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The 39 Steps (1935)
Mister Memory answers up!
This film has been duly lauded in the earlier reviews. One of the reviewers remarked that this is the original from which all the cliches' are derived. When I think of Harrison Ford in THE FUGITIVE (1993), and even Bill Murray in QUICK CHANGE (1990), I get the feeling that these are only two of many films that have paid homage to or referenced in some way THE 39 STEPS. I picked up only snatches of it on Channel Nine as a kid, and didn't fully appreciate it until taking Elliot Wilhelm's class, THE FILMS OF ALFRED HITCHCOCK at the Rackham Memorial Building on Woodward North of Warren. I was in my early twenties back then, and I remember sprinting across the lawn to hail down the Crosstown bus filled with its exhilarating pace and happy twist of an ending.
Following the adventures of the unflappable everyday man action hero, Richard Hannay, proved a bit more wholesome than watching Derek Flint rescue his harem from high tech prostitution in a utopia created by madmen. The Music Hall Quiz Show at the beginning with all those wonderful lines from Chaucer type characters in the audience make me think shades of Alex Trebek. There is this comfortable feel of Hitchcock being at home on his own stomping grounds, much like Louis Armstrong felt in New Orleans, and more than able and willing to give the folks a good time for their money. This warm sense of intimacy at taking a seat in the audience with people you have fondly known all your life and grown up with, is something that is never as strong again once the Master of Suspense starts making movies in Hollywood.
For my money, there never has been a man on the run with a frame chasing him as formidable as Robert Donat's redoubtable Mister Hannay. He steps in and out of trouble with the agility of a ballroom dancer, depending mostly on his wits, feet, and fists. People trust him with confidences and die or at least find themselves roughed up. He trusts people like the beautiful blonde Pamela as played by Madeleine Carroll and finds himself turned upon and outed as a dangerous criminal at every turn. But the pace never slackens and there is always a new surprise awaiting our hero around the next corner and at the end of every sprint for freedom as he probes for the solution to THE 39 STEPS.
I discovered to my delighted surprise that one of the scenes in the movie actually had a factual basis in an experience that happened to President Theodore Roosevelt. I'll let you do your own detective work concerning that. Suffice it to say that while Hannay seems able to create an escape for every occasion, in and out of costume as the common man, sometimes luck opens a door for him here and there. There is a serial feel to this adventure that suggests the novel it was based upon, but from London to Scotland and back again to the Music Hall where it all began and all bets are off, the narrative never stops romping and galloping to its violent, frenzied conclusion.
The Cinematography by Bernard Knowles has a nourish, yet earthy feel to it. The Screenplay by Charles Bennett is a lighthearted crackle of problems leading to problems of greater and greater magnitude and the romantic chemistry of a man and a woman thrown together by fate and handcuffed to each other. Meanwhile, no one turns a scream into the shrill whistle of a departing train quite like Hitch as barbs of repartee fly in character tags from every quarter. You might as well have a seat here at the end while the police take that poor man away up the aisle there for something. But wait! I do believe that Mister Memory is about to answer up as he did in the beginning...
The Killing Obsession...
This is an absolute treat! Here is another candidate for the greatest film of all time. A true work of Art that obeys the laws of increasing returns. The more you see it, the richer the experience as you see things you did not notice before, and connect concepts that did not occur to you upon previous viewings. In a word, the more you return to it, the more you get out of it. There are works of art whether dealing with subjects tragic or comic, that seem to reward the viewer or participant with a rich cornucopia of advancing understandings; depending upon what the party brings to the STONE SOUP. And hopefully, you will be bringing more than a knife and a fork and a napkin. VERTIGO belongs to such a category.
This is a film that deals with and treats the subject of obsession while being made and crafted out of the very ingredients that are obsession itself; i.e., idealism, beauty, love, images and loss. Dealing with obsession, it would not be hard for moviegoer to find themselves becoming obsessed with VERTIGO. Many may find themselves coming back again and again to plumb the depths of its meaning just short of a trance-like addiction. This is the type of Art that people endlessly analyze and dissect somewhere in a cafe in Paris, until the wee hours of the morning, with everyone involved making a valid contribution of insight during the round table discussion, and finally saying their goodbyes and leaving for home feeling refreshed and fulfilled. VERTIGO activates and excites and mystifies the intelligence and the imagination with it haunting imagery and soulful references.
Just going over what Martin Scorsese related about VERTIGO, among other reviewers, I learned two or three new things about Hitchcock's masterpiece I had not fully considered before. Becoming obsessed about winning and success is often highly lauded in sports and the affairs of the world, but here in VERTIGO, Hitchcock reveals it as a phenomena of entropy and demonstrates its full potential for cyclic destruction. These are heady and deep waters, bordering on the philosophical and an able insight of one of the reviewers also helped me to see this film as a sort of confessional for Hitchcock in a highly personal way.
There is a pernicious evil that runs throughout the narrative as a main thread and yet it is not wholly represented by any of the characters. One could easily make a good argument for taking the point of view that in one way or another, all the characters are pawns of and in some way serving the spirit of obsession. Yes, one could make that argument, while someone else at the round table might vigorously shake their heads and assert, no, that's not all there is to it. VERTIGO is like a prism that seems to reflect all the various shades of obsession. It is almost as though Hitchcock is saying, "Here, I've shown you mine, now take a look and consider your own..."
The wonder is that most of these themes concerning obsession are encapsulated more in the characters and their reactions rather the story itself. James Stewart's character, John 'Scottie' Ferguson, is defined more by weakness and inability than he is by strength and ability, and when he finally pieces everything together to posit a solution, he only causes further destruction. He is a true anti-hero in the same way that Hamlet is an anti-hero. Kim Novak, playing the dual roles of Madeleine Elster and Judy Barton, speaks poignantly to the angst of women allowing themselves to be trapped in the roles men craft for them for love and money. There is plenty of fodder for speculation about the Madonna/Whore complex should you care to go that route. It strikes me as her best performance. Here she has trapped and helped exploit the weakness of the detective with her beauty for gain, but now is caught in the fabric and fictive web of a predetermined doom. Konstantin Shayne as the Art Historian Pop Leibel is a fascinating character, and after he provides Ferguson and the unrequited lover Midge Wood played by Barbara Bel Geddes, with the additional information they desire, it's hard to tell whether he has clarified matters or merely led them into even murkier waters.
VERTIGO has the rhythms of great theater, and delivers a sophisticated dramatic payoff that you see more often on the stage than in the movie house. From the spiral motifs of graphic designer Saul Bass in the opening credits to the almost hallucinatory flashbacks and the nightmare sequence of a distraught Ferguson accompanied by the foreboding and at times alarming score of Bernard Hermann we go down the rabbit hole of fate and destiny as revealed by nature of the characters themselves. Despite the fact that three screenwriters were involved with the scrIpt for VERTIGO, including Maxwell Anderson, Hitchcock's sure hand and masterly restraint points more to him as the author of this story than either Anderson, Alec Coppel or Samuel Taylor. It comes across as a deeply personal statement signed off for by the director, that the evil represented in the story is about something more than the machinations of Tom Helmore as Gavin Elster plotting to finish off a burdensome wife, and is actually exploring evil as the lack of something and the failure to see something for what it actually is and what it can actually do.
Rear Window (1954)
Circus through the Fourth Wall...
This film was one I saw long after the miraculous triumph and bewildering disaster of a one act play I wrote and directed for the Cass Tech High School One- Act Festival entitled UNITE-E. I was amazed to find it successfully addressed all the issues and themes that I was experimenting with as a teenage novice playwright. This film even resolved to a satisfying conclusion the elegant illusion of breaking through the Fourth Wall.
REAR WINDOW is about many entertaining things, but all the while never takes itself too seriously. More than one reviewer has commented upon how it is a visual essay on voyeurism, and it is certainly that to the maximum. But you may recall that I remarked earlier that as I was studying for a Masters Degree in Creative Writing, I came across curious and insightful definitions for television and cinema. I read in my studies that television was actually the illegitimate child of Radio, and Cinema with its visual sleight of hand and stunts was more akin to and a direct extension of the Circus. The less charitable among you would include the Circus Maximus as an ancient inspiration and precursor of Cinema. This reference seems even more apt when you consider the increasing amount of sex and violence you can find in today's movies.
That REAR WINDOW is a kind of circus of overlapping and at times simultaneous scenarios is beyond dispute. There is so much going on it makes you want to pull out a copy of Buckminister Fuller's SYNERGETICS every now and then just to take the odd note. Most of the activities that L. B. Jefferies observes in several other apartments out beyond the courtyard are benign enough to be an excuse for passing the time while he nurses a broken leg. But it soon becomes apparent that the window he has on other windows outside his apartment contain their own conflicts and complications and evolving stories as does his own.
This is a beautifully crafted film and its colors called to my mind a Norman Rockwell painting that has somehow come to life. The characters that spice this space are all well-developed enough to give a humorous eye candy feel to the social veneer that is lacquered over the darker objectives that lurk behind it. The hint of murder most foul is like an item buried in the back pages of a newspaper before you get to the Want Ads and at first barely deserves serious comment or notice. It is merely a rumination floating on the breeze of a summer's heat wave.
Meanwhile, Grace Kelly as Lisa Carol Fremont is as luminous and alluring as she would prove to be in TO CATCH A THIEF (1955) with Cary Grant, Wendell Corey a witty foil to James Stewart as the skeptical, dubious Detective Lieutenant Thomas J. Doyle, with Thelma Ritter proving to be the common sense conscience and voice of the audience, while Raymond Burr, to my mind, comes across like a demented Isaac Asimov from Hell as Lars Thorwald, henpecked beyond the edge by Irene Winston as his wife, Emma Thorwald.
The sense of ensemble is so strong in this film that even the supporting players shine in vivid vignettes that are unforgettable. This is in large part due to the crisp pop of the narrative as provided by scriptwriters John Michael Hayes and Cornel Woolrich. Franz Waxman's musical score is never intrusive as it underlines dramatic moments and accentuates the natural sounds of this environment. The cinematography of Robert Burks is striking and arrests the attention at all the right points and places. While you're shuttling back and forth between the trials of Miss Lonelyhearts, the meditations of the Newlyweds, Miss Torso fending off suitors, the little dog digging in the flower patch, and the Songwriter suffering over his new composition, you barely have time to notice that the Master of Suspense is winding the clock on a true gem of what is close to pure cinema.
Up the Down Staircase (1967)
Reaching minds and hearts beyond limitations...
There is nothing like the bliss an attractive teacher feels, I would reckon, when she has successfully enlightened one of her students. I have always felt that beyond cosmetics and wearing the latest fashions, few things make a woman more sexy than when she is engaging in learning and teaching someone new things. The Sylvia Barretts of the world are everywhere, but Sandy Dennis' performance as an idealistic young English teacher naively entering the Lion's Den of Inner-City public education brings a fresh and original perspective to the role of woman as educator.
