Sunday, November 30, 2008

I Was a Male War Bride

I Was a Male War Bride manages to take a madcap premise, a first-rate comic actor, and a director famed for his mastery of screwball comedies, and still produce a boring, turgid mess of a movie with few enough smiles, let alone laughs. It should be comic gold: reunite Cary Grant with director Howard Hawks and give them a plot that pits Grant's stolid masculinity against a gender-bending scenario where he's forced to pose as a "war bride." Unfortunately, the script is as flat and characterless as a blank sheet of paper, and even the best efforts of Grant — a fine physical comedian who's always ready with some priceless facial expressions whenever the dialogue fails to crackle — can't salvage this turkey.

The film's problems start with casting Grant as a French officer in the aftermath of World War II, since he's as American as gas-guzzlers and greasy fast food: one is constantly wondering why there's such a fuss over his supposedly foreign status, when he's speaking English just as well as anybody else. There are even a few jokes that point out the incongruity, when American soldiers begin speaking to Grant in mangled French, while he answers them with his perfect unaccented English. It's obvious that everyone involved knew how ridiculous the whole set-up was, and these sly winks acknowledge that at least they're in on the joke. Grant plays opposite Ann Sheridan, as an American officer who he's placed on assignment with despite their past history of bickering and fighting. He spends the first half of the movie hating her and continually butting heads with her, at least until he decides he wants to marry her: then he spends the second half of the movie frustrated that he can't spend more time alone with her. Sheridan and Grant are both good actors, but there's virtually no comedic or romantic chemistry between them, mainly because the script gives them little chance to develop any; the dialogue has no sizzle, no momentum, and too often Sheridan is reduced to simply laughing while she watches Grant do something kind of goofy. Their sudden romance is thus completely without a foundation, and the switch from standoffish sparring to lovey-dovey canoodling is awkwardly handled. They go from kissing one moment, for the first time, directly to announcing their marriage.

The film does earn some chuckles along the way, mostly from Grant's deadpan handling of the script's understated humor. His grumpy back-and-forth with Sheridan yields some moments of comic interplay, though the spartan dialogue never gives the duo a chance to really let loose in screwball style. They're rarely allowed to simply spar and trade quips for its own sake, as Grant often did in lead turns opposite Jean Arthur or Katharine Hepburn. Not that Sheridan doesn't seem game for it — she's cheery and has a playful attitude that makes her fun to watch — but the dialogue is too practical, too focused on advancing the utterly uninteresting plot, so that the two of them rarely talk to each other except about what's happening at that immediate moment. Grant fares much better with non-verbal humor, and a lot of the film's best moments come from his physical comedy. There's a running gag where Grant, always forced to sleep in unconventional places, struggles to get comfortable, first while sitting in a chair and then jammed up in the fetus position in a bathtub. It wouldn't be funny in itself, but Grant mimes his discomfort and his awkward contortions brilliantly, doing a lot of the work with his big, slab-like hands, which he can never seem to find a good place to rest.

Grant's physicality also injects a lot of humor into the final stretch of the film, when army regulations force him to register himself as a "war bride" in order to be able to enter the United States with his new wife. It's a clever bit of satire, poking fun at both the torturous maze of military regulations and documentation, and an inherently sexist culture where sex roles are so rigidly codified that even the paperwork makes assumptions about what men and women can and can't do. There's some downright subversive material hidden here, about how uncompromising society can be in its accepted situations and behaviors for men or women. Ultimately, it's easier for Grant to simply pose as a woman — with a hideous horsehair wig and that distinctly un-feminine mug of his — than to continue explaining how he came to be a man in the situation he's in.

It's unfortunate that this satire isn't made the focus of the film, since it's definitely the film's most enjoyable stretch, and gives Grant the most to do. It's also the section of the film of the most obvious interest to Hawks, who naturally gravitates to material that deals with sex roles and reversals. It's perhaps for this reason that the film wakes up a bit the deeper it gets into this subject, overcoming the sleepy pall hanging over the first two-thirds or so. It still never quite approaches the energetic rhythm of the best classic screwball comedies, but in its relatively laidback, laconic sense of humor it at least has a little more spark and fizz. Even so, as enjoyable as the denouement is, the film as a whole remains disappointing, its promise in theory much greater than the result.

