Movie Reviews - 1960s posts
Monday March 29, 2021
Movie Review: One, Two, Three (1961)
There are so many James Cagney homages here it’s as if they knew it would be his last movie. Among them:
- The Uncle Sam cuckoo clock in the West Berlin office of Coca-Cola executive C.R. MacNamara (Cagney) that plays “Yankee Doodle Dandy.”
- The grapefruit in the face with which MacNamara threatens young communist Otto Ludwig Piffl (Horst Buchholz).
- MP Red Buttons’ imitation when confronted by MacNamara’s shoulder jerking tough talk: “Oh, OK, buster.” He does Cagney to Cagney.
Then there's Cagney doing fellow Warners gangster Edward G. Robinson. When MacNamara finds out the boss’ daughter in his charge is schwanger, he cries “Mother of mercy, is this the end of little Rico?” I about died when he said that—though they did get it slightly wrong. There’s no “little” in the original.
All of that is fun, and “One, Two, Three” should be fun—a wacky, hell-bent, Cold War comedy full of Coca-Cola and piffle. Its current numbers certainly look good: 91% from critics on Rotten Tomatoes, a 7.9 rating from IMDb users. But to me it’s an overload—too fast and furious. Near the end, you just want peace and quiet.
“Did you ever tell Cagney that he was yelling?” Cameron Crowe asked director Billy Wilder in his book Conversations with Wilder. “Because he’s so loud sometimes.” Wilder passes the buck:
We had to go with Cagney, because Cagney was the picture. He really had the rhythm, and that was very good. It was not funny. But just the speed was funny. The speed was very good, how Cagney figured it out. The general idea was, let’s make the fastest picture in the world, and give the actors, in order to make it seem fast, some slower scenes, too.
Yeah, no. According to Cagney, he warned Wilder about the frantic pace. He’d been there before—with producer Hal Wallis in the 1938 screwball comedy “Boy Meets Girl.” He knew you needed moments of rest but Wallis insisted on taking it faster and faster until leaving the dailies one day Cagney asked Ralph Bellamy: “Would you tell me what I just said? I couldn’t understand a word.”
In the “One, Two, Three” commentary track, film historian Michael Schlesinger says the pacing came from Wilder, who wanted the picture to be molto furioso: “100 miles per hour on the curves and 140 on the straightaway.” His goal was to make a movie faster than “His Girl Friday,” and maybe he did, but he didn’t make a better one. That should’ve been the goal. Plus Wilder’s line about having to go with Cagney? Not sure what he means. Cagney was a legend, sure, but hardly boffo box office at this point. An early poster not only didn’t show Cagney, or Buchholz, or the girls, it showed Wilder, forlorn, sitting on a step ladder and holding balloons. (Mouse over the poster above to see it.) Has that ever been done before? Ignoring stars for the director on a movie poster? You kind of get it. Wilder was coming off as great a run as any director, having made, in the previous 10 years, “Sunset Blvd.,” “Ace in the Hole,” “Stalag 17,” “The Seven Year Itch,” “Witness for the Prosecution,” “Some Like It Hot” and “The Apartment.” But all of it belies the idea that Wilder had to go with Cagney.
A shame. If Wilder had slowed the tempo, and Cagney’s and Buchholz’s characters weren’t yelling at each other for the final third, the movie might’ve been the classic some folks think it is.
The pause that could've refreshed
I'll give it this: The movie is constructed beautifully. A man spends months machinating to get the thing he wants, and the successful result of his machinations ensures that he doesn't get the thing he wants.
At the start, C.R. MacNamara wants two things: to schtup his blonde secretary, Fraulein Ingeborg (Liselotte Pulver), while his wife and kids are on vacation; and to be assigned the London office, the head of European affairs for Coke, which he feels is his due. Then the boss in Atlanta asks him to look after his 17-year-old daughter, Scarlett Hazeltine (Pamela Tiffin), while she’s in Berlin. That puts a kibosh on the first wish—he needs his wife in town for that—but he hopes it’ll lead to London. (I love how every time MacNamara talks up London, Cagney is nonchalantly wielding a very British umbrella over his shoulder.)
Scarlett turns out to be a boy-crazy handful and winds up staying for months, but things seem to quiet down: she’s going to museums, learning about culture. Then the day before Mr. and Mrs. Hazeltine (Howard St. John and Lois Bolton) are to arrive, MacNamara discovers that Scarlett has been: 1) spending nights in East Berlin, where she’s 2) being indoctrinated into communism by Piffl, to whom she’s 3) married.
Thus the machinations begin. MacNamara plants pro-American propaganda on Piffl’s motorbike (Russki Go Home balloon, Yankee Doodle clock, Wall Street Journal) so he’ll be picked up by the East German police; then he has evidence of the marriage removed from official files. Done and done.
Which is when he finds out that Scarlett is schwanger: pregnant. His machinations have essentially made the boss’ daughter an unwed mother. So now he has to un-machinate everything he machinated. With the help of a triumvirate of comic Russians (reprised from Wilder’s “Ninotchka”?), he gets Piffl released from East German police and the marriage reinstated, but that puts him back at square one: how to make this scruffy, strident communist presentable to Mr. and Mrs. Coca-Cola? It involves manicures, haircuts, bespoke suits and buying an aristocratic name from the penniless Count von Droste Schattenburg (Hubert von Meyerinck, voiced by Sig Ruman). Piffl fights him at every step, which is where we get all that yelling, but once the parents arrive he acts the proper capitalist. More, he acts like MacNamara, forever snapping his fingers to get things done, and Hazeltine is so impressed he gives Piffl the London job. MacNamara is forced to return—with his family!—to the home office in Atlanta. Cue Pepsi joke and Cagney’s final shout at the screen: Schlemm-ahhhh!
Again, all that’s brilliant.
And yet the pacing. And the shouting.
