highlights the humanity of a few to illuminate a whole society.

4/5 Stars

“The young lions lack and suffer hunger; but those who seek the LORD shall not lack any good thing.”

Mirage (1965): Gregory Peck 20 Years After Spellbound

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3.5/5 Stars

The Sniper (1952)

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From the outset with Stanley Kramer’s name emblazoned over the opening credits it gives an indication of what this film is as does the name of Director Edward Dymtryk. Kramer is, of course, remembered as one of the most fervent socially-conscious producers behind a string of classics like Defiant Ones (1958), Judgment at Nuremberg (1961), Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967) and…It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963)?

But then there’s Dymtryk who was one of the most visible casualties of the blacklist as one of the scapegoated Hollywood 10 and also the helmer of such earlier pictures as Crossfire (1947) which had a very obvious message behind it.

Thus, the Sniper looks to be the perfect collaboration with a harrowing story that hopes to simultaneously enact some amount of social change. We are introduced to a man who is one of the “sex criminals” alluded to in the opening crawl who provide a major problem for the local police force.

In this case, we get stuck inside the head of the troubled figure named Eddie Miller, a deliveryman for a local dry cleaning service, who is plagued by not only paranoia and cold sweats but a burning hatred of women.

There’s a peeping tom, voyeuristic manner to the camerawork as we follow Eddie and his morbid curiosity. He sits in his second-floor apartment picking out women through the scope of his sniper rifle and pretending to pull the trigger.  He’s an unstable personality, an isolated individual with a mother complex that sends him seeking out brunettes. But rather than getting some perverse pleasure out of the thought or actual implementation of their suffering, it comes off as a nearly uncontrollable urge.

So rather than hating Eddie for his indiscretions, it’s quite easy to pity his impulses because they feel like precisely that. Something he cannot seem to rein in. In one particular moment, he sticks his hand on the hot burner of a stovetop scalding his hand because it’s the only release he can get from the maddening thoughts hammering inside his skull.

There’s also the suggestion that people like Eddie are the ones who need mental help and yet they get kicked back out to the curb in deference to more priority cases — the suggestion being that physical injury is more pressing than psychological problems. It’s true that it can be a difficult issue to reconcile with.

The front half of The Sniper proves to be a surprisingly frank depiction and we can attribute this to the fact that as an audience we get so closely tied to Eddie Miller as a character. It’s an unflinching portrayal delivered remarkably well by Arthur Franz.

But the picture falters in its efforts to get didactic and it becomes overtly a message picture instead of purely a character study of a troubled man. We sense it trying to make its point rather than allowing the actions to dictate what happens and thus allowing the audience members to arrive at their own conclusions.

The most obvious extension of this is the all-knowing psychiatrist who lays down his wisdom though no one seems ready to listen to his insights. He’s a proponent of nipping the problem of sex offenders in the bud at a latent stage putting them into a mental institution with newly proposed legislation. It’s not that the idea is bad but it’s the execution in cinematic term that proves heavy-handed.

The latter half is more about the investigation to find the killer headed by Detective Frank Kafka (Adolphe Menjou). Meanwhile, Frank Faylen was apparently promoted and transferred from New York following his days in Detective Story (1951). Marie Windsor appears in an uncharacteristic sympathetic role as a victimized nightclub pianist. Her outcome and a number of others subsequently turn The Sniper into a commentary on gender whether it meant to be or not.

I rather like how the film utilizes the streets of San Francisco and there’s no need to overtly make a point that the film is set there, existing within police precincts, humble apartment buildings, and hilly streets. It’s simply the world that the film makes its home. It includes a rather authentic Chinese restaurant which besides providing a little flavor, shows that Menjou could use some work on his chopstick form. Though on a positive note, Victor Sen Yung snags another uncredited appearance after showing up in the S.F. set Woman on the Run (1950) as well.

Still, despite the reality that the picture gets a bit too preachy, there’s often a modicum of truth in this type of film we could do well to consider. The same psychiatrist notes the following, “You’ll catch him and they’ll kill him and everyone will forget about it. That is until the next one comes along and it’ll start all over again.”

It’s the endless cycle that we as humans allow without actually ever fixing problems. Such issues cause me to say, again and again, there’s nothing new under the sun. The same old problems just reassert themselves in different ways. It doesn’t help when our attention spans get shorter and shorter while our knowledge of history continues to dwindle.

3.5/5 Stars

Crossfire (1947)

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Like any self-respecting film noir, it opens with men whaling on each other amid stylized darkness. Edward Dmytryk’s Crossfire is an issue-driven picture and it’s an important one given the cultural moment in which it came into being. There’s no doubting that.

But though the imagery is spot on and we have numerous noir regulars, it doesn’t feel like a noir film in the semi-conventional sense. Maybe it’s because the issue it was looking to root out takes precedence over any of its more formalistic qualities and that’s perfectly fine.

From a practical standpoint, Dymytrk opted to shoot the film with low key lighting as it’s a cheaper set-up and also a lot quicker which allowed the picture to be churned out in a mere 20 days. However, it’s still quite befuddling how a film this short can still somehow be incomprehensible at times.

