Monday, October 1, 2007

10/1: Play Dirty; The Lady From Shanghai

Play Dirty is an absolute stunner of a dark, cynical, unconventional war movie, following on the heels of The Dirty Dozen's success but itself a clear precursor to later efforts like Apocalypse Now and Full Metal Jacket. Director André de Toth has truly impressed me here; my only previous exposure to him was the thoroughly mediocre 1953 Randolph Scott vehicle Thunder Over the Plains, and this film shows de Toth at his best, at the extreme end of his career. It was de Toth's final film, coming after a lengthy absence from filmmaking, and he apparently only got to direct after Rene Clement was removed from the project. Still, under these less-than-ideal circumstances he crafted a film I have no qualms about calling a masterpiece.

The film concerns a group of ragtag soldiers, mostly former criminals, stationed in Northern Africa during World War II. Led by a British captain (a very young Michael Caine, delivering a fiery performance), they're sent on a mission deep into German territory, disguised as an Italian convoy, to blow up Rommel's major gas depot. But the film is not a freewheeling adventure, nor does it have much action or military battles. During the film's only real conventional military battle, Caine's unit is hiding on top of a plateau, watching another unit of British soldiers get slaughtered by the Germans, unable to blow their cover by helping. This alone is a clear indication that this is not a conventional war film, but something much more interesting. For all intents and purposes, this is actually a process movie, close kin to heist films like Rififi or taut suspense thrillers like The Wages of Fear, films where groups of men engage in highly detailed mechanical tasks which are shown on screen in all their complexity. In de Toth's film, the brief skirmish of the one-sided battle isn't even given as much attention as the burial of the dead afterwards, which he shows in a tightly edited montage of shovels digging, bodies being dragged, and shadows moving on the ground. He also dedicates a massive stretch of time to a lengthy, Fitzcarraldo-like scene in which the soldiers use pulleys and cables to get their jeeps to the top of a mountain. The tension is dragged out here to almost excruciating extremes, with every pebble on the way up a source of concern; it's like a miniaturized version of the drama of Fitzcarraldo's steamship.

Similiar attention to detail is paid to a tense mine-defusing operation, and an even tenser walk across a minefield during a sandstorm. De Toth turns each of these mechanical, slow-paced activities into opportunities for long examinations of physical labor and careful movement, both ratcheting up tension and in the process exploring the intricacies of human motion and labor under pressure. De Toth's camera, in these scenes and throughout the film, strikes an uneasy balance between stasis and motion, largely achieved through judicious use of the zoom and pans across the featureless desert landscape. De Toth's zoom is especially effective, since he uses it, often zooming out, to isolate his characters in this vast empty space — there are many long shots of the jeeps drawing abstract patterns across the desert sand, viewed from afar with the camera pulling back even further. Perhaps the film's master shot, the one that most succinctly demonstrates what it's all about, is an eye-catching extreme zoom out from the top of a cliff. The camera at first looks down on Michael Caine, who's glancing up a mountain, and then the camera disorientingly pulls rapidly back to give the view from the top of the mountain, with the soldiers and their jeep just a tiny flyspeck on the canyon floor. For de Toth, the placement of the soldiers in this never-ending desert-scape is a visual metaphor for the role of the soldier in war; tiny, insignificant, a mere pebble amid the shifting sands of war.

This is clearly a very stark and different war movie, in which its characters are far from heroes, and it's less concerned with action than with process. In fact, I'd venture to say that de Toth seems very little interested in such things as character or plotting here. The characters are mostly stock types with little to do, aside from an unlikely pair of gay Arabs who walk a thin line between malicious caricature and surprising sensitivity. And the narrative itself is remarkably straightforward at its core; its most radical features are its still-shocking ending and the cynical depiction of higher officers as casually cruel and glory-mad adventurers who play games with men's lives. But it's mostly the way de Toth treats the situations that makes them so extraordinary, the way he elevates small moments into epic dramas of isolation and suspense. This is a rediscovered classic of anti-war cinema, as fierce and uncompromising a vision of war as has ever been committed to the screen. Even now, almost 40 years later, this brutally honest and carefully crafted film remains as sharp and incisive as ever.

Excepting his first film, Citizen Kane, Orson Welles never made a picture within the Hollywood system which he could say was completely his own. After the enormous success of Kane, he went on to make one compromised picture after another, all of them hacked to bits by studio interference and his own temperamental nature. The Lady From Shanghai is no exception, and the version we have now is roughly a full hour shorter than Welles' original cut and with entirely different music than Welles intended, so it's something of a miracle that so much of the film's brilliance shines through the studio mangling. It's also worth noting that Welles didn't seem to care too much about the film in the first place; he made it to fulfill an obligation, and he randomly picked a book he'd never read to adapt for the script. This indifference to the material shows through in the rushed, slapdash structure of the film. Most of the studio's cuts were purportedly from the legendary funhouse ending, into which Welles poured all his creativity, so it's somewhat tempting to attribute the messy structuring of the film's first half to Welles rather than the studio execs.

The story follows Michael O'Hara, an Irish seaman, petty criminal, and aspiring novelist, played by Welles himself with a thick brogue and his characteristic intensity. O'Hara meets the beautiful young Elsa (Rita Hayworth) in a park, and soon finds himself working on her lawyer husband's yacht while romancing her and getting dragged reluctantly into a shadowy murder/insurance plot. The film is loaded with twists and double crosses, but ultimately Welles seems blase about this material — the characters don't follow much internal logic and the narrative skips around carelessly in between crisply written dialogue scenes which seem to be the film's true raison d'etre. The first half of the film is overwhelmed by countless sloppy montage scenes of the yacht cruising around the Caribbean and parties on tropical islands. The impression is that the film is in a rush to get somewhere, so it charges through the required scenes and even seems to skip over a few. Where is the real romance between O'Hara and Elsa? It happens somewhere between scenes, and when next we see them they're talking about running away together. It doesn't matter if we don't actually see it happen, we know they're hooked on each other now. Welles (or the studio heads?) takes these kinds of shortcuts everywhere. It makes no difference, though. The film still crackles with raw energy and really lights up for a few scenes here and there when Welles takes advantage of the noir style to the greatest effect. The scene where O'Hara describes a shark feeding frenzy to his employer and his cronies, with all the metaphorical implications bubbling underneath, is a perfect example of what's best in Welles' noirs. There's a weird, unsettling vibe to these types of scenes, with Welles' distinctive voice, somewhat disembodied because of his predilection for post-dubbing, and the dark shadows cast across his face giving him a foreboding look.

If Welles seems in a rush to get through the obligatory plot points, it becomes apparent why when the ending comes, and here it's most sad that we'll never see the film as Welles originally intended. The funhouse showdown which ends the film is certainly among the most amazingly avant-garde sequences ever shown in a Hollywood cinema, and if this is what the studio deigned to leave in, the mind boggles at what they might've cut from what was supposedly a much longer scene. Throughout this scene, the screen is broken down and chopped by myriad mirrors which multiply each character in numerous fragmented images. Welles is really playing here, letting close-ups overlap with multiple long shots and breaking the screen down into long vertical segments in which the characters try to face each other. For a film in which twists and betrayals are the norm, it's the perfect ending, a showdown in which nobody is even sure where their enemy is. It's a wonderfully disorienting scene, and truly visually stunning, at times even almost abstract in its effects, looking more like the work of early avant-garde montage artists like Man Ray than a Hollywood auteur. I could easily watch another hour of this, if that's what was cut from the film. As it stands, though, it's a remarkable conclusion to a bizarre and always intriguing noir.

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