This film brought to mind the attractive teachers I have encountered throughout my tenure as a student in Detroit Public Schools. The beauties in elementary school tended to be tough Holy Harridans who kept their charges in a constant state of terror lest they get out of line. Only a Chinese woman named Miss Rose stands out as being really nice to me in Kindergarten, as well as a scowling Art Teacher who looked like a cross between Diane Keaton and Diana Rigg who suddenly would break out into big smiles whenever she saw me after I had colored one of her assignments particularly well. Now that I think of it, I believe she got a particular kick out of feeling that at least for one assignment she drew out the best in me and that this validated her existence as an educator. All the time leaving me thinking what on Earth has gotten into her...
This leads me to Miss Temple whose sensitive encouragement on English compositions led me to submit a rather racy novel to her after summer vacation in Junior High School. My mother related to me with some puzzlement how Miss Temple enthused to her about how glad she was my parents were encouraging me to read Ian Fleming and how I was already writing plays that were full of wit and comedy!
Anyway, I read the novel UP THE DOWN STAIRCASE before I saw the movie and felt it gave me greater insight into what Miss Temple was all about. When I eventually saw the movie it all came back to me about Cathy Temple, who was somewhat feistier and more quick tempered than the placid Miss Barrett, but it all rang true. The personalities in the film were easy to reference to people I had actually encountered and knew through my experience with the Detroit Public School System; particularly those instructors I sat in with at Cass Tech High School. My high school mentor Pierre Rener even offhandedly compared me to Jose Rodriguez one day, because of the way I appropriated the costumes on loan from the Hillberry Theater down in the Studio Theater to dress the characters for one of my plays. He apparently compared this act of mine to when Jose lifts a cap and gown from the wardrobe for the Graduating Class to play the Judge for Miss Barrett's mock trial. He even suggested he could see me playing the Judge in one of the skits he was cooking up.
Patrick Bedford as Paul Barringer was also easy to relate to as the would be novelist who was just doing time in the Public Education System, but lacked the compassion to really care enough about the kids to keep Ellen O'Mara as Alice Blake from attempting suicide after a perceived rebuff of infatuation over him. He really does give a stirring speech in Miss Barrett's classroom about reaching beyond the limits of what you already know to greater heights, but reveals in his cynicism the frustration inherent in mediating between enlightened self interest and dutiful service as an educator. Miss Barrett takes a dim view of Barringer seizing her classroom for a Soapbox rant, but there's an ironic undertone to this scene. Barringer might actually turn out to be one of the authors one day the likes of Chaucer and Dickens that she loves to quote! This film subtly shows how creative thinkers like Paul Barringer and high I.Q. students like Joe Ferone, who mistakes Miss Barrett's interest in him as having some kind of sexual basis, sometimes slip through the cracks of Modern Education.
Because it really is all about the kids, in the final analysis. These will be the future generation that will be running things in the end.
I have often thought that the best people to teach something are those who have been successful at something. I never wanted to be a teacher until I was a successful author and playwright and filmmaker. I spent nearly four years as a substitute teacher after a couple of my novels failed to make the cut when submitted to a literary agency, so I have a thorough idea of the type of dedication and creative intelligence it takes to be a good teacher. The truth is it amounts to a kind of a calling, almost similar to accepting priestly duties. Outside of parents, teachers have more influence on the future of the world than almost any other group of professionals. Their creative intelligence deals more directly with the hearts and minds and the living spirits of people than those who make patterns out of words, colors and pictures.
A final note. Here in the West, there is an emphasis on the acquisition and accumulation of data to be exchanged in order to develop appropriate skill sets. However, during the course of the dramatic narrative, the concept of teaching by human example reared up on its hind legs here and there. Vinette Carrol, the mother of one of Miss Barrett's students, Roy Atkins, who is falling asleep in class because of the job he has working on cars after school, makes the comment that Miss Barrett is very pretty. The English Teacher takes this as a compliment, but perhaps does not fully appreciate what Roy Atkins' mother is really saying. What she's actually saying is, "What's wrong with you, woman? Why ain't you married yet, with kids of yo' own? Because had you kids of your own, you would understand what I am going through with mine; especially Roy." This issue of Miss Barrett as not quite yet a fully graduated woman comes up again unpleasantly in a couple more scenes with Paul Barringer attempting to impress her by putting on a show in her own classroom and Jeff Howard as Joe Ferone, dousing the lights in an immature effort to gauge the puzzle of her sexual nature, which, as a teenager, he is only just starting to put together for himself.
This scene is a telling point. Because despite Miss Barrett not being an experienced wife or mother yet, it is revealed that beyond her academic credentials, her capacity for compassion gives her moral authority. This is the mark of a true teacher and when she draws out the best in Jose Rodriguez for the brief fleeting moments of a classroom session, the matter of her true calling is settled beyond all doubt.
No Way Out (1950)
NO WAY OUT leads to a BRIGHT ROAD...
The bright road that African Americans wanted to travel through Cinema was designed to celebrate the accomplishments and achievements of people of color as they rose above the vicissitudes of oppression and exploitation founded upon the technological and economic expansion of a civilizing system based in many parts of the world upon colonization and slavery. African Americans and other peoples of color eagerly awaited films about hard working folks serving their families in faith and love; films about characters just like that pretty and smart teacher up the street, or that crafty mechanic at the Car Shop who gave me such a good deal, or that Doctor who hit the nail on the head about what was going on with me, or that lawyer who found a little known technicality in the Code of Law that helped me get my rights. We started to shake our heads, wondering vaguely when the great bio-pics would come out about Madame C. J. Walker, Oscar Micheaux, W.E.B. Dubois, Booker T. Washington, Frederick Douglass, and Harriet Tubman. We kept muttering to ourselves, 'somebody ought to make a movie about THAT-', or 'somebody out to make a movie about HIM or HER', but quoting and paraphrasing Flip Wilson, what we saw in real life was not exactly what we got in Film.
We were constantly reminded in Film and other media, as we were in culturally biased texts of History and even the hagiography and iconography of Religion, to the point of cultural conditioning verging upon the state of a hypnotic suggestion, that we were a benighted race and culture whose energies were best expressed subordinated to the imperatives of Western Culture and Civilization and that we ought to be grateful for that. There was no mention in Film of what we had contributed to the affairs of the World in any fields of progress, least of all what intellectual juice was invested by thinking men and women of color in the bloodless revolutions of Science and Invention.
Through it all, men and women like Sidney Poitier shouldered like Atlas this bright road representing the strength and honor and dignity and high spirituality of people of color in the roles they chose to play.
This, to me, is the great statement of the Poitier career. You can choose the role you want to play in Life, rather than the role assigned to you by others. You can be a Doctor responsible for saving the lives of others, you can be that teacher who makes a difference in a student's life regardless of their color, you can be that genial handyman who comes out of nowhere to answer the prayers of needy nuns helping them to build a Chapel out in the middle of nowhere, and you can be that detective who comes up with the right answer in the nick of time, just a few steps ahead of a lynching and the hangman's noose. Here, in NO WAY OUT, Sidney Poitier as Doctor Luther Brooks rises above racial prejudice and hatred and civil unrest, to confirm that his diagnosis for an expiring patient was correct as he works with a bullet in his shoulder to save the life of a bigoted Ray Biddle as admirably played by the esteemed Richard Widmark. The reports are that Richard Widmark was a nice, mild-mannered man in real life, but he could choose to play psychotics and grifters and killers and Viking princes as he wanted to depending upon his own judgement and discretion. He could choose this and still be life-long friends with Sidney Poitier.
That's one of the signal things that Film and any viable form of Art should be all about, helping one to imagine extending the range and power of one's choices in a healthy way.
The beautiful Linda Darnell as Edie Johnson, the conflicted widow of one of the Biddle brothers, Johnny, is a long way from her presence as the ingenue Lolita Quintero in THE MARK OF ZORRO (1940), or as the Immaculate Conception in THE SONG OF BERNADETTE (1943), but here gives an Oscar worthy performance. Stephen McNally was riding high with this probing performance as the sensible and caring Doctor Dan Wharton; senior adviser to Poitier's Brooks. He would also star that year in a supporting villainous role with Jimmy Stewart in WINCHESTER '73 (1950). We also see Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee just starting out as brother and sister to Poitier's character, John and Connie Brooks. Mildred Joanne Smith plays Luther Brooks' concerned and empathic wife, Cora Brooks, and lends grace, dignity and beauty to the ensemble. Unfortunately, this would be her only film, despite doing Broadway shows and singing with Duke Ellington.
Joseph L. Mankiewicz wrote and directed this feature and even the elevator operator has great lines in this one. The events leading up to the race riot third-partied by Ray Biddle and unwittingly instigated by Darnell's Edie Johnson are a wonderful set piece of directorial prowess. Mankiewicz and Lesser Samuels were nominated for Best Story and Screenplay, further cementing the argument for Mankiewicz as an auteur for many of the films that he wrote and directed. Despite their nominations, they would lose out to SUNSET BOULEVARD (1950), that year.
Darryl F. Zanuck produced this feature and it seems to me even more timely now than ever. It's one thing to say that the disadvantages of racism and an impoverished environment led me to drugs and a criminal lifestyle. It is quite another to do all the right things, crossing all the 'i's and dotting all the 't's and still end up with spittle on your face and a bullet hole to bandage. Just might make even the most intelligent person feel like there is no way out.
Lust and Freedom
This is an interesting film that treads all the familiar tropes of Freedom and Bondage. Curd Jergens as Captain Reiker, a Dutch Sea Captain, works out a deal with Habib Benglia, the local African Chief to acquire some African Slave product.
Once he has his captured booty and a little somethin'-somethin' on the side in the way of the gorgeous Dorothy Dandridge, it's off to Cuba for riches, molasses and rum.
Throughout the course of the story, Dandridge as the slave girl Aiche' explains to the rebellious slave Tamango that she would rather be above deck rather than below deck in the hold for graphically obvious reasons. Nothing much separates this piece of cinema from MANDINGO and DRUM as written by Kyle Onstott and later made into feature length films until we come to the ending. The manner in which Aiche' chooses honor and dignity over a life of privilege as a kept woman is stirring in spite of the limitations of other parts of the film.
Directed by John Berry, this film was banned by France in its West African Colonies as it was feared it would foment unrest. It also did not receive nationwide distribution in the United States because the interracial love scenes between Aiche' and Captain Reiker broke the Hays Code regarding its section on race-mixing or miscegenation. Nowadays, this seems silly and ridiculous, except to those who still harbor a penchant for dominating and controlling others and treating them like objects of commerce to be shuttled about in a state of terror.