Apparently Wilder first wanted Cary Grant—another fast talker—for MacNamara, and I could see that working better, since fast-paced Grant is generally funnier than fast-paced Cagney. Buchholz would still be a problem—he’s not funny at all—but maybe he would’ve worked better with Grant? I don’t know how he felt about Cagney but Cagney hated him. From John McCabe’s biography:
The role of the young Communist is played by Horst Buchholz, who has the unique distinction of being the only actor James Cagney actively disliked in all of his professional career. Said Cagney: “I got riled at S. Z. Sakall in Yankee Doodle Dandy for trying to steal a scene, but he was an incorrigible old ham who was quietly and respectfully put in his place by Mike Curtiz. No harm in the old boy. But this Horst Buchholz character I truly loathed. Had he kept on with his little scene-stealing didoes, I would have been forced to knock him on his ass, which I would have very much enjoyed doing.”
That animosity comes through, probably too much, cutting off potential laughs.
Feel the hatred? Three decades after Mae Clarke, Cagney threatens to do it to Horst Buchholz, who actually deserved it.
The women are great. Cagney singled out Pamela Tiffin for some serious high praise—comparing her comedic talents to Carole Lombard, Kay Kendall and Lucille Ball. Pulver is also great, with her smarts, chewing gum, knowing indifference. I like how she pulls her skirt back down over her knees when MacNamara’s wife phones.
My favorite is Arlene Francis as MacNamara’s wife, Phyllis, punctuating each scene with a sardonic rejoinder, and deflating her husband with a droll “Yes, mein fuhrer.” Her pacing gives the movie its necessary pauses. (She’s the pause that refreshes.) She also gets off some of the best lines. Early on, when MacNamara is wheeling Scarlett away from a French pilot, the pilot turns to Francis and says, “Madame, I appeal to you as a woman …” She, with a smile and flirtatious wave: “As a matter of fact, you do. Au revoir!” A shame she didn’t act more.
The supporting men are good, too: Hanns Lothar as MacNamara’s heel-clicking secretary Schlemmer; Leon Askin, the future Gen. Burkhalter of “Hogan’s Heroes,” as Peripetchikoff, one of the Russians. Wilder and his screenwriting partner I.A.L. Diamond have to thread through a lot of problematic stuff (Nazi past, Cold War present, sexual politics future) to find comedy, and they don’t do a poor job of it. The heel-clicking is good; the German office workers standing at attention every time MacNamara enters the room is good. But the “What did you do during the war, Schlemmer” conversations? That’s a little iffy. Love Piffl’s name. Just the name. I also love Scarlett blowing up “Yankee Go Home” balloons:
MacNamara: You been helping this guy spread anti-American propaganda?
Scarlett: It's not anti-American, it’s anti-Yankee. Where I come from, everybody’s against the Yankees.
Girl after my own heart.
Jimmy, we hardly knew ye
“One, Two, Three,” which was based on a 1929 play by Hungarian playwright Ferenc Molnar, did run into some bad luck. It began filming in East and West Berlin in June 1961, premiered five months later in December 1961, and between those two events the Berlin Wall went up. Oops. So not only was the movie already dated but audiences were less likely to laugh at shenanigans in a city that might, you know, cause World War III. It wound up losing money. Wilder bounced back with “Irma La Douce,” but then it was a downhill slog for him. Is there a hidden gem among his last seven movies? Asking not telling.
For Cagney, Buchholz’s unprofessionalism and Wilder’s perfectionism—one scene required 57 takes—made the whole thing such an unpleasant experience that it actually drove him from the profession. Near the end of filming, waiting for an interior setup, he walked out into the sunshine, recalled a photograph he’d just received of friends standing on the deck of the boat he’d lent them, and didn’t want to go back inside. And that was it. He decided to quit the movie industry right there. Save for a bit part in “Ragtime” in 1981, he did.
The final shot of Cagney's career, give or take.
Thursday March 11, 2021
Movie Review: The Gallant Hours (1960)
I’d love to see this on a double-bill with “Here Comes the Navy,” James Cagney’s 1934 flick about a smart-ass riveter who enlists to get back at a by-the-book officer (Pat O’Brien) but eventually becomes a team player aboard the U.S.S. Arizona—a real-life ship that was destined to sink at Pearl Harbor. Those early military Cagneys were always like that. He’s the cocky loner who either learns to fit in (“Navy,” “Devil Dogs of the Air”) or sacrifices himself in the final act (“The Fighting 69th”; “Captains of the Clouds”). Now look at him: in charge of the whole shebang.
He plays Admiral William “Bull” Halsey, who took command of American forces in the South Pacific in Oct. 1942, but I still kept hearing echoes of “Here Comes the Navy.” There's Pearl Harbor, for one. Halsey’s ship, the U.S.S. Enterprise (yes), was scheduled to return to Pearl Harbor on Dec. 6, 1941 but was delayed by storms and thus avoided the fate of the Arizona. There's another by-the book officer, too. Except now he's a subordinate, Capt. Black (Ward Costello), who assumes he’ll be reassigned when he bucks Halsey’s idea to move ground troops without going up the chain of command. Halsey assures him that's not the case: “If we both thought exactly alike, I wouldn’t need you.”
The movie focuses on the five weeks between Halsey taking command and the battle for Guadalcanal. All the battles happen off-screen. It's an indie movie, basically. It's about what makes a great leader: keep your door open, listen to everybody, do what’s necessary, and inspire those in your command.
No great men
You know how some men, as they age, gravitate toward non-fiction and history, particularly military history? Cagney’s career is a bit like that. The first non-fiction character he played was George M. Cohan in 1942, a role he resurrected 13 years later for a cameo in Bob Hope’s “The Seven Little Foys.” But that was it for nearly 60 movies. Until, in his five final flicks, he played two historical men: Lon Chaney in “Man of a Thousand Faces,” and Halsey here.
“Gallant” even feels like non-fiction. It’s a docudrama, sticking to the facts, and heavy on narration. It opens with an all-male chorus, the Roger Wagner Chorale, singing and humming a somber sailors song (“Away, away, away he went/To deep and salty water”), before an official ceremony aboard an aircraft carrier on Nov. 22, 1945. It’s Halsey’s retirement ceremony—as it nearly was Cagney’s. (It’s his second-to-last feature.) Halsey reads the opening of the official letter of his retirement in clipped tones before the narrator, producer-director Robert Montgomery, a longtime Cagney pal, takes over and tells us about Halsey.
