No Way Out (1987)

No_Way_Out_(1987_film)_posterIn the 1970s political paranoia involved issues in the realm of Watergate. Government conspiracy and that type of thing perfectly embodied by some of Alan Pakula’s best films. But it’s important to realize in order to better understand this particular thriller, the 1980s were a decade fraught with fears of Soviet infiltration compromising our national security. The Cold War was still a part of the public consciousness even after being a part of life for such a long time already. So No Way Out has a bit of Pakula’s apprehension in government and maybe even a bit of the showmanship of Psycho with some truly jarring twists.

The conflict is surprisingly close and even if it involves the vast bureaucracy of the Pentagon and various other arms of government, Roger Donalson’s film only takes great interest in maybe three or four characters really.

From early on its evident that Kevin Costner is our everyman and the person who we will be investing our time in for the rest of the film. It’s a star-making performance to add to a string of classics including the Untouchables, Bull Durham, Field of Dreams, and Dances with Wolves.

The always capable Gene Hackman takes on the role of Secretary of Defense and his ultra-loyal right-hand man Will Patton goes to great lengths to protect his superior. They are key to the storyline as is Lt. Commander Tom Farrell’s girl Susan Atwell (Sean Young) who also moonlights as the Secretary’s mistress. Her character is lively and a crucial player but over time it becomes evident that above all else she’s used to serve the plot and ratchet up the tension.

Already you can begin to see the complications and their ensuing implications. But that is only the beginning of No Way Out because in its latter half it drops off the deep end with a seismic shift that shakes up everything we knew before about this world.

It’s in these moments that I had the sneaking suspicion that I’d seen this before somewhere and it’s easy to see the striking resemblance to the 1940s noir The Big Clock. On further examination, the two stories do share some of the same plot points from Kenneth Fearing’s novel but this is certainly a re-imagining meant for the 1980s transposed to a politically charged arena.

Once more we have the authorities looking for a phantom man but the said man seems to be the only one who knows he is innocent. Off such a foundation No Way Out builds a pulse-pounding narrative that at times feels utterly absurd but it also tapped into the fears of that age and even this one that our highest modes of government are being undermined by our enemies. The Big Clock boasted a more idiosyncratic and colorful script but No Way Out certainly works well as a highly underrated thriller.

My initial assumption would have been that Hackman would have played a bigger role and potentially had a shot of pulling the spotlight away from Costner but our lead remains our lead to the very end, dashing in a uniform and incredibly fearless when it comes to defying authority.

If nothing else it leads to a vacuous car chase that ends up on foot in a Subway station. Hackman and Fernando Rey did a better job of it in The French Connection but that does not take away an ounce of the enjoyment. Because whether you’re ultimately a fan of them or not, No Way Out does have some monumental twists that will either leave you scratching your heads incredulously or cause you to fly off the handle in indignance.  If you crave a good old-fashioned political thriller 80s-style No Way Out is worth it.

3.5/5 Stars

Review: Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)

James_Stewart_in_Mr._Smith_Goes_to_Washington_trailer_cropThe opening credits roll and recognition comes with each name that pops on the screen. Jean Arthur, James Stewart, Claude Rains, Edward Arnold, Guy Kibbee, Thomas Mitchell, Eugene Palette, Beulah Bondi, H.B. Warner, Harry Carey, Porter Hall, Charles Lane, William Demarest, Jack Carson, and of course, Frank Capra himself.

We are met with the ubiquitous visage of Charles Lane calling in a big scoop on the telephone. A senator has died suddenly. The likes of Porter Hall and H.B. Warner fill the Senate Chamber presided over by a wryly comic VP, Harry Carey. Corruption is personified by the flabby pair of Edward Arnold and Eugene Palette while Claude Rains embodies the tortured political journeyman. The eminent members of the press include not only Lane but the often swacked Thomas Mitchell and a particularly cheeky Jack Carson.

To some people, these are just names much like any other but to others of us, linked together and placed in one film, these figures elicit immense significance and simultaneously help to make Mr. Smith Goes to Washington one of the most satisfying creations of Hollywood’s Golden Age from arguably “The Greatest Year in Cinematic History.”  The acting from the biggest to the smallest role is a sheer joy to observe as is Capra’s candid approach to the material.

