Friday, December 22, 2006
David Keith (L) in The Lords of Discipline
I remember a brief time when David Keith was the hottest young actor on the planet. We are talking here about 1980 or so, and Keith had gotten a few good notices for roles in The Rose, and as a nasty redneck in The Great Santini.
The one that really made folks take notice, however, was the prison drama Brubaker. Keith plays a small-time car thief who develops a relationship with Robert Redford's reformer warden, and he more than holds his own in their scenes together. He followed that up with a supporting role as a young sailor in the Sally Field/Tommy Lee Jones comedy Back Roads.
The big one was next up - An Officer and a Gentleman. Keith plays Richard Gere's best bud, the doomed Okie Sid Worley. In going back and looking at this film again, Worley is the one character who seems like a real, albeit flawed human to me. AOAAG was a huge hit, of course, and his performance propelled Keith into starring roles, where he had little success. Independence Day and The Lords of Discipline were both box office failures, and although Firestarter did moderately well, it was more due to young Drew Barrymore than to Keith.
Other Keith films of note: Heartbreak Hotel (as Elvis!), The Two Jakes, and Men of Honour.
Monday, December 18, 2006
“ Listen, my name is Harry Caul. Can you hear me? Don't be afraid. I know you don't know who I am, but I know you. There isn't much to say about myself. I - was very sick when I was a boy. I was paralyzed in my left arm and my left leg and couldn't walk for six months. A doctor said that I'd probably never walk again. My mother used to lower me into a hot bath - it was therapy. One time the doorbell rang and she went down to answer it. I started sliding down. I could feel the water starting to come up to my chin, to my nose, and when I woke up, my body was all greasy from the holy oil she put on my body. And I remember being disappointed that I survived. When I was five, my father introduced me to a friend of his, and for no reason at all; I hit him right in the stomach with all my strength. And he died a year later. He'll kill you if he gets the chance. I'm not afraid of death...but I am afraid of murder.”
The Conversation - Written by Francis Ford Coppola
Saturday, December 16, 2006
The film that really got the ball rolling, however, was Volker Schlondorff’s Young Torless, from 1966. Based on Robert Musil’s turn-of-the-century novel about an Austrian boys school, it is a chilling evocation of how evil puts roots down.
The film opens with the title character being dropped off at the Gasthaus School by his parents. Torless, upon first meeting, is a blank slate. He says little to his parents or to his classmates, but there are a couple of small clues about him very early on. He makes chaste, yet lengthy glances at a couple of young women, and this seems to establish that he is not a sexually confident young man.
The classmates who seemed so upstanding and responsible at the opening of the film start to reveal themselves as much less so. A classmate gambles away a large sum of money. Torless is dragged along to a visit to a prostitute who performs the services desired of here, but also manages to put her finger on the hypocrisy of these affluent youngsters. They would seek her out for sex, but would probably spit on her in public.
Torless eventually falls under the influence of the classes’ leader, a charismatic youth named Beineberg. Beineberg is intelligent, confident, and carries a nasty streak of sadism within him. The gambling classmate, a boy named Basini, makes the error of stealing some money from Beineberg’s locker, and Beineberg decides that nothing short of total degradation will suffice as punishment. Torless finds himself drawn to Beineberg as he sets out to destroy the other boy.
The retribution starts out reasonably benignly, with Barini being pushed around a bit, but it gradually evolves into something is much darker. The most distrurbing scene in the film is of Beineberg hypnotizing Barini, and piercing his skin with a huge needle. The constant soundtrack to all this is of Beineberg and his cronies lashing the pitiful teen verbally.
Barini, for his part, is subservient to his tormenters. He doesn’t fight back, and when told to show up in the attic for another beating, does what he is told. Schlondorff is making a strong statement with the character of Barini in this film. The teen puts conformity to the majority ahead of his own humiliation, and Beineberg and his brood know this. Thus, the treatment grows more and more abusive.