Alex Cressan does a great job as Tamango, the leader of the Slave Revolt against Reiker, but oddly enough, I'm not surprised that he never did another role in film after this. After all, what other roles would he play in the future? Leaders of successful slave revolts where those in bondage actually won their freedom? Somehow, I don't think that was in the cards in the 1950s, although examples of this historical phenomena do indeed abound. No, save the Hollywood Happy endings for the White Folks and let the Colored Folks play the doomed nobly oppressed.
That's probably my only real complaint about TAMANGO. You already know where its going before they start the first reel. The White Slave Master in the end is going to have his way, because he possesses superior technology and superior firepower. No amount of singing and praying and spirited resistance is going to change that. Even though there are plenty of instances in history where this actually occurred; i.e., values and ideas triumphed over the forces of commercial interest. While watching this film, I was reminded of the novella BENITO CERENO by Herman Melville. This is another slave ship narrative that would make a fine film, somewhat in the manner of Steven Spielberg's AMISTAD (1997).
I am heartened by the fact that Dorothy Dandridge actually did have a respectable albeit truncated career as a Hollywood Actress, and TAMANGO is a worthy tribute to her memory. It's a long way from BRIGHT ROAD (1953), but does serve to showcase her versatility as a major star. We'll have to create more roles for actresses of her stature in the future, and thankfully all this is changing now in that direction.
Bright Road (1953)
Adventures on the Bright Road
Funny how much this film seems like an episode of 'FATHER KNOWS BEST', which ran from 1954 to 1960 for six seasons on various television stations. There is no doubt that the story could have used a little more grit as one reviewer remarked, and comes across as so well-intentioned that it is saccharine in spots. Wholesomeness can be a hard product to sell as people take so much delight in being bad! People speak about this film having its 'heart in the right place', much as Charles Bronson's television series 'MAN WITH A CAMERA' did in attempting to right wrongs by holding the affairs of the community up to the lens of the photographer so that it could really see and scrutinize itself in one episode. The problem is seeing people on their best behavior while they accumulate goodie points can get tiresome after awhile.
The great thing about this film is that there is no hint of minstrelsy in the performances. Dorthy Dandridge and Harry Belafonte make for compelling and attractive leads, but the range of emotion that they display is simply not comparable to what they achieved in CARMEN JONES (1954), some time later. While it may appear that Dandridge and Belafonte are performers of exceptional charisma, I remember as a youngster encountering African American teachers both male and female who were just as or even more physically attractive and of darker hue to boot. My Art Teacher Miss Price comes to mind as well as a Gym Teacher called Mister Singleton. I'm sure they possessed no desire to be movie stars, but I could easily see them in this movie without its quality suffering one bit.
This film is based on a short story by Mary Elizabeth Vroman entitled "See How They run". It was published in the Ladies Home Journal in 1951. I was fortunate to come across it in an anthology edited by Langston Hughes called THE BEST SHORT STORIES BY BLACK WRITERS. There is no doubt in my mind that had the writer Emmet Lavery and the Director Gerald Mayer stuck more to the story as it was written it would have been a better product. Also, the musical score by David Rose leaves a little something to be desired.
BRIGHT ROAD makes you want to root for it, as it is about something more than drug dealers trying to extricate themselves from the clutches of the mob, or superstud private eyes using Sam Spade as a role model, or whorehouse porn stars on the run from the law and screwing their way to freedom, and most of the black folks I know are more or less like Harry Belafonte and Dorothy Dandridge. That is, peculiar people of particular gifts doing what they can to develop them to the greatest dimension. BRIGHT ROAD starts out with high hopes and the best of intentions, but despite breaking new ground, devolves into something less than expected. In the end, it is a good idea for a movie, as indeed THE WORLD, THE FLESH AND THE DEVIL (1959) was a good idea for a Science Fiction film, but steps back from the challenges it presents at crucial places during the course of the story where it it should boldly go where no race has gone before.
BRIGHT ROAD is a wonderful little film with engaging performances by its leads and young actors such as Phillip Hepburn playing C.T. Young and Barbara Randolph playing Tanya. You can easily see it as the precursor to such films as LEAN ON ME (1989), and AKEELAH AND THE BEE (2006). Adopting this perspective, one can easily see why it deserves its place in film history. I just wish that Belafonte had gotten the kids to sing along with him and that C.T. had displayed more of the mechanical aptitude he demonstrated in Vroman's short story.
Daughters of the Dust (1991)
Female Flight from Stereotypes...
This is for you, Njai Kai...
I fondly remember seeing this film by auteur Julie Dash first on PBS. I was struck by its imagery and visual richness. Back then, VHS tapes were the thing, and I recorded it along with the filmmaker's interview. Recently, I saw it again and thought now would be a good time to share a few comments.
The amazing thing to me is how Julie Dash got funding from PBS' AMERICAN PLAYHOUSE to the tune of $800,00.00, after having her proposal for a film rejected by Hollywood Executives, and by all accounts put it to superlative use. DAUGHTERS OF THE DUST (1991) is to be commended for extending the range of black female characters in cinema without evoking the familiar stereotypes of 'Sapphire' and 'Black Mammy' as it sails away from the last vestigial traces of minstrelsy. No maid or cooks need apply.
The images, particularly of Nature, are often awe-inspiring and made me recall the photography of 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, but have a vigor and dynamism particular to Dash's intent to probe the angst and profundity of Gullah Family Culture. I remembered when I first viewed this work of cinema, the images of Black Women in all shades and hues seemed like an endless parade of the best covers from ESSENCE magazine presented with dignity and respect. Arthur Jaffa, the cinematographer, deserves much credit for the lushness of the visuals. I believe Roger Ebert was correct in his assessment of Dash's film as a tone poem. She attempts to convey through the visual, as any good filmmaker worth his or her salt would do, the story more in the recurrence of poetic nuance than with any other consideration. The pictures she displays are often sharply poignant and arresting.
I don't believe Julie Dash meant for her film to be this astounding cultural artifact it has become. Something that Amiri Baraka AKA Everett Leroi Jones mentioned in one of his essays comes to mind again. The difference between Art as an artifact and as a process. When I first saw Dash's film on educational television and dutifully recorded it on VHS tapes, I saw it as an introduction to characters we would later revisit in sequels. DAUGHTERS OF THE DUST was her first foray of engaging in a process meant to change perceptions as well as hearts and minds. I thought it was only a matter of time before we would have DAUGHTERS OF THE DUST II and DAUGHTERS OF THE DUST III, in the manner of Coppola, Lucas, Spielberg, Jackson, and Leone. In other words, I thought she had won access to the infrastructure of film-making enough to evolve and process her craft to its fullest potential.
So far, this has not been the case. And so, we have these celluloid images, as evanescent and ephemeral as a snowflake or a soap bubble as you run your hand through the sudsy bath water you are preparing for your infant toddler, and attempt to keep an ear out for the latest episode of DAYS OF OUR LIVES.
DAUGHTERS OF THE DUST is a great groundbreaking film, but reminds me a little of the conversations my mother would have with our female next door neighbor over the backyard fence. Several times I would observe one or the other of them state, "Well, I won't keep you any longer-", and then go on to gab for another half hour or more. DAUGHTERS OF THE DUST is like that. It is a series of loosely connected resolutions or 'goodbyes' or 'fare thee wells' sandwiched in between a TRISTRAM SHANDY non-linear narrative that would certainly catch the attention of Lawrence Sterne and validate the assertion of one of my Detroit mentors that women love to nurse an emotion.
There is plenty of evidence of this here, and I would like to thank my high school classmate Njia Kai for all that she contributed to the making of this film.
Breaking Patterns in Blaxsploitation and the Belly of the Beast...
This film is comparable to the 1972 releases of SUPERFLY starring Ron O'Neal and THE HARDER THEY COME with Jimmy Cliff. Because of the pairing of Nas and DMX, it also recalls for me the teaming of Alain Delon and Jean-Paul Belmondo in the 1970 crime drama BORSALINO. BELLY comes across as an authentic Street Fantasy performed by authentic street players. There are recognizable touches of gang culture here and there, such as I remembered the older boys from St. Clair street used to mumble about in asides to each other. This film, to my mind, is a Hip-Hop riff on Blaxsploitation, and a satisfyingly successful one at that.
One could easily assert that the real stars of this film are the Director Hype Williams, Stephen Cullo for the Musical Score, Malik Hassan Sayeed for the Cinematography, and the Film Editor David Leonard. The Prologue or opening sequence alone is worth the price of admission. It is a masterful fusion of photography, music, and street poetry elevated to Shakespearean heights and contains elements of Afro-Futurism such as would make Sun Ra nod in approval. The undertones and overtones of Gospel and Blues complementing a jazzy getaway perpetrated by dudes who sport themselves as Super Bad is haunting and compelling, tragic and elegiac all at the same time. Definitely this is a set piece worthy of study, similar to the Drum Showdown between competing bands in DRUMLINE (2002).
The reason I went on at length about the opening sequence is because it adroitly sets the tone for the rest of the movie. The beautiful thing about BELLY is how it creates its own space in Afro-Centrism. Yes, one could argue that in some cases you are looking at style over substance, but isn't that exactly what Tommy and Sincere have a strange, indefinable itch to extricate themselves from? There is this constant reference to an inner city aesthetic that is at times liberating and damning and often both at the same time. But what lies beyond this?
What makes this a great film is that Tommy stumbles past being a mere tool for THE MAN to accomplishing a kind of reconciliation with a father he never knew. Sincere ducks and dodges bullets across the millennium developing an intuition that on the other side of the ocean may lie the healing and transformation he seeks in mending his cultural disconnection with his homeland in Africa. Both men cross the finish line in unknowing and knowing ways, and we get a glimpse of a real spiritual leader who passes his final exam when he turns the impulse to hate and destroy into the impulse to love and create a new life.
BELLY goes beyond its macho posturing to grasp at a future somewhat more tangible than what Priest Youngblood envisioned in SUPERFLY, and definitely more triumphant than what Ivanhoe Martin faced in THE HARDER THEY FALL. We all cheered when Tommy and Sincere stepped out of the belly of the beast to choose life in the 21st Century. It may not have been pretty, but then that's Life in the City.
New Jack City (1991)
We saw this film when it first came out with family and friends and it generated a lively discussion. I scoffed at the idea that 'livin' in the Ghetto' was as uber-violent as was depicted, pointing out that while we were rapping about it in a van outside in the parking lot, nobody with nine millimeters and semi-automatic rifles was running around about to cross paths with us. But one of the members of my family casually asserted that the story content of NEW JACK CITY wasn't based on nothing, that indeed, there were zones even in Detroit City that could mirror and serve as the backdrop for the goings on of a Drug Load. At that time, I was scarcely aware of the enterprises of Butch Jones and Young Boys Incorporated (YBI) and how his activities could be seen to easily parallel those of Nino Brown, as played by Wesley Snipes, and the Cash Money Brothers (CMB), or better yet, the notorious wealth building success of The Chambers Brothers.
