Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart to Hades

Akihiro Tomikawa and Tomisaburo Wakayama in Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart to Hades (dir. Kenji Misumi, 1972).

More literally, "Perambulator Against the Winds of Death." I really don't know what to say about these Baby Cart movies. They're masterfully put together, and always gripping, but the codes--both filmic and ethical--are often opaque to me. Sometimes I get caught up in the unflagging emphasis on samurai honor before it occurs to me that this honor is depicted in an utterly incoherent way. Sometimes Ogami Itto steps in and does chivalrous things for damsels in distress (mostly prostitutes), and sometimes he just stands there with that sour, blank expression on his face (yes, it's both sour and blank) and watches the bad guys raping and killing innocent women. And there's just so much rape. Rape, rape, rape. Rape and killing. Lots of killing. Killing and honor. Every once in a while, when there's a lull in the carnage, li'l Daigoro looks around in wonder at scenes of natural serenity and beauty. At least I think it's wonder; his gaze is as blank and pitiless as his father's.


The Return of Frank James

Henry Fonda in The Return of Frank James (dir. Fritz Lang, 1940).

It's a disappointment that Fritz Lang's first western is not quite as good as the film it is a sequel to (Henry King's Jesse James). Not as good, that is, at being the kind of film the first was: a big romantic crowd pleaser with lots of action and glamor. This would be fine if it were as good as other Fritz Lang films, but that's not the case either, although there are some attractive visual arrangements in which you can spot his emotive signature of brooding and dread. Henry Fonda reprises his performance as Frank James, and he's good, but he never delivers fully on the promise of wraithlike sternness he showed just standing in front of the camera in Jesse. Gene Tierney doesn't make much of her movie debut: all she gets to do is be a perky kid reporter and make a few concerned noises. John Carradine is a pleasure to watch as Robert Ford, but here as in the first film, he has sadly little screen time. The Jackie Cooper character (gung-ho kid tagging along after Frank) is useless. The color is dramatically more muted than in the first film, and that would make sense if Lang were consistently true to his downbeat aesthetic, but the screen captures I've posted above nearly exhaust the moments when this is the case, so a lot of the time things just look dull. There's a brief but mildly inspired scene where Frank walks in on the Ford brothers doing a heinously false cabaret "reenactment" of Jesse's murder, with the delightful help of career extra Barbara Pepper as Nellie Blane, "The Most Beautiful Girl in the West."


Jesse James

I am a fugitive from a James gang: Tyrone Power as Jesse in Jesse James (dir. Henry King, 1939).

Is "Tyrone Power" the best name ever or what? If ever there were a moniker you would think for sure had to be dreamed up by an agent, there it is--but the Powers are actually a venerable old family, and Tyrone was named after a long line of fathers and grandfathers. The next thing you'd think is that this guy was just a cardboard cut-out with a nice physique and smile, but he's convincing as Jesse, especially when he's got a few days' growth of beard to cover over the look of pampered innocence. I really want to believe that the following quote I found attributed to him on IMdB is genuine, but my confidence level is low: "Some day I will show all the motherfuckers who say I was a success just because of my pretty face. Sometimes I wish I'd have a really bad car accident so my face would get smashed up and I'd look like Eddie Constantine."

The movie is pure Hollywood: unrepentant historical distortion, anachronistic hair and makeup, endless schtick of all sorts. It's also a fun ride, and has some nuance here and there. There are even a few moments when the technicolor popcorn-fest darkens to admit some chilling vignettes, as when some neighborhood kids play outlaw in the front yard, pointing sticks at little Jesse Junior and shouting "You're Jesse James! You're dead!" "I'm dead," he agrees quietly, with hands folded across his chest, as his father looks on in consternation--moments before going to live out the scene in earnest himself.


Home from the Hill

"How a man lives": Robert Mitchum in Home from the Hill (dir. Vincente Minelli, 1960).

George Peppard and Luana Patten.

Eleanor Parker.

They don't make them like this anymore. Specifically, the grand genre of Hollywood melodrama is all but extinct, at least in its pure form, although there are decadent vestiges of it in things like As Good as It Gets, The Ice Storm, or even a mess like Crash (Haggis, not Cronenberg). Spike Lee and David Lynch, to name just a couple, still pay visual and structural homage to the genre here and there. Todd Haynes' Far from Heaven is a loving facsimile of high Sirkian melodrama, but in such a self-consciously conspicuous manner that it only reinforces my point: that the genre can exist fully now only as pastiche. It's not just that the codes and conventions of the form now convert instantly into irony; that irony was always there, generating much of the beguiling tension that thrummed beneath the exaggerated color and statuesque human posturings. Part of the irony of the irony then was that the picture would still make hearts swell and break whether the irony were missed or not. Now if it is missed, the drama falls flat, and if it is caught, the drama either falls flat or wasn't meant to stand up in the first place. We have not, in truth, grown more ironic as a culture; we have stopped learning how to integrate our irony with other modes of consciousness. When we single something out as "ironic" now, it often means either that we are being lazy in not accounting more inclusively for the strangely mediated pathos to which we are responding, or--perhaps, sadly, more frequently--that a flat, simplistic travesty of irony is all there is to respond to.

