July 14, 2014 § Leave a comment
Produced around ten years after the atomic bomb destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and introducing a monster dislodged and empowered by nuclear testing, it isn’t hard to guess at the subtext in the original Japanese film Gojira (1954). What’s surprising is that the original isn’t just about a guy in a suit stepping on models of tanks, it attempts a message, and emotional impact. As the monster destroys the city, a woman huddles in flames and rubble, trying to shelter her children, saying “Not long now, soon we’ll be reunited with father… not long now.” Surprised? I was too. And while the monster is clearly a guy in a suit, the black-and-white is fairly forgiving, and it’s also an example of a era of filmmaking that’s simply gone, as they clearly used models even for simple shots of ships or planes (Night Train to Munich is a great little film, and uses a lot of this kind of model work). Finally, a little-known ultimate weapon is used to defeat Godzilla, even as the inventor attempts to ensure it can never be used again, lending even more potency to the idea the film is attempting a statement.
North Americans have mostly known Godzilla, King of the Monsters (1956) which is the same film recut with less emphasis on a tragic scientist, inserting scenes with Raymond Burr as a reporter who always seems to be in the right place, chomping on a pipe, shot so that it appears he was at the back of the room saying things like “My Japanese is a little rusty!” so that someone translates. On occasion, he also talks to the back of a head, meant to be one of the Japanese actors. In short, the English cut of the film is far inferior. The 1950s also saw a sequel, hastily produced in Japan after the tremendous success of the first film: Godzilla Raids Again (1955). While an entertaining film, it already begins to dilute the statement about the dangers of ultimate weapons, as Godzilla proves fairly useful taking out some other prehistoric beast, and the performances are already less anxious and sincere: the characters at one point crack a few jokes standing around in the aftermath of Godzilla’s destruction.
I haven’t seen them, but the rest of the century produced dozens of colour monster mash-ups (around thirty films, mostly produced in Japan) as Godzilla fights everyone from King Kong to creatures from space, and I think it’s safe to say it was all done for the entertainment value. Godzilla as a tremendous, painfully obvious metaphor eventually became nothing of the sort, which is why the original film is a pleasant surprise for those who like their monster movies somewhat meaningful and artful.
It takes nearly a lifetime to get to the 2014 film, but sixty years after the original it’s another pleasant surprise. It’s too much to expect serious statements in a summer blockbuster these days, but a good cast (including Bryan Cranston and Ken Watanabe) lend the film some dignity, and it’s certainly tremendous fun to see impressive, modern-day effects for the monster. Miraculously, the film also takes it’s time, allowing the viewers to get to know the characters a little before putting them in danger, an apparently long-forgotten secret that adds some dramatic strength. The film jumps straight to the idea Godzilla has his uses, though I suppose if you squint and try with all the strength of an English major, the current film could at least be seen as observing our toxic and wasteful way of life. Now that the film has been successful and has apparently restarted the franchise, what’s next for the big fella, long past his youthful artistic days and now roughly the age of a senior citizen? My vote would be for some kind of Godzilla-like take on Moby Dick, with the monster only trying to swim out of sea and someone out for vengeance. Surely it’s one of the few approaches that hasn’t been taken over the decades, though doubtless it wouldn’t be exciting enough.
September 5, 2011 § Leave a comment
A British film produced during the Second World War, Night Train to Munich is nearly sublime entertainment, full of excellent dialogue and superbly entertaining scenes, and yet it does have certain contradictions, as though the film could have gone in two directions that were at odds with each other. Rex Harrison (probably best known as one of the stars of My Fair Lady) stars as a British spy determined to recover a Czech inventor the Nazi party is just as interested to possess, and Margaret Lockwood plays his love interest, the calm, intelligent daughter of the inventor.
A scene near the beginning portrays a beating in a concentration camp, and it’s somewhat surprisingly graphic for a 1940 film. I briefly wondered if the film would be innovative enough (at this early stage in the war) to portray the conflict as brutal, but the remainder of the film pretty much portrays spying as exchanging witty remarks with gentlemen enemies. Additionally, the end feels like an escape lifted from a Bond film, or a Hitchcock film. Without ruining the ending very much at all — at least, I sincerely hope not — a character who was clearly sacrificing himself manages to escape, for the sake of a completely happy ending. It’s maybe the only element that’s somewhat standard in the film, and prevents it from being an absolute classic.
