Transit (2018): Casablanca in The Modern Day

Transit_(2018_film)Ever since the days of his James Cain-infused Jerichow, it’s been apparent German writer-director Christian Petzold is indebted to the written word when it comes to his brand of filmmaking. However, this time around he takes an oddly unnerving stroke of brilliance by setting his usual period piece in a version of the present, or is it a version of the present trapped in the past? Regardless, outside police cars — sounding eerily similar to Gestapo automobiles — rush through the streets while a pair of men have a hushed conference at a bar.

The scenario could nearly be mistaken for a dystopia if it weren’t for the cold hard facts the story was adapted from Anna Seghers eponymous wartime novel from 1944. What drives it forward is this compelling simplicity in the manner Petzold always seems so capable of. It’s part of the reason it’s so easy to be drawn into his films once you’re accustomed to the cadence.

The men bandy about talk of a letter and papers giving the hush-hush feel of a Casablanca, but Transit has the same restraint as Barbara (2012) and the wartime malaise of Phoenix (2014), albeit without the inimitable Nina Hoss. Georg (an unadorned yet haunting Franz Rogowski) is our protagonist, and we surmise soon enough he is on the lam from the authorities. Like many others, he has experienced the unknowable horrors of mechanized oppression.

He lives in a constant state of police-fueled paranoia brought on by the occupation, the details of which are kept purposefully murky. What we note are the resulting factors. The hotels are crammed with displaced folks trying to get out of the country, clinging to the faint wisp of hope in escaping to some far off place: the port of Marsellaise then Mexico or maybe America.

He is one of the displaced even as he’s aided in fleeing by cattle car and has a wounded colleague huddled next to him. It gives rise to the kind of pulse-pounding life or death scenarios reliant on both ingenuity and bouts of good fortune. It’s also perturbing to watch them unfold in the present.

His flight leads him to an abandoned roadside where he’s nevertheless invited to play football (soccer) with a precocious neighborhood kid named Driss. They build an instant rapport and their connections run deeper still, as we soon find out.

Whenever Georg stays within the confines of the city limits, he’s subject to the related police raids casing each room. If you don’t have your papers, you’re unceremoniously dragged away. By now it’s a daily occurrence. What becomes apparent is the rising sense of shame among the onlookers who watch and do nothing. What power do they have in such a world?

Georg lends a reluctant ear to fellow sojourners telling him their stories. Everyone seems weighed down by worries and troubles brought on by the tribulations of the times. They’re surprisingly forthcoming or rather they seem vociferous compared to individuals in Petzold’s previous movies. Although another distinction must be made.

His hero is fairly guarded as are a couple of the other central figures. It is the supporting characters who gladly use them as sounding boards to cast their thoughts on in this restless age. Even the narrator — an uncommon device for Petzold’s brand of restrained observational filmmaking — has his own insights to bring to the events.

The key again is how those central characters carry a bit of this pervasive despondency — this enigmatic nature holding us off but not completely alienating us. On the contrary, we want to know more about them as viewers transfixed by the fateful decisions they make and the encounters that befall them.

To begin with, Georg falls into a bit of luck donning the identity of a deceased writer and with it, the coveted opportunity at transit out of the country. The deceased man’s wife (Paula Beer) is a woman who drifts uncannily through his life throwing him glances as she motors on about her dutiful pursuits. What they are we have no idea. Although, with time, it’s easy enough to imagine.

That’s just it. Petzold is always toying with the arcane both in plot and characters because it’s in the ambiguities where his stories seem to come alive. It could be the first glance of the smartly dressed young woman on the street who touches Georg’s shoulder when the whole rest of the passing world seems not to pay him any heed. He’s invisible. And yet for some inexplicable reason — some cinematic kismet — she reaches out to him.

True, for the majority of the picture, it feels like she spends the movie walking in and out of places to build this air of mystique. Is she more of an object than a person? It’s easy to cry foul if only for the comfort of Petzold’s earlier collaborations with Nina Hoss. A mystifying woman put front and center can still stump us. What’s more, in the final act Marie becomes a living, breathing human being of fears and passions that turn strikingly palpable.

After she lost contact with her husband, she never gave up hope checking the consulate every day for any sign of news. Along the road, she was given a kind turn by an altruistic physician (Godehard Giese), and in a bedeviling world, they looked to one another for some amount of solace.

Their Rick’s Cafe becomes a corner pizzeria. Georg would always eat a Margherita there and find Marie stopping by. Later it becomes a meeting place with Richard — so mundane and typical, and yet it fits the context of the story.

As we find out, noble decisions aren’t so cut and dry here; they’re not capable of making our heart swell in the same romantic manner of Casablanca. We are constantly left questioning. What if the matrimonial ties aren’t so strong and beholden to the Hays Codes? What if Ilsa or Laszlo decided to stay behind at the last minute, making a grand sacrificial act null and void. What if the plane crashed en route? After all, the very thing happened to Glenn Miller over the English channel in 1944…

Speaking of music, it’s been so very long since I’ve seen Phoenix. Aside from the Vertiginous thematic elements and this same lingering sense of malaise, it seems I remember very little. It’s the impression that lasts and one scene — the scene where Nina Hoss sings “Speak Low” to her husband — imbued with so much subtext and bewitching power.

Down the road, years from now, the same lapses might happen with Transit. But I will remember the mood, this very concrete Casablanca-like mentality, and then another song. In a similar manner, the normally delphic Georg has a breach in character and shares the lullaby his mother used to sing to him. Hearing it on the radio brings the memory flooding back.

Or perhaps I will recall the other moment when, impersonating another man, he tells the consulate officer he’s done writing after all he’s seen. He wrote too many essays in school about vacations, holidays, and experiences to totally quash and trivialize everything substantive about those times.

To write about the atrocities he faced would be akin to that same sin. He’s not about to write another school essay. Even as the lines are spoken under an assumed identity, the words once more ring with an underlying resonance to denote a shared world.