He was born in Elizabeth, New Jersey, 62 years ago, this date. Graduated from the United State Naval Academy at Annapolis in 1904. There were 62 men in his class. Scholastically, he stood 43rd. His speech is salty. On his right shoulder there is a tattooed anchor. He once owned a parrot. He wears the wings of a pilot, earned at the age of 52. He is a sailor who has always been welcome on any ship at any time in any ocean.
Some of this leans toward cornball, but it’s effective. Better, Montgomery keeps doing it with secondary characters. Visiting the troops, Halsey chats with a pilot, Capt. Joseph Jacob Foss, who, Montgomery tells us, “destroyed as many planes as Eddie Rickenbacker” in WWI and later became the 20th governor of South Dakota. (Foss feels like a movie himself. He was also the first president of the American Football League and president of the NRA.) We meet Private First Class Eric Lauder who “mans the 50-caliber machine gun that was assaulted early this morning. In 15 minutes, he killed 38 men. He is 19 years of age.” Later, Montgomery adds, “Three men in that squad will survive the battle for Guadalcanal. Private First Class Eric Lauder is not one of them.”
Such narration doesn't leave out the enemy. Halsey’s counterpart, Gen. Isoroku Yamamoto, is “Born of seafaring stock on an island north of Japan, April 4th, 1884. He graduated from the Japanese Naval Academy in 1904. Americans who knew him as a naval attaché in Washington, D.C. remember him as an excellent poker player. He was especially good at bluffing.” Then we watch him taking pictures of a crimson hibiscus with his Leica camera, and trying to outmaneuver Halsey.
In this way the movie reminded me of “Balance of Terror,” the first-season “Star Trek” episode, which is essentially a cat-and-mouse game between two leaders, Capt. Kirk and the unnamed Romulan Commander (Mark Lenard). Here, too. All the Americans may call the Japanese “Japs,” as everyone did, but the tone of the movie is restrained and respectful. The Japanese speak Japanese, often untranslated.
Robert Montgomery is an interesting case himself. He came from money but his family lost it during the Depression and he tried several careers before going into acting. He was tall, genteel, well-dressed, and successful—starring in “Private Lives,” “Mr. and Mrs. Smith” and “Here Comes Mr. Jordan,” among others. He was both staunch Republican and union man—twice leading the Screen Actors Guild. While producing and hosting the long-running TV show “Robert Montgomery Presents” from 1950 to 1957, he became the TV consultant to Pres. Eisenhower—the first such in history. He was, sadly, a friendly witness before HUAC in 1947, but he also served in WWII in both the European and Pacific theaters. Doubt there are many men who were at both Guadalcanal and D-Day as he was. Awarded the Bronze Star, he returned to Hollywood to star in and help direct “They Were Expendable,” a solid war movie. “The Gallant Hours” is the last movie he directed.
We get too many shots of men admiring Halsey after he leaves them, but it’s not awful, and the movie keeps leaning on verisimilitude rather than drama. Guadalcanal gets nightly visits from “Washing Machine Charlie,” a real-life Japanese pilot whose twin-engines were out of synch to make them louder and keep the Americans from sleeping. When Charlie first shows up, Halsey doesn’t think he’s worth getting out of bed for. Then the bombing continues, shaking his bed. For a moment I thought he was going to be one of those crazily brave commanders like Patton or Bill Kilgore in “Apocalypse Now,” acting like they’re invulnerable, shooting at planes from the ground. But no, he joins the others in an air-raid shelter. Or tries to. It's dark, he's told it's full up, and rather than pull rank he runs to another one—also dark. He bums a cigarette and a light, then asks how long the bombing goes on. One to two hours, he’s told. “You’re new,” the soldier states. Halsey pauses. “Yeah. New.” You expect another big reveal—whoa, it’s the Admiral—but it doesn’t come. Instead, the narrator simply tells us about the soldier—a professional ballplayer who gets wounded, never rises higher than Class B, blames the wound. All of this is admirably unsensationalistic for a war film.
I thought Yamamoto’s history of bluffing—and Halsey’s awareness of same—would come into play more, but if anyone is good at bluffing here it’s Halsey. He has the lesser hand but attacks Japan’s forces when caution dictates retreat. Of his two carriers, he loses the Hornet while the Enterprise is damaged. At this point, his officers suggest an evacuation plan since they’re so vulnerable, but Halsey assumes Japan won’t follow up because they tend not to.
My favorite scene is when Lt. Commander Roy Webb (Richard Jaeckel) wants to resign his commission because he lost nine planes and nine men:
Halsey: You think the job requires a great man. Well, I have news for you. There aren’t any great men. There are just great challenges that ordinary men like you and me are forced by circumstances to meet. Now, you’ve proved you can get the job done. You’re hooked by your own record. In short, you don’t have any choice.
Webb: Sir, I lost nine planes yesterday.
Halsey: I lost the same nine planes, and 17 others to boot. Plus one destroyer, two submarines with all hands, two LSTs, and God know how many ground troops. Do you want me to go on?
Webb: [pauses, the gravity of the situation on his face] No, sir. I guess I … I just had the feeling I was alone.
Halsey: You were. And you will be.
I love every bit of that.
Just great challenges
Cagney got to spend a few hours with Halsey, who died before the movie opened, and noticed he made few extraneous gestures—which he felt true of most great commanders. “They are inevitably very self-contained men, so much depending on their demeanor and body language. They hold it in yet are consummately natural and honest in temperament.” Known for going big, Cagney forced himself to be understated: “I had certain mannerisms, acting mannerisms, that I’d built up through the years playing all those rough characters,” he says in John McCabe’s biography. “So I had to lose those, and I told Bob whenever he even saw the hint of one to stop me and we’d shoot all over again.”
