Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Alfred Hitchcock on Hollywood

"A good film is when the price of the dinner, the theatre admission and the babysitter were worth it."
"Drama is life with the dull bits cut out."
"In feature films the director is God; in documentary films God is the director."
"Television is like the American toaster, you push the button and the same thing pops up everytime."
"The length of a film should be directly related to the endurance of the human bladder."
"There is no terror in the bang, only in the anticipation of it."
"Dialogue should simply be a sound among other sounds, just something that comes out of the mouths of people whose eyes tell the story in visual terms."
"Give them pleasure - the same pleasure they have when they wake up from a nightmare."
"Film your murders like love scenes, and film your love scenes like murders."
"I don't understand why we have to experiment with film. I think everything should be done on paper. A musician has to do it, a composer. He puts a lot of dots down and beautiful music comes out. And I think that students should be taught to visualize. That's the one thing missing in all this. The one thing that the student has got to do is to learn that there is a rectangle up there - a white rectangle in a theater - and it has to be filled."

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Saboteur (1942)

Before the War on Terrorism had made terrorists a much talked about topic by the media a fear that many Americans and governments from all over the world had was of the saboteur. Unlike terrorists, saboteurs were not primarily out to inflict as many casualties as possible through their actions. Their methods entailed subversion, obstruction, disruption, and if need be destruction. Unlike terrorists who thrive primarily on fear and paranoia the saboteur is the hidden menace. They can set allied governments against each other, wreck havoc on the urban infrastructure, create a general mood of distrust within a population, and they can accomplish all this because a saboteur has the ability to completely assimilate into the enemy camp and become like one of them.
During World War II Alfred Hitchcock was criticized by the British press for staying in America and not taking a more active role in fighting the Nazis. The presses attacks were unwarranted though since Hitchcock was still under contract to David O. Selznick and also his talents were more suited to directing a film crew rather than directing a company of soldiers into battle. By 1942, with the country embroiled in a world war on two fronts, Alfred Hitchcock would release Saboteur. The film would be the first of two that he would make for Universal Studios and also the fourth time that Selznick would loan him out, this time to producers Frank Lloyd and Jack Skirball. The film was a comic reworking of his 1935 British hit The 39 Steps but after more than 60 years since its theatrical release Saboteur has not faired all that well. The film's detractors call attention to the slapdash screenplay, especially the heavy-handed dialogue, and B-list casting as the primary reasons why the film falls just short of being a masterpiece. Closer examination of the picture though reveals that the Master of Suspense may have been trying to stretch his genre muscles with this film.
Saboteur, like its British counterpart The 39 Steps, is structured like a road movie. An aircraft factory worker by the name of Barry Kane, played by Robert Cummings, is on the run after he is framed for sabotage and the subsequent death of his best friend. While on the run he meets an eclectic group of people, some who help him and others that are out to harm him. This eclectic range of characters that he runs into consist of a wisecracking truck driver, a blind hermit living a Thoreau-like existence, a caravan of sideshow performers, and a cabal of fifth column subversives.
Hitchcock and his screenplay collaborators, Joan Harrison, Peter Viertel, and Dorothy Parker, use the film as a platform to discuss the inherent class divisions present in the country. Contrary to how Nazi sympathizers were portrayed in films during that time the film opts not to portray them as tough, scary, or monstrous. In fact the film associates the fascist sympathizer with the effete intellectual. The characters who go out of there way to help Barry are part of the lower rung of the economic ladder and/or have some unique physical characteristic. Be they blind like the hermit, suffering money woes like the truck driver, or born with some sort of medical abnormality like the bearded lady or the conjoined twins in the sideshow act all of these characters in the story lie at the periphery of society. While the fascist sympathizers are rich, educated, and cultured; you would not mistake them as one of the "huddled masses yearning to breath free". In fact these upper class saboteurs would like nothing better but to exterminate those who do not fit their description of a superior individual, something that real-life Nazis were doing in Europe at that time. By making the villains in the film wealthy effete intellectuals Hitchcock attacked the habit that many people from so-called advanced countries had of toting their pedigree, expensive education, and good grooming as signs of their superiority.
A motif that Hitchcock constantly returns to in this film is that of fire and water. The film opens with the fire at the airplane factory, Barry's friend is engulfed in flames after handling a fire extinguisher filled with gasoline, the saboteurs plan to blow up a dam and sabotage a U.S. Navy ship, and the final climactic scene of the film takes place around the torch of the Statue of Liberty. Fire is representative of unchecked aggression and fervor. Making it not such a coincidence that the villains in the film are linked to that element whereas Barry is connected to the element of water since it represents purity and justice. Barry escapes from the cops by jumping into a river, he also escapes imprisonment from a cellar by activating the sprinkler system, and the man that framed Barry for sabotage, Fry, plunges to his death into New York Harbor finally bringing some semblance of justice for all the death and destruction.
