Movie Reviews - 1950s postsThursday June 06, 2013
Movie Review: Superman and the Mole-Men (1951)
“Superman and the Mole-Men” is less movie than intro to the TV series “Adventures of Superman,” starring George Reeves. It only last 60 minutes, I mean. It just seems to last as long as a movie.
It’s an odd intro for the series. We’re never in Metropolis, we never see the Daily Planet, we never meet Perry White or Jimmy Olsen. It’s just Clark and Lois visiting the town of Silsby, Texas, population 1430, to write about the deepest oil well ever drilled: six miles deep. Except, as they get there, the well is being shut down. Why? I would’ve guessed because they drilled six miles deep and never struck oil but apparently there’s another, more sinister reason for the shutdown. Hideous things are emerging, mole men, who cause old men to have heart attacks and young women to scream, and who bring out the vigilante in the small-minded and intolerant. That’s what the movie’s really about. If the villains in the first two “Superman” serials were megalomaniacs bent on world domination (Spider Lady and Lex Luthor, respectively), the villains of “Superman and the Mole-Men” are your next-door neighbors, preaching intolerance and vigilante justice.
Preventing this, standing in the doorway of injustice, as it were—in a move which prefigures other doorway stands (see: Atticus Finch)—is the Man of Steel, Superman, who, as the opening intro tells us, is “a valiant defender of truth, justice and the American way.”
Interesting sidenote. For most of his career, Superman had just been about truth and justice. That’s it. Only briefly, during a few years of the radio series in World War II, did he also fight for “the American way.” Why did the phrase return here and now? I’d always assumed a Cold War scenario, the American way vs. the Russian way, but according to Glen Weldon in his book, “Superman: An Unauthorized Biography,” it was a defensive salvo against another kind of intolerance. By this point, comic books and superheroes were seen as gateway drugs to juvenile delinquency and homosexuality and everything post-war America didn’t want to know about. Public bonfires were even held to burn the things: Batman, Superman, Action Comics, Captain America. That's why, here, Superman fights for the American way. What are you going to do? Burn the American way? It’s patriotism as the last refuge of the witch-hunted.
Superman vs. the Second Amendment
The theme of small-town intolerance is particularly fascinating, since, in this movie, Superman himself is rather intolerant. If Kirk Alyn played Superman with wide-eyed bombast, amazed at the amazing things he can do, Reeves takes it down a notch. Or two. Or 10. Growing up in the mid-1970s, Reeves’ was considered the touchstone performance, the one and true Superman (until Christopher Reeve came along), but I was never a fan, and I’m even less of a fan now. Reeves’ indifference to the role permeates the character. His Clark Kent is strong and smug, his Superman vaguely disgusted and contempuous. Maybe that’s the American way.
This is never truer than in the movie’s key scene, its climax, which involves the aformentioned standing in the doorway.
Two Mole Men—midgets with low-budget furry costumes and bald wigs—have emerged from the well to creep around the small town of Silsby. To what end? I guess they’re just exploring. But they cause a heart attack and a scream, and they’re trailing radium, so rabble-rouser Luke Benson (veteran character actor Jeff Corey, doing good work) gathers a mob to capture them and string ‘em up. One is shot atop a bridge, but Superman, or at least a shitty animated version of Superman, catches him and carries him to the hospital, then seems to forget all about the other one, who is pursued by bloodhounds into a shack. The shack is then lit on fire. What to do? He worries for a bit and then crawls to safety. I’m sure someone probably wanted him to dig his way out—mole man: hello?—but there was probably no budget for it. So he crawls.
Back in town, Benson and the mob hear that the first mole man didn’t die after all, some nut in a cape saved him, and so Benson incites the mob with a speech that sounds straight out of the Sarah Palin/Tea Party canon:
Now them two reporters from back east … they’ll try to stop us, like as not, but we ain’t gonna be stopped. This is our town. We don’t need any strangers telling us what to do.
And off they go to the hospital to lynch the little guy. Who’s there to stand in their way? Not Atticus Finch reading a book and using words to deflect the anger of the mob. No, it’s Superman, purveyor of a truer version of the American way. It’s right through might.
The mob doesn’t know who they’re dealing with yet.
Mob guy: We’re running this town. Maybe we want to string you up, too!
Superman: I’m going to give you one last chance to stop acting like Nazi stormtroopers!
They blow that chance. A gun goes off and Superman has to shield Lois Lane (Phyllis Coates) from the bullet; then he urges her inside and away from the door, and says the following to the mob:
Whoever fired that shot nearly hit Miss Lane. Obviously none of you can be trusted with guns. So I’m going to take them away from you.
Which he does. He beats up a bunch of Texans and takes the guns from their cold, not-so-dead hands. How delicious is that? From the perspective of 21st-century political debates, in which the Second Amendment is viewed as sacrosanct, and nutjobs everywhere are worried that Pres. Obama is “coming for their guns,” this is a laugh-out-loud moment. What used to be entertainment is now a nightmare scenario for the paranoid. Who knows? Maybe Superman put the fear in them in the first place.
Defender of truth, justice and sensible gun control laws.
Superman vs. the First Amendment
That's how this Superman deals with the Second Amendment. He's not much better with the First Amendment.
When the presence of the Mole Men becomes known, we get this exchange between Lois and Superman:
Lois: I’ve got to get to phone. Why this is the biggest story of the century!
Superman: I wouldn’t do that if I were you, Miss Lane.
Lois: And why not?
Superman: You know what’ll happen. Screaming headlines. Monsters Invade Western Town.
Lois: I’m a newspaperwoman and I have an obligation to report the facts.
Superman: That’s true. But these facts would start a nationwide wave of hysteria. You saw what happened here tonight. No. If we’re going to stop this thing, it has to be stoppped here and now.
PR dude: He’s right, Miss Lane.
Lois (deflated): I guess so.
Oh, Lois. Where’s our feisty girl from the Fleischer cartoons or the Kirk Alyn serials? Or the comic book or comic strip? This is part of the tamping down of Lois Lane in the 1950s. She can’t hear the scoop for the wedding bells in her head. She promises to love, honor and obey even though there ain’t no ring on that finger.
So what happens after Superman dispenses with Luke and the mob? The escaped mole man returns with two others and a big ray gun, which they train on Luke, who screams in pain until Superman steps between him and the gun.
Luke: You saved my life.
Superman (sneering): That’s more than you deserve.
Eventually the mole men return underground and blow up the well. “It’s almost as if they were saying, ‘You live your life and we’ll live ours,’” Lois says, amazed. Superman nods.
Believe it or not, that’s the end.
“Superman and the Mole Men” is a dry, little black-and-white movie filmed in a dry, little backlot somewhere. Its main action consists of a midget in bald wig and furry suit being pursued over nondescript brush and hills. The whole thing makes me vaguely nauseous. It’s like something you’d only watch when you were sick in bed; and it would only make you sicker.
But it’s worth it for the gun scene.
Ferocious mole man cornered. Was Stan Lee thinking of this guy when he started writing FF #1?
Movie Review: Atom Man vs. Superman (1950)
At some point I began to feel less antipathy toward, and more sympathy for, the people who made “Atom Man vs. Superman.”
Tough gig. With a miniscule budget and B actors and little time, you have to create a 15-chapter story about a super-powered being, Superman (Kirk Alyn), battling an evil scientist, Lex Luthor (Lyle Talbot), where, at the end of each chapter, the hero, or the hero’s friends, are in grave danger. You have to figure out the trap and you have to figure a way out of the trap that—most important—maintains the status quo. Everything has to stay the same but there has to be tension, conflict, and peril throughout. The rhythm of the series is thus: clash, separate, regroup; clash, separate, regroup. Until the final chapter when the hero captures the villain and we get to see the loveliest of words onscreen: The End.