Like any good procedural it whips out a long list of characters introduced in every sequence who either have significant amounts of screentime or show up for a few moments and still manage to play a crucial part in this obscured piece of drama.

Realistically, Crossfire can be touted as the film of the three Roberts: Young, Ryan, and Mitchum. Robert Young will always be heralded as a television father much like Hugh Beaumont and so while I can never take him quite seriously in such a role as a police investigator, he certainly doesn’t do a poor job as Captain Finlay.

Paradoxically, Robert Ryan is one of those actors who is probably grossly underrated and yet as far as personal taste goes I’ve never liked him much (Though my esteem steadily rises). Maybe that simply pertains to the kind of characters he often played such as the belligerent Montgomery in this film. They are not meant to be affable and he does a wonderful job of eliciting a scornful reaction.

Likewise, Robert Mitchum has arguably the least important role of the three, but he still has that laconic magnetism that wins us over, portraying one of the other soldiers caught up in this whole big mess. Sgt. Peter Keeley is a bit of a tough guy but also ready to watch the back of his brothers in arms. He’s our counterpoint to Robert Ryan.

The minor players list out like so. The victim of it all was a man named Samuels (Sam Levene) who crossed paths with the demobilized soldiers in a bar and seemed nice enough. He even struck up a conversation with a homesick G.I. named Mitch (George Cooper) who Keeley guesses might be a prime suspect for murder.

Jacqueline White is the wanted Corporal’s concerned spouse while Gloria Grahame plays a characteristic noir dame who might prove to be an invaluable witness on his behalf, if only she’ll cooperate.

This is yet another link in the chain of post-war crime pictures where soldiers were returning home only to meet a new kind of disillusionment (ie. The Blue Dahlia or Act of Violence). A certain bar scene played over from multiple perspectives proves to be a pivotal moment, but it’s full of fuzzy recollections and screwy bits of information. No one seems quite sure what happened and the film banks on this ambiguity.

However, it’s about time to cease skirting around the obvious and say outright what the film is an indictment of. It’s anti-Semitism. “Jew-boy” is the trigger word. Though the film requires some reading between the lines, thanks to the production codes, there’s no context needed to understand what that means. It’s instantly apparent bigotry is rearing its ugly head.

As such, Crossfire shares a similar conviction with the year’s other famed issue-driven picture The Gentleman’s Agreement (1947) and it brings to mind the wartime short film headlined by Frank Sinatra, The House I Live In (1945).

But, of course, when you begin to analyze one group of people there always seem to be others still being marginalized whether Japanese-American, African-American, Mexican-American. You name it. And that’s part of what makes such a portrait fascinating. To see to what extent the lines of inclusion will be drawn up.

Though it’s evident that he’s preaching, there are still some steadfast truths coming from Robert Young as he tries to convince a soldier (William Phipps), still wet behind the ears, what he must do for the sake of his conscience. There’s a need to stand up to the bigots because hate is always the same. They hated the Irish and the Italians before just like they will continue to hate some other people group in years to come.

Even if the history gets pushed to the fringes and it doesn’t get taught in school, that doesn’t make it any less of the truth or any less of our history. It’s possible to contend that we are made stronger, not weaker when our troubled history and past indiscretions are fully acknowledged. Only then can we learn, heal the wounds, and pursue a better future together.

So Murder, My Sweet (1944) is still a superior film noir from Edward Dmytryk and probably a great deal more fun, but there’s no denying the message that’s at work behind Crossfire.

3.5/5 Stars

Murder, My Sweet (1944) – Film-Noir

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This film-noir adaptation of the Raymond Chandler novel stars Dick Powell, Claire Trevor, and Anne Shirley. It opens with a blinded Philip Marlowe being interrogated and so he agrees to spill everything he knows.

It all started one evening in his office when a big thug named Moose came in to get his help in finding a girl. Marlowe agrees to take the case and he questions a drunken bar owner but all is not right. He returns to his office where a man named Marriot wants his protection during a ransom drop off. However, at the location Marlowe is knocked out and the man is left dead. Through a series of events he meets Helen Grayle and her significantly older husband, who are both involved with a necklace. Also involved is the shady psychic adviser Jules Anthor, not to mention Mr. Grayle’s protective daughter Anne. Marlowe is forced to meet with Anthor and he eventually finds himself locked up in a facility. He gets away and after a meeting with Anne they head down to the Grayle’s beach house. There they have a confrontation with Helen. Now Anther is dead and Marlowe agrees to show Moose his girl Velma. They head down to the beach house and Marlowe puts all the pieces of the case together in front of Helen. Then Ann, Mr. Grayle, and finally Moose all burst onto the scene in a final chaotic finale.  Despite this bleak conclusion, there is also a hint of a happy ending. Much like the Big Sleep this film at times becomes incomprehensible but it just means your brain must work fast to catch up. Dick Powell I felt was a great Marlowe and Anne Shirley was a strong heroine. This is a quintessential film noir to say the least.

4/5 Stars