Winchester 73 (1950): James Stewart The Western Antihero

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Winchester 73 has the initially dubious reputation of being a portmanteau western. Whether or not this is a one-of-a-kind distinction, any number of popular culture vehicles have employed the device in often gimmicky fashion. It makes for a La Ronde-esque sitcom episode in a pinch.

However, this James Stewart-Anthony Mann collaboration succumbs to no such fate. It’s positively stuffed with quality talent and vignettes woven quite closely together. There is a compounding weight to them even as characters both minor and substantial all but stand on their own two feet.

Equally compelling is Anthony Mann’s usual dynamism — continued from his film noir days — and also the very specific mise-en-scene he develops. The opening shot behind the credit is an exquisite first impression with a pair of silhouettes trodding along the ridge in a perfect arc off into the distance. It’s a type of instant exposition in the most primal sense: two men riding toward their unseen destination.

The two strangers sidle into town, the hard-bitten gentleman Linn McAdams (Stewart) and his trusty sidekick (Millard Mitchell), who takes a calculated stance on just about everything. We know they’ve seen a lot of the world together and all sorts of people…

One of them just happens to be Dutch Henry Brown (Stephan McNally, who they happen on in the local watering hole. In another western, guns at the ready, they would have obliterated each other on the spot. However, in this picture, where a fairly obstinate rein of law and order rules, they are forced to bide their time outside the watchful eye of the city limits.

Will Geer does surprisingly well as a wry and affable Wyatt Earp. His characterization is just personal enough to take some of the mystique out of the legend and make him into a real human being we can appreciate in relatable terms.

But these scenes are a mere setup for a whole slew of encounters. It’s as if we lose our characters for a time as McAdams and High-Spade ride along the trail. However, Mann has a lot of fertile material to work with.

It transcends the simple conceit and builds into a genuine story rife with conflict, both personal and circumstantial. The story obliges by rolling over on itself as it continues to introduce new players at its own leisure.

In one roadside establishment, an insouciant horse trader (John McIntire) sits at the table playing solitaire. He sits by ready to play middle man to the Indians emboldened by Crazy Horse’s victory at the Little Bighorn, while gladly supplying Dutch Henry and his cronies desperately-needed weapons of their own.

It just so happens a Winchester becomes a fine bargaining piece. And yet even a secondary character like him is provided subtext. A man like him — a purported half breed — is deemed as an outsider by two nations.

Certainly, the Indians always carry the subjugated and degraded station in the western. Winchester 73 has its own issues assuredly, starting with Rock Hudson playing a Native American. However, the one equalizer is the universal avarice for the Winchester Rifle. Everyone wants it; some even to the point of death.

Other involved parties are a couple fleeing for their lives — a forthright woman with a gleam in her eye (Shelley Winters) and her craven man (Charles Drake). Alongside our heroes, they find some shelter in the company of a cavalry unit pinned down by the same Indians (a youthful Tony Curtis among them). Their leader, a crusty old vet (Jay C. Flippen), is astute enough to take advice from the men around him, and they make a valiant defense of their position to live another day.

It’s about this point in time where a viewer might realize we still have yet to see that perennial sleazy scene-stealer Dan Duryea and he makes his auspicious entrance as his usually snide gunman, the left-handed Waco Johnnie Dean pinned down in a farmhouse with his gang. There’s more hell to pay.

The glorious fact is how the film peaks at so many points. We have the battle over the rifle’s rightful owner in town, first, through competition then treachery. What follows is a Custer-like resistance with far better results, a homestead hostage standoff against authorities, the makings of a bank robbery, and, of course, the ultimate showdown on a craggy rock face.

These moments are easy to acknowledge because they are so prolific but what makes these exclamation points are the very fact the script knocked out by Borden Chase and Robert L. Richards and as executed by the actors and its director, finds the time for conversation, lulls, and lit cigarettes.

By no means does it search out the utterly stylized extremes of Sergio Leone, but it understands the same dramatic gradient. Action means so much more if we have time and space to truly appreciate its impact.

What also matters are the stakes at play. Thankfully, Winchester ’73 makes itself about more than just a gun. A gun is a stand-in and indication of any number of grievances and human vices. It brings out all the issues already in play.

James Stewart was still fairly fresh off WWII. He was a different man from the gee-shucks everyman — more complicated and torn than he had ever been before. The films he made upon his return had yet to truly catch fire until Winchester ’73. It was a portent and signaled a true resurgence for the actor. Joining with the likes of Mann and Hitchcock, he very effectively redefined his image in a fundamentally intriguing way.

He became a man of vengeance with goodness soured by hate and desires tainted by darkness. When you look into his eyes in any of the number of pictures he made with Mann and Hitch, you begin to recognize something else. It’s not unadulterated innocence or even indignance. His eyes now burn with fury and genuine malice. His hands are calloused, comfortable cramming bullets into the stock of his gun. Because he’s not afraid of using it.

Reconsidering the mise-en-scene, it’s a joy to watch how Mann handles shots in such a blistering manner. But there is also a closeness and with it a violent intimacy to his direction. One scene might have a sleepy-eyed cowboy all but stretched out in the foreground as the camera peers over him into a cabin as two men converse.

Then, we have a bar room mauling in the most claustrophobic manner. Foreheads sweating, bodies writhing in palpable pain, and blood-vessels bulging with rage. It’s astounding how the man’s films almost inevitably feature such images and yet, despite their prevalence, I never grow tired of them.

They put many more technical or cashed-out sequences to shame because what is not scrimped on is the very transparent humanity in its most righteous and ugly iterations. Mann understands that there is not only primacy in the images of the West — we often think rolling plains and panoramas — but the western would mean nothing without morality. Hard unyielding codes, or a lack thereof, warring against each other. Where do these originate from if not the hearts and souls of men?

What Winchester ’73 hints at is how even a man like James Stewart can be consumed by demons. Over the course of a film, a story of a mere rifle, repeatedly develops character until it settles on something splitting right to his core identity. The beauty is in how swatches of dialogue, interweaving character arcs, and splashes of light and dark help in illustrating his singular journey.

This was the first in a thoroughly distinguished partnership between the western’s newfound antihero, Stewart, and one of the genres unsung mavericks in Mann. It just might be the best of the batch, which is saying something.

4.5/5 Stars

The Lost Weekend (1945) and Alcohol The Femme Fatale

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It might be a futile exercise but at least for a brief moment, I will attempt to get back into the headspace from when I first came upon Billy Wilder’s The Lost Weekend. I was younger then. Bright-eyed and a budding cinephile. It is the film that defined Ray Milland’s entire filmography for me as I had never seen another one of his pictures (although Dial M for Murder followed soon thereafter).

Now I understand the crucial context. To say Ray Milland is defined by The Lost Weekend is analogous to attributing Anthony Perkins’s entire persona to Norman Bates and Psycho. You wouldn’t be wrong but in order to understand this inference, you have to understand how the viewing public viewed them in the moment. They were matinee idols and boys-next-door. They fit in comedies and as youthful love interests.

It takes a subversive and inventive mind like a Wilder or a Hitchcock to take the inherent expectations provided by an actor only to toy with the audience. Milland, in his early years, could be defined by the likes of Easy Living or The Major and The Minor. Even noir like Ministry of Fear and The Big Clock, though clouded by menace, rely on the inherent likeability of our hero thrown into trauma though he maybe.

The Lost Weekend was an unequivocal gamble for Milland, in particular, and history has proven to be on his side. He gamely throws himself wholeheartedly into the drama, and it pays heavy dividends.

Don Birnam (Milland) is a struggling novelist with a persistent drinking habit. He’s playing at being reformed, about to go on a trip to the country with his pragmatic brother, but just out of sight and out of reach is a bottle. He’s still beholden to the stuff. It’s a hidden cache of security just in case he needs a nip.

His concerned girlfriend (Jane Wyman) has the cutest way of remedying their height disparity when it comes to kissing (bend down). Even as I’ve gained a more full-bodied impression of Ray Milland, I would like to believe I’ve also reappraised the stardom of Wyman with newfound respect.