As someone with a deep affection for film’s continued impact, it gives me great pleasure that stories such as Mr. Smith exist on the silver screen if only for the simple fact that they continually renew my belief in humanity, whatever that means. Because it’s an admittedly broad, sweeping statement to make but then again that’s what Frank Capra was always phenomenally skilled at doing. He could take feelings, emotions, beliefs, and ideals synthesizing them into the perfect cultural concoctions commonly known as moving pictures.

But his pictures always maintained an unfaltering optimism notably in the face of all sorts of trials and tribulations. He never disregarded the corruption dwelling in his stories–it was always there–in this case personified by the stifling political machine of Jim Taylor gorging itself off the lives of the weak and stupid.

The key is that his narratives always rise above the graft and corruption. They latch onto the common everyday decency, looking out for the other guy, and in some small way uphold the great commandment to love thy neighbor.

Politics have never been my forte. Like many others, I’m easily disillusioned by “politics” as this becomes a dirty word full of arrogance, partisanship, and scandal among other issues. It seems like the founding principles that laid the groundwork for this entire democracy often get buried under pomp & circumstance or even worse personal ambitions.

Although this film was shot over 75 years ago everyone who’s been around the block lives as if that’s the case then too and so they’re not all that different from today at least where it matters. Cynicism is a hard thing to crack when it runs through the fabric of society from the politicians, to the newspapers, all the way down to the general public. It’s not hard to understand why. Still, the genuine qualities of a man like Jefferson Smith can act as a bit of an antidote. He as a character himself might be a bit of an ideal, yes, but I’d like to have enough faith to believe that people with a little bit of Jefferson Smith might still live today.

Common, everyday people who nevertheless are capable of extraordinary things like standing up for what’s right when they know that no one else will or when they know all that waits for them at the end of the tunnel is disgrace. But the promise of what is beyond the tunnel is enough. That is true integrity to be able to do that and those are the causes worth cheering for when David must fight Goliath and still he somehow manages to overcome. That’s the chord Mr. Smith strikes with me. thanks in part to Capra’s vision but also Stewart’s impassioned embodiment of those same ideals.  He has a knack for compelling performances to be sure.

Time and time again James Stewart pulls me in. His career is one of the most iconic in any decade, any era no questions asked. There are so many extraordinary films within that context perhaps many that are technically or artistically superior to Mr. Smith by some  estimations, but he was never more candid or disarming than those final moments in the senate chambers as he fights for his life — clinging to the ideals that he’s been such a stalwart proponent for even as his naivete has been mercilessly stripped away from him.

In the opening moments, his eyes carried that glow of honest to goodness optimism, his posture gangly and unsure represented all that is genuine in man. Now watching those same ideals and heroes come back to perniciously attack him, he presides with almost reckless abandon. Is he out of his mind? At times, it seems so, but as he wearies, his hair becomes more disheveled, and his vocal chords have only a few rasps left he still fights the good fight. There’s an earnest zeal to him that’s positively palpable.

As our stand-in, Saunders (Jean Arthur) first writes him off as a first class phony or at the very least a political stooge ready to do another man’s bidding but she does not know Jefferson Smith though she does grow to love him. And Arthur’s performance truly is a masterful one because without her Smith would hardly be the same figure. She brings out his naivete by sheer juxtaposition but she also puts the fight back into him because he brought a change over her that in turn rallies him to keep on pushing. They’ve got a bit of a mutually symbiotic relationship going on in the best way possible. You might call it love.

Capra repeatedly underlines Smith’s honesty and genuine nature not only through numerous rather simplistic montages of Capitol Hill and the surrounding national monuments but in the very way his character carries himself around others. He never assumes a position of superiority. He’s always humble. He sees the inherent need to raise up young people well so that they might progress to become the leaders of tomorrow with a great deal to offer our world. He fumbles with his hat in the presence of pretty girls and holds his idols in the highest esteem. It’s all there on Stewart’s face and in his actions. We too comprehend the solemnity and the gravity that he senses in the office of the Senate.