What was arresting to me was the sure handed direction of Mario Van Peebles, who certainly had come a long way from lying between a woman's thighs in his Daddy's film, SWEET SWEETBACK'S BAADASSSSS SONG (1971), to manning the helm of his own production with aerial and surprise shots reminiscent of Hitchcock. The characters were all very colorful with catchy names like 'Gee Money' and 'Pookie', for Allen Payne and Chris Rock respectively, who play their characters with intensity and passion, whatever their back stories may be. More than half a dozen of the lead characters such as Russell Wong who plays Park, Vanessa Estelle Williams as Keisha, Bill Nunn as Duh Duh Duh Man, and Ice-T as Scotty Appleton, have since gone on to continued success. Even Nick Ashford, of the singing duo, ASHFORD AND SIMPSON, gets to strut his stuff and give his blessings as Reverend Oates, part of Brown's entourage.
The scenes where Brown's people are shown processing and packaging the crack cocaine feels like an Inner-City version and tour of someplace like the laboratories of Dow Chemical and is rich in intriguing details. The apartment complex known as The Carter in this film makes one wonder how much of its drug selling operations are based on what The Chambers Brothers did at The Broadmoor on E. Grand Blvd and Ferry St. around the lower east side of Detroit.
But Wesley Snipes makes Nino Brown his own, despite obvious allusions to Pacino's SCARFACE (1983), and the ending wraps up this tale with a swaggering panache, although I would have better liked to have seen Pookie deliver the final forget-me-not to Brown rather than Old Man Bill Cobbs. The only problem being its hard to bust a cap on someone from the grave. That aside, he probably would have had to stand in line behind Gee Money, Uniqua, Selina, Nick Peretti, and Scotty for his turn.
Touch of Evil (1958)
"The jury of posterity has returned with its verdict. Orson Welles is declared guilty of practicing Fine Art in the medium of Commercial Cinema. Therefore he is to serve a life sentence of making movies that shall never turn a profit. The defendant being so informed, may now return to the set of TOUCH OF EVIL. Be sure to make your reports from Mexico in a timely manner."
Well, there are two stories about how Welles ended up writing and directing for TOUCH OF EVIL. The first is Orson was only supposed to act in this film, but Charlton Heston was more interested in adding to his resume' a film directed by Orson Welles. The other story is that Albert Zugsmith, known as the "King of The 'Bs' ", who had worked earlier with Welles, offered him a pile of scripts. He asked Zugsmith which one was the worst, to prove he could make a great film out of even a bad script. So it ends up he took BADGE OF EVIL, based upon a novel by Whit Masterson, and did a rewrite before taking it into production.
Welles called up a couple of his pals from the old Mercury Theater, Joseph Cotton and Ray Collins, to come on down and get in on the fun. He got in touch with Marlene Dietrich, Janet Leigh, Dennis Weaver, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Joseph Calleia, and many of the cast members agreed to work for lower wages just for the privilege of making a film with Welles. He rehearsed for two weeks prior to shooting, and let the actors give input as to how the dialogue lines for their characters might be tweaked and improved. The cooperation and participation of all the players became a mounting kind of synergy that made everybody feel as though they were inventing something wonderful as the cast and crew went along.
So somewhere down the line, Welles decided to have one of his actors put a time bomb in the trunk of a car, so that Rudy Linnekar as played by Jeffrey Green and Zita as played by Joi Lansing, could be blown sky high crossing over the Mexican/American border. This turns out to be one of the longest tracking shots in the history of cinema, lasting three minutes and twenty seconds. TOUCH OF EVIL (1958), grows in renown over the decades to be recognized as one of the last great examples of classic Film Noir. Although released as a B-movie under Hedy Lamarr's A-movie, THE FEMALE ANIMAL (1958), and receiving little publicity build-up, Welles was amazed when his film received its European premiere at the 1958 Brussels World Film Festival and he won two top awards. This, despite Universal Pictures doing everything it could to prevent TOUCH OF EVIL from being selected as part of the Expo 58 World Fair.
Welles' genius is different from Hitchcock's in that it seems to strike like lightning in the oddest of places, and is warmer generally than the coldly calculated Sherlockian 'jig-saw' puzzle method of the Master of Suspense. It's a magic trick here, a piece of memorable lighting there, and a roaring soliloquy or monologue or improvised bit of narration that somehow breaks the fourth wall and grabs you by the lapels just like in the good ol' days back at the Mercury Theater.
But you don't have to take my word for it. Here are a few parting comments from Harry Lime himself:
"I think it's very harmful to see movies for movie makers, because you either imitate them or worry about not imitating them, and you should do movies innocently, and I lost my innocence. Every time i see a picture i lose something, i don't gain. I never understand what directors mean when they compliment me and say they've learned from my pictures, because i don't believe in learning from other people's pictures. You should learn from your own interior vision, and discover innocently as though there had never been D.W. Griffith, or Sergei M. Eisenstein, or John Ford, or Jean Renoir, or anybody."
-- Orson Welles
Sister Kenny (1946)
Satisfactions of Genius
This film has a singular importance. You may recall I spoke glowingly of women who ably supported determined, dedicated, striving men in their various endeavors. I spoke of a writer, a doctor, and an old time scientist in Ancient Greece. The personalities I described all benefited from divine intervention in the person of a woman. Now the cases I related enjoyed the support of loving wives.
What man has not sworn by having the 'love of a good woman' behind him from time to time? It is something of a clique' and asks women to assume a subordinate role to the man's purposes and goals. For some women this is not an imposition. They find fulfillment in helping and serving and creating a family. But there are many women who would find such a role conforming to a stereotype. One that blunts the edges of their personality and precludes growth and development towards embracing other callings.
Elizabeth Kenny is a natural healer. Played sensitively by Rosalind Russell, we see in the very first opening scenes that she derives her sense of identity from this more than anything else. That even includes being a nurse or a teacher. Like countless women before her, she meets an exigency with care and common sense and without necessarily meaning to, develops revolutionary ideas that advance the cause of healing throughout the world.
Elizabeth Kenny demonstrates with humility and compassion the virtues of a true revolutionary. The kind who changes the world with the force of ideas rather than the force of arms. She unexpectedly finds herself at loggerheads with the Medical Establishment. The truth is Sister Kenny tends to her patients with a mixture of personal empathy, communication between muscles as living things, and I believe, an advanced tactile sense which is part and parcel of a kinesiological genius that not everyone is privy to or permitted to enjoy. It marks one who is endowed to be a true healer.
She brings reports of half a dozen cases stricken with infantile paralysis to the attention of Dr. McDonnell as played by Alexander Knox. He is shocked to discover that she has achieved complete recovery in all these cases, when the 'standard' expectation is a more or less alleviation of the symptoms. He becomes a champion for her methods, but because of his formal medical training which at that time emphasized mechanics and structure and his psychological disposition, he does not attain the degree of success that is routine for Sister Kenny. There is a tinge of authoritarianism in his approach that seems to prevent the patient from placing the needed hope and faith in the practitioner to accomplish complete success, but this is mere speculation on my part from viewing that one scene in the film.
Throughout the decades, Sister Kenny, according to the film, finds herself in direct opposition with medical authority as mainly represented by a Dr. Brack. Phillip Merivale plays this role with distinction. She finds herself spearheading a cause and a crusade that puts healer and patient rapport before illness as a study in mechanics and the function of communication to re-educate muscles in spasm to flow before studies of structure. She thereafter finds herself married to her calling as a healer and her relationship with her fiancee, Kevin Connors, unfortunately recedes to the background.
This is a well written and well directed film by Dudley Nichols. Despite that, it nonetheless lost money here in the states and abroad elsewhere. Even in Australia where the titular character hailed from and claimed as her stomping grounds. Rosalind Russell did win a Golden Globe for her efforts. But what could have been done to make the satisfactions of genius more palatable for the commercial public, is a problem in aesthetics for another day.
Dr. Ehrlich's Magic Bullet (1940)
Genius and Humility
Genius serves best when it concerns itself with the creation and production of wonderful effects that can be enjoyed by all in part or as a whole process of endowing Life. This requires humility as the individual or group of individuals forming a mastermind alliance must be able to place in their appropriate bins what is known and what is not known. In this way, critical thinking can be constructed and accomplished toward a positive good and end.
This takes us light years away from the likes Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, who used their intellectual gifts to indulge in fantasies of superiority and being above the law and the concepts of Good and Evil that tethered mere mortals. What they produced from their so-called 'genius' was the unlawful seizure of another person and the unfortunate taking of a life. Thus, the promise of their brightness came to a diabolical end from toying with an improperly understood concept called 'Will to Power', and they both ended up in the Black Hole of incarceration for much of the rest of their lives. The film COMPULSION (1959) treats the aspects of this case well despite the pitfalls of dramatic license.
We are also an island away from the vicissitudes of one Robert Franklin Stroud, who grew up nurtured in a medium culture of abuse and impoverished surroundings and whose propensities for criminal activity, murder, and sexual predation are well documented. Sent to prison, he continued to suffer from lack of impulse control until taking correspondence courses, especially in higher mathematics and some of the sciences, enabled him to become enough of a trained scientist to cure the ailments and diseases of canaries and other kinds of live poultry.
There is a scene in the BIRDMAN OF ALCATRAZ (1962), where the Warden, played admirably by Karl Malden, walks into the cell of Stroud, as probingly played by Burt Lancaster, and wordlessly marvels to himself as he looks up and around at the plethora of cages made by the convict to house the lives of hundreds of canaries. It is a kind of explication and manifestation of what I stated in the first paragraph. Warden Harvey Shoemaker of the film is aware that he has walked into a wonderful effect that endows life. He is also aware of the intimacy of the space, whether or not he can adequately articulate it, and he feels somewhat overwhelmed and embarrassed in the midst of all this creativity existing outside the bounds of his authoritarian control. It's as though he's walked into a Church or the Women's Restroom, you take your pick. He does not know whether to cross himself, or apologize and excuse himself. Besides, despite the highly organized housing of life, it's messy and smelly and noisy in here. Reminds me of a line Edward G. Robinson once uttered to Steven McQueen at the end of the game in THE CINCINNATI KID (1965), but perhaps I shouldn't go there.
