The Man Who Would Be King (1975): Starring Sean Connery & Michael Caine

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There is a sense that John Huston is on a tear to prove he can outdo David Lean. However, this might only be an observation based rather unfairly on circumstance. Because Huston purportedly meant to make the picture at numerous junctions in his career, though it never got off the ground with any of the dynamic duos originally put to the fore.

There was Humphrey Bogart and Clark Gable at first. Then Peter O’Toole and Richard Burton. It could have even been a reunion for Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid (1969). Ultimately, none of these pairings came to fruition.

Finally, with Sean Connery and Michael Caine, it was given a new lease on life. Regardless, of your personal affinities, it ends up being an unmitigated success given their instant camaraderie even beyond any amount of action, intrigue, or world-building.

Connery is one of the great action icons, partially thanks to Bond, and Caine is very much his equal for a string of iconic roles of his own. It’s no coincidence they both have a “Sir” before their names and still remain two of the most beloved actors in Britain to this day.

Following in the mythic footsteps of Alexander Great, Daniel Dravot (Connery) and Peachy Carehan (Caine) aspire to be the first Europeans to rule the isolated territory of Kafiristan in centuries. In all fairness, The Man Who Would Be King is as much about two lunatics as it is men of valor, soldiers of fortune, and brothers in arms. 

Their venture has them fending off local bandits, crossing the frozen deep, and looking to influence the local lords with their modern weaponry. It’s one step on the long road to becoming immortalized. With the fortuitous help of their translator Billy Fish (Saeed Jaffrey), a Gurkhan lone survivor of a British outfit, they now have a mouthpiece to pass down their will to the local populace. 

They make liberal efforts to lean into the god complex in order to have an easier time subduing the people and subsequently, mobilizing a personal army. However, in crossing paths with the much-revered spiritual leaders, they find it’s just as providential to be Freemasons. Some brotherhoods are universal.  

It is actually Dravot who is perceived as a god and soon his head gets overblow with his personal ambitions to have a queen and a kingdom with bridges and infrastructure to connect the entire territory.

He is looking to fulfill all the hopes of his protectorate as a divine answer to their prayers. It’s his buddy Peachy, the mere mortal who knew him well before he became a god, trying to show him how nutty this is. It also proves fatal. 

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Michael Caine’s performance, in particular, is broad, overblown with vigor. Is he putting too much gusto into it? Given the stakes of the material and how it plays, he probably does it just right. Because we half expect our characters to be blustering and larger-than-life giants.

One can imagine not only Huston but his actors as well would have relished the material for these very reasons. It really digs into this sense of adventure while giving them parts to grab hold of. This is on the most visceral level; we see it playing out on a grand scale. Still, the picture has a certain intimacy worth expounding upon.

Because while it’s easy to refer to pictures of old as references, say Lawrence of Arabia (1962) or even The Lives of a Bengal Lancer (1935) or Gunga Din (1939), what sets The Man Who Would Be King apart is the simplicity of the principal relationship.

The beats of the plot are nothing altogether new and novel; it makes sense as Rudyard Kipling’s original novella came out in 1888. However, strip everything away and what are we left with? It really is nothing more than a buddy film.

Certainly, it becomes complicated by all sorts of issues and yet what remains the common denominator as the story unfolds? It’s the relationship between our two leads. Hence the potential ties to Butch Cassidy being somewhat telling. Having a pair of charismatic anti-heroes to cheer for makes it extremely easy on the audience. It takes very little to ask for investment.

Above all, it reminds me of those aforementioned tales of old. They weren’t abashed about having a good time and giving way to adventure in the absence of social significance. There seems to be very, little apart from the actors, who place the movie in the 1970s.

After all, Huston was himself an old boy coming from a different generation altogether. Being the maverick and gargantuan personality of machismo in his own right, it seems fitting he would gravitate toward such a tale. Where the bonds between men speak volumes as do their unquenchable cravings for wealth and glory, verging on the obsessive.

Huston is provided his inroad through a real historical figure. Again, the idea of having an author like Rudyard Kipling (Christopher Plummer) be the inception of the story is not a new device. We have Somerset Maugham utilized in The Razor’s Edge for instance and the most obvious might be the narrator of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.

Except this movie is Heart of Darkness in some inverted world where the dark jungles of Africa are replaced with the golden plains of an equally harrowing Middle East. The constricting dankness is substituted with the dangers of the great unknown, wide-open spaces with their own share of pleasures and subsequent perils.

Once more we cater to analogous themes of human avarice and cravings to be made a deity over other human beings. Where setting oneself up as a king of a nation is more of a dream — the ultimate prize in obtaining power and glory — there is no dark underbelly initially.

One cannot help in drawing parallels to The Treasure of The Sierra Madre (1948) where the lust for all the riches the world has to offer rarely avail themselves without cataclysmic implications. Even as it can be riveting to watch such a big-screen adventure, we must check ideas of superiority or superman complexes.

While The Man Who Would Be King comes to accept this colonialistic world order rather than subverting it, at the very least it does imply the flaws in such a dogma. We’ve continued to see the fruit of such ideologies well into the 20th and 21st centuries.

4/5 Stars

The Other Side of The Wind (2018): Resurrecting Orson Welles

Film_Poster_for_The_Other_Side_of_the_Wind.jpgWith the name of Orson Welles comes any number of conflicting connotations not far removed from his greatest achievement: Citizen Kane. However, if we had to try and pinpoint an apt superlative it would fall somewhere in between a mythic and Brobdingnagian titan of cinema. He was a personality like few others.

