One-Eyed Jacks (1961): Good and Evil is in the Cards

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One-Eyed Jacks acts as a bit of an anomaly. It was originally meant to be helmed by Stanley Kubrick. Instead, Marlon Brando himself oversaw direction — his one and only time in the director’s chair. The results are as vibrant and totally Brando as they are messy, devolving into something more than indicative of its creative nucleus.

To its credit, the movie, set in the 1880s, earns its world more than Viva Zapata because there is an understanding of cultural differences inherent in the landscape. It does not try to insensitively blur ethnic lines with whites playing Mexicans.

Even Brando’s sense of Zapata, although plaintive, potentially falls prey to this blind spot. But One-Eyed Jacks is as much about the meldings of the cultures as anything. Yes, there are still obvious hierarchies and spheres of existence.  Chinese, for instance (represented by Philip Ahn), are tertiary characters, and the Latino cast is certainly secondary to the Caucasian leads, but this is indicative of the structures in place. There is some attempt at character definition that goes beyond menial stereotypes.

The scenes that strike me, in particular, are between Katy Jurado and Pina Pillicener. Instead of copping out, making these two women converse in English for the benefit of an English-speaking audience, there’s enough confidence in the emotion engendered (even if your Spanish is not up to par to catch every word). It feels wholly honest compared to typical Hollywood convention.

But, in order to explain this world, we must start 5 years earlier with a couple of outlaws. Before the days of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Rio (Marlon Brando) and Dad (Karl Malden) are a pair of womanizing bandits robbing banks all over Mexico, living a merry life of crime constantly on the run from the authorities.

It does eventually catch up to them as they are left stranded out in the desert with Federales hot on their heels. The fateful choice to send Dad off to find horses while Rio stays behind winds up altering their steps for good. Rio gets captured and shackled up in a local prison with his compadre Chico (Larry Duran). Dad rides off to start a fresh life for himself without any kind of penance being paid. Their divergent roads spell out what the future must hold.

Even when it lumbers along or willfully bides its time — for instance, watching a couple thugs waiting it out on a porch by the sea — the color scheme as captured by Charles Lang is gorgeous. It’s one of the film’s persistent attributes though it has a handful of others.

My mind drift’s to a shot far later in the story when Brando rides his horse past a gnarled tree right out of Sleepy Hollow. Unbeknownst to him, one of his faithful companions lies shot to death only meters away, and he is riding toward doom — for crimes, crimes he didn’t even commit.

Brando often surrounds himself with interesting folks. Some are tried and true — allies he’s been able to rely on for a long time — like Karl Malden (reunited again after A Streetcar Name Desire and On the Waterfront). And yet even the likes of Katy Jurado and a promising international newcomer like Pina Pellicer bring their own sense of sober candor to the picture. She’s a striking contrast to her leading man even if they share a core sadness.

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The Ben Johnsons and Sam Gilmans round out the assemblage of talent with the gruff essence of imposing masculinity. Slim Pickens, on the side of law and order, is his own version, equally snide and opportunistic — creating the kind of evocative characterizations that westerns thrive on.

It’s this kind of duality — represented foremost by Brando and Malden, then accentuated through their posses — causing one to mull over the meaning of One-Eyed Jacks. The phraseology is not something that gets used too often today. But its origins are from the profile image on a playing card. In this context, it comes to symbolize people who show off their “good side” while conveniently hiding all their faults through duplicity.

Rio is a pathological liar even in the context of people he likes. He knows no other way to go about it, holding onto his anger and letting it direct him toward revenge. But in one sense, he’s straightforward because he’s always taut with tension and the kind of angst Brando built a dynasty out of. There’s always sensitivity on the other side.

Dad is a jovial character. He’s made a life for himself and he has “reformed,” now on the side of the law. But the stroke of fortune that allowed him to get away from the federales 5 years ago and make a new life for himself, has never really left him. He’s a wheedling even deceptive fellow with a merciless, self-serving edge. He’s a man to be feared because he has popular opinion and legitimacy on his side. It’s a far more terrifying prospect.

Here’s yet another western playing with the conventions of heroics and villainy with this newfound muddied and greying sense of morality as Peckinpah would continually work through in the ensuing years. Because the final act is about a man sentenced to be hanged and the root of justice behind it remains totally immaterial. Brando is cast as a local villain even as he remains part victim to the audience. Malden and his crew are symbols of justice — swift and sure — with at least a couple of caveats.

Up until the final shots, One-Eyed Jacks remains a fairly engaging morality play rooted in a host of fine performances and its provocative imagery. Given the circumstances — how an inexperienced Brando captured exorbitant amounts of footage and remained indecisive in his directorial decisions — it feels like a bit of a marvel we got something as passable as this. Its imperfections only make its virtues all the more fortuitous.

3.5/5 Stars

The Young Lions (1958): Humanity in Epic Scale

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4/5 Stars

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

Sayonara (1957): Marlon Brando and Miiko Taka

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Major Lloyd “Ace” Gruver (Marlon Brando) lands on the airbase in Korea and almost immediately gets assigned leave in Kobe. However, this leave has ulterior motives, signed by General Webster (Kent Smith), a friend of his father’s and the father of the pilot’s sometime girlfriend. It’s meant to be a contrived reunion no doubt so they can consider their wedding plans.