The chilling edge of Transit is how it brings these obvious markers of the Holocaust into this out of body representation of our certain present. They feel poles apart until that creeping voice whispers doubts in the back of our minds. This is what I will remember. This is what will stay with me.

4/5 Stars

San Diego, I Love You (1944): Featuring Buster Keaton

12362-san-diego-i-love-you.jpgI came to this movie because it has San Diego in the title: my home away from home for some time. Taking stock of its assets is simple enough. It’s a B-grade film set during the War Years housing crisis. Judging by film output at the time like More The Merrier (1943) and Standing Room Only (1944), it seemed a very popular subject matter. But also crucial to this plot is the invention of a special one-man life raft. All the immediate details are of lesser concern.

It’s all an excuse for the “McCooley Republic” made up of patriarch Phillip (Edward Everett Horton), his eldest daughter Virginia (Louise Albritton), and four young boys, to travel down south toward the border. They pick up and leave behind pop’s monotonous job teaching the classics as a high school teacher in quaint Waterville, CA.

Spurred on by the prodding of his daughter, they look to get Phillip’s piece of ingenuity to the bigwigs in San Diego to see if they can land funding. One never knows what might be beneficial to the war effort (Hedy Lamarr and George Antheil’s Frequency Hopping anyone?).

What a lovely surprise we get not only Everett Everett Horton but also the ever huffy Eric Blore as Nelson the perpetually fired valet who is always left whimpering pitifully. Even “The Great Stone Face” himself turns in an extended cameo as a disgruntled bus driver who decides to break with the daily grind. Buster Keaton may have never reached the same apex of the 1920s, but it is unfair to say the rest of his career was pointless. He has a couple minutes of fun to offer us here driving his bus off-grid along the beach.

These are a few of the true nuggets of this picture, an obvious forerunner to many a run-of-the-mill TV sitcoms a generation later. What set many of those apart were not simply the situations but the casts they were able to wrangle together. Our romantic leads, by most accounts, are forgotten today. Louise Albritton is another perky girl-next-door for wartime audiences like a Betty Hutton (Miracle of Morgan’s Creek), Gale Storm (It Happened on Fifth Ave), or Jeanne Crain (Apartment for Peggy). Likewise, John Hall has a modicum amount of fame playing opposite Maria Montez in a string of exotic extravaganzas.

But the aforementioned veteran characters are enough to whet my appetite well nigh 10 years after their greatest screwball successes. The chance to see some dated footage of San Diego — a la Some Like It Hot (1959) — had me on the edge of my seat but alas, from what can be gleaned, most of the shots are on a studio backlot. Still, there are a few stray mentions of Balboa Park and sailing a raft to Point Loma and some scenes set at the San Diego Zoo. I guess I’ll have to be content with that.

3/5 Stars

Run Silent, Run Deep (1958): A Streamlined Submarine Drama

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Run Silent, Run Deep features what amounts to a cold open, set in the Bungo Straits, near the coast of Japan in 1942. The foreboding sonar-infused score by Franz Waxman suggests this will be a no-nonsense war drama and sure enough, within the first 5 minutes, a submarine commanded by one P.J. Richardson (Clark Gable) has been sunk in its mission to destroy an enemy ship, leading to the capsizing of the entire crew.

As Richardson looks back at his receding enemy, we see the film’s objective right before us. He is bent on revenge. Given the situation, this is not a film so much about survival but returning to finish a job no matter the circumstances, dangers, or counter-orders standing in the way.

After a short leave of action, Richardson talks his way into another command, this time taking over from Jim Bledsoe (Burt Lancaster) who has already formed a close-knit rapport with his men. They don’t look too kindly on a new man taking over and Bledsoe broaches the subject bluntly with his new superior.

Richardson is hardly going to be dissuaded by a minor thorn in his side and his new crew begrudgingly take to the grueling regiment of drills he has them on. No one is looking to make any friends. This is hardly a film about buddy, buddy or camaraderie. There isn’t time. The one thing the commander does instill in them is discipline and well-oiled efficiency. It’s probably the greatest gift he can give them based on the circumstances.

The stakes are obvious as the death trap, Area 7, has led to the loss of four separate Allied subs, including Richardson’s previous command. What the story devolves into is a fairly straightforward WWII drama which is nevertheless riddled with tension as they knowingly enter perilous waters.

It’s true a submarine serves as an impeccable locale because its very form functions in constraining the action and ratcheting up emotions. There is no release valve and all these crewmen are literally submerged underwater for hours at a time. If that isn’t nerve-wracking I’m not sure what else qualifies.

Combine this environment with men who are already in tight quarters only to become more contentious over a major distaste in their commanding officer. It’s easy to envision him as a modern-day Captain Ahab. His white whale is the infamous Japanese Akikaze, Bungo Charlie, that he’s already has a deadly history with. The seafaring setting and power dynamics also hint at the traditions of The Mutiny on The Bounty though the story foregoes this exact demarcation.

While there are few flourishes or subsequent surprises from director Robert Wise’s film, there’s no question in labeling Run Silent, Run Deep an immersive experience, even for such a streamlined endeavor. In fact, that more than anything plays to its advantage. This allows it to be compact actioner extremely aware of its outcomes and not content until its mission has been accomplished. While it does not leave a great deal of leeway in the area of character development, our cast is a varied and compelling ensemble.

Obviously, the central figureheads are Gable and Lancaster, two hard-bitten battlers who are also consequently, far too old to be playing their parts. But this is Hollywood, after all, so it’s easy enough to make allowances when you’re getting top tier talent.

However,  surround them with the likes of Jack Warden, Brad Dexter, Don Rickles (in his film debut), and Lancaster’s long-time collaborator Nick Cravat, and you have something quite engaging.