Minelli's luxuriously blighted saga of the Hunnicutt family is brimming with irony, but it is an irony that never hardens into self-negation. Nor does it overwhelm its characters with what is, up to a point, its earnest contempt for their surface glamor and carnality. Robert Mitchum's Wade Hunnicutt is a swaggering, callous rogue, a cheater and neglecter, a bloodthirsty feudal throwback. His lust for life and even love is a sort of grace, but not really a saving one. In the end, we feel close to him without admiring or respecting him. Similarly, his two sons--one (Theron, played by George Hamilton) legitimate and acknowledged but plagued by self-doubt, the other (Rafael or Rafe, played by George Peppard) a bastard swept under the rug but possessed of ambition and vitality--are just out of the reach of our affections. Each is likeable in his own way, but not fully loveable: they are too neurotic, too chained to the repressed agon of their origins. Wade's wife Hannah (Eleanor Parker) has been sexually and emotionally unavailable to him for years, nursing an unwavering resentment of his infidelity. Her passive resistance to his demands for warmth reads at first as frigidity, and her closeness to Theron as manipulative and smothering, but these stereotypical qualities are gradually revealed as surface tics. Theron (the name itself is ironic, at least at first--he starts off as anything but a "wild beast") falls in love with young Libby Halsted (Luana Patten), and for a short time becomes confident in himself as a man, but the weight of his family history intrudes, and Rafe must become his surrogate. It's complicated, as they say on Facebook. But what marks all this as hardcore melodrama is not the convoluted and grotesque web of troubled relationships per se. It is an implied attitude toward these travails, a mood of fatalistic lyricism. The objective correlative to this mood, here as in all great cinematic melodrama, is distributed across the entire mise en scene of the production. It is in the set decor, the lighting, the music, the near-absurdly rich color, the almost exaggeratedly elegant composition in the frame. Life, this look and feel seems to say, is the grandest and most sweeping of hollow spectacles. Its sorrows and sweetnesses are all the sharper for being so easily mocked.


Young Mr. Lincoln

Henry Fonda in Young Mr. Lincoln (dir. John Ford, 1939).

In the courtroom.

Facing the stormy future.

When cinema was still wet and lumpy as river clay, directors like John Ford took huge gobs of it in their godlike hands and sculpted fluid monuments to the noblest and most moving dreams of humanity. Hell yes, I'm mythologizing, and so were they, magnificently. Like you, I don't trust such legend-mongering on a basic ideological level. Also like you, I hope, I need at times to be susceptible to what it offers: a vision of ideals that may always already be corrupted, but that nevertheless represent the heights of our imagination as a democratic culture, and deserve to be given expression, if only as a reminder of what a painful abandonment of such ideals our cynicism demands.

Henry Fonda's Lincoln is truer than true. He looks nothing like him until about ten minutes into the picture, at which time the force of his embodiment causes you to readjust your notion of the historical man, to replace his face with the one in front of you. The story itself is slight, a quaint and tangential courtroom drama, in and around which the more significant historical figures--Mary Todd, Stephen Douglas, even Lincoln himself in some ways--hover as detached observers, or phantoms. The young Mr. Lincoln is mercurially buffoonish, melancholy, gallant, mischievous, inscrutable, more like a trickster hybrid of Paul Bunyan and Mr. Deeds than a president-in-the-making. He splits logs, wolfs down alternate bites of peach and apple pie, cheats at a tug-of-war, mopes over graves, goes into reveries over rivers. He cuts an endearingly absurd figure in his stovepipe hat and frontier boots, riding a mule into Springfield to begin his practice of law. At a moment's notice, he clouds over with an inconsolable darkness, lost in his private apprehension of bleak truths too painful for words.

Sergei Eisenstein said that Young Mr. Lincoln was the dearest to him of all American films (his essay on it is included in the liner notes to the Criterion DVD, along with an appreciation by Geoffrey O'Brien). This will not surprise those who see the obvious affinities between Eisenstein and Ford, most notably their reliance on the stirring historicized tableau as the central visual force in their work, Eisenstein's pioneering approach to montage notwithstanding. In addition, however, he is responding to what so many others have responded to in the movie: its sweetness that is never saccharine, its wistfulness that obliquely foreshadows events beyond the frame of the story.

The brief two-part Ann Rutledge episode near the beginning acts as a sort of reverse coda, a setting-up of the overall mood, with its juxtaposition of youthful blitheness and fatal disappointment. Like so much else in the film, it does not resolve into the main plot. It is there for us in the same way it is for Lincoln himself, as part of what is real and inescapable, what colors all other everyday events with its memory and implications. It takes a few moments to sink in that this movie, with all its vitality and grace and light touches, is a death hymn.

Oh, if you haven't yet, see it at once!