Torless is a party to all of this, and although he never takes an active part in the physical debasement of Barini, he is strangely passive to the escalating abuse heaped upon the other boy. It’s only when events reach a pitch in the gymnasium, and the entire class attacks Barini that he acts. It’s instructive to watch the behavior of the other boys in this scene. Everyone, even some obviously younger boys, attack Barini, and when Torless tries to intercede, one of them lashes out that he is a homosexual. The security of the mob frees them to commit behavior that none of them would consider alone.
The novel “The Confusions of Young Torless” was published in 1906, decades before the rise of Hitler, but the events of the book anticipate him. The Criterion DVD features an interview with Schlondorff, in which he speaks of the message of the film, and the influences that he brought to it. (Such as the neo-Nazi characters of Fritz Lang in his German era.) A point made my Schlondorff in the interview echoes those made by Torless at the end of the film – That evil is not cleanly marked for our convenience. It lives amongst us, and sometimes, the closer you stand to it, the harder it is to see.
Thursday, December 14, 2006
Tuesday, December 12, 2006
The Set-Up – The wealthy cattle baron Rufus Ryker (Emile Meyer) comes to try to talk Joe Starett (Van Heflin) into selling his ranch to him. He has brought his newest employee, hired gun Jack Wilson (Jack Palance) with him.
Starett returns to his home to find Ryker wating for him.
Shane and Wilson begin to size one another up.
Ryker talks about his past.
“Look, Starett, when I come to this country, you weren’t older than your boy. We had rough times. Me and other men that are mostly dead now. I got a bad shoulder yet from a Cheyenne arrowhead. We made this country. We found it and we made it. Work, blood, and empty bellies."
"Cattle we brought in were hazed off by Indians and rustlers. They don’t bother you much anymore because we handled them. We made a safe range of this. Some of us died doing it, but we made it. And then people move in who never had to rawhide it through the old days. They fence off the range, and fence me off from water. Some of them, like you, plow ditches and take out irrigation water, and so the creek runs dry sometimes, and I’ve got to move my stock because of it. And you say we have no right to the range. The men who did the work and ran the risks have no rights?”
While Ryker is speaking Shane walks right up to Wilson and has a drink of water – Still checking him out.
Wilson gets off his horse and has a drink himself.
You can’t help but notice that there are two stories running concurrently in this great scene. First there is the speech by Ryker. How many times in any film has the villain had an opportunity to tell his side? Not only does Ryker tell his side here, but he actually invokes your sympathy in this great monologue. Shane is a masterpiece, and it’s in large part due to the moral ambiguity it portrays. It wouldn't be a huge stretch to view Ryker as the wronged party, and the stubborn Starett as the villain.
And then there’s the great silent cat-and-mouse game between Shane and Wilson. This is the first time they see each other, and they both know immediately how the game is going to play itself out. I especially love the way Shane gets right in Wilson’s face to get his drink. The message there is subtle, but Wilson gets it, and gives his own back.
Monday, December 11, 2006
Saturday, December 09, 2006
It's a peculiarity in the film roles of Gloria Grahame that she was so often more memorable than the people who were meant to be the memorable ones.
Take, for instance, The Bold and the Beautiful. It's supposed to be Lana Turner's film - She's the "Beautiful" of the title, after all, but somehow Grahame's doomed housewife sticks with me more. Or how about The Big Heat? The image of Lee Marvin throwing hot coffee in her face is the most memorable in the film, but her role as the superficial, fragile Debby is a vital linkage between Glenn Ford's psycho cop and Marvin's thug.
Grahame and Film Noir were a natural fit. She wasn't cool and beautiful in the Turner or Veronica Lake mould, but embodied a sexy throw-me-down-on-the-linoleum quality that that type couldn't quite manage.
Grahame's career at the top was relatively short, but her resume is impressive indeed. Check her out in Crossfire, In a Lonely Place, Macao, Human Desire (again with Ford), and Man on a Tightrope.