Dennis Weaver provides the movie’s color as Halsey’s aide, Lt. Commander Andy Lowe, a Southerner with charm. We get an interesting “Mister Roberts” echo when Lowe wants to leave Halsey for combat aboard Capt. Bailey’s ship and Halsey says, “Unfortunately, I’m used to you.” A second later he relents and lets him go. There’s a running gag about Halsey’s fear of needles, his swimming prowess is mentioned, his mostly nondescript officers are measured and admiring. We don’t get his salty language—Production Code—nor his pursuit of women, which is apparently how he got his nickname. The few women in the film—less than 30 seconds of screentime, I'd guess—are pursued by Weaver’s character.
Halsey was world-famous during the war—he made the cover of Time in 1942 and 1945—and this carried over into the decades immediately. In “Bridge on the River Kwai,” William Holden makes an Admiral Halsey joke, and on “McHale’s Navy” a character’s catchphrase is “What in the name of Halsey is going on?” He’s a title character in Paul McCartney’s 1971 hit song “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey” and he’s been played on screen by Cagney, James Whitmore (“Tora! Tora! Tora!”), Robert Mitchum (“Midway” (1976)) and Dennis Quaid (“Midway” (2019)). But I think his legacy has faded for my generation and those after ours. We all know Patton because of the movie but Halsey less. Or maybe Army trumps Navy in Hollywood storytelling? Cheaper, for one. What’s the cost of putting combat troops in a jungle? But you try making an aircraft carrier.
This is a good, measured movie that’s worth watching, but it feels like Halsey needs a Hollywood revisit.
Saturday October 15, 2016
Movie Review: The Magnificent Seven (1960)
My main takeaway after watching “The Magnificent Seven” for only the second time in my life is that for all its faults Yul Brynner and Steve McQueen—as the leader, Chris, and his right-hand man, Vin—have fantastic chemistry, and what a shame they didn’t make another movie together. Then I read up on it and discovered why: They hated each other. Their chemistry onscreen may be cooler than cool, but it hid heat.
IMDb’s trivia on the movie is extensive but doesn’t bother to sort through the contradictions. Did Brynner own the rights to “Seven Samurai”? If so, why was Spencer Tracy considered for the lead? Why was Anthony Quinn?
Most answers are in the doc “Guns for Hire: The Making of ‘The Magnificent Seven’” (2000), which is also a good primer into the litigiousness, oneupsmanship and happy accidents of Hollywood moviemaking.
Starring Anthony Quinn
Apparently, by the mid-1950s, everyone in Hollywood had seen and loved Akira Kurosawa’s “Seven Samurai,” and everyone envisioned remaking it as a western. Brynner claimed to have bought the rights, but that distinction actually went to B-movie screenwriter Lou Morheim, who wanted to produce, and who got the rights for the princely sum of $250. Later, Brynner bought the rights from Morheim, and was looking to direct rather than star.
Here was the initial team:
Director: Yul Brynner
Star: Anthony Quinn
That package fell apart, and it became:
Director: Martin Ritt
Writer: Walter Bernstein
Star: Spencer Tracy
Independent producer Walter Mirisch then entered the picture, and he brought along John Sturgis, who had recently won acclaim for directing “Gunfight at the OK Coral” with Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas. Sturgis tapped Walter Newman to write, then assembled the group of future stars—McQueen, James Coburn, Charles Bronson, Robert Vaughn—that made up the rest of the cast.
Newman, meanwhile, was the one who deviated from Kurosawa’s version, but Mexican censors didn’t help. A few years earlier, the Hollywood feature “Vera Cruz” had so upset Mexican audiences that they tore apart theaters; it led to the creation of a censor board, which watched over any production filmed in Mexico. They wanted to make sure Mexicans didn’t look bad in any Mexican-made movies. A good idea in theory. In practice? One censor objected to how dirty the peasants looked, so they were filmed in spotless whites even as the cool gringo gunslingers looked grimy. (Cf., McQueen’s stained hat.) Worse, the board objected to the very premise of the film: that these farmers needed outsiders to protect them. This wasn’t a big deal in Kurosawa’s version, since everyone was Japanese; but here it’s weak Mexicans and gringo heroes. Their solution? The three Mexican farmers seek guns rather than gunslingers. Even after encountering noble versions of the latter (Brynner, McQueen), the farmers don’t connect the dots. It’s up to Chris, the gringo, to do it for them.
In other words, because Mexican censors didn’t want Mexicans to look weak, they made them look stupid.
On to Brynner/McQueen.
Is there an unwritten rule on movie sets that you don’t upstage the star? If so, McQueen ignored it. From the beginning, he was doing things in the background—jiggling bullets, adjusting his hat, dipping his hat into streams they crossed on horseback—that upstaged, and upset, Brynner. More, he actually badmouthed his lead. He told the other actors how Chris’ horse, and even his gun, were bigger than theirs, and made them look silly. He fomented discord.
“The set was fraught with testosterone,” McQueen’s ex says in the doc. “Here were these young Turks, all on the brink, you know, and they were all trying to get attention on the screen. Especially Steve.”
I’ll say one thing: It worked. You notice him straight away. I’ll say another thing: It improves the movie. It’s like Brando picking up Edie’s glove and trying it on in the playground scene in “On the Waterfront.”
The best scene in the movie for me is the one where McQueen/Brynner take a horse-and-carriage hearse up to Boot Hill despite the local racists in town who don’t want an Indian buried there—and that’s the jiggling the bullets/adjusting the cap scene. The dialogue is terse as they keep an eye out for snipers:
Vin: New in town?
Vin: Where you from?
Chris: Dodge. You?
Vin: Tombstone. See any action up there?
Chris: Uh-uh. Tombstone?
Vin: Same. People all settled down like.
Chris: Same all over.
But the best dialogue may be no dialogue. Afterwards, the salesman who paid for the burial is impressed with Chris and asks him where he’s from. Brynner points a thumb back. He asks him where he’s going. Yep: a finger forward.
Samurai > Cowboys
So why doesn’t the movie work? Or why isn’t it close to “Samurai”’s stratosphere? A few thoughts:
- Chico, Horst Buchholz’s role, collapses two characters from “Samurai”: Kikuchiyo (Toshiro Mifune), the comic-relief, would-be samurai, and Katsuhiro (Isao Kimura), the young, handsome romantic, and the two characters don’t work together. They particularly don’t work when the Mexican farmer is played by the German James Dean.