Let me give you a hint; the space is like a womb and pro-generative, perhaps right for a maternity ward, but all wrong for the activities of a prison cell. It is also about Robert Stroud's rebirth as an educated man, no doubt. But even though it is a positive sign of rehabilitation, the Warden Shoemaker defensively senses a faint air of rebellion in all this, and an underhanded rebuke of his authority, albeit he can't exactly put his finger on it. However, more than that, there is this sense of being inside someone's sex drive, finally sublimated in a very eccentric way beyond the values of dominance, aggression, and territoriality.
Well, almost; and it's this almost that Warden Shoemaker has a strong moral reaction to as it is outside the bounds of his understanding. What Stroud has done, of course, has a touch of genius to it and even a flowering of it, but it goes beyond being well adjusted enough to work on the assembly line or being a shoe salesman. It speaks of an assumption of authority, and despite the angels of his better nature, Shoemaker fears and is threatened by this. Might Stroud actually graduate to prove to be his equal in society outside the parameters of his control? Somehow, I don't think the Warden spent much time envisioning that kind of future for his ward.
So, what is the difference between Nathan Leopold, Richard Loeb, Robert Stroud, and for that matter Doctor Paul Ehrlich, Carl Sagan and R. Buckminster Fuller? There are many four letter words I could bandy about, but the ones that come particularly to mind are LOVE and HELP. Paul Ehrlich, as played beautifully by Edward G. Robinson from the very first scene is considering how he can contribute something to his field that would help. He imagines, given the available data and evidence, that he ought to be able to come up with something that will make things better. He is willing to skirt around the rules to acquire the knowledge and materials he needs to effectuate this, even if it means putting his own source of employment at risk.
We also see, thanks to the skillful direction of William Dieterle and the evocative cinematography of James Wong Howe, that he is willing to take infinite pains. He does so much in the same manner as Robert Stroud, but here in somewhat healthier and more relaxed surroundings. Although his frustration mounts gradually through many failed attempts, he is able to keep his perspective and equanimity thanks to the loving support of his wife, Hedwig Ehrlich, as played by Ruth Gordon.
This brings me to an important point that deserves underscoring. Sol Robeson, as played by Mark Margolis in the movie Pi (1998), tells Max Cohen a story about Archimedes who reached an intellectual impasse. He was burning out on attempting to solve a problem in physics and mechanics, and his wife told him he should go take a bath. He does so, and while soaking experiences an epiphany, a 'Eureka' moment, and ends up running naked through the streets shouting and yelling, "I have found it!'. Max misses the point as the rest of the narrative demonstrates, but I trust you have found it. There is a scene here in DR. EHRLICH'S MAGIC BULLET where Ruth Gordon as Hedwig Ehrlich serves a similar function to her husband to help him make an important breakthrough. Now each of these stories may be apocryphal, but Stephen King told this one to many audiences. He started to write an outline for the novel CARRIE and in exasperation tossed his three pages into the trash can. Later on, he found his wife at the kitchen table poring over those crumpled pages. She looked up at him and said, "I think you've got something here."
And I think you have something here, too. A man of genius who can help and be helped. A man of scientific understanding who can work with others to cure deadly diseases, and explain what he's doing to a wealthy sponsor through a simple diagram on a kitchen tablecloth. The ensemble is packed with heavyweights like Otto Kruger, Donald Crisp, Montagu Love, Louis Calhern, and Maria Ouspenskaya. The script, co-authored by Norman Burnstine, Heinz Herald and John Huston, provides entertaining insights into the observations, experiments and rigorous testing upon which the innovations of scientific methodology rest and depend, but with a human touch. There is more of a focus on the people whose lives are involved than the microscopes, syringes and thermometers. For my money, it is easier to see Robinson as the dignified Paul Ehrlich than as the psychotic Caesar Enrico Bandello; probing and suffering and making sacrifices to halt the scourge of illness in the world. Ehrlich and his men bring the light of healing to the rousing musical score of Max Steiner and that is just one of the many 'magic bullets' in this movie.
Genius and Self Control
The success of genius has as much to do with context as it has to do with anything else. What Thomas Edison said about perspiration and inspiration still goes. When it works to insure and promote the safety and well-being of others it is often displayed at its best. The film story of SULLY (2016), directed by Clint Eastwood, with Tom Hanks playing the titular role, is an example of this.
Genius represented in professionalism is a subject treated in film not nearly enough. I think men particularly value and treasure the ability to do the right thing at the right time under stress. You may recall that Hemingway was often quoted as calling it grace under pressure. Yes, even a Novelist and Big Game Hunter has been known to run into it from time to time. The ability to think sanely and intelligently in extraordinary circumstances is an essential component of real life heroism and the bedrock of most success stories. It can take the exercise of self control tempered and refined and qualified with training and practice to exercise this quality.
There is nothing like encountering an emergency situation and feeling duly prepared to confront and handle it. Reading about John Glenn in Thomas Wolfe's THE RIGHT STUFF and remembering the homey way he shared his adventure in orbit with all of us on Earth while handling the forces of velocity and a loose heat shield readily comes to mind. But facing danger to advance human knowledge isn't quite the same kettle of fish as saving the bacon for 155 souls. It was wonderful to see a trained professional save lives with his expertise and be able to utter with or without shrugging that he was just doing his job.
Real life isn't the movies, but then, you already knew that. The truth is genius and heroism are far more commonplace than might be imagined, but in this Brave New World of Public Relations and Spin and Superheroes, we tend to focus more on the showy and glamorous aspects of it, rather than presenting it in all its work-a-day details. Parents who raise their children to continually rise above their flaws and imperfections to successfully face life are heroes. Artists and Scientists and Inventors who hold fast to the values of their visions and dreams of universes teeming with joy in creation and in life are heroes, too. But then there are your everyday heroes like the quick-witted Crosstown Bus Driver, who closes the back door on a gang member seconds after he has snatched a woman's purse out of her lap and runs down the aisle to hop out of the exit, driving off while the rest of the gang at the curb explode the windows with rocks and jagged pieces of concrete.
I would venture to guess Chesley Sullenberger is not much different from this colored Bus Driver. He trained to do a job and he did it. He was prepared to do the right thing no matter what circumstances dictated. This reminds me of what one of the Black Belts said when he was quoting our Master Instructor Sang Kyu Shim in Tae Kwon Do class. "When preparation is complete, execution is guaranteed."
We could all hazard to understand this a little better. This particular case might be an excellent example to study.
Naturally, I am waxing rhapsodic about this because of the workmanlike job Clint Eastwood accomplished in bringing the story of Chesley Sullenberger to Life. I have read that we live in a world of Public Relationships, but I believe this world will fast give way to the movement towards an era of TECHNOLOGICAL CLASSISM where we become less concerned with the beauty of appearances and more concerned with the beauty of how things work. I personally think Clint Eastwood's SULLY is a valuable contribution to this movement. It even makes me want to go and learn to drill how to break down my bike better in case I should ever have a flat.
Tom Hanks was never more the Every Man Hero than in this movie. Aaron Eckhart as Jeff Styles and Laura Linney as Lorraine Sullenburger, along with the rest of the supporting characters, handle their roles with realism and restraint. But this has been an Eastwood hallmark for awhile now.
A lot of us remember Eastwood from the early days, when he played Rowdy Yates on RAWHIDE, and the Wagon Master would have to go into town to get him out of jail or his latest trouble. We were rooting for him when he went to Italy to do those THE MAN WITH NO NAME Spaghetti Westerns to cultivate a screen persona he could grow and evolve. As the years went on, I marveled at how he had broken out of the pack of the television leading men of the fifties and sixies; guys like Ty Hardin, Adam West, Clint Walker, Steve McQueen, even James Garner, to became an acclaimed director and filmmaker in his own right. Since making his directorial debut with PLAY MISTY FOR ME (1971), it seems to me he has never looked back.
The script, written by Todd Komarnicki, is technically meticulous and tightly crafted. I would quibble that more of a back story in flashbacks for a handful of the passengers might have been better for the authenticity of the narrative. This, rather than focusing on the drama with the National Transportation Safety Board, a portion of which, from all accounts, is somewhat contrived. But there is no denying that Eastwood and crew have captured what it is like for a working man to answer the call of his Highest Duty.
A League of Their Own (1992)
Woman Pioneers of Baseball
This film has everything; sibling rivalry between two milk maid sisters, romance, and a lighter version of the group protagonist ethic such as was evidenced in THE DIRTY DOZEN and THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN. It is also a coming of age story for a particular group of women and for the gender as a whole. Geena Davis heads a wonderful cast as Dottie Hinson, the reluctant heroine of the piece. She is a truly gifted baseball player, who leaves the farm to join the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League. She would rather stay at home and wait for her husband Bob, as played by Bill Pullman, to return from World War II and the mess they are making in Europe. But she goes along anyway just to keep her Sister Kit, as played by Lori Petty, happy because Kit really does want to play professional ball. Later on, even though Kit was not the one Baseball Scout Ernie Capadino, as memorably played by Jon Lovitz, wanted, she proves to have the kind of heart that's needed to keep the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League going into the Hall of Fame.
The characters are vividly realized and I can remember lines and emotional reactions and expressions from each and every one of the players with ease and a chuckle. Tom Hanks as Jimmy Dugan, the manager, gets to utter the line that's up there with Brando's "I coulda been a contender" and Nicholson's "You can't handle handle the Truth!" It's a hilarious magic movie moment that even now I see vividly in my mind's eye. The mournful teary eyed look on Kit's face when she mopes in and out of the dugout because her big sister has come back to stick it to her and put her in her place one more time. It's a poignant moment where anyone, but particularly those with brothers and sisters, can really relate.The Capraesque feel of the banter between Madonna as Mae Mordabito and Rosie O'Donnell as Doris Murphy are one of the special highlights. The expertly accelerated action sequences directed by Penny Marshall could be compared to Bill Paxton's work in THE GREATEST GAME EVER PLAYED (2005), but are actually in a league of their own.
What I really liked about this story is how it starts out honoring women who are headed to see their exhibit at the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. These women are like any other women that then go on to be housewives and mothers. Many of them were quite the lookers in their youth. Now still beautiful, but growing more matronly as time passes. These veterans of the Home Front and the wars of domesticity, the fallen as well as the survivors, deserve their own monuments and places in the Hall of Fame. So let's all sing a song for the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, while we wonder how Jimmy Dugan ever got in here too.
Slumdog Millionaire (2008)
Chances to Dream
This is a fascinating film on many levels. I'm glad I read several of the reviews before I began my own. There is very little I have to add to all the raving and the hoopla. The technical merits of this piece I believe have been adequately explored by others, leaving me little room to appear as the know-it-all as is my wont. There are, however, a few observations I would like to offer into the mix.