How do you do this? How do you offer constant conflict and resolution while maintaining the status quo?
You make your characters pretty dumb.
The dumbest character
The characters in “Atom Man vs. Superman” are pretty dumb. No thug of Luthor can ever shoot Jimmy Olsen or Lois Lane. They have to leave them unconscious in a van that gets blown up or in a warehouse filling with gas or in a barn filling with exhaust.
Superman, meanwhile, can use his amazing powers to get out of predicaments but never to capture anyone important. At the end of Chapter 4, for example, “Superman Meets Atom Man!,” Superman is forced into “the Main Arc,” which teleports its occupants into “the Empy Doom,” a kind of proto-Negative Zone, where one’s “lost atoms will roam forever.” At the same time, Lois is placed unconscious in a car hurtling toward a cliff. How will she be saved? By Superman, of course! But, wait, wasn’t he transported into the Empty Doom? A little too pleased with himself, Superman explains:
His machine didn’t affect me! My atomic structure is different than that of human beings. … I just moved so rapidly I became invisible to the naked eye!
Every kid in the audience: “So why didn’t you just grab Atom Man while you were at it? Or why don’t you go back to his hideout now? You know where it is, dude. You just left it.”
Instead, he gets in the car and drives Lois back. You read that right. Plus he forgets all about the hideout. Until he needs to find it again. But he can’t find it because it’s lead-lined. Which would seem to be a giveaway even if he hadn’t been there before.
Lex Luthor? Brilliant scientist, etc. Here, he actually invents the transporter beam 16 years before “Star Trek.” “This apparatus,” he says, “can accomplish the transmission of matter over short distances. Its secret ray breaks down the component atoms and reassembles them here.” He’s got ray guns that start fires and cause earthquakes, and he’s got the main arc, and he’s got a spaceship, a fucking spaceship in 19-fucking-50; and yet after he’s successfully transported Superman into the Empty Doom, and Superman’s image appears on TV, he buys into the scam that the image is live rather than taped, and he sends a lacky into the Empty Doom to make sure Superman is still there. Guess what? He is! And Superman uses the open channel to return to return to Earth! D’oh!
Even so, there’s no contest about who the dumbest character in “Atom Man vs. Superman” is. Perry White (Pierre Watkin) gets everything wrong:
- When Luthor demands money or he’ll destroy Metropolis River Bridge, Perry is sure nothing will happen.
- When Jimmy reports on one of Luthor’s men disappearing into thin air, Perry complains, “You can’t even cover a routine fire without getting hallucinations. … It’s a plain case of hysteria or hypnotism!”
- When Lois tells Perry about Superman’s secret messages from the Empty Doom, Perry says, “You were probably hypnotized!”
- When Jimmy himself is transported to Luther’s hideout, and even has the coin with which they did it, Perry refuses to print the first-person account, saying they can’t print it if they can’t prove it. But when Clark Kent disappears along with Superman, and both Perry and Lois wonder if they were the same man, Perry tells her to write that story. “If I don’t publish the story someone else will!” he says.
- When Luthor hires men to frame them and divert attention from himself, and Clark suggests as such, Perry says, “Sounds like the plot of a cheap detective story!”
- When Clark suggests that there’s a connection between Luthor and the villainous Atom Man, Perry responds, “Luthor is running a legitimate television station. I’m sure he’s on the level!”
Great Caesar’s Ghost, dude.
Does Perry White get anything right in this series?
The frightful, pointless Atom Man
According to Glen Weldon in his book “Superman: The Unauthorized Biography,” the movie is actually based on a storyline from the Superman radio series. What’s the story? I guess Luthor wants money and power, and I guess Superman does what he can to foil him, and I guess the Planet reporters are after a scoop.
In many ways “Atom Man vs. Superman” feels cheaper than the previous Kirk Alyn serial, “Superman” (1948). We get more stock footage (floods, fires). We get redos from the first serial: Clark Kent ducking behind a file cabinet and emerging, a second later, with a dancer’s lightness and a triumphant blast of music, as Superman. An entire episode is devoted to Lex Luthor telling his assistant, Carl (Rusty Wescoatt, who also played a henchman in “Batman and Robin”), the story of Superman’s origins on Krypton, which lets the producers re-use that footage.
Sure, for the first time, we get close-up shots of Kirk Alyn as Superman flying, steadying his arms, looking down with concern; but when he flies Superman is still mostly a cartoon. As is the flying saucer. That’s right. Luthor also has a flying saucer. Forgot to mention that. He winds up shooting it at the Daily Planet airplane to blow it up. You’d think flying saucers grew on trees.
Luthor has a secret identity in this one, too: the titular Atom Man, a frightful being in a … Naw. He’s just wearing a mask that looks like a totem-pole head. It looks like they took a jug, cut in eyeholes and a mouthhole, sprinkled on glitter, and plunked it on Lyle Talbot’s poor head. You know the scene in “Duck Soup” where Groucho gets his head stuck in a pitcher and Harpo draws a Groucho face on it? Like that.
So what’s the point of Atom Man? Why ever be Atom Man when you’re Lex Luthor? I’m not sure. Maybe they needed the character for the title. Maybe the atom bomb was all the rage in 1950, the year after the Soviet Union detonated theirs, and that’s why exploding atom bombs dominate the opening credit sequence. Was this the first use of A-bombs as entertainment? Is this how we reduce what’s fearful to us? By letting Hollywood producers have a go?
Atom Man is also necessary because, for much of the serial, Luthor pretends to go straight. He’s caught in Chapter 1 and paroled in Chapter 3, where, outside the prison, he tells the waiting press, “I’ve invested in a television studio. My inventive genius will revolutionize the business!” He then uses the TV truck as a means of spying on the city. He even hires Lois Lane as a woman-on-the-street reporter, asking passersby questions such as, “Is city life more exciting than country life?” I.e., revolutionizing the business.
Luthor’s investment, by the way, makes total sense given the genre and the year. “Atom Man” was the 43rd Columbia serial. They would make 57 of them, the last in 1956. What killed the serial star? TV, of course. Superman may fight Luthor here but the serial’s producers knew who the real enemy was.
For some reason, Lex Luthor (top) turns himself into the jug-headed Atom Man (middle). Superman (bottom) can't figure it out, either.
Is that a missile between your legs or are you just happy to see me?
Other changes? Noel Neill’s Lois is less of a grump. She smiles so much, particularly when Superman is around, that my cheeks hurt just watching. Jimmy (Tommy Bond) is the same, Perry is dumber. Alyn’s Clark feels subtler this time around—he plays the nerd and the coward more often—but his Superman is a bit stiffer, his voice more stentorian. He says everything with an exlamation point! Like a comic book character!
For all its cheapness and stupidity, though, “Atom Man vs. Superman” presages many things in the Superman cinematic ouevre:
- The shot of the dam breaking and about to flood the town is a forerunner to the Hoover dam sequence in “Superman” (1978).
- Lois draws glasses on a picture of Superman to see if he’s Clark Kent, as in the opening to the Donner cut of “Superman II.”
- Lex Luthor creates synthetic kryptonite here; Gus Gorman (Richard Pryor) does it in “Superman III.”
- Superman gets trapped in The Empty Doom (or Phantom Zone) here, as does Supergirl in 1984’s “Supergirl.”
Even this headline, from when Supes fights his way back from the Empty Doom, presages things to come:
The serial also presages the ending of one of the darkest comedies ever made: Stanley Kubrick’s “Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.” We all know that ending even if we haven’t seen the movie: Maj. ‘King’ Kong (Slim Pickens) riding the a-bomb out of the bay-doors of the plane and into the Russian night, wa-hooing it up, Texas-style, as the world moves inexorably toward its doom.