While this was not Jimmy Stewart’s debut and it was only at the beginning of a shining career as has already been noted, it was in these moments that the cinematic world fell in love with him. He can’t be licked and for good reason. He was never one to give up on lost causes just like his father before him.

I guess this is just another lost cause, Mr. Paine. All you people don’t know about lost causes. Mr. Paine does. He said once they were the only causes worth fighting for, and he fought for them once, for the only reason any man ever fights for them: Because of one plain simple rule: Love thy neighbor. ~ James Stewart as Jefferson Smith

5/5 Stars

The Devil and Miss Jones (1941)

the-devil-and-ms-jones-1Its title suggests that this film might be something like Lubitsch’s Heaven can Wait but The Devil and Miss Jones could easily hold the title as the original version of  Undercover Boss. Although its main function is on the romantic and comic planes, it also has a bit of a social message behind it that signals for change.

Setting the stage, the wonderfully memorable Charles Coburn is none other than the 6th richest man in the world and he is also a hopelessly cranky curmudgeon. A comic Mr. Potter if you will. He’s also a finicky eater only indulging in graham crackers and constantly calling upon his longsuffering servant (S.Z. Sakall). He’s always got something to gripe about.

At the moment, the workers at the department store franchise he holds ownership of are decrying his policies and the benefits he gives workers. They’re pretty bad but he really doesn’t care. All he cares about is that his name is being slandered and he’s looking to hire a detective to find the conspirators. However, not finding a suitable candidate, he resolves to join the floor staff in the shoe department himself so he can act as a mole and undermine any plans they have against him. He’ll beat them out his own game. He’s “a real Benedict Arnold in Sheep’s Clothing” as they say.

Soon he is befriended by the kindly Ms. Ellis who swears by her tuna fish popovers and it takes a moment but he is disarmed by her generosity. The plucky Ms. Mary Jones (Jean Arthur) also takes him under her wing in a way, looking out for him amidst the cruel world of customer service. He isn’t much good at it anyway — selling slippers that is. Edmund Gwenn in a rather subdued role as the snooty store manager tells him as much.

And it’s Mary who unwittingly introduces him to the inner workings of all things store-related. Including the fact that her beau is the infamous Joe O’Brien (Robert Cummings) a recently fired store employee who is working his hardest to rage against the accepted order by organizing a labor union to protect his fellow working class friends.

But it’s not all serious, hardly. Among other things, the foursome takes a lively day trip. One can only imagine Coney Island or some such hot spot with crowded beaches that look more like sardine tins and bustling avenues with kids running hither and thither. In these moments it becomes obvious that there’s a bit of a comical culture war being waged, perfectly summated by the moment some of his new colleagues dilute his fine wine with soda pop to kill the peculiar taste. And despite, their simple ways, they grow on Mr. Merrick, while at the same time his naivete about real life, gains their sympathy. He seems fairly helpless without them. A rambunctious trip to the police station ensues because he gets lost like a little kid.

Of course, there’s the expected turn of events. It must happen. Mr. Merrick is slowly becoming redeemed, falling for Ms. Ellis and gaining the trust of both Mary and Joe. But Mary happens across something that puts everything in jeopardy. And it could be melodramatic but Arthur knows how to adeptly play the comedy even in these moments. Most notably, when she’s summing up the courage to clock her deceptive colleague over the head with a hay maker courtesy of the season’s latest model of footwear.

The final crusade for unionization leads to utter bedlam with the higher ups and it has a trickle-down effect on everyone else. Mary and Joe lead the charge emphatically but with this inside look at the corrupt inner workings of his leadership, Mr. Merrick is aghast and willfully joins the rebellion. It’s comic absurdity and all the main players do the film justice making their happy ending all the more deserved. Sam Wood might not be noted as a director of raging comedies (true, he worked with the Marx Brothers) but he does well enough with The Devil and Ms. Jones to make it a delightful trifle even now. Thanks be that Jean Arthur and Charles Coburn were paired once more in More the Merrier. They’re gold together.

4/5 Stars

The Glass Key (1942)

the-glass-key-1942With Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon making a splash just the year before and giving a big leg up to its star Humphrey Bogart as well as its director John Huston, it’s no surprise that another such film would be in the works to capitalize on the success. This time it was based on Hammett’s novel The Glass Key and it would actually be a remake of a previous film from the 30s starring George Raft.