One aspect of the film that I wish Hitchcock would have developed further are the elements of screwball comedy in the story. For those unaware screwball comedy is a genre precursor to the modern romantic comedy, but unlike romantic comedies of today the male-female relationship in the screwball genre were more mature. To get around the Production Code writers and directors had to practically invent a new language consisting of verbal and visual cues; so a slightly raised skirt, a glance, or a careful turn of phrase spoke volumes. whereas today the topic of sex is talked about in a more direct manner this directness does not always yield the most honest depictions of contemporary mores and taboos.
In Saboteur the audience's attention is focused on the relationship between Barry Kane and Patricia Martin, played by band singer turned actress Priscilla Lane. They are a typical Hitchcockian couple, Kane is a dark-haired everyman while Patricia Martin is a blonde ice queen who gradually warms up to Kane after realizing his innocence. All throughout the film Kane and Martin fight and bicker like a married couple, each trying to gain control over the other. As in all screwball comedies the topic of gender is always at play. And although Patricia Martin is a pretty model from New York City she is no shrinking violet. After being taken hostage she devises and executes a plan to get the attention of some cab drivers which eventually leads to the cops arresting not only her kidnappers, but practically the entire network of saboteurs. Hitchcock never just casts a pretty face for the female lead in his movies. His female stars were beautiful but they overturned typical gender conventions by facing danger and not only proving that they could handle a crisis but also retain their femininity while doing so, just like all starlets of the screwball genre.
Although Saboteur may never be considered a masterpiece Alfred Hitchcock should be commended for his attempt to blend genres together. He may not be all that successful, but the final result is a wonderful document of an era when political fervor blinded so many individuals of their ability to think for themselves.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Foreign Correspondent (1940)

  During times of great turmoil and strife those in power look to artists to rally the people to action. In 1940 the conflict in Europe was boiling over into a full-blown world war while in America Alfred Hitchcock's Hollywood career was limping along. After signing a seven-year contract with David O. Selznick in 1939 what Hitchcock initially believed to be his ticket to bigger budgets and better resources became a cage. When he worked in England he had enough cache to make the pictures he wanted the way he wanted to make them, but in Hollywood it was the producer who was king. Selznick thought of Hitchcock as an artisan, a very skilled artisan but an artisan none the less. Hitchcock's first American picture, Rebecca, earned several Oscar nominations and even won for Best Picture but it was telling that the statuette was awarded to Selznick and not Hitchcock. The method in which Hitchcock made his films was antithetical to Selznick's process. For Selznick the proper way to make a movie was that you shoot as much camera coverage as possible; so a director would shoot so many long shots, medium shots, and close-ups after which an editor would cull from all the material several possible versions of the film, leaving final cut approval to the producer. Hitchcock looked at this process as wasteful. He believed in visualizing a film onto paper first and then shooting, as a result during pre-production Hitchcock would storyboard as much of the film as possible. His exacting method would make it impossible for anyone who dared to interfere with his work by making sure that there was only one logical way to edit the shots together. After Rebecca though both men would take a break from each other when Selznick loaned out the director to Walter Wanger. It would not be the last time that Selznick would loan Hitchcock out to a different studio and each time he did Hitchcock was able to not only flex his artistic muscles but also prove to the naysayers that he was the Master of Suspense.
  In 1935 Walter Wanger purchased the rights to Vincent Sheean's Personal History for $10,000 and after five years and 16 writers he got nowhere in adapting the book for the screen. It was only after Wanger finally dropped the idea for a faithful adaptation of the book did the project pick up any speed. Wanger kept the idea of a movie about a foreign correspondent, but because the conflicts brewing in Europe were a sensitive issue for many he decided to make the film a Hollywood style thriller to make the subject matter more palatable to audiences. Hiring Hitchcock to direct was a no-brainer since in England the director had made several Joseph Conrad inspired espionage thrillers like his 1936 film Sabotage and the classic "wrong man" thriller The 39 Steps. After being signed on to direct, Hitchcock called upon Charles Bennett and Joan Harrison, both frequent collaborators of his, to come up with a workable script and working together they helped to create one of Hithcock's most underrated masterpieces.
  The screenplay that Hitchcock and his collaborators came up with was a story about an American reporter who ends up uncovering a conspiracy that would ultimately lead to a continent-wide war. The genius of the story is that like in all top notch Hitchcock films the Master of Suspense balances the tense action set pieces with genuinely funny moments. It's a testament to Hitchcock's confidence in blending suspense and comedy by the sheer fact that he not only cast Robert Benchley in a small part in the film, but he also allowed the humorist to ad-lib his lines. And even though the threat of a world war hangs heavy in every single frame of the film Hitchcock is not afraid to lighten the mood with scenes that could have come straight out of a romantic comedy. To get the audience to invest in the story Hitchcock and his writers inject the film with a romantic subplot; a story device seen in previous Hitchcock classics like The 39 Steps, The Lady Vanishes, and his most stylish thriller, North by Northwest, a film which is heavily indebted to Foreign Correspondent.