Here, Lex Luthor shoots a nuclear missile at Metropolis. Instead of forcing it into space, a la Chris Reeve in “Superman” (or “Superman II,” or “Superman IV”), Alyn rides it out to sea, where it explodes harmlessly. Or “harmlessly.” It is a nuke, after all:
What to make of a man with a nuclear-powered missile between his legs? This looks like a job for Freud.
Movie Review: The Jackie Robinson Story (1950)
“The Jackie Robinson Story” is a cheap production filled with movie clichés. The young black boy who happens upon an error-prone group of white kids playing ball; he demonstrates what he can do bare-handed, and, as a reward, the white coach gives him a beat-up old glove. This glove follows him through his life. His brother comments upon it: “You always have that glove with you, Jackie.” Baseball is presented as Jackie's favorite sport, when, in reality, among the college sports he played, it was probably his least-favorite. Jackie himself, played by Jackie himself, is presented as dutiful son to a mammy-type (Louise Beavers), sexless suitor to a pretty, light-skinned girl (Ruby Dee), and almost without personality on the ballfield.
At only one point do you get the idea of the volcano simmering beneath the polite facade: When Brooklyn Dodgers owner Branch Rickey (Minor Watson) gets in Jackie's face about what kind of abuse he'll face in the Majors; the abuse he'll have to take in order to make it in the Majors. The rest of the film is dreary, long-distance baseball shots, and heavy-handed back-patting pronouncements about equal opportunity. “The Jackie Robinson Story” is supposed to enlighten us and it does. It makes us realize how far we've come by showing us the inanities that passed for racial enlightenment in 1950.
-- November 22, 1995
Movie Review: Touch of Evil (1958)
WARNING: TOUCH OF SPOILERS
Who do we like in Orson Welles’ “Touch of Evil”?
Yeah, I know. It’s such an amateur question to ask of such an auteur filmmaker. But it’s not a bad way to begin a discussion of the film.
Normally we like the protagonist. Normally he’s handsome and brave and the object of our wish-fulfillment. Here, Mexican cop Mike Vargas is, yes, handsome and brave, but, no, he’s not the object of our wish-fulfillment. For one, he’s played by Charlton Heston and that’s a sore point for cineastes 50 years on. “Touch of Evil” only got made the way it got made because Heston insisted upon Welles as director, so we should be grateful. We’re not. Because it’s still Heston: wearing dark make-up and a thin moustache and annunciating lines as if they were chiseled in marble.
Even so, shouldn’t we at least like Mike Vargas? Isn’t he the moral exemplar of the film? Isn’t he so upstanding, so dedicated, that he delays his honeymoon to tag along on a criminal investigation to make sure no innocent is railroaded by corrupt cop Hank Quinlan (Welles)? And doesn’t he get Quinlan in the end? And isn’t that admirable?
No. Here’s why.
What’s the matter with Vargas: Betraying Susie
“Touch of Evil,” follows two storylines: Quinlan’s investigation into the death of Linnekar, whose car is blown up at the Mexican border; and the stalking and eventual assault on Vargas’ American wife, Susie (Janet Leigh), by the Grandis, who are after Vargas because he put one of their own behind bars. Vargas immediately recognizes the first danger but never the second. Fearing for Susie’s safety, he pushes her away ... and into the arms of men who do her harm.
Let’s cut to a scene halfway through the movie. By this point, Quinlan and his toadies are grilling their No. 1 suspect, Sanchez (Victor Millan), in his apartment, and Vargas goes across the street to make a phone call. The proprietor of the store is a woman, blind, with a sign that reads “If you are mean enough to steal from the blind, help yourself.” When Vargas finally gets through to Susie at the Mirador Motel, they have the following conversation:
Vargas: Darling, the news is bad. Quinlan is about to arrest that boy Sanchez,
Susie: Oh Mike, is that why you called—to tell me somebody’s been arrested?
Vargas: No, that’s not really why I called. (Turns away, whispers) It’s to tell you how sorry I am about all this. And how very much I love you.
Susie: I’m still here my own darling Miguel.
Vargas: Oh, I thought you’d fallen asleep.
Susie: I was just listening to you breathe.
This latter part of the conversation could be any couple on their honeymoon. But they’re not on their honeymoon. The wife is ready:
But this is who Vargas is spending his honeymoon with:
The woman is as blind as justice, which is what Vargas is pursuing; but Welles also makes her ugly, which is the kind of justice Vargas will find. The discrepancy between the two women—the one Vargas should be with and the one he chooses to be with—is so great that, watching the movie a second time, I burst out laughing. Vargas doesn’t seem admirable here for keeping an eye on Quinlan and ignoring his wife. He seems a fool.
Then it gets worse. After Susie is terrorized, kidnapped, and possibly gang-raped by the Grandi gang, Vargas finally shows up at the Mirador Motel. The place is empty except for the night manager (Dennis Weaver, overacting). Presented with overwhelming evidence, Vargas remains uncomprehending. These are among the things he says:
- “The lights seem to be out in all the cabins.”
- “Party? What party?”
- “Brawl? You mean there was some kind of a fight?”
- “This can’t be my wife’s room.”
He’s not even concerned about Susie until he finds the briefcase with his gun missing. That’s what really sets him off: Not the missing wife but the missing, Freudian gun. Only then does he react.
Or overreact. He goes on a rampage, careering around on the Mexican side of the border and tearing up bars, in search of Susie. He basically goes from being a blissful idiot—thinking the world is all chocolate sodas—to being a malicious idiot. At one point, when a helpless Susie waves at him from a nearby balcony, he’s too busy looking for her to find her. In the end, she winds up in prison, charged with Quinlan’s murder of Uncle Joe Grandi (Akim Tamiroff). When he visits her, she says what she’s said to him throughout the movie: “Don’t go!” So what does he do? He goes. In pursuit of justice, which is blind and ugly.
As bad as all that is, he’s even worse in the final act.
What’s the matter with Vargas, part II: Betraying Menzies
At the prison, he convinces Quinlan’s best friend, Sgt. Pete Menzies (Joseph Calleia), to wear a wire to entrap Quinlan for the greater good. But as Menzies is doing this, betraying his best friend for the greater good, Vargas, skulking around and under a bridge, gets too close with the receiver, and Quinlan, hearing echoes of his own conversation, realizes he’s being recorded and betrayed. So he shoots Menzies with Vargas’ gun. It’s a great image: When Menzies goes down, the man figuratively behind him, Vargas, is literally revealed. This shooting sets up another great image: Quinlan stumbling down the riverbank to wash his blood-soaked hand in the river, which is also filthy. Nothing comes clean in Welles’ world.
At this point, Vargas has several options. While Quinlan is occupied with his hand-washing, he could, 1) take his gun back; 2) knock out Quinlan; 3) grab his transmitter/recorder and run away. But what does he do?
Earlier in the movie he had needlessly lectured Menzies in the Hall of Records. “What about all the people put in the deathhouse?” he asks in that marble-shitting voice of his. “Save your tears for them.” Now he needlessly lectures Quinlan. Doing so, he wakes a sleeping giant:
Vargas: Well, Captain. I’m afraid this is finally something you can’t talk your way out of.
Quinlan: You want to bet? [Pauses] You killed him, Vargas.
Vargas: C’mon, give me my gun back.
That’s actually funny. In a second, Vargas goes from sounding like an arresting officer to sounding like the smallest kid on the playground. C’mon, give it back. It’s up to Menzies, with his dying breath, to kill Quinlan for him.
Just think of what Menzies has done here. He betrays his best friend for the greater good. Then he gets shot by his best friend because Vargas screws up with the transmitter. Then after Vargas screws up yet again, allowing Quinlan to get the bead on him, Menzies shoots and kills Quinlan before dying himself. Now that’s a man who deserves a good eulogy. But when assistant D.A. Al Schwartz (Mort Mills) arrives with Susie, this is the eulogy Vargas gives him:
That’s Menzies. He’s dead.