- Oh, about that: still too much Stella Adler-style emoting going on, from both Buchholz and Robert Vaughn, recently nominated for an Academy Award for “Young Philadelphians.” You guys are tearing me apart.
- The story is truncated. It doesn’t take the time, or have the silences, that Kurosawa’s version does. The villagers, in particular, are given short shrift. No equivalent of Rikichi, for example, so we have less of an idea what the heroes are fighting for.
- Guns ain’t swords. Guns are the great levelers. You can kill a superior gunman from behind, or from a distance, in a way you can’t with swords.
But this is the most important reason: Sturgis ain’t Kurosawa. There’s a tinny quality to the movie. It feels cheap, like something out of television. Kurosawa has depth in every frame; Sturgis’ stuff is two-dimensional in comparison. You can push over his sets and his characters.
Shimada (Takashi Shimura) is the leader of the samurai because he’s both psychologist and strategist. He actually plans how to survive the bandit assault. The bandits attack three times, the last in the rain, and four of the samurai die; but the bandits are slaughtered. The farmers win.
Chris? He’s cool, and a good draw, and he has the same moral center Shimada has, but that’s about it. The Hollywood version relies on less planning and fewer attacks: just two, and in the second one the Seven are betrayed, and have their guns taken from them, and are then slaughtered in the village square.
Kidding. The bandit leader (a delightful Eli Wallach) just lets them go. So they get stupidly caught and he stupidly lets them go. But then they stupidly return to stupidly save the day.
Even so, you’ve got the great Elmer Bernstein score, and you’ve Brynner and McQueen. They may have hated each other but they had personality. And as Jules said, personality goes a long way.
New in town?
Thursday October 20, 2011
Movie Review: Marnie (1964)
WARNING: SPOILERS, MAMA. MAMA, SPOILERS
Tippi Hedren had just come off “The Birds,” Sean Connery had just come off the first two Bond films, and Alfred Hitchock had just come off the most successful string of movies in his illustrious career: “Vertigo,” “North by Northwest,” “Psycho” and “The Birds.”
So I guess they were due.
Why doesn’t it work? Why is “Marnie” laughable and cringeworthy? And why have the readers of IMDb.com given this very, very bad movie a 7.2 rating?
Don’t they understand that the film is almost anti-Hitchcockian?
Most Hitchcock thrillers are about uncovering your own problem for reasons of survival. “Marnie” is about uncovering someone else’s problem for reasons of love.
The threat in the best Hitchcock movies is external: birds or hotel managers or international spies or our own damned voyeuristic curiosity as we spy on our neighbors. Here the threat is internal: the repressed memories of Marnie Edgar (Hedren).
Hitchcock’s most memorable protagonists are innocent men, or not-so-innocent men, trapped in something they don’t understand, who spend the movie running and punching their way out—not only to set themselves free but to see just what trapped them in the first place. Mark Rutland (Connery) isn’t trapped in anything. He has more knowledge than anyone. He’s not within it but outside it. And what he’s trying to see, into the mind of Marnie, isn’t exactly cinematic.
Do his motivations change? I’m curious. Marnie uses her looks and secretarial skills to get jobs at companies, which she then robs. Then she dyes her hair, goes to a new town, and starts all over again. But when she shows up at Rutland’s publishing house, Mark recognizes her from her previous gig (where he was a client), and hires her anyway.
What does he want at this point? To trap her? To sleep with her?
During a Saturday work sesssion, Marnie is frightened, almost made catatonic, by a thunderstorm, and Mark comforts her, then kisses her. Do his motivations change here? Does he care for her now that he’s seen how vulnerable she is? How soft her lips are?
Eventually he spills the beans. He knows who she is and what she is. And guess what? He wants to marry her! Marnie’s reaction to the first revelation is to act like a trapped animal. Her reaction to the marriage proposal is to act like a trapped animal. She almost grrrs. But she’s got no claws.
What’s making her act like this? Why is she stealing compulsively? Why doesn’t she want Mark to touch her? Why does she wig out during thunderstorms and whenever she sees the color red?
Complex questions with the same easy answer: repressed memory.
I wasn’t a fan of repressed memory stories when they turned up in later episodes of “M*A*S*H.” in the 1970s. The world and human beings are complex; but somehow if you just unlock what’s locked up inside our minds we'll be well again. It’s all too logical. It reduces human nature to a mathematical equation. You just need to know the numbers to the combination to set yourself free.
Marnie’s repressed memory happened on the seedy docks of Baltimore when she was five years old. Her mother, Bernice Edgar (Louise Latham), whom we’ve met in an early scene, and who warns her grown-up daughter about men, was once, of course, a prostitute. She used to rouse little Marnie from their shared bed whenever the “men in white suits” (sailors) came calling. But one sailor, played by Bruce Dern, goes out into the hallway to comfort Marnie during a thunderstorm. (That’s why she’s scared of thunderstorms.) Then he begins molesting her. (That’s why she’s frigid.) The mother sees what he’s doing, fights him, but breaks her leg in the process. (That’s why she limps.) It’s up to little Marnie to grab a fire poker and bash the dude’s head in. (That’s why she’s scared of blood-red.) See? It all fits together. All because of one bad night long, long ago, which she then represeed. But with Mark’s help, and with a lot of overacting and baby girl voices, Marnie finally remembers it all, and reconciles with her mother, and Marnie and Mark leave to assume normal, rich lives in Philadelphia.
Awful. Remember that five-minute bit at the end of “Psycho” where the psychiatrist goes on and on bout what’s wrong with Norman Bates? Like that, but for an entire movie.
Hedren isn’t used well here, either—she’s best playing flirty and self-satisfied rather than trapped animal—while a subplot with Mark’s deceased wife’s younger sister, Lil (a gorgeous Diane Baker), goes nowhere.
But because Hitchock’s name is at the helm, the film is being “rediscovered” by modern, Hitchcock-loving cineastes who are finding all sorts of reasons to like it.
Final reason they shouldn’t: Reconciles with the mother? Hitchcock?
