Man of the West

Julie London and Gary Cooper in Man of the West (dir. Anthony Mann, 1958).

This film--its story, presentation of character, plot movement, implied heroic code--is best watched as one would attend to the speech of one's patient (assuming one is a therapist) on the psychiatric couch. The same could be said for the bulk of classic Hollywood narrative cinema, especially in genres like the Western: genres, that is, that require investment in a mythos of lonely dignity and the quiet transcendence of principled individualism over the barbarisms that attend social alliances on the frontier.

In the case of Gary Cooper's Link Jones, this is a transcendence of both the outlaw gang, led by Lee J. Cobb, in which he was conditioned for a life of crime, and the emerging America of technological progress and civilized conformity. A train pulling into the station envelops him in steam, and he cringes in horror: the future has arrived, and it is bigger and rougher than he is. A chatty fellow passenger, played by Arthur O'Connell, nearly suffocates him with his familiarity and urban banality. Only once the train is waylaid by bandits, and he must escort O'Connell and schoolteacher Julie London through the countryside, is he at ease. In the wild, he can be self-possessed. Nevertheless, this trek leads him smack-dab onto the porch of his old hideout from his early days as a badman. His mentor Cobb has become a half-senile monster, an aging king who exerts a fragile control over his followers. For the rest of the film, Cooper has to exploit whatever cred he still has with Cobb to keep him and his charges from being killed. He must re-enter his old life in order to burn it out from within and effect a virtuous rebirth.

It's all much messier than that. It's a messy movie (though not at the level of visual composition). Tangents like Julie London's enforced striptease and Cooper's outrageous fight scene with Jack Lord take center stage. Mann was always a skilled orchestrator of symptoms rather than a director with a consciously critical vision. Man of the West was problematic for its original audience, perhaps because the symptoms in question really do look like symptoms. Cooper's anxiety is the dominant note of the film, and it never dissipates, even after the main plot points are resolved. This is most evident in the erotic tension that permeates his scenes with London. She accentuates by reverse example the safeness and dullness of his reformed life with a wife and family we never see. Just as Cobb and his outlaws represent the past he has tried to leave behind, she represents the sacrifices he must make to preserve his present and future. There's never a moment of climactic acceptance or dramatic breach; everything just simmers continually.

A fascinating, semi-dark movie that coasts along on the most tenuous logic and finally just drifts to a standstill. As in so many other great Westerns, the action scenes, however entertaining, feel like incidental interruptions of a muffled core psychodrama that never quite announces itself as central, but trembles beneath the surface like a rattlesnake in a burlap bag.


The Baron of Arizona

Vincent Price in The Baron of Arizona (dir. Samuel Fuller, 1950).

Loosely fact-based story of James Reavis, the brazen swindler who faked centuries-old Spanish documents bequeathing the entire Arizona territory to a woman he groomed from childhood to this purpose, finally marrying her in order to obtain the title of "Baron of Arizona" for himself. Vincent Price pitches his performance just right: he's shifty, hypocritical, a cad--but eminently smooth in a way that hints at deeper strengths of character.

This is Samuel Fuller at his most cinematically conservative--the camera work and editing are reserved, efficient, and quietly elegant. The most audacious visual is the set for Reavis's office, with its bold, stylized full-wall map of Arizona behind the desk. Reed Hadley makes a good foil for Price as John Griff, the government forgery specialist who smells a rat, and Margia Dean (one of my favorite midcentury bit-players) has a charming moment as a gulled Marquesa.


The Matador

Pierce Brosnan in The Matador (dir. Richard Shepard, 2005).

Neither winning performances by Pierce Brosnan and Greg Kinnear nor some clever plotting can compensate for the lazy, feel-good moral philosophy (or lack thereof) at the heart of this movie. There are two ways a darkish crime comedy of this sort can go: toward unblinking, deterministic irony (the route taken, for example, by the Coen Brothers' Burn After Reading), or toward an escapist sentiment of heroic absolution (I don't mean either "escapist" or "sentiment" in a derogatory sense; there are plenty of works that pull this off very well). To try to combine both is to court disaster, and that's where The Matador goes wrong.

There's nothing unusual about likeable characters who do irredeemably bad things, such as killing people for money, which is what Pierce Brosnan does. His dissolute hit man Julian Noble is a real kick--probably the best performance I've ever seen from him. Noble is funny and charismatic, if a little too kinkily seedy to be considered exactly "charming." Nor is there anything unusual about the usually decent character whose decency gives way to opportunity in a time of crisis. At a crucial moment, however, the film pulls its punches and lets its characters off the ethical hook, in one case by working a change on what we think we know, and in the other by simply sweeping stuff under the rug. Sloppy on both counts.