First of all, there is something I remember Miss Barat mentioning in Art History Class while I was attending the College for Creative Studies. She stated casually that when people are enduring depressing or troubling times, you often find the Art unexpectedly optimistic and cheerful. There were examples she showed via PowerPoint. The point I am making is that pain, suffering and misery generated from extreme privation and poverty can provide an excellent motivation for dreams of a better life. Most of the reviewers I read gave fodder for a debate as to whether or not this film was a successful alloy of reality and fantasy. This particularly relates to the Dance Scene over the closing credits. What came to mind to me were the closing credits to PREDATOR (1987). Here, after all the grisly violence, Richard Chaves, playing 'Poncho', looks at us with a smile from between the covers of a SGT. ROCK comic book. This gesture is an echo of an often quoted remark made by Alfred Hitchcock that I think serves well here. That is, "It's only a mooovie...".
I recall one reviewer talking about how ludicrous it was for a person who is winning on a Game Show to find himself afterwards being rewarded with police interrogation, torture and electric shock. This definitely is an inversion on the principle of Rewards and Penalties. But I seem to recall a fellow in the middle east who also got the right answers to many things who fared much worst. So this experience, while fictional in this film, is not without precedent in real life. The other thing that was remarkable was how the lead character, Jamal Malik as played by Dev Patel, seemed to get many of his right answers for the Game Show from traumatic experiences in his past. Usually, it seems to me, people tend to remember most vividly the more pleasurable impressions and winning is often followed by rewards of some kind. This was a novel twist that I didn't actually see as representative of real life, but the kind of cultural inversion that might well be what people in extreme poverty experience on an every day basis. Hence there lies the misery. You come up with the right answer and you get punished; and most of your right answers or solutions are from grappling with painful incidents in Life rather than the realization or contemplation of pleasure. Whether you agree with this central idea or not of screenwriter Simon Beaufoy, I have to admit it was an original tack to take.
The scene where Jamal's brother, Salim, played by Madhur Mittal, shoots down a Crime Lord he is working for while sitting in a bathtub filled with money is particularly insightful to me. He is subsequently massacred immediately by the Crime Lord's henchmen, but the symbolism is unmistakable. Here you have an individual who has been poor all his life, and could only achieve upward mobility through wielding a gun and committing murder. What does he dream about in his final moments? Making his past die and coming back in a future life so wealthy he does not have to resort to criminal activities and the gun to survive. This is a particularly Eastern concept swaddled and wrapped up in a Western style shootout. The villainous brother Salim transforms himself into a hero and while in uttering his last words, "God is Great", indicates that he fully expects the one on high to keep his end of the bargain.
Danny Boyle's direction is crisp and exhilarating. Freida Pinto is a suspenseful surprise towards the finale in a narrative constructed out of twists and unexpected reversals. These finally lead to a Bollywood Dance Off between the three lead characters in all of their temporal incarnations to 'Jai Ho', one of the memorable pieces that make up the award winning score provided by A. R. Rahman.
There was a reviewer who commented on the fact that most of Jamal's answers were based upon a chain of coincidence. He did not feel that it was particularly true to life. But I remember something I once saw on WHEEL OF FORTUNE. Pat Sajak spun the wheel for the last time and hit the one thousand spot. He added another four thousand to it, I believe, to make it an even five thousand. The first two contestants had money to bid, while the third contestant, I think a Hispanic gentleman, looked like he would go home with nothing. Anyway, the contestants started calling off letters and the Hispanic gentleman called off a letter that appeared in the answer more times than the other two contestants. Suddenly, he had come from nothing to leading in the last few moments of the game. He went on to get the right answer to win the whole thing.
It might have been coincidence, but it was real life, too.
The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938)
Friends of Sherwood Forest
We first saw this movie along with our Father on the Bill Kennedy Show with commercials. The introduction of the ITV Television Series ROBIN HOOD (1955), with Richard Greene shooting an arrow at a target served as the lead in to the return to action. Even back then, in black and white, this was a rousing tale of adventure and a delightful way to spend a summer's afternoon resting your head on your father's pot belly while he lapsed into snoring. Kennedy would eagerly open up his paperback copy of Errol Flynn's MY WICKED, WICKED WAYS during the breaks and share with us his anecdotes about the Hollywood Lifestyle.
Later on, when I was taking courses at the Rackham Memorial Building and staying at Wayne State University Apartments, I used to wander through the Cultural Center and would sometimes end up at Cass City Cinema. Besides seeing NOTORIOUS (1946) there, I happened to see one Saturday afternoon THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD (1938), as luck would have it. I believe that version was also in black and white. But the thing that stood out to me as I sat in a packed house that afternoon, was the unreserved and unqualified approval Errol Flynn elicited every time he appeared on the screen. This feeling of a whole crowd being behind a hero, not in some kind of mocking or cartoonish way, but really being with the protagonist and believing with him through every confrontation and trial is something you would have to experience for yourself to understand completely.
The thing that was refreshing was to see a main character who was a rebel, but not an anti-hero. There is nothing cynical about Flynn's portrayal of Robin Hood. There is humor and wit counterpointing every scene, and yet the whole production has the enchanted sincerity of the young child who believes in Santa Claus. Flynn's portrayal of the Man from Sherwood Forest has the same thing going for it that Linda Carter's Wonder Woman or Dwayne Johnson's Hercules or Jeremy Brett's Sherlock Holmes in the early years had going for him. No matter how boring Flynn might have found this role to play, he is Robin Hood exactly as we always imagined he would be. Maybe not the way he really was, but hey, are you taking this ride or not?
And because Errol Flynn lends such credibility to the title role, of course you are. Along with Alan Hale Sr. as Little John, Eugene Pallette as Friar Tuck, Patrick Knowles as Will Scarlet, Basil Rathbone as Sir Guy of Gisbourne, Melville Cooper as the High Sheriff of Nottingham, Claude Rains as Prince John, Una O'Connor as Bess, Herbert Mundin as Much, Montague Love as the Bishop of the Black Canons, Ian Hunter as King Richard the Lionheart, Olivia De Havilland as Maid Marian, and not a false note in the bunch. I remember all these characters so vividly because of their performances and lines and because they seem so right, like Flynn, for their roles.
When I started seeing this film on Cable in glorious Technicolor I was surprised at how, well, colorful it was. The costuming is actually as good or better than anything you might find in the Marvel Universe of Cinema. Elmer Ellsworth and team create attire that is lush and begs to be taken as historically authentic whether this is the case or not. The landscapes as handled by Michael Curtiz and before him Director William Keighley give the whole movie an outdoorsy feeling like the Olympics or some other kind of sporting event. This gives the entire story a tremendous appeal ranging across a bright, sunny playing field.
Finally, there is the music and man, does it go well with the horseback riding, and the romancing and the contests of skill and strength between the Merry Men and Robin Hood walking into the Lion's Den and fighting his way out with a little help from his friends. There is Howard Hill as consultant making sure that the bullseye arrow gets split down the middle and Maid Marian riding Trigger to the Sherwood Forest Banquet and Erich Wolfgang Korngold conducting the fight to the death between Rathbone and Flynn with memorable elan'. The visuals flow so well with the music that you even want to congratulate James Duff for the way he crafted the bows and arrows for the Film.
Every time I see THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD it seems to be better than the last time. I suppose that's the Law of Increasing Returns. Something you only find out about in Sherwood Forest.
Elmer Gantry (1960)
God according to Gantry
This film is a roaring train running fast and loose on the head of steam coming from the energy that pours out of Burt Lancaster. Lancaster, to my mind, was the greatest physical actor of his generation. Scenes from this film where Lancaster as Elmer Gantry is in the throes of celebrating his enthusiasm for Life come spilling easily and vividly to mind. There is the scene where he saves himself from being rolled and rousted by hoboes on a freight train with nothing more than two-fisted glee and a winning smile before he jumps ship. There is the scene where Gantry shows up bare foot at a Baptist Church and joins in on the Hymn Singing as though he had always been a member of the congregation and just forgot his shoes this time. It is wonderful to see him sharing the screen with the great Rex Ingram while he stokes the furnace down in the basement. There is the scene where he is so full of his spellbinding self he can talk no more, he has to run across the stage and slide home the winning run in front of an electrified audience.
Everyone, including Gantry himself, is aware he's got it. He's not quite sure what it is he's got, as he has never put it to the best use, but when he attends a revival meeting run by the true believing Sharon Falconer, he become aware she's go it, too. Now if he could only bottle what it is they've both got, the money should start rolling in like magic waters and fall from the sky like manna from heaven. The jury is still out as to whether or not this is pure Gantry, but it is definitely twenty four carat Lancaster. Ever the direct actionist, Lancaster as Gantry preaches his own brand of 'God is Love' between fiery torches through hot, sweaty nights. It proves to be the perfect complement to Sharon Falconer's version of ethereal sweetness and light with Jean Simmons channeling shades of Aimee Semple McPherson.
Elmer Gantry blocks, tackles and does forearm checks in realistic and theological disputes with the city fathers and the church council of Zenith over the propriety of Sister Sharon winning the hearts and mind of its citizens. Meanwhile, the big-city reporter Jim Lefferts, as ably played by Arthur Kennedy, writes a series of scathing articles aiming to expose them as religious hucksters. But Gantry and Falconer become a team in more ways than one, and the way seems clear for Sharon to set up a permanent tabernacle in Zenith. Lefferts devotes himself to chronicling it all; except when Gantry's womanizing past comes back to ruin him and his plans through incriminating photos taken by the pimp of Lulu Bains, a minister's daughter now working as a five buck a night whore.
We now get an inkling of the trajectory Gantry is on, for the worse rather than the better. Having preached salvation to Lulu while bringing her nothing but damnation, we dread with suspense that Elmer Gantry, despite his best and most heart felt efforts, has unwittingly maneuvered Sharon Falconer into exactly the same position. That is the kind of sensitivity Burt Lancaster brings to his role. You get the palpable sense that Gantry would like to go farther with his gifts to something like the faith that Sharon Falconer has achieved, but when he is finally found by Lefferts sitting alone in the ruins of his own machinations, we come to see where all his efforts usually lead him.
At the end, we see that Gantry still has that something, that uplifts and inspires others. But even he now realizes, perhaps as he has time and time again, that he has been looking through a glass darkly. What he has is only a part and not the whole. Despite the last lines he utters, Elmer Gantry is still a child who has yet to put away childish things. But the manner in which Lancaster strides away accepting his fate with a smile, hoping for nothing and fearing nothing, eyes filled with that Cretan Glance, whose virtue Nikos Kazantzakis so extolled, explains why he was considered for the role of Zorba The Greek...
Birdman of Alcatraz (1962)
Criminality, Rehabilitation, Genius
This is bound to be a long review, so get ready.