But instead, we had Alan Ladd in the lead fresh off a career-making performance the year before. True, Ladd’s no Bogart and the forgotten Stuart Heisler is hardly the caliber of Huston, and still, the film is somehow entertaining in its own way. It channels the political corruption of Force of Evil with a bit of the unfathomable plot and mile-long laundry list of characters rather like The Big Sleep. And once more like any comparison with the Maltese Falcon, it hardly holds a candle to these other films but it’s not trying to be overly smart. It never makes an attempt at commentary or some deep philosophical character study but it does ladle out some unabashed noir entertainment.

There’s the pairing of Ladd and Veronica Lake once more to capitalize on their breakout success in This Gun for Hire. Noir regular Brian Donlevy stars alongside them playing a tough guy and political boss named Paul Madvig. His right-hand man Ed Beaumont (Ladd) stands stalwart by his side until Madwig gets caught up in politics as well a murder accusation. By day he tries to win the hand of the pretty daughter (Lake) of an aspiring governor while at night he looks to run out the towns gangsters namely one Nick Varna. As one might expect murder, corruption and familial turmoil all become integral plot points

Once more Ladd shows his aptitude for playing “leading roles” that still somehow allow him to stand on equal footing beside other stars. His most prominent performance as the gunslinger Shane is a fine example because although he is the title character, still somehow he manages to walk in the periphery and he does so with a quiet confidence. Similarly, in This Gun for Hire and The Glass Key, there is a cool curtness to his demeanor that he pulls off well. It allows him to be the star without really seeming like it. That’s the quality he’s able to cast and Lake works well to balance him out. Donlevy gives a surprisingly spirited performance but he’s not a magnetic star. If anyone, this is Ladd’s film with Lake too.

As we would expect with any decently entertaining noir thriller, the rest of the film is filled out with quite the menagerie of characters the most memorable of those being William Bendix as a rough and tumble henchman. He and Ladd have it out in a couple of scenes and in real life, they would become lifelong friends. The way they beat each other up though it’s sometimes hard to tell.

3.5/5 Stars

All the President’s Men (1976)

allthepresidentsmen1You couldn’t hope to come up with a better story than this. Pure movie fodder if there ever was and the most astounding thing is that it was essentially fact — spawned from a William Goldman script tirelessly culled from testimonials and the eponymous source material. All the President’s Men opens at the Watergate Hotel, where the most cataclysmic scandal of all time begins to split at the seams.

And Bob Woodward (Robert Redford) joined by Carl Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman) were right there ready to pursue the story when nobody else wanted to touch it. The Washington Post went out on a limb when no other paper would. Because if we look at the historical climate, such an event seemed absolutely ludicrous. Richard M. Nixon was the incumbent president. Detente had led to cooled tensions with the Soviets. And Democratic nominee George McGovern looked to be on a self-destructive path.

But the facts remained that these “burglars” had ties to the Republican Party and potentially the White House. It was tasked to Woodward and Bernstein to figure out how far up the trail led. And to their credit the old vets took stock in them — men made compelling by a trio of indelible character actors Martin Balsam, Jack Warden, and Jason Robards.

Woodward begins hitting the phones covering his notepad with shorthand and chicken scratch, a web of names and numbers. With every phone call, it feels like they’re stabbing in the dark, but the facts just don’t line up and their systematic gathering of leads churns up some interesting discoveries. Names like Howard Hunt, Charles Colson, Dardis, Kenneth H. Dahlberg all become pieces in this patchwork quilt of conspiracy. The credo of the film becoming the enigmatic Deep Throat’s advice to “Follow the money” and so they begin canvassing the streets encountering a lot of closed doors, in both the literal and metaphorical sense.

allthepresidentsmen3But it only takes a few breakthroughs to make the story stick. The first comes from a reticent bookkeeper (Jane Alexander) and like so many others she’s conflicted, but she’s finally willing to divulge a few valuable pieces of information. And as cryptic as everything is, Woodward and Bernstein use their investigative chops to pick up the pieces.