  A possible reason as to why the film has been ignored by the average film fan maybe because the cast is made up of relative unknowns. Yet unknowns or not Hitchcock was right on the money when it came to casting decisions. Joel McCrea is spot-on as the self-confident reporter Johnny Jones. He is no poor man's Cary Grant. McCrea has a difficult job in playing a man conflicted between his duty to report about the impending conflict in Europe and stop those who would fan the flames of war , and his love for a woman whose father is the main instigator in the impending war. McCrea bridges the divide between his duty and his personal emotions by playing Johnny Jones as a man who could care less about the bigger picture. He is not apathetic to the European situation, but rather as his editor says "What Europe needs is a fresh unused mind." Jones is a man who has no interest in politics. He makes decisions and acts on information based on things he can see and can verify as the truth. It is a telling detail that before Jones is hired to be a foreign correspondent he was a crime reporter who was remanded to his desk after punching out a police officer while running after some crooks. This single fact about Johnny Jones presented to us at the start of the film explains the man entirely; he will not let injustice go even if he must make enemies with those who are charged with the responsibility of keeping the peace.
  The man that Johnny must go against in the film is Stephen Fisher, played wonderfully by Herbert Marshall. He is suave, sophisticated, loves his daughter, and is the head of the Universal Peace Party. It has become old hat to call Hitchcock a great director, but he was a genius for realizing the potential of making the villain a sympathetic three-dimensional character. By making Fisher a man and not a monster the characters in the movie and the audience watching the film have a more complicated relationship with the antagonist, and when Fisher ultimately sacrifices his life we feel just as much pain as if one of our own friends had perished.
  The things that Hitchcock accomplished with this film could not have been realized without the help of so many people behind the camera. Two important names that should be mentioned are the set designer, William Cameron Menzies, and the score composer, Alfred Newman. William Cameron Menzies had a career as an art director that could be traced back to the inception of Hollywood as the nation's film capitol. He worked on several silent pictures and when directors began shooting with color film stock he found new ways to use the color palette to establish a mood or accentuate the inherent drama present in the story. Some standout examples of his work in Foreign Correspondent can be seen in the three most famous set pieces in the picture. The first being the assassination of the Van Meer look-alike. As the story goes Hitchcock and his crew of technicians had to switch back and forth between the smoke machine and the rain machine to get just the right look, and it pays off. Looking back the scene plays almost like a funeral with all the rain, black umbrellas, and even the building where the Peace Party is holding their conference has the look of an ancient temple. And as the Van Meer look-alike walks up the long flight of stairs, stairs seem to always allude to death in Hitchcock's pictures be it in Vertigo, Psycho, or The Birds, an assassin meets the look-alike with a gun and kills him. A chase soon ensues which brings the story to the next set piece in the film, the so-called Windmill scene. The interior set where Johnny Jones discovers the real Van Meer is clearly influenced by James Whale's Frankenstein pictures and it is a credit to his skill as a set designer that Menzies can create a feeling of dread and claustrophobia with a few windmill cogs and a dilapidated staircase. The final great set piece in the picture is the plane crash. The spectacular effect was created by rear projecting onto a rice paper screen some footage that a stunt plane had shot while doing some maneuvers which involved diving towards the ocean and pulling back up before they hit the water. With the footage projected on the rice paper which stood in front of a cockpit set, when the time came for the plane to hit the water a dunk tank behind the rice paper would release a torrent of water and rip through the rice paper and flood the cockpit.
  The score composer, Alfred Newman, had an equally important role in making Foreign Correspondent a classic Hitchcock picture. Newman opens the picture with a jaunty and very romantic tune, which will ultimately become the picture's musical theme. And this opening tune prepares the audience not for a tense thriller but a light-hearted comedy or to be more accurate an adventure tale. In film after film by utilizing the contrast of opposites to his advantage Hitchcock has been able to hold the audience's attention. The jaunty musical theme of the picture contrasts with the seriousness of the situation we are observing on the screen. Newman's score lulls the audience into forming the expectation that they can relax and enjoy some light fare, but as the film moves along they become caught up in the story and the score retreats towards the background and is only used to punctuate the action on the screen. The musical score is never used to tell the audience what to feel but rather enhance the drama already present in a scene. Newman's score offers a balance between the light comedy and heavy drama of the story, and allows audiences some breathing space between the suspenseful moments.
  Whenever people speak about Foreign Correspondent they inevitably make mention of the film as a propaganda piece. Many look at this fact as a demerit against the picture, but many films even today are laced with an agenda and most aren't as entertaining as Foreign Correspondent is. And maybe this is where the animosity lies. Hitchcock the entertainer tackling a serious social and political issue must have irked many. To have an entertainer be able to rally an entire audience with one movie while all their speeches and campaigning could only accomplish moderate excitement must have made many politicians jealous. The highest compliment Hitchcock might have gotten for this picture came from Paul Joseph Goebbels, the Minister of Propaganda for Nazi Germany, when he remarked that the film was "a first-class production which no doubt will make a certain impression upon the broad masses of the people in enemy countries." Goebbels and Hitchcock, two very different men, but both knew that a single frame of film could excite people much more than lectures or speeches could ever hope to do. Film has the possibility to make ideas tangible, to create and recreate reality, and because of this vulnerability to the spell of cinema their have been a countless number of people who have been so moved by a film that they have taken action against injustice. This power of the motion picture to take political ideas and mask them as filmic ideals has often been abused, but as we evolve as a society so will the motion picture and maybe someday we can start to live up to the ideals that a good movie can perpetuate.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Raymond Chandler on Hollywood

"If my books had been any worse I should not have been invited to Hollywood and if they had been any better I should not have come."
