Rancho Notorious (1952): Chug-a-Lug

Rancho-Notorious-poster.jpgThe legend goes that the ever-meddling megalomaniac of RKO Pictures, Howard Hughes, insisted the film’s title be changed to Rancho Notorious because European audiences wouldn’t know what a “Chug-a-Lug” was. Director Fritz Lang, who was himself a European emigre, snidely replied they definitely knew what a “Rancho Notorious” was.

Regardless, Rancho Notorious doesn’t miss a beat with an opening close-up of a couple’s tender embrace. The lovers are pried apart reluctantly as Vern Haskell (Arthur Kennedy) goes back to work as a ranch hand, leaving his best girl, Beth (Gloria Henry), to mind her mercantile store.

As he leaves, two strangers ride into town scowling around and leering at the pretty gal waving her love off on his way. One of the two thugs enters the shop to inquire about the contents of the safe, glowering over her lecherously as she reveals its contents. It doesn’t take much to extrapolate what’s next. You can fill in the blanks.

This sequence alone is a testament to the fact that the menace of Fritz Lang can even encroach on the colored palette of the western through music and foreboding shadow. With a woman now ruthlessly ravaged and murdered, it sets her man off on the trail seeking vengeance. But being the snake in the grass that he is, one of the marauders shoots his accomplice in the back before absconding with their cache.

Haskell makes it to their encampment just soon enough to induce the dying man to let out his final breath. The only tidbit he has to go on is the phrase, “Chug-a-Lug” so he goes on the trail again sticking his nose anywhere and everywhere people might have a lead.

More often than not it leads to a near-mythical lady named Alter Kean (Marlene Dietrich), tall tales of her exploits being spread all across the territory. Everyone from neighborly townfolk to old acquaintances gladly spin myths and regale the interested passerby with their recollections. Because while he’s interested, so is the moviegoing audience.

There were her days as a saloon floozie, racing with all the other gals on the backs of eligible young men and she had the pick of them all. In those days she worked for Baldy Gunner (William Frawley) though her employment was terminated prematurely. She was too rough on the customers and they were too fresh so she got the boot.

But not before running off with most of Baldy’s money thanks to the even-keeled strong-armed tactics of Frenchy Fairmont (Mel Ferrer) who holds that often touted distinction of being “The Fastest Gun in the West.” He, like Alter, could easily be cast as a mythical figure. Everyone wants to see him and take him down. He just wants to be left alone instead of having to shoot his way out of every town he wanders into. Their reputations precede both of them and in that regard, they are kindred spirits. They seemingly understand each other. Romance might be in the air as well.

Why does this matter in Vern’s quest? For that, we must look to the Election Day taking place in a wild and wooly western town where Frenchy is currently being held along with a trio of crooked politicians. The three men are all set to be hung the very same day if their political party gets overturned. The trills of democracy haven’t really reached this far west yet. Anyway, Vern gets brought in on some minor charge to get close to this outlaw and gain his confidence.

Finally, his assiduousness pays off, and he follows Frenchy to an oasis for wanted thieves, lascivious vagabonds, and societal outcasts. He makes it to Chug-a-Lug, an isolated horse ranch now run by none other than Alter Kean, in all her glory.

He now has a group of men to begin whittling down because, if his suspicions are correct, then his culprit is undoubtedly among them. For now, it’s just Marlene and the boys of the range and she whips them pretty darn good, around the card table and otherwise.

Theatrically, Rancho Notorious has the relatively unique distinction of being an interior western. Certainly, there are exterior shots but due to budgeting at RKO and what he was given to work with, Lang is forced to go the cheaper route. However, he leverages that handicap which does often give way to a fake and garish looking mise en scène to nevertheless create an unnerving world of tension and claustrophobia.

The space is crowded with thugs just ready to go off like sticks of dynamite. They just need a match to light them off and Arthur Kennedy is precisely that. Of course, Dietrich is quite the firecracker in her own right and always the focal point.

The main themes highlighted in the title song of “Hate, Murder, and Revenge” would be returned to time and time again throughout the western canon but they also tie nicely into Lang’s own filmography.

One moment that Lang’s camera brings these themes to light most blatantly occurs when Kennedy spies the broach he gave his dead girlfriend on another woman. His gaze jumps down the gallery of leering thugs (maybe they’re only grinning) all around him with each successive cut. It’s jarring and also makes it supremely evident what Vern thinks of each and every one of them. The rage burns red hot. But he keeps it under wraps for now.

For now, the only progression that seems evident is Vern slowly moving in on Frenchy’s turf. Relations all down the line get continually testy. What follows is a contentious bank job that suggests there is no honor among thieves. Meanwhile, Alter is selling her ranch and ready to pick up and leave the territory. The end is nigh. We must have the Gunfight at Rancho Notorious or better yet The Gunfight at Chug-a-Lug to wrap up all the loose ends.