Thursday, December 07, 2006
Tuesday, December 05, 2006
When we first meet Charles Tatum (Kirk Douglas), he is being towed into Albuquerque. Tatum is a smug, self-assured East Coast newspaper writer, but he's a bit down on his luck. Trapped in town with "A broken bearing and no money", Tatum convinces the paper's publisher (Porter Hall) to take him on. The publisher, Mr. Boot, is an old-style newsman to whom ethics are front and foremost. There's an embroidered sign on his wall that says simply "Tell the Truth", and this is a source of great mirth for Tatum, who labours under no such hindrances.
The film skips forward a year, and Tatum is still at the small paper. Now he's chomping at the bit to get out of this sleepy burg and back to a big city job. A drive out into the desert to cover a rattlesnake hunt, however, has a serendipitous stop for gas. The station is deserted except for an old woman praying in her room, and a little prying unearths a possible story. A man named Leo Minosa has been trapped in a cave while searching for Indian artifacts.
This is the break that Tatum has been waiting for, and he attacks the story with zeal. He is the one who crawls into the cave to make first contact with the trapped man, and it's in this first meeting that Charles Tatum starts to reveal what he'll do for a story. Tatum is full of concern and support at first, but watch how he subtly turns the meeting into an interview. You can see the gears working as Leo talks about the Indian spirits that are supposed to reside in the cave. Tatum is practically writing his story as he listens.
Other papers pick up the story, and there's a memorable scene where a family pulling a trailer sets up near the site, as if it were just another tourist attraction. This is indeed the ticket back to New York for Tatum, but he decides that he needs the drama to play out a bit longer. One of the delights of AITH is how Tatum manages to orchestrate the rescue operation. He bullies and bribes a contactor into a more difficult and time-consuming rescue, and extorts the help of the counties' corrupt sheriff.
Tatum is corrupt, but he is certainly not the only one. In addition to the sheriff who agrees to allow Tatum carte blanche in exchange for positive publicity, there's also Leo's unhappy wife Lorraine (Jan Sterling). She is a former dancer who was charmed by Leo with tales of his land and business out west, only to find the reality much less appealing. Tatum intercepts her trying to leave town, because he wants the distraught wife for his story. Tatum tells her that the business will soon be overrun with people coming to check out the story, and that she will soon be awash in money. She stays.
The scenes between these two charlatans are the strongest in the film, as they connive together to line their pockets at poor Leo's expense. There's an unmistakable sexual tension between the two, but it's all tangled up with their individual agendas. Money and status are what fire their engines, not sex. One of the most memorable lines occurs when Tatum denounces her for thinking of running out on Leo while he's trapped. She fires back at him and scores a direct hit.
"Honey, you like those rocks out there just as much as I do"
Ace in the Hole is also known as The Big Carnival, and both titles are apt. As people start to pour in, the story becomes less and less about Leo Minosa, and more about the story itself. There's a little running visual gag of the entrance to the cave and how the price of admission keeps going up as the drama progresses. At one point, Wilder takes the camera to the top of the mountain, and we see that hundreds of cars have converged on the site.
The story of Leo Minosa has had the desired effect for Tatum. He is writing about it every day, and thanks to the sheriff, is the only reporter allowed to speak to Leo. The big papers back east are after him to come back and work for them, and Tatum gleefully plays them off against one another.
Then, things take a dark turn. The local doctor reveals to Tatum that Leo is dying of pneumonia, and will not survive until he is rescued. The one thing that Tatum can't have is the star of his story dying on him - They would ruin everything. He does, however, grant Leo's request to have a priest brought into the cave to see him, and whilst listening to last rites being delivered, Tatum finally realizes the enormity of what he has done.
Leo's death means the end of the big carnival, and Tatum goes to the top of the mountain and announces to the throng that "Leo Minosa is dead!!! Go back to your homes!" The story is over for Leo, but not for Charles Tatum, not yet anyway. The conclusion of AITH is fairly standard stuff for anyone who has watched much film noir, but allow me to make one small point. Billy Wilder sort of has a monopoly on famous closing movie lines; "I'm ready for my close-up now" from Sunset Boulevard, "Nobody's perfect" from Some Like it Hot, and "Shut up and deal." from The Apartment. The final line of AITH belongs in that pantheon, too.
"I'm a $1000 a day newpaper man, Mr Boot. You can have me for nothing."
