Destination Tokyo (1943) and There’s No Place Like Home

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“This is sort of a blind date. We’ll just have to wait and see what happens.” – Cary Grant as Captain Cassidy

No pretense can be made to suggest Destination Tokyo functions as an original entry of a “men on a mission movie” from a couple decades later. For one thing, Cary Grant doesn’t strike one as the soldiering type. He’s not Lee Marvin or Charles Bronson.

However, it must have worked on at least one kid. Years later Tony Curtis would recount how he saw the picture in theaters and the images of Grant looking through the periscope inspired him to enlist (and maybe become an actor).

He ultimately realized both aspirations — even starring with his hero in the Blake Edward’s comedy Operation Petticoat, which ironically, is set aboard a submarine! In Destination Tokyo, Grant is more business but an amiable skipper nonetheless, with a family waiting for him back home. Still, he’s more than prepared to face the task at hand.

Although they are not much of a secret, thanks to the built-in spoiler in the title, Captain Cassady (Grant) waits the designated 24 hours into their excursion before opening their orders. Obviously, they’re headed to Tokyo. They are also required to pick up a package en route: a meteorologist named Raymond (John Ridgely).

What the film does well is creating an ecosystem for characters to be empathized with because once we have the framework of the task at hand, we can readily spend our time getting to know the men onboard.

There always must be the callow recruit and this story is no different with Tommy Adams (Robert Hutton) stepping into the role. Meanwhile, John Garfield has a fine time hamming it up as the spirited Wolf enthralling the stir-crazy crew with his exploits with the fairer sex. His active imagination fuels their own hopes and dreams about sweethearts all across the sea, whether they exist or not.

Dane Clark readily complies to the rank and file with his own average G.I. Joe, “Tin Can,” an equally spirited Greek-American intent on getting his chance to make the “Japs” pay. Alan Hale, always counted on for comic relief, is little different here as the bubbly chef Cookie doing his best not to clang pans when they’re diving deep to evade the enemy.

Otherwise, he’s a handy fill in for Santa Claus for a Christmas spent 20,000 leagues under the sea, metaphorically speaking, of course. For someone like Adams, this is his first Christmas away from his family and the accordion accompanied quartet singing out “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” and a few other yuletide favorites is a much-appreciated touch of home.

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The crew begins to truly feel the weight of circumstance when a pair of Japanese zeroes come upon them on the seas. They let ’em have it with their anti-aircraft deck guns firing into the sky.

One curious stylistic choice is to actually show the enemy pilots raining hell down on them. It hardly feels like an empathetic turn, however, and more of an easy way to label them. If you see someone like this, know they’re the ones doing injustices against us. We’ve got to stick it to them whatever the cost. It becomes more blatantly clear only minutes later. They’re backstabbers.

In a film with an understandable but generally misguided sense of Japanese culture, it does become an intriguing task to begin to unwrap the ideologies being promoted. One cannot quickly forget this is propaganda meant to mobilize mom, dad, and everyone else back at home.  It makes it easier to comprehend how ignorance and general misconceptions can be so widely propagated.

Delmer Daves would soon become well-versed in these kinds of wartime tales from The Very Thought of You to Hollywood Canteen and The Pride of The Marines. One can note actors like John Garfield, Dane Clark, and John Ridgely readily being recycled throughout. However, to its credit, instead of merely painting all Japanese people as terrors, it frames them as victims of a broken system of government.

The token metaphor alighted on are roller skates — those vehicles of carefree child-like recreation — we need more rollerskates in this world including the next generation of Japanese kids. Because it’s a far better alternative than more international conflict.

In the most harrowing interludes, the crew of the USS Copperfin surreptitiously sneak into the minefield of Tokyo Bay under the cloak of an oblivious enemy cruiser. They squeak past the enemy netting and hold their breath as they move into the heart of enemy terrain. Their covert mission continues with three men, including Wolf, going ashore to undertake reconnaissance. It feels somewhat eery for the very reasons two years later nearby locales would be absolutely obliterated by Big Boy and Fat Man.

The balance of the human drama with wartime objectives remains the film’s greatest strength. It’s not all pulse-pounding action necessarily, but it maintains interest through the investment in its characters over the long haul.