The key to the success of both the mission and the film is that it ends as quickly as it begins. It gets in and gets out with striking precision, taking little time to rest too long on its laurels. Between the flurry of malfunctioning torpedoes, the barrage of enemy depth charges, and bombs raining from up above, there is plenty of flack to provide antagonistic interference. By the end, it seems a miracle our men get through at all but of course, it’s not without a toll, both physically and mentally.

Because even when you cannot see the enemy in the flesh, the capability to do harm hardly slackens. In some cases, it proves even worse. What is easier to exterminate, an enemy who lacks any type of form or personage or one that is living and breathing? In this regard, Wise’s picture is sterile and impersonal. It’s not so much a flaw as it is a sobering reality.

3.5/5 Stars

Christmas Holiday (1944): A Deanna Durbin and Gene Kelly Noir

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Christmas Holiday begins as a movie we’ve probably seen before countless times. A returning G.I. (Dean Harens) is getting ready for some Christmas leave except our star is as stiff as cardboard and that comes before he gets the sobering news. The girl he was intent on marrying has duped him to go get hitched to another man. Despite the pleading of his happy-go-lucky war buddy, he makes the decision to head out to San Francisco all the same.

Inclement winter weather sets up a dark and stormy detour in New Orleans and fortuitously takes the story into slightly different terrain. Unfortunately, Herman Mankiewicz’s script takes so very long to frame its story, it feels like there is a lot of catching up to do.

Although the picture is directed by quintessential film noir craftsman Robert Siodmak, Christmas Holiday is a weird clashing of discordant elements, namely musical numbers with the chiaroscuro malaise of noir. Irving Berlin’s compositions even make an appearance in the form of “Always” repeated throughout the picture as a bit of a romantic musical cue.

On first glance, such a dreary picture doesn’t become Deanna Durbin. She is a songstress first and apt at romantic comedy. And yet in keeping a broader mind, she isn’t too bad in this one. It seems like the material itself is to her detriment, that and an equally jarring characterization by her leading man. Because if we’re honest, a dark, brooding Gene Kelly almost feels like an oxymoron — especially as he plays a craven murderer named Robert Manette.

Again, if we run the same test and give him the benefit of the doubt, it simply does not take, regardless of the material. He feels out of his element, and it’s nominally okay because we have so many future forays to appreciate him for. Still, it does leave one scratching one’s head. While early in his career, he had already made For Me and My Gal as well as Cover Girl so it’s not like no one knew he could sing and dance.

If we summed up the glut of Christmas Holiday‘s plot, it is a less effective riff off Shadow of a Doubt in the sense that we have an everyday man who also moonlights as a murderer. I suppose most killers are like that, but the dichotomy is made so blatant with Joseph Cotten in the former film and Gene Kelly in this one. Similar to future projects like White Heat or Psycho, there is also a mother complex, albeit far less intriguing.

As much as I love Siodmak to death, it’s hard to champion a rather tepid release like this. Measured criticism once again falls on the script, which spends time setting up a character who is only of peripheral importance. It invests in a romance we already know through flashback ended tragically. Any attempts for tension between mother and daughter-in-law feel essentially dull and uninspired.

There’s no pace or ticking time bomb revealed to keep us fully engaged in these dealings until the last possible moment. This is when Manette is out of prison and returning to his missus, whom he believes has been unfaithful. Then, the expected rush from the fateful confrontation is all but nonexistent. Durbin’s wounded reaction is probably the best part.

Based on a Somerset Maugham story or not, the title Christmas Holiday also feels like a total misnomer. In fact, the entire movie feels like a sidebar conversation to what should have been a different film altogether. Man was not meant to subsist on atmospherics alone. There needs to be some form of compelling narrative or at least interesting ideas to mull over. Christmas Holiday is lacking in this department.

3/5 Stars

Jojo Rabbit (2019): Taika Waititi’s Newest Coming-of-Age Story

Jojo_Rabbit_(2019)_poster.jpgWe must acknowledge the elephant, or rather, the rabbit, in the room. Grappling with the intersection of Nazis and humor has always been a loaded and controversial topic. But usually, it fosters conversation nonetheless so here’s an attempt to provide some meager context.

The Great Dictator (1940) and To Be or Not to Be (1942) are two of the most prescient films to come out of their era, years before we would get the campy buffoonery of Hogan’s Heroes (1965-71) or Mel Brooks’ irreverent breakout The Producers (1968). Even something more squarely dramatic like Roberto Benigni’s Life is Beautiful (1997) is still buoyed by laughs. Understandably, with each of these examples, there have been detractors who have called into question the ways in which they tackle the historical moment given the subject matter.

I am not here to tell anyone they are wrong. There’s also the reality that the issues being wrestled with are still very real, and even after 75 years, in many cases still very raw. All of this must be taken into account.

For instance, I recall the first time I learned about Alfons Heck, trained up from the age of 6 to be a loyal cog in the Nazi propaganda machine. Only years later, did he come to terms with all the lies he and his generation of German youth were being peddled. He subsequently toured the university circuit in the states with Holocaust survivor Helen Waterford denouncing the ills of ideological brainwashing, lest we forget it ever existed.

Or I was reminded of Hans Detlef Sierck (better known as renowned film director Douglas Sirk), who after marrying a Jewish woman, was blocked by his first wife, an ardent Nazi supporter, from seeing their son Klaus. The boy would become a child star in Nazi cinema, although he eventually died in combat in 1944. Sirk never saw him again.

These are stunning reminders of how virulent ideologies can tear lives apart and this is much of what Jojo Rabbit occupies itself with. But the difference is taking the negativity and making it positive. This is a tale about empathy, understanding, anti-hate if you will. If you accept the term leniently, it is a satire, but I tend to see that word coming with a bite or an irony (not unakin to Sirk or Billy Wilder).

However, this story is mostly full of warmth, good-humor, and because this is a Taika Waititi production, wackiness. Mind you, that’s generally a compliment. The opening refrains of “Komm, gib mir deine Hand,” known in the English-speaking free world as “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” equates the nationalistic fervor to Beatlemania, recontextualizing the history but also giving it a raucous vibe. 