Top Ten Films of 2007

With the Oscars coming up tomorrow evening, this seems as good a time as any to list and rank my favorite films from 2007. One problem with trying to do so is that I only saw about twenty or twenty-five new films total, so inclusion on this list is not in itself a guarantee of top quality. On the other hand, with the exception of the number ten slot, I didn't have too many problems deciding what went on the list, and I didn't have to hold my nose too much.

10. I’m Not There (dir. Todd Haynes). I thought it was a disaster overall, but the music was great, and Cate Blanchett's performance was superhumanly good--good enough that the film was able to edge out Children of Men, Cloverfield, Gone Baby Gone, Superbad, Zodiac, The Darjeeling Limited, American Gangster, and Michael Clayton, the only other possible contenders. OK, Cloverfield and Michael Clayton never had a chance.

9. Grindhouse (dirs. Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino). Arguably, this is two movies, and Rodriguez' Planet Terror wouldn't cut it on its own, but it's just enough fun as a double feature that it bumps Tarantino's Death Proof up past what would probably otherwise be the number 12 or 13 spot.

8. 28 Weeks Later (dir. Juan Carlos Fresnadillo). Really not much more than your garden-variety, fast-paced, stone cold zombie movie with a depressing subtext of global hopelessness. I.e., a shoo-in.

7. The Mist (dir. Frank Darabont). See above, but substitute creatures from another dimension for zombies. This movie pissed me off for days. I found myself having mental arguments with it and losing. It still pisses me off. How dare it end up on my list.

6. Inland Empire (dir. David Lynch). Demanding, disjunctive, and dark (I mean literally, as in optically--I made the mistake of trying to watch it first in the daytime, and over half the time there was no way to get the room dark enough to make out anything on the TV screen). Careful out there: when I hear the word "self-indulgent" I reach for my existential rabbit sitcom.

5. Eastern Promises (dir. David Cronenberg). Cronenberg at his most Hitchcockian--something about the way Naomi Watts zips around on that little scooter. I love the way Cronenberg goes out of his way at key moments to make it look like his budget was even lower than it actually was, especially when it comes to the wound makeup. I can't believe Viggo Mortensen got an Oscar nomination for this. He'll never win, but the mere fact that some Academy members even saw the film gives me a tiny scrap of faith in humanity.

4. 3:10 to Yuma (dir. James Mangold). I can't help it. Parts of it are terribly corny, and there's a little too much "production value" at times (Mangold somehow gets a shootout with nineteenth-century firearms to feel like a scene from Die Hard), but this is good ol' western stuff.

3. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (dir. Andrew Dominik). Another western, but this one paced and plotted more like a Russian novel. Just a beautifully realized piece of cinema, with the best performance Brad Pitt has yet given.

2. There Will Be Blood (dir. Paul Thomas Anderson). It was a close call between this and the number one film--I waffled several times. Daniel Day-Lewis is almost too good: he threatens to implode into dark matter and generate a black hole that annihilates the rest of the film and the audience and theater and solar system with it (go ahead, laugh at me, you people who know how to use "dark matter" correctly in a sentence). The little imperfections, mostly revolving around Paul Dano's character, are at worst mildly distracting, and cannot seriously diminish the cumulative impact of the film. Perhaps the most damaging criticism that has been leveled against it is that it shies away from fully engaging the political content of Upton Sinclair's novel, but I see this as one of the film's most impressive accomplishments: what might have been didactic and heavy-handed emerges as a parable in which the personal and the political are packed tightly together into an enigmatic, rock-hard core of devastated values and visions.

1. No Country for Old Men (dir. Joel and Ethan Coen). Another film that I found myself arguing with. I'm still not completely down with the "literariness" into which it lapses, or lurches, in its final moments. On balance, however, this is some of the most viscerally astounding moviemaking of the past couple of decades. That Josh Brolin didn't receive a Best Actor (or even Best Supporting Actor) nomination from the Academy is a disgrace.


Vantage Point

William Hurt as a fake president in Vantage Point (dir. Pete Travis, 2008).

Someone by now must have come up with a special term for movies like this one, where it's basically our world, with our history, except that in the present there's some totally made-up president. I mean, it's nice to imagine having a different president from the one we've got, but it's always sort of distracting. The mind wanders, trying to reconcile the fiction with reality: let's see, they mention Reagan in the film, so it seems safe to assume that in this world, as in ours, Bush 1 succeeded Reagan, and Clinton followed Bush 1, and they mention 9/11 too, so it stands to reason that Bush 2 was in the mix there at some point ... but then what? Is this supposed to be the near future? No one named "Ashton" is running in this election that I know of, in either party. The whole alternate universe thing is just too silly when there's just that one little detail--the leader of the free world--that's changed (wait, I forgot, there's always also a major cable TV news network you've never heard of). Or, if one were able to look more closely into this other dimension, would one find other little discrepancies as well? Say, that grapefruits are poisonous, or that dogs can talk, or that Woody Allen is governor of Arizona? And if we do have a different president, why does he have to be William Hurt, for Christ's sake?