An unexpected complication involves an impromptu appendicitis operation. A former pharmacist student, not formally trained as a surgeon, is given the unpleasant task of removing the burst organ based on the written procedures in a textbook. Meanwhile, on land, Tokyo Rose jeers the Allies only for our protagonists to send vital weather reports over the radio to waiting Allied receivers. This entire operation is purportedly under the nose of oblivious Japanese operatives.

The most laughable reaction comes from an incredulous Garfield, “If the Japs pick it up, they’ll think it’s one of their own guys.” He didn’t take into account how stifled John Ridgely’s pronunciation sounds. My Japanese is abysmal, but it doesn’t take a linguistic genius to know he’s probably never spoken a lick of Japanese in his life. But I digress.

The return trip is fraught with bombardment from above as the Japanese get wise and in the ensuing pursuit, the sub gets hammered. The situation is dire with the interior leaking and filling up with water. It’s all hands on deck just to bail them out.

However, when the proverbial fog clears, miraculously, they’ve got off scot-free. The next prominent landmark they see is the Golden Gate Bridge, and it triggers all their fluffy feelings of Americana. After being in foreign waters, the relief of being back home in the good ol’ U.S.A is too great to pass up. As an American who has lived for an extensive period of time in Tokyo, somehow I can relate, though for very different reasons. There’s no place like home.

3.5/5 Stars

Air Force (1943): Howard Hawks Takes on WWII

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At times, Air Force functions like a staged documentary. It feels both instructive and informed by Howard Hawks’ own passion for aviation. It has the simple task of making sure the folks at home can empathize with their boys up in the air. In fact, it falls short of being a mere instructional manual because its highest purpose is to be a stirring propaganda piece.

Certainly, the War meant all hands on deck, even when it came to filmmaking. You had John Ford famously capturing The Battle of Midway. Frank Capra oversaw the series Why We Fight, as a member of the Army Signal Corps. George Stevens notably took footage of Dachau Concentration Camp after it was liberated. This is Hawks’ contribution to the same effort, mobilizing the American public behind the war, in part, by harnessing their emotions. In this regard alone, Air Force is generally a success.

Although some of its players have been generally forgotten in the modern movie pantheon, Air Force features a surprisingly robust cast of actors. Their leader is pilot “Irish” Quincannon (John Ridgely), who has been charged with leading the crew of the Mary-Ann, a much-beloved B-17 Flying Fortress. Its caretaker is a crusty veteran (Harry Carey) whose own boy is currently stationed in the Philippines.

The rest of them feel like fine red-blooded Americans, from co-pilot Gig Young, navigator Charles Drake, and a youthful Arthur Kennedy as their bombardier. George Tobias adds his humor while John Garfield ably plays the outsider with a chip on his shoulder.

They are a perfect menagerie for Hawks to impose his always cognizant sense of male camaraderie because what more galvanizing situation is there than the throes of war? Very little.  It’s this link — a kind of communal gravitational pull — that helps them weather thick and thin, as the enemy hounds them at every turn. Without it, the picture wouldn’t have much pathos. These relationships are experienced vicariously by the audience.

Their assumedly routine mission is humanized through sendoffs from loving mothers and wives. Later on, they pay a visit to a sister stationed as a nurse on an island hospital. All these touches are very purposeful, implying how each life is interconnected with a web of loved ones and sweethearts. This could be any of us if we grew up in wartime America.

Against these waves of systematic sentimentality, the bad boy cynicism of John Garfield fits like a glove, and he peddles his usual pessimism with ease. For a time, that’s all the conflict we have.

Then, they pick up Japanese radio chatter — it’s odd — they don’t understand what could be happening until they see it for themselves. It is, of course, December 7th, 1941, and they’re right in the thick of the attack on Pearl Harbor. When they finally get a chance to inspect the situation on the ground, the aftermath is understandably grim.

In the moment, creating a broad conspiracy involving fifth column dirty treachery on Hickman Field is an effective paranoia tactic. However, in hindsight, there are a few pernicious details used to paint the scenario, namely, a band of rogue vegetable trucks used to clip the wings of planes on the ground. As if the enemy had ground forces orchestrating sabotage to coincide with the aerial attack. This, in fact, (considering the Munson Report) never occurred.