But let’s put things in perspective a little, here: screenwriters Sidney Gilliat and Frank Lauder had worked with Hitchcock a few years earlier, on The Lady Vanishes. They even reproduce a couple of charming supporting characters from that film, though it would be a mistake to consider this film a sequel. Finally, it wasn’t known in 1940 just how brutal the war would become, and it would have been completely unacceptable — and bad for morale — to produce a film during wartime with a British hero that’s killed in the line of duty.
There’s a curious use of detailed models throughout — for shots of trains, landscapes, and even buildings — and while these work quite well, I’d be interested to learn more about why these establishing shots were produced this way. I can only assume it was more cost-effective at the time. It produces another slightly jarring contrast in the film, as it stands apart from some opening stock footage of Nazi soldiers marching confidently around. Perhaps these model shots, introduced later, serve to illustrate that we’re heading into storytelling now, not realism. And there are several brief exchanges in the film that suggest the limited, black-and-white thinking of the Nazi party. Night Train to Munich isn’t Hogan’s Heroes, but it’s closer to morale-boosting adventure film than gritty portrayal of war. It’s a spy thriller that takes a few brief stabs at commenting on the war. And seventy years after it was produced, it remains as entertaining as anything in theatres today.
March 15, 2011 § Leave a comment
In the time it takes a room service waiter to get some change and turn around again, a man crawls out on the window ledge, threatening to jump to his death. It may be marketed as a film noir, but I think it’s more accurate to simply call Fourteen Hours a drama, based on a real-life incident a few decades before the film was made. The film switches between a few different bystanders in the growing crowd on the street — which includes Jeffrey Hunter, for those Star Trek fans out there, and a first film appearance for Grace Kelly — and Robert Cosick (Richard Basehart) on the ledge, as the character is visited by various elements from his past, all produced by the police under the assumption they’ll be able to talk him down.
The performances are all excellent, particularly Richard Basehart as the disturbed young man and Paul Douglas as a likeable cop that does fairly well getting through to him and creating a certain amount of trust. The atmosphere and production values are both outstanding, and the film does a particularly striking job of establishing a quiet, almost desolate early morning city in the first few moments, and building towards a climax with hundreds watching the drama unfold while a handful of briefly sketched but well-acted characters making clumsy attempts to help. It’s like an orchestral piece that begins with a few sleepy notes and builds to a riveting finish.
I don’t know what it is that draws me to films that use a simple narrative framework to find a particular focus, but much like Westerns, I think the straightforward structure helps to heighten the impact of the film. The only thing that reminds the viewer it’s a film and removes the viewer from the drama somewhat is the presence of several vaguely creepy psychologists, impeccably dressed and hanging around making pronouncements nobody challenges in the slightest. It feels a bit standard for mainstream American films of the 1950s to have an unquestionable professional, of one kind or another. In science-fiction films, he’s the one smoking a pipe, examining the alien body and explaining how their advanced technology works as though he’s seen all this a few times before. And I choose my pronoun carefully, because it’s never a woman. At the same time, these dated elements don’t ruin the film, which has interesting, but not overly pat statements to make about our broken methods, and our collective tendency to sometimes produce broken people. Not all of them are on a window ledge in the film, but others are there too. Fourteen Hours may be remembered mainly as the first Grace Kelly film, but it also deserves to be remembered as a compelling and nearly flawless drama.
January 27, 2011 § Leave a comment
Despite the occasional title so simplistic is seems to dismiss any notion of real content, film noir is a fascinating genre. It’s a dark genre that’s full of shadows and snappy, backbiting dialogue (Trevor Howard, in the excellent British noir They Made Me a Fugitive explains he once killed a man with a beer bottle, and then adds “Don’t worry, it was an empty bottle.”) yet it often seems to conform to certain film conventions — the formation of a couple at the end, and the vindication of the innocent. It’s as though the genre is a highly dramatized metaphor for the kind of muck we’re sometimes dragged through in personal struggles, or even the larger struggle in society to make progress, a process that often seems to involve two steps forward and one step back. It’s a genre that seems to say we’ll get there, but we’re going to have a hell of a time doing it.