Then there's the whole Rashomon different-points-of-view structure thingy. Its function here as a device that generates suspense via the repeated deferral of key expositional moments has "device that generates suspense via the repeated deferral of key expositional moments" written all over it. It was entertaining listening to the movie theater audience groan every time the clock backed up again.

The who-saw-what business takes up about the first two thirds of the film, and then it switches over to a conventional omniscient perspective, which seems sloppy; if you're going to have this gimmicky conceit, it should at least be presented cleverly enough that it extends over the course of the whole story. Once you clear away all the smoke from the mirrors, here's what you're left with: typical plot about a Secret Service guy trying to get his nerve back after a damaging incident in the past, typical stereotypical terrorists, typical little kid in danger who you're supposed to care more about than all the other innocent bystanders who get blown up, typical car chase (pretty exciting, I'll admit), typical half-assed attempts at social commentary sprinkled here and there like big words in a lame freshman essay.


Joe Kidd

Clint Eastwood in Joe Kidd (dir. John Sturges, 1972).

Do I think of John Sturges' films as "sturdy" simply because his name begins with Stur? Could be, but Joe Kidd, adapted by Elmore Leonard from his story Sinola, is that if not much else. Eastwood is likeable enough in the title role, but is not operating at full power (he had a bad flu for the duration of the shooting). His character seems modeled in part after Dean Martin's "Dude" in Howard Hawks' Rio Bravo: the washed-up town drunk who gets his groove back under pressure. Eastwood can do this routine passably, but here it isn't a necessary part of the story, and even if it were, it's not as gratifying as when Martin does it. We don't cheer for him in the same way. We don't want him to shake off his demons; we want him to harness them, as he does in Unforgiven, where there's little doubt he'll go back to hitting the bottle after the credits roll.

Robert Duvall makes a good mean son of a bitch as Frank Harlan, the landowner who pays Kidd to help him go after the rather dull John Saxon as Mexican revolutionary Luis Chama (which Harlan pronounces "Chay-ma"). A lot of the tension is broken about halfway through when Harlan dispenses with Kidd's services and it's clearly established that Kidd is thenceforth on Chama's side. Up to that point, it's interesting watching Kidd trying to wrestle with his priorities, but then it all just settles into a big comfortable shoot-'em-up. You do get to see a train plough into a barroom, which is nice.


Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart at the River Styx

Akihiro Tomikawa in Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart at the River Styx (dir. Kenji Misumi, 1972).

Or "Perambulator of the River of Sanzu." Sword of Vengeance and this film were edited down into one movie and redistributed in 1980 as Shogun Assassin. More stirring samurai adventure as Ogami Itto and son Daigoro battle a troop of female warriors and the "Gods of Death": three brothers who use various metal hand attachments to dispatch their enemies with maximum gore. As with the first film, the appeal is largely in the dramatic contrast between the ultraviolence of the fight scenes and the tender (but desentimentalized) relationship between father and son. I'm still trying to get a fix on Misumi's approach to gender and sexuality: in particular, he has some weirdly ambivalent and perhaps arrested feelings about breasts.


After Dark, My Sweet

Rachel Ward in After Dark, My Sweet (dir. James Foley, 1990).

Director James Foley has amassed a string of semi-noir thrillers since the eighties that fall into that not-quite-classic, slightly-better-than-B-level category--sort of the Tay Garnett of his era. So far, there's not one film among those of his I've seen (At Close Range, Who's That Girl, Glengarry Glen Ross, The Chamber, The Corruptor, et al.) that completely transcends its generic studio-contract milieu in the way that, say, Garnett's The Postman Always Rings Twice did, but his adaptation of Jim Thompson's After Dark, My Sweet might come the closest.

For one thing, the movie looks great. The richly saturated color and elegant widescreen composition evoke Blue Velvet at times (Foley directed an episode of Twin Peaks the following year). For another, the four leads, Jason Patric, Rachel Ward, Bruce Dern, and George Dickerson (another Blue Velvet connection) are all nicely cast. Dern in particular makes you feel that no one else could have nailed the part of "Uncle Bud" so perfectly.

The film's flaws begin, ironically, with its diligent faithfulness to the novel. At times, it feels like you're watching Masterpiece Theater. The story is too lean and bleak to stand up under such reverent literary treatment. With the exception of two slight changes that I noticed, both having to do with the deaths of supporting characters, you could practically read the book along with the film. Those changes, furthermore, are intelligent ones that enhance cinematic effectiveness: there could have been a few more such changes, and it would have helped the production as a whole to escape from its slavishness to Thompson's text. There are one or two characters who could have been removed entirely, and it might have freed up space for more dynamic plot development. I'm thinking particularly of the "wrong boy" who complicates the kidnapping attempt: because we don't learn of his fate the way we do in the novel, his importance is essentially removed. For that matter, that whole episode is one of the strangest parts of the novel in the first place, and I'm not sure it works even there. I'm also thinking of the doctor (Dickerson) who befriends Collie (Patric). One thing the film does that's interesting is to make the doctor's homosexual interest in Collie more palpable; in Thompson, this is if anything only the faintest subtext. But Foley doesn't really go anywhere with this. It stays at the level of surface coloration, a tentatively interpretive gesture rather than an aggressive reworking of the source material.