One of the better shots in the film: Marnie (Tippi Hedren) waits in the ladies room to rob the Rutland Publishing House in Alfred Hitchcock's “Marnie” (1964)
Saturday January 01, 2011
Review: “The Birds” (1963)
This fall I took a class on Alfred Hitchcock at Northwest Film Forum on Capitol Hill in Seattle, and for the final session, on “The Birds,” the professor asked a relatively simple question—a question that most of the characters in the movie ask: Why do the birds attack? Then, as he was wont to do, he began to answer his own question.
He talked up the scene in the diner where the mother of two children, a boy and a girl, quickly descends from questions to accusations to Salem Mass.-like pronouncements of witchery. “They said when you got here the whole thing started,” she says to Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren). “I think you’re the cause of all this! I think you’re evil! E-vil!”
But what if, the teacher posited, it wasn’t Melanie who was responsible? What if it was someone else? Then he diverged into a 10-minute synopsis of the 1950s sci-fi flick “Forbidden Planet” and the dark forces we can unknowingly unleash, then referred back to Melanie’s elder-generation doppelganger, Lydia Brenner (Jessica Tandy), mother of Melanie’s love interest, Mitch (Rod Taylor), who has a tendency to look severely at any of her son’s girlfriends because she’s afraid of winding up alone. And what if, the teacher continued, the dark forces within Lydia, somehow...? He moved his hands forward, as if to propel his theory forward, but that’s about as far as he got. He admitted his ideas were inchoate.
Others piped in with their own theories—mostly dealing with a kind of cosmic comeuppance. Oh, we treat the birds so poorly. Oh, we put them in cages, and eat them, and use them in our own silly little games of romance. So they finally got fed up. For a moment, my classmates and I reminded me of all of the characters at the diner trying to fathom the unfathomable. We even had a doomsayer who proclaimed, tongue mostly in cheek, “It’s the end of the world!”
I added my own two cents, of course. I said I thought all of our theories were ultimately reductive. I said the brilliance of “The Birds” is that it gives us no explanation for why the birds attack. And since we’re not told why, we’re forced to wonder: Why not? Which is the scariest thought of all.
A cleverer man simply would’ve put a finger to his lips, said “Ssshhh,” and looked warily around.
That’s a key to “The Birds,” isn’t it? The silences. Not just the absence of a soundtrack, which amplifies the sound of the birds, their awful clucking and cooing, but the absence of talk, of human talk, in the face of an attack. Lydia sees Dan Fawcett with his eyes gouged out and speech is strangled from her. Melanie sees the line of fire roaring toward the gas pumps and speech is strangled from her. When the birds attack the house no one says shit, they just try to melt into the walls; and after the attacks, when the birds are still there, hanging out on wires or jungle gyms or trees or garage roofs—wherever they want. really—that’s when we really don’t say shit. Because we don’t want to upset the birds. Because it’s their world now. We survive at their sufferance.
Speech is strangled from us.
In structure, “The Birds” reminds me a bit of “Psycho,” Hitchcock’s previous film. It starts out about one thing but becomes about something else. Something seemingly harmless (a hotel manager, birds) hijacks the story.
Thank God. I love Tippi Hedren here—done up like so many of Hitchcock’s ice-cool blondes, but so much more playful, ready to act on the world rather than wait for the world to act on her—but it’s a slow slog at the beginning. Maybe because we’re waiting for the title characters to take over.
They’re there from the start. On a San Francisco street, Melanie, about to enter a bird shop (which Sir Alfred is about to walk out of), and just whistled at by some boys (she’s a good-looking bird, after all), notices, for a second, the odd activity of birds in the sky. Then she enters a place where birds are caged and humans are not and begins a romance, in classic, opposites-attract Hollywood fashion, with criminal defense attorney Mitch Brenner.
The first half hour of the film is her attempt to deliver on a frivolous practical joke. To do this she tracks down Mitch’s home address, then his Bodega Bay address, then buys two lovebirds and drives the hour north of San Francisco, where, among other machinations, she orders up an outboard motorboat, pilots it across Bodega Bay to the Brenner dock, steals inside with the caged lovebirds and a note, makes a getaway by boat, is followed by Mitch, who waits for her on the dock on the other side with a smile in his eyes and a witticism about to burble from his lips when ... bam! A seagull, smacks into Melanie’s forehead, drawing blood. Whatever witticisms he and she were about to engage in are gone.
It turns out Melanie is the second woman that Mitch’s charms have lured to town. The first is the school teacher, Annie (Suzanne Pleschette), who began a relationship with Mitch years earlier but couldn’t get past first base with the mother. Yet she stayed. To be near Mitch. Kinda creepy.
Now I’m not positing this as a reason for the bird attacks, but it is fascinating how most of the characters in the film seem to be frittering away their lives: Annie here, Melanie there. Mitch defends a man who shot his wife in the head six times because she changed the channel on the TV, and everyone jokes less about the kill than the overkill: “I mean, even twice would be overdoing it, don't you think?” An impartial observer might think, from this sample, that human beings don’t deserve dominion over the earth.
That bonk-bonk on the head occurs half an hour into the movie. As the romance heats up, and we learn more about Melanie (she’s a socialite who went all Anita Ekberg in a fountain in Rome but is trying to repair her life), we get some excellent foreshadowing—call it horror foreplay—from Sir Alfred:
- Annie sees a flock of birds fly by and asks, rhetorically, “Don’t they ever stop migrating?”
- The chickens aren’t eating the feed. That’s never happened.
- As Melanie and Mitch argue their way out of a good evening, we hear, in the background, much cluck-clucking. It’s not until Melanie departs in her that we see the culprits: dozens of birds on a telephone wire.
- That same evening, as Melanie and Annie drink brandy and make nice, a bird launches a kamikaze attack on Annie’s door.
Then it all comes fast and furious. The birds attack the children at a party, they fly down the chimney at the Brenner household, they kill Dan Fawcett and gouge out his eyes. Mrs. Brenner, shaken by the incident, worries about her daughter, Cathy (little Veronica Cartwright), at school, which is why Melanie heads over there, and why she’s waiting on the bench behind the jungle gym having a quiet smoke.