At which point he rushes to his wife. It’s the one time in the movie he rushes to his wife and it’s the one time he shouldn’t.
But there’s more. Consider it the movie’s gloriously cynical punchline.
Throughout, Vargas has basically jumped storylines to pursue a greater good. He’s trying to prevent Quinlan from using his so-called intuition as a means to railroad another innocent—Sanchez—with false evidence. But in the end, in a by-the-way manner, Schwartz informs us that Sanchez actually confessed to the crime. He did kill Linnekar.
Quinlan’s famous intuition—which beats Vargas’ intuition, which suggested going after poor Eddie Farnham (Gus Schilling)—was right again.
By jumping storylines, Vargas creates tragedy out of both storylines. If he’d stayed with Susie, she wouldn’t have been terrorized and assaulted. And if he hadn’t tagged after Quinlan, Quinlan wouldn’t have died, Menzies wouldn’t have died, and the right man, Sanchez, would have been railroaded for the right crime.
Vargas isn’t the hero of “Touch of Evil.” He’s what causes everything to go so horribly wrong.
“You killed him, Vargas.”
What’s the matter with Quinlan: Murder and railroads
So who do we like in this movie then? Vargas’ opposite? Quinlan?
Welles certainly has a habit of playing likeable scoundrels: Kane, Harry Lime, Falstaff. Some are more charming in their rise (Kane), some more sympathetic in their fall (Falstaff), but all are usually smarter than the characters around them.
As here. Quinlan’s introduction reminds me of one of the most famous introductions in movie history: Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart) in “Casablanca.” First we hear everyone talking about him; then we’re allowed to see him. Rick Blaine, though, is obviously a hero: resplendent in tux, smoking a cigarette, exuding cool. Quinlan, in contrast, is repulsive: chomping a cigar, swaddled with extra weight, barely able to lift his girth from an automobile.
There’s something hunted and haunted about him, too. He’s so haunted I assumed—when I first saw this movie back in the late 1990s—that he blew up Linnekar. Turns out he’s haunted by his reputation. He knows his famous intuition is built on a pack of lies and every new case is a chance for that reputation to be tarnished. You could say he’s haunted by the man he pretends to be. Or maybe he’s haunted by the man he used to be.
But he’s still a pig. He still greets Menzies by calling him a “jackass,” and he still revels in the attention and power of his position, and he still railroads the innocent, or not-so-innocent, to preserve his rep. He’s not only morally unrecognizable from the upstanding cop he used to be, he’s physically unrecognizable, too. When he shows up at the brothel of Tanya (Marlene Dietrich), we get this exchange:
Quinlan: Have you forgotten your old friend?
Tanya: I told you we’re closed.
Quinlan: I’m Hank Quinlan.
Tanya: [Pause] I didn’t recognize you. [Pause; she looks him up and down.] You should lay off those candy bars.
Quinlan: It’s either the candy or the hootch. Must say I wish it was your chili I was getting fat on. Anyway, you’re sure looking good.
Tanya: You’re a mess, honey.
He is. He plants false evidence, conspires with Uncle Joe Grandi to abduct Susie, then kills Uncle Joe Grandi with his bare hands only to pin the murder on Susie. Later he kills Pete. He would’ve killed Vargas, too, if not for Pete.
So that’s two railroadings, two murders, and one attempted murder in a 24-hour period. Likeable or not, Welles’ famous charisma—like Quinlan’s famous intuition—only goes so far.
“You're a mess, honey.”
What’s the matter with Susie: Street dumb
So if not the protagonist or antagonist, who’s left? The girl?
It helps that Susie looks like Janet Leigh. It also helps that in the beginning there’s something pleasantly brassy about her. But we judge characters by the choices they make, and Susie makes some lousy choices.
Early on, she’s about to walk into the path of a pickup truck when a leather-jacketed hood, quickly dubbed “Pancho” (Valentin de Vargas), saves her. When a few locals inform her that Pancho wants to give her something, she responds, street smart, “I know what he wants.” Except he doesn’t want that. (Not yet.) He wants to give her a note: “Follow this boy at once. We have something very important for Mr. Vargas.” She looks around and shrugs. “Well, what have I got to lose?”
After that, she’s about as street-smart as June Cleaver.
She follows him. She gets her picture taken with him. She goes into a hotel with him. Sure, she takes on Uncle Joe Grandi with her exclamations of “Yeah!” but why follow the boy in the first place? For the thrill? Because she thinks she’s helping Mike? Because the boy has “pretty teeth”?
Whatever her rationale, for the rest of the film she’ll be followed by the gang, and the camera, both licking their lips. At the Mirador Motel, she’s taunted, cornered, surrounded on the bed. “Lemme stay, I wanna watch,” says the lesbian gang member (Mercedes McCambridge), in one of cinema’s most chilling lines. It’s particularly chilling because she speaks for us, too. We’re there to watch, after all, and part of us wants to watch this. We don’t get to. “Close the door,” Pancho says, and they do, on us. In a sense, they close the door on Susie, too. She’s a non-entity in the second half. The movie treats her the way men tend to treat women after they get what they want. It forgets all about her.
The early, brassy Susie (Janet Leigh), not letting a phallic cigar get in her way. Her opposite is actor Akim Tamiroff, immortalized in J.D. Salinger's “Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut.”
And the rest
So is there anyone left to like?
There is. They’re my two favorite characters in the movie and they’re both minor. One is cynical and gives us the movie’s final line. The other is the real hero of “Touch of Evil.”
The cynical one is, of course, Tanya, who has an authenticity about her. She looks you straight in the eye and speaks the world-weary truth, as she did to Quinlan at the brothel, and as she does in the end by the river. She seems a little saddened by Quinlan’s death and offers up a better eulogy than Vargas offers Menzies: “He was some kind of a man.” A second later, as if even this simple line is too much for her, but without a qualifying signifier, she adds, “What does it matter what you say about people?” It’s one of the more famous last lines in movies. It also gives lie, if you believe it, to my entire exercise.
But I don’t quite believe it. I believe it does matter what you say about people. At the least, it matters what film critics say about characters. And that brings us to the hero of the movie.
If the hero is the one who gets the bad guy, then Sgt. Pete Menzies, who gets Capt. Hank Quinlan, is the hero of the movie. If the hero is the one who sacrifices himself for the greater good, then Menzies, who sacrifices himself for the greater good, is the hero of the movie. If the hero is the one who makes the most progress, then Menzies, who starts out a toadie only to redeem himself twice, only to become a man of honor, is the hero of the movie.
In a dirty world, with dirty jobs and dirty rivers, where it doesn’t matter what you say about people, we don’t need the dull, hectoring, chocolate-soda-drinking likes of Mike “C'mon, give it back” Vargas, who causes more problems than he solves. We just need someone with a touch of good.
The toadie with a touch of good; the cop with a touch of evil.
Movie Review: “Le Amiche” (1955)
WARNING: CAT’S-EYE SPOILERS
After Patricia and I watched Michelangelo Antonioni’s “Le Amiche” (1955) on DVD last week, which my friend Vinny and I had seen last August at the Northwest Film Forum, she looked at me, shook her head, and, referring to the mostly female cast and their mostly female concerns, said, “I can’t imagine you and Vinny seeing this together. What did you talk about afterwards?”
“What guys always talk about,” I said, shrugging. “Which woman we’d like to sleep with.”*
(*For the record, I chose Momina, Yvonne Furneaux, who made 41 movies overall, including “La Dolce Vita” and “Repulsion,” while Vinny went for Mariella, Anna Maria Pancani, who, for some reason, made just four movies, three in 1955. Both actresses are apparently still alive.)