Taking this into regard, The Other Side of The Wind could only conceivably be a colossal failure if it were in so many words: facile. Thanks be to the movie fates; Welles’ last work is no such thing. It is a glorious, extravagant mess of a film. Trying and befuddling scene after scene.

It has for many years been “The Holy Grail” for cineastes and to have it finally released to the public 40 years later — with so much hype spinning around, it might have easily been a letdown.

What a pleasure to admit how Wellesian this film is. Looming, unwieldy, pretentious, and loaded with complexities. All of these are compliments, mind you. It is corroded and alas, not the fully cohesive vision of an auteur, but its powers have barely been deluded by time.

The very form of the film, told from so many points of view, with all sorts of angles and qualities of footage, serves the very structure of the narrative. The fact it was indeed shot over half a dozen years, with hours of celluloid to ultimately cull through, only adds to its fractured quality.

The time in between its conception and release allows for fuzzier edges and dust to settle over the history with many of the primary players dead and gone. We still have first-hand eyewitnesses like Peter Bogdanovich and Joseph McBride and yet even they are now so far removed from the material. The myth has been allowed to instill itself.

Simultaneously, Welles once again makes us so radically aware we are watching a film, and he is directing our gaze. It’s his most audacious intent to blur the lines between reality and mere film narrative. It spins on this axis of meta mythos, instantly evoked by the film-within-a-film narrative and the caravan leading up to the 70th birthday of J.J. Hannaford (John Huston).

The biography is too obvious to ignore with thinly-veiled characters and the real-world issues plaguing Welles himself. Where to get the funding, literally making the story up as he goes along, and trying to stay relevant in a Hollywood that has all but abandoned him. It’s the old Norma Desmond conundrum (from Sunset Blvd). He’s still big. It’s the pictures that have gotten small. Furthermore, the fiction is too great to believe every word as the Sunday school truth.

Early on, the cuts are so quick and jarring, the viewer’s head is almost spinning to keep up. Because the choppy, looseness to it all almost feels amateurish and yet Welles is trying to drag us into his charade. He is creating a patchwork for us to get caught up in.

Early-onset fatigue must be acknowledged because The Other Side of The Wind can be a taxing ordeal with the constant cuts, close-ups, and whips from person to person even within a single conversation. It’s the antithesis of all traditional Hollywood continuity, thus serving its purpose.

This is also a fine time to mention the strikingly effective (if perplexing) riff off European art-house, with a startling amount of nudity, especially for a Welles picture. Bob Random and Oja Kodar are spliced into everything else, wordlessly pursuing one another through a cryptic labyrinthine of artistically stimulating landscapes. The film-within-a-film takes most obvious aim at Michelangelo Antonini who no so coincidentally filmed his Zabriskie Point in the home right next to Hannaford’s lair.

It’s also no small coincidence Ernest Hemingway is mentioned in passing as this spirit of the macho film director J.J. Hannaford is put up to the light of scrutiny. Huston himself was very much made out of the same mold. He was the epitome of a hard-living, hard-drinking, cigar-chomping man’s man. Each line of his craggy face tells a story. Each sputter in his voice is from years of such a lifestyle.

While Orson Welles isn’t an immediately similar figure, he ran in the same circles, shared overlapping industry experience, and probably internalized some of the same ideology pertaining to masculinity. They were both members of the Old Hollywood Guard.

Except the fine distinction is John Huston was not over the hill yet with such recent successes as Fat City and The Man Who Would Be King, two pictures that could not be more engaging for entirely divergent reasons. The verdict was still out on Orson Welles.

Meanwhile, Peter Bogdanovich adds yet another personal element to the picture. He was rather like Welles’ disciple, if not the propagator of his myth, and certainly a friend. But even their relationship became complicated when you consider the unspoken competition between them.

The young film critic-turned-filmmaker was at the forefront of The American New Wave and, at this point right in the middle of his trifecta of instant classics. The Last Picture Show was even heralded as the most important picture by a young filmmaker since Citizen Kane.

However, feathers were ruffled, jealousies set in, and what was formerly amiable, slowly deteriorated. You can even see it in how Welles is obviously jabbing Bogdanovich not so tactfully about his relationship with the much younger Cybil Shepherd. In the movie she is portrayed by the blonde robot who comes to J.J.’s party, appearing, uncomfortably, like easy prey for a predator.

Other persons of interest are Lilli Palmer who is an obvious stand-in for Welles’ lifelong friend Marlene Dietrich and then an acerbic, intrusive Susan Strasberg doing a send-up of Pauline Kael. I know very little about the Raising Kane fiasco and so it makes it difficult for me to make an educated assessment with what to do with this.

Then, we have posts filled by members of the Hannaford mafia who could easily be members of Welles’s own tribe including Mercedes McCambridge, Edmond O’Brien, Cameron Mitchell, and Norman Foster.

It’s sad to admit I have little to nothing resonant to add about their characterizations. They merely exist in this discombobulated world revolving around Hannaford.

It’s difficult not to put this movie in juxtaposition with Citizen Kane because they share the same gargantuan camp as only Welles seems capable of. In some ways, we might contend The Other Side of The Wind is Kane outside-in. The former film begins with a token of childhood. The life comes after and it seems ultimately meaningless. Revelations mean very little.

In the latter film, we begin at the opposite end of the spectrum at the end of a life and yet we never work back or get enough of a hankering of who this man is, much less all the phonies and wannabes around him.

I couldn’t help thinking as Hannaford and Brooks parted ways, I hardly know anything about them. There is not a meaningful throughline amid their continual babbling and bits of philosophizing.