One of Gruver’s men, Joe Kelly (Red Buttons) is set to get married himself. Soon they’re showing off cheesecake photos of their girls until it evolves into something far more complicated with more uncomfortable implications. Because Joe is intent on marrying a Japanese gal named Katsumi (Miyoshi Umeki). If nothing else, you admire the man because he’s totally committed; there’s a complete integrity and personal conviction behind his intentions.

As the film points out later, he wasn’t alone. Lots of servicemen looked to marry Japanese girls after the war, and yet there certainly is something countercultural about him. What becomes immediately evident is this sense of casual (or not so casual) racism. Though hardly a spiteful person, Gruver has some preconceived notions about “slant-eyed runts.”

He has his misgivings about the wedding and yet, as a favor to his subordinate, he agrees to serve as his best man. The pervasive strains of discrimination continue as Gruver makes it to Japan and rendezvous with the Websters and Eileen (Patricia Owen). They attend a club for American personnel only to witness a soldier getting turned away with his Asian girlfriend. The coded language of “fraternization” is really just de facto segregation. For the time being, Gruver has no stake in the matter and so leaves it be.

His first true immersion into Japanese culture, at the behest of his girlfriend, comes from a Japanese kabuki performance put on by a revered actor. Although it’s a bit unfortunate having Ricardo Montalban playing Nakamura, he gives it his best showing, which actually comes off rather sensitive as far as yellowface goes.

While I’m not sure Joshua Logan exactly comprehends Japanese culture aside from its exquisite exoticism, he does take his stage pedigree and proceeds to translate the Japanese arts into flat two-dimensional showings mirroring their inherent performance elements. At the very least he understands their use of space and augments them within the framework of the broader film.

Owen is intriguing because she has all the attributes of a beautiful American girl: well-groomed and fit to be a 1950s housewife, but she has enough wherewithal to think for herself and not to be a “type” for her man to return home to. It forces Brando to make some kind of commitment. Currently, he’s not in a place where he feels that he can. If the movie were to continue down this commonplace path it would be dull going.

Instead, the camaraderie between Brando and a marine, Mike Baile (James Garner), is born. The other actor doesn’t have much to do except act as a cultural guide; still, Garner takes to his role genially and with his unadulterated charms no one could ever fault him. He’s another agreeable face, and he also knows a good deal more about Japanese culture…

Miiko Taka literally stops Brando cold (and the movie with it). The film turns on a new axis as Gruver becomes infatuated with the preeminent dancer, Hana-ogi-san, who can be found crossing the bridge to the theater every day before and after her daily performances. The outmatched pilot finally plucks up enough acumen to find himself a pocket Japanese dictionary only to toss it away.

It’s like a new pastime as he waits to catch a glimpse of her and get a chance to interact. He finally gets his chance — a meeting with her in person — though this is normally totally forbidden for someone in her position. The added grievance is the death of her father who perished at the hands of an American bomb.

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Even though the preamble has some rumblings of discord, there’s something about Brando’s introduction to the Japanese household that’s warm and affecting because in it some cultural understanding is made — appreciation of customs and how our differences somehow lead us to a place of mutual respect.

Amid gags of him continually bumping his on on doorways, there are far more tender moments that never feel like they’re reaching toward didacticism. Joe has him remove his shoes before entering the home, and he learns about sake (fermented rice wine) and how to pour for others.

If this scene tickles the heart, it doesn’t last long. The accompanying moment with Brando and Taka’s first time reclining at table alone together is imbued with a sinking feeling of discomfort. He’s so lax and culturally unfamiliar, making a go of it the best way he knows how. There’s a sense he is sunk even before he’s begun. What words will come out of her mouth in response?

Far from being dismissive, she’s gracious and tender speaking of her life and her desires for love and some far-off dream amounting to something more than her extravagant life of a dancer on the stage. She craves something deep-seated, a longing inside of her.

Although they come from two distinctly different worlds, their lives are similarly planned. Either by the strict confines of her theatrical tradition or the regimens of the military. And yet against this backdrop, they find happiness together watching fireworks, being in each other’s company, and generally filling up their days with romantic contentment. What’s refreshing is how none of this feels self-serving or staged. We willingly believe there is something tangible between them.

The seeds of bigotry have already been planted early and so they eventually germinate. The military cracks down calling for all military personnel to stop seeing Japanese women and those who are married, like, Joe are given especially harsh treatment. They’re effectively forced into subordination on the threat of court-martial and deportation.

Sayonara has successfully put its flag in the ground when you know what’s happening and yet the events unfold and you cannot look away. Because the mantle of the story has been passed onto the characters whom we now care for. What follows has legitimate consequences for us.

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Thus, their friend’s fate is swiftly decided and yet Ace and Hana-ogi’s roads look to be diverging. There is no other way through unless one of them intercedes and gives up everything they have already built. It’s a point of no return.

To Brando’s credit, he sells the transformation from blundering ignorance to genuine care for this woman who has so enchanted him. Mikko Taki, who is still with us, far from simply being gorgeous, brings a quiet understanding and gentility that stays the course of the movie. In no way does it feel like she’s totally overwhelmed or upstaged by Brando. They make the romance a union between two people bridging two cultures in the face of adversity.

The final delight comes with Brando sticking it to all the naysayers and wishing a “Sayonara” to everyone who would stand in their way. It leads to warm feelings not least of all because the picture is finally done.