The movie begins as a kind of mystery. Clelia (Eleonora Rossi Drago), recently arrived in Turin, Italy, where she is to set up a branch of the Ferreri fashion salon, prepares a bath in her hotel room when she encounters a would-be suicide, Rosetta (Madeleine Fischer), in the next room. The maid screams, declares the woman dead, but Clelia, cooler-headed, takes a pulse and calls for an ambulance.
Cops come, followed by Momina de Stefani (Yvonne Furneaux), Rosetta’s well-heeled, opinionated friend, who enlists Clelia to help uncover the mystery. Why did Rosetta do it? Momina, seeming to enjoy this amateur sleuthing more than the circumstances should allow, quickly discovers that Rosetta repeatedly tried the same phone number before taking her sleeping pills. Then she quickly discovers that that someone is Lorenzo (Gabriele Ferzetti), a married artist, who recently painted a portrait of Rosetta. But surely that’s not the end of the mystery. Yes, it’s the end of the mystery. Rosetta loves Lorenzo, Lorenzo didn’t know it, but he takes advantage of it once he does. Antonioni isn’t interested in Rosetta’s mystery the way Hitchcock would be. He merely uses it to introduce us, and Clelia, into this circle of friends, and the deeper, more existential mysteries of friendship, love, work, and being.
The world of le amiche, where the blinds are never closed.
A lot of flitting and flirting goes on. As viewers we wonder: Who is whom? And who is with whom? Clelia arrives at the salon to find everything horribly behind schedule, and lays into both the architect, Cesare (Franco Fabrizi) and his assistant, Carlo (Ettore Manni), and winds up in a relationship with the latter, while the former flirts, and makes out with, Mariella (Anna Maria Pancani), a yummy, carefree thing, but becomes the lover of Momina, who is married to but separated from a husband who, Green Acres-style, apparently prefers the countryside.
Momina, my choice.
There’s a great set-piece, a Sunday trip to the beach in winter, where everything goes wrong. The ocean looks dirty, there aren’t enough men, the women can’t hide their true natures. The trip is ostensibly to draw out Rosetta but instead Rosetta is insulted by both Mariella (openly) and Momina (surreptitiously), and these two fight over Cesare, who, despite a large nature, doesn’t seem worth fighting over. Nene (Valentina Cortese), Lorenzo’s wife, clings to him, sensing his distance, and, as the afternoon wears on, one of the background men, watching the waves, simply declares, “This outing has turned into a real drag.”
A winter day at the beach: The ocean looks dirty, there aren’t enough men, the women can’t hide their true natures.
It’s up to Clelia to salvage things by essentially holding Rosetta’s hand during the trainride back to Turin. Broken heart? She counsels work. It’s what’s saved her. “Very few people can be self-sufficient,” she says. “We can’t do without other people. It’s no use thinking you can.” Between them, in the background, we see a nun, representing another way out, another form of self-sufficiency. Is it the nightmare of all women or the salvation? Either way, it’s there, hanging in the words between them.
Clelia and Rosetta talk life choices, with a nun between them.
The mystery of Rosetta turns out to be not very interesting because Rosetta turns out to be not very interesting. She wants Lorenzo. When she gets him, despite the betrayal to Nene, she’s happy. When she loses him again, she finally kills herself, despite the fact that Lorenzo is definitely not worth killing yourself over. He’s a weak man, who romances a would-be suicide because he can, and who can’t abide his wife’s greater artistic success. Momina nails him immediately. After Lorenzo leaves his gallery huffily when a customer professes interest in Nene’s ceramics rather than his paintings, Momina tells Nene, coolly, “He’s just jealous of your success.” He stays that way. Nene is offered an opportunity with a big gallery in New York, but he stunts her, and Nene allows herself to be stunted out of love for this man.
Nene and Clelia, so similar in temperament, turn out to be opposites in life choices. Nene is the compassionate insider who chooses a man over work, while Clelia is the compassionate outsider who chooses work over a man, Carlo, whom, at the end, she leaves behind at the train station. The movie bookends itself well. It begins with a suicide (attempted) and ends with a suicide (real). It begins with a woman arriving in Turin and ends with her leaving it. And in the middle? Much ado about nothing. Everyone clings to something to give life meaning—work, a man, many men. Girlfriends, le amiche, are someone to pal around with during that search; during the mystery that isn’t much of a mystery. Everyone strains so the outing doesn't turn into a real drag.
Carlo doesn't know it, but Clelia is already out of the picture.
Review: “Vertigo” (1958)
WARNING WARNING: SPOILERS SPOILERS
Okay, girls, who would you rather go out with: John “Scottie” Ferguson or Norman Bates?
I know. A no-brainer. Kindly, lovable Jimmy Stewart, Carol Burnett’s favorite actor, versus one of the creepiest serial killers ever to interrupt a girl’s shower. Of course Scottie kills the girl, too. Twice. And at least Norman lets her wear her hair the way she wants.
“Vertigo” did poorly with audiences and critics when the movie opened in 1958, for which Sir Alfred Hitchcock harrumphed and blamed his long-in-the-tooth star. (He never worked with Stewart again.) Others have blamed the ending, or near end, when Hitchcock lets us in on the secret before Scottie figures it out himself. Hitch sacrificed mystery for suspense, as he often did.
Both explanations, to me, are off. The problem, if it is a problem, is with Scottie. Here’s what he does:
- Causes the death of a fellow cop
- Pretends he’s still on the police force to get information during a private investigation
- Has an affair with the woman he’s tailing
- Has an affair with the wife of an old friend (same woman)
- Forces one woman to dress up like another woman (same woman)
- Causes her death
People go to the movies expecting someone like Jimmy Stewart to play the hero. It’s a mystery and he’s a detective and he’ll figure it out and get the girl (half his age). But in “Vertigo” he actually plays a terrifying figure. Scottie Ferguson isn’t “Jimmy Stewart” here; he’s halfway to Norman Bates.
The movie begins with a horizontal split screen—foreshadowing all of the movie’s doppelgangers—which crystallizes into the close-up of the bar of a metal ladder. A crook, as lithe as a young Bob Fosse, is being chased over rooftops by an elderly cop in uniform and plainclothes detective John “Scottie” Ferguson. The crook jumps rooftop to rooftop and the cop follows. Scottie attempts the jump, misses, slides down the slanted roof and clings to the gutter. He looks down and panics. We get that famous track-in, zoom-out shot to represent vertigo, and Scottie cries out in fear. The cop doubles back to help but Scottie’s helpless. He can’t help himself, and he can’t help the cop when the cop slips and falls past Scottie and into the alley below.
At this point, Scottie is still clinging to the gutter five stories above an alleyway, but Hitchcock has done what he wants here and moves the story along. In the very next shot, we see Scottie, hanging out, leisurely, in the sunny loft of his friend, Midge (Barbara Bel Gedes), attempting to balance a cane on the palm of his hand. Doesn’t he feel guilty about the dead cop? Later in the scene, we get this exchange:
Midge: It wasn’t your fault
Scottie: I know. That’s what everybody tells me.
An argument can be made that everything else results from Scottie’s repressed guilt feelings about the cop. He’s nonchalant here but for the rest of the movie he’ll be haunted by the dead.
I should say he seems nonchalant. In actuality he’s completely unmanned in the loft. He has no job. He needs a cane. He wears a corset. He’s spending time with a woman who is busy designing women’s underwear so he’s caught up in that frilly world—sexless and neutered. This woman, to whom he was once engaged, mothers him. She calls him “Johnny,” the diminutive, and shoots him a dirty look when he says, “Oh Midge, don’t be so mothering.” But she’s like the worst of mothers: she wants him weak. When he talks up his baby-steps approach to overcoming his vertigo, and demonstrates, she demands he go higher, with a stepladder, and when he fails and falls into her arms, she’s there to catch him and coo his name.