"They don't want you until you have made a name, and by the time you have made a name, you have developed some kind of talent they can't use. All they will do is spoil it, if you let them."
"Wonderful what Hollywood will do to a nobody. It will make a radiant glamour queen out of a drab little wench who ought to be ironing a truck driver's shirts, a he-man hero with shining eyes and a brilliant smile reeking of sexual charm out of some overgrown kid who was meant to go to work with a lunchbox."
"Hollywood has all the personality of a paper cup."
"The motion picture is like a picture of a lady in a half-piece bathing suit. If she wore a few more clothes, you might be intrigued. If she wore no clothes at all, you might be shocked. But the way it is, you are occupied with noticing that her knees are too bony and that her toenails are too large. The modern film tries too hard to be real. Its techniques of illusion are so perfect that it requires no contribution from the audience but a mouthful of popcorn."
"That's one thing I like about Hollywood. The writer is there revealed in his ultimate corruption. He asks no praise, because his praise comes to him in the form of a salary check. In Hollywood the average writer is not young, not honest, not brave, and a bit overdressed. But he is darn good company, which book writers as a rule are not. He is better than what he writes. Most book writers are not as good."
"The making of a picture ought surely to be a rather fascinating adventure. It is not; it is an endless contention of tawdry egos, some of them powerful, almost all of them vociferous, and almost none of them capable of anything much more creative than credit-stealing and self-promotion." 

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Murder, My Sweet (1944)

  The city of Los Angeles has a reputation for being the bearer and recorder of an entire nation's hopes, dreams, and ideals. It was first settled by Spanish missionaries in 1769 and through its long history it has been a place where its sunny climate belies a community divided by economic, social, and ethnic lines. As the central location for film and TV production it has shaped the way many people think, feel, and act. And subsequently since the start of the twentieth century it has provided a soundtrack from which many generations from then till now have listened to and defined their lives by.
  Their have been many great chroniclers of the city of Los Angeles, and like all great metropolitan areas a distinct mythology has developed around the town. Whereas Manhattan, some historians believe, earned the moniker of being the Big Apple through a series of newspaper articles written by John J. Fitz Gerald about horse-racing. As the news reporter eloquently put it: "The Big Apple. The dream of every lad that ever threw a leg over a thoroughbred and the goal of all horsemen. There's only one Big Apple. That's New York." The nickname Gerald gave the east coast town evoked the fast paced city living and sink or swim mentality that has come to define New York City and its five boroughs. Los Angeles on the other hand may have gained the nickname City of Angels due to the original Hispanic settlers wishing to evoke God's good fortune due to the harsh conditions of settlement living. The City of Angels is a place that attracts all sorts of disparate people and groups seeking their own personal paradise, but with so many people arriving day in, day out many of those dreams end up in the gutter.
  Raymond Chandler played a large role in defining L.A. as a corrupt dream factory. His seven novels sketched out for readers a California infected with all sorts of deeply flawed characters. And the way he wrote about Los Angeles became the default cinematic representation of the city. His first novel, The Big Sleep, was adapted by Warner Bros. in 1944 and theatrically released in 1946. It became, for many, the definitive adaptation of a Chandler novel, but in reality it was neither the first of Chandler's books to be adapted nor is it the only film to evoke an L.A. polluted by money and swarming with opportunists.
  Two years before the release of the Howard Hawks film Edward Dmytryk would take a crack at putting a Philip Marlowe mystery on the big screen. The film, Murder, My Sweet, would be adapted from Chandler's second novel, Farewell, My Lovely, and the picture would be financed by RKO studios. On its own the film stands as a great example of the private eye genre, but as a Philip Marlowe story their has been a long running debate between Raymond Chandler aficionados as to whether the film can even be considered part of the Philip Marlowe canon. The main point of contention is the casting of Dick Powell as private eye Philip Marlowe.
  Dick Powell began in show business as a singer and when he made the transition into film the studios took advantage of the burgeoning new sound technology and put him to work in musicals. The 1930's was a golden era for Powell who starred in several Busby Berkeley musicals alongside such talented actresses as Ruby Keeler and Joan Blondell. Yet as the decade closed Powell grew tired of being a song and dance man and took his first steps into more "serious" roles. He tried his hand at Shakespeare and even auditioned for the part of Walter Neff in Double Indemnity, but all his attempts to broaden his range as an actor failed. By 1944 RKO stood on the precipice of bankruptcy. After handing complete creative control to Orson Welles three years before and having to deal with the fallout from the Hearst scandal RKO was in no position to compete with the Big Five in Hollywood. They signed Dick Powell to a contract in the hopes that they could churn out a few relatively cheap musicals, but Powell would only sign after they agreed to offer him a legitimate dramatic role first. To keep Powell happy they quickly offered him the main part in Edward Dmytryk's next picture. With the part of Philip Marlowe Powell saw the role as a way to reinvent his image. What neither RKO nor Powell had considered was that to many film fans Dick Powell would always be a song and dance man. Not to mention the fact that when Dmytryk's film first opened it was released as Farewell, My Lovely and audiences seeing the title and Dick Powell's name on the marquee went in believing that they would be entertained by a light musical comedy. Audience turnout quickly plummeted and to salvage the film they changed the title to Murder, My Sweet.