She’s not merely an ironic Sirkian pawn in melodrama. During the bulk of the 1940s, she more than asserted herself as a quality performer.  In retrograde, the likes of The Yearling and Johnny Belinda show an extraordinary range, redefining how I perceive her for the better. The Lost Weekend exhibits her at her most likable while still being bolstered with personal resolve.

This is evident even as her boyfriend so quickly falls into outrage as if the people who love him most are turning against him. It all plays as a symptom of the real problem. He feels hemmed in or could it be the withdrawals from the alcohol crying out?

Regardless, the theremin has never used as effectively to denote menace in such a different context than the ubiquitous Sci-Fi trope it would soon become. Because one bottle is snatched away and yet it’s simply indicative of a far more pervasive problem. Don has stashed alcohol all over his apartment in the most ingenious hiding places though his brother is equally adept at hide and seek.The premises are really and truly dry. That is until the cleaning woman unwittingly tips him off to $10 he can splurge on. He’s up for a perilous road ahead.

John Seitz photographs the drama like a brooding noir, and it is as if alcohol — the siren on the shelf — is the deadly fatale entrapping Ray Milland in its web. His girlfriend even goes so far as to label the “other woman” and confidently intimates she’s not going to go down without a fight; she’ll help him beat it and keep Birnham for her own.

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Eventually, he succumbs to a bender of a weekend, caught as he is within his own self-exile. What becomes so very evident is how isolating addiction becomes. His only confidante is the local bartender (Howard da Silva in an uncharacteristically sympathetic part).

As Don spirals back into his destructive habit, he recounts how he managed to meet a girl like Helen even in the throes of his alcoholism. There he was sitting in the theater like a fine thespian and yet he couldn’t get it out of his mind. Even the play reminds him of the bottle he has in his jacket pocket, currently stashed out in the coat check. It proved a fortuitous evening as his petulant first impression gave way to charms that won his girl over.

However, it is a portent of all his recurring troubles. The want of liquor leads him into distancing himself from the community just so he can get alone with his bottle. Companionship seems so much more vital and yet we tell ourselves backward lies to rationalize our decisions.

He is a man who suffers from the age-old affliction of Jekyll and Hyde syndrome. He even admits there are two sides to his persona. The man about town with a charming public persona, and then the other Don Birnam. The drunk who remains a tortured writer.

He hits the pits of despair, wandering the streets, desperately looking to hock his belongings for one last satiating drink — even a handout if he can get it. But that’s the lie, isn’t it? Just one more time and we’ll reform. Just one more and never again. We gather together the willpower for an hour, a day, a week, a month, until it comes back with a vengeance.

Birnham’s life is indicative of a whole caste of society. The silent and the forgotten in dark rooms and lonely bouts of aggravation. His brother has turned his back, and he won’t respond to his girlfriend. It quite literally feels like a little slice of hell.

The film makes one harrowing detour to an archaic-looking drunk ward where a sardonic Frank Faylen takes care of the jittery new arrival inside the booze tank. He’s confident Birnham will be a regular customer soon enough. It feels like a harsh and unfeeling extension of the world.

For some, The Lost Weekend might be a tempered now antiquated exploration of alcoholism firmly planted in the past. However, I would like to push against this preconception slightly.

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Wilder purportedly penned the piece with his writer partner, Charles Brackett, as a way to explore his relationship with Raymond Chandler and how alcoholism affected their art — the processes of a writer being derailed by drink.  So in this regard, it too is personal and yet about as universal as a picture can be. There is this obvious duality of art and alcohol where one impacts the other in highly detrimental ways.

Wilder’s not always known as a technical director but, if nothing else, he surrounds himself with competent people. A couple names that come to mind in this picture, in particular, are cinematographer John Seitz and then his editor Doane Harrison.

One is reminded of the shots of the overturned lamp repeatedly reflecting the shambles of Birnham’s current life, derailed by drunkenness as it is. In another, it’s Milland’s eyeball spinning psychotically inside its socket. He’s more alive than Marion Crane on the bathroom floor, but we can hardly deign to call this life.

Each of these elements, even the more blatant evocations of his delusions, illustrates the torment of human beings stricken by addiction. It saps our creativity and our energy. It can take away a want for relationships and, in some cases, our desire to live.

The Lost Weekend is a reminder sometimes we need to enter into the storm of our struggles so we might come out on the other side. When you’ve hit rock bottom, the tap is dry, and your body is shaking, the only place to go is up.

However, sometimes we’re not strong enough to pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps. Grit, determination, and resolve only get us so far. We have nothing left. We’re broken, alone, destitute.  Utterly defeated. It’s in this place of helplessness when we are forced to look outside of ourselves…to something or someone else. To reclaim all that is lost and be found again.

4.5/5 Stars

Port of Shadows (1938) and The Face of Jean Gabin

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“Like the movies. I see you. I like you. Love at first sight.” – Jean Gabin

Jean Gabin has one of the great visages of the cinema. But in making such a statement you immediately run the risk of giving the wrong impression. To actually see him on the big screen is to know what I mean. He is not classically handsome in the Hollywood sense, fitting somewhere in between Spencer Tracy, Bogart, and Fonda when Hank had a chip on his shoulder. And yet set off in black and white as Gabin always was during his most prolific periods, there is something unmistakable about his face.

It is worn with the grooves, contours, and the residual sadness that come with life. He gives the impression of seeing the world, having his heart ripped out, being battered and bruised, while still choosing to press on anyway. You could say he has the entire French experience of the early 20th century on his brow. He’s simultaneously a projection of their best self in the face of hardship.

Historically, the cultural mood and the looming world war to come were ill-omens, as far as the release of the film was concerned. It was far too portentous to be met without some amount of resistance

In Port of Shadows, Gabin fittingly plays a jaded soldier who catches a lift to the nearby port town of Le Havre. In an opening act of clemency, he keeps his truck-driving benefactor from quashing a mutt masked by the billows of fog. It’s an instant flag. We know this man. His emotions are not obvious, but they are there; he concerns himself with the well-being of others. There is a heart under there somewhere. Scene after scene his constant companion is the runty little dog, a continual reminder of who he is as a man.

Along with setting up its star, we soon learn director Marcel Carne cares about his characters and takes care of them. Not that the environments are unimportant. Between the pitch darkness of the highway or the smoky and garish interiors of the club, there’s atmosphere aplenty. But Carne is focused on his players; their faces and distinct movements, allowing them to be focal points of scenes in a generally clean, uninterrupted fashion.

Between the instantly palpable world and the menagerie of players cycling in and out, Port of Shadows cannot help but feel like a prototype for everything from Casablanca to the entire film noir movement with its smoky brand of realism.

I don’t know much about the time frame of when the picture takes place. In all honesty, I’m not all that concerned with that so much because instantly you are pulled into a world’s depth of field with its shadow and fascinating figures. There’s a compulsion to fall into the story and be as fully involved as possible.

He’s in town, flat broke, and there’s an unspoken understanding he’s not looking to get noticed by the local gendarmerie — most obviously a deserter. This is one of those picturesque places where you can fall in with drunken vagabonds and find yourself on the receiving end of neighborliness.

As is, everyone who is down-and-out or in trouble seems to go to Panama’s, though it serves as little more than an old shack with a couple of rooms.  A sorry excuse for a hangout and yet it has far more life than the fancy club in town. It’s the people there who truly make it worthwhile.

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Jean (Gabin) is given a meal by the ragged proprietor, gets some fancy talk from an amiable artist, before meeting the most important person: Nelly (Michele Morgan). She’s young but precocious, mature beyond her years. The same might be said of Morgan who assuredly holds her own against all her male costars. She’s thoroughly outnumbered yet she handles it poise.

It’s a testament to the strength and varied colorfulness of the characters that the illustrious Michel Simon almost becomes of less interest as Nelly’s despicable godfather, especially compared to the peculiar sots he was tasked with portraying in Boudu and L’Atalante. His big scenes come near the end of the picture anyway.

Mostly this is a love story. In a rare moment of self-reflexity, Jean mentions how theirs is a movie romance. It’s this heightened sense of romantic reality. If we put it up against anything we experientially know to be true, it’s poppycock, but between the eyes and embraces of Morgan and Gabin, it just feels right.

