Night Train to Munich (1940)

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.


TV Series: The Walking Dead

June 27, 2011 § Leave a comment

Let’s face it, zombies aren’t exactly full of sparking dialogue. Maybe someday there will be a show with zombie intellectuals breaking through windows to debate the value of literature, but for now they’re a neutral force: they remove some characters and leave others, the same way a regular series of floods would kill off various characters and leave survivors. There are a number of easily applied metaphors for zombies: they represent our dull consumer-driven lives, or a lack of compassion in our society. They signal that we should really be vegetarians, or force us to confront our own mortality. Take your pick, because it all applies to a narrative device as broad and sweeping as this. Beyond that, they’re only interesting for feeling so fundamentally wrong and weird.

Frequently, the really interesting thing is what the survivors do — or don’t do — in the pockets of society that remain. Do you have enough compassion to keep the weakest person when they can slow you down and cost you your own life? Is there are artist in the bunch, and what happens to the level of discussion if there isn’t? As a new six episode TV series based on a series of graphic novels, The Walking Dead gets some of the various elements right and others very wrong. The special effects are certainly effective and well done, even as various grainy images and poor music make it look low-budget. The acting ranges from quite good to soap-opera poor, and some of the startling, unpredictable moments are balanced by obvious ones, or puzzling moments that don’t feel right — someone commits suicide by shotgun blast, but is also able to write “God forgive us” on the wall in their own blood with paint-brush neatness. Clearly, some things we wouldn’t question in a graphic novel don’t quite translate to television.

Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) is a wounded police deputy who wakes up in a hospital — in a quick transition that suddenly switches his bedside flowers to dead ones, capturing how quickly time passed for him — to find the world in chaos. He wanders through the hospital to find barred doors that are spray-painted with “Don’t Open, Dead Inside” (in a way that could just as easily be read as “Don’t Dead, Open Inside”) and finds his way to various other survivors in the search for his wife and son.

The show is good bad TV, in that it’s riddled with cliches, but manages to be really entertaining (George Orwell talks about good bad books, poorly written but entertaining). As unelected leader, Grimes ends up in charge of a particular microcosm of society that includes a few too many stereotypes: the handsome and noble cop, a tough and ugly racist, and so on. At the same time, I quite liked a character named Dale (played by veteran actor Jeffrey DeMunn), an older man who is more or less the artist of the group. Thankfully, it isn’t spelled out that he’s an artist, but he sits around the campfire describing words as “paltry, failing things,” and getting replies from the children along the lines of “You’re weird.” He stands on top of the RV keeping watch, quite literally seeing further than the others. He isn’t the strongest one in the bunch, but if anyone represents hope, it’s him. In the final episode, his moments are the only truly interesting ones.

It should also be said, The Walking Dead is seriously gross. I watched it with a kind of look-at-the-traffic-accident fascination. I think people are taking about it at least partly because it represents a new high (or new low) in what can be shown on TV, including zombie children getting shot in the head. If The Walking Dead takes the emphasis off slow-motion flying brains and works to perfect the characters, it stands of chance of becoming a show people are talking about for deeper reasons, not just shock-value, and thrill ride fun. Without having read the graphic novels, I don’t know the direction it will go, but the potential is certainly there.

Fourteen Hours (1951)

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.

The Wolfman (1941) and The Wolfman (2010)

February 20, 2011 § 1 Comment

The original Wolfman is one of the Universal horror classics that arrived a full ten years after the original Dracula, Frankenstein and most of the rest of the gang. Starring Lon Chaney (and with Bela Lugosi as the character that passes the curse on to Chaney) it isn’t my favourite of the old classics. While Chaney is suitably forlorn for a doomed character, he’s also not a remarkable actor, and the way his character pursues a woman who declares she isn’t interested borders on stalking. The special effects also date the film much more so than any of the predecessors, because they can’t manage the transformation smoothly, or much more than a slow-moving, particularly hairy man. More than anything else, the Wolfman feels closer to an abrasive punk on his way home from a bad night at the local pub. Still, it’s an enjoyable enough film for managing a straightforward narrative and a solid atmosphere. And it isn’t every film that doesn’t allow a fairly likeable central character to survive.

What’s frustrating about the only direct remake so many decades later is that all it needed was some of the restraint of the first film. The effects are certainly impressive, though I’d agree with Roger Ebert that the werewolf could’ve used a little more weight — it looks a little cartoonish. And the atmosphere is there too. I thought it had a promising start when we only caught glimpses of the monster. For the first half-hour or so victims are suddenly carried off, or suddenly wounded, and the level of suspense is higher than expected. It takes about twenty-eight minutes for the film to decide it needs to show a close-up of a policeman with his face half-torn off, and suddenly the film has all the style and taste of Friday the 13th, part 8.