  Decades after its theatrical release one can easily watch the film without the prejudices that audiences in the 1940's had about Powell. Detractors enjoy pointing out that Powell is a light hearted Marlowe and although I agree with that assessment I do not believe that it is a detriment to the film. Although the character of Marlowe may fall under the category of hard boiled detective he was more of a thinker than a tough guy. Whereas most cinematic private eyes learned their craft primarily from the school of hard knocks Philip Marlowe is a college educated thinker. What Powell brought to the role was a gentleness that Bogart and the other actors that later portrayed the character simply lacked. Most actors when playing Marlowe emphasize his wisecracking attitude, defiance against authority, and overall weariness for the job but most forget the inherent gentleness within the character. Powell as Marlowe moves, at times, in a clumsy manner and is constantly beaten up and knocked unconscious by several characters in the film because he is a mere man. When you watch Bogart in The Big Sleep or The Maltese Falcon you can't believe that anyone could beat him up or hurt him in any way because Bogart is one of Hollywood's perennial tough guys. Dick Powell on the other hand plays Marlowe as a man who tells corny jokes and he is never the guy with all the answers, and we believe him partly because of his reputation as a song and dance man but also because even in his 30's Powell still retained that baby-face of his.
  After watching Murder, My Sweet anyone with a passing interest in film will notice how indebted Dmytryk's film is to Citizen Kane. No coincidence since both Citizen Kane and Murder, My Sweet were made within two years of each other, and many of the crew from Kane even ended up working on Dmytryk's film. The cinematographer, Harry J. Wild, constructs shots which utilize the full depth of field and unlike many big budget films of that day he was not afraid to employ shadows for dramatic effect. And as for the set design one can see touches of Charles Foster Kane's Xanadu in the Grayle mansion. Also I would not be surprised if Marlowe's drug-induced nightmare hallucinations in the film would later be the inspiration for Salvador Dali when he designed the surrealistic dream sequences for Alfred Hitchcock's Spellbound a year later.
  One thing that all Raymond Chandler aficionados can agree upon with this film is that as in Chandler's novel Dmytryk's film is faithful to the themes which recur throughout all of the Philip Marlowe stories; which is that money is a device used by the wealthy to wash away their sins. The character of Helen Grayle is a perfect example of this since the main thrust of the story is the search for Velma Valento, a red-haired nightclub singer. It is only later in the film that Marlowe and we the audience finally figure out that Helen Grayle and Velma are one in the same woman. No matter what color she dyes her hair, expensive clothes and jewelry she puts on, or people she kills Helen Grayle cannot escape the fact that she came from a less than respectable background. Her reasons for marrying Mr. Grayle is purely a selfish desire to attain the respectability she longs for, but by creating an alternate identity she betrays her true self. Helen/Velma is a murderer and manipulator, but she is also a victim. She is a product of all of the men in her life that have exploited her insecurities and now after all that abuse she is finally taking her revenge. Murder, My Sweet is a film about corruption; not institutional corruption but personal corruption for the lies we tell ourselves can easily poison every aspect of our identity till we turn into everything we have fought to not become.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

The Big Sleep (1946)

  Before the arrival of the internet and specifically Wikipedia a common stock character in film was the private investigator. The P.I. was such an important staple in genre cinema that a whole slew of colorful words were invented to elevate this most humble occupation into a racket bursting with private eyes, gumshoes, shamuses, snoops, and flatfoots. During a time when anonymity was neither a coy concept or something tantamount to social suicide a shamus was employed to unearth buried secrets and, if necessary, keep those secrets away from prying hands and eyes.
  Raymond Chandler started his writing career by publishing a slew of poetry, book reviews, and even a short story. His work was not met with any excitement and he retreated to menial jobs to make a living. One important career move he made was as a bookkeeper for a oil company in southern California. Although he had a distaste for the way his corrupt employers did business that did not prevent Chandler from advancing to the position of vice-president. It would not be till the Great Depression though when his alcoholism and dalliances with office secretaries would cost him his job. With no other way to make money Chandler returned to writing.
  In the 1930's the best place for hungry writers to go and earn some sort of living were the pulp magazines. Chandler spent an entire year studying the in's and out's of detective fiction before finally putting pen to paper to create Blackmailers Don't Shoot. The 18,000 word short story took him five months to write and Black Mask magazine paid him $180 for it. Chandler's most famous creation though would be private detective Philip Marlowe.