Hell Is a City

Stanley Baker and John Crawford in Hell Is a City (dir. Val Guest, 1960).

Billie Whitelaw.

The coin game on the moors.

Well-shot Manchester noir from Hammer Films that struggles not to be stodgy and sometimes succeeds. Val Guest was the director of the Quatermass films, which I've always found impenetrable. Here he tries hard for an American-style hard-boiled flavor: jazz soundtrack, jaded dames, urban shadowscapes, a cop protagonist who must battle both bad guys and his own demons. The problem, dramatically speaking, is that Stanley Baker's demons mainly consist of his not getting along all that well with his wife.

American John Crawford is good as the main heavy, and Billie Whitelaw as a jeweler's wife getting some action on the side, and Donald Pleasance chewing up the scenery as the jeweler. Has anyone ever suggested that Donald Pleasance might be a stylistic role model for Elvis Costello?


Burn After Reading

Brad Pitt and Frances McDormand in Burn After Reading (dir. Ethan and Joel Coen, 2008).

When the Coen Brothers are in top form, as they are in their new CIA comedy Burn After Reading and last year's No Country for Old Men, it makes you wonder how they can ever do wrong. And in fact, even their relative misfires--dizzy pastiche like The Hudsucker Proxy, brittle noir like The Man Who Wasn't There, throwaway fluff like The Ladykillers--offer the viewer more intelligent visual and verbal stimulation than most other mainstream films. One of their most impressive achievements is not repeating themselves morally. More precisely, no two Coen Brothers films have the exact same moral weight, though each one has a measure that seems careful and exact.

By "moral" and "moral weight," I don't mean anything as crude as a "message." I'm thinking of more of a quantifiable ratio: a ratio of moral actions foregrounded or downplayed, emotions evoked or withheld, attitudes implied or occluded. The formula for this ratio is usually complex rather than simple, and when it is simpler, the movie is generally pitched as whimsical fantasy (Raising Arizona, Hudsucker, O Brother, Where Art Thou?). One constant or near-constant in the formula concerns the fates of the innocent, and the amount of investment in those fates the directors permit us. Depending on how it is handled, the deployment of this theme can make for tragic seriousness or comic sadism, or--most interestingly and most often--some degree of both. Even in No Country, which must be the brothers' most straight-faced dramatic production to date, the wiping of blood off a shoe confuses our trained responses, making us process horrified sadness and wry wit in the same instance.

Burn After Reading is never anything but farce, in the sense that its characters are satirical puppets. This is as true of the "sympathetic" ones as the ogres and buffoons. Or, the point is, everyone is an ogre and/or a buffoon, even the most blameless ones (including Claire Danes and Dermot Mulroney, if you can call them characters). How on earth can you care about these people? That's part of the Coens' genius in this film: you don't, but it all still works. You may find yourself hoping that certain characters fare better than others, but usually only provisionally, within the confined logic of a single scene or sequence. In No Country, the mortal consequences are felt deeply, though even there they are felt through a certain filter, an ironizing layer of textuality. In Reading, these consequences are occasion for sport, for loud belly laughter, even if it comes with a guilty hesitation. It's as funny as anything the Coens have ever done, but it's probably their most agressively nihilistic film. I'm sure many other viewers will make this same observation, but the reference point I kept returning to was Dr. Strangelove. This is most obvious in the parts that take place behind closed doors at Langley (especially the two brilliant short scenes with J.K. Simmons as a cynical superior officer), but the tone of schadenfreude throughout is of the same nervous timbre, down to the shaky sixties lettering and graphics on the movie poster. Accordingly, the global zoom-in/zoom-out visuals that frame the film seem like more than just a convenient cinematic cliche: with the accompaniment of Carter Burwell's urgent, drum-driven score, they extend the joke to something sublimely large and cruel.


Dangerous Crossing

Jeanne Crain in Dangerous Crossing (dir. Joseph M. Newman, 1953).

Halloween aboard the ocean liner.

Karl Ludwig Lindt.

Jeanne Crain boards a luxury liner with her new husband (Carl Betz), and within minutes can't find him anywhere. Everyone else on board thinks she's crazy ... and maybe she is. Based on a radio play by John Dickson Carr, who co-wrote the screenplay, this tidy thriller piggybacked on the sets and props of two other Twentieth Century-Fox productions from 1953, Titanic and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. This allowed it to be made on a very low budget and still look like an A film. Crain carries it nearly by herself (she's in practically every scene). Michael Rennie, as the concerned but skeptical ship's doctor, is considerately dull in a way that makes Crain's performance shine even brighter. Anna Quinn makes the most of a mousy stewardess role, and the uncredited Karl Ludwig Lindt is fun as a creepy foreigner. Fine cinematography by Joseph LaShelle.