This is the “Psycho” shower scene all over again. Entire chapters have been written— deservedly—and here’s my poor addition: While Melanie looks off to the side, and while the children in the schoolhouse sing an Americanized version of a Scottish folk song (“Ristle-tee, rostle-tee/ Now, now, now”), one crow lands on the jungle gym behind her. While she lights a cigarette, here come two more, then four more. Then she gets lost in thought. It doesn’t hurt that Hedren is exquisite to look at. But after about 15 seconds she spots a crow flying in the sky, and, alarmed, follows its flight over, down, and onto the jungle gym ... which is now filled with hundreds of crows. It’s not only a shock to her, who didn’t know about the first crows, it’s a shock to us, who did, but who last saw only seven crows on the bars. Interestingly, her stunned, reaction shot is filmed against one of those fake backdrops Hitchcock liked to employ, even at this late date, because he didn’t like location shooting. Does he use it here on purpose? To add to the unreality of the situation?
More and more of the movie is silent now. Post-gas station attack, Mitch and Melanie find the diner group huddled in a corner, silent, afraid to disturb the birds, with amateur ornithologist Mrs. Bundy (a brilliant Ethel Griffies) so shamed she can’t even turn her face to the camera. On the way to Annie’s, Mitch, for the first time, shushes Melanie as they walk past the schoolhouse. Don’t disturb the birds. When they find Annie dead, his reaction is Cro-Magninian: he picks up a rock. But Melanie, quietly, almost silently, convinces him to put it down. Don’t disturb the birds. This sets us up for the final assault on the house.
Has any filmmaker ended movies more brilliantly than Hitchcock? Here, it’s not just that a stray bird pecks at Mitch as he prepares for evacuation, letting him know that the pecking order, the literal pecking order, has changed. It’s not just that the four humans—Mitch, Melanie, Lydia and Cathy—are crammed into Melanie’s sports car like birds in a cage, while the birds fly and land free. It’s not just that Cathy—idiotically!—brings along her caged lovebirds, letting us know that the whole bloody mess isn’t about the caged lovebirds, since the free birds obviously don’t care about the caged lovebirds.
No, what’s brilliant about the ending of “The Birds” is this: Once Mitch opens the door and sees all the birds, we hope for one thing: that our main characters will get away. And they do. We see them drive off. The car gets smaller and smaller in the distance, and the bird’s noise grows louder and louder, and the movie ends without a “The End,” without credits, without anything, really; and it slowly dawns on us that this ending, which is the ending we wanted, is the most horrifying ending of all. We want Mitch and Melanie to be safe because they matter to us; they’re our main characters, after all. But the reason they get away is because they don’t matter at all. The camera stays behind. With the birds. The viewpoint has shifted and the main characters in the drama have changed. We think that final scene is about Mitch and Melanie getting away but it’s really about the birds driving the humans out. And from above, a light, almost like God’s light, shines down, signaling a brand new day.
Monday December 13, 2010
Review: “Psycho” (1960)
WARNING: ALFRED HITCHCOCK’S SPOILERS
When I was a budding and hugely unpublished short story writer in the early 1990s I thought it would be cool to write a story that begins in one direction—plot, themes, foreshadowing—and then something happens, boom, and it goes off in a completely different direction. I anticipated the same main character (someone like me, of course), but the story around this character changes, since that’s how life often feels. We think we’re going in one direction and then we’re not. We think we’re controlling the story but we’re not.
I didn’t know this had already been done, and better, 30 years earlier.
That’s the startling thing about “Psycho” when you first watch it. We all know Norman Bates and the famous shower scene, so we’re anticipating Norman Bates and the famous shower scene. But Norman (Anthony Perkins) doesn’t show up until a half-hour in, the shower scene until 45 minutes in. Up to that point the movie is Marion Crane’s (Janet Leigh). She’s the main character, with her own plot, her own issues, her own themes. She’s involved with a man who can’t marry her because of the debt he carries; then another man flaps a seemingly phallic $40,000 in her face and she takes off with it. That’s the tension for the first half of the film. Will she get away with the money? Will she go back? Can she go back? Hey, this motel manager is self-deprecating and funny. Not bad-looking, either. Will she wind up with him? Oh, maybe she’ll learn from him. About the traps we spring on ourselves. Maybe she’ll redeem herself. Maybe this shower will cleanse her of her sins.
Hey, what’s that shadow in the background?
Wurt! Wurt! Wurt!
That’s the true horror of the movie, isn’t it? When Norman dumps her body in the trunk of her car and dumps the car in the bog out back, he’s not only burying her, he’s burying her story. Everything she worried about for the first half of the movie, and that we worried about with her, is now inconsequential. Now the story is his. Just as he subsumed Mother’s personality after he killed her, he subsumed Marion’s story after he killed her. There’s something primal in this. Kill someone and everything theirs becomes yours.
Do we want him to take over the movie? That’s a tough one. I went in knowing about Norman and the shower scene, so I knew Marion’s afternoon liaison and sudden theft and getaway and worry and buying a new-used car from good ol’ California Charlie were all irrelevant to the true story, so this shadow-play bored me a little. Even with Hitchcock, that glorious perv, giving us all those shots of Janet Leigh and her progressively dark underwear, I was bored. Stealing forty thousand? That’s it? It’s so small. Her plan seems perfectly addled, too. She right near the Mexican border but flees to mid-California. Does she think they’ll never be able to find her there? That the world will swallow her up? Even when the world literally swallows her up, they still find her.
But I don’t know if I’m bored with this storyline because of its smallness or because I know it’s a red herring. I’m curious what people who saw the film in 1960 thought.
(Bowsley Crowther, for one, reviewing for The New York Times in June 1960, seemed unimpressed with Marion’s storyline: “With a minimum of complication, it gets off to a black-and-white start with the arrival of a fugitive girl with a stolen bankroll right at an eerie motel,” he writes. “Well, perhaps it doesn't get her there too swiftly. That's another little thing about this film. It does seem slowly paced for Mr. Hitchcock and given over to a lot of small detail.”)