Consequently, some people will find Jojo Rabbit at best inane and inconsequential and at worst, offensive — as is the case when anything as sensitive as the Nazis is brought to the fore. In an age of political correctness, it’s a film trampling a danger zone where racial epithets and maledictions leave the tongues of oafish buffoons. One decidedly ironic line curses a “female, Jewish Jesse Owens.”

This is where the movie and Taika Waititi — as an emblematic supporting character — are able to succeed. It sings with a warm benevolence that proves unerringly sweet. Empathizing with those with whom we would do well to connect with and undermining the villains’ remnant of cultural clout.

It starts with our hero Johannes “Jojo” Betzler (Roman Griffin Davis) a kind-hearted young boy. His is a bildungsroman story like we’ve seen time and time again (even from Waititi). Because he is a creature of innocence, despite what the culture leads him to believe about himself. Because the difference is he, like Heck or Sierck, is coming to age in the fanatical regime of the Nazis where he is being trained up to be a good little soldier.

He’s adorably inept and faint of heart like any young lad dealing with the peer pressure around him. As a 10-year-old he still can’t tie his shoelaces nor can he muster up the needed brutality to kill a bunny during the local war games. His only real friend is the rolly polly, bespectacled Yorki. He also has an invisible friend: the imaginary dopey incarnation of Adolf himself, portrayed by Waititi.

In a sense, taking this prominent role on, with his inherent slapstick and humor, allows the director to possess the man and deconstruct him, ridiculing him from within. It’s not elemental but like many of the Nazis portrayed in Hogan’s Heroes, Waititi has some Jewish heritage, further underlying his caricature.

Rebel Wilson is good for a few of her typical bawdy punchlines and Steve Merchant as the creepily skeletal, smiling Gestapo man manages to walk the film’s tightrope of humor and lingering menace quite well. Sam Rockwell is another walking joke waiting to go off, and yet even he is allowed moments of warmth and ultimate redemption.

Scarlett Johannson asserts herself in a maternal role as one of the legitimately decent people in the movie. Whether or not it’s one of her best performances, I’ve never seen her quite like this and that is compliment enough. She reminds us, through her affectionate devotion toward her son, the powerful, if monumental, undertaking parenting can be. How goodness and decency can cover a world of sins. How laughter and yes, even dance, can be a window to some small semblance of humanity.

One is also reminded Waititi is a genuine storyteller because it’s a tenuous line to balance humor with the bleakness, injecting the story with tension and tragedy in equal measures. You half expect the film to skimp on the ruthless nature of Nazism in favor of far easier put-downs. Instead, it searches out hope within the world and less fickle themes, without entirely dismissing reality.

Thomasin Mackenzie (the brilliant actress from Leave No Trace) goes part of the way in making this possible. Because she is the girl in the walls. She’s not a rat. As Jojo comes to realize, she’s a person. A victim certainly, but she’s also got strength and defiance. After all, her people have a history of wrestling with angels. She comes out of the same hardy tradition.

What she brings into the picture is a complexity to upend everything in Jojo’s fanciful mind. What first begins as a horror trope quickly evolves almost reluctantly into mutual understanding. If his relationship with his mother holds such a stake in his life, this curious new friendship is the crutch of the film, containing its message.

In the final moments, life is back to some form of normalcy. They stand out on the streets letting their bodies free for the first time set to David Bowie’s “Helden” (or “Heroes”). Instantly this feels like Perks of Being a Wallflower and yet somehow this kind of association doesn’t feel wrong because I think Waititi worked so hard to not make this just another WWII movie cut out of the same mold.

It has this universal feeling of adolescence while not totally disregarding history and yet it’s free and comfortable enough to pull it out of its context and flair it with colors and touches of humor. The joy is how heart and hope are the final building blocks even beyond the laughter. The key is how it’s never at the true expense of the victims. Somehow it’s more tender than I was ever expecting. It wants to continue the conversation. Whether or not you agree entirely with its methods, it does seem like a noble task to undertake.

3.5/5 Stars

Somewhere in the Night (1946): John Hodiak and Amnesia Noir

Somewhere_in_the_Night_-1946-PosterOf the plethora of returning G.I. films and film noirs, this one reflects their fears most overtly and for this very reason, it might be generally the most forgotten today. That and the assembly of a lower-tier cast. Most of these names have been lost to time.

The one name remaining fairly enduring and bright in the annals of cinema is Joseph L. Mankiewicz who while still early in his career, was carving out a name for himself as both a writer and a director, following a stint producing. Somewhere in the Night is an early showcase for his skills.

He brings us an amnesia plot from the POV of a wounded veteran who has no idea about his own past. The soldier’s wartime injuries made sure of that and while he cannot speak, his mind is alive — an opportune moment for Mankiewicz to call on some illuminating voice-over. If anything it tells us how little this man knows and sometimes that is enough.

George Taylor (John Hodiak) finally returns to New York trying to start afresh and piece his life back together. All he has to go on are a few stray belonging from his former life. Everything, from his previous residence at the Martin Hotel, to a letter, and $5,000 deposited in his bank account, seem to lead to someone named Larry Cravat.

For the audience, we’re up for the mystery but in Taylor’s case, his identity hangs in the very balance of this question. He has to know and so he hits the pavements poking around. Henry Morgan can always be counted on in a bit part, gruffly pointing the direction to a local watering hole, The Cellar.

There a reticent Whit Bissell stands behind the bar. His face suggests he has something to say, but there’s hesitance when Taylor starts peppering him with inquiries. The bar has ears and two thugs lurk nearby. Our man doesn’t wait around to get acquainted, fleeing the scene. Instead, he wanders into the first room that happens to be open, a pretty girl’s dressing room (Nancy Guild).

The meet-cute has been sprung upon us out of necessity. Full disclosure, her singing is alright and she fits the good girl persona, but her piano playing leaves something to be desired. One must also question how easily Nancy falls in love with her deceased best friend’s former beau (This is how they connect with one another). Regardless, in watching her affable turn, you wonder why Guild never got a bigger break.