Sweet and Lowdown

Woody Allen had originally wanted his second film, his follow-up to Take the Money and Run, to be a dramatic fictional biopic of a 1930s jazz musician entitled The Jazz Baby. Needless to say, the idea didn't fly with studio execs of the time, who were expecting the young comic they'd just signed to turn out another comedy; he complied, and made Bananas instead. So when Woody revived the basic idea thirty years later as Sweet and Lowdown, it had had the longest gestation period of any of his films. The film takes the form of a documentary of fictional jazz guitarist Emmet Ray (Sean Penn), with Allen and a handful of jazz experts appearing as talking heads to narrate his story and introduce selected anecdotes from his rough-and-tumble life, the accounts of which are filled with inconsistencies and pure myth. Among other things, the film comments on the impossibility of constructing a definitive biography of a figure like this — the interweaving of a slim body of known facts with a healthy dose of speculation and outright rumor is reminiscent of the real-life history of blues guitarist Robert Johnson, whose biography as it's known today was constructed from a similar hodge-podge. At one point, the fabric of the story breaks down completely, and Woody provides three different mutually contradictory versions of the same event, with the caveat that in all likelihood none of them is "true."

Within this patchwork framework, Emmet develops as a hilariously unlikable protagonist who is nevertheless somewhat poignant. He's arrogant, nasty and demeaning to the women in his life, a drunkard, and notoriously unreliable whenever he has a gig, which is why he never keeps a steady job for long. And yet his arrogance is tempered by an acute awareness of the one man in the world who is a better guitarist than him: Django Reinhardt. Emmet's egotistical instinct is to declare himself "the greatest guitarist in the world," but even his ego can't prevent him from immediately qualifying himself by invoking Reinhardt. Sometimes he corrects himself, "well, at least in America," or he counts himself "one of the top two," always referring to "this gypsy guitarist in France," as he invariably calls the rival who he has never met, and whose playing makes him cry or faint whenever he encounters it. Emmet's constant qualification of his title comes to be downright funny, but there's also something sad and pathetic about it: this egotistical man who's forced to admit that his ego is not entirely justified, that he cannot call himself the best without endless fudging and backpedaling.

Penn's performance is excellent, giving a wry, blunt charm to Emmet, a crude lout who just so happens to be a musical genius as well. He does a lot of acting with his eyebrows, raising and arching them whenever he's playing the guitar. At moments like this, Emmet goes off into another place, the crudity and temper vanishes from his face, and his eyes seem to be far-off, his face comically contorting as his brow furrows and his eyebrows dance. He looks peaceful and content when he's playing, like this is what he's meant to be doing, and all the other nonsense in his life, the drinking, pimping, gambling, sloppy relationships and money problems, that's all just extraneous to whatever's going on inside him while he's playing. Woody keeps this mystery intact, the central mystery of creativity, despite the probing attempts of Emmet's wife Blanche (Uma Thurman) to investigate his soul.

Blanche is a debutante and a would-be writer, and she tends to view everyone she meets as though they're characters ready to be adapted into her work. She's drawn to Emmet for his harsh nature and his wild life, and she continually attempts to psychoanalyze him, to draw out his thoughts and feelings. She asks what he thinks about when he's playing music, and Emmet memorably responds, "that I'm underpaid, I think about that sometimes." Her questions get only blank, uncomprehending stares from her husband, who doesn't understand what she's getting at; he doesn't think, he just plays. When she asks him why he likes to watch trains so much, he gets it even less, and her psychosexual ramblings prompt him to deadpan, "it sounds like you want to go to bed with the train." This is a blunt, no-nonsense guy, and the film's central question, danced around but never answered or even asked outright, is where art comes from: if a guy like this can make great, beautiful art with his instrument, what does that mean for the more romantic notions that art comes from the soul, from the emotions?

In some ways, the answer to that question lies in the character of Hattie (Samantha Morton), who though never married to Emmet is the closest he ever gets to love in his life. She's something of an unlikely match for the guitarist, a mute laundress who's perhaps a little slow, with a childlike innocence and a shy, awkward nature. Woody reportedly told Morton to play Hattie like Harpo Marx, and she gives a phenomenal performance without ever saying a word: it's all there in her subtle gradations of smiles, her downcast eyes, her shuffling walk and the flapper hat pulled tight over her curls, partially shading the upper half of her face. Hattie is a genuine, sweet, loving young woman whose silence is remarkably communicative because of her expressive face. She becomes an unacknowledged anchor for Emmet, who resists being tied down to one woman and inevitably leaves her, though she continues to linger in his thoughts in a way that no other woman does. He says that Reinhardt haunts him, but Hattie is in some ways a more potent force in his life. When he loses the chance to be with her again, towards the end of the film, Woody and the other commentators step in to proclaim the music he made afterward the best of his career, making him finally an equal of Reinhardt.