Treasurer Hugh Sloan (Stephen Collins) stepped down from his post in the committee to re-elect the president based on his conscience, and his disclosures help the pair connect hundreds of thousands of dollars to the second most powerful man in the nation, John Mitchell. That’s the kicker.

It’s hard to forget the political intrigue the first time you see the film. What I didn’t remember was just how open-ended the story feels even with the final epilogue transcribed on the typewriter. The resolution that we expect is not given to us and there’s something innately powerful in that choice.

allthepresidentsmen4Gordon Willis’s work behind the camera adds a great amount of depth to crucial scenes most notably when Woodward enters his fateful phone conversation with Kenneth H. Dahlberg. All he’s doing is talking on the telephone, but in a shot rather like an inverse of his famed Godfather opening, Willis uses one long zoom shot — slow and methodical — to highlight the build-up of the sequence. It’s hardly noticeable, but it only helps to heighten the impact.

Furthermore, some dizzying aerial shots floating over the D.C. skyline are paired with Redford and Hoffman’s voice-over as they are canvassing the streets to convey the type of paranoia that we would expect from a Pakula film. Because, much like the Parallax View before it, All the President’s Men holds a wariness towards government, and rightfully so. However, there is a subtext to this story that can easily go unnoticed.

The name Charles Colson is thrown around several times as a special counselor to the president, and Colson like many of his compatriots served a prison sentence. That’s not altogether extraordinary. It’s the fact that Chuck Colson would become a true champion of prison reform in his subsequent years as a born-again Christian, who was completely transformed by his experience in incarceration. And he did something about it starting Prison Fellowship, now present in over 120 countries worldwide.

It reflects something about our nation. When the most corrupt and power-hungry from the highest echelons of society are brought low, there’s still hope for redemption. Yes, our country was forever scarred by the memory of Watergate, but one of the president’s men turned that dark blot into something worth rooting for. It’s exactly the type of ending we want.

4.5/5 Stars

The Candidate (1972)

CandidateposterTwo hallmarks of the political film genre are Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and All the President’s Men. The latter starred The Candidate’s lead, Robert Redford. However, in this case, the candidate, Billy McKay, is perhaps a more tempered version of Jefferson Smith. He’s a young lawyer, good looking and passionate about justice and doing right by the people.

But this is not a film about a monumental struggle between good versus evil. There are no blatant moments of scandal or obvious skeletons lurking in the closets (although there’s the suggestion that McKay has a slight fling). Still, both men, both the Democrat and the Republican seem like generally amiable individuals — not venomous monsters. If you were with them around a dinner table, no matter your political bent, it would probably be easy to strike up a conversation. But both men, the incumbent, Crocker Jarmon, and the young challenger are playing this game called politics to win the state of California. There’s no doubt about it.

It’s fascinating that the film was actually penned by the real-life speechwriter of Senator Eugene J McCarthy, Jeremy Larner, so you get a sense that there is inherently some truth to the backroom conversations going on between campaign managers, newscasters, and the Senate hopeful. There’s an ethos being elicited and it helps that The Candidate gives off the aura of documentary more often than film.

But what we do see, is the progression of a man. McKay begins resolutely in his ambitions. He’s not at all a politician and he was not planning to become one until he is called upon by a veteran campaign manager. Marvin Lucas (Peter Boyle) thinks the lawyer has the pedigree (his father was a governor) and the genuine charm to win over votes. And finally, Bill agrees to it all as long as he gets to say what he wants. But as things continue to evolve, this beast that is the political machine begins to churn rather insidiously.

There’s not some dramatic moment of epiphany but there is a sense that McKay has started to allow himself to be sucked into this political popularity contest. His advisors are constantly setting up their next moves, putting together press junkets and public appearances to bring their candidate before the people. Meanwhile, his wife (Karen Carlson) is trying to support his cause and his famous father (Melvyn Douglas) eventually looks to get in on the publicity as well. And McKay is certainly candid and likable but he also soon learns what is expected of him. His answers become vague, he toes the line closer and ladles out the type of rhetoric the masses want to hear. The sad thing is that it’s this strategy which begins helping in the polls. Not astronomically but it’s a systematic shift giving him a good chance to win the contest.