Afterwards he meets an old college friend, Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore), a bland man who married into his position as shipbuilding magnate, and who offers Scottie a job tailing his wife Madeleine. Not because he thinks she’s fooling around but because he’s worried about her. Supernatural elements are brought up, and Scottie, the modern man, scoffs, but Gavin is serious and insistent. His wife thinks she’s been taken over by the spirit of a dead woman.
It’s a job anyway. It’s a purpose. So for the next 10 minutes of screentime—an eternity—we see Scottie tailing Madeleine (Kim Novak): into an alleyway (where she buys flowers); into a church graveyard (where she visits the headstone of Carlotta Valdes:1831–1857); into a gallery (where she genuflects before a portrait of Carlotta Valdes, whose hair, Scottie notices, is done up the way Madeleine does hers). Not a word is spoken. For 10 minutes, we only hear Bernard Herrmann’s eerie soundtrack music. It’s like something out of “Alice in Wonderland,” and we find ourselves, as in that book, pulled into this hazy, silent dreamworld where dead girls possess live ones. We almost begin to believe it. Does Scottie? He follows Madeleine to the McKittrick Hotel but suddenly, poof, she’s gone, and the hotel clerk insists she was never there. Like a ghost.
The next day Madeleine tries to make herself a ghost by jumping into San Francisco Bay, but Scottie jumps in after her, pulls her out and takes her home. Not only does he take her home—rather than, say, Gavin’s home or office—he takes her wet clothes off. He leaves her naked in his bed. All of which goes unsaid but is alluded to in that stifled 1950s fashion. “When you, um,” she says, with a look toward the bedroom. “There was something in my hair?” The next day she mentions the whole thing must’ve been embarrassing for him. “No, I enjoyed it,” he responds, before tamping down his enthusiasm. “Uh, talking to you.”
We understand. Given the opportunity, who wouldn’t want to undress Kim Novak? But in Scottie’s mind he’s not doing anything particularly creepy. He’s the hero. That awful nightmare of clinging to a rain gutter and causing the death of a fellow cop? That’s over. He’s strong again. Madeleine plays on this need. When he tells her his name, she responds, “Good strong name.” When she’s piecing together what happened, and says, “I fell into the bay and you fished me out,” his response, “That’s right,” is flushed with pride. He needs her to fall into the bay—so he can save her—so he can forget the first two minutes of the movie. Here’s a question. Since it’s all a ruse, including, possibly, her fainting spell, was she awake the whole time he was undressing her? He’s taking advantage of her helplessness under the guise of heroism and she’s being taken advantage of under the guise of helplessness. No one is what they seem, but at least Madeleine/Judy knows she’s playing a role.
By the time she leads him to San Juan Batista, they’ve begun a romance. “No one possesses you,” he says, trying to possess her. “You’re safe with me.” But she breaks away and runs up the stairs of the tower. He tries to follow, but, ah, there’s the vertigo again. He drops to his knees. He can’t make it to the top of the tower. Yes, it’s a sexual metaphor. Then there’s a scream and he sees her body drop past the window and crumpled on a rooftop below. The woman who was making him forget the dead cop is now like the dead cop.
Books have probably been written about Scottie’s reaction shot here. At first he looks sad. But when nuns arrive to check out the body, he suddenly seems trapped, and guilty, and he bites his hand and skulks away. This is necessary for the plot—if he checked out the body, he’d see it wasn’t his Madeleine—but forget that for a second. Why should Scottie feel guilty? Truly guilty? Because he hadn’t protected her? Because the arrival of the nuns remind him that he hadn’t been such a nice Catholic boy? He’d mixed business with pleasure. He took off her clothes and kissed her but he couldn’t ascend the tower. He couldn’t be a man so now she’s dead. It’s a wonderful, oil-and-water amalgamation of Catholic guilt and impotent guilt. Is the crime lusting in his heart or not lusting well enough with his body?
Catholic guilt or impotent guilt? Or both?
After an inquest that’s so brutal it’s humorous (Coroner: “We are not here to pass judgment on Mr. Ferguson’s lack of initiative; he did nothing, and the law has little to say on the subject of things left undone”), Scottie winds up in a sanitarium, watched over by Midge, whose interest in him increased as his interest in Madeleine increased. In their opening scene, Midge couldn’t be bothered to go to dinner. But once he’s on the case, once he’s virile again, she can’t abide it and does her own detective work, mocking his. She finds the painting of Carlotta, and, in surely one of the creepier moments in movies. repaints it with her own face. In the sanitarium, she pleads with him as he pleaded with Madeleine: “Johnny, please try. You’re not lost.” But then she adds her own touch: “Mother’s here.” Ick. The role she rejected in the beginning is the role she adopts. She’s part of the reason he’s halfway to Norman Bates.
A second later she’s gone from the movie. The last time we see her, she’s walking down a gray hallway in a gray suit. Contrast this with Madeleine, whom we first see in a startling green dress, who drives a green car, and who, as Judy, is first seen in a green sweater and illuminated, by the neon sign outside her apartment, in green—like a precursor to some alien chick in “Star Trek.” When Scottie and Madeleine visit the giant redwoods, Scottie tells her the Latin name: “Sequoia sempervirens,” he says. “Always green. Everliving.” Is that her? Even when Madeleine goes gray, she stands out. The gray suit is fitted, perfect, and her blonde hair is fitted and perfect. Midge, whose name is the name of an annoying insect, blends into the walls as she leaves. It’s as if she left the movie before she left it. She’s another kind of ghost—the one Scottie can’t see.
Sequoia sempervirens? Or the first Orion slave girl?
Confession: I was once obsessed with a girl in the 1980s and after it ended I saw her doppelganger everywhere. A couple of times a week I’d see a tall, athletic girl with long brown hair, and think, Is that her? Is that her? That’s Scottie after the sanitarium. His case was to follow a woman obsessed with a dead girl and now he’s the one obsessed with the dead girl. Suddenly, too, San Francisco is full of women with gray suits and upswept blonde hair. Those are his triggers. At first, when he runs into Judy, he doesn’t even register her, since she’s brown-haired now, wearing it down, and wearing a sloppy green blouse. Her personality is brassily American rather than vaguely, fussily British. But it’s the same girl.
Hitchcock lets us in on this fact early—too early for some—but I think he made the right move. Without it, her actions would seem incomprehensible and his actions would seem crazier than they do. Plus it shifts the point of the view from his to hers. We worry about her now, this accessory to murder, because we worry what he’s going to do when he finds out. He’s still slightly bats: disconnected, given to rages. He’s not satisfied with her as Judy so he takes her to a department store to buy gray suits and shoes. He looks at her hair and demands she dye it blonde. “It can’t matter to you!” he says. Each step brings him closer to the truth. “When will he realize?” we wonder. We don’t want him to. We’re rooting for her now. The hero is the monster.
Hitchcock once said, in a conversation with Francois Truffaut in the 1960s, that he sees this dress-up game as a kind of reverse stripping. “Cinematically,” he says, “all of Stewart’s efforts to recreate the dead woman are shown in such a way that he seems to be trying to undress her, instead of the other way around.” But Hitchcock must have been aware of other echoes. Kim Novak herself supposedly had trouble with the gray suit but he won her over. He convinced her. Wear it, Kim. Wear it. He got her to dress up like other actresses, now dead to him, such as Madeleine Carroll and Grace Kelly, just as he would with Eva Marie Saint and Janet Leigh and Tippi Hedren. Yeah, that’s the suit. Yeah, pin up your hair like that. Which raises the question: How much of Hitchcock is Scottie channeling?
Dress-up equals control, and control equals power, and sex is in there somewhere. Once Scottie figures out Judy is Madeleine, he takes her back to San Juan Batista and up the stairs of the tower. His rant against her, as he’s shaking her, is a poem to perverted jealousy:
You played the wife very well, Judy. He made you over, didn’t he? He made you over like I made you over. Only better! Not only the clothes and the hair but the looks and the manner and the words! ... And then what did he do? Did he train you? Did he rehearse you? Did he tell you exactly what to do, what to say? You were a very apt pupil, too, weren't you? You were a very apt pupil!