The hero is frequently a reasonably attractive everyman, and in this early noir it’s Victor Mature as a show-business promoter named Frankie Christopher, accused of the murder of one of his discoveries, Vicky Lynn (Carole Landis). Much like Laura (reviewed here) the film introduces a handful of men that were practically obsessed with the murdered woman, though this time Christopher slowly learns to appreciate her sister Jill — also attractive, but in a less conventional way — in a subtle illustration of the difference between lust and love. But the best and most fascinating performance in the film belongs to Laird Cregar as a policeman so keen to arrest Christopher he’s willing to invest his own time and money. To call him a physically imposing presence is an understatement — he’s a wall that moves around the room threatening to close in on Christopher. And without giving away too much about the film, the script gives him one scene that completely humanizes the character. While a viewer watches a film like this expecting that most of the actors will certainly have died by now, I was surprised to discover the sad detail that Cregar only had feature roles in a handful of films before dying of heart failure at 31 years old.
It’s pretty much a dead genre, film noir. Even if it had a great deal of stylistic influence on generations of filmmakers, it somehow couldn’t translate into colour, or a world where men don’t wear hats and people don’t frequently smoke. In the film world, it’s somehow a bit of an evolutionary dead end, and a modern attempt at a noir needs to borrow so many old trappings it can feel like parody as much as tribute. But they fascinate me, because much like Westerns — which have, of course, survived the decades more comfortably if they’re produced less frequently these days — the simplicity of the framework allows for some remarkably strong statements to hide in plain sight. They’re a curious urban brother to Westerns — so overtly stylish they sometimes threaten to be cartoonish, and yet they’re all based on some kind of strange, secret and vaguely shameful truth. If our modern-day mythology starts with the pioneering spirit of Westerns, film noir is the urban, unavoidable next stop. And it’s only if we ever get to a perfect world that it will be completely obsolete.
December 28, 2010 § 1 Comment
It’s rare to see a film that’s feels both highly improbable (almost an urban fable of some kind) but absolutely perfect, so that you wouldn’t want it any other way. In Laura, Dana Andrews is excellent as tough New York detective Mark McPherson, slowly falling in love with the portrait of murdered advertising executive Laura Hunt (Gene Tierney). Hunt was an astonishingly beautiful woman killed at point-blank range with a shotgun, making for an odd balance of beauty and ugliness (or gracefulness contrasted with horrific behaviour) right from the beginning. McPherson begins by interviewing one of her closest friends, influential newspaper columnist Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb), who provides most of the witty lines, and begins the spell by describing Laura, the woman that’s certainly the one thing he’s allowed in, past his penetrating caustic wit, in many years. In an early role in his career, Vincent Price is perfectly fine, though less comfortable in the part and less convincing as a young man who claims to have been engaged to Laura, and the one she truly loved. Without giving too much away, it becomes clear quite soon that while various people speak about the highest and most noble aspirations, they operate according to base desires for possession, wealth and status. Detective McPherson seems to be capable of movement the other way around — he begins with cold statements (when asked if he has ever loved, he replies “A doll in Washington Heights once got a fox fur outta me”) but is somehow inspired to something better, even if only by a ghost he’s getting to know through others.
The first time I saw Laura five years ago, I thought it was a well-produced drama with a good score, cinematography and performances. And then I forgot about it. But I recently returned to it after seeing Where the Sidewalk Ends, with Andrews as another tough detective, this time an extremely violent one trying to overcome his harsher instincts and working desperately to cover up his accidental killing of a prime suspect. Tierney returns as his love interest, in a supporting role where she’s nevertheless memorable as someone that represents the kind of life he can manage to have if he wriggles out of his current situation. It’s also a very well-produced film, though closer to the kind of film noir that visits gritty city streets repeatedly, and doesn’t have the presence of any character along the lines of an intellectual newspaper columnist. Once again, Andrews is excellent. Where the Sidewalk Ends certainly doesn’t manage to feel like any kind of fable, and is closer in tone to something like Panic in the Streets (1950), but is still a solid drama, putting the viewer in the curious position of pulling for a cop that’s trying to cheat the system. While Laura is another murky journey towards truth and redemption, most of the conversations are in living rooms and various fairly affluent homes. Looking back on the careers of Tierney and Andrews, it’s easy to see how they could’ve been tremendous stars (both weren’t, for various reasons), though I hope they were content with interesting careers, and in Laura, at least one remarkable film.
June 2, 2010 § Leave a comment
Writer Richard Matheson has a list of accomplishments that include some of the more celebrated original Twilight Zones episodes (and my personal favourite, Nightmare at 20,000 Feet), a thoughtful original Star Trek, and the novella I Am Legend, a gripping book made into a film no less than three times over the decades. The adaptation of his book The Shrinking Man is among his earliest work for film and TV, and while it’s a largely straightforward science-fiction journey — one that’s engaging and has impressive production values — the film also has touches of thoughtfulness that are typical for Matheson, and make the film something more than pure entertainment.