All said, the Technicolor scenery and scenario are noteworthy, even cutting edge for the time period, but with the loose threads and lumbering running time, the movie could spare to lose a few scenes. Although admittedly obligatory, it’s the scenes of mechanized conflict and dialogue between Brando and the military that feel rote and uninteresting.

The main players are the ones making waiting through the dross worth it thanks to their candor and agreeable charisma. What a lovely screen couple Red Buttons and Miyoshi Umeki make. Above all, it gladdens me, in all her humility, Audrey Hepburn turned down the role hoisted on her at the behest of Joshua Logan. She graciously declined and instead, we were blessed by a performance by Miiko Taka.

Although she, like Shirley Yamaguchi in House of Bamboo or even Umeki Miyoshi, is cast as the delicate Japanese beauty, this only becomes a stereotype if it is never replaced with other roles. For what it is, the part balances several traits, including a degree of independence and familial duty. Thus, any lasting criticisms for Sayonara in this area feel more indicative of the industry now 60 years on than a single performance decades ago.

If Sayonara is rife with stereotypes in its honest attempts, then not enough has been done to build on its legacy to bring us even further in the present. Because, amid the flaws, there were some exquisite touches, from the gorgeous imagery to little accents like the neighborhood cherry shop on the corner or the Japanese conversations shared between a husband and wife. They elicit something genuine and emotionally sincere.

3.5/5 Stars

The Wild One (1953) and Brando’s Rebel Icon

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The Wild One will never be lauded as a great movie, but it most certainly proves a seminal one even if you give a cursory glance over what would soon come in its wake. These were not only high school and gang-infused dramas of delinquency and adolescent angst, but it’s an obvious antecedent to the likes of Roger Corman pictures like The Wild Angels (1966) or even one of the most pioneering counterculture relics: Easy Rider.

A Streetcar Named Desire made Brando into an instantly revered actor, but The Wild One helped solidify him as a cult hero. A few years before James Dean — shades, leather jacket, riding a motorcycle — he’s the epitome of anti-establishment, and he found an immediate audience. Not only with the general populous but also for icons who would follow on his coattails like Dean and Elvis.

Like the gangster movies of the 1930s, The Wild One is purported to be a cautionary tale, and yet it can’t help but make the pack of motorcycle lug-heads highly intriguing. It doesn’t altogether glorify them; still, we want to watch them, and we can’t help but turn and look.

Their rank and file are made up of some unusual characters. Would you have ever thought Alvy Moore (Green Acres) and Jerry Paris (Dick Van Dyke Show) would start out in a motorcycle gang?

Aside from Johnny Strabler’s (Brando) instant tuff guy image, projected over the opening credits, their reputation is galvanized as a unit when they defiantly saunter across a racetrack in the middle of a lap. The motorcycles veer to miss them as the crowds yell for them to move it.

They nick one of the trophies on their way out as the police usher them away. They know an unruly mob when they see one. There’s nothing for it but to send them out of town so they can terrorize the next stop further down the road…

Because, of course, that’s exactly what happens. The can gets kicked down the road for someone else to deal with. They wind up bringing their pervasive mayhem wherever they go, in this case, a sleepy town’s main street. In a couple of minutes, they instigate a traffic accident and proceed to hoist the always curmudgeonly Will Wright out of his automobile like a band of obstreperous boy scouts.

The mealy-mouthed sheriff (Robert Keith) is pushed around like a sack of potatoes while a local businessman sees this as an opportunity, coaxing the boy’s into his establishment with cold beer, steaks, and music. They willfully oblige, led by their leader who instantly becomes smitten with the pretty waitress Kathie (Mary Murphy).

In this jukebox-filled, bar counter milieu, their brand of insurrection verges on Don and Cosmo-esque ribbing a la Singin’ in the Rain, where they pull the wool over on the “squares” with their jive and absurdly crazy lingo. They even take turns dancing with a pair of local flirts.

Who else would ride lead on a rival motorcycle mob but Lee Marvin? He plays it over the top with a healthy injection of disorderly conduct like a thuggish circus performer in stripes and goggles. Chino’s both a rival and one-time drinking companion, having it out with Johnny in the main plaza. Their point of contention: the pinched trophy.

With Chino hauled off to jail along with a local loud-mouth, the situation escalates to a precarious tipping point. The evening brings raucous insubordination as the untethered bikers run roughshod over the town with renewed abandon.

It’s slightly painful to watch if only for the extent of the overkill as they run the switchboard operator out of her office, commandeer the keys to the jail to intern a new prisoner, and generally overwhelm the city limits in every conceivable way.

Wrightsville wasn’t built to handle an incident like this. Sheriff Bleeker is in way over his head and his well-meaning but diffident demeanor has no reign over the chaos. It’s taking them to the brink.

The hoodlums systematically pull the beauty salon apart, dancing and prancing and goofing off. But it’s also premeditated. Because this sets the stage for them to chase after the most attractive and genteel girl in town, first mobbing her and then chasing after her on their motorcycle as she flees down the street. It’s a different type of social terror and especially in the modern-day, it’s particularly perturbing to be complicit to the moment even as a powerless viewer.

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That’s the one key to Brando’s portrayal. He’s a nonconformist against all forms of authority, and yet he still manages to cleave rather nonchalantly to some kind of romantic code of conduct. In a sense, he rescues her only to whisk her off on his motorcycle to some deserted park. She’s tired, not ready to put up any sort of fight. The progression from here seems obvious.