We also learn more about Jean. Not only is he capable of deep measures of love, but he has no tolerance for lowlifes and scum — those lacking a sense of honor or principle. You have it out with a man face-to-face with fists, not from behind. One of his main targets is the local gangster Lucien who is nothing more than an arrogant rich kid with too much time on his hands. He wants his hands on Nelly. Jean is having none of it. He cuts directly through the artifice, slapping him around for his impudence.

The story comes to a head on the docks and again, of all places, at the bumper cars in the middle of a carnival. You do not mess around with Jean Gabin when a girl is involved. This could be the movie’s ending; the romance would be the euphoric and the hero would remain triumphant. However, it is a movie and so a greater, darker, more wistful avenue of drama is in order.

Because Jean knows he is not safe, though he has gratefully taken another man’s identity. It is better for him to leave on the latest vessel shipping out to Venezuela the following day. His love for Nelly is great, but there is a need to move on, to let her be while also keeping her away from the trouble that would come from knowing him. He does the selfish or heroic thing (depending on how you look at it), in cinematic terms, and he doesn’t tell her. He holds off as long as possible.

One fine sequence is at the waterfront bar with kegs of alcohol lodged right outside the door. There’s a conversation at the bar between the bartender and an old acquaintance we’ve already met. At a distant table, our protagonist, with his new identity bequeathed him by the philosophizing painter, charts his course for Venezuela aboard the freighter now sitting in the harbor.

These seem like mundane enough scenarios, but instead of a normal cut, Carne rides an extra with his camera, acting like the seamless segue between the two conversations. It’s a classy and efficient way to keep the scenarios fluid even in a seemingly sedentary state.

These lulls lead up to what can only be seen as the film’s inevitable tragedy. Like the most sublime expressions of cinema, Port of Shadows is a visceral, emotive experience capable of so many things. It’s a piece of art: humorous, tragic, brooding, and searingly romantic. In short, a sheer pleasure to take part in.

4.5/5 Stars

Floating Clouds (1955): Capturing Japan’s Post-War Zeitgeist

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The Odyssey to finally get to Mikio Naruse has been a long and arduous one. I must admit, like many before me, his name carries none of the recognition we commonly lavish upon Kurosawa, Ozu, Mizoguchi, and a select few. So, for the longest time, there was no pursuit. His name was totally unknown.

However, as you begin to familiarize yourself with Japanese cinema (and I must admit to still being a relative novice), there are certain names that you keep coming back to. Masaki Kobayashi and Kon Ichikawa fall right behind the illustrious trifecta. Certainly, you have the Japanese New Wave directors like Shohei Imamura, Nagisa Oshima, Masahiro Shinoda, and Hiroshi Teshigahara.

However, for some reason, I just could not stop thinking about Mikio Naruse. It seemed like I was always being reminded of him. Whether it was Kurosawa praising his writing or Hirokazu Kore-eda saying his style was more akin to the lineage of Naruse and not Ozu. Again, it reflects an oversight on many film aficionados. We do not pay Naruse much respect because, frankly, there’s not much access to his work in America.

In fact, because I am so fortunate to come of age as a cinema lover in a world that is so globalized, with content so accessible, it is not a form of helplessness that I have felt too often. It’s not simply a matter of his film’s being hard to come by; it felt like only a few were readily available.

This absence of his work made it all the more imperative to reach him. Finally, I can attest to dipping into his filmography and finding myself deeply fortunate to have made his acquaintance. If it’s allowable to use a German word to describe a Japanese condition, Floating Clouds captures the zeitgeist of Japan in the aftermath of WWII.

The film’s structure feels as fluid as its title. It trusts the audience to follow along without voiceover cues of any kind, drifting in and out of the present and flashbacks set before the war had ended. This is the fashion in which we get to know our two “destitute expatriates” now reunited in 1946.

They met for the first time in Indochina. It’s a world we can contrast with another romance like Red Dust. An outpost out in the forests of Asian proves a far more bearable place to pass the war.  If you recall, the earlier film is made by the red hot chemistry between Clark Gable and Jean Harlow (and with Mary Astor).

Except in such a patriarchal society, like Japan, it always seems to be the man who has the say. Tomioka (Masayuki Mori) begins his acquaintance with Yukiko (Hideko Takamine) with slight jabs at her, all but solidifying his gruff character for the entirety of the film. These rocky foundations give way to passionate romance and Naruse does something dynamic by cutting right between a kiss in the past to one in the present. So much has changed and yet nothing at all. Much of Floating Clouds is about this reconciling this past with the present.

The pensive serenity is one of the unifying hallmarks of the picture. This is another point of departure with a Hollywood romance like Red Dust. This, paradoxically, feels like a grand statement — choosing a tranquil path in a medium that is so often filled with noise and a world full of constant turbulence.

Even in considering his countrymen, Kurosawa is often more dynamic in composition and action. Thus, it seems most obvious to contrast Naruse with Ozu. However, whereas Ozu heralds his presence within the frames through the meticulous craftsmanship and attention to detail, you do not necessarily see this to the same degree in Floating Clouds.

It is stripped down to a near Verite approach, which still cannot be mistaken for shoddy work. In fact, it boasts beautiful interludes between two people on par with a picture like Late Spring. It’s not a perfectly ordered fabrication of reality where human drama plays out. The spaces feel rich with the impoverished and worn layers of Japan as it lay. The people are much the same, unadorned yet imbued with truth.

Hideko Takamine is extraordinary for how she is able to manage a spectrum of emotions — exuding an inner strength and individuality — while still giving way to honest feelings of regret. She can be the adulterer, the nagging lover, the broken heart, all of the above , as they cycle through time.

No less important is Masayuki Mori as he acts as her perfect counterpoint. He gives her nothing, or at least very little. Every potentially thoughtful action is dismissed and any form of commitment is avoided doggedly. There is even so much about their preferred temperaments putting them at odds. It seems like circumstance and they’re own interactions together all but destined them to part ways and move on with life. He returns to his wife “nobly,” while she is supported by the brother-in-law who formerly took advantage of her. Every relationship is riddled with these personal dilemmas.

There is another brief snapshot that resonated with me — both in its mild humor and how it proved indicative of the times — when Yukiko is walking down a street alone. In the periphery, we see what looks to be a Japanese woman with an American G.I. He seems to be at least a head taller than everyone else. Then, almost on cue there comes a voice, speaking my native tongue: English.

It’s a second G.I. looking for a date, and he affably asks her in broken, bastardized Japanese (rather like what I’m capable of speaking), if she’s alone and where she’s going. She simply smiles and moves on, either to brush him off or resign herself to a superficial evening of companionship. He exists as more of an archetype than a fully defined character even given that his name is “Joe.”

However, what it provides is a fascinating counterpoint to what we are used to in our little universe, where everything commonly revolves around the western world, if not America. Pictures like House of Bamboo, Sayonara, Teahouse of the August Moon, they all give us a very specific and tailored experience.

It’s somewhat strange and fascinating to feel like the “other.” The soldier here is the sailor in Lola (1961) or the soldier in The Marriage of Maria Braun (1979). In fact, they all serve much the same function. They come to represent a different type of relationship and with it a diverging life, even if it’s only meant to be a momentary fleeting fancy. 

This is not a picture where we see the chaos and the bloodshed. After all, these two were the “lucky ones” stationed in Indochina. And yet we see the shadowy imprint of a former life involving suffering, poverty, and the ignominy of surrender. It doesn’t seem too farfetched to claim Floating Clouds somehow channeled the thoughts and feelings of a generation. The Best Years of Our Lives might be similar to a generation of Americans.

Consequently, as a viewer in this contemporary moment and an American on top of that, there is a realization of how much I take for granted in this story. I am more like the American soldier than I am this couple. It proves a humbling observation, carving a path toward some sense of empathy.

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 Eventually, her lover turns up again — still as brusque and egocentric as ever, looking around at her plain surroundings and commenting on how well she’s doing. These types of evasive, indirect proclamations are all she ever gets. So she’s hanging on his words, getting whisked this way and that with partial promises and empty hopes, never going anywhere. Later on, he has his eyes on the pretty young wife (Mariko Okada) of an acquaintance (even soaking in the public bath together). After all, in superficial terms, she is much more “desirable.”