While not quite on par with Johnny Guitar, Dietrich, like Joan Crawford, more than holds her own, still strikingly alluring and fiercely independent. She also earns herself an ending that evokes and, in some ways, surpasses Destry Rides Again (1939).

In full disclosure, I rather like the title Rancho Notorious because not only is it slightly provocative but it gives some indication of the people who reside right at its heart. People driven by vice, rage, greed, jealousy, and passion. Because regardless of the location or the genre or the characters, Lang’s pictures were always about these intense emotions and innate urges at the core of human beings.

One of them is a purportedly good man who turns callous. Thus, we must question if the very same proclivities don’t rise up within ourselves. Could it be we’re all capable of a little notoriety? We all require a place to hide out one time or another and we all desire a second shot at redemption. Of course, the Chug-a-Lug wheel of fate is not always so forgiving.

4/5 Stars

Review: Scarlet Street (1945)

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Scarlet Street is an obvious reunion picture bringing together Fritz Lang, Edward G. Robinson, Joan Bennet and Dan Duryea among others from the prior year. Dudley Nichols’ story, while taking elements from La Chienne, which had already been made into a film by French master Jean Renoir in 1931, is elevated by its own unique elements.

A party is being held for one Christopher Cross (Robinson) in appreciation for his many years of faithful service at his company. As a gift, he is bequeathed a fine watch. That’s what he has to show for the last 25 years. However, he has two unfulfilled dreams from when he was young. The first was to be an artist and well, the second, was to have a beautiful woman look at him with love in her eyes. He’s never experienced that warm sensation before.

It happens the way it always does with a single moment of instantaneous decision. He intervenes when a thug is beating up a lady and he’s pleasantly surprised to find the lady to be quite ravishing. There sits Joan Bennett unlocking her jaw and surveying the damage to make sure she can flaunt her face another day, dolled up in her raincoat. In these initial interludes, she’s playfully provocative and endearingly colloquial (“Jeepers”). In fact, she’s utterly charming when you first get to know her. But that’s not to say she takes her latest conquest too seriously. She’s already got herself a man.

Oblivious and lonely, Chris begins to open up gushing about all the things about art and love that’s he’s always kept bottled up. But Kitty makes him feel like a happy schoolboy again because she seems to take a genuine interest in him as a human being. You see, Chris is a model of that inherently human desire. He is hardwired like all of us to crave some form of intimacy or better still to be fully known by someone else in a way that is complete and vulnerable

Little does he know that not everyone is so trusting and sincere as him. Sometimes people are only looking to get something out of you — to use you — and that’s much of what this story is about. That’s what makes it a noirish film at all. Certainly in the hands of Lang reteamed with cinematographer Norman Krasner they paint enough in darkness and billowing smoke. But anyone will tell you film noir is not just a look but a sensibility, a worldview, and an outlook.

Chris Cross begins so innocent and unperturbed by the world even as he feels something is missing in his life. But, when it’s all said and done, he gets absolutely decimated and crushed into the ground unmercifully.

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She has another love; he’s abusive and knocks her around but she doesn’t seem to mind. He’s got something she likes that her roommate Millie (Margaret Lindsay) rolls her eyes at. They probably deserve each other. At any rate, in Kitty’s eyes, Johnny’s a real man whereas Chris is a piddling old fool, at first a plaything, then a cash cow, and finally a nuisance. Johnny coaxes his “lazy legs” to see how much she can weasel out of him. She’s oh so charming and he’s a light touch. Chris would literally go to the moon and back for her if possible.

His home life is continually suffocating him. Rosalind Ivan is tasked with the same nagging wife role from The Suspect (1944) this time torturing a meek Robinson instead of an angelic Charles Laughton. The results are very much the same. A man can only take so much flack

But the other angle has to do with Chris’s art. He’s maintained the hobby even as his wife considers it a waste of time and threatens to throw away all his work as it clutters up her house. However, Kitty gets ideas that Chris is some bigshot artist. Knowing nothing of painting, she tells Johnny about it and he convinces her to let him try to sell the pieces.

They wind up stumbling on something outstanding rather incredulously. John Decker’s idiosyncratic and still striking compositions fill in for the amateur painter’s style. Soon, Kitty’s fronting for Chris’s work without his knowledge to make a profit and suck him dry. By now she’s even got enough of a reservoir of his monologues to repurpose his sincere words for monetary gain. Soon she has a prestigious art collector interested and a local critic eating out of her hand. Meanwhile, Chris still has nothing simply a lingering devotion to Kitty that will only break his heart.