And yet in some curious about-face, The Wild One flips its primary stereotype on its head creating a curious aside. Kathie intimidates him with her breeding, and then, she simultaneously wants to go off somewhere with Johnny and leave the town behind. Both developments feel unexpected. It happens so fast, too fast even, if this wasn’t the heightened reality of a B-picture. For this reason alone with can forgive the moment.

Because the movie constantly corkscrews its logic this way and that to a dizzying degree. The out-of-towners began as the obvious aggressors only for the townspeople to turn on them, giving them a taste of their own medicine. Nothing lines up in terms of what is fair or just. All that is rational spins further and further out of control. It’s part of the intrigue of the movie — a bit like gawking at a car accident — you can’t turn away.

The town, which has sat passively by for some time, is bent on taking retribution into their own hands. They form a posse and go after Johnny pummeling him and taking him to what can only be called their lair. Their tactics have turned ugly as well, and they categorically fail in carrying out justice until a real authoritarian figure (Jay C. Flippen) comes in to excavate the truth.

As it stands, one man is dead and Johnny is accused of murder. The irony is in this drastic turn. Half an hour before we would have convicted Johnny ourselves on reputation alone. Now he is made to look the victim — albeit an ungrateful and belligerent one.

The Wild One concedes in a final moment where Brando finally cracks a smile. The words “Thank You” still don’t come out of his mouth, but he relinquishes a bit of his bad-boy aura momentarily. However, it’s the movie leading up to this point that would help propel the outlaw biker genre forward and make Brando more than a mere stage phenomenon.

Laslo Benedek is not a well-remembered director, and yet he puts together a brassy picture utterly alive with punk sentiment. However, equally importantly, its sense of grungy low-budget drama is not completely devoid of streaks of good humor. For its day, you can see the spikes, and now it’s a simple pleasure for how conspicuous it feels. It’s ripe for parody, yes, but it was also a template for its many descendants. You can hardly consider one without the other.

3.5/5 Stars

Viva Zapata (1952): A Mixed Message of Revolution

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The place is Mexico City. The year 1909. A contingent of rural farmhands pays a visit to their eminent leader to intercede on behalf of their neighbors. They live a life of poverty and injustice as others gorge themselves on the riches of the land.

For all his progressive well-meaning, it still is a rather sour note seeing Marlon Brando playing national hero Emiliano Zapata,  especially with Anthony Quinn just left-of-center as his brother Eufumio. It seems like a casting opportunity missed just as the movie itself has so many blatant blindspots.

From the outset, these underlying issues slightly neutralize everything Vivia Zapata tries so desperately to embody, a lot of which is of a visceral nature. An old man is dragged across the dusty roads with a rope around his neck by government soldiers. He’s finally hacked free with a machete only to go careening into a cornfield — one of the first visual casualties onscreen.

Likewise, the peasantry begins clacking pebbles together ominously in the wake of horsemen taking their leader away. They are starting to mobilize and unite under a banner of liberty and equality. The grassroots are surging into action.

It’s evident Elia Kazan is searching out a sense of realism between old-school tintypes and post-war neorealism. He’s navigating a way to humanize Zapata as a sympathetic champion of the rural farmer but also make him seem authentic in his visible plight.

Despite its vast reservoir of talent, it falls flat or at least becomes undermined by the faces in the picture that look anything but realistic. It stands out sorely (even comically) against a canvass striving for this intimate, engaging paean of the Mexican revolution.

Furthermore, the story feels like it falls on the wrong side of the border for John Steinbeck who might know the migrants and cannery workers of Salinas and Monterey well, but the universality of that experience doesn’t always directly translate to the aspirations or patois of Mexican farmhands.

Jean Peters is someone I’ve grown to admire and yet as a virginal love interest, although she’s candid enough, the part still feels compromised. The worst infraction goes to Joseph Wisemen, in particular, who sticks out like a sore thumb or for that matter Mildred Dunnock who would do better in John Ford’s pictures. However, now that the air is cleared, we can leave these grievances where they lie and move forward to something more optimistic.

Like all revolutions girded around a cause, we witness how it ably mobilizes the entire population because they are fighting for something they’d willfully die for while their adversary is just striving for containment and holding onto what they already have. They’re radically different perspectives.

My knowledge of Mexican history is so woefully superficial having Zapata and Villa in the same film does me a service. Otherwise, I would probably have them confused. What’s curious is how the film works in passages of time — these almost elliptical increments — where we see more of the aftermath of each subsequent stepping stone in the struggle than grasping the moments themselves.

There are skirmishes in the cornfields and the forests — merciless executions carried out on both sides to enact discipline and reign in radicals, but most of the movie is a social and moral exercise.

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Zapata aligns himself with land reformer Francisco Madeira who, for all his idealistic shortcomings, seems relatively sincere in returning the land to the common man. However, he comes up against a self-serving mentality embodied by the tyrannical General Huerta.

The themes to be explored are of a valiant nature. Zapata’s trying to raise up a society and a world for his people of freedom only for it to be dictated by war, continual violence, and national corruption.