What’s more, very little feels sincere. And yet this is itself an insidious lie. Because I know so much about them, that is, Huston and Bogdanovich. I’ve seen their films, I can recount a decent part of their history, their relationships with Hollywood, etc.

So The Other Side of The Wind is a bit like a rich canvass that gets more intricate and reveals more, the more we bring to it. The layers are there, all twisted and tangled, sometimes leading to dead-ends or left unresolved possibly due to narrative oversight. Maybe the actor was no longer available or the footage got ditched altogether. But of course, it’s, again, one and the same.

You don’t have a prayer of knowing much about J.J. Hannaford at the end of his party nor much about this film’s plot — what there is of it — but there is still more. We have these continual undercurrents — these refractions of reality — and we must dig through all the inexplicable pieces to try and discover some shards of truth.

Finally seeing The Other Side of The Wind feels like a giant sigh of relief. Let me say it now. It’s far from a perfect movie. But it is an extraordinary artifact from a phenomenal creative mind. It is a project worthy of Welles’ vision for the very flaws it exhibits from beginning to end.

Because slivers of himself find their way into the frame. His real-life struggles, demons, feuds, friendships, jealousies, preoccupations, and intimate fears all snuck in both overtly and unconsciously. This just might make it one of the most personal documentations we have from the man.

It’s a gift worth acknowledging, warts and all. The most honest word to offer in analysis is the very fact it mirrors the man. It’s the utmost compliment too. Francois Truffaut is quoted as saying, “I have always preferred the reflection of life to life itself.” One can only surmise if Orson Welles would agree or not. The Other Side of The Wind is as close as we’ll ever get to knowing.

4/5 Stars

Classic Movie Beginner’s Guide: John Huston

In our ongoing series of beginner’s guides for up-and-coming classic movie enthusiasts, we thought it would be well worth it to acknowledge one of Hollywood’s larger-than-life directors in John Huston.

Before starting out as a screenwriter, he galvanized his reputation collaborating with Humphrey Bogart and simultaneously helping shape the genre that would ultimately be labeled “film noir” by the French. His own career proved the film industry could be a family affair as he worked with both his father, Walter Huston and then his daughter, Angelica Huston, at the bookend of his own career.

Here are 4 of his most iconic films:

The Maltese Falcon (1941) - Images - IMDb

The Maltese Falcon (1941)

Based on Dashiell Hammett’s indelible private eye, Huston’s Maltese Falcon is singular in its own right and it had to be. Not only was there the source material, but also an earlier film version. While Humphrey Bogart has none of the protagonist’s written characteristics, it’s immaterial. In a perceptive stroke, Huston pulled prose from the novel while creating taut, atmospheric, highly choreographed visuals to augment the performances. Consider Key Largo or The Asphalt Jungle for more noir thrills.

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre

The Treasure of The Sierra Madre (1948)

One could easily argue it was John Huston who helped usher in a groundbreaking generation of on-location shooting in a more mobile post-war Hollywood. Armed with two dynamic performances from Bogart and his chipper father Walter Huston, this epochal story of greed is an absorbing drama about the souring of humanity. It’s doesn’t need no stinkin’ badge to prove it either.

New on DVD: 'The African Queen' - The New York Times

The African Queen (1951)

Whether or not it feels like a departure for John Huston (Beat the Devil or Heaven Knowns, Mr. Allision could be considered the same), The African Queen is a stellar adventure piece bolstered by two of the most inimitable players: Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn. Carving through the jungles makes fast friends of the two great giants of Classic Hollywood, and Huston makes it a gripping time at the movies.

Will🧙‍♂️Menaker on Twitter: "Basically everything about America ...

Chinatown (1974)

Many will probably note John Huston did not direct Chinatown. For some of his contemporary work behind the camera, consider Fat City or The Man Who Would Be King. However, his beguiling performance as Noah Cross, in one of the preeminent neo-noirs, is too good a turn to pass up in this acknowledgment. Despite the palpable charm, he undermines it with a deliciously despicable underbelly — much like 1930s Los Angeles.

Worth Watching

Jezebel, High Sierra, Sergeant York, The Killers, The Red Badge of Courage, Moby Dick, The Misfits, Night of the Iguana, **The Other Side of The Wind, Wise Blood, Prizzi’s Honor, The Dead, etc.

 

Fat City (1972): Boxing and The Human Experience

Fat_City_DVD_cover.jpgJohn Huston was one of the mavericks of Old Hollywood even surpassing his own father’s acclaim in the industry. Although his successes waxed and waned during the 1970s, he found new prominence as both an actor (Chinatown) and a reinvigorated director. Fat City is no question his hidden gem of the decade, if not his entire oeuvre.

It’s true that it taps into the boxing world so prevalent in the tragic noir tales of old. As a one-time amateur fighter and one of the screenwriters on The Killers (1946) a few decades prior, he seems to have the license to resurrect the tradition.

In fact, the expected archetype here might look a little like a very different film: All About Eve. You have the washed-up vet and then the up-and-coming talent.

Except Fat City settles uneasily into those paths before rebuffing them completely to provide an alternative, still partially devastating but certainly authentic to life. There is a touch of melancholy here. Not to knock Stockton, but the location certainly helps. As does Kris Kristofferson’s morose ballad “Help Me Make It Through The Night.”

The dramatic situation generally moseys along taking its sweet time. As the plot parallels the characters, there is nothing flashy here, no insurance investigator from The Killers to go digging around. We live and exist in the characters’ day-to-day realities at a leisurely pace. If anything, Huston is observational, intent on using the allotted screen time to get at these men, not because of their extraordinariness but due to the complexities available in their inherent ordinariness.