Throughout, Hitchcock plays with his familiar themes: the struggle between innocence and guilt; the power of watching and the powerlessness of being watched. The first shot is a voyeur’s delight: a pan of Phoenix, Arizona, on December 11, 2:43 PM. The camera closes in on a building, then a window, then it takes us past the drawn shades and lets us watch a good-looking, post-coital couple in conversation. He’s stripped to the waist, she’s in her underwear. We’re peeping toms, basically. Moviegoers are always peeping toms, of course, it’s just that Hitchcock doesn’t let us forget it—usually as a prelude to presenting a less palatable peeping tom on screen.
Here, for example, is our view of Marion as she’s deciding whether or not to steal the $40,000:
Now here’s Norman Bates’ view, through the Bates Motel peephole, as Marion decides whether or not to return the $40,000:
The only difference is we have a better view. Hitchcock even makes Norman look like our cameraman:
We all want to be innocent (rather than guilty) and powerful (rather than powerless) but are the two incompatible? Accruing power tends to cost innocence. Look at Marion. She grabs $40,000 but can’t stand the loss of innocence. She wears guilt poorly.
To be powerful is to be guilty ... and to yearn for innocence. That can be considered the theme of some of the greatest American movies ever made—“Citizen Kane,” The Godfather trilogy, “Lord of the Rings”—and it’s a theme here, with Norman, on a smaller scale, and with a psychotic twist.
Let’s start with the sequence where Marion checks in at the Bates Motel. At this point, Norman seems like a self-deprecating, semi-charming kind of guy, and, as she signs in with a fake name (“Marie Samuels”), he asks for her home address. “Oh, just your town will do,” he says. She hesitates; then, with inspiration from the newspaper sticking out of her purse, stammers, “Los Angeles.” For a moment his hand hesitates before the keys to the various cabins. Has he detected the lie, the guilt, in her voice? Is he deciding that L.A. is far enough away? Either way, he hands her the keys to cabin one, the cabin where he can watch her, the cabin where everything bad happens.
Later they have dinner, milk and sandwiches, during which she mistakenly suggests an institution for Mother, whom she’d heard berating Norman, and he kind of flips:
Have you ever seen one of the inside of those places? The laughing and the tears? And the cruel eyes studying you? My mother? There? But she’s harmless. She’s as harmless as one of those stuffed birds.
At the end of the conversation, deciding she has to get out of the trap she put herself in, and forgetting her subterfuge, Marion tells Norman she’ll be driving back to Phoenix in the morning. She tells him her name is Crane. Then she leaves. We stay. Is this the first change in point-of-view in the film? I believe so. The movie is already becoming Norman’s. He goes over to the desk, looks at the register and sees “Marie Samuels, Los Angeles.” His look is almost triumphant. Then he walks back into the dark and shadows, among his stuffed birds, and lingers. After a beat, he sets the painting aside to peep into her cabin and see her undressing.
There’s a perverse morality and twisted logic as all of this plays out:
- She is guilty so she must be watched.
- He has watched so he must be guilty.
- Mother must take away (kill) the source of her son’s guilt.
- The son must take away (remove) the evidence of Mother’s guilt.
Norman wants the power of watching but can’t take the accompanying guilt. He wants both power and innocence. You could say that’s the source of his psychosis.
Even at the end of the movie, captured at last, sitting alone in a police holding cell—and thus guilty and powerless—he figures out a way to remain innocent and powerful.
By this point the mother (“Norma”) portion of his personality has completely trumped the real (“Norman”) part of his personality, and, as he sits alone in the holding cell, it’s her thoughts, her creepy voice, buzzing in his head. She defends giving up Norman to the police because she feels innocent of the crimes. Which she is. That’s the brilliance of it. He did everything. He used “her” to commit the crimes to remain innocent of the crimes (“She’s ill,” he tells Marion), and, once caught, he uses “her” to take refuge from the crimes (“He was always bad,” she thinks), since it was always his hand sticking in the blade and disposing of the bodies. He adopts whatever personality is necessary to remain innocent. One suspects that if they eventually charged Mother with the crimes, he would revert back to Norman.
That’s how he remains innocent. But how does he remain powerful? Isn’t he trapped in a place where their cruel eyes can watch him again? He even suspects this. “They’re probably watching me,” Mother’s voice says, as Norman’s eyes glance almost casually around. He’s a peeper and we always suspect others of our crimes.
But are the police watching him? We don’t know. We assume not. But we do know that someone’s watching him. We are. We’ve been watching him the whole time. We have the power of the watcher and the innocence of someone who’s not in control (beyond the ticket purchase) of what they’re watching. Hitchcock has already played with our innocence by associating it with a psychopath. In the final shot he takes away our power.
How can the watched regain control from the watcher? By watching back. Which is what Norman does. With the last line of the movie he turns his gaze on us:
They’re probably watching me. Well, let them. Let them see what kind of person I am. I’m not even going to swat that fly. I hope they are watching. They’ll see. They’ll see and they’ll know. They’ll say, “Why she wouldn’t even harm a fly.”
Oh man, does it work. By watching us, by letting us know that he knows we’re watching him, Norman regains power and we lose it. It’s frightening. It’s even more frightening because Hitchcock, for a fraction of a second, superimposes Mother’s death-skull over Norman’s smiling face, and he seems a kind of grim reaper, our grim reaper, which is further augmented by the final shot of Marion’s car being dragged from the bog—suggesting not only all of Norman’s crimes but all of our final resting places. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, and mud to mud.
“Psycho” has its weak points. John Gavin is leaden, the front story so-so, the shot of Norman in drag almost Jim Carreyishly amusing. Plus the psychiatric explanation is overlong and overdone.
But the rest? This is a movie that changed cinema and our culture. Monsters aren’t the Universal variety—giant or disfigured or hairy—they’re the universal variety. They look like the boy next door. They look like anybody and their victims could be anyone: her, him, me, you. And it can come at any moment. When you’re walking up the stairs. When you’re taking a shower. You’re never safe. That’s the horror. They can get you any time. If this story has gained in power in the 50 years since Hitchcock and screenwriter Joe Stefano worked on it, if we’re still trapped in some sense by Norman Bates’ primal gaze, it may be because we haven’t yet worked up the courage to look back.