Since a good girl is never found without her foil, by pure ‘chance’ another pretty girl wanders into Taylor. It’s literally the complete inverse of the prior scene except this dame meant to be there. We don’t know why yet. The events keep on stacking one on top of the other until he’s forcibly taken for a rendezvous where he is told to stop poking around.

The story stalls when it gets talky, though it might seem a necessary evil to lend some clarity to the myriad of events. Up to this point, we have no true frame of reference. Mel Phillips (Richard Conte) becomes one anchor, as Christy’s boss who looks ready to help in any way he can. Also, Lloyd Nolan turns up as a steady police detective with an inside scoop. It turns out at the center of this entire web is hot Nazi money priced at $2,000,000. Of course.

We have mysterious messages left on windshields, house calls involving a belligerent Sheldon Leonard, Double Indemnity references, and a very familiar face; along with another ominous character. Another man named Anzelmo checks all the boxes for sleaze with his foreign accent and dubious reputation but he is only a piece in this puzzle. If this is all very oblique it’s meant to be in staying the film’s own tendencies. 

By this point, our plot is either overwhelming or monotonous as Taylor meets a homely woman sharing in a cryptic conversation that proves also deeply sentimental. Again, it is these long-winded moments that are to the story’s detriment. While Larry Cravat remains an important trigger word, one Michael Conroy is also a person of interest.

Somewhere in The Night earns its title outright around this juncture. When a character wanders into a building at the dead of night and goes down a long, low-lit corridor in search of some unnameable thing, we know we have arrived in the heart of film noir territory. There is no doubt. It feels like one of the turning points in The Big Sleep when Marlowe, snooping around, winds up finding a dead body on a carpet. An analogous outcome happens here. 

There’s a meeting of the minds in one final powwow to collectively assemble all the primary players for the long-awaited reveal.  But the final act’s twist is so obvious, it makes all the labyrinthine whirly gig leading up feel somewhat empty. However, it is often said it’s not about the outcomes but the road along the way. Taken in this light, Somewhere in The Night has its moments of genuine intrigue.

It is easy to write off the cast for their relatively forgotten status. Even Lloyd Nolan has high billing (the man most well-known for playing a detective) for a relatively minor part. But I would argue Richard Conte is an unsung hero of film noir, while the picture does give allowance for some intriguing roles in support.

Hodiak is not the ideal to hold a movie together, but he is not in this alone. It also turns out the movies were right. Detectives do always keep their hats on. Just in case they’ve got to shoot someone — it helps keep their hand’s free — makes sense enough.

3./5 Stars

Léon Morin, Priest (1961)

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This is my entry in The Vive la France Blogathon. Thanks to Lady Eve and Silver Screen Modes for having me!

I recently read some excerpts out of Soren Kierkegaard’s “Attack on Christendom” and the Danish philosopher makes the case “Even when you don’t live by a Christian reality you live in a Christianized world. You know when you offend the collective consciousness.”

Although this context is changing in the present day, it very much fits the world of this film from Jean-Pierre Melville. There is this sense of propriety and a propensity toward specific ways and lifestyles as dictated by the prevailing cultural forces. In this case, the church. Though some choose to kick against the goads and challenge the status quo. That’s where our story commences.

The substantial backdrop of World War II also ties Leon Morin to Silence de la Mer (1949) and then Army of Shadows (1969), which came well after. Because, of course, before his days as the idol of the New Wave and a craftsman of pulp gangster classics, Melville actually worked as a member of a French Resistance himself. You cannot take part in something like that without it totally impacting how you perceive the world.

But there is still an important distinction to be made. This is hardly a war movie. Instead, the war serves as a background for the human experience — a human relationship between a man and a woman. Their relationship starts early in the occupation and stretches beyond the boundaries of V-E Day.

However, the terms seem very suggestive and in an unrefined exploration of the material this would be the case. Still, by some marvel, Melville manages to conduct an astute yet still spellbinding examination of spirituality. The woman: a militant communist. The man: a humble priest of a French parish.

It is two years after Hiroshima Mon Amour. Alain Resnais’s film is one of the most poetic meditations you will ever see on the likes of love, war, and memory. Leon Morin, Priest is certainly different. It is a different kind of cadence and rhythm developing its own sense of a world and the related themes to go with it. But it is supernally evocative in its own right.

Emmanuelle Riva is Emmanuelle Riva, immaculately beautiful with eyes so bright they speak a language unto themselves. The moroseness is evident and yet they flit even momentarily between the cheery and the slightly provocative.

If Riva had her ascension on Hiroshima Mon Amour, Jean-Paul Belmondo was her equal as a nascent shooting star coming off of Godard’s Breathless. In this context, what a curious crossroads to descend upon Leon Morin, Priest. Such a quiet, tranquil picture seemingly more inclined toward the past than any manner of forward thinking. Neither is there a flashy, jazzy lifeblood to it.

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However, in another sense, it could not be more fitting. Melville, as alluded to before, was the Godfather of many of the Nouvelle Vague talents — certainly Godard — and even if it’s only in particular instances, he still has a flair unto his own.

We might note a stripped-down peer like Robert Bresson as reference, but there are abrupt dashes of pizzazz here that feel like the youth of the New Wave, whether in an implied slap to the face or a jarring jump in continuity. The persistent use of fade-outs allows the passage of time to be conceived at a leisurely pace.

The city is such an extraordinary space brimming with character imbued by the sheer amount of years being lived in its midst. At first, the shroud of war is almost a comical distraction. In its early days, solemnity has not set in. Then, the feathered garb of the Italians gives way to the no-nonsense domed blitzkrieg of the Germans.

Families have their children baptized to conveniently hide their Jewish lineage from any prying eyes within the incumbent authorities. Because soon enough, they start deporting undesirables en force. Paranoia and anti-semitism set in, even within our heroine Barny’s own workplace. Fugitives seeking asylum call on her charity in need of ration stamps and a place to gather themselves on their road to freedom.