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A galvanizing moment, where Chris’s delusion or his innocence comes to bear, occurs during a chance visit to Kitty’s apartment to announce his marriage is terminated and he’s a free man. She turns away from him and he tries to comfort her in her despair. Saying that they’ll go away together, make a new life, and start anew. But then she turns around and those tears instead turn out to be derisive laughter. The one person he thought he could trust betrays his emotions and wounds him to his core. Because this relationship too, proves to be an utter lie as she tears him down in the most humiliating fashion. It’s more than he can bear.

One can gather that everything else happening to Chris is all but a blur as the trajectory of his life soon finds him spiraling into the gutter. As one convenient commuter on the train puts it, “We each have a courtroom in our heart, judge, jury, and executioner.” It’s this sense of conscience that is shown to tear Chris apart in totality. He can never return to be his former self.

Here we see once more thematic elements common to Lang involving the complex and often flawed wheels of justice. But it’s only a mechanism for the most perplexing elements as Chris is haunted by the specters of his tormenters, trapped in his own private hell.

Robinson was probably just as aware as anyone the similarities between this and Woman in The Window (1944) and he was no doubt looking forward to moving on to something different. One could wager a bet that Bennett and Duryea are the real standouts because there sliminess is what makes the picture take.

They linger over its frames and they do so much to ruin Chris. In this day and age, I don’t know if we’re as appalled by their activities as in the 1940s where the picture was even banned locally. Now I think we see it and we’re overly conditioned to what seems mild fare or we’ve come to terms with the fact humanity has much evil within them. You cannot witness something like Scarlet Street, however ludicrous it might seem and think for one moment human beings are inherently good. It just doesn’t work.

What I appreciate about this picture more than anything is how it has the gumption to never pull a punch. Woman in the Window (1944) had a conceit and ending that worked given its psychological underpinnings. The way Scarlet Street resolves itself is no less fitting in choosing to be so very conflicted and ambiguous. If Chris was not a pitiful specimen before, he certainly is now.

4/5 Stars

Review: The Woman in The Window (1944)

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The first time I ever saw The Woman in The Window it always struck me as odd. Here was the fellow who was known as a gangster through and through and yet he was playing a bookish professor buried in his work and obsessed about psychoanalytic theory. His idea for a fine time is conversing with his intellectual friends (Raymond Massey and Edmund Breon) at the Stork Club. He’s the epitome of middle-aged solidity and stodginess as he so aptly puts it.

But in confronting these very things, you realize Robinson might have enjoyed any opportunity to get away from what everybody seemed to peg him as — to exercise a certain amount of elasticity as an actor — to be the antithesis of his image. This is all mere conjecture, mind you, because as the story progresses, you realize the character is a bit mundane.

Regardless, veteran Hollywood screenwriter Nunnally Johnson spins a story of psychological intrigue as his first showcase for his newly founded production firm International Pictures. This Fritz Lang effort along with a handful of others would instigate the stylistic categorization of “film noir” by French critics in the post-war years. There’s little doubt it fits many of the fluid conventions of noir. Though overshadowed by the even more sinister Scarlet Street from the following year, it is a genre classic in its own right.

As alluded to already, it’s also steeped in psychology. In fact, it gets knee deep in it from the opening moments in such a fashion that we know it will remain all but integral for the entire run of the narrative. Professor Wanley is enraptured by an image, a portrait of a woman to be exact, and it elicits the same spell Gene Tierney would have in Preminger’s Laura (1944). But of course, it is the woman being animated for real that brings true life to the movie and it’s no different here.

This brings us to the part that’s actually the most gratifying and probably would have been the most enjoyable to play. That of the eponymous woman staring back through the window. Joan Bennet is positively bewitching and grouped with Scarlet Street (1945), it remains some of the defining work of her career, which is hardly something to be dismissive of.

As best as it can be described, she has a pair of those coaxing, inviting eyes. Bennett, to a degree, seems to play up her Hedy Lamarr appeal with jet black hair but her looks are her own as is the spellbinding performance and it works wonders starting with the man on the screen opposite her.

He foregoes a burlesque show to engage in some “light” after dinner reading of Song of Songs. Though he’s probably looking at it from a purely academic perspective, one can gather that between his psychological theories and the fairly explicit poeticism of his reading, he’s got quite the cocktail brewing in his mind.

He gives the portrait another look as he’s about to head home, as is his normal tendency. In this particular instance, the woman is present in the flesh and they share some complimentary words. That leads to drinks and then a venture to her apartment to wind down the evening perfectly innocently.