You will recall my review of COMPULSION (1959), a murder and courtroom drama loosely based on the case of Leopold and Loeb. The names being changed, as the narrator from DRAGNET might say, to protect the innocent. The main characters of COMPULSION were high functioning students of genius who chose to use their intellect to commit a murder and become lifelong jailbirds. Something of a paradox, because how smart can you be when you compute matters so that you reduce and lose your freedoms, rather than expand and win new freedoms for yourself in the bargain?
The BIRDMAN OF ALCATRAZ (1962) takes us to the opposite end of the spectrum. Here we start with a surly, pugnacious fellow who may have done some light pimping with his girl friend and who ends up at Leavenworth on a Manslaughter charge. He begins life with none of the wealth or privileges of high society that Leopold and Loeb enjoyed. But somehow, through Divine Providence or serendipity, take your pick, a confirmed criminal who solves his problems of interpersonal relationships with murder, becomes an autodidact and an expert in the field of treating diseases for birds.
I have read many of the reviews here. One of the fascinating things is how people continually insist that Burt Lancaster's portrayal of Robert Stroud is way too charitable, to put it mildly. The tendency is to praise the acting of Lancaster and the supporting characters and the direction of John Frankenheimer to the skies, and there is much justification for doing so, I believe. But those who knew Stroud or have read books about him, insist that he remained at heart a psychopathic killer and sexual predator, who enjoyed inciting violent disputes between the inmates and standing back to watch what would happen. Rather than being quiet, and growing to be gentle and kindly, those who knew him at close quarters report he was loud and difficult and dangerous to be involved with. Listening to them, you would think Lancaster and Frankenheimer were guilty of doing Public Relations work for Satan himself!
This makes great grist for a vigorous debate. Does punishment on any level ever lead to redemption and a salutary transformation of character? If so, what cases can you cite? If not, are there methods of redress better suited to satisfy all parties concerned? If so, once again, what cases can you site? If not, is there something new to be learned here and invented and developed in the field of crime and punishment and rehabilitation?
I think this is something like what Burt Lancaster, who actually met Stroud, was getting at. Nobody within the system of penology suggested any kind of career path for Stroud once he was fully rehabilitated. Their vision for his future, perhaps for valid reasons and then again perhaps just because of sundry vested interests, simply did not extend that far. What Robert Stroud did was an act of self determination. It was a reaching out of the snake pit of his demons, not to hurt or take Life, bu to heal and give life. This act of self creation, wholly without reference to whether or not anyone would agree or approve, ought to count for something. Establishing a viable business with a woman in a marriage of convenience is still a step forward from pimping your girlfriend, no matter what other reservations might be allowably harbored.
Former inmates at Alcatraz seem to view Stroud as more like Hannibal Lecter than John James Audubon. One, from what I have read, declared that Lancaster owed all the inmates who were with Stroud at Alcatraz an apology for the way he portrayed him.
Yes, I can even imagine Stroud chuckling at my sucker's talk as he took his fixed idea about Machismo to the grave. Perhaps all his work with birds was just a demonstration of his 'superior intellect' in the vein of Leopold and Loeb, and he was hoping he would not get too old before he got parole, as he still knew of people who needed killing.
He never read Thomas E. Gaddis' book or saw Lancaster's film, and despite the pleas of thousands of concerned citizens, including bird lovers and farmers and Lancaster himself, never won release from prison. I vividly remember the movie poster in the movie house as a youngster. At the time, it seemed to me that the movie was made to specifically get him out on parole. Something like what happened with Errol Morris' THE THIN BLUE LINE.
The cast is superb, and this deserves mention. This is a tight, tense, drama, and Burt Lancaster, Karl Malden, Thelma Ritter, Nelville Brand and Edmund O'Brien make for a capable albeit grim ensemble.
Stroud explained to Lancaster that one of the reasons he thought he was denied parole was because he was an admitted homosexual. Other inmates at Alcatraz considered him a "Wolf' or a 'Bull Queer' as it was termed in THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION (1994). So perhaps between murder and rape, there was no way out for The Birdman of Alcatraz.
I read a couple of paragraphs of Stroud's DISEASES OF CANARIES published in 1933 and must say from the Kindle Edition, I was immediately struck by its lucid expression of critical thinking. It reads and feels like the crystallized prose of Hemingway and has the dispassionate analysis of a trained scientist. Jomo Kenyatta's FACING MOUNT KENYA also comes to mind. This from a couple of paragraphs and diagrams!
So, what's the difference between Carl Sagan, R. Buckminister Fuller and Robert Stroud along with Leopold and Loeb? There's a little four letter word that's considered maudlin, corny, sentimental and dated these days, so I won't mention it here.
But I invite you to draw your own conclusions.
Three and the Crowd
This is a thrilling film showcasing a trio of movie stars approaching the heights of their box-office popularity and star power. Burt Lancaster brings a melancholy intensity to his role as Mike Ribble, only the sixth man ever to do the triple somersault on the flying trapeze. Like Humpty Dumpty, he has had a great fall and limps around in pieces as a rigger for the local circus. Later, Tony Curtis shows up as Tino Orsini, and with the enthusiasm of youth appeals to the reluctant Ribble to help him transform his energy into the skill and know-how to be the next and only seventh man to perform a triple somersault. Now enters the dazzling and gorgeous Gina Lollobrigida as Lola. She serves to complete the triangle as either a road block or a servo-mechanism to their aims and goals.
Ribble eventually gives in to Orsini's desire to be his acolyte, but bristles at the idea of adding Lola to the act. However, if you know the song from the Broadway hit play and film DAMN YANKEES, you know the rest. Lola becomes the explosive third point in this network of relationships inciting conflict and, of course, inflaming passions that put the goal of ever achieving the vaunted triple somersault in serious question and doubt. Ribble, thoroughly knowing Lola's history and penchant for highlighting herself in any act that she is a part of, finds her suspect and really wants her to hit the road, Jack. But Thomas Gomez, as the Circus owner, Bouglione, knows a glamor queen when he sees one. Lola, as far as he is concerned, is just the kind of bright, sexy, spice his circus needs.
Ribble is tortured by the idea that the addition of Lola to the act will have a pernicious influence on the bonding needed between him and Orsini in order to accomplish the show stopping triple somersault. But we become witnesses to events that prove otherwise. Despite what appears to be an irreparable rift between Ribble and Orsini, apparently because of Lola, Ribble feels compelled to complete his role of mentorship to Orsini, and the following scenes feel like something out of BACK TO THE FUTURE between Marty McFly and Professor Emmett Brown, albeit in a more muscular and athletic way. At the end, Mike Ribble and Lola seem like both the mother and father and midwives to Tino Orsini's birth as a top tier trapeze artist for the briefest, fleeting, troubled moment. It is this subtle transition from the fractured friendship of a mentor and student to a realization that a sense of family, no matter how tenuous and dysfunctional, often undergirds the most profound achievements, that finally speaks to the quality of Carol Reed's directorial chores.
When I first saw this film as a kid, I viewed Burt Lancaster's character, Mike Ribble, as a true teacher who would go to any lengths to bring out the best in his pupil. Perhaps a somewhat childish consideration at the time, considering that there were other emotional values swirled up into the mix. The ending is indeed ambiguous and uncertain; the question being now that Tino Orsini has come of age and grown to be a world class flyer, have Mike and Lola grown enough to reconcile their past and future with the needs of their present?
Do they hear a little clock ticking inside them as well as Lola reaches out to Mike in the night to catch him?
Night and the City (1950)
A Dance with the Devil in the Pale Moon Light
There is something perversely and tragically balletic about Harry Fabian's meanderings through the grimy slums of the London underworld. It becomes clear early on that he's a marked man who has fallen in with the wrong crowd, and no matter how energetically he works his charm and intelligence, there is simply not enough love to go around to land him over the top. He doesn't love Mary Bristol enough to marry her and provide her with the comfort and security of a happy home, and his associates have such low regard for him as a shady grifter with delusions of grandeur, that they delight when he comes up short in achieving his goals, as he always seems to do.
He never seems to grok, despite all his cleverness, that his energies might be better invested in a new paradigm involving loving relationships with people whose activities are a bit more above board than those in his present surroundings. No, he's been born to this, and shady dealings are as natural to him as breathing and being on the run from those he has shafted and double-crossed. No doubt his own prejudices and chauvinism for this God-forsaken playground which has become his environment, keep him deeply entrenched there. But it soon becomes apparent to the viewer, that Fabian is rooting around in a social equation peopled with the most intriguing characters, who like him, find their primary refuge and solace in the use of their own wits on both sides of the law to secure their survival, and to pretend a kind of superiority over the suckers and the swells. Fabian seems blind to the fact that as long as betrayal and chicanery are part of his calculations, there will always be a missing integer.
Phil Nosseross, the nightclub owner, offers to meet him halfway and back with cash Fabian's next opportunity to have one of his schemes fall flat just for the pleasure of seeing him squirm. But Fabian sees a way to make a power grab on a local mobster named Kristo by schmoozing with his father, a great Greco-Roman wrestler known as Gregorius, perhaps the only person among the whole cast of characters with more than a kernel of decency, dormant or otherwise. He proves to play a very important role in grounding this drama in moral gravitas.
This cannot be emphasized enough. Stanislaus Zbyszko playing The Great Gregorius is to NIGHT AND THE CITY what Harold Russell playing Homer Parrish is to THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES. That is, an added touch of authenticity as Zbyszko really was a great wrestler in his heyday. Zbyszko is every bit as deserving of a Best Supporting Actor Oscar as Russell was, but less fortunate in that department. While watching him, I couldn't help but compare his performance to that of Marlon Brando in THE GODFATHER. He brings a towering presence to this supposed sea of lowlifes.
But it's Richard Widmark's show from start to finish and this film reveals him at the top of his form. You won't wonder why Frank Gorshin chose to channel him when he played The Riddler after you see this one. The performance he gives here is at turns cagey and virile and frantic, but the wheels never stops turning in this hustler's head. Director Jules Dassin keeps the pace going at breakneck speed and Cinematographer Max Greene colors it all as a gem of a noir to be remembered. Gene Tierney as the sympathetic and supportive Mary is there for Fabian when it all falls apart in the end, but has Hugh Marlowe as Adam Dunne to give her a shoulder to cry on when the Devil slinks back into the shadows for a new dance partner and an artist without an art.
The Devil's Disciple (1959)
Pleasures of Paradox
When people say they just don't make 'em like this any more, this is what they are talking about. This film can be criticized in a number of areas for shallowness and pretentiousness, but its strong points far outweigh any concern about dramatic niceties. George Bernard Shaw wasn't satisfied with his play upon which this film is based, it's true, and did not consider it one of his best. But there is something about this particular work of cinema and its gloss of classic Hollywood Glamor, the like of which you will not see again once the independents come to have their way. So better enjoy it while you can, and it's still in mint condition.