And then there's Patric's voiceover. Voiceovers, voiceovers. When will directors learn? Yes, there are times when they work, in some movies. But they have to be movies in which the "textuality effect" thus generated has some relevance. In Thompson's novel, the first-person narration is key to the total logical and emotional impact of the novel, in a very specific way that I won't discuss here so as not to spoil it for those who haven't read it. Foley's transplanting of this device into the film does not follow through with the significance that Thompson attaches to it, and so it serves merely as a cheap expositional shortcut. There are plenty of ways that the information provided by the voiceover could have been supplied via dialogue and action. In fact, there a couple of moments when the voiceover would have helped the viewer understand the character's motivation for key choices he makes, and we don't get it. So it's not even consistently applied.

Still worth seeing, especially directly after reading the book--among other things, as a stimulating object lesson in different ways novelistic material can succeed or fail in the transition to the screen.


The Intruder

William Shatner having uncanny intimations of the Vulcan salute in The Intruder (dir. Roger Corman, 1962).

William Shatner gets through his performance as Adam Cramer, a racist agitator who tries to stir up unrest over integration in a small southern town, without lapsing into Shatnerian histrionics once. Instead, he lapses into it about three times. Still, that's pretty good! He's really pretty good! The whole movie is pretty good. It was filmed on the lowest of budgets, using only a small handful of professional actors: the rest were actual townspeople, many of whom had no idea what kind of movie they were appearing in, and who might have helped the angry mob scenes turn real if they found out. Roger Corman took the first financial loss (only a slight one) of his career with this film, but didn't regret it a bit--it was a labor of love, and it deserves to be seen, as dated and stagey as some of its dramatic elements now seem.


Lone Wolf and Cub: Sword of Vengeance

Tomisaburo Wakayama in Lone Wolf and Cub: Sword of Vengeance (dir. Kenji Misumi, 1972).

I like the literal English title better: Wolf with Child in Tow: Child and Expertise for Rent.

This is the first of six films in the Kozure Ôkami series, adapted by screenwriter Kazuo Koike from his immensely popular manga series. I'm not a samurai film aficionado (yet), so I'll leave it to someone else to chart the influence of these films and ones like them on Tarantino's Kill Bill, which features similar balletic dismemberments and squirting firehose-streams of blood. That is, I don't know if these were the first films in this genre with this particular garish visual style and spaghetti-western-tinged music, but they certainly are impressive. Tomisaburo Wakayama is Ogami Itto, a Ronin or renegade samurai, whose wife is murdered by some Shogun faction or other (I don't even know if I'm using any of these words right), whereupon he hits the road as an assassin for hire, pushing his son Daigoro along with him in a wooden baby cart. His face is stolidly inexpressive at all times, which makes him seem very expressive. And little Daigoro is pretty much the same way, in addition to being so darned cute. When we first meet him, he is being snatched up by an insane woman who force-breastfeeds him while his father stands by patiently. Starting to get an idea of the weirdness here? But, while it is weird, it would be misleading to suggest that the entire thing is a big long kinkfest. For the most part, it's classical narrative film in the adventure tradition, with all the familiar attending humanist themes of nobility and fatalistic grace, tweaked toward a bizarre sado-eroticism ever so slightly.

In this first installment, the events described above occur, and then Ogami Itto takes an assignment that places him in a small village held hostage by a bunch of pirate-like guys who are in some way relevant to the assignment in question, but I'm not sure exactly how. While there, Ogami Itto obeys these guys' orders to have sex with an attractive prostitute, an act she perceives as extremely chivalrous and selfless, which, in context, it is. Why? Doesn't matter. There ensues lots of swordplay and leaping and geysers of blood. Fwwooooooshhhhhh.


The Missouri Breaks

Marlon Brando in The Missouri Breaks (dir. Arthur Penn, 1976).

"Is your nerve gone"? Jack Nicholson.