Regardless, the crew is ordered to get on the move again before any other trouble arrives. Their next leg is Wake Island en route to the Philippines. Along the way, they strike up a playful competition with a pursuit pilot, allowing our men to reconcile their differences. Even a dog christened “Tripoli” conveniently doesn’t like Japs (ie. Mr. Moto)

The ensuing dog fights in the skies feel atmospheric and like a dead ringer for George Lucas’s original Tie Fighter-Millenium Falcon duel, with turret guns blasting away. In this chaos, their one solitary flying fortress becomes an emblematic symbol in itself, representative of the American spirit, grit in the face of adversity, and a never say die mentality.

Battered and broken as it is, their sole purpose becomes putting it back together again, to fight another day, and it’s fitting because that’s very much what America was forced to do after Pearl Harbor. A victory at The Battle of Midway would have meant little if we didn’t get to that point. Air Force seems to suggest, with men as tough of these, we got there and ultimately we prevailed. It’s an easy narrative to swallow about the “greatest generation,” and there is a certain amount of truth in it. However, it’s certainly not a nuanced picture. We know its intentions full well.

The final minutes are all but a foregone conclusion, necessary for closing out the dramatic arc. There’s quite a large deal of bombs bursting, planes crashing, guns blasting — all key elements of the fog of war. Even in their archaic simplicity, there are some thrilling moments. However, most of what’s of interest still remains up in that airplane – – the men we’ve gotten to know along this arduous journey.

Of course, in 1943 the journey wasn’t done yet. Thus, there was the need for this picture in all of its patriotic fervor. In this realm, it’s fairly effective, amassing the third-highest box office pull in its day. There’s no doubt it spoke into a particular cultural moment. For those admiring of Howard Hawks, it’s a less-heralded but still intermittently gripping adventure in the skies, awash with jingoism though it may be.

3.5/5 Stars

Pride of The Marines (1945): John Garfield Plays Al Schmid

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During WWII there’s no question John Garfield was integral to the war effort despite having never served in the military. He did yeoman’s work when it came to morale, through his pictures at Warner Bros, originating the famed Hollywood Canteen with Bette Davis, and going on war bond tours with the likes of John Basilone.

No question he was a devoted champion of the Allied cause and so when he learned of the true-life heroism of marine Al Schmid, flipping through the pages of Life magazine one day, he started the wheels turning in Hollywood. Schmid was a Philadelphia native who was deployed in the deadly warzone of Guadalcanal in 1942. He and two mates held onto their gunnery outpost against hundreds of enemy soldiers. Their valor was not without sacrifice.

There are certain stories you could hardly write better for the cinema screen and The Pride of The Marines is one of them. As such, Schmid’s story fits fluidly into three distinct segments. It begins as a bit of a hometown romance. In the opening voiceover Garfield, in character as Al, explains how Philly and the Liberty Bell is all he’s known and although this is his life, it could have just as easily been someone else’s. There’s no missing that Delmer Daves’ film is a universal flag-waver for the whole country to get behind.

Like any red-blooded American, Al’s a confirmed bachelor, though he loves the company of his landlords, the genial Merchant clan. Jim (John Ridgely) is always good-naturedly tinkering on everything with varied success. His wife Ella May (Ann Doran) is just about the warmest beacon of hospitality one could ever meet. And if they are both benevolent spirits, their bubbly daughter Loretta (Anne E. Todd) is equally so. Al is affectionate toward them all, even as he remains fiercely independent. No girl the resident matchmaker tries to set him up with will make him think otherwise.

It’s much the same when he finds a quivering Ruth Hadley (Eleanor Parker) at the front door in the dark. A fuse is blown. The lights are out. The family scurries around as a brusque Garfield lets her in. He’s prepared to tear her apart as she confirms all his assumptions about the typical girl-next-door.

This is the rockiest of meet-cutes but I must say, I like it because there is this instantaneous conflict. No disrespect to Dennis Morgan in The Very Thought of You, but Garfield brings his brand of tougher authenticity that’s far more compelling. The beauty of Parker is not simply being an attractive face — on par with any of the Hollywood starlets of the 1940s — there is an earnestness and a feistiness present in her very being.

It comes out over a miserable bowling date tacked onto their already awful evening. She’s been continually humiliated, and she retaliates with her bowling ball and a forceful march out the front doors, which receives whoops and hollers from all the patrons. This is when we realize we have a story and with it a true love affair.