To consider the American soldier again, he was on leave for two months before shipping home. Even in the short amount of time, he was overflowing with geniality. If we take Floating Clouds as indicative of all of Japanese society, it proves a telling portrait. There is no affection or sense of vulnerability within men. Endemic to the society and more so a holdover of the war. It’s not simply about women being overly emotional, though this is often the cultural expectation. More emphatically so, the men lack any type of emotion. They are ingrained with this stoic (sho ga nai) mentality.

There are numerous walk-and-talks, and the scenery and setup might as well be interchangeable, but the subtext and junctures in their lives are starkly different each time. So we have all these snippets wedged in between their life events as they orbit in and out of each other’s lives.

It’s easy enough to juxtapose it with Citizen Kanes dinner table scene where a relationship is seen crumbling in a matter of minutes. Stretched out as it is, within Floating Clouds, these walks continue this metaphor of progression. It is the progress of life, of a relationship, and of the world existing around us. Because while the steps might remain the same, the circumstances are different around every bend. Time marches on with each footfall.

It’s not about being ships in the night either — that they missed out on one another’s company — simply put, they are abrasive together. Their traits and identities are constantly causing them to attract and repel each other again and again.

The lasting image is a bent head, but this is not one of Ozu’s quiet forlorn scenes where a father has just made the honorable decision to give up his daughter. These are ugly, bitter tears. He is weeping. And this man, for the first time in his life, is providing physical acknowledgment of how much another individual human being meant to him. In a Hollywood picture, the action would be meaningful, but not unprecedented. In this movie, it feels heart-wrenching because we have yet to anything so transparent.

It’s an evocative final note in a work rarely prone to this kind of overt outpouring. It’s the cathartic release in a bittersweet tragedy. All we can do is bemoan the fact this man was never vulnerable enough to admit the depths of his love during life. Unfortunately, in this particular life, there is no resurrection.

4.5/5 Stars

The Band Wagon (1953) with Fred & Cyd

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Some may recall the opening titles of Top Hat (1935). They play over a man’s hat only for the head under it to move as the names subside, and we find Fred Astaire under its brim in his coat and tails. Now, well nigh 20 years later, the same imagery is being called upon.

There’s an auction going on, including the sale of, of all things, a top hat evoking the same Astaire and Rogers musicals of old. It’s not in much demand as the man who formerly wore it, to much acclaim, is now a has-been. In fact, the biographical aspects of the picture are striking even when we can’t quite discern the fiction from the half-truths. Maybe that’s the key.

Already Fred Astaire himself had announced retirement several times, though one could hardly concede his career had stalled. In another bit of fitting parallelism, Adolph Green and Betty Comden penned a husband and wife duo for the storyline much like them (sans marriage). The head maestro character had some inspiration in Jose Ferrer who at the time had at least three shows on Broadway and was starring in a fourth.

The dashes of authenticity are all but undeniable as is a minor cameo by fawned-over heartthrob Ava Gardner. Consequently, I always thought the actress shared some minor resemblance to Cyd Charisse who was promoted to leading lady in this movie.

Out of these details blooms a picture that’s a fascinating exercise in touched-up reality because we see the ins and outs of a production with a behind-the-scenes narrative akin to Singin in the Rain. It makes us feel like we’re a part of something on an intimate level.

The early “Shoeshine” number with Astaire checking out a penny arcade, shows the inherent allure of a Minnelli-Astaire partnership. Because it was Astaire who made film dancing what it is, intent on capturing as much of the action in full-bodied, undisrupted takes. The focus was on the dancers, and there was an examination of their skill announcing unequivocally that there was nothing phony about them.

But as technology began to change and more complex camera setups became possible, this newfound capability was seen as an aid to the art rather than a detraction. Gene Kelly was of this thought as well. With the combination of sashaying forms and a dynamic camera, there was a greater capacity to capture the true energy that came out of dance. One could argue reality was lost, but some other emotional life force was gained.

And we see that here with Astaire grooving around past fortune-tellers and shooting galleries with the world tapping along with him. He and the real-life singing shoeshiner, Leroy Daniels, build an indisputable cadence through a momentary collaboration. It proves infectious.  Minnelli who himself had a background in set design seems most fully in his element surrounded by extras, colors, and any amount of toys to move around and orchestrate.

When Jefferey Cordoba (Jack Buchanan) finally signs on to direct and joins this dream team, he brings an endearing brand of histrionics with him. At his most quotable, he says, “In my mind, there is no difference between the magic rhythms of Bill Shakespeare’s immortal verse and the magic rhythms of Bill Robinson’s immortal feet.”

“That’s Entertainment!” captures his pure enthusiasm for the industry, giving anyone free rein to tell a story, where the world and the stage overlap and as the Bard said, all the various individuals are merely players.

However, this show previously envisioned as a happy-go-lucky musical hit parade soon takes on a life of its own, morphing into a retelling of Faust. We see Tony Hunter stretching himself as an actor, something Astaire himself was probably uncomfortable with. Likewise, he’s equally nervous about starring with Gabrielle Gerard who is a rapidly rising talent, thanks to the controlling nature of her choreographer boyfriend (James Mitchell).

Aside from her skill, her height is also something that the veteran dancer is self-conscience about. He smokes incessantly. She never does. So they each bring their insecurities and nerves to the production, erupting in a series of miscommunications during their first encounter. Still, the show charges onward regardless.

Even as the production proves to be a trainwreck and opening night approaches, it is the joint realization that they’re both out of sorts helping Tony and Gaby right their relationship. They take a ride through the park and wind up in arguably their most integral dance together.

Because it says, with two bodies in motion, what every other picture that’s not a musical must do through romantic dialogue or meaningful action. And it’s like the Astaire and Rogers films of old. Similarly, dance is not simply a diversion — something pretty to look at —  but it becomes the building blocks for our characters’ chemistry.

I find their forms marvelous together, both equally long and graceful side-by-side and in each other’s arms. The movements are so measured, effortless, and attuned, leading them right back into their carriage from whence they came.

Cordoba gets progressively carried away with his vision in what feels like tinges of The Red Shoes. Pyrotechnics and an excessive amount of props mask the core assets of the show, which are the performers themselves. What was purported to be a surefire success, just as easily becomes a monumental flop as the social elites walk out of the preview like zombies leaving a wake. Even if the image is laughable, it also acts as a reminder that all great forms of entertainment start with human beings.

“I Love Louisa” is a kind of musical reprieve as the whole gang, from the stars to the bit performers, try to shake the shell shock. The fun is put back into the players, their art, and this whole movie as Tony resolves to take their production in a new direction — as a musical revue.

I couldn’t help watching Cyd Charisse, for some reason, during the song. No, she’s not the focal point, but there she is prancing about and having a merry old time with all the extras in the background. They’re all a community of people enjoying their failure together. Bonding over it. It’s bigger than one individual. It’s easy to acknowledge The Band Wagon might be thoroughly enjoyable for these periphery elements alone.

There are a couple, dare I say, throwaway placeholders to follow. Certainly, not the best of musical team Schwartz and Dietz. But “Girl Hunt — A Murder Mystery in Jazz,” is a labyrinthian sequence capturing the essence of the dark genre through voiceover and stylized visuals being interpreted through muscular dance. There are dual roles for Charisse as the deadly female. The action culminating in a seedy, smoke-filled cafe complete with a final showdown with a femme fatale in drop-dead red.

In this redressed form, they’re a stirring success. We are reminded sentimentally that the cast has become a family and Tony is their unlikely head. There’s one rousing reprise of “That’s Entertainment!” and Fred and Cyd (not Ginger, sorry folks) share a kiss.

The Band Wagon is a testament that Astaire was far from washed up and Charisse proves herself ably by his side as one of his best co-stars.  What imprints itself, when the curtains have fallen on this backstage musical, is just how congenial it is. There are few better offerings from MGM, capable of both exuberance and something even more difficult to find these days: bona fide poise. Singin in the Rain is beloved by many and yet The Band Wagon is deserving of much the same repute, whether it’s won it already or not.