First of all there is the title. I'll give you three guesses who turns out to be newly graduated from the Academy of Devildom. Yep, that's Kirk Douglas winning his way into your heart with a knavish grin, and uttering through clenched teeth some of the best lines that Shavian wit can devise. And, oh, what lines they are! One line zingers served up after being sharpened on the whetstone of irony. The dialogue is the icing on the cake of a folk tale about the Revolutionary War, dished out in slices of scenes that make for a rollicking fun adventure. There is Burt Lancaster, playing the town cleric as a figure of moral rectitude, after flipping a coin with his friend Kirk for who would play which part in this morality tale of principle and paradox. But under that starched collar, Burt's inner Captain America is straining at the seams to bust out, as you will observe. There is Janette Scott, playing Burt's wholesomely righteous wife, who piously wants a hero for a husband, but has a hard time telling when she's being taken seriously and for what reasons by the men. Completing the cast of main characters is Laurence Olivier as Gentlemanly Johnny, strictly upper crust and British etiquette, taking his lumps with tea as the stoic straight man, while making droll, trenchant comments about History and the foibles of War.
The rest of the ensemble move with authority through the narrative and hit their marks with unknowing ease. Speaking of the narrative, there is an off-screen narrator who parks some of the most hilarious lines between his tongue and his cheek, while we are treated to some great cartoon nation re-enactments of supposed famous skirmishes and battles. I would love to say I wish there had been more of Shaw in terms of speeches and monologues, such as I first encountered in the written text for MAN AND SUPERMAN, but seeing the friendship of Douglas and Lancaster play out in celluloid, while Burt gallops away with the girl in the finale, is happy ending enough for one Revolutionary War.
Compassion and Genius
This is a wonderful murder and courtroom drama about two promising young men of proven high intelligence who despite their extraordinary mental ability nonetheless cancel their futures and any benefit they might provide to the greater society of which they are a part.
Doesn't sound particularly intelligent, does it?
Therein lies the fascination. This subject has been a source for dramatic treatment at least since Oedipus Rex and Rodion Raskolnikov in CRIME AND PUNISHMENT. How is it that a person can start on high or promoting a particular gift and end up crashing themselves or nullifying those gifts or attributes that they practice? The irony to me is that as Orson Welles brings up the rear in this story, I fondly remember him stating how he started out at the top and worked his way down!
Marilyn Vos Savant was recorded as having the highest IQ of any human on Earth according to her performance on standard IQ tests and The Guinness Book of World Records. But even she has been quoted as saying that because of the wide range of mental abilities that there are, IQ tests are in many cases useless. The contention being that there are all sorts of intelligences that cannot be measured by pen and paper.
Here are two young men of exceptional intellect and what are the bright ideas that occur to them? First, how can they demonstrate and 'prove' that they are superior to others? "I know," declares so-called alpha male Arthur A. Strauss, "let's plan and execute a perfect murder!" One thing is certain, when it comes to 'criminal genius', these whiz kids score abysmally low. But why did they go there in the first place? Why not consider using their advanced intellect to make documented breakthroughs in education or invent something or work with a team of scientists to cure a deadly disease?
Notice that nobody asks this question as they probe and explore the mystery and the mystique of the so-called genius of Judd Steiner and Artie Strauss. Dean Stockwell and Bradford Dillman present these characters with chilling skill and macabre vigor. We find out how fast Steiner can think and how Strauss' intellectual confidence imbues him with a kind of authority that proves useful in interpersonal relationships and social situations. What we fail to discover is how two young people benefiting from all the advantages that come from wealthy parents and an affluent lifestyle can yet exhibit such deficits in compassion, humility and self control.
Orson Welles as Jonathan Wilk is the counterpoint to these prodigies. He represents what they could have become with a better cultivation of the above attributes mentioned. That is why his monologue at the end is such a revelation. It is pure Welles as the unfettered epitome of the liberal spirit he always was. But it also puts on full display what genius can accomplish when put to good use. How it can save lives, no matter how damaged, rather than take them. Welles is particularly well-suited to demonstrate this; defying the cardinal rule of cinema by telling rather than showing with a casual shrug, because, let's face it, he possesses both the intellectual and emotional firepower to do so. He speaks for nearly ten minutes or so, and single-handedly delivers the catharsis of the entire drama taking everybody to church and to school.
The reason why I cannot rate this film a 'ten' is because there is absolutely no focus on Paulie Kessler, the victim of Steiner's and Strauss' experiment with the concept of Superior Men. We find out nothing about his personality or character. One could say because he isn't 'special' enough. But teasing out the theme that sometimes so-called 'ordinary people' can have an even greater impact on Life, History, and Culture than even the mental giants and those destined for greatness is a telling paradox that would be sure to make George Floyd laugh up in heaven. This, along with not seeing how the crime was evolved from conception to being committed in real time, is also a limitation that the director Richard Fleischer and cinematographer William C. Mellor skillfully and nimbly skip around.
Space Is the Place (1974)
RETURN OF THE SPACE MAKER
This is a strange, amusing mixture of Afro-futurism and Blaxploitation. While I was watching this movie, there were other films that came to mind that spring from the same humble origins. THE BROTHER FROM ANOTHER PLANET (1984), on the Afro-futurism side, and SWEET SWEETBACK'S BADASS SONG (1971), on the Blaxploitation side. Thankfully, there are several independent features of interest that solely come from the mystique and enigma that is Sun Ra.
There is no doubt that SPACE IS THE PLACE (1974) comes across like a episode of DOCTOR WHO with wildly garbed, eccentric characters landing on Earth and strolling proud with Sun Ra to achieve mission objectives. Among them is a mirror-faced character in the exposition who proves to be a real missed opportunity for writers Joshua Smith and Sun Ra. I could have easily welcomed his presence at other pivotal points in the story.
There is another fascinating scene where Sun Ra plays cards with the Overseer in the Desert. This fateful encounter subtly reeks with the Temptation of Christ by the Devil in another Desert game. THE WORLD, THE FLESH, AND THE DEVIL (1959) with Harry Belafonte and Inger Stevens suggested itself to me, as well as the DUTCHMAN (1967) with Shirley Knight and Al Freeman Jr. We watch this battle of wits progress as we move through space and time to find out how Sun Ra left Earth and to see what he has returned for in the mean time.
There was a common thread that ran through all these films that explained both their virtues and their shortcomings. While these works of cinema promised unconventional, far out adventures, oddly enough, they did not go far out enough and in many ways revisited old stereo-types. Sun Ra's portrayal of Buddha outside the box is compelling, and the reference to Casino and Bordello and Ghetto ethics needs no apology. However, this film could have benefited from more astute SELECTION and EMPHASIS, like one those riffs and solos that flowed out of Louis Armstrong's trumpet. The allusions to the Casino could have been better counter-poised with allusions to the museum, and the allusions to the Bordello could have been counter-poised with allusions to the Church, while allusions to the Ghetto could have been ultimately counter-poised with allusions to the sprawling metropolis of Downtown with its high society denizens.
The reach of this eighty five minute epic into space of all kinds seems unfortunately limited, less by production values, and more by a lack of balance and symmetry. When Sun Ra starts to interview recruits for his trip back across the stars you would expect a more diverse cross section of characters and ethnic populations, as wildly eccentric as the emissaries who have descended to Earth. Since this turns out not to be the case, the rest of the movie sandwiched in between the stirring opening with the mirror-faced dude, and the game of cards in the desert and the apocalyptic ending is as sophomoric as anything you might see at your local neighborhood talent show.
Kings Row (1942)
Small Town Greatness
This is a film so visually rich I have a tendency to remember it in color as with CITIZEN KANE (1941). I love how it is an Ode to Friendship without all the singing and dancing and declaiming of Kelly and the gang in its ALWAYS FAIR WEATHER. You actually see five children grow up to the rousing, memorable musical score of Erick Wolfgang Korngold. The musical score swirling around Paris Mitchell, now grown into the adult Robert Cummings, promises something grand in the offing. My interest at this point was piqued to see whether or not the narrative would deliver what the sweep of the score suggested.
The ensemble is top flight and I do not perceive a false note anywhere with the characterizations. The story tends to dip its toe in melodrama here and there due to its serious and sometimes Gothic nature. But there is a cumulative force to seeing these five friends growing to care about each other as they come to grips with the flaws of their characters and the limitations in understanding of their community. The cinematography by James Wong Howe is an amazing evocation of small town life. At least as I would imagine it to be, and rivals what Stanley Cortez did with THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS (1942).
The veneer of social respectability is artfully lifted and pierced through, as the secrets of some of the town's leading figures are revealed in the amidst of catastrophic and tragic circumstances. Claude Rains comes across as both brilliant and sinister in his role as Doctor Alexander Tower and Betty Field is luminescent and mysterious in the role of his daughter, Cassandra Tower. Ann Sheridan shows and demonstrates that she deserves the top billing in this film, playing the girl from the wrong side of the tracks as Randy Monaghan. The ironic thing is she is all right for the aimless, fun-loving, upper crust Drake McHugh as played by Ronald Reagan, and it is refreshing and inspiring to see a couple develop a relationship on character building experiences rather than just sexual heat. I would mention other characters, but I am sure I would still leave somebody out who deserves and is just as worthy of mention as any of the other members in the ensemble. I must mention, however, how outwardly benign Charles Coburn comes across in the role of Doctor Henry Gordon, despite the fact that he is revealed to represent one of the major accruing forces of evil that threaten to vitiate the vitality and dynamism of the coming generation represented by the five childhood friends.
People like Judith Anderson as Mrs. Harriet Gordon, wife of Henry Gordon, Maria Ouspenskaya, and Harry Davenport, I remember from Gothic and mystery-horror thrillers like REBECCA (1940), THE WOLF MAN (1941), and THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME (1939). What they lend to the emotional atmosphere of the film cannot be underestimated. Nancy Coleman playing Louise Gordon is just as spooky, albeit in a darker sense, as the Cassandra Tower of Betty Field, and it's amusing that paragons of sanity are found on 'the wrong side of the tracks' with Randy Monaghan's family and other hard working members of the 'lower crust'.
When Robert Cummings, whom I remember from his admirable television show, comes back to the small town, filled to the gills with all that psycho babble from Vienna where he has been studying psychiatry, of all things, he is posed with a moral dilemma that will either extend the corruption of the town into the future or turn its page into a brighter, new outlook. One thing is for certain, the last scene is a doozy and a home run for director Sam Wood. I welled up with tears, as it left me with no doubt as to why Ronald Reagan became our fortieth president of the United States. Now, at this point, Korngold's score comes up with a swell after having called its shot.