But by election night, the votes are being cast, both sides are frantically preparing and Bill realizes he might be on the edge of a precipice he never foresaw. He’s being hoisted up as a champion of the people and yet he realizes he doesn’t want to be there but by this point, it’s too late. He can’t turn back. He can’t reimagine himself because he played the game already.

It’s hard to decipher where the film goes from here — what truly is next? His staff is happy. His wife is happy. His father is happy. Everyone else seems happy too. But the candidate is left to get whisked away by a mob — still wearing a glum face of bewilderment. In some ways, he’s a Jefferson Smith for the modern era. Duped by a system that he thought he could reform, only to find out he sold out. It’s somehow both comic and cynical — in a rather unnerving way — striking a tender nerve. Imagine if you have an election as volatile as the latest one. This film is no less true even over 40 years later. In some ways, everything still functions like a nefarious game. The question is, who is the joke really on?

3.5/5 Stars

Advise & Consent (1962)

Advise-&-Consent-(1)This is an Otto Preminger film about politics. That should send off fireworks because such a divisive topic is only going to get more controversial with a man such as Preminger at the helm — a man known for his various run-ins with the Production Code. All that can be said is that he didn’t disappoint this time either.

Who knew a film revolving around the seemingly simple task of passing the president’s nomination for the new Secretary of State could be so complicated and lead to such turmoil?  True, the nomination of Robert Leffingwell (Henry Fonda) might be controversial, but there’s a lot more to it than we initially conceived.

There’s the obvious political angle on Capitol Hill involving a Subcommittee chaired by majority member Brigham Anderson from Utah (Don Murray). Meanwhile, the majority leader is working behind the scenes to gather the necessary support, since he is loyal to the president, despite his share of doubts. However, old curmudgeon Seeb  Cooley (Charles Laughton) is prepared to unleash all his fury and political wiles to stop the nomination in his tracks. Soon it seems to be working well enough.

But that ends up being hardly the half of it. There’s perjury, the aging president (Franchot Tone) is biding his time, and Brig begins to receive threatening telephone calls at home. At first, they seem wholly unsubstantiated, but it seems there really are some dirty little secrets to be drudged up on him. As one who is faithfully looking to uphold their position and do a credible job accessing Leffingwell, it looks like someone really doesn’t want him to reject the nomination. Brig doesn’t end up having time to find out.

And so the day of decision in the Senate Chamber turns out to be an eventful one, bringing old rivals together and resolving the issue of the nomination once and for all. It seems that so much legwork was done all for naught, but that’s politics for you.

Advise & Consent is a fascinating representation of the political system because it involves so many interconnected, intertwining conversations and interactions going on behind the scenes. There’s the pomp & circumstance, the traditions that go with these posts, but it’s actually all the side conversations behind closed doors, in private, where the real work seems to get done. Preminger uses extended shot length to allow his audience the luxury of watching events unfold methodically while using a fluid camera to keep them from being completely stuffy. And his laundry list of stars great and small lend a depth to Capitol Hill.

Although Henry Fonda might be the headliner the film’s focus is wonderfully distributed by the well-balanced cast of players. In fact, you can easily make the case that this is Walter Pidgeon and Don Murray’s film with the decrepit-looking Charles Laughton (who unfortunately passed away months later) falling close behind. Murray is the principled tragic family man, while Pidgeon is wonderfully cast as a veteran white knight of politics. Laughton while beleaguered, still manages a wry performance worthy of his final screen appearance.

Preminger also includes his longtime collaborator Gene Tierney in her return to the screen in a small but crucial role and Lew Ayres as the benevolent V.P. Harley Hudson. Even Peter Lawford is involved in a role supposedly inspired by his real-life brother-in-law incumbent president, John F. Kennedy. Some notable inclusions in the cast include the formerly blacklisted actors Will Geer and Burgess Meredith. One notable part that didn’t end up being cast was Martin Luther King Jr. in a cameo as a Senator from Georgia. Although it truly would have been a lightning rod of a political statement, in reality, Preminger didn’t end up needing it. His film already used words and covered topics hardly touched previously thanks to the watchful eyes of the Production Code. It didn’t need more dynamite.