It's interesting to consider that in the time period we are talking about, the only real "media" was the newspaper. TV had not yet become the all-encompassing octopus that it is today, and the internet was decades from even being thought of. As I mentioned at the top of this piece, if the makers of AITH thought the media was irresponsible and self-serving then, what would they say now?
Note: Thanks to Tom Sutpen (The Wayne Gretzky of film bloggage) for providing a copy of this masterpiece.
Wednesday, November 22, 2006
I can pretty much pinpoint the moment when I became a film lover - a REAL film lover. It happened as Keith Carradine sang "I'm Easy", and four different women believed that he was singing to them alone. That was Nashville, and I never looked at movies the same way again. You see, Robert Altman took over from that point. It was the first time I realized that film could really be something beyond just a time-filler - That it could be art.
Altman was my first favorite director, and he remains a favorite today. It was a great voyage after that first exposure to experience his work for the first time: The frightened Warren Beatty curling up in bed with Julie Christie the night before he is going to die in McCabe & Mrs. Miller. Mark Rydell's mobster breaking a beer bottle in his girlfriend's face in The Long Goodbye. Carradine again lying under a tattered blanket in Thieves Like Us.
Then, just a few years ago, I went to see Gosford Park, and marvelled that a man in his mid-seventies would create something so smart and so scabrous. At that point in his career Altman could have been forgiven for resting on his laurels a bit, but the word "coast" didn't exist for him.
Farewell, Mr. Altman. And thanks.
Monday, November 20, 2006
"This is Texas, and out here, you're on your own"
All you need to know about Blood Simple, the Coen brothers brilliant debut, is contained in that line spoken in an opening monologue by M. Emmet Walsh. Walsh plays the murderous private detective Loren Visser, and he's one of the most memorable movie villians ever to come down the pike. It's the signature role in a career of supporting parts for this versatile actor.
Visser is hired by a greasy bar owner who wants his wife and her lover murdered, and their first on-screen meeting is a marvel of slowly uncoiling malice.
"I've got a job for you"
"Well, if the pay's right and it's legal, I'll do it."
"It's not strictly legal."
"Well...If the pay's right, I'll do it."
That's what makes Visser stand out for me. Although he's plenty nasty, you get the impression that if he wasn't approached with this murder business, he might happily go on his way with other strictly legal stuff. However, he is presented with the chance for a big payday, and the fact that he has to kill two people to collect is not a big obstacle to him.
Some other notable Walsh movies - Blade Runner, Bound for Glory, Reds, The Milagro Beanfield War, and Silkwood.
Monday, November 13, 2006
Sunday, November 12, 2006
The Set-Up - The injured photographer L. B. Jeffries (James Stewart) has decided that his neighbour Thorwald may have killed his wife. Jeffries' girlfriend Lisa (Grace Kelly) decides to investigate while he's away. She is trying to find the woman's wedding ring.
She climbs into his apartment....
While Jeffries watches with his telephoto lens.
The ring isn't in her purse....Gosh, she's purty!
A critical error - Jeffries is distracted by another neighbour who appears to be taking an overdose of sleeping pills.
He doesn't notice Thorwald coming home.
He calls the police.
Thorwald catches Lisa in his apartment, and starts to assault her.
He turns out the lights, but the police arrive, just in time.
As the cops question Thorwald, Lisa indicates that she has the ring.
Thorwald sees her pointing it out....
And looks across the way to see who is watching.
I apologize up front for choosing what is arguably the most obvious Hitchcock "Moment of Distinction", but I can't help it - I love this scene. I have probably seen Rear Window 8-10 times, and I get goose bumps every single time I watch this sequence.
A couple of things. Stewart is just brilliant in this scene, his panic rising as he watches the woman he loves being threatened right in front of his eyes, and he can't help her. The other thing has had volumes written about it - How Hitchcock turns the tables on Jeffries (and us) by letting him be an observer, and them suddenly thrusting him into an active role in the drama across the way. When Thorwald looks over with that icy stare, the message is clear. You're involved now, buddy.