Two years later, Hitchcock will forego the woman altogether and have the man play dress-up himself.
Though “Vertigo” did poorly with both critics and audiences in 1957, it’s since been embraced. Hugely. In 2002, readers of “Positif” listed it the fourth greatest film ever made, while the critics of “Positif” placed it higher: no. 2. It also placed second in Total Film’s “100 Greatest Movies of All Time” in 2005.
The second-greatest movie ever made? I appreciate “Vertigo,” I love analyzing it, but I get little joy from it, just as I get little joy from most Hitchcock. (“The 39 Steps” is an exception.)
Yes, there’s the plausibility angle, which Hitchcock always dismissed because his films were invariably implausible. OK, so Gavin Elster wants to kill his wife so he creates a suicidal doppelganger (Judy), a reliable witness (Scottie), and the most elaborate backstory in the history of crime. I mean, couldn’t Madeleine simply be suicidal? Why bring poor Carlotta into this? Plus, to make it work, Gavin has to rely on four increasingly implausible things happening:
- Scottie’s vertigo has to prevent him from ascending the tower. (Most plausible: It’s why he was chosen.)
- Scottie has to see the body fall past the window. (Less plausible: It requires a scream and a quick turn of the head. Plus his vertigo has to freeze him at a point where he can see out a window.)
- Scottie can’t check out the body once he descends the stairs. (Even less plausible: Wasn’t he a detective once?)
- The cops can’t ascend the tower themselves to check out what is known, in some police circles, as “the scene of the crime.” (Least plausible of all. If they’d done so, they would’ve found the dead woman’s husband and another woman, hysterical, dressed like the dead woman, at the very spot from which the dead woman jumped. Questions, one hopes, would’ve arisen.)
But this isn’t why I get little joy from “Vertigo.” Hitchcock’s movies are certainly personal, which is a positive, but sometimes they feel a little too personal. He delves inward and finds the peculiar rather than the universal. His obsessions are not my own. He once famously said that his movies weren’t slices of life, they were slices of cake, and they are, but often they’re slices of cake laced with something astringent. I take a bite and make a face. “I like the chocolate but...too much tannin.”
That said, no one did endings better than Hitchcock, and “Vertigo” is one of his best: a kiss, a fright, a scream... and for the third time in the movie, and the second time with the woman he loves, Scottie, good ol’ Jimmy Stewart, stares down at yet another death he’s responsible for. The beginning is the middle is the end. The nightmare is cyclical. One gets the feeling it'll never end.
Review: “Touchez pas au grisbi” (1954)
WARNING: THE WORLD’S COOLEST MOVIE SPOILERS
There is something measured and specific about Jacques Becker’s films. Nothing is hurried and nothing essential is left out. As viewers, we sometimes guess where things are going, but when they wind up there we still feel slightly shocked, certainly saddened. Some of Becker’s protagonists, too, know how things will play out but they never jump ahead. They may assume the worst in their fellow man but they don’t act on that assumption. To do so would be dishonorable.
The honorable man in Becker’s “Touchez pas au Grisbi” (1954) is Max, an aging gangster, played by aging movie star Jean Gabin, who was, at the time of the production, 15 years removed from his heyday. “Grisbi” gave him a second life. He made 50 more movies.
Today Gabin is a legend. In 1999 he was voted “the actor of the century” in a French poll, and one of the few English language books about him (as well as a blog) is entitled “The World’s Coolest Movie Star.” Here, Gabin straddles the line between cool and weary, but his weariness isn’t a result of the world overwhelming him. The opposite. It underwhelms. It’s entirely predictable.
We first see Max at the restaurant of his choice, Madame Bouche’s, a gangster hangout in Montmartre (but classy), where those at his table, including his partner, Riton (Rene Dary), hang onto his every reluctant word. After dinner they pile into a car and head to a strip club (but classy), where Max, with shrugging matter-of-factness, brokers a deal between the owner, “Fats” Pierrot (Paul Frankeur) and Angelo, a rival gangster (Lino Ventura), then discovers Angelo backstage lip-locked with Riton’s girl, Josy (a young Jeanne Moreau). Roger Ebert, in his 2004 review, is excellent on the next scene:
This would come as particularly bad news to Riton, who fancies himself a ladies' man and thinks Josy belongs to him, but look how elegantly Becker resolves the situation. Instead of telling his pal that he's a cuckold, Max advises Riton to give up Josy. He points out aging playboys steering hookers around the dance floor, calls attention to the bags under Riton's eyes and suggests they go home early. Riton suggests he stay for one more drink. No, says Max, with that flat, calm Gabin delivery; he knows what one more drink will lead to: A bottle of champagne with Angelo, and then having to take the girls out for onion soup, and then having to have sex ... it's easier just to leave now.
Riton doesn’t but Max does, and he’s followed home by a couple of Angelo’s mugs, whom he handles with dispatch, then calls to warn Riton. We don’t know it yet but Max has already figured it all out. All the evidence is there for us, too, buried in the details of the film. That $50 million gold heist from Orly Airport Max was reading about at the beginning? Max and Riton pulled it off. So of course Riton had to brag about it to Josie. And of course Josie spilled the beans to her lover, Angelo, who of course wants the gold.
Ah, to be an aging, world-weary French gangster
Max explains all of this—slightly fed-up—to Riton in Max’s safe house. It’s a scene unprecedented in gangster movies and it’s Becker at his measured and specific best. After Max explains to Riton that their $50 million heist was his last job and he doesn’t want Riton to eff it up, the two sit, drink wine, and eat biscuits and pate. They put on pajamas and brush their teeth. They go to bed. But within the quotidian details is the difference between the two. Max knows and accepts what he is. Riton checks out the bags under his eyes and is saddened by what he sees. The next morning he fights it. He goes to see Josie but is captured by Angelo. He’s held hostage for the gold.
Ebert raises the following question:
Does Max love Riton? Max seems to be the current or former lover of almost every woman in the movie, and yet, yes, Riton is who he loves.
Sure, he loves him. But loves loves? I’d give that a Gabin-esque shrug. There’s another great scene where Max, in voice-over, thinks about what a screw-up Riton has been, and whether he should leave him to his fate. It’s the only moment where we get a voice-over in the movie and it’s the only moment where we get this side of Max. That’s why the voice-over. Saying it aloud isn’t Max. But the thoughts are there.
One wonders why Max carries him, though. Is it just the honor of the thing? His need to remain loyal to his friends? Psychologists might call Max an enabler, and maybe there’s something there. He’s assured of his superiority by hanging with screw-ups.
Yet, if anything, Max’s cool results less from a sense of superiority and more from remaining a reluctant participant in the continuing charade. He wants his restaurant, he wants his girls, he wants as little danger as possible. But—in the overused phrase—they keep pulling him back in, and he goes with a shrug. He knows how it’ll play out—not well—but he goes anyway. You want to play this? I’ll play it. Since he has no illusions he sees things clearly and remains a step ahead.
I’m wondering about the end. There’s that scene, after Max learns that Riton has been kidnapped but before the deal has played out, where he visits his mistress, and, post-coital, holds up her hand and looks at the jewels on her wrist. Becker loves his details—his details are clues—and after it’s all over the mistress is no longer an afternoon visit for Max. He’s out with her at Madame Bouche’s. Because of the jewels and what they represent? Max’s payday, the gold, has been lost and he doesn’t want to go back in, so is this his compromise? Give up some independence for some money? Or is it all merely temporary until things quiet down and he can once again sketch out a plan that will allow him that final chance to retire on his own terms? Either way, we could all use such a fallback position.