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At first, it’s tentative. The second stint begins as Al prepares to ship out after Pearl Harbor. Nothing has been agreed upon between them. He’s noncommittal. She’s not one to beg and plead, though she has her own private desires. Their hours together are dwindling and in one final burst of emotion, he asks for a promise: to wait for him and he provides a token of his faithfulness. They’re tied together now like we always knew they would be. There were too many sparks for it to be any other way.

The war can really be summed up in one extended scene played out within the morass of war. Enemy “Japs” wade across the divide toward their waiting machine gun encampment, mowed down in the mayhem. They taunt them throughout the night, coming relentlessly, hour after hour, only to be stopped dead in their tracks, piling up everywhere.

I couldn’t help feeling some amount of conflict in witnessing all this. I am an American and I love John Garfield as much as the next fellow but this senseless killing — even in a fairly chaste old Hollywood movie — still feels like too much. The problem is it featuring war at its most intimate.

“Don’t shoot until you see the whites of their eyes” is a practical axiom, but it also makes hand-to-hand combat far too personal. The film tries, but you cannot keep the enemy completely at arm’s length. Watching something like Fire on The Plains (1959) and we get an idea of what their side of the story might be. In this case, a stir-crazy Schmid holds them off in a gutsy stand that, nevertheless, leaves him without the use of his sight.

Phase three is arguably the most significant yet. He must start to grapple with this new reality, even as he’s rehabilitated in an army hospital in San Diego with some of his wounded buddies. He’s lying to himself, believing an operation will give him back his vision. The letter he dictates to be sent to a concerned Ruth paints much the same tale. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way.

The best shot comes in the moment of truth when the bandages are off in the darkness and as a flashlight is about to be brought up to his face, the camera focuses on his jet black hair and goes black as the voices keep talking. The image says enough already. We know the outcome without seeing anything or, precisely, because we don’t see anything…

Still, Al’s not ready to come to terms with reality nor is he prepared to tell Ruth. He wants to disappear so she’s not burdened with his disability; he’s even more dismayed to learn the presentation of his Navy Cross will take place back home. Because a “Marine doesn’t lean on nobody.”

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The old conundrum is not a foreign one. Each one of us wants to be loved, but what if you come back and we are not the same person — disabled or maimed in some way — that our significant other fell in love with? Will they still take you back or loathe the very sight of you? The answer is not always obvious.

Ultimately, it is his solicitous caretaker Virginia (Rosemary DeCamp) and the moral support of his buddies, including Lee (Dane Clark), pushing him forward. In one private phone call, the nurse confirms her suspicions. Ruth fits into the unconditional love category. She’s not going down without a fight, even if it’s a battle over the heart and soul of her disconsolate husband.

We need not dwell on what happens next. The imagination can all but fill it in. A bit of deception, the warmest of welcomes home, and the long haul ahead, forged by two people together as one. Al Schmid would die in 1982 and receive burial in Arlington Cemetery, while his beloved wife would follow him there in 2002.

Predating the likes of Best Years of Our Lives and The Men, The Pride of The Marines digs into the trials of soldiers coming home from war. Garfield is the most capable man I can think of to bear the brunt of this trauma. He battles the demons with his usual grit.

When he’s not at the center of the drama, it falters a bit into the typical didacticism. All the boys with honest, real-life problems, nevertheless, feel like they’re being used to preach to the audience about the plight of the G.I. It’s real, but the heavy-handed roundtable instigated by Daves gets in the way of everything of interest.

The starry-eyed adulation Loretta showers upon him about his exploits in Guadalcanal is also peculiar to me. “You killed 200 Japs, didn’t you Al?” She sounds breathlessly incredulous at this gargantuan feat; it’s like a trophy. I couldn’t help feeling a bit queasy about the statistics in this domestic context. It just goes to show my conflicted nature as a Japanese-American (who lived a stint in Japan) trying to parse through the complexities of World War II.

What’s not difficult to comprehend is just how brilliant Garfield and Parker are as a couple and if they do a fine job, then their real-life counterparts are even more extraordinary. Because they weren’t picking up a salary from Warner Bros. They were out in the trenches in the real world, living life, and facing everything together.

3.5/5 Stars

Army of Shadows (1969) and The French Resistance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4.5/5 Stars

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