Blackmail is Hitch's first sound film, but curiously, it doesn't start out that way. The film opens on a police chase, and for the first 10 minutes, we are watching a silent picture. The cops are plainly talking to one another, and a suspect is interrogated, but it's all just lip movement. It's not till after that one of the cops mentions off-handedly "That didn't take as long as I thought" , that we slip fully into sound.
One of the cops we've been following is Frank Webber, and we stick with Frank as he finishes his day, and meets his girlfriend Alice for a night on the town. Alice, however, is a little miffed at Frank for taking so long, and she lets him know. He brushes off her moodiness with the nonchalant manner of a man who has gotten to taking his girl for granted. It doesn't look like anything more than a little spat.
However, when they get to their restaurant, things perk up a bit. Alice secretly pulls out a little slip of paper passed to her by another man, who is trying to get together with her. She makes an excuse to back out of a movie with Frank, because she wants to meet this new guy in that very restaurant. Frank goes off to his movie by himself, but not before seeing Alice on the arm of the other man.
The date with the second man (an artist named Crewe), goes along innocently enough and he invites her up to his place to see his studio. It's fairly plain to see that the artist is now trying to seduce Alice here, with his paintings and arty loft. She lets herself be led along, however, after he remarks that he'd like to sketch her.
One thing leads to another, and Alice suddenly finds herself the target of an intended rape. The confrontation takes place behind a curtain, and a bread knife on the table suddenly finds it's way into Alice's hand. She stabs the artist to death. Watching this scene, it's not hard to notice that it was recycled years later in Dial M for Murder, as Grace Kelly dispatched her would-be-murderer with a pair of scissors.
It's in the aftermath of the murder, as Alice wanders the streets in a daze that we start to see a few Hitckcockian touches creep in. A neon sign featuring a martini shaker morphs into a hand with a knife. A gossipy visitor to her store prattles on about the murder, and the word "knife" repeatedly jumps out of her conversation, the rest of the words dissolving into mush.
Predictably enough, Frank is assigned to the murder investigation, and although he knows Alice was with the man, and finds her glove in his apartment, he keeps this information to himself. The blackmail of the title is introduced in the form of a shady little weasel named Tracy, who was hitting Crewe up for money and saw Alice go up to the apartment - And also saw Frank with her glove. This portion of the film is the weakest, as the blackmail only amounts to a box of cigars and a free breakfast. The film never really develops any tension around Tracy and his information, and when Tracy emerges as a possible murder suspect, the film simply skips to an extended chase scene.
In many of his films , Hitchcock would place the action in a well-known vista. Think of the Statue of Liberty in Saboteur, Mount Rushmore in North By Northwest, or Albert Hall in The Man Who Knew Too Much. It all began here , as the police pursue Tracy into the Brtish Museum, and he plunges through the top of the dome to his death.
Alice is now off the hook, since Tracy dies as the chief suspect, but Hitch isn't really done with her yet. It was a recurring theme in Hitchcock's film that an attractive blond was dragged down and humiliated in some way, and this is one of the earliest manifestations of this. You can read the murder investigation and Alices' guilty conscience as being a penance for her infidelity. After all, she sneaked around on Frank behind his back and went up to the apartment of this shady artist. The fact that she never intended to sleep with the guy is not really germane.
It's not really spelled out either, but it is nonetheless a relevant point that because Frank covered up her involvement in the crime, she is now bound to him. She has traded one blackmailer for another.
Monday, November 06, 2006
The Set-Up - Marty Maher (Tyrone Power) comes to see his wife Mary (Maureen O'Hara) in the hospital. She has miscarried with their first child.
When I think of John Ford, and the things that make him so great, I always come back to this scene. He was sometimes taken to task for being overly sentimental, and this scene could be Exhibit A. Well, tough. The thing that makes this sequence stand out for me is the great love that Ford has for these two people at this tragic moment, and how he quietly assures us that they will get through it.
Ford was a longtime supporter of the US Armed Forces, as well as an Irish immigrant, and there can be no question that Marty Maher lives pretty close to John Ford's heart. And mine, too.