Then, one afternoon she resolves to give a local priest a piece of her mind during confessions. She settles on the name Leon Morin as he seems like he might be the most receptive party given the peasantry pedigree of his moniker. If we were to label this decision we might label it as nothing short of Providence.

On first impression, Jean-Paul Belmondo feels like an unconventional casting for a member of the cloth. I often allude to his coming out of the tradition of Bogart but could Bogey have played a priest? Hardly. Still, Belmondo pulls it off with a candor, still blunt and true in its implementation. Because he cares deeply for others nevertheless, aided by his plain features and pragmatic perspective which both suit him well.

His dour space with only a desk, a window, and a shelf of books prove a very inviting place. Because he is such a person. At first an unassuming but ultimately charismatic spiritual leader. His lending library is open to Bardy and she begins to visit him and read his books. Somehow battling her urges to doubt due to curiosity and her own desire to gravitate toward him.

She is adamant about scientific proof for God and we begin an interim period that feels like it might be a precursor to Rohmer’s dialogues from My Night at Maud’s. In subsequent days, all the girls start coming to call on the young priest. Whether it’s merely physical attraction or some other ethereal quality about him is never stated outright. This cynical viewer is reminded of the glib aphorism, “flirt to convert.” And yet with each visitor, he comes ready to share the hope that is within him.

Bardy’s assured coworker Marion is one caller and then another very attractive girl who plans to seduce him; it seems she’s in the business of it with a laundry list of conquests going before her. And yet the perplexing aspect of the priest is how impregnable he is even as he welcomes each woman in, cultivates their spiritual well-being, and deals with them in such a frank manner.

Likewise, from the pulpit, he does not spare his words for the congregation sitting before him any given holy day. Recalling much of what Kierkegaard criticized, he warns them not to be merely “Sunday Christians.” “Not living out a Christian life drives away the undecided” and this is nothing new.

Hypocrisy or closer still being little different from everyone else is often one of the greatest faults of people who are deemed “Christian.” He further extolls them, “They should each be an apostle in their own setting.” It is a fallacy that only a priest can do the work of God. So while he speaks with consternation, he wraps it up with a note of hope. Because according to him,  there is “A God whose grace is given to the heretics and believers alike, loved equally in his sight.”

We see even momentarily his guiding force. Why he pursued Barny and did his best to shepherd her. He’s no elitist. His time and services are extended to all people. He lives it out in the day-to-day of life together with others.

When Barny and Morin must finally say goodbye there is so much in the air, gratefulness, sadness, wistfulness — even as she has fallen in love for his righteous guidance and he remains resolved in his mission to tend after the souls of those in his stead.

To merely say this is a conversion story is too simplistic. To claim it’s suggesting the sensuality of forbidden love is off the mark. We already confirmed it is not a war picture. The brilliance of Melville is painting around these conventional lines with the utmost nuance. Of course, the performances are superb. The two cinematic saints in Riva and Belmondo make it possible. The fact we are fallen humans, ripe with warring desires and doubts, make it necessary. Dealing with spirituality in such a perceptive manner is nothing short of a modern miracle.

4.5/5 Stars

Note: Bogart actually did portray a priest in The Left Hand of God toward the end of his career. Thanks for those who pointed it out to me. Much appreciated!

4 WWII Home Front Movies

World War II gave rise to a whole cottage industry of war films during the conflict and for generations to come. There are, of course, so many facets of the war to explore whether it’s Europe, The Pacific, North Africa, and any number of elements.

However, something that always fascinated me was life on the Home Front. Now wars feel like proxies. They rarely affect us first-hand. During the 1940s the war was a concerted effort on all fronts. It affected not only soldiers but civilians living miles away.

Mrs. Miniver (1942) chronicles the exploits of a fearless mother who holds her family together during The Blitz and the threat of German invasion. More The Merrier (1943) takes a comical look at the housing crisis that plagued Washington D.C. and other metropolis areas. Even the likes of Stage Door Canteen (1943) and Thank Our Lucky Stars (1943) give a picture into the USO and entertainment efforts put on for soldiers.

Here is a list of four other films from the World War II years that function as time capsules giving us some element of what life was like during those impactful years in history.

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Hail The Conquering Hero (1944)

Certainly, The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek is another uproarious wartime comedy from Preston Sturges. But this other offering is equally memorable in how it takes on small-town jingoism and hero worship to outrageous proportions. Whereas most old war pictures look moth-bitten with age and overly saccharine, somehow this effort strikes a phenomenal balance between absurd satire and lucid sentimentality.

It’s not making fun of our war heroes as much as it lampoons how we try to exalt them in our own well-meaning blundering. There’s no doubt some of this was certainly acknowledged during the war although I’m not sure how the general public would have felt about the movie in that context. Now it looks prescient. Eddie Bracken, William Demarest, and company are absolutely hilarious

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Hollywood Canteen (1944)

Actors Bette Davis and John Garfield of Warner Bros. famously set up the Hollywood Canteen as a haven for soldiers on leave. The perks were free and included dances with the most beautiful starlets and entertainment provided by the brightest comedic and musical personalities of the day. You could even win a raffle to kiss Hedy Lamarr.

Although the film is slight, sentimental propaganda, it does give at least a hint of what this group endeavor was all about. For old movie aficionados, it also provides a convenient opportunity to see just about every person Warner Bros. had on the lot in 1944. They all come out to the party to pitch in on the morale-boosting effort.

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The Clock (1945)

Whirlwind romances feel almost commonplace in the war years. Imagine the scenario. You’re longtime beau or the eligible man or woman you just met is going off to war. Miles will separate you. All you have are letters. There’s an uncertainty of whether or not you will ever see them again. The only thing that does seem permanent (even if it’s not) is love.