Stacy Keach for one is a washed-up boxer who has ambitions to get himself back in fighting shape. At any rate, getting beaten to a pulp for money is a much better prospect than what he’s doing with his life currently. He wears the life of a loser quite well, so much so, it’s easy enough to believe he’s been taking a beating in all facets of his existence.

The legend goes Marlon Brando was tapped for the part though it never panned out. Despite his admitted brilliance as an acting force, Brando would have automatically elevated the pedigree of the picture. Somehow having Keach, a man who never was a big draw, feels more in line with this story. Because one of the most promising feats of Fat City is there is no big star and so it’s perpetually a movie of inspired character parts.

Jeff Bridges is the other guy — a kid really — who takes up the other man’s advice to join Lido gym and try and get into the fight game. The coach there and an old buddy of Tully’s is rather like a father figure to Ernie. The stocky, throaty-voiced Ruben (Nicholas Colasanto), looks and sounds like he got punched in the gullet once too many but for undertaking such a violent profession, he overflows with geniality.

Perpetually whiny-voiced Linda Tyrrell toes the fine line between totally antagonistic and totally condoling. There is so much dysfunction in her life; she is the instigator of some of it and yet a lot falls outside of her control. Thus, the relationships she has with the men in her life — first, a man named Earl and then Tully, really reflect her own insecurities.

At times, clinging and then in another moment lashing out with indignant rage. In one barb pointed directly at Tully she even proclaims, “White men are the vermin of the earth.”

Meanwhile, Ernie finds a very different sort of girl (Candy Clark), a bit of a warm-hearted simpleton who cares so deeply that they are madly in love and that everything in their romance is perfect. The naivete is her calling card though it never is given roots in the story to the degree of her female costar.

In any given interaction, these people make you laugh for the strange words that come out of their mouth unwittingly. It’s a distraction from what might otherwise be the blaring issue of their sorry existences. They might be struggles with a traveling trunk or continuously slipping in the mud trying to get a car moving in the pouring rain.

The movie takes particular heed of the foibles found in the world of boxing. All the pretense has been washed away — not merely in a gritty, unsentimental manner — it verges on the comical because it’s willing to paint the characters and their idiosyncrasies with a clear definition.

Conrad Hall has quite the impressive pedigree as a director of photography providing texture to some of the most seminal films of a generation including Cool Hand Luke and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Whether Stockton serves his cinematography or his cinematography serves our normal perceptions of Stockton, ultimately they become one in the same.

The environment of Fat City seems to cultivate a certain brand of person — at least cinematically speaking — losers and has-beens, maybe a few chipper up-and-comers. It’s the perfect arena for banal everyday drudgery to play out.

It meets the men in the bars where they douse their miseries. Before the crack of dawn where they hang around to work for pennies and in the afternoons when they work the fields with the sun beating down. If this is a boxing story it’s just as much a tale of destitution.

Likewise, I had never given full consideration to how much boxing is built around racial lines (not to mention social ones). Fighters are promoted, railed against, and canonized as heroes based on the communities around them. Based on a shared culture and a similar color of skin. The blacks. The Whites. The  Mexicans. They all have their guys.

Ruben is constantly looking to make his clients more marketable. He knows “whites vs. coloreds” will draw a bigger crowd, and they play up Ernie’s Irish blood though he doesn’t have a drop. It’s all part of the business.

Although it’s capable of making us queasy as an audience, boxing just might be the most compelling sport in movies for how it pertains so intimately to the human experience. There is hardship, chaos, violence, euphoria — all these things playing out blow after blow inside this incubator that is the ring. Except in Fat City, the moments are never monumental. They are incremental peaks and valleys. No heroic death scenes are won nor rapid ascensions to the top of the world.

The anticlimax is this film’s final tragedy. Its irony exists right in the title. These characters get none of the glut or glory when it comes to the good life, in and outside the ring. Theirs is the marrow and the crumbs.

4/5 Stars

Classic Movie Beginner’s Guide: 1940s Film Noir

In our ongoing series to help budding classic movie fans know where to start, I thought it would be fitting time to offer up 4 movies to try and summarize the film noir movement.

If you’re unfamiliar with the term, it’s literally the French word for “black” and it has come to describe mostly American crime films of the 1940s and 50s. Most people are probably familiar with archetypes like detectives in trenchcoats, deadly femme fatales, and brooding voiceover narration setting up flashbacks on dark and stormy nights.

It’s a foolhardy task to give just 4 examples, but we’ve done our very best here by following our gut:

The Maltese Falcon (1941)

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Often considered the origin of film noir, John Huston’s debut picture is the prototype for detective fiction, based on Dashiell Hammett’s pulp gumshoe Sam Spade. It made an icon out of Humphrey Bogart while the rogue gallery filled out by the likes of Mary Astor, Peter Lorre, and Sydney Greenstreet is truly the stuff dreams are made of.

Double Indemnity (1944)

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Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck) is among the preeminent femme fatales. Absolutely bad to the bone and deadly gorgeous. But she needs an accomplice, in this case, Fred MacMurray as the opportunistic insurance peddler Walter Neff. It’s film noir partially domesticated, channeling the sleaze of James M. Cain with a deliciously cynical adaptation by Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler. Sometimes murder smells like honeysuckle.