However, instantly his life is transformed into a living nightmare as they are interrupted by a scorned boyfriend with a horrid temper going at Richard who has no recourse but to strike his adversary down in a frantic attempt at preserving his own life. It was self-defense but the damage has been done and the results are not-so-conveniently lying on Ms. Reed’s carpet.

Even with these turn of events, the professor takes them in stride, systematically and semi-rationally coming to a decision that while risky just might be the most beneficial plan of action, at least in theory. There is much that needs to be done. He enlists Alice to clean up the crime scene by both getting rid of blood and incriminating fingerprints. Any evidence that would implicate either of them must be done away with methodically.

He puts it upon himself to dispose of the body, which is no small task as the dead man has a massive frame. It takes up a lot of space and causes him some grief. He gets rid of it but not without incurring a cut and a rash of poison ivy while also leaving behind some clues that indubitably will have a bearing on the case.

However, he also has the rare privilege of being so close to the district attorney and the head of the homicide department to see first hand how they’re getting on with the case. If anything it unnerves him more assuming he will soon incriminate himself with a minor slip of the tongue or worse yet be found out in his clandestine activities due to the thorough investigation underway.

Dan Duryea has a small-time role playing what he was best at, a sleazy enforcer looking for blackmail or any other dishonest way to make a buck. Thankfully his part would be expanded upon in Scarlet Street as he came back for a second helping. His career is composed of an interesting trajectory even earning him a few starring spots in his later efforts like Black Angel. He’s an underrated talent who made classic Hollywood and noir in particular that much more engaging. One could wager it’s Bennett and Duryea who really clean up shop as they would do again the following year.

To mollify the production codes, Fritz Lang settled with the ultimate cop-out ending. While it would normally disgruntle me, the sheer lunacy of it all and the fact the picture is so embroiled with themes of the human psyche makes it marginally okay. If anything, the fact there was a superior followup the next year takes the sting out of it. Still, there’s no downplaying that Woman in The Window was crucial in laying the groundwork of what we now consider film noir, complete with murder, femme fatales, fatalistic heroes, and shadowy extremes courtesy of cinematographer Milton Krasner. What’s not to love? It’s certainly worthy of a second dose.

4/5 Stars

Clash By Night (1952)

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Clash By Night comes from a stage play by Clifford Odetts and, in one sense, it’s extremely evident. However, being blessed by a still capable director in Fritz Lang and bolstered by quality talent does wonders for this squallish RKO drama. The portentous symbolism of Lang is on full display from crashing waves to billowing clouds in the skies up above.

We spy circling seagulls and seals perking up, creatures obviously hungry for something — in this case the fish being harvested on the trawler right nearby. Here we have our environment, a cannery that sustains an entire community with work. One of the seamen is Jerry (Paul Douglas) a teddy bear of a man who works on a fishing boat as his father did before him. He now supports his senile father along with his idle good-for-nothing uncle.

When Mae Doyle (Barbara Stanwyck) comes back to her family home after being away well nigh a decade, the summation of her activities is terse, “Big dreams, small results.” She’s very dismissive and aloof in every interaction; she’s not about to give herself to anyone or fall in love. But when the good-natured Jerry comes to call on her she actually accepts. Maybe she can learn to like a nice guy and have a home and a family. They try on all accounts and get married. Every attempt is made to convince herself that this is what a normal woman is supposed to aspire to.

However, Jerry’s buddy, the local projectionist at the movie theater, the outgoing, slightly patronizing stiff Earl (Robert Ryan) offers an inkling of something else. He has raw even carnal energy and a cynic’s outlook on love. Mae despises his personality type probably because it’s too close to home — too akin to how she sees the world. But his raffishness can easily get contorted into something volcanic, flaming with an attraction that draws in a wife desiring something more.

What’s staged thenceforward is a showing that hits the throttle on several occasions to heated extremes. It’s the utter epitome of ’50s hothouse drama that can feel overwrought and stagy; the emotions at times become heightened to an unbelievable degree. Sweat and manic attacks of rage that lead to blows ensue. Not to mention countless mentions of the rise in temperature.

Even the early dialogue at times feels too cute, manufactured to be read off and yet to their credit the stars come with fury at times heartless and tender and full of self-loathing. Stanwyck is a mess of tortured dissonance subjecting herself to emotional whiplash, never truly contented. However, feeling completely sorry for her proves difficult.

Though Marilyn Monroe received her first prominent billing, she comes off as more of a side note than an integral part of the picture at least in front of the camera. There’s little doubt she was causing her usual media frenzy behind the camera and headaches for her director due to her often temperamental ways. Those would hardly change but superstardom would only continue to descend upon her.