There are things to admire about The Missouri Breaks. Thomas McGuane's screenplay (I see that Robert Towne had a hand in it too, to what extent I don't know) is filled with dialogue that navigates successfully between the grittily brutish and the comically absurd ("The closer you get towards Canada, the more things'll eat your horse"). Jack Nicholson, Randy Quaid, Harry Dean Stanton, and others give fine, restrained performances. Other things are not so admirable, such as a sense of narrative inertia at times, a superfluous romance plot, and on an extra-aesthetic note, the fact that animals were badly mistreated and even killed during its making (the AHA condemned the film). The element, however, that is most likely to stick in your memory--an element that renders the categories of "admirable" and "unadmirable" very difficult to keep straight--is Marlon Brando's freakish, sprawling, largely improvised portrayal of Robert E. Lee Clayton, the "regulator" (hit man, basically) who is hired by a Tristram Shandy-reading rancher (played by John McLiam) to come in and pick off some cattle rustlers. Brando does nothing but goof the entire time he is on screen: he mugs, babbles, prances, preens, moues, orates, kisses his horse on the lips, and dresses at one point like an old woman. His Irish (I think) accent is a set piece unto itself. It's impossible to say whether all this "works"; works at what? There is really nothing else to compare it to in cinema. Nicholson had a personal crisis during the filming, feeling that he wasn't worthy to act alongside Brando. The tension shows, but it actually enhances his performance. In the small handful of scenes in which he interacts with Brando (all but the last), we see him doubting his strength, shrinking into inadequacy, losing his nerve--all of which is what the script calls for. The wounds to the actor's pride are also wounds to the character's.


The Panic in Needle Park

Al Pacino and Kitty Winn in The Panic in Needle Park (dir. Jerry Schatzberg, 1971).

A chronicle of the days and nights of a young couple in New York's Sherman Square area, nicknamed "Needle Park" because of its drug scene, in the early seventies. Al Pacino and Kitty Winn are flawless (Winn won the Golden Palm at Cannes for her performance) as Bobby and Helen, whose heroin addictions slowly squeeze their lives into a narrow crawlspace of constant withdrawals, hustling, and betrayal. The naturalistic, docu-style mise en scene is so convincing that it's suffocating. The location shooting and grimy interiors are as much the focus of our attention as the people in the foreground. Put another way, both characters and setting feel so real (some of the supporting cast were in fact actual junkies) that the artifice of foreground and background seems to drop away. The film's only serious misstep is to spend too much time on the character of Hotch, a young narcotics detective: the perspective he represents, of the concerned establishment idealist with his melancholy awareness of how badly these poor kids are messing up their lives and how little can be done to help them, is unnecessary, as the rest of the film conveys this perfectly well on its own.


The Invasion

Nicole Kidman in The Invasion (dir. Oliver Hirschbiegel, 2007).

Don Siegel's 1956 adaptation of Jack Finney's novel Invasion of the Body Snatchers is perhaps the most eloquent cinematic manifestation of anticommunist paranoia ever: its subtext undermines itself so beautifully that the irony involved in perceiving the film as profound emerges finally as less significant than the perception of profundity itself. (Philip Kaufman's 1978 remake demonstrates the continuing power of the premise minus the specific political neurosis of the original, emphasizing instead the scariness of all cultishness--if anything is lost in the dissolution of the cold war context, it is made up for by the freaky noise the pod people make when they spot a normal person, and by an innovatively poignant use of bagpipes. I don't remember if I ever saw all of Abel Ferrara's 1993 treatment, but from what I can recall, by that point much of the effectiveness of the story had been blanched out. I hear some good things about the recent TV series.)

Oliver Hirschbiegel's 2007 "update" tries to wear its ambivalence prominently, by raising the question whether colonization of our identities by hyper-rational aliens might not be preferable to having the world continue down its present path of mayhem. The problem is, of course, the obviousness of the answer to this question. Bring on the spores. I mean, once they have the news reports of peace in the Middle East and North Korea holding hands with the rest of the world and so on, what possible reason is there to root for Nicole Kidman? Okay, they're going to off her kid because he's immune. Still.

Also, Veronica Cartwright, who had a lead role in Kaufman's film, ought logically not to have played the woman who complains that her husband has changed, but the smaller part of the person running in traffic trying to warn everyone, just as Kevin McCarthy, the star of the original, did in Kaufman's version.


The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

Casey Affleck and Brad Pitt in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (dir. Andrew Dominik, 2007).

At the showing of the body.

Zooey Deschanel.

Andrew Dominik's only directing credit prior to Assassination is 2000's excellent Chopper with Eric Bana, another outlaw story. Neither film either glorifies or condemns its characters, though it would not be entirely accurate to say that it doesn't romanticize them--and a good thing too, because a western that is completely without romanticization has nothing to offer beyond trite "debunking" gestures. But more to the point, can you name a single western that truly does this in the first place? Could there be anything more "romantic" than The Wild Bunch, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, or Unforgiven? Altman said he hated westerns, and one can see how films like McCabe were attempts to destroy the genre, but in the end the actors and locations overcome such attempts.

One reason Assassination works so beautifully is that it leaves it consistently up to the viewer to gauge the ironic or nonironic valences of the title. The relationship between Jesse James and Robert Ford never resolves into either outright antipathy or deep friendship: they dance around each other with multiple, sometimes conflicting attitudes for the duration of their acquaintance. When the inevitable occurs, it cannot be classified simply as a betrayal, but it's not quite honorable either. Affleck's measured portrayal of Ford forces you to revise your estimation of him at every turn, but without resorting to facile tropes of ethical redemption or transcendence. Pitt's nervous, magnetic Jesse seems always on the verge of coming into focus as a person, but finally remains a cipher on the order of Jay Gatsby: he exists even to himself only as a set of fragile loyalties and unmanageable threats. Both actors are mesmerizing.