While Advise & Consent may not be the greatest of political films or the most stirring, it still certainly has its share of riveting moments. Most anything from Otto Preminger is bound to be interesting and this one is no different.

4/5 Stars

Strike (1925)

Strike_(film)Strike deserves a place alongside Battleship Potemkin and Man with a Movie Camera in a trifecta of films from the Soviet Union that while reflecting political agendas most certainly influenced film as a medium. Honestly, it’s a film that’s hard to pin down exactly. It’s the debut of a man named Sergei Eisenstein, who at this point had very little experience, although he would gain renown in later years. It’s a film to glorify the state that commissioned it by depicting events before the state was ever founded. Is this a comedy, solely propaganda, or a social drama?

It’s a film commenced with a quote by Lenin and broken into sections like, Reason to strike, The strike draws out, and Extermination. And yet words or plot summary is not enough, especially with a filmmaker like Eisenstein. How do you describe the impact of a man hanging himself? How do you explain the hordes of people fleeing the police? Wives and children suffering without food and provision, because the men of the house are striking. It’s a mass protest certainly, but when you break it down to the individuals, that’s where you begin to see the real pain.

Maybe I’m forgetting something, but I’d almost rather watch Strike than Eisenstein’s undisputed masterpiece Battleship Potemkin. In some ways, I found this strike and uprising more exciting and vibrant. In itself, the Odessa Steps is an amazing sequence and literally textbook stuff, but this film feels more fun thanks to a lighter initial tone. The common men are throwing the baddies out of town. There are spies with the greatest code names, pocket watch cameras, and antagonists who are great big caricatures.

Instead of feet on steps, it’s hands with fire hoses that become the focal point of the retribution. By the end, it feels like we’ve been manipulated by a wicked sense of humor. We have slowly been descending deeper and deeper into chaos. People running. A cow getting slaughtered. Carnage. Eisenstein effectively plays with the emotions and it’s not without impact. Although the last chapter is somber, Strike feels very accessible for a silent film. There’s a lot to be seen here and like Man with a Movie Camera or Battleship Potemkin, it’s much more than propaganda. I’m not communist and the ways of Lenin and Stalin have generally gone out of fashion as far as I know. However, the work of Eisenstein has remained pertinent, and his inventiveness and investment in the film-making craft are immense. At a basic level, he knows how to elicit emotions persuasively and that is a powerful aspect of film.

4/5 Stars

No Way Out (1950)

220px-No_Way_Out_(1950_film)_posterI had a preconceived notion that No Way Out might be the kind of social drama that was groundbreaking for its day and by today’s standards looks mundane and quaint. 65 years have passed and this film from Joseph L. Mankiewicz still packs a wallop, believe it or not. We are blessed with the first major role for screen icon Sidney Poitier as young doctor Luther Brooks. His main antagonist is Richard Widmark playing a racist scumbag like he does best, and Linda Darnell also gives a key performance, although her career would soon be on the decline.

The film opens with the young interning doctor — Poitier was only 22 at the time –getting ready for a night shift. His first customers just happen to be Johnny and Ray Biddle, who both got it in the leg after a botched robbery attempt. At first glance, their wounds look superficial, but Luther notices Johnny is disoriented. His diagnosis is a brain tumor so he tries to administer a spinal tap which ends up unsuccessful, partially due to Ray’s constant berating. But Ray has no sympathy; all he knows is that this black doctor has killed his brother. A white doctor could have saved him and all his prejudiced beliefs of blacks are confirmed. At least that’s what he tells himself in his narrow little mind.  Luther even goes to his superior Dr. Wharton (Stephen McNally), and although he cannot be absolutely certain, he maintains confidence in Luther’s competence.