Laura (1944)

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Laura is film noir at it’s most dream-like and illusory with our title heroine (Gene Tierney) mesmerizing everyone including the hard-nosed detective (Dana Andrews) bent on solving her murder. David Raksin’s score helps weave the magic placed against Otto Preminger’s impeccable mise en scene and a particularly petty ensemble led by Clifton Webb.

Out of The Past (1947)

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This one checks all the boxes. Laconic hero with cigarette and trenchcoat: Robert Mitchum. A beguiling woman of destruction and deceit: Jane Greer. Gloriously stylized cinematography from the master of shadows: Nicholas Musuraca, and all the digressions and double-crosses you might expect with a labyrinthian investigation. What’s more, the past always comes back to haunt you. Film noir is nothing if not fatalistic. 

Worth Watching:

Murder My Sweet, Woman in The Window, Scarlet Street, Mildred Pierce, Detour, The Big Sleep, Leave Her to Heaven, The Killers, Gilda, The Postman Always Rings Twice, Nightmare Alley, The Third Man, White Heat, Criss Cross and so, so many more.

The African Queen (1951)

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And you call yourself a Christian! Do you hear me? Don’t ya? Don’t ya? Huh? What ya being so mean for, Miss? A man takes a drop too much once and a while, it’s only human nature. ~ Charlie
Nature, Mr. Allnut, is what we are put in this world to rise above. ~ Rose

Sometimes when great talent comes together we see the result and question where it all went wrong.  Sometimes it just works pure and simple. The African Queen is such a picture and it’s true that the greatest films function on multiple levels finding ways to exceed our expectations, enrapturing us with storylines and developments that are a far cry from what we first considered. Far from not disappointing, they join the pantheon of classics we would gladly watch over and over again. That is probably the highest praise you can give a picture and The African Queen is such a film.

It’s christened The African Queen because she is the vessel that Charlie Allnut calls his own and she is the very vehicle for this entire adventure. Emblematic of their own grit, ingenuity, and indestructibility. Because the narrative begins with missionaries and the hint of colonialism as Rosie (Katharine Hepburn) and her Reverend brother look to bring the Gospel to the peoples of the Congo.

But due to the outbreak of World War I, Africa too is thrown into the fray as the Germans look to overrun the countryside and sweep it into their clutches. Rosie’s whole peaceful existence of Sunday services and afternoon tea are brutally disrupted. The village is burned, her brother’s physical and mental well-being suffers, and in the end, she has no recourse but to leave her little slice of home behind.

Ironically, her savior is the uncouth, uneducated Mr. Allnut (Humphrey Bogart), a jack of all trades who formerly worked at a mine before it was commandeered by the Germans. He too is an inbetweener in this war, caught on the fringes and simply trying to survive. It’s in these very circumstances that these two diverging personalities are thrown together. And in an act of defiance and pure survival tactics, they do rise above their present circumstances.

Aside from mere plot points, the very fact that the film was shot prominently on location like John Huston’s previous classic Treasure of Siera Madre benefits the film greatly because there’s an authenticity to the entire undertaking that could never be fabricated. You see the waters and the jungles. You’re almost suffocated by the sheer humidity and apprehensiveness of every successive rapid they must ford because this feels like more than a movie. The dividing line between fact and fiction in many ways feels paper thin.

Huston had some wonderful black and white films including The Maltese Falcon, Key Largo, and Sierra Madre but it seems rather fortuitous that The African Queen was made in color given the pedigree of cinematographer Jack Cardiff on such earlier vibrant classics as Black Narcissus and The Red Shoes. He brings a certain colorful exoticism to the frames that feels foreign to the eyes and yet still strangely beautiful. It all works so exquisitely.

Likewise, this is not simply a script penned by film critic, author extraordinaire James Agee with direction by Huston and the talents of legendary screen icons like Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn. Yes, those are the separate entities that are joined together in this endeavor but they become far more than the sum of their parts.

Agee’s script which Huston also got partial credit for sings with life because of the two individuals it draws up and the world it dares to place them in. Rosie Sayer is a prim and proper missionary in Africa who nevertheless has a fearless streak brought to life so spiritedly by Hepburn as only she could play it. There’s a wonderful stubbornness that’s undeniable but remove the layers and you have the same giddy passion that crept into some of her earlier screwball performances. Mr. Charlie Allnut, as such, is perhaps the most lovable Humphrey Bogart has ever been. Allnut is content just getting by and surviving and he’s good at it — trying to find little bits of comfort in this world medicating himself when gin and a nice cigar every now and again.

But while he pushes Ms. Sayer’s to be practical and lose some of her stuffier tendencies, she, in turn, prods him to step out and do something worthwhile with his life. And it’s not simply about their romance which begins as a small feud, becomes a friendship, and evolves into a frenzied relationship full of affection. Their romance is being forged as they hang onto the faint objective of driving The African Queen into the ominous German gunboat the Louisa. It feels like a small battleground amidst the chaos of World War I but it all depends on your perspective because for Rosie and Charlie this is really is the very pinnacle of their existence. It involves their very will to survive.

They cling to this purpose and the joy of their adventure is the very fact that they are able to see it to the end, in the name of their country but also for their own vindication. And the telling aspect is that they both have been transformed by their experience. They are not so much forged by fire as the jungles that engulf them and the wildlife, foes, and raging falls that all look to be their undoing. And yet this unlikely pair, these polar opposites, prove to be the most formidable allies you could draw together.

The African Queen also has its own forays into spirituality and although they do not remain front and center for the entire film, there is a certain import to them. In a particularly formative scene, Mr. Allnut calls into question the other’s Christian faith which seems at the very least unfeeling if not hypocritical. But you could say the main conflict of this film is voiced by Charlie. It’s human nature.