Just watch Astaire and Charisse together. Her beauty is surpassed only by her presence as a dancer. He might be 20 years older and yet never seems to break a sweat, pulling off each routine with astounding ease. Look at his elasticity in the shoeshine chair as living proof. And when they strut, extending their legs with concerted purpose, it’s immaculate. We call them routines but they are not, imbued instead with a gliding elegance that looks almost foreign to us today. There’s nothing else to be said. It’s pure class personified and they make it deeply enchanting.

4.5/5 Stars

Army of Shadows (1969) and The French Resistance

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Army of Shadows is another film from Jean Pierre-Melville that falls back into the realm of the autobiographical, even as it’s based on a book by French journalist Joseph Kessel. Because Melville, a resistance fighter himself, had a previous history with this very same world. The names and dates were real, living history for him, and he gladly blended it all into his movie.

It’s also defined by the director’s well-established palette of choice. True to form, it leans into his typically dismal and dour canvass as an overt extension of its characters’ malaise. A rainbow proves a total impossibility in a Melville picture. Equally surprising is a smile on a face or an intonation of laughter.

In the opening interludes, a prison van takes a detour past a rural cottage to pick up a couple basket of provisions. It’s a curious juxtaposition and somehow a fitting bit of exposition about our setting. Because Army of Shadows is a modest epic if you will, ably covering all the ambiguities of an institution like Vichy while simultaneously documenting the moral gradient of good and evil Hannah Arendt so perceptively termed “banal.”

Our hero is a bespectacled, well-mannered man named Philippe Gerbier (Lino Ventura); he also happens to be a vital member of the underground. Hence his arrest and sentence to a local camp. He seems unphased by the whole ordeal as if he’s been here many times before. It’s all unextraordinary after the countless things he must have seen and done.

The subsequent inner monologues are honest if not pedestrian, perfectly in line with the world being developed. Because it’s a film as much about expressions as it is words. Reading over people, waiting, biding time, and weighing the options laid out. In these early instances, Ventura establishes himself as an apt hero, given our context.

In this unsparing portrait of the war years — at the same time both moral and unsentimental — he’s the perfect barometer of the times, rarely showing emotions. He dare not. You come to understand why, when faced with the ordeal of having to dispose of one of your own — a craven traitor — for the good of the outfit.

The zealous young recruit Le Masque (Claude Mann) is eager to do his part, but he’s quickly stripped of his illusions. What follows is a devastating death scene — implied though it may be — because it effectively takes away all pretense of heroes and villains. It sets a precedent for the entire picture and where it will dare to go in order to pay homage to those who went before. One shudders to think that this is one of the easier decisions they have to make.

It becomes a reality of wartime existence. People die unceremoniously; they’re interrogated and tortured even as this onscreen brutality remains minimal. Still, each and every time we’re well aware of the aftermath and the ensuing consequences. It doesn’t make it any easier. The one lesson the experienced pass on to the naive is to always carry a cyanide capsule on your person.

Although the film is unsentimental, it’s not altogether unfeeling. Rather there is a maintained sense of wistfulness around the frames. Mainland Europe has been sent through the wringer, and it went on so long they almost came to accept the status quo. Even the German “Heil Hitlers” feel a bit bedraggled and half-hearted by now.

Army of Shadows is built on the foundation of a profound paradox. Because in reflecting its own subjects, it remains extraordinarily aloof while still managing to be deeply personal, even intimate.

They keep their humanity guarded. To show it would be a weakness to be exploited. But in this razor-thin web of moral ambiguity and dubious decisions, it’s the one element holding them together.

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It’s striking that while he walks down a dank corridor flanked by SS troopers to a foregone conclusion, scenes flash before Gerbier’s eyes. A pretty nurse in London. Walking in the forest with Mathilde (the inimitable Simone Signoret) amidst the calm of nature. They are glimmers of something else totally contrary to what he is experiencing at the moment. He clings to them fiercely because they offer some semblance of humanity.

The same might be said of Mathilde — an extraordinary woman of immense mettle with only one weak point — a family for whom she cares deeply about. Again, you cannot totally eradicate their hearts and souls.

This is not an action film; the events making up their days feel rudimentary and yet in each case, something might go horribly wrong. We live life right alongside them in this state of perpetual anxiety. Gerbier takes on an old acquaintance (Jean-Pierre Cassel) to run errands including transporting vital radio parts past the authorities.

They conduct a late-night rendezvous with a British submarine to evacuate P.O.W.s and some of their leaders back to the British Isles. In fact, these are some of the film’s most curious digressions.

A medal is bestowed for bravery. Gerbier and his companion Luc Jardie (Paul Meurisse ) view the raptures of Gone with the Wind in the cinema rather pensively. Even with the air raids, life is seemingly brighter in Britain, with bits of freedom still hidden away behind closed doors and in dance halls. We wonder where the film can go from here? Is it stalling? No, it’s giving us the respite we desperately need.

I deeply admire seemingly ordinary people who are unwavering in their resolve to walk into the lion’s den for the sake of liberty, knowing full-well what they are getting themselves into. I believe Willam Goldman called it “stupid courage.” There’s no more startling example than those who willfully returned to Nazi oppression.

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In this case, it’s an easy choice as Gerbier feels beholden to rescue his comrade Felix (Paul Crauchet ) who is currently being held at Gestapo headquarters, tortured to the point of exhaustion. It spells an end of the beginning because, in these dismal days of ’42 or ’43, things would only get worse before they got better.

Army of Shadows settles on a cruel conclusion indicative of the storyline thus far. In this way, the film maintains its narrative integrity. There’s no happy-go-lucky denouement slapped on. No such luck. They are faced with the impossible problems — the “Sophie’s  Choices,” if you will. I am reminded of Mathilde masquerading as a nurse, helpless to save a friend lest she betrays her cover. Or there’s Luc breaking with precedent by showing his face in public to pay his final respects to a friend.

In its day the film was a victim of poor timing, being released in the wake of ’68 with De Gaule, the former war hero, more despised than ever for his handling of the student protests.

Thus, the film became commercial and critical collateral damage, even failing to garner wider release in American until 2006! However, now it’s easy enough to look at it and one can hardly begrudge Melville his brand of patriotism since it strikes such a resonate chord with his own experience. As such, I’m led to deeply respect the film for its uncompromising perspective. It drains you of all veneration and hero-worship from the opening shot of German soldiers clomping through the Arc de Triomphe.

The true miracles are of an ordinary nature. Survival and yes, maintaining even a shred of decency in such a compassionless world. Sometimes the ultimate act of love is the most painful. The most devastating revelation the very fact that everything you might be clinging to could just as easily be a lie. What’s more, we might never know.

Forget villainy. Heroism is not a far cry from jaded, fatalistic acts of duty by insignificant little people sadly forgotten by time. I felt compelled to believe its depiction even as they unnerve me. It leaves no pretenses about war-torn France.

4.5/5 Stars

The Last Picture Show (1971): Peter Bogdanovich and Timeless Cinema

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“People can’t sneeze in this town without someone offering him a handkerchief” – Eileen Brennan as Genevieve

Always the compelling raconteur, among his plethora of yarns, Peter Bogdanovich can be heard telling the one about how he was first introduced to his source material. If the legend holds, he found Larry McMurtry’s The Last Picture Show browsing through the paperbacks in a drugstore. Later, his buddy Sal Mineo coincidentally suggested he should make it into a movie, and there you have the auspicious beginnings of his landmark film.

It seems almost prescient he would pick the book up in a drugstore — maybe this scene was far more common in the 60s and 70s — but for perceptive viewers, Brandon de Wilde does the very same thing in Hud. And if there was ever a film or a world that The Last Picture Show shares it would be Paul Newman’s from 1963.  In such a podunk town in rural Texas, you get the sense that the West lives on. The twanging country tunes are ubiquitous and Hank Williams is still on the top of the charts.

Of course, with such an environment on hand, you have a bevy of small-town dynamics, all the familiar trademarks. The local high school football team is about all the entertainment there is on a Friday evening, and they are derided by the whole town for their lack of tackling prowess.