Our hero Scott Carey (Grant Williams) seems like a fairly typical guy, and he is. Scott loves his wife and playfully tries to get her to bring him a cold beer, but before long he’s troubled by a radioactive cloud, and other foreign materials that begin to act on his body. By the time he’s shrinking, consulting doctors and trying to avoid the media, it’s clear he hasn’t just been dislodged from his typical physical form, but his perception of himself as well. At three feet tall, he’s throwing tantrums at his wife (“Look at me!”) and trying to miserably sort out a new identity by flirting with a midget passing through town as part of the circus. And while that level of coincidence (I’m shrinking, and hey you’re a cute midget!) does make the middle part of the film a trifle forced, Matheson does well as a writer to imagine what psychological disruptions would accompany the physical ones, and the effects hold up well enough today to make the film interesting, and not laughable.
Next, he takes it a step further. We see Carey fighting off a cat in an effects sequence that must’ve been the equivalent of Jurassic Park in the 1950s, and finally he’s lost in the basement duking it out with a spider for a few crumbs of cheese. It’s almost as if the film says look, you think this is bad? Try this. And Carey is forced to redefine himself again and again. There are two things I like about the ending (a few spoilers ahead). First of all, nobody saves him. Frequently science-fiction films manage to imply that we can mess with the world any way we want, because we’ll find a way to fix it. But nothing like that happens. Secondly, Carey ends up with a newly redefined sense of self and purpose that truly accepts that, well, size doesn’t matter. It manages to subtly challenge our deeply engrained ideas about importance, and status. He closes the film with these lines of monologue: “And I felt my body dwindling, melting, becoming nothing. My fears locked away and in their place came acceptance. All this vast majesty of creation, it had to mean something. And then I meant something, too. Yes, smaller than the smallest, I meant something, too. To God there is no zero. I still exist.”
In short, an entertaining film is brought to a new level by a writer sensitive and intelligent enough to avoid complete closure, give his character some measure of enlightenment, and recognize that people matter, not their roles. My only complaint has nothing to do with the film, but is because it’s only available on monster and science-fiction collections, grouped with far cheesier films. According to Wikipedia it was recently named to the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress, and marked for preservation. A DVD release on its own with a documentary would also do a lot for the film.
November 28, 2009 § Leave a comment
The Man Who Laughs is a remarkable, strange and memorable film. Based on the novel by Victor Hugo of same name, the film has German actor Conrad Veidt as Gwynplaine, the son of a nobleman who is disfigured and abandoned at an early age when his father offends the king. The grin he appears to wear all the time is said to have inspired The Joker, but on a calm and rational, sensitive creature it’s somehow more moving. Veidt is an excellent actor — tall and thin, and with angular features, he’d be striking even without the permanent grin. A scene where he slowly and awkwardly lifts his hands to cover the bottom half of his face in front of a crowd is quite touching.
I won’t go into the details of the plot, except to say that Gwynplaine stumbles into a new family situation, and searches for happiness in his own way, managing quite well until someone discovers his lineage. It’s clearly Veidt who makes the film, turning in a great and very human performance. All the other actors in the film are fine, but seem hampered by the need to over-communicate physically in a silent film. Maybe it isn’t an entirely fair criticism, but by twenty-first century standards these actors are constantly reminding us they’re acting, with grand expressions and gestures. Veidt can be more subtle, and seems to understand that.
It’s quite a transition to switch from watching more recent films to watching a slower silent film, taking its time to visually communicate a great deal: here’s Homo sinking his teeth into a villain (yes, the dog is named Homo). Here’s the villain struggling. Here’s Homo sinking his teeth into the villain. But it’s also nice to be reminded that film should take advantage of what it has to offer as a medium, and that’s quite simply to be visually impressive or communicative somehow. The silent era has the disadvantage of feeling remarkably dated, but it was at least an era when filmmaking was perhaps a little more pure, as an artistic pursuit. The Man Who Laughs does have a score, at least, though to be honest scores from this era don’t feel terribly distinctive to me, maybe because the idea of giving different themes to different characters hadn’t yet developed. Though it wasn’t a silent film, there’s a release of the Bela Lugosi Dracula (1931) with music by Philip Glass. The Man Who Laughs is a memorable film that deserves as much, and I hope it happens someday.