There’s this very cynical undercurrent to it as well even as Brando’s protagonist fights with a certain dogged and principled idealism. For him, this is a righteous war never sullied by personal gain or public veneration. And yet other men on both sides are only out for their own consolidation of power and their own vainglory. The few allies Zapata has are either compromised or killed.

One thinks of his own brother, Eufumio, who becomes disillusioned by their continual crusade never seeming to end. And sob driven by desperation and drink, he sets himself up as his own private dictator exasperating the mechanisms they had long been warring against. It signals the beginning of the end as their relations splinter at the seams.

Because one cannot live a life like Emiliano Zapata’s without expecting some form of vindictive retribution. For every man who cherishes his name, exulting him as some kind of national savior, there are still more who censure him as a degenerate outlaw.

Although Pancho Villa (Alan Reed) suggests some kind of middle ground — a way to fade off into the background — though this in itself even feels like an illusion. What little I know about Pancho Villa tells me he did not reach the ripe old age of a white-haired man.

However, in its final push, Viva Zapata does not totally repudiate its own message as the name Zapata becomes the ammunition — the brush fire to set the whole countryside alight — so the revolution might continue in the hearts and minds of the common man. It’s a stirring idea just as this film has a great deal to offer in terms of both talent and theatrical motifs.

Ultimately, it proves a mixed message between its roster of dated performances and conflicting aspirations to appeal to a certain progressive ethos. What helps take the sting out of it comes with the realization Kazan and Brando’s collaboration in On The Waterfront was just around the corner.

And Anthony Quinn, though he faced hardships in his career, didn’t do too bad for himself going forward. He was, after all, one of Hollywood’s most unique and versatile talents and a served him well in a truly serpentine career. At the very least, Zapata should lead to a fitting appreciation of him to go with some of its most admirable ideas in service to the downtrodden.

3/5 Stars

Classic Movie Beginner’s Guide: Method Actors

Since we will be reviewing some films from some of the so-called Method actors, who were prevalent in the 1950s, we thought it would be good to do something a little different and pick four actors who are normally associated with the movement.

The Method was an approach to acting first conceived by Konstantin Stanislavski. However, his ideas were disseminated and widely influential thanks to the work done at New York’s Group Theater and then later the Actors Studio. Three prominent teachers who followed in his footsteps were Lee Strasberg, Stella Adler, and Sanford Meisner. Other noteworthy early figures were Elia Kazan and James Garfield.

A wave of younger actors would be flagged for bringing an exciting rawness and emotional vitality to Hollywood movie acting that was as revered as it was belittled and misunderstood. Let’s meet four key figures.

Montgomery Clift (1920-1966)

It’s difficult to understate how big Clift was when he made his auspicious transition from stage to screen. He chose his roles carefully and gained a reputation for not only his authentic emotional vulnerability on screen but also the meticulous time and preparation he put into his craft. A Place in The Sun and From Here to Eternity are as good a start as any.

Marlon Brando (1924 – 2004)

Brando often ranks as one of the greatest actors of all time and for good reason. He took the rules and generally assumed conventions of acting and gave them an animal magnetism and a kind of ever-present honesty that represented something entirely new and daring. It’s so easy to parody his mumbling delivery, but hard to replicate the breadth and import of his work especially early in his career. A Streetcar Named Desire and On The Waterfront are good starting points.

James Dean (1931 – 1955)

James Dean only has three starring roles to his name, and yet it’s a testament to his stature on screen and his lasting impact that he’s still talked about to this day. He doesn’t have the presence of Brando or the poise of Clift, but in his own flighty even standoffish temperament there was something truly mesmerizing for countless generations. East of Eden, Rebel Without a Cause, and Giant all feel like must-sees.

Paul Newman (1925 – 2008)

Like Brando, Newman had a long and varied career, but in the ’50s fresh off his time at the Actors Studio, he found himself in any number of heady dramas from the likes of Tennessee Williams. He also partnered with fellow student (and future wife) Joanne Woodward and the socially-minded actor’s director Martin Ritt. With the hole left with the tragic death of Dean, he was one of the young upstarts called on to fill the void. The rest was history.

Do you have a favorite out of these four actors or some favorite films they starred in?

The Chase (1966)

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Of all the reasons to watch this movie, I felt compelled to as a roundabout reevaluation of Robert Redford’s career as he just recently said The Old Man and The Gun would be his last film. He more recently still, admitted he never should have said he was retiring but for all intent and purposes, he’s winding down, focusing his energies on other endeavors.

The Chase is situated at the beginning of his career and although he’s not quite the star, Redford has an integral part to play. Bubba is a local boy who breaks out of prison. Due to his dashing good looks, they don’t immediately place him as a runaway criminal type but if Paul Newman could do it, I gather Redford could do it too.

If we had to pick one central conceit this would be it, except, on the whole, The Chase proves a meandering epic, purely hit or miss, especially given such a promising cast. It’s as bloated with talent as it is convoluted by so many character arcs, each coming at us from all over the place with varying degrees of interest and importance.

The local sheriff, named Calder (Marlon Brando), lives an honest life with his loving wife (Angie Dickinson). There is talk around town that the lawman is in the coat pocket of prominent banker Val Rogers (E.G. Marshall). Though the accusations seem dubious based on Calder’s simple integrity. However, if it is true,  he wouldn’t be the only one intent on getting on the big man’s good side.