Always the consummate professional, Stanwyck was in the middle of divorce proceedings with Robert Taylor and as art often mirrors life you get the impression that just possibly she might be channeling some of that emotion into her performance. If she is, it’s nearly impossible to tell as she carries herself with the same self-assured composure in every scene, touching every note, regardless, with her accustomary ease.

Even for a black and white piece filmed by Nicolas Musuraca, Clash By Night is not necessarily a typical Lang exhibition in expressionistic, noirish tones but the expression comes boiling up from within his actors. That is enough. The picture could have done well to smolder until the end. Instead, it chooses a more forgiving road. Jerry relents saying, “You gotta trust somebody. There ain’t no other way.” He’s taking a beating and yet his heart is still large. There’s no word on whether it will be torn out again.

3.5/5 Stars

Fury (1936)

spencer_tracy_furyYou could say that Fritz Lang was fascinated, even preoccupied with issues of justice. M, Fury, and You Only Live Once all take a particular interest in crime in relation to systems of justice while still functioning as tense thrillers. Although Fury was his first film across the pond in Hollywood, Lang maintained his fine form in a potent debut.

Joe Wilson (Spencer Tracy), is an average stiff. He’s got his name for a reason. He’s got a lovely girl (Sylvia Sidney) and they’re madly in love but he’s also hardly scraping by and the same goes for his two brothers. Still, he believes in his country and the fact that if he goes about his life honestly, he will ultimately be rewarded. But in truth, his idealistic convictions are soon put into question when he finds himself caught up in some unfortunate circumstances.

He’s arrested for the kidnapping of a small child, a crime that he’s innocent of no thanks to some circumstantial evidence and the suspicious local law enforcement. Soon a chain of “Telephone” spreads the juicy gossip like wildfire through the town of Strand. Everyone’s writing his confession of guilt for him and they rather enjoy it.

In the meantime, the excitable, uneducated masses aren’t about to wait for the district attorney and when the higher ups in the state government balk at sending in the national guard, the locals take justice into their own hands. It’s a bit like the storming of the Bastille — a tumultuous revolution of sorts — and yet this is Middle American in the land of the free and the home of the brave. Still, the sheriff’s jail is soon seized. It’s a barrage of brawling fists, chaos, and general mayhem that adds a noticeable edge to the drama. This is no joke. They want Joe’s hide and they’re willing to raze the jail to the ground if they have to.

The ensuing court case puts 22 men on trial for the senseless murder of Joe Wilson. But from the grave, he looks to get his sweet revenge as his killers get their due. Newsreel footage is brought in as evidence when the entire line of witnesses are all conveniently town locals not wanting to cause a stir. But there’s very little disputing images. They hardly lie. On the other hand, man is very prone to deceit and that’s a great deal of what Fury hinges on. Lies from defendants and witness, even from our protagonists. A couple of Joe’s personal traits serve an important purpose to the plot including his love for peanuts and a penchant for misspelling the word ‘memento.’ And it’s when the truth is finally settled on that real justice is able to be enacted.

I am not sure if I quite buy Tracy’s progression towards a raging vendetta completely but either way, it sets up a troublesome moral dilemma. The kindly and bright-eyed Sylvia Sidney as his girl ultimately acts as his compass. He is looking at trading justice, what is fair with what is not. That’s what he expects and not what he gets. The American justice system was and still is a flawed system but there’s still so much to it that champions justice for all (and liberty for that matter). That’s what Fury is really about — both sides of the coin.

The ending is obviously a Hollywood cop-out but if nothing else it highlights what we are called to do as citizens and more universally as human beings. Unfortunately, despite our best efforts, the world is not always fair nor will it ever be completely so. All we can hope to do is keep short accounts and forgive others with graciousness (God forgive him and our trespasses, as we forgive them who trespass against us). It’s at its most difficult in a situation such as this with such a horrendous wrong being committed.

But then, grace is a scandalous thing. When someone’s actions result in others obviously in the wrong getting what they do not deserve that rubs us the wrong way. That’s why justice, as well as grace, are so powerful when paired with wisdom. Everyone under the sun is at fault at one time or another. Joe lets vengeance guide his decisions rather than righteous anger. Fury envelops him. But he turns from that — however reluctantly — he still does.

4/5 Stars

-Let them know what it means to be lynched.
-Don’t you think they know by now?
– No.
-What you’ve felt for a few hours, they’ve had to face for days and weeks! Wishing, with all their souls, they could have that one day to live over again. Joe…don’t you see?

~ Joe and Katherine

M (1931)

mfilm1Peter Lorre has a face that will forever live in cinematic infamy, and it started with M. In truth, Fritz Lang’s drama involving a serial killer feels fresh and engaging even after all these years, maybe because humanity hasn’t changed all that much. We still murder, we still kill, we still seek justice, we still give into our base desires, and there’s not a perfect person among of us. Each one of us has our faults — our own personal downfalls.