The boys themselves don’t seem to take it too badly. Sonny (Timothy Bottoms) and Duane (Jeff Bridges), in particular, are best buddies and with families all but fractured, having one another is all they really care about; that and girls.

Another typical form of entertainment is at the movie house. One such evening Sonny can be found there with his girlfriend, watching the immaculate Elizabeth Taylor in Father of The Bride,  as they pull out their chewing gum to do some necking in the dark. All the locals agree, however, Duane has the real catch in Jacy (Cybil Shepherd), the prettiest girl in town.

What becomes instantly apparent about Anarene, Texas is the prevailing plain, ordinary ugliness of the place. It’s a run-of-the-mill doldrums of a town where there isn’t much to do but feel sorry for oneself and gossip about everyone else’s indiscretions. One character notes “everything’s flat and empty.” They’re not wrong. However, it goes beyond basic monotony. The slumbering rancor stirred up in the town is this unacknowledged undercurrent of callousness. No sympathy or authentic community of any kind is available.

Instead, people go on living lies or make every attempt to cover up the blemishes they know full-well everyone is talking about behind their backs. One primary example is Ellen Burstyn, Jacy’s attractive mother, who’s had more than a few flings with guys, including a local Hud-like rascal (Clu Gulager). One looks at Jacy’s own forays in love and you realize just how innocent she is. Her mother feels like a hero, but Mrs. Farrow has lived long enough to understand what regrets are.

Meanwhile, Cloris Leachman is the coach’s wife trapped in a loveless marriage of perpetual loneliness. When Sonny comes by as a favor to his coach, to take Mrs. Popper to a doctor’s appointment, she reaches out to the only person who pays her any heed. Otherwise, she’ll all but suffocate.

With the older generation of women, although they are now set in their ways, there is this hint of was is not there and what might have been there before.  For instance, friendships might have existed in a different time before life got in the way. Eileen Brennan as the seasoned waitress at the burger joint admits these facts even as she dotes over Sonny a bit like a surrogate mother. She knows what happens to people as they slowly drift apart.

Though not necessarily miscreants, you have a town full of maladjusted lonely people, rogues, meretricious sex fiends, and brusque masculinity. Plenty of fodder for a cottage industry of rural scandal and public recreation.

The younger generations are trying to grow up in such a toxic environment, no wonder they have their own set of issues, all but inherited from their elders. On one occasion Jacy finds herself at a swim party in the nude, and there’s further trashy behavior and indecency on any given evening. One is reminded of the idle antics that boys get up to with nothing to do. It’s either girls or messing with the uncle’s heifer.

In the end, they prey on the local mute Billy (Sam Bottoms) who would never hurt a fly. He becomes a symbol of how simple goodness is all but trampled in such a town. It cannot survive in such a pernicious environment. More on that later.

However, if there was one character who reflects a stalwart strength of character it would be Sam The Lion. And his name precedes him just as the man who plays him is the epitome of such a role. Ben Johnson though hesitant about such a “wordy” part, nevertheless brings so much candor and an uncoached authenticity to the man. He even gets a nod to his starring turn in John Ford’s Wagon Train, seen on a theater placard.

Sam is the owner of the local pool hall and the picture show. More than that, he is the one true strain of straight, unadulterated decency in an otherwise miserable town. He is the only word of conscience imparted on these boys for their apathy. His abrupt departure is yet another blow.

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As high school rolls on, Jacy keeps Duane jealous flaunting her sexuality and then retreating, coaxing him and then trying to push him away. It’s true she doesn’t know what she wants or who she wants for that matter. On the whole, she’s totally manipulative and yet it’s hard to hold it against her. She’s as lost as all of her peers (and their parents).

Like all the preeminent coming of age tales that have been canonized forevermore, The Last Picture Show simultaneously captures its setting so impeccably while denoting the inevitable passage of time. It’s not so much a nostalgic tale as it is one that carves out a certain time and place. Replicating both the unadorned dusty sensibilities in black and white, through the Hank Williams dominated soundtrack, and certainly the characterizations.

Robert Surtees is certainly the MVP because he really does create an extension of James Wong Howe’s world in Hud where you have these stark totally horizontal visuals that do so much to evoke a very specific environment — to the point it is becoming its own entity — another character that remains a part of this broader narrative.

As they sit in the movies watching Red River (1948), there is this sense of the end of something, even as it is the beginning of something else. The town as an environ might look the same but our sense of the place is different. People are gone now. Some by choice, others were killed or closer still ground down by the town itself. Life marches onward. It’s the reality.

Duane takes what might have been the same bus in Hud out of town so he can ship off to Korea. Jacy has gone away to Dallas. Maybe to college or because of another eligible suitor. We don’t know exactly. Still, the wheels keep on turning. To come to terms with it can be painful and yet we must. Wounds heal eventually.

Jeff Bridges has his soon-to-be typical grinning charisma augmented by a ducktail and a strong personality making his character overwhelmingly likable to the very last iota. Jacy, as portrayed so essentially by Shepherd, is the belle of the ball — the girl who wreaks havoc on all the boys — and never really knows what she wants with life. There’s nothing dedicated about any of her whims; it keeps her constantly changing her fancies superficially. We both envy and pity her.

Timothy Bottoms’ performance, in particular, is quietly powerful because so much of it is reactionary. He is our everyman who reflects this town back to us. We see through his pained expression and in his helplessness or through his increasing despondency at what goes on. Even the mundane, everyday behaviors he commits to, provide a sense of what life here is like. He makes it real and palpable for us, supplementing all the performances around him.

For all his personal hangups, Peter Bogdanovich as a nascent director proved himself among many of his compatriots of the New Hollywood generation. He handles the material assuredly and balances a certain sense of recognizable realism that we can relate to on a universal level with this still overtly cinematic quality. He had a major hand in opting for diegetic sound emanating from the world as opposed to a score, and he also cut with the camera like his revered forefathers such as John Ford had done.

One perfect summation of this sense of heightened reality comes in the climactic scuffle between Sonny and Duane. We know the image is being manipulated but far from breaking the illusion, it reinforces the experience by grabbing hold of all the emotion within the frames.

There are smutty scenes captured with the insinuation of Hitchcock and tragic ones not allowed to grow stale with overacting. In fact, one of the director’s finest decisions is to leave room for magic, oftentimes staying with the first take whether it is Leachman’s heartbreaking dissolution or Bottom’s own tearful confrontation of the hard-hearted old boys around him.

These are the moment that hit deep and hard with core resonance. We go to movies for such lightning strikes of humanity fortuitously captured on celluloid. There’s little contesting the fact The Last Picture Show is timeless cinema. It comes bearing deep reservoirs of truth, and truth doesn’t have an expiration date.

4.5/5 Stars

Mean Streets (1973): Martin Scorsese’s Intimate Crime Film

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Martin Scorsese will always be synonymous with Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, and Goodfellas, but if we want to truly chart his ascension as a singular creative mind, Mean Streets must be our genesis. Because it essentially lays the groundwork for his entire career.

In truth, it’s the strangest gangster film of its kind; it’s emphatically Scorsese’s, full of his pulse and life-blood –his love of cinema. It is a gritty and intimate creature born out of the American New Wave, further imbued with religious imagery and the imprint of something starkly personal.

Though Robert De Niro might seem the obvious figurehead to gravitate toward, in this instance Harvey Keitel is our true vehicle to move through the picture. We get a line on him from his opening lines lying in bed, “You don’t make up for your sins in church. You do it in the streets.”

Because here’s a good kid trying to look out for his friends, while working for his uncle who happens to be a powerful loan shark. There is no grandiose story arc here. At the most mundane level, most of the story revolves around the even-keeled, responsible Charlie trying to vouch for cocky local hothead Johnny Boy (De Niro), who has the continual insolence to dodge his creditors, perpetually trying their patience with his brazen excuses. He’s the type of jerk you’re never going to straighten out.  He just never learns.

The majority of the film has Charlie playing peacekeeper, though he also has the preconception that he holds his own fate within his grasp. The moral issues still gnaw at him. He wants to be his own savior. He’s proud and self-sufficient. 10 “Hail Marys” and “Our Fathers” will not satisfy him. They’re just words. He wants to make his own penance for his own sins.