Soon it’s Saturday night and the whole town seems to be having a party. The most coveted one is thrown by Rogers and sure enough, among his guests are the Calders. Though they hardly fit into the upper echelon, they have an open invitation because Val is intent on staying on the incumbent lawman’s good side for what he might be able to do for him.

Meanwhile, an agitated bank employee (Robert Duvall) and his coquettish wife (Janice Rule) put on a shindig for the “normal folks” who never seem to get an invitation from Rogers. The means might be humbler but they similarly get a little tipsy while play fighting, dancing, and openly flirting with anything with a pulse and a pickup line.

Two of the most accomplished adulterers and partakers in sordid gossip-worthy fodder are Emily and Damon, who are quite openly lovey-dovey, given they are both married to other people. It’s telling that the status quo is getting drunk and carousing with other’s spouses.  We hardly bat an eye because the whole town is rampant with this kind of conduct.

Despite being the lead and raking in a hefty fee, Brando spends most of the film moseying around town making house calls or patrolling the streets. In fact, initially, it feels like the most mundane and understated performance from Mr. Brando I can recall. That is until the final act where for once his hand is forced and he has to struggle for his own survival and any semblance of small-town law and order.

The only other moment where he enters such terrain again is in the final moments on the steps of the sheriff’s office; this time to deliver retribution. Because this is a film where everything seems to go awry. If the hothouse dramas of the 50s were a dying breed, The Chase might be the closest thing to a reanimation of the genre, albeit with younger, newer blood.

However, amidst this southern operatic melodrama, helmed by Arthur Penn, The Chase still comes off somewhat dated, maybe due to its evocation of earlier works. It’s as if the picture is trying to push an agenda of social importance for a new decade but simultaneously lacks a compelling framework to work within. The point is made quite clear that African-Americans and Mexican migrant workers are second-class citizens and subsequently mostly forgotten in this story. But there are few interesting conclusions on this front.

Otherwise, for the first half, there’s nothing organic or terribly alive in terms of authenticity. Because while Brando gives a fine turn, admittedly easy to overlook, most everyone else is carried away by the drama. They have nothing to give us that feels truly genuine and the story freely escalates by upping the temperature in the ongoing search for Bubba.

Finally, Redford and Jane Fonda get together, an escaped convict reunited with his long lost wife. Maybe they didn’t know it at the time but it would be the beginning of a meaningful screen partnership which has been forged over 50 years. But before long, even this brief, potentially intimate moment is interrupted by first one party, then two, and before long the whole town has turned their moment into the latest county-wide social event.

The junkyard is the finest attraction as it promises to give them the most wanted fugitive for miles around and they’ve come to be a part of the show. Soon folks are yelling exuberantly, lobbing firecrackers into the heaps of old automobiles as car horns honk in this symphony of tumult. But if this is where the climax begins it actually ends on the steps of the jailhouse in a scene that evokes if not JFK’s assassination then certainly Jack Ruby’s actions the following day. The clouds of misery linger over the frames but that’s not our biggest regret.

I think, no fault of its own, The Chase boasts almost more talent than it knows what to do with. So many actors come together at so many different crossroads of their careers. Of course, Brando is front and center. He and Robert Duvall still had The Godfather and many other classics ahead of them. Redford and Fonda were both young talents. E.G. Marshall had an illustrious career on stage and screen while Miriam Hopkins was in her twilight years in a small role. Angie Dickinson was pretty much in her prime. Even Arthur Penn had pictures with more socially incisive commentary and interesting themes including the cinema-shattering Bonnie and Clyde released the following year.

The bottom line is that in each individual case it’s easy to think of at least a handful of films each of these actors was involved in which were more enthralling than this one. It’s hard to hold a candle to that type of competition and against it, The Chase looks fairly mediocre. True, it’s a rather unfair fulcrum to measure a movie by but in this case, it’s very hard not to. Taking these unfair biases into account, it has something to offer the viewer even if it’s not quite as satiating as one would like.

3/5 Stars

Review: A Streetcar Named Desire (1951)

Brando_-_Leigh_-_1951Blanche Dubois and Stanley Kowalski. They’re both so iconic not simply in the lore of cinema history but literature and American culture in general. It’s difficult to know exactly what to do with them. Stanley Kowalski the archetypical chauvinistic beast. Driven by anger, prone to abuse, and a mega slob in a bulging t-shirt who also happens to be a hardline adherent to the Napoleonic Codes. But then there’s Blanche, the fragile, flittering, self-conscious southern belle driven to the brink of insanity by her own efforts to maintain her epicurean facade. They’re larger than life figures.

In truth, A Streetcar Named Desire is one of those cases where play and film are so closely intertwined it’s hard to pull them apart. And there’s so many connecting points. Tennessee Williams helped to adapt his initial work and Marlon Brando, Kim Hunter, and Karl Malden all transposed their original stage roles to the screen while Elia Kazan took on direction once more.

As such it became the showcase of The Method, the shining beacon championing that long heralded yet controversial movement born of Stanislav Konstitine and disseminated in the U.S. by such instructors as Lee Strasberg and Stella Adler. It was from this latter teacher from whom Marlon Brando honed his craft and it’s true that he was one for the ages. The Greatest by some people’s account.