Also mesmerizing is the fluid, languorous camerawork, which indulges in picturesque tableaus so sparingly that it's not only forgiveable, but disruptive of a subtlety that otherwise might threaten to turn into blandness. My only regret is that Zooey Deschanel was not given at least as much screen time as Barbara Britton had with the equivalent character in Sam Fuller's I Shot Jesse James (which I recommend watching in a double feature with Dominik's film).



Roy Scheider in Sorcerer (dir. William Friedkin, 1977).

Here is yet another film I became aware of years ago through its soundtrack, but did not see until now. The music in this case is by Tangerine Dream, and it plays permanently in a small, dark area of my consciousness. No movie could ever live up to the one I had imagined for it: a swirling, poisonous odyssey of hallucination and peril, a radioactive rain forest in hell. Some of Friedkin's footage does actually approach this "ideal," although there is disappointingly little of the full soundtrack in the film itself. Disappointing, because little else in it is fully realized, though Friedkin has said in interviews that of all his projects, it is the one that comes the closest to realizing his starting vision (although he also ungraciously blamed Roy Scheider for its failure at the box office, claiming that he was not capable of pulling off a strong leading role). It is certainly not in the same league with the original The Wages of Fear. Friedkin adds a ton of backstory that does absolutely nothing but delay the main narrative. A lot of fuss has been made over the elaborate car crash scene in the Philadelphia sequence, but please. It's a car crash.

There is still enough effective moviemaking here to make it a crime that the DVD is only available in full screen (Friedkin has been promising a new edition for years, but I haven't heard anything concrete about when it's coming out, if ever). The South American scenes are sometimes so nightmarish that they place an obligation on the rest of the picture to follow through on their gravity--an obligation it simply can't meet. And Friedkin was wrong about Scheider. He is really just right for this role, precisely because he embodies a particular strain of weakness-in-ruggedness, of corrupted masculine confidence.


Le salaire de la peur [The Wages of Fear]

Le salaire de la peur [The Wages of Fear] (dir. Henri-Georges Clouzot, 1953).

Véra Clouzot.

Charles Vanel.

From the first frame, for just about every second of footage, Clouzot's The Wages of Fear realizes the potential of narrative cinema at least as powerfully as any other examples I can call to mind, and I'm trying very hard to resist the temptation to say that it surpasses them. Does it have flaws? Yes, of course, both technical and moral. But they are flaws that one can read like the illogicalities of myth, or the stylistic aporiae of classical tragedy.

Four men must drive two trucks loaded with nitroglycerine through 300 miles of treacherous South American terrain. A pretty basic premise, with its existential power virtually built in. The men are fugitives and castouts, removed from the contexts that would allow us to identify them as "sympathetic" or "unlikeable": they are the perfect noir protagonists, their civilized codes and sensibilities stripped away to make space for subtler, instinctual drives that have their own ethical dimensions. Neither they nor the audience know what these dimensions are until the moments of their realization, and the suspense lies as much in this as in the bumpy roads and rickety bridges (and there's plenty there to begin with).

There are three main classes of persons around whom the action circulates: the transient, largely European expatriates who find odd jobs and crooked deals where they can, spending the rest of their time drinking and loafing in the cantina; the American oil company that has come in to rip up the earth and exploit cheap labor; and the impoverished locals and indigenous peoples who get variously swept up (or trampled) in the influx. There are no heroes, and the only clear villain is a kind of generalized greed, manifested most frighteningly in the callous policies of the Americans, but supported at all levels by the meanest small-time players. The indigenous tribespeople and poor villagers are portrayed as naked, innocent, childlike--a treatment that skirts condescension by its insistence on a raw, presentational realism.

The 2005 Criterion DVD edition restores the film's original ending, which apparently was radically edited in the only version seen by many for years.


Satan Met a Lady

"Would you mind taking off your hat in the presence of a lady--with a gun?" Bette Davis in Satan Met a Lady (dir. William Dieterle, 1936).

The second filmed version of The Maltese Falcon is actually a farcical synthesis of that story and Hammett's other hit book-movie crossover, The Thin Man (The Continental Op has never fared as successfully on the screen--someday someone at HBO or somewhere will get it right as a truly hard-boiled cable series). Now the falcon is a ram's horn, and Sam Spade is "Ted Shane," a dapper dick with a barbed outlook. It's alternately painful and amusing to watch. Though the whole is a train wreck, the parts are mostly a delight, especially Marie Wilson as absurdist secretary "Miss Murgatroyd." Wilson's high voice and erratic bodily movements are alarming at first: she always looks like she's about to start crying and go into a seizure. Once you adjust to the strangeness, however, it's endearing. Arthur Treacher, later of Merv Griffin and fish & chips fame, gives good droll in a British variation on the Joel Cairo role, and Alison Skipworth as "Madame Barrabas," the female equivalent of Casper Gutman, is both funny and menacing. William Warren as Shane is probably the biggest misfire. It's not his fault--he does the decadent sophisticate thing quite well. The problem is the very concept of making the Spade-based character a cocktail-sipping clothes horse. There's more than enough farcical potential in the original story, and going that extra step to work in the Thin Man elements just makes a muddle of things.