  Chandler infused the typical street tough detective with a chivalric code and turned the shamus into a knight errant for the twentieth century. Or as Chandler put it so eloquently "down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid...he must be the best man in his world and a good enough man for any world." Philip Marlowe was an incorruptible man in a corrupt world where people oftentimes sell their souls for easy comfort.
  Marlowe would make his first appearance in 1939 when Chandler published The Big Sleep, a novel based on several short stories that Chandler had written for Black Mask magazine. The simple story has Marlowe tracking down a blackmailer for General Sternwood, an elderly millionaire who has been relegated to enjoying all his vices by proxy. Marlowe must navigate the prickly world of killers, gangsters, pornographers, and making his job even more difficult are the General's daughters, Carmen and Vivian, who are wary of all the attention he is paying on the sudden disappearance of Rusty Regan, a man whose disappearance will ultimately lead to several deaths. The labyrinthine plot structure offered Chandler the opportunity to tackle one of his favorite themes which is the clash between idealistic values/beliefs and the stark reality of living in a compromised society. This book not only guaranteed Chandler a place in the literary community, but he also managed to create the template from whence other detective fiction would spring forth from.
  Seven years after the publication of Chandler's novel Warner Bros. would theatrically release the film adaptation. Directed by silver foxed filmmaker Howard Hawks and starring Humphrey Bogart as Philip Marlowe and Lauren Bacall as Vivian Sternwood Rutledge. The film garnered attention due to the pairing together of Bogart and Bacall and also because of the hard to follow plot. Yet there is more going on in the film once you take a closer look at it.
  One important issue to consider when discussing The Big Sleep is the fact that the film exists in two versions, a pre-release cut which included several scenes that elucidated several hanging plot threads and the theatrical cut which put a spotlight on the Bogart and Bacall on-screen/off-screen romance. The existence of these two versions highlights an issue that the film constantly raises, which is the intangibility of the truth.
  As Marlowe digs for answers to who is blackmailing the Sternwoods and how Rusty Regan's disappearance fits into all of it he finds that nothing is as it seems. Arthur Gwynn Geiger (Theodore von Eltz) sells rare books, but underneath all that respectability he is really a pornographer. Sternwood's daughters dress and act like respectable society women, but Carmen is a nymphomaniac and Vivian, although showing genuine concern for Marlowe, is more than willing to let a murderer go free to keep her family's name out of the press. And then there is Eddie Mars, a gangster racketeer, who pretends to be a cuckolded husband to divert attention from the fact that he is the one blackmailing the Sternwoods. Wherever Marlowe turns he is met with lies or half-truths; one can't simply rely on the surface value of what we see and hear; just because the truth may be unpleasant to face we must still demand answers and not be complacent.
  Underlying the film's main storyline is the pervasiveness of sex and the treatment of the story's protagonist, Philip Marlowe, as a sex object. From the very first scene of the film to right before the fade out women can't seem to stop flirting with Marlowe and/or falling right into his arms. Though unlike the typical female characters you might find in standard Hollywood fare the women in The Big Sleep are assertive and have no qualms about taking what they want. In fact the women in the story, at times, are more masculine than the men. This gender inversion can be read as a comment on society as a whole. The industrialized world we live in is a much more dangerous world than we can ever realize. There is no room for damsels in distress when Armageddon is no longer biblical hearsay, but rather a frightening possibility.
  For Humphrey Bogart playing a detective would be nothing new. He had portrayed Sam Spade in John Huston's The Maltese Falcon several years earlier; though audiences coming to either films for the very first time should not make the mistake in believing that just because in both films Bogart is playing the detective protagonist that Spade and Marlowe are cut from the same cloth. Nothing could be further from the truth. While both men do share a quick wit and have an innate knack for attracting the opposite sex Spade is rather quite cold and cruel when compared to Marlowe. When faced with a comely young female Marlowe denies himself, and by proxy the audience, the pleasure of her company. Spade on the other hand beds his partner's wife before the start of the story and then after his partner's death he takes up with Brigid O'Shaughnessy, a liar and manipulator. Also there is an ambiguity about where Spade's loyalty lies till the very last scene of the film. This contrasts with Bogart's portrayal of Marlowe which is that of a man above reproach; of the seven murders in The Big Sleep Marlowe is responsible only for one and even then his actions were in self defense. Spade relies on his ability to think and act as a criminal so that he can win their trust and later arrest them, but you never forget while watching the movie that Marlowe is one of the good guys.
  Unlike Huston's film Hawks ends his movie on an upbeat note. When you take away all the death and sordid details of the story you find that Hawks was really telling a love story. In the film as in real life Bogart seems fated to end up with Bacall. In the very first scene of the film we find out that before his disappearance Rusty Regan handled the first blackmail attempt on the Sternwoods. Regan, a surrogate son to General Sternwood, is replaced with Marlowe who drinks brandy, chats with the General as Regan used to, and is employed to take care of sensitive family business just as Regan had done before him. Of course as Marlowe proceeds with his investigation he must deal with Vivian, the General's oldest daughter, and although turned off at first by her spoiled nature he is quickly intrigued after several verbal sparring matches with her. The great obstacle in their not getting together is the issue of trust. Only after Marlowe has put all of the pieces of the puzzle together and in turn offered Regan some semblance of justice can Marlowe finally be with Vivian. By the end of the film this knight errant for the twentieth century not only blurred the lines between star and character mythology, but the entire story itself is one of the most romantic courtships ever put on film. 