But before this film, Vivien Leigh was the biggest name on the marquee and she, of course, had ties to Laurence Olivier, the apex of Shakespearian actors and arguably the most reputed actor of the age until Brando came along. In Streetcar, you can invariably see the thin link connecting such luxuriant Hollywood offerings as Gone with the Wind to the evolution of cinema with later classics like The Godfather because it’s physically there on the screen.

Vivien Leigh, forever synonymous with Scarlet O’Hara and Brando’s own brand of sometimes brutal authenticity. She wavers and sashays through her scenes, clinging to the set and delivering her lines as pure searing drama. Whereas Brando just is. This animalistic force of brawn stuffing his face with chicken and moving through his home like he actually lives there. It’s social realism but it’s also a conflict on multiple levels that goes far beyond the main tension within the film itself.

Within the narrative, it is certainly a clash of culture, dialect, and acting styles and we’re never allowed to forget it anytime Stanley (Brando) or Blanche (Leigh) are in a room together. Still, they are not the only players in this film and Kim Hunter lends an added layer to the conflict as she simultaneously yearns for the romantic passion coursing through Stanely while wanting to protect her sister from harm. It’s a precarious tightrope to walk and Hunter makes it heartwrenching. Beyond her, Karl Malden plays Mitch, one of Stanley’s old war buddies who nevertheless exhibits a softer side that is easily taken with Blanche’s cursory level of class.

So in the end, Blanche’s fall not only harms Stella but Mitch too as he sees his heart get hurt and he feels lied too. But the one who fairs the worst is, of course, Blanche herself as she becomes completely overtaken by her delusions of grandeur. The fact that she goes for magic over reality ultimately becomes her undoing.

Today Streetcar does come off as stagy and yet Kazan is still able to personify the sticky, grungy, sweaty atmosphere of New Orleans — palpable with its billowing cigarette smoke and humidity. It somehow functions as this odd dichotomy between the theatrical and utter realism. In one way at odds and in another married perfectly because the juxtaposition only draws out the drama even further.  And the fact that the film pushed the boundaries as far as content easily heightens the drama. Stanley’s attack on Blanche is not only in a verbal or emotional sense but physical as well and we have little problem believing Brando in his role.

It also struck me that in her final moments Blanche feels hauntingly reminiscent of Norma Desmond in Sunset Blvd only a year prior. But her delusions are far more pitiful because she never was anything and yet she still tries to cling to this sense of pride in her upbringing and the looks that once were. She constantly needs the affirmation and adulation of others to reassure her in her fears and frailties. Always putting on a pretense — a face to get by — but she’s the only one she’s able to deceive in the end. It’s one of the preeminent tragedies of the 20th century and its actors guide it into transcendent territory.

4.5/5 Stars

Review: The Godfather (1972)

godfather1That moment when the undertaker is first seen pleading for justice and the camera slowly pulls closer, it’s so slight we hardly even notice it, but we hear his bitter monologue about America and his disfigured daughter. A head appears in the frame and we get our first vision of the now iconic Don Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando as masterful as ever). It’s a brilliant little scene that introduces us to the character this whole narrative revolves around, and it really is an important point to enter his story, on the wedding day of his daughter.

But it’s not just this opening scene that’s of note. In the sprawling expanse of this film that goes from New York, to Hollywood, to Las Vegas, and even back to the old country in Sicily, there is so much to be taken in. A gruff studio head faces the wrath of Corleone when he gets a present in bed, and he learns never to cross the Godfather again. There’s the moment where Vito first utters the words, “Make him an offer he can’t refuse” and then it is mirrored by his son Michael later on.

godfather2You have the quip from the tubby Clemenza after they pull one of the many hits and then very business-like they leave the gun, but take the ever-important cannoli. There’s the turning point where Michael the war hero faces off against crooked cop McCluskey  (Sterling Hayden) and the opportunistic heroin dealer Solozzo because he wants revenge for the shot they took at his father. There’s the striking juxtaposition when Michael takes part in the dedication of his god-child knowing full well what is happening to the bosses all across town. Finally, we once more peer into the inner office now with Michael at the helm, and the door closes as a concerned Kay looks on at what her husband has become.

But not many people need to be told what their favorite scenes from The Godfather are, and they could probably rattle them off while giving color commentary. Aside from just being great scenes, however, these moments tie together a major theme that pervades this entire epic narrative. Because really, when you break it all down, with all the bloodshed, all the business, and everything else this film encompasses, it’s really about family. It becomes such an interesting paradigm, how Family can be sacred, held in such high regard, and yet violence is at times necessary and it’s also seen as a part of life. The two things are so interconnected and yet somehow they still can occupy two different spheres. Wives, children, etc. are left out of the fray. But when it comes down to business, men like Don Corleone will do what they have to do. After all, they are the men of the family and with that comes responsibility and a need to be stoic and strong. Never lose your temper, never show weakness, never say what you’re thinking, and always make them an offer they can’t refuse.

Vito Corleone played so famously by Marlon Brando is the epitome of The Godfather. A 40-year-old man was made to look decades older, he was given a distinctive mouth guard, and the rest is a giant simply delivering his lines with the nuanced — almost gasping delivery — that he was so well known for. He is in many ways the center point as the patriarch of this great family and the head of their business. Although his role does change as the circumstances change, he is a man of incredible influence with a great many friends, allies, as well as a few enemies. In other words, he’s the man with judges and politicians in his pocket, but it doesn’t come without a cost.