Charlie has grown passive towards it while Ms. Sayers affirms that humanity is meant to “rise above” and this statement can be taken spiritually or maybe even with a tinge of imperialism (as man must tame the vast wastelands of his environment and such).

But there could also be a more universal ring in her words, suggesting that humanity must rise above every trial and tribulation whether personal, environmental, or social. Any number of these interpretations have stock. The question to ask is where does that will come from? It seems ludicrous to say it comes from within, closer still to say it comes from others, and maybe there’s still something broader going on in the background. No matter your opinion on such matters, The African Queen is still without question, one of the grandest, most rewarding romantic adventures hewn out of 1950s Hollywood.

5/5 Stars

High Sierra (1941)

high-sierra-1They Drive by Night is a surprisingly engrossing picture and I only mention it for its obvious relation to High Sierra. It came out a year earlier, helmed by Raoul Walsh starring George Raft, Ann Sheridan, Ida Lupino and, of course, Humphrey Bogart. The important fact is that if Walsh had gotten his way, he would have cast Raft again as Hollywood’s perennial tough-guy leading man.

But Bogart saw what this film, based on the work of W.R. Burnett, could do for him and he talked Raft out of the part while lobbying Walsh for the role. Reluctantly the director agreed and as it turned out it was the perfect vehicle for Bogart’s big break as he had foreseen.

High Sierra functions as a crossroads of sorts between America’s standard genres. There’s no question that Roy Earle is a gangster in the former sense of the word. And even as an actor Bogart was used to playing second fiddle to the likes of the Cagneys, Rafts, and Robinsons. But if there was ever a poster boy for the emerging film-noir movement Bogart is the shining example carrying that tough as nails persona from gangster films but also functioning as a fatalistic antihero in the same sense. We see it with Spade, Marlowe, and all the rest. Also, as an early heist drama, High Sierra ushers in a trend that would be explored further in films like The Asphalt Jungle, Kansas City Confidential, and The Killing (notably all gritty cogs in the film-noir canon).

To understand what Bogart saw in this picture and to comprehend what a lynchpin it was, it’s necessary to delve into the story itself penned by Burnett and Bogart’s long time future collaborator John Huston.

Veteran gangster Roy Earle (Bogart) has just earned a government pardon with a little help from a powerful friend. It’s this aged gangster from the old days Big Mac who pays his loyal henchman a favor so he can run point on a new bank job. Big Mac is on his deathbed and the changing of the guards seems all too imminent, still, Earle is beholden to him. He’s a loyal son of a gun and tough as all get out. He’s not about to trust a copper and just about scoffs at the men who are supposed to help in pulling off the job.

high-sierra-3He’s not about to lose his nerves or take his eyes off the objective but the two young bucks he’s thrown in with (Alan Curtis and Arthur Kennedy) carry the tough guy bravado well but there hardly as experienced as him. He’s not too happy about the girl (Ida Lupino) they have hanging around either because she’s an obvious liability. In his experience, women squawk too much. The man on the inside (Cornel Wilde) is even worse, a spineless hotel clerk with even less nerve.

Earle’s philosophy is nothing out of the ordinary. It’s what we expect from a gangster picture. However, there are several elements to suggest that we are on the brink of a new movement to reflect the changing American zeitgeist. High Sierra is actually composed of a great deal of on location shooting throughout the Lone Pine area that adds a layer of credence to this entire tale but also a certain visual tranquility. And although it’s difficult to know precisely how much involvement Huston had on the script, there’s no doubt that his impact on noir was crucial with The Maltese Falcon released the same year.

But the bottom line is Bogart’s character has another side. With the gears of the heist in motion, he wryly notes, “Of all the 14 karat saps, I start out this caper with a girl and a dog.” And it’s true he has a certain soft spot for Marie Garson, and the yippy dog Pard (Bogart’s own pet Zero) but that’s not the extent of his character. In the stories most striking B plot, he befriends a trio of poor country folk led by their patriarch the always amiable Henry Travers and important to Roy because of their pretty granddaughter (Joan Leslie) who also happens to be a cripple.

high-sierra-2In an unassuming act of charity, Roy has a doctor friend take a look at Velma and ultimately pays for the surgery that heals her ailment completely. Still, if the story ended there it would be a happy ending but with the heist in the works, Roy is not so lucky. He pulls off the job and makes his getaway but with most any cinematic criminal activity in Hollywood’s Golden Age there must be repercussions. After all, that’s what keeps things interesting and it’s true that Roy and Marie are able to lay low for a time but soon the word is out and the gangster is a wanted man.

Walsh orchestrates the tense finale stirringly in a way that still has the power to excite with editing, score, and camera all flowing seamlessly for the most crackerjack of endings. It’s true that big shots are brought low and the irony was that it was hardly a woman or a dog that caused his downfall. It was himself. In those faltering moments, Bogart won his audience over as a leading man and would never lose them again. Certainly, we have the rather unfair added benefit of hindsight, but High Sierra stands as a monumental picture.

4/5 Stars

 

 

Red Badge of Courage (1951)

Red_Badge_of_Courage_1951.jpgStephen Crane’s seminal Civil War novel was made to be gripping film material and although my knowledge of the particulars is limited John Huston’s story while streamlined and truncated feels like a fairly faithful adaptation that even takes some effort to pull passages directly from the original text.