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Point Blank (1967)

  The gangster genre is endemic of American culture. In the history of film the advent of sound coincided with the rise in popularity of the gangster picture. The possibility of hearing the bang of a gun and the screams of its victims offered a new level of reality that lurid still photos and trashy tabloid articles could only report about. Of course as lionized as gangsters were the public's opinion of them could easily turn once the gangster character showed his true face; that of a thief, an exploiter, and at times a murderer.
  After the 1930's the gangster was relegated to being a stock villain. Although the gangster still embodied the skewed American dream, to come from nothing and acquire everything through the barrel of a gun, the character was more often than not a caricature of their previous self. The term gangster itself had become a word used to describe any tough talking character in a film.
  By 1967 the country was a different place and the values that screen gangsters once held could no longer sustain them during that tumultuous decade. John Boorman took a simple premise, a man on a quest to get back the money owed to him, and took apart the pieces that make a gangster picture a gangster picture and reconstituted it into an avant-garde exercise in genre expectations.
  Over the years Boorman has said many things about the film, Point Blank. He has called the film a story about one man's quest for humanity. A comment made to illustrate the importance of casting Lee Marvin in the role of Walker. Fans of Lee Marvin may not be aware, but the actor had enlisted as a soldier when he was only seventeen and served as a sniper. By the time he came back from the war he had seen so much death and pain that he drifted aimlessly from several menial jobs till his work as a plumber's apprentice in a community theater in upstate New York landed him a role in one of their productions. He soon moved to Manhattan and began appearing in several off-Broadway plays. By 1950 Marvin transitioned into film and because of his years in military service he was cast in several war dramas. Most of his film work before he got cast in Point Blank was a career spent playing violent despicable men.
  When Boorman presented Marvin with a draft of the script Lee Marvin was fascinated with the character of Walker. It is easy to see what drew him to the project. The character of Walker is a gentle sweet man whose loyalty to his friend lands him in a criminal quagmire. Just as Marvin was transformed by the violence he witnessed in war Walker is transformed by the gunshot he receives from Mal Reese, a man he called his friend.
  In the film Walker is a spirit of violence. After his betrayal he is reborn as vengeance personified stomping through a fluorescent-lit corridor his footsteps reverberating from the long empty hallway towards locations unknown. He is on a quest to get the money owed to him, but the money is not what Walker is really after. Walker is after a sense of peace, a resolution that will end the pain and anger he feels for having his idyllic life shattered.
  It is very important to note that Walker never kills anyone in the film. He may be a spirit of violence and in fact he viciously beats up several people in the picture, but he never directly kills them. Be it Lynne, his wife, Mal, his so-called best friend, or the various underlings that Walker must deal with to get his money somebody else has their finger on the trigger. Walker is merely a facilitator in their demise. He gets them to be in just the right place at just the right time to meet the bullet.
  As you watch the film it is clearly evident that a theme that Boorman has running throughout the entire picture is the clash between the traditional and the modern. The movie itself opens with a series of elliptical shots, something very unusual for a gangster picture, a stock Hollywood genre. Our first glimpses of Walker are not of a vicious killer but rather of a man who is a victim of fate, being brutally shot in a tiny cell. Next we see him trapped in a crowded room of men, drunk, and struggling to keep on his feet. Then all of a sudden a man yells out Walker's name and lunges at him. Walker and the man, who we find out is his friend Mal, fall and Mal pins Walker to the ground pleading for help. From these first few minutes in the film audiences in 1967 expecting a typical reliable Hollywood film must have been utterly floored by Boorman's audacity to open the film the way he did.
  Also whereas in previous gangster pictures the homo-erotic undercurrent was subtle so as not to upset the censors Boorman pushes the boundaries and makes Walker's relationship with Mal blatantly homo-erotic, adding new layers to Mal's betrayal. The relationship between the two men is equivalent to that of a classic Hollywood screen gangster's relationship to his moll. The character of Mal is weak and throughout the film he turns to various men for help. Mal preys on Walker's innate loyalty to him, he seduces Walker by reminding him of old times together. When Boorman cuts to flashbacks of Walker and Mal together he has those scenes mimic that of Walker and his wife's courtship. It is obvious that there is some sort of attraction between these two men, and it is Mal's betrayal that hurts Walker more than his own wife's.