The theme would crop up in any number of pictures from The Very Thought of You to I’ll Be Seeing You as the situation undoubtedly resonated with a contemporary audience. However, another favorite is The Clock, starring Judy Garland and Robert Walker. It encapsulates the moment in time so well with heightened emotions, an unceremonious courthouse wedding, and the open-ending. We don’t know what the future holds.

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The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)

If Since You Went Away was David Selznick’s WWII epic, this was certainly Samuel Goldwyn’s entry. Its title plays with this ironic ambiguity. The best years of our lives would seem to be ahead of us. The war is over. The Allies have won. The soldiers return home victorious. And yet even in their victory, there is so much to navigate in the civilian world.

Wyler’s effort is such a perceptive picture in how it makes us feel the growing pains and relational tribulations of an entire community. It might be the fact you barely know your wife because you’ve been away for the majority of your marriage. Maybe your kids have grown up in a different world and there’s a corporate job waiting for you to reacclimate to. It might be PTSD or tangible physical injuries totally changing your day-to-day existence. As such the movie is indicative of a certain time and place and a tipping point in American society.

What is your favorite WWII film, whether it depicts the war or some aspect of the home front?

The Americanization of Emily (1964)

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“Don’t show me how profitable it will be to fall in love with you, Charlie. Don’t Americanize me.” – Julie Andrews as Emily

Yes, Kubrick’s film is definitive. Though something inside of me wants to rale against convention and wave the flag for The Americanization of Emily instead, a movie that came out the same year as Dr. Strangelove (1964) and could probably use the acknowledgment. While not technically as renowned — Arthur Hiller is no Stanley Kubrick — this is probably the director’s best work and we do have a script by Paddy Chayefsky, the man famed for penning everything from Marty (1955) to Network (1976).

Our stars are to die for in James Garner and Julie Andrews while in its satirical bleakness, the movie predates the absurdity of Mike Nichol’s Catch-22 (1970) adaptation or Altman’s M*A*S*H (1970). At any rate, it deserves a place in the conversation among the seminal anti-war statements of the 20th century.

Though Chayefsky can get verbose with his quill, it’s all quite eloquent; between the stars and the dilemma they find themselves in, the resonance of The Americanization of Emily cannot be overstated. It starts with of all things a “Dog-Robber,” the pet name and vernacular shorthand used for personal assistants of military big wigs.

Garner always the conman, grifter, or otherwise likable trickster, is seamlessly fit to play Charlie Madison, a rapscallion who is also very good at his line of work. As right-hand man to Rear Admiral Jessup (Melvyn Douglas), Charlie is tasked with laying out the red carpet for his superior, charming and cajoling his way to get the best of the best. That means the finest food and the most charming female company that wartime Britain has to offer.

A couple of the assumed premises of the picture are troubling, starting with the prevalence of what can only be termed “tush slaps” of nearly every female attendant. Nearly everyone seems to enjoy the attention. The second is how the war takes a back seat as does the fact, despite Man being infallible and the reasons for war being muddied, Hitler was seemingly a power that necessitated some counteraction. For that matter, D-Day feels like it’s an open secret among every Tom, Dick, and Harry.

But this is all part of the groundwork which all comes into relief as we begin to visualize the story. Consequently, it doesn’t much feel like a bombed out or rationed Great Britain at any point in time. There’s little need for historical accuracy — the trail of a cynical war comedy with all its biting fury is what’s most importantly on display.

After getting off on the wrong foot, Charlie and his assigned chauffeur Emily (Andrew) joust a bit only to fall into each other’s arms. She brings him over to tea with mother and there he sees the shrine to all the deceased war heroes in their family (a lah Hail the Conquering Hero). Except Charlie sets the record straight on what he thinks of war and how other people go about it. Some might consider him callous but the way he sees it, being brutally honest, in such a case, is the most humane thing to do.

Mrs. Barnham has long been pressing on in life as if her son was still alive. However, Charlie brings the tea conversation to the cold hard facts. In his estimation, it’s the most profane thing in the world to enjoy war. Enjoyment in the same sense that he sees grieving as a sensual thing for a woman — when she can mourn her husband who gave his life so gallantly for his country. He doesn’t see anything noble about needlessly making heroes of our dead, venerating them, instead of allowing them to rest in peace.

When probed about his religious views, he retorts quite blatantly he’s “a practicing coward.” He learned it in Guadalcanal in the midst of buddies dropping all around him. “Wars are the only time a man can be gallant and redeemed. Wars are always fought for goodness, except virtue is so unnatural to us. God save us all from people doing the morally right thing.” These are little nuggets of wisdom he drops.

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The complete absurdity of it all comes into focus when his commanding officer cooks up a cockamamie plan to shoot a movie during the storming of Normandy to capture the first dead man on the beach — who will obviously be a sailor — proving to the world that the Navy is just as important as anyone else. They know he’s really flipped when Admiral Jessup dreams up the Tomb for the Unknown Sailor too.

Still, no one has the gumption to disobey so Charlie’s buddy Bus (James Coburn) looks to stall operations as long as possible and yet, in the end, they find themselves hurtling toward Normandy on an utterly pointless suicide mission. Except Bus gets bitten by the patriotic bug too and goes nutty for his duty with Charlie and his lackluster movie crew hoisted onto the LST like stray cargo. They’re going whether they like it or not.

The comedy is solidified for me in the D-Day sequences as Charlie finds himself dumped out in the ocean, flailing around in the cold, half-heartedly trying to hold onto a camera he doesn’t know how to use, probably already decommissioned by sea water. It’s utterly pointless. Here he is amid the chaos with his former friend goading him on only to wing him with a pistol in the process. Charlie’s left for dead but on the bright side, at least he’s positioned himself as the first casualty on the beaches of Normandy — a navy man, no less.

True to form, the images of him are soon plastered all over every magazine back home. He’s been christened a hero and every type of idolatry he would never care to give anyone else is lofted on him. It’s far from done, rolling over on itself one final time.