Meanwhile, his uncle tells him to stay away from Johnny Boy. He starts seeing Teresa (Amy Robinson), Johnny Boy’s cousin (and a lapsed epileptic), which is another rocky relationship, partially due to her own hatred of her cousin. Michael (Richard Romanus), a small-time shark gives him fair warning multiple times; he’s not about to take any more of Johnny’s crap. Somehow Charlie seems able to assuage him.

He hasn’t accounted for just how extreme of a hot-headed punk the kid is. In one isolated event, he finds Johnny Boy on a rooftop firing off a piece just for kicks and giggles. He seems to think it was a perfectly good idea, and he holds no respect for any form of social honor. This is near blasphemy in such a time-honored traditional society.

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As with anything Scorsese, it’s not simply about narrative but form as well, and one of Mean Streets‘ most notable successes is in the cutting of the footage to music. Charlie’s life is brought to us via home movie newsreels and The Ronettes “Be My Baby.”

De Niro certainly makes Johnny Boy pop, but his introduction shouldering two women in a bar, sashaying toward the camera in slo-mo to the pounding jagged edges of “Jumpin Jack Flash” is nothing short of virtuoso. It’s hard to even imagine the images outside of the context now. Because it’s totally indicative of the world Scorsese is introducing, bathed in red hues with a swaggering Robert de Niro, and Harvey Keitel watching from the bar.

The oddly discordant matching of “Please Mr. Postman” with a pool hall brawl instigated by Johnny Boy (surprise, surprise), provides a similar mental association as does “The Shoop Shoop Song” played over a brief image of Charlie just about to stick his hand into the flame of a stovetop. The reason is immaterial. The emotion is what speaks.

It’s true American Graffiti might be the quintessential soundtrack movie, but Scorsese’s soundtrack for Mean Streets deserves laud in its own right. Not only is it packed full of classics, they are such effective pieces of this narrative helping to cultivate the mood at any given point in time.

Obviously, Scorsese is a lover of movies, but in the context of this story, they also have a very personal function. They provide a cutaway from the world — existing as diversions and distractions from the daily grind whether it’s The Searchers or The Tomb of Ligeia. It makes no difference. Scorsese allows a reverence for everything, whether it be on late-night TV or a cramped, musty old movie theater.

Even when taking this into account, it’s easy to write Mean Streets off initially as just another gangster movie, especially if you try and analyze it retroactively. But this could not be further from the truth.

Because while rock soundtracks are the norm now, George Lucas and Martin Scorsese were invariably at the forefront of this trend. They make the sound work seamlessly within the context of their stories. It adds layers that would be lost otherwise. There’s something powerful provided by the music working counter to the typical beats of non-diegetic scoring.

Consequently, I cannot help but recall Scorsese talking about his infatuation with Force of Evil (1948) because, within its poeticism, it manages to be equal parts small-time corruption and family drama, all in one.

The world of Mean Streets is analogous. It feels every day and unsentimental, ringing with an obvious authenticity. Because Scorsese is sharing a bit of his childhood neighborhood with us. These characters. The relationships and the business they find themselves in. There is nothing glamorous about it and when someone is willing to bring us something so close to them, they should be rewarded.

Without a doubt, Scorsese expresses deep affection for Hollywood, but he readily bursts forth with his own shot of individualistic adrenaline. These are the kind of efforts that made The American New Wave a boon of cinematic creativity and Mean Streets, with Scorsese as its maverick, must be kept front and center in the collective conversation. There’s no question the collaboration of Scorsese and De Niro is still one of cinema’s most transcendent.

Mean Streets forces us to extend more love to Harvey Keitel as well. The film could not be realized to this extent without all their talents coalescing. Somehow they share a joint language adding up to a shared experience. They know these people and these places on an intimate level, and it shows.

4.5/5 Stars

Parasite (2019): Bong Joon-ho’s Household Thriller

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I heard in an interview director Bong Joon-ho had the idea for Parasite percolating in his mind for a long time, and it was born out of the most curious forms of inspiration. In college, he used to tutor English for the child of a rich family. From that point of disembarkation, he started asking “what if…” and all of a sudden his latest thriller was born.

Whether this story is completely true or not, it gets at what I relish about screenwriting and the inception of ideas in any form. Oftentimes they come straight out of real-life experiences only to be morphed and molded, burnished and extrapolated upon until they take on an existence entirely their own.

In some ways, Parasite feels very much related to the previous year’s Cannes darling Shoplifters, directed by Hirokazu Koreeda. In both cases, a story about an impoverished family becomes a handy jumping-off point for social commentary. But that’s just it. The premise provides a jumping-off point and there’s little else we can compare because the stories take drastically different turns simply adjudging from their creators.

Because the Kim family live crowded in a shoddy basement-dwelling leeching off the wi-fi of those who live around them, somewhat contented or at least resigned to their vagrant lifestyle. However, one day their teenage son, Ki-woo is enlisted by a friend to fill his position tutoring the daughter of a rich family.

His family helps him with the con using their skills of photoshop, composition, and dramaturgy to pull off the masquerade and ingratiate themselves. It helps that their mark is a simple-minded, trusting, and generally kind matriarch. There’s a touch of Luis Bunuel in the depiction of this rather naive and vacuous bourgeoisie family getting overrun by the lower classes.

And yet a distinction must be made here too because Bong does not altogether mock them. There is the inkling of affection for all his ensemble even as he teases them. This is one of the keys to the movie’s success. The message is not hammered home at the expense of the characters. 

One thing leads to another and the household vacancies begin filling up. First, an English tutor, then an art therapy instructor, next a new chauffeur, and finally a housekeeper. If the early dynamic is a tad like Shoplifters, as Parasite gears up, I couldn’t help but feel this same pervading unease experienced throughout Jordan Peele’s Get Out. While it might seem like a curious touchstone, what both films fashion are compelling thrillers carved out of the home.

The domicile and symbol of social capital, stability, even the family unit, is turned into this perturbing space that can be easily sabotaged and infested. It doesn’t matter if the main thematic element is race or class. They can both function in an insidious manner as a source of tension throughout the picture, seeping in through the cracks. Where you can live life from the heights of privilege or sunken in the subterranean void below. 

While the cat’s away the mice will play, and it’s at this point we ponder where we could possibly be headed. The Kims succeed in totally taking over the house and lounging in all its decadent luxuries. This could be the end of the story. Thankfully, we are in the hands of someone who knows full-well what they are looking to accomplish. 

Part of the ingenuity of the film comes in how form follows function in this very tangible way. Because the visual and environmental disparity trickles down through the story until it emphatically erupts. The metaphor takes on a very real and concrete form throughout the picture. But for the time being, it’s all about building the mounting suspense to a crescendo.

Bong is a disciple of Hitchcock, and thus he’s taken to heart the pervasive power of dramatic irony. He can both manipulate the audience while implicating us and making us totally invested in the charade at hand.

Though Parasite does have twists — one particularly harrowing in nature — it is built out of this maintained sense of dread and tension. It only works because the director has taken us into his confidence and we know something other characters do not.

The film is also built and developed out of not only its architecture but the sound design helping to create a distinct space and also a rhythm conducive to the action. A chaotic scramble to neutralize, not a gun, but a phone with social media capabilities is the centerpiece of one memorable scene full of struggling bodies, flailing arms, and the like, choreographed to perfection.

There are certain scenes like this one where they cease to be bits of exposition and dialogue, and they feel more and more like they’re verging on visual symphony as we watch images and actions flash by with a very particular cadence. They have the force to carry us away in the moment — cutting to the music — like many of the greats have done, from Hitchcock to Scorsese. 

When the Kim family is finally at their lowest point, sleeping on a gymnasium floor, their patriarch utters the film’s one line which feels like some kind of worldview tucked into a movie that otherwise functions only as a satire, if not an out-and-out black comedy. He says the best plan is no plan because nothing works out the way you mean for it to anyway. It doesn’t matter if you kill someone or commit treason. Nothing matters. Nihilism is alive and well.

Still, the beauty of this is even while Mr. Kim says these things, there is a director behind him — an artistic creator — who has more than a vision for where he will end up. There is a purpose to everything that is happening to him. 