  Although Walker must contend with several members of organized crime his real opponent maybe modern life itself. The gangsters in this film are car salesmen, accountants, and CEOs. Basically organized crime had gone corporate and as tough as Walker is this new efficient businesslike manner within organized crime is completely foreign to him. Even his quest for the money owed to him seems out of place within the context of the story. Walker, a spirit of violence, can only comprehend the world through what is tangible; he wants to be paid in cash not check and he cuts a swath of violence in an effort to get to the head of the organization only to find that in the new corporate criminal empire their isn't a singular boss that one can approach. When a job needs to be done the rule is to delegate the task to somebody else who in turn hands over the responsibility to someone below him. This is the antithesis of who Walker is. Walker is a man of action.He does not delegate he attacks and will not relent until he gets what's owed to him.
  The film's simple premise of a man out to get the money owed to him offered John Boorman and Lee Marvin the opportunity to explore the ideas that many people held to be true. By the time of the film's release daily life had become more mechanical. Society shifted to that of the corporate world which is cold and inhuman, where power is valued more than the lives of a few people. In this new paradigm every person, place, and thing is cataloged and shelved until their services are needed. We have relinquished control of our lives to a small group of corporate board members in exchange for cheap pleasures. We gobble up whatever new gadget or toy they throw at us and we gladly ask for more stuff to clutter our lives with. By the end of the film Walker just vanishes, his money only a few yards away, but he dare not touch it. For in a world where profit is the only way to measure a man then those who value truth and loyalty can only exist as ghosts. 

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Ed Wood (1994)

  Unbridled optimism is a trait that has long been ridiculed by the public. It is a trait that is usually used as comic fodder in films; something to laugh at and oftentimes looked upon as the refuge of the simpleton. Of course cynicism itself is no better; it has become, for many, a defense mechanism to ease the pain of daily living. Ed Wood is a celebration of a man whose ideas exceeded his talents. Edward D. Wood, Jr. would go down in movie history as the world's worst director of all time, and his film Plan 9 from Outer Space the worst movie ever made. And yet what has contributed to his work getting more attention now than when they were first released is the fact that although the pictures he made were of varying quality you could tell that an enthusiast was behind the camera putting together the various pieces that make up a film, even if all those pieces didn't come together so neatly.
  Tim Burton took directorial reins on Ed Wood for several reasons. The first being that he was already a fan of the director's work; drawn in by the fact that no matter what project Wood was working on he treated the material as if it were Citizen Kane. As a result of Burton's admiration for Wood's work the film has an obvious bias; portraying Ed Wood not as a delusional hack but rather as a sincere artist. The second reason Burton had for directing was the relationship Wood had with Bela Lugosi which mirrored the relationship Burton had with Vincent Price. And finally after reading the script, penned by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, Burton saw the film as an opportunity to make a character-driven film as opposed to one distinguished by visual flourishes.
  As a character-driven film it is on the actor's shoulders to breath life into the story and Johnny Depp delivers in every scene he's in. Depp studied Andy Hardy, Mickey Rooney, Ronald Reagen, and Casey Kasem to bring the character of Ed Wood to life. He carefully balances Wood's trademark blind optimism with his sexual quirks and manages to always keep the audience on his side. As we watch Depp play the character of Ed Wood we never slip and laugh at him. It is to Johnny Depp's credit that what could have turned into a very unfunny caricature of the director never does. Wood's sexual proclivity for dressing in women's clothing is treated not as a punch-line to a cliche joke, but just a matter-of-fact detail about Edward Wood's life.
  The meat of the film deals with Wood's relationship with Bela Lugosi, played by Martin Landau. These two men each believe that the other can help their careers, but in actuality it is their friendship and not their business partnership which has the most value for both men. Landau plays Bela as a man who aches for another chance at stardom and you believe that he may just get that opportunity. Bela, even in his 60's, never lost the ability to frighten people with a stare or subtle hand gesture. As Lugosi tells Wood during their first meeting, "The pure horror, it both repels, and attracts them, because in their collective unconsciousness, they have the agony of childbirth. The blood. The blood is horror." With that statement Lugosi gets to the heart of not just why the horror genre has always been popular, but also the fact that fear is a drug that the human race has been addicted to since we began to walk upright.
  Other important people in Ed's story are the various women in his life. The two most important being Dolores Fuller, his girlfriend at the start of the film, and Kathy O'Hara, the woman who would become his wife by the end of the movie. Although Sarah Jessica Parker's portrayal of Dolores has been criticized as shrill and unpleasant she is quite supportive of Ed and her demands aren't at all unreasonable. In fact her only mistake in the movie is being the voice of reason in a story populated by people completely entranced by the magic of film. Kathy on the other hand is wholly accepting of Ed and Patricia Arquette plays Kathy as the embodiment of Ed's optimism. Whereas many people in Ed's group might question his choices Kathy not only goes along with Ed, but she goes out of here way to feed his enthusiasm.
  Edward D. Wood, Jr. was somebody who wasn't that concerned about what movie he was making, but rather just having the opportunity to make a film was what thrilled him. When he was in the process of directing there would be two things that he was never without, his megaphone and a boyish grin on his face. And that was basically who Ed Wood is in Tim Burton's film; a boy who still believed that all you needed to make a movie was a good idea and a crew of people who shared your excitement for the project.