nowayout1Again that bears little importance to Ray and he will not grant them the opportunity to do an autopsy. After all, his mind is already made up. So the next best thing is to track down Johnny’s former wife Edie (Darnell), who has pulled herself out of the gutter which is Beaver Canal and made a modest living for herself. They want her help, and unbeknownst to them, she does go see Ray. You can see it in how they interact with each other. She was Johnny’s wife once, but there was something between them and Ray won’t let her forget it. That’s undoubtedly why she wanted to get away, but Ray brings out the worst in her. Even as they speak, her racist sentiments come bubbling to the surface. It’s in her veins after all. It doesn’t help that unrest is building in the city. A riot is at hand and the slow build-up leading to the imminent rumble is boiling with tension. Mankiewicz does something important here. He shows both perspectives. I cannot help but think some things have not changed a whole lot over the years. Black vs. white. The same racism. The same belligerence. The same lack of understanding.

nowayout2Of course, after that is all done, that still does not wrap things up with Ray. He still has to settle a score with Luther and he uses Edie against her will. They set a trap at the home of Dr. Wharton for the unsuspecting Luther, and this scene has vital importance to the film, not simply because Biddle and Brooks come face to face once more. This is the scene where Edie must make a choice. Really it’s the universal choice. Stand passively by as injustice is being done or take a stand against it.

So you can make your own diagnosis, but this was not a superficial message movie. It hits fairly hard. I was even surprised by how often Ray Biddle lets the N-word fly. It completely fit Widmark’s characterization, but the production codes allowed it. Supposedly the actor apologized profusely after many of his scenes with Poitier, but his performance is nevertheless potent. It’s certainly convicting and we cannot be too quick to find fault with any of these characters because, truth be told, we all have some apathy and narrow-mindedness stuck inside our skulls. No Way Out is a striking reminder of that.

4/5 Stars

Three Days of the Condor (1975)

Three_Days_of_the_Condor_posterIn the wake of Watergate, the 1970s saw the advent of many political thrillers with arguably the granddaddy of them all being All The President’s Men. Three Days of the Condor is another film that finds Robert Redford trying to get to the bottom of a web involving politics and intrigue. However, this film reminds me a great deal of The Parallax View which came out a couple years earlier. Similarly, this film has probably its most startling moments during its opening sequence and slowly unwinds after that into a thriller full of paranoia and uncertainty.

Sidney Pollack’s film kicks into high gear abruptly as all “Condor’s” colleagues at a CIA-backed literature research post are gunned down by unknown professional hit men. Joe Turner (Robert Redford) was literally out to lunch picking up sandwich orders, and he returns to find his colleagues dead. From that point on begins his life of constant fear, because he cannot know who is with him and who is against him. He can trust no one.

While taking a moments respite, Turner notices a patron named Kathy Hale who is about to meet her boyfriend on the slopes, and he follows her and holds her hostage so he can have a place to stay. It’s supposed to be a matter of chance, but I mean, it is Faye Dunaway so it cannot be that random right? No matter, she’s initially deathly afraid of him, and he does not give her any relief holding her at gunpoint and tying her up. They’re both afraid.

But whether it’s some form of Stockholm syndrome or the fact that she actually believes his predicament, Kathy agrees to help him, and they have the obligatory lovemaking session inter-cut with the stark pictures on her wall.

What happens after this is sometimes difficult to track with as Redford’s character begins his search for a government agent named Higgins, avoiding hit men, while trying to understand who is even after him. Why do they want him? He’s just a lowly bookworm with one cockamamie theory about the odd languages a certain thriller has been translated in.

This one idea has got him caught up in something much bigger than he can ever know involving a hired mercenary named Joubert, CIA Deputy of Operations Leonard Atwood, and oil! That’s what it was all about. That’s why 7 people died and Turner can do barely anything about it. After all, who will print his story? Who will believe him? That’s is the country and the era he lives in after all.

Redford gives an admirable performance, and I personally prefer him to Warren Beatty any day. Dunaway walked a weird line between being demure and submissive, while also dishing out some sass every once and a while. It made her character feel uneven in a sense and she came to like Turner rather abruptly. Then again it was Robert Redford.

All in all, this film’s plotting seems utterly ludicrous to me now, and it becomes more and more ambiguous by the end. It feels hardly like a conclusion at all, much like the Parallax View. And much like the other film I can understand how this story could really strike a cord, especially after Watergate, when so much governmental corruption seemed possible. The sky was the limit and so Three Days of the Condor was perhaps not as far-fetched as it initially appeared. That’s a scary thought indeed.

3.5/5 Stars