The film begins with a rash of disappearances across the city and the boulevards are plastered with Wanted posters for the mysterious culprit. The day that Elsie Beckmann disappears sets the community off, especially when the perpetrator sends a handwritten letter to the local newspaper. The media frenzy begins as every man, woman, and child begins to suspect their neighbor of being a child murderer. The mob mentality looks to overrun the scales of justice. Meanwhile, the police force looks to use empirical methods as well as frequent raids to drudge up answers. They’re far from popular in the underworld and the force is being run ragged in an effort to get to the bottom of the case. Everyone expects a resolution quickly, but real solutions are hard to come by.

Things have gotten so dire for the local mob bosses that they call a meeting, resolving to do the dirty work on their own. They begin their own search for the man who is single-handedly ruining their rackets because he’s no good. Now the chase is really on for Hans Beckert, because everyone is on high alert, in all spheres of society. The question becomes not if he will be caught, but when, because it is only a matter of time.

It’s in these latter moments that the longstanding mystery behind the film’s title finally is revealed and it is a fitting twist. Everything begins to fall into place, but the strangest thing is that Lang actually begins to make us empathize with his killer. True, we want him to receive justice, but the men on the other side of the law seem little better than he — in fact, many of them are criminals themselves.

M has a fascinating juxtaposition of silence and sound, acting as a bridge between both. Beckert’s whistling of “In the Hall of the Mountain King” is certainly integral to the plot. It’s those exact notes that trigger the memories of a blind beggar selling balloons. However, it is these hollow sounds of the whistling that feel strange ominous and distant in vast areas of open space  There’s as much tension in the lulls of silence as there is in the most tumultuous notes.

Although Lorre doesn’t say much, we get enough clues just dwelling for long spells on his face. Those big eyes full of crazed fear and psychological torment. His mind plagued by paranoia and torn apart by schizophrenic bouts of conscience. It suggests the perverse nature of man given that this story was taken from real life accounts of a German child murderer. But also the tragic nature of mankind that we are often drawn to do evil in a sense. Our flesh is too weak and we give into our animalistic urges. Of course, Lang reveals the flip side of the indiscriminate as well, that seems just as questionable including mob rule and a sort of vigilante justice that functions outside of the accepted modes of law enforcement.

It brings up questions on the cycle of crime and the rehabilitation of the criminal. Questions that still get hotly debated and thrown about even to this day. M became the measuring stick for all of the subsequent crime thrillers Lang would churn out so efficiently following his move to the United States. You could argue that although he came close numerous times, he never quite topped this crowning jewel of a crime drama.

5/5 Star

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)

Das-Cabinet-des-Dr-Caligari-posterI’ve never seen anything like it, and I mean that in all truthfulness. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari has the esteem of being called the original horror film, and that’s not something to be taken lightly. Perhaps I’m more partial to Murnau’s Nosferatu that came out two years later, but this film directed by Robert Wiene is really the epoch of German Expressionism. The German Expressionism Movement, after all, was not simply about painting, or architecture, or theater. It bled into the Weimar film industry as well, drifting as far away from realism as was possible at the time. Some say D.W. Griffith wrote the rules of moving pictures as we know them today, and if that’s so, then it was this film that tried to push the boundaries to the limit.

In an effort to be transparent, I will acknowledge that The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari does not engage me, narratively speaking, like some other silent films. It follows a Dr. Caligari as he presents his spectacular somnambulist Cesare (Conrad Veidt) at a local carnival. But all is not as it seems as a string of murders terrorize the town by night. Also, I was not a big on the score that accompanied this version. It was rather a discordant cacophony and it did not seem to go well with the action, but that is often a problem with silent films if they do not already have a score to go with them.

CABINET_DES_DR_CALIGARI_01Nevertheless, the images alone are striking, and it is still fascinating for the very reasons I mentioned above. It boasts the craziest sets, highly stylized, and made up of every type of angle and shape imaginable. We know resolutely that this is not reality, these are simply facades being put up to engage our eyes. It features a mise-en-scene for the ages, with no attempt to try and be the least bit objective. There’s no effort to aim for realism; none whatsoever, and that level of audacity is impressive. Furthermore, it’s mind-boggling to think that so many people and so many films were influenced by this movement. Especially in Hollywood.

Without it, we would not have 1930s horror films like Frankenstein and Dracula. There would be no Film-Noir or at least not the same moody, atmospheric creature that we know today. In truth, it was many European directors like Fritz Lang, Billy Wilder, Otto Preminger, and even Alfred Hitchcock, who channeled this movement in their own work. It proved to be so important to the medium of film and thus, it’s important to remember these roots. So maybe The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is not as engaging today, but there is much to be admired and extracted from it still.