There must be continuous punchlines to underscore the sheer looniness of it all. Whereas a picture like The Spy Who Came in From the Cold (1965) is bleakly cynical, here James Garner is able to inject his grouchy strain of comedy into the part, aiding the story to its conclusion. But the final zinger goes to Julie Andrews as she is and always will be his equal in the film.

“Honestly, Charlie, your conversion to morality is really quite funny. All this time I’ve been terrified of becoming Americanized, and you, you silly ass, have turned into a bloody Englishman.”

So you see, it might have just as easily been called the Anglification of Charlie. There you have the irony at work again. Somehow it makes sense and it doesn’t at the same time. That’s war in a nutshell.

4/5 Stars

The Search (1948)

The_Search_posterAny knowledge of director Fred Zinnemann only aids in informing The Search. Formerly living in a Jewish family in Austria, he would immigrate to the bright lights of Hollywood in the 1930s only to have both his parents killed in the Holocaust. So if you think he had no stake in this picture you would be gravely mistaken.

Like Carol Reed’s Third Man of the following year, Fred Zinnemann’s film does an impeccable job in its opening moments placing us in a landscape that feels all but tangible. Improved by true post-war locales, The Search gives audiences a fairly frank depiction of the trauma and destruction left in the wake of such an all-encompassing wave of carnage like WWII.

At least in this area alone, there is no sense that this is a facade or something fake and done up to look real. There’s little of that. Not least among the casualties are children displaced from all different nations and backgrounds. Subsisting without families through much of the war.

Now, with the clouds dissipating there is work to be done. It’s the task of understaffed personnel to begin sorting through all the pieces to try and get everyone back where they need to be. It seems an insurmountable job but they get on as best as they can.

Mrs. Murray is one of the workers we get to know, a woman with both a sense of pragmatic industry but also an underlying warmth. She knows if her job is done well, there will be many children given far better lives. She does everything in her power toward those ends.

Carrying a few points of reference from Aline MacMahon’s early career, it truly is a joy to watch her fall into this role which is a stark departure from the likes of One Way Passage (1932) or Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933). Certainly, it’s less flashy but no less meaningful. She makes it count.

The pure ambiguities created by language barriers is made palpable and for American viewers, there is a narrator but little in the way of interpretation. So much of what goes on is either left unsaid or must be taken with a grain of salt. That’s compounded by the fact the reticent children are afraid men in uniforms might be SS troopers or any word they let slip will be subsequently used to send them away to a concentration camp.

While it’s near impossible to take on two viewpoints at once, at any rate, we begin to understand not only Mrs. Murray’s predicament but also the well-founded fears of these displaced youths. That’s what leads one group of children, crammed into an ambulance marked with an ominous red cross, to scatter at the first opportunity. One includes a pale-faced boy named Karel who has remained all but silent during his initial questioning and yet his will to survive is insurmountable. Still, one needs food to survive and he doesn’t have any.

This problem is what prompts the initial meeting of the two figures who we might consider our heroes. It actually happens 40 minutes in and it nearly doesn’t amount to anything at all. Sitting in his jeep, lazily kicked back, eating a sandwich, is an army engineer named Steve (Montgomery Clift) who is soon being shipped back home.

He sees a small body pop up behind some rubble obviously eyeing his lunch. The boy’s afraid to take a handout and so the soldier puts his jeep in gear to drive off but thinking better of it, he turns around and tosses the boy his sandwich. Here we have the genesis of their curious relationship, at first tenuous, because Karel has learned to fear other people and their lack of formal communication lines makes mutual understanding even more difficult.

Though not as intense as his most revered parts, Monty Clift provides a genuine charm to the role, an all but effortless job at character building. Young Ivan Jandl knew no English going into the shoot but this same undoctored quality makes the opening sequences all the more imperative. He and Clift build a rapport that’s right there in front of us.

Initially, Karel lashes out thinking he is being held prisoner again. Steve tries to get him to understand his newfound freedom and when that is established, next comes the acquisition of language which the bright boy picks up quickly. One could say that The Search is at its finest when the pair is stuck in a space together. I’m not sure about others but I resonate with these scenes. The moments where a language barrier necessitates some form of universal understanding. Words have no meaning. Like in Film itself, actions can be far more universal than any amount of exquisite dialogue. For example, chocolate tastes “good.” Alcohol smells “bad.”

Together the soldier and the boy form a bond to the point Karel follows him around like a lost puppy. He doesn’t want to be abandoned. Not again. Of course, we know Steve must ship out soon… Meanwhile, Mrs. Murray enlists the help of a concentration camp survivor (Jarmila Novotná) who is looking determinedly for her son — the dramatic irony all but apparent, if it wasn’t already.

As Steve begins to teach “Jim” English lessons, he and his buddy Jerry (Wendell Corey) try and get some news on the boy’s origins. And all they have to go on is the telling tattoo on his forearm. It’s the arrival of family from stateside that sets something off. A switch goes on inside of Jim’s brain and he realizes he needs to find his “mother” because he comes to understand what that word means and that his is missing.

The Search endangers itself with a melodramatic turn of events and to a degree, they do come. Speaking for myself, I was a most agreeable recipient if that’s what it was. With the trills of angelic voices and a final maternal embrace — the conclusion the entire film has been charted for — some emotional manipulation might be on hand. However, in a period of rebuilding, though the past must not be forgotten, nevertheless, there is a deep abiding need for hope.  I would like to think that The Search is a film acknowledging precisely that and offering some solace.

Out of all the bombed out buildings, emaciated children racked with trauma, and horrors upon horrors, there is still something that can and must be clung to. When we are lost and alone, we can be found and returned to the place where we belong. There is no need to wander aimlessly because we have a home. Whether or not you believe this picture to be a purveyor of authenticity, Zinnemann has provided a revelatory parable of genuine sensitivity. I for one admire its aspirations greatly even if they might be imperfect. Such a time calls for this kind of hope.

4.5/5 Stars