Now I wish I could find a DVD copy of 1975's The Black Bird, with George Segal as Sam Spade's son. I saw it upon its first theatrical release, and remember it being funny. On the other hand, I was twelve.


The Maltese Falcon

Una Merkel and Ricardo Cortez in The Maltese Falcon (dir. Roy Del Ruth, 1931).

You'd have to be nuts to prefer this first cinematic version of The Maltese Falcon over the 1941 John Huston version with Bogart and Astor, but in its own way it conveys some of Hammett's tone even more successfully. Part of this is because the film code hadn't kicked in yet, and the sleaze level is accordingly high. The hardest part to accept is Ricardo Cortez's Sam Spade, who grins like a baboon all the time for no apparent reason. Other than that, he's pretty good. The whole cast dives into the material with gusto--especially fun to watch are Una Merkel as Spade's secretary Effie, Dwight Frye as the sociopathic boy toy Wilma Cook, and Otto Matieson as Dr. Cairo.


Side Street

Farley Granger in Side Street (dir. Anthony Mann, 1950).

Granger and O'Donnell team up again for another small classic. O'Donnell doesn't have quite as much to do here as in They Live By Night, but she's still in top form, and Granger seizes his chance to shine: he is an absolutely sympathetic anti-hero, whose increasing sense of fear and desperation drives him to make ethical decisions that prove equally as disastrous as his unethical ones.

Mann is one of the pioneers of location shooting in the noir mode, and Side Street is nearly as impressive in this regard as Dassin's Naked City. A liberal application of aerial shots emphasizes the characters' haplessness and alienation as they skulk and speed down the endless maze of side streets framed by absurdly tall structures, scrambling like rats over a stolen and re-stolen bag of already-stolen money. Jean Hagen enters the film late in the action, but totally takes it over as a poetry-loving nightclub singer ("Oh, my love's like a red, red rose," she intones dreamily over a shabby little flower, shortly before playing Farley Granger for a sucker, and then getting played for a sucker herself).


Phantom Lady Clip at Noir of the Week

In my May 12 2007 post on Robert Siodmak's Phantom Lady, I lamented not having access to a DVD version so I could select just the right screen capture from the great "hep kitten" jazz scene with Ella Raines and Elisha Cook Jr. Now you can watch the whole scene in a clip in this post at Noir of the Week. It's at about the 3:40 point that things get really crazy.


They Live By Night

Cathy O'Donnell and Farley Granger in They Live By Night (dir. Nicholas Ray, 1948).

Howard Da Silva and Farley Granger.

Helen Craig.

Nicholas Ray infuses this low-budget crime melodrama with about ten kilotons of passion and style. Everything feels full of brooding and danger, even when there's not much going on, which is often the case. There are few actual set pieces, and the movement of the story overall is languid to the point of inertia. When it arrives at its inevitable climax, however, you feel the weight of everything that's led up to it, and it all takes on a poignant shapeliness. Granger and O'Donnell exude haunted magnetism, especially O'Donnell, who moves through the shadows (there are always shadows) like a grim and lovely wraith. Howard Da Silva and Jay C. Flippen (as characters named "One-Eye" and "T-Dub," respectively) are both outstanding as the criminals with whom Granger's "Bowie" is codependent, and Helen Craig plays the moll Mattie Mansfield like an understated Medea: she seethes with restrained bitterness that occasionally flares into bursts of physical anger.



Eleanor Parker in Caged (dir. John Cromwell, 1950).

Don't be put off by the lurid stigma of the "women in prison" genre: this is a superbly crafted, unsettling drama, nearly in the same class with films like Brute Force and A Man Escaped. Eleanor Parker plays a young woman convicted as an accessory to a robbery in which her husband, the main perpetrator, was shot and killed by the police. She enters prison scared and naive, and must gradually adjust her entire ethical world view in order not just to survive, but to retain whatever personal power she has left. Agnes Moorehead is a sympathetic but impotent warden, and Hope Emerson is a loathsomely evil "matron" (guard). Jan Sterling, from Mystery Street, instills her character "Smoochie" with a level of dyke chic I would wager the screen had not thitherto seen.


The Far Country

Walter Brennan, Corinne Calvet, and Jimmy Stewart in The Far Country (dir. Anthony Mann, 1954).
RENEE [Corinne Calvet]: It arrived today: a piano.
BEN [Walter Brennan]: A pie-anny? Why couldn't that old walrus pack in a pig, or a sheep, or a goat, or a--
RENEE: You can't play a goat!