Even with the film getting butchered by the producers and chopped down to only 70 minutes from its original 2 hour running time, there’s still a gripping power to this war story. The narration feels a bit forced (despite being delivered by James Whitmore) but beyond that Huston’s film has an undeniable resonance for the atmosphere it develops and the very palpable inner turmoil of its central character as portrayed by famed real-life war hero Audie Murphy.

It suggests the other side of what it is to be a soldier. The fear, the reluctance that wears on the individual, and it begs the question, who are the real heroes if not men who did their duty despite the very fears that shackled them? Portrayed in this film are men and boys who were thrust into conflict and they were forced to respond accordingly. Not necessarily because they wanted to but out of very necessity.

In the end, the realization is that maybe fear is alright and acknowledging it is oftentimes the very sign of a brave individual. Someone who knows their limitations and still manages to push beyond them to do extraordinary things. Because as FDR so famously noted, the only thing we have to fear is fear itself. It can be debilitating, stifling our resolve to take action. Thus, it’s our response that’s paramount.

Barely 20 during the war Murphy isn’t all that much older here and it feels remarkably fitting for him to play the naive Youth getting his first welcoming to war faced with this very conundrum. He wants the glory of war. He wants that red badge of courage. But he’s too afraid to take it. The utter irony is how battle-tested Murphy was by that point in time–but of course, he became a hero at a very young age and that doesn’t necessarily mean it came easily or without a cost.

Huston also examines the disillusionment in the utter absurdity and idiocy of war sometimes. Though it had already been 6 years since the end of WW II with men such as Audie Murphy and Bill Maudlin involved it’s easy to get the sense that this was a rumination on that particular war’s effect. Huston as well had been involved in documenting the life of soldiers and Maudlin made a name for himself as one of the great wartime cartoonists originating the iconic duo of Willie and Joe. Murphy’s accolades spoke for themselves as one of the most highly decorated soldiers of his day but he also undoubtedly suffered from the trauma of PTSD.

The dialogue is ripe with colloquialisms and the images seem generally authentic with photorealistic visuals to match a fairly dismal outlook. It does not shy away from the reality. Figures constantly moving through the frame mechanistically. Claustrophic closeups, tights angels, billows of smoke and relentless gunfire make the battle sequences truly immersive. And the soldiers are played by actors of all shapes and sizes including Murphy, Mauldin, Royal Dano, John Dierkes, Arthur Hunnicut, and even Andy Devine.

If it had not been for the studio’s meddling we might be calling Red Badge of Courage one of the great American war movies. As it stands today, cut down from its original running time and slightly removed from John Huston’s original ambitions, it’s still a highly moving picture. Because moments of greatness shine through no matter the muddling factors. So despite its minor status and a runtime that suggests lesser fare, Red Badge of Courage is really Class A material through and through. Huston did not call it one of his best movies for nothing.

3.5/5 Stars

Have a wonderful Memorial Day and here’s to all the humble heroes in our armed forces.

Review: The Maltese Falcon (1941)

maltesefalcon1Dashiell Hammet’s “blonde satan” Sam Spade is an icon of not only 20th-century literature but also 20th-century cinema, thanks in part to Humphrey  Bogart and John Huston. He’s the cynical, hard-nosed, unsentimental P.I. whose general unpredictability sometimes leads to angry outbursts and other times gleeful amusement. He’s a straight talker and not about to be pushed around. If this sounds familiar at all, it’s because it lays the prototypical foundation for any film noir gumshoe ever. Except Bogart’s Spade receives the credit as the archetype. All other portrayals whether homage or parody stem from his performance. And it is quite the performance, but he has some worthy adversaries attempting to upstage him.

Brigid O’Shaughnessy  (Mary Astor) is the conniving, beguiling, lying little stagy siren who comes into his office in need. She sets a precedent with a string of lies and that never ceases. However, there are half-truths and bits of genuineness backed by her quivering voice and pleading eyes. It took another round to realize what a femme fatale she actually is because she is in fact so good at it. You almost don’t realize how deadly she could be. And in the pantheon of femme fatales, I admittedly forget her in deference to the likes of Phyllis Dietrichson, Gilda, or Kitty Collins. Perhaps Spade’s a little stronger than most protagonists, a little more resilient, not allowing himself to be completely duped. But from the get-go, Brigid has him reeling and guessing. The difference is that he knows it. It’s not until the very end however, that’s he’s finally able to get an actual line on her.

maltesefalcon2Then there’s Joel Cairo played so cunningly by the always wily and beady-eyed Peter Lorre and Kaspar Gutman portrayed so assertively and pointedly by the perennially memorable Sidney Greenstreet. These two men would come back in Casablanca and numerous other Warner Bros. Pictures, but they are the epitome of iconic characters actors who make any narrative that much more interesting. They have mugs and physiques really made for the dark recesses of the noir world, and when you put these four together it does spell trouble. Add a quietly seething Elisha Cook Jr. as Wilmer, the always personable Ward Bond as a Police Detective, and Lee Patrick as Spade’s doll of a secretary and you have a true winner.

With the eponymous blackbird to drive the plot all you really need are these characters and their inherent greed to pull them along. The beauty is that we do not know the details, but following Spade we slowly have piece after piece revealed, character after character make their entrance until everyone’s together and things get interesting

The story has loads of substance built-in and Huston was absolutely meticulous with his preparation for the film script and otherwise, which paid heavy dividends in the end. Hardly anything seems throw away and all the dialogue and scenes flow in a wonderfully seamless way that continues to carry us along in anticipation. It’s so engaging in fact that it becomes quite easy to disregard the film’s astute cinematography utilizing low-key lighting, which would become a norm for noir and then low angles that are reminiscent of another film that came out that same year, Citizen Kane.