4.5/5 Stars

Metropolis (1927)

MetropolisposterFritz Lang’s archetypal sci-fi epic is steeped in politics, religion, and humanity, but above all, it is a true cinematic experience. It is visually arresting, and it still causes us to marvel with set-pieces that remain extraordinary. How did Fritz Lang piece together such a gargantuan accomplishment? Maybe even equally extraordinary, how was I able to see almost a complete cut of this film, which was at different times thought to be lost, incomplete, and ruined?

Metropolis really feels like one of the earliest blockbusters, although I would have to further substantiate that. Still, it’s basic story is generally captivating following a young man named Freder from the upper echelon of society with a father who runs things. This young man is really in the perfect position to succeed, the way society is set up. He even goes to the preeminent school where all the boys are dressed in white. Little does he know in the lower depths the beleaguered, grungy, weary masses in black are slowly killing themselves with work. The machine that drives this society is never satisfied, always desiring to be fed more and more and more.

When the boy finally sees the reality of the infrastructure his paradise is built upon, he cries out in horror. This is not the way things are supposed to be. He eventually switches places with one of these workers and attends a meeting deep in the catacombs (an allusion to the early Christians), where the pure goddess Maria lifts the spirits of her fellow man. But of course, the evil inventor Rotwang is enlisted by Freder’s father Joh Frederson. Their own relationship is marred by conflict over a woman they both loved. Freder’s dead mother. And so the scientist looks to resurrect his long lost love, and he needs Maria to develop his plan. He kidnaps her and from her likeness creates a double, who goes out to wreak havoc on all of Metropolis. The apocalyptic words of the Book of Revelation ring true as the whore of Babylon deceives the masses and leads them to destruction.

But Freder is the Mediator, he is the Savior of his people, and he is necessary to bring peace and tranquility to a world that has descended into such brokenness. So Metropolis is certainly a film full of symbolic touches, religious connotations, and political commentary, but all of this is developed by Fritz Lang through an archetypal hero’s narrative.

Hollywood has become an industry seemingly so obsessed with story, screenplays, plots. Certainly, a film like Metropolis is at least adequate in that area alone, but what really sets a film such as this apart is its cinematic scope. The sheer vast expanses it fills. The scope it creates through its plethora of extras and encompassing sets is hard to downplay. How to describe scenes where water is literally breaking down walls and covering masses of fleeing children? Or smokestacks spewing out refuse while trains, planes, and automobiles pass by in every direction. People scattering this way and that, following the false Maria in a chaotic frenzy. It reminds us what the motion picture, the moving picture, is all about. The images that are brought before us lead to a suspension of disbelief because more importantly they are incredibly affecting. At the atypical 20 frames per second, they are images full of tension, full of energy, and full of life.

Metropolis-new-tower-of-babelIn a sense, with Metropolis, we can easily see a precursor to Chaplin’s Modern Times a decade later. There is a general apprehension of the machine and the impact of a true industrial revolution. There is a fear that there are more positives than negatives. That machines will take over and man will become outdated. Perhaps someday our creation will destroy us. By today’s standards, such notions seem archaic, but are they? We still live in a society ever more obsessed with advancement, technology, and all the things that come with that. However outdated some of Metropolis might feel, and there are numerous such moments, at its core is the final resolution that between the body and the mind there must be a heart to regulate. We are not simply animals with bodies or rational machines with minds, but the beauty of humanity is that we have a heart, pulsing with life and vitality. That is something to be grateful for and never lose sight of.

5/5 Stars

You Only Live Once (1937)

youonlylive1There are two types of lover-on-the-run narratives. There’s the Bonnie and Clyde/Gun Crazy extravaganza full of shoot-outs and bloodshed. Then you have the more sensitive approach of a film like They Drive By Night. You Only Live Once fits this second category thanks to two bolstering performances by Henry Fonda and Sylvia Sydney. Fonda is forever known for his plain, naturalistic delivery full of humanity. He has that quality as 3-time loser Eddie Taylor certainly, but he also injects the role with a somewhat uncharacteristic rage. In many ways, he has a right to be angry at a world that so easily writes him off and is so quick to pronounce guilt. There is very little attempt to rehabilitate the reprobate and Taylor is an indictment of that.

youonlylive2Secretary Jo Graham (Sylvia Sydney) is positively beaming the day they are releasing her boyfriend Taylor because he is finally getting the second chance he deserves. A glorious marriage follows soon after until reality breaks into the lovers’ paradise. Few people aside from Father Dolan and a few forward thinkers are willing to give Taylor grace. He is prematurely fired from his job and has no way to make the payments on the house that his wife has been sprucing up for him. Adding insult to injury, a brazen bank robbery is committed which he is wrongly accused of. It’s back to the clink and then the electric chair.