It’s unfortunate, because there was certainly a lot of potential here, and there’s a film in here somewhere that’s making the effort to be a lot more subtle — you can literally pick out those moments in the film — before somebody apparently went through the script and demanded five more decapitations. As Lawrence Talbot, Benicio del Toro is appropriately brooding and dark, and Anthony Hopkins and Emily Blunt are certainly solid supporting cast members. Hugo Weaving is fine as the inspector, but really should’ve been required to do something other than his Agent Smith drawl from the Matrix. There’s nothing wrong with having a lighter character to provide contrast.

As for the script, the setting bounces back and forth between London and the town of Blackmoor far too frequently, even as characters suffer wild mood swings that either have Talbot as an apologetic gentleman, or down at the pub throwing a drink in someone’s face. Weaving has a good line when he sits back and declares that while we hate rules, “They’re all that keep us from a dog eat dog world.” But it’s the only line he gets that tells us anything about his character, and he spends the rest of the film narrowing his eyes and aiming a pistol. I won’t ruin the end, except to say it’s a whole set of scenes that sometimes feel quite well-handled, and sometimes feel like sudden lurches in the plot to satisfy the need for another fight. And having watched the extended cut, it’s hard to forgive the decision to drop an early scene with the great Max von Sydow, just for the sake of getting to the action sooner. After all, anything that enhances your understanding of the characters only adds to the impact later on.

I know I’m being picky here. As a remake, it’s an entertaining enough film. It’s just unfortunate we’ll never see the more subtle, ultimately more effective film trying to get out. It might be pushing it a little to say on one level it’s a film about fathers and sons, and finding your own way despite having been gifted with a particular set of instincts. But that’s certainly a film I’d like to see.

I Wake Up Screaming (1941)

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.

Laura (1944) and Where the Sidewalk Ends (1950)

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.

Robin and Marian (1976)

November 12, 2010 § 1 Comment

Sean Connery would play James Bond for the final time in Never Say Never Again (1983), the only Bond film to recognize the character ages after his absence in the role for around twelve years. It isn’t among the better Bond films, though it’s hard to avoid being charmed by Connery and his somewhat more wistful performance. And given the nature of the film, it’s ultimately required that his last bow has him do all the things a much younger man could do. It’s a Bond film with a twist, but still a Bond film.

Connery had already featured in a much more potent meditation on change, ageing, and to some extent redundancy and inflexibility in Robin and Marian. Away on the crusades twenty years, Robin returns to find the Sheriff of Nottingham (Robert Shaw) is still around, and Marion (Audrey Hepburn) has entered a small convent. Critic Roger Ebert is absolutely right that Connery and Hepburn work well together here, and seem to be in complete agreement about the nature of the film. In fact, between them they make the film, though they have great support from Shaw as the Sheriff and Nicol Williamson as Little John. Connery and Hepburn are utterly believable as two people who were once in love, and Connery and Williamson are just as believable as two close friends that would die for each other.

With all due respect to a great critic, I disagree with Ebert when he suggests the humour is misplaced — I think the humour and touches of warmth help the viewer feel these characters are human, which heightens the drama. It also lightens an otherwise bleak film about people ageing and ultimately failing to change the world around them. The film suggests you can defeat the Sheriff, but he’ll be back. And if he isn’t, there are always others that are only too happy to hoard all the wealth and power. “I know your type,” Robin says to one of the more powerful lackeys he faces. Greed also takes various forms and is excused in various ways, as Robin explains in a powerful speech about religious fanaticism and the horror of the crusades.

It’s a film that gets mixed reviews, because some would prefer not to see these characters stripped of all their magic, as Leonard Maltin complains in his movie guide. But that’s about viewer expectations, not about this film. Certainly, those expecting a swashbuckling affair won’t enjoy watching an old warrior refuse to change, refuse to live happily and go quietly, and drag various others with him. And just to make it the polar opposite of earlier films, it’s all to no avail. As King John, Ian Holm gets exactly one scene that makes it clear the return of Robin is really just something of a nuisance, and changes nothing. But for those who approach the film the right way, it’s quite sad, beautiful and touching. And we can always cheer ourselves up by going back and watching Errol Flynn, right?