Modern viewers might well accuse this film of being overly talkie, but amidst its iconic characterizations and bewildering plot, there are immeasurable pleasures to be mined. Few people would contest that the Maltese Falcon really is a major benchmark in film, as not only the early beginnings of German-influenced American melodramas (aka film-noir) but also a major career boost for the up and coming Huston, not to mention the veteran character actor Bogart. For film-noir lovers or cinephiles in general, this truly is the stuff that dreams are made of. John Huston and Bogart would both come back with success, after success, after success, but there’s something to be said for where it all began. The Maltese Falcon is a treasure indeed.

5/5 Stars

Review: Chinatown (1974)

chinatown1Forget it Jake, it’s Chinatown

The more you watch movies like Chinatown, the more you realize how much you’re still learning. I saw it the first time and I naively thought I knew everything about it. After all, it seemed fairly cut and dry. But the beauty of this film is a labyrinth-like story that can still keep me engaged after multiple viewings. There are things that I missed, things that I have to piece together once more, and more often than not details I simply forgot. Robert Towne’s script has an intricacy to its constantly spiraling mystery plot that remains powerful and Roman Polanski — with cameo included — directs the film with a sure hand as well as a cynically bitter ending worthy of his work. At that point, he was returning to the same city where a few years prior his wife Sharon Tate had been brutally murdered and that certainly had to still be heavy on his mind.

Throughout, Chinatown has elegant visuals of a desert dry Los Angeles circa 1930s, and it is aided by a smooth Jerry Goldsmith score made for such a period crime film as this. Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson), is the smooth-talking, smart-aleck P.I. with a penchant for trouble, but that goes with the business. In the tradition of all his heirs like Spade and Marlowe, the whole story is told from his point of view and we get the details at the same pace as him. That means a lot of the time we are just as confused as him, trying to pick up all the pieces.

Aside from Nicholson, Faye Dunaway’s performance is an interesting reworking of the archetypal femme fatale, because she has a different side to her. Also, John Huston’s performance is wonderfully nefarious, because he plays Noah Cross with a top layer of geniality that is ultimately undermined by his base nature. It’s wonderfully wicked.

In the story’s first few moments of being in his office, we begin to learn a little about the means Gittes uses to appease his clients. Then, his newest client walks through the door, a Mrs. Mulwray, who wishes for him to tail her husband. And so he does, just like that, and he’s pretty good at it too. Hollis Mulwray (an anagram for Mullholland) happens to be an integral part of the L.A. Department of Water and Power as the chief engineer. From what Gittes sees, the bespectacled Mulwray seems to have his scruples, but he also has a secret girl, who the P.I. is able to snap some incriminating photos of.

chinatown2Back at the office, another woman shows up, a Mrs. Mulwray, but this time the real one. She wants to slam J.J. with a lawsuit, but he realizes he got framed, and in the end, she quickly drops her case. Pretty soon Gittes former colleague Lt. Escobar digs up Mulwray’s body and the cause of death is the height of irony. He drowned during a drought, a cruel demise, and his body is joined by that of a drunk, who also was wandering around the local reservoir. It’s time for our nosy P.I. to do a little more snooping, but he is scared off by two security guards from Water and Power who give him a deadly nose job.

None worse for wear aside from a small cast, J.J. knows the department is diverting water. It’s more than a little runoff like they contend. He gets lunch with Noah Cross (The great John Huston), who is the father of Mrs. Mulwray and the former business partner of the deceased. Like J.J., he’s curious about finding the mysterious girl, and he sweetens the pot for the P.I.

A bit of detective work takes Gittes to the hall of records and then a vast acreage of orange groves where he is mistaken for a member of the Department of Water and Power. They aren’t too happy to see him, but Mrs. Mulwray is able to bail him out. They check up on an assisted living home and tie it into the whole conspiracy. Someone is buying up land under the names of the unknowing residents.

chinatown3But as it turns out, Mrs. Mulwray is hiding a major secret of her own that she’s been keeping. Another girl is murdered and since he’s found at the crime scene, Gittes is in a tight spot with a police and so he wants to get thing straightened out. But he doesn’t quite understand what he’s gotten himself caught up in. At the last minute, he decides to take the heroes path, but it’s to no avail. The good is snuffed out, the bad walk away free, and corruption still runs the streets of L.A. There’s not much the cops can do about it either.

chinatown4So many people remember the films final words which epitomize this place of confusion, corruption, and helplessness. The final words of Jake are just as illuminating, however, because he repeats the words he spoke to Mrs. Mulwray earlier when she asked what he did when he worked a beat in Chinatown, “As little as possible.” It’s so pessimistic and yet it’s the truth that everybody knows. He must resign himself to doing nothing because there is no way he can win, no way to overcome the forces that be. It’s a haunting conclusion, but ultimately the most powerful one we could hope for.

Earlier I alluded to the fact that every time I watch this film I pick on things that I missed before. For instance, within Robert Towne’s script are some interesting instances of foreshadowing. The first comes in the form of a pun uttered by the Chinese gardener who is constantly muttering, “It’s bad for the glass/grass.” Then, while they are in the car Mrs. Mulwray dejectedly drops her head on the steering wheel and it lets out a short honk. This acts as an important portent to the end of the film along with the blemish in her left eye. If you have not seen the film yet, this might sound very cryptic, but if you keep your eyes open these little details are rewarding. Chinatown is a fascinating place to return to again and again after all.

5/5 Stars