Jo is beside herself and Taylor is angered at the way the law deals with him. This justice is the most unjust imaginable, and he is about to pay the price. But Jo desperately gets him help and he tries to make a break for it.

youonlylive4That’s what makes a wire proclaiming his innocence all the more ironic because he will have none of it. He takes a man’s life and now his acquittal goes down the drain as quickly as he got it since he has a murder to his name. Eddie and Jo go off on the road together, looting banks and surviving the best they can with their newborn son. This is not two joyriding youngsters trying to get rich without an honest day’s work. Fritz Lang develops a more complex story with people who tried to live by the rules and found they were dealt an unfair hand.

As one of Lang’s earliest works in America, you can see some remnants of German Expressionism exported here with foggy clouds of mist engulfing the screen at times. His tale also has an interesting ambiguity suggesting that crime is not always black and white. Perhaps it has less to say about the moral degenerates or corrupt individuals in our society and more about the faulty structures that our justice system often get built around. It’s mind-boggling to think that this film came soon after the Depression meaning the bitter taste of those years was still fresh in peoples’ mouths. Nevertheless, this film is an interesting crime-filled character study.

4/5 Stars

While the City Sleeps (1956)

whilethecity1While the City Sleeps has a brilliant cold open followed by a pounding title sequence, courtesy of Fritz Lang, that brings to mind a bit of Diabolique and Psycho. The rest of the film turns into a case to find the wanted lipstick murderer (based on a real killer), but that only holds part of our attention.

When newspaper magnate Mr. Kyne dies suddenly, his begrudging son Walter (Vincent Price) takes over intent on shaking up the status quo and putting his mark on the company. He soon turns three men against each other as they desperately fight for the new position of executive director. The first is veteran newspaper editor John Day Griffith (played by the always memorable character actor Thomas Mitchell). The second candidate is chief of the wire service Mark Loving (George Sanders) who is Griffith’s main competitor. Finally, in the third spot is Harry Kritzer who happens to have a secret ace in the hole. Each of them is tasked with finding out the real scoop about the serial killer, and it turns into a real tooth and claw ordeal. Within the glass cubicles, everything can be seen, but not everything is heard and that’s where the secrets get disclosed.

On the outside looking in, so to speak, is star TV reporter Edward Mobley (Dana Andrew), who agrees to help his friend Griffith by doing a little digging around about the murderer. He gets some tips from a cop friend Lt. Kaufmann (Howard Duff), and Mobley tries to smoke the killer out on air. However, it leads to the potential endangerment of his fiancée Nancy, who also happens to be Loving’s secretary. Loving has his love directed towards a female reporter named Mildred Donner (Ida Lupino), who attempts to needle Mobley for info. At the same time, the killer is on the move once more, with Nancy being an obvious target. Mr. Kritzer’s own romantic entanglements get him in trouble because he is seeing Kyne’s beautiful but detached wife Dorothy (Rhonda Fleming). Mildred finds out about them and they have some talking to do. Mobley also has some making up to do with Nancy after she finds out Mildred came to see him. It’s a big mess.

whilethecity3Mobley juggles everything from his love life to the big scoop and they apprehend the killer, but things at Kyne’s don’t wind up exactly the way they expected. Mobley looks to move on from the paper with Nancy, but even he cannot get away that easily.

While the City Sleeps is an underrated tale from Lang that is positively stacked with big names. Its pacing can be deliberate at times, but it is just as much an indictment of journalism as it is a thriller. The office is a web of deception with so many interconnections between these work factions. Those you would normally expect to be scrupulous seem to give up their honor in the face of this new promotion. In a sense, Mobley seems to be outside of this fray and yet he cannot help but get involved in it. It doesn’t help that nothing turns out the way it’s supposed to. Everybody seems to gain something, but nobody really wins the game.

I must say it was great to see Dana Andrews in one of these leading roles again and although their roles were smaller, Ida Lupino and George Sanders still were a deliciously stuffy and corrupt pair. I was never really a fan of Vincent Price due to the roles he normally plays, but I was inclined to like Howard Duff (Lupino’s real-life husband) in his turn as the policemen. It goes without saying that Rhonda Fleming is positively beautiful, but she also cannot be trusted. I guess that applies to about every character in this film. It’s certainly a cynical world out there that Lang paints, where the killer might be caught, but corruption is never fully quelled.

4/5 Stars