The House Bunny

Anna Faris in The House Bunny (dir. Fred Wolf, 2008).

The logical inconsistencies are as entertaining as the intentional comedy--maybe more. Our picaresque Bunny, Shelley Darlingson (a name worthy of the heroine of a nineteenth-century novel), is an evident half-wit who takes weeks to learn how to pronounce "philanthropy" and use it correctly in a sentence, but she achieves a solid grasp on current world events and assorted academic topics in a few montage-seconds. She doesn't know that steam is hot, but she can offer an insightful impromptu apologia for a mixed metaphor involving her heart falling out of her head. She knows what a blow job is, but not a breathalyzer test.

Actually, that last one is not an inconsistency at all, I suppose, but evidence that the film depends at its base on the rudimentary mechanics of the dumb blonde joke. That is, even more than it depends on the rudimentary mechanics of the dumb blonde joke's supposed antidote, the turnabout fantasy where the dumb blonde shows her smarts in the world, proving everyone wrong. Here, as in Legally Blonde, the protagonist does exactly this, but to an even greater extent than in that film, this triumph seems beside the point. Shelley is most interesting when she is dumb, when she is safely ensconced at narrative's beginning in Hugh Hefner's Playboy Mansion, frolicking at poolside or shopping on Rodeo Drive. What's riveting is her happiness: her absolute, rapturous sense of fulfillment at being a kept rabbit. "We're the luckiest girls in the world," she gushes to a quietly envious shopkeeper, who responds with patient cordiality, "Yes, you are." The initial temptation is to read an allegorical subtext of class tension into this encounter, but which privileged slave's ideological blindness is oppressing the other's here?

Naturally Shelley's complacency must be shattered in order for the story to advance, but there's an unexamined bathos (there might be other kinds) in the shift from luxury concubinage to sorority culture. A lot could have been done with this, if anyone had thought to get really ferocious about how the Greek system functions as a training ground for the sickest ground-level domestic and cultural maneuvers of the power elite. Instead, we get the tired old distinction between the mean pretty girls and the nice nerdy girls, and the equally tired formula for how once the nerdy girls can achieve prettiness minus meanness, everything is solved.

Anna Faris almost saves the show anyway. Part of her perfectness for the role is how imperfect she is by Playboy standards: she has the stilted grace of an ostrich, and her face contorts unpredictably into various complex cheek-puffings and eye-squintings. In real life, she could never be Miss November, and when her big break finally comes in the film, we are supposed to believe that Hef has temporarily suspended his business sense, and, guided by the piercing wisdom of his benevolent sentimentality, offers her the pin-up slot out of sheer endearment. It's totally unbelievable, of course. And the movie is drivel. But bookmark Faris's expert goofiness as a small core of self-justifying value.


Touchez pas au grisbi

Jeanne Moreau, Jean Gabin, Dora Doll, René Dary, and Vittorio Sanipoli (barely visible at right) in Touchez pas au grisbi (dir. Jacques Becker, 1954).

Marilyn Buferd.

René Dary.

The title means "hands off the loot," and that's a pretty accurate summary of the story: two aging gangsters attempt to protect the "grisbi" they've recently acquired in the climactic heist of their career from a rival criminal who kidnaps one of the pair of old friends. Like Dassin's Rififi or Melville's Bob le flambeur, it transfers the look of the American crime film (albeit with generally lower contrast and more gentle haloes everywhere) onto a narrative structure built more around character than action, though there are moments of violence and tension. These films are as fatalistic as Hollywood noir--maybe even more so--but they're more soft-boiled than hard-boiled.

There are guns and dames and tough talk in Touchez pas au grisbi, yes, but the prevailing mood is one of lilting reverie. The world of seedy thieves and swindlers it depicts verges on urban pastoral, with its heightening of mundane environments--cafes, laundromats, motor scooters, stylish but decadent domestic interiors--into a minor modern Olympus of trivial demigods.

Jean Gabin as Max, the aging kingpin, combines quiet dignity and amoral ennui so subtly you can't tell which is which, or if there's a difference (again, this is a quality he shares with Roger Duchesne's Bob in Bob le flambeur and Jean Servais's Tony le Stephanois in Rififi). His scenes with Marilyn Buferd (who was Miss America in 1946) as his girlfriend Betty are particularly evocative. There is something about their relationship that seems to get at the core conflicts of Max's persona, and his vexed position in the fragile kingdom he has constructed for himself, but nothing is spelled out. She doesn't even really do anything. Her presence simply peels away thin layers of his exterior, like the hot glow of a radium lamp.