If the majority of the movie is an exhibition in Hithcockian manipulation, then the ending is suitably macabre for someone totally versed in the Master of Suspense. Bong somehow manages to be playful, shocking, thrilling, and a tad somber all in the course of the final hour. The film is lengthy; we don’t always know where it will wind up, and yet it ends up in places that continually lead to further questions.  You cannot unsee it or quite forget about what we have witnessed. 

Parasite has an undisputed climax and still the story continues allowing itself to sink back into a newfound despondency and the original status quo. I still cannot decide if this suits everything we have been subjected too thus far.

Although another joy of screenwriting is narrative symmetry when we can take a movie back to where it began. Because so much has happened. We have weathered so much as an audience, watching and in some perverse way, rooting for this family, only for it to end up back the way it was, under very different circumstances.

All I know is that this is one of the most wickedly sharp and ingeniously pulse-pounding movies I’ve seen in quite some time. It irks me and yet in the same instance, I cannot quite turn away.

If there is any more fruit, broader still, it will come from the phenomenal press the film has received, and in an age where acclaim still guides public opinion, like Bong said himself, maybe this can be the film to help the general public conquer their fear of subtitles. Because if Parasite‘s any indication, it wields the power to open people up to expansive avenues of cinema. This is only the tip of the iceberg.

The joy of making the leap is the realization that you are not being pulled further away from what you know. More often than not, you’re getting closer — closer to the things that feel universal — the human predilections connecting us on an intimate scale. Both the parasitic and the hospitable, the good and the evil. 

Although they couldn’t be a more diverse company, you see it in Hitchcock (a Brit), Koreeda (a Japanese), Bunuel (a Spaniard), Bong (a South Korean), and many others. Go watch them if you have the chance. My hope is you will be glad you did. 

4.5/5 Stars

Bigger Than Life (1956): Nicholas Ray and George Mason Fit The Bill

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James Mason gleaned the idea for Bigger Than Life from a contemporary article featured in The New Yorker by a medical writer named Berton Roueché. He detailed the side effects of the drug cortisone featured in real-life horror stories.

The title is certainly far from a misnomer and James Mason gives a performance to fill up the expanses of the screen bursting off it with furious abandon in all sorts of unwonted ways.

If my memory serves me correctly, there’s a shot at the entrance of the school where he’s being dropped off by his wife (Barbara Rush) who demurs that he’s always been 10 feet tall to her. The shot following has to be about the lowest angle conceivable with Mason positively towering over us until he walks forward and things become normalized.

It’s almost playful and still a disconcerting manipulation of the typical visual field. It’s indicative of much of the film. On the top layer, it’s the portrait of 1950s suburbia seen over and over again. There’s even an inadvertent connection to the quintessential nuclear family thanks to a pint-sized cameo from Jerry Mathers. But there’s also something pernicious gnawing away at our protagonist.

The film readily brings back the palette of Rebel Without a Cause we know and love, using the up-and-coming widescreen Cinemascope format, typifying the luscious productions of its era.

Ed Avery (James Mason) is a school teacher, one of those shining beacons of pedagogy and some things certainly have not changed. For such a noble profession, he can’t claim to be affluent. In fact, he’s moonlighting a couple nights a week in a cabbie service to make a bit more money. His wife Lou has a sneaking suspicion he might be cheating but how could he? He’s an utter angel.

His relationship with his best friend is borne in an introductory shot. Wally is played by none other than Walter Matthau. If that’s not enough, we meet him in a school corridor with a catcher’s mask strapped over his head and baseball gear filling up his hands. It’s a fairly slight part but as Matthau had a lengthy pedigree ahead of him, it’s a satisfying morsel to start.

Meanwhile, Barbara Rush gets few laurels as an actress, but she works handily as the loving spouse who Ed returns home to every evening. It feels strangely ironic because I almost unconsciously traced the line between Magnificent Obsession. It lies in their deep abiding roots in medical melodrama.  The first features Rush as a grown daughter and now she has progressed to a maternal figure, but the trauma remains constant.

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Because, as it turns out, Avery is a fairly sick man with the clock ticking away on his life. Thank goodness there’s a miracle drug, “Cortisone,” which while still widely unknown has been used with some success on such cases as his. At first, the unassuming pills seem to be doing the trick.

Riding a generous streak, he takes his wife out to a dress shop to buy her the finest things and then gets his son a shiny new bicycle. James Mason is a riot in the store leaving his family speechless. He’s walking on cloud nine. Positively the picture of good health and yet every bit of heightened euphoria is a hint of something far more ruinous working underneath the surface.

Because the changes are no longer comical or imperceptible for that matter. It comes to tossing the football in the living room chiding his son’s lack of ability and resolve. There are unwarranted mood swings to follow and the broken shards of a mirror blatantly suggest what is to come.

Back to school night is highlighted by an uncharacteristic rant about the woes of childhood and the claptrap of modern education, which has parents in a huff. It’s the most recent sign of coming attractions. Megalomania begins to overtake him with ensuing ravings about new missions and leaving matrimonial shackles behind with increasingly radicalized rhetoric injected with delusions of grandeur.

Now his only resolve is to rear his son in the pursuit of self-efficacy as he begins to enact a dictatorial behavior over all his domain, berating a wayward milkman, turning an uninterested eye on food, sleep, feelings, or anything else that might get in his way. To get psychological, he blatantly disregards Maslow’s hierarchy of needs leaping straight to the pinnacle.

Meanwhile, his wife is scared stiff. Worried for her husband’s well-being as much as she is for her boy. And yet, if it gets around about mental trouble in the family, there will be no reprieve and so she tries to weather the storm. It becomes a suburban horror tiptoeing along an impossibly sickening tightrope. You couldn’t contrive something more calamitous if you tried.

Would you cope living with an utter tyrant if it meant your spouse and father could go on living? If pain was the only issue, then the answer seems ridiculously simple, but sometimes those conundrums are the most devastating to crack. In fact, it makes me sick in the stomach watching the mental breakdown exacerbate.

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Overwhelmed by his psychosis, Ed begins spouting off scripture, one moment contemptuously, the next clearly intent on following Abraham’s lead by sacrificing his son without a second thought, twisting the words into another perverse commitment. He states his sentiments quite bluntly in one sequence as his wife hopelessly pleads in favor of compassion, “God was wrong.”

Turgid melodramas grow tiresome by the minute, and yet that fails to be the case when a film has far more to offer us whether it be artistry, irony, or social commentary. Equally compelling is a stirring dramatic situation at the core of Bigger Than Life.

Like the best films of Douglas Sirk, Nicholas Ray is able to pull off the histrionics of such a derided mode of filmmaking and allow it to remain enduringly interesting — even resonant today — to the extent possible. Far from wearing it thin, the passage of time makes it seem more horrifying by the hour.

However, as comes with the territory of such ludicrous dramaturgy, it easily becomes a hit or miss proposition. It will go too far for some and for others just far enough to make it compelling. I think I fall in the latter category because this is not just a sitcom episode. It surpasses those rhythms for something more substantial.

In its final moments, Bigger Than Life morphs into a frenzied Hitchcock thriller in a weird, insane way as we watch a banister snap like matchwood in the midst of chaos and a deranged man is caught in a frantic confrontation with his best friend.

And as inauspiciously as it began, it comes to an end like the lingering remnants of a bad dream, resolved and forgotten just as quickly. The status quo falls back into place in the culminating shot and wife and son reaffirm faith in their family unit, cradled in the loving arms of the man of the house.

James Mason is generally remembered as a suave villain, but he proves his merits equally so as a family man gone off the rails. His performance seamlessly hits all these beats that are simultaneously heightened, while still ringing with some note of inner truth. He is a tragic hero of the post-war, suburban age.

All of a sudden, evil comes not from within man himself but from outside stimuli. Though one could easily infer that such behavior indicates the perversity lying dormant, just waiting to be unleashed. It simply takes certain chemical triggers to send him hurtling back toward his darkest inclinations. Regardless, it’s a terrifying portrait of instability in technicolor. Often real-world nightmares are the worst of all.

4.5/5 Stars