Sonny (James Caan) is the eldest son who is first in line to take over the role as head of the family. But although Sonny is a tough guy, his fiery temper is his downfall. He doesn’t know when to keep his mouth shut, and he lets his anger get the best of him. It doesn’t bode well in a business like his.

Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall) is another interesting addition to the family, because he’s not really one of them at all, but Vito took him off the street and he’s rather like a son, becoming a trusted member of Corleone’s inner circle. He helps carry out business and represents the Don when it comes to legal issues. He’s a good man to have around, but it also makes for an interesting dynamic with Sonny and even Michael.

Fredo (John Cazale) is the one brother who is lost in the shuffle, and he’s most certainly the weakest. All he’s good for is living it up and getting drunk so the family sends him to Las Vegas to stay out of trouble. He is unfit to be head of the family, because he simply has no guts and although his father cares about him, he would never trust him with the business.

Michagodfather3el (Al Pacino) comes back a war-hero and with a girlfriend in Kay (Dianne Keaton) who has no understanding of his culture or his people. In fact, the family wants to keep Michael as far from the fray of the family business as possible to protect him. The only possible role he might play is something unimportant so there’s no chance of him getting hurt. But while Don Vito is the focal point at first, The Godfather really evolves into the evolution of Michael from beginning to end. He starts out as an idealistic veteran so far removed from corruption. But the turn of events that deeply affect his family cause him to step into a different role, and he changes as a result. He is a far cry from the man we met during the wedding because now his almost subservient nature has been replaced by a cold-blooded dominance that is personified through his eyes. They’re like to icy black holes that can stare right through you, and they do.

The cinematography of Gordon Willis is obviously superb and generally popularized the golden tinge of The Godfather that gives it a classy and generally nostalgic touch of the 1940s. It makes locales like the open air wedding, Don Vito’s inner office, or even a cathedral all that more atmospheric. On his part, the score of Nino Rota manages to be hauntingly beautiful at one moment and even upbeat when necessary.

What more is there to say but that The Godfather is cinema at its purest and transcendent in its scope. There are few films that carry such magnitude in the vast annals of film history.

5/5 Stars

Review: Rocky (1976)

rocky2The original installment of the popular franchise, Rocky was the pinnacle, and despite innumerable remakes, it still has never been eclipsed.  World Champion heavyweight Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) even outlines why Rocky is, in fact, so popular. There’s nothing more American than an underdog story. A bum, an Italian Stallion, duking it out with the big boys and getting a shot to prove himself. From Creed’s point of view it’s all part of the act, a fine publicity stunt to bring in the public, but the film Rocky works on a similar principle. Most people relate to Rocky (Sylvester Stallone), and maybe at the very least, they can find it within themselves to root for his character even if he’s different then them. The beauty of this film is that Stallone and his creation were unknowns. They were nobodies. By the time all the sequels came out he certainly had garnered a following, but some of the intrigue of this whole narrative was lost in the process. He no longer felt like a long shot.

Furthermore, this film could have easily been a run-of-the-mill boxing movie. We’ve seen acclaimed performances in them before from people like Brando or even Kirk Douglas and John Garfield. But the character of Rocky makes all the difference, allowing the old standard to work once more. He’s a bum like most of the film boxers we ever became acquainted with, and he’s a little short in the brains department, but perhaps without even knowing it he good-naturedly embodies the spirit of his native Philadelphia. We cannot understand what he grunts half the time, but his actions reflect “The City of Brotherly Love.”

rocky1He cares about others on a level that some people don’t dare, and it even creeps into his work as an enforcer when his boxing prospects aren’t good. He doesn’t like being hurt or made fun off, but at his core, he’s a gentle spirit. He can’t bring himself to break a man’s fingers, he wants the kids to get off the streets and uphold their reputations. Above, all he constantly cracks jokes to the younger sister of his best friend Paulie (Burt Young). Her own brother won’t give Adrian (Talia Shire) the time of day, but despite her timidity, Rocky pops in on her everyday holding one-sided conversations at the pet shop. It doesn’t feel like simple common courtesy. He really likes her and grows to care about her. So really if this movie was just about boxing it would probably have faded away with so many other like-minded movies.

In the narrative, Rocky goes through all the hoops and finally reconciles with veteran trainer Micky Goldmill (Burgess Meredith), who looks to live vicariously through Balboa. He also deals with Paulie, who is prone to drinking which leads to volatile outbursts. And he even grapples with the media attention that comes courtesy of a bout with Creed. The montage of his training has become a thing of legend, hands outstretched with Bill Conti’s “Gonna Fly Now” ringing out over the steps below him.

Then there’s the showdown that the whole film culminates to and it’s nothing unusual, nothing we wouldn’t expect, but that’s the beauty of it because we want it anyway. We finally see everything on the line. Everything that Rocky has been working for is either to be realized or dashed to pieces. Well, the ending is a bit of a cop out, but you need some way to start the next sequel, right? This storyline is simple, almost naive in a way, but sometimes films like that are enjoyable and necessary. Every once and awhile we need a good underdog story to lift our spirits.

Sylvester Stallone burst onto the scene in lovable fashion and just like the film itself, I’m not sure he ever topped his original characterization of Rocky. He might be a broken coconut upstairs, but he certainly has a lot of heart. Humor me for just one moment because I have to say it at least once, “Yo Adrian!”

4.5/5 Stars