The fallback position
The French during this period were great with aging gangster movies—see “Bob le Flembeur” and “Rififi”—but I’m wondering where the great aging American gangster movies are. Do we have them? Do we count “The Godfather”? Or “The Godfather—part III”? Or are all aspects of American society a young man’s game, including its underworld?
P.S. Not to be too Netflix about this but: If you liked “Grisbi” you have to check out Jacques Becker’s last film, “Le Trou”—literally “The Hole,” and slang for “The Jail”—about a jailbreak among honorable men. It may include the best last line in movie history, and one that suggests, in two words, Becker’s entire oeuvre. It suggests an entire way to live.
Movie Review: Sansho Dayu (1954)
Early in Sansho the Bailiff, which is filmed so beautifully and hauntingly that it feels like a ghost, Zushio, the 14-year-old son of an exiled governor in the late Heian period of Japan (794-1192), walks and plays through the forests, leading his mother, sister and servant as the four head to Tsukushi to join their father after many years apart. The father was exiled to Tsukushi because he refused a superior’s demands for greater taxes on the peasants, and for more peasants to fight his wars. The father was a benevolent governor, and as his son, Zushio, walks through the woods, he recalls his father’s wisdom: “Without mercy, man is like a beast. Even if you are hard on yourself, be merciful to others.” Some combination of the boy’s youth, solemnity, and the woods made me think: Mercy, by its nature, is a quality of the privileged — the powerless cannot grant it, only the powerful — and Zushio, a boy leading women through woods, is not powerful. He thinks he can grant what is no longer his to grant.
Indeed. The four, en route, are betrayed, separated and sold into slavery — the mother as a courtesan on the island of Sado, the children to Sansho the Bailiff, a domineering lord and the richest man in Tango. The world, a beast, is without mercy. Even the sympathetic son of Sansho, Taro, who cannot bear to brand with a hot iron the foreheads of runaway slaves, can do little to help the two children.
Ten years pass. Zushio grows to be not brutal but pragmatic. He forgets his father’s lessons — which caused the family nothing but harm — and is able, without much concern, to brand the runaway slaves for Sansho. His sister, Anju, is appalled by what he’s become. Without mercy he is a beast — in that he acts without thought. But a momentary reminder of happier times re-awakens him and he escapes to a temple, where he encounters Taro, now a monk, who shields him from slavehunters. Zushio plans to go to Kyoto to attempt to right the wrongs done to his family. Taro attempted the same on his behalf years earlier and warns him: “I found that humans have little sympathy for things that don’t directly concern them.”
At first Zushio’s supplicating petitition doesn’t go well — the chief advisor to the emperor doesn’t even listen to him — and he’s tossed in jail. A keepsake of his father’s, which he kept all those years as a slave, is taken from him, and here I thought, “The world will take everything, piece by piece, until he has nothing.” But the opposite occurs: The keepsake is recognized, and he is recognized as the son of a former governor and reinstated to his rightful position in the world. He becomes governor. Now the big question. Would he remember his father’s lessons? Or would he guard his position, knowing how tenuous it is, at all costs? Would he become merciful, pragmatic or cruel?
At one point Taro says to Zushio that “Unless [ruthless] hearts can be changed, the world you dream of cannot be true,” and an argument can be made that this film, by breaking our hearts, is an attempt to change our hearts. But it’s also more ambiguous. Early on, an uncle chastises the father for his benevolence, and the two have the following exchange:
Uncle: You’ve caused pain for your family.
Father: The peasants are in pain, too.
Uncle: Nonsense! You can’t compare us to peasants!
The father’s quality of mercy is profound, Christ-like, evolved, but, given what happens, you wonder how evolved a man can be in our world. How can anyone be for all mankind? Mustn’t your loyalties lie with a smaller group? Father and uncle, above, are simply arguing over the size of the group, and most of us, even in this more benevolent age, would side with the uncle. Hell, most of us are loyal to an even smaller group: a group of one.
The text at the beginning of the film tells us that this tale is from a time “when mankind had not yet awakened as human beings,” and we can argue forever on how, or if, we have awakened as human beings, but at least there’s this. The first words we hear are probably more relevant today. A mother’s voice to her child: “Zushio, be careful.”
Nuit et Brouillard (1955)
A few years ago somebody urged Nuit et Brouillard (Night and Fog) on me and I finally got around to it. Now I’m urging it on you.
It’s a 31-minute, 1955 French documentary on the Holocaust — one of the first — and it intersperses black-and-white footage of the Nazi era with color footage of the then-present day. We see, for example, those familiar shots of Jewish citizens being loaded into cattle cars for the camps; then we cut to those same railroad tracks in 1955. They look unused, grass grows in patches, and Michel Bouquet, the narrator, intones (in French), “The sun shines. We go slowly along them. Looking for what?” Footage of Himmler and the crematoriums leads to the empty camps of 1955. “A crematorium from the outside can look like a picture postcard,” Bouquet says. “Today tourists have their snapshots taken in front of them.”
The 1955 color footage is still bleak. The sky is overcast and autumnal, the grass sparse, the people… You quickly realize there are no people. Not one person is shown in the present day. All empty.
The narration, beautifully understated and matter-of-fact, was written by poet Jean Cayrol, a resistance fighter who was betrayed, arrested and sent to Gusen concentration camp in 1943, where he nearly died:
A concentration camp is built the way a stadium or hotel is built, with businessmen, estimates, competitive bids, and no doubt a bribe or two... Architects calmly designed the gates meant to be passed through only once. Meanwhile, Berger, a German worker, Stern, a Jewish student in Amsterdam, Schmulski, a merchant in Krakow, and Annette, a schoolgirl in Bordeaux, go about their daily lives, not knowing a place is being prepared for them hundreds of miles away. One day their quarters are finished. All that’s missing is them.
How many books have I read now, movies and documentaries and mini-series seen, about the Holocaust? I should be inured. Yet it still has the power to horrify. Lessons are still imparted. Art Spiegelman’s Maus made me realize I never would have survived it, while Primo Levi's Survival in Auschwitz taught me that the system was set up for you not to survive it — i.e., follow the rules, do the work they tell you, eat what they give you, and you die. Roman Polanski’s The Pianist reinforced the sudden, by-the-way violence and degradation of it all without even getting into the camps.
And Nuit et Brouillard? In some ways the world recoiled from the Holocaust because they saw their own anti-Semitism taken to its logical extreme. Each of the Allies had its fascist, anti-Semitic wing. The Nazis just kept going.
But in Night and Fog I felt something else being taken to its logical extreme — and, unlike anti-Semitism, it’s something generally viewed positively. It’s heard in the above narration about competitive bids. It’s in Himmler’s line in 1942 when he told the camp commanders, “We must destroy, but productively.” You see it in the piles of eyeglasses and combs, of shaving brushes and shoes, and in that infamous, impossible pile of human hair. The hair becomes cloth, we are told, and the camera focuses on a rolled-up version of same, with stray threads resembling stray hairs. The animate has become inanimate.
“From the bones, fertilizer,” Bouquet tells us. “From the bodies, they make soap. As for the skin…?” Cut to: sheets of paper.
It’s the production line. It’s human resources taken to its final solution. After we strip you of your identity, your individuality, your personality, after we work what’s left until it can hardly work, what else? How much can we take from you? The answer is everything.
I already knew the assembly-line aspect of the Holocaust — truly, it’s what distinguishes this particular horror from the many horrors of human history — but Nuit et Brouillard made me feel it on a deeper level.
Something else you take away from this documentary: a sense of the arbitrariness of borders. Out there you can be a person, but in here, no. The 1955 footage accentuates this disconnect because the arbitrary borders of the Nazis have disappeared with the Nazis. Now we can film along the tracks that once transported us. Now we can film outside the camps that once held us. There’s been no horror like the Holocaust, but other horrors continue; and other borders, just as arbitrary, dehumanize the people within.
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