Morton's Hattie is thus the film's heart and its soul, as well as the unspoken inspiration for Emmet's finest music. She is the answer to the riddle of how a seemingly unemotional and brutish man could produce such lovely and enduring art. It's typical of Allen that these foundational questions concerning the origins of art and creativity are hidden within a light, airy, cleverly constructed film that's essentially comedic in form. Sweet and Lowdown is a fine effort from Allen, a nod to his earlier period mock-documentaries like Zelig as well as to his idol Fellini, whose La Strada provides the domineering man/childishly innocent woman template for the relationship between Emmet and Hattie. Woody continues to be fascinated by the intersections of love, relationships, and artistic creativity, and these perennial subjects continue to drive his best films.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Quantum of Solace

Quantum of Solace is Daniel Craig's second picture in the role of James Bond, continuing his reinvention of the suave British superspy as a brooding tough guy with cold-steel eyes. The film picks up in the immediate aftermath of the previous Bond film, 2006's Casino Royale, marking the first time that this kind of direct continuity shows up in the usually self-contained Bond universe. It is one of many departures that these new films represent for the franchise. The films are darker, more bluntly violent and less light-hearted, with chopped-up, frantic action scenes inspired by the fast cutting of the Jason Bourne movies, which for better or worse seem to be the new template for modern action flicks. And in the aftermath of Casino Royale's climax, Bond is devastated and driven by a thirst for revenge, having lost Vesper, the woman he loved, soon after finding out that she had betrayed him for a shadowy international espionage organization. This is a very different Bond from the wisecracking, smooth-talking, martini-sipping gentleman of the classic franchise: when this Bond enjoys his signature drink, he gulps it rather than sips it, and he does it to get drunk.

There is, inarguably, something missing in this new Bond; there's a reason he's such an enduring, iconic figure, and his playfulness was always a big part of that, along with the often campy situations and outrageous villains he was pitted against. The new Bond risks becoming unrecognizable by jettisoning so much of his past and refashioning his image so drastically. The new film makes fewer nods than ever to the Bond of the past: he still drives a flashy car in a high-speed chase, and he still looks dashing in a tux, but there are no gadgets, no tongue-in-cheek quips — unless you count Craig's deadpan announcement that an agent he was tracking was "a dead end," a code for "I killed him" that even his handler M (Judi Dench) recognizes. He never gives his trademark introduction ("Bond. James Bond.") in this film, nor does he ask for a martini "shaken not stirred," and the typical sequence where the agent walks into the sight of a gun barrel, then turns and fires, doesn't appear until the very end of the film instead of preceding the opening credits. One could go on for quite some time enumerating the ways in which Craig's Bond departs from tradition.

Still, even if the classic Bond is somewhat mourned, this new Bond is interesting and enjoyable in his own right, and Quantum of Solace is a surprisingly satisfying sequel that both ties up loose ends from the previous film and sets up the groundwork for the new Bond status quo. The film opens with Bond continuing to track the secret organization that took Vesper from him, partially for revenge and partially because MI6 is equally interested in their doings. His search leads him to Dominic Greene (Mathieu Amalric), a sinister businessman who's setting up a military coup in Bolivia in order to gain control of the country's water supply for himself. Bond also finds himself tangled up with the mysterious Camille (Olga Kurylenko), a girl who's using Greene as part of her own quest for vengeance against a deposed dictator (Joaquin Cosio) who murdered her family when she was a young girl. As Greene realizes, she is like Bond in many ways: they are both "damaged goods," both killers trying to put the ghosts of their pasts to rest.

They are also both perfectly willing to use sex for their own ends, and this is perhaps the first Bond film to explicitly question the ethics of 007's trademark seductiveness. Camille admits she slept with Greene in order to get close to him, and asks Bond if he judges her for this. He gives a wry smile — one of the only times he shows any hint of mirth in this film — and it's obvious that he realizes he habitually does the same thing. Indeed, he does the same thing even in this film, to British secret agent Strawberry Fields (Gemma Arterton), who's memorably introduced wearing a trenchcoat and seemingly nothing else underneath; one expects her to launch into a stripper routine at any moment. Bond seduces her from her purpose of reining him in, and her association with him gets her killed in a way that recalls the old inventiveness of Bond villains who would strap the agent to a laser or suspend him over a shark tank. It's an oblique nod to the franchise's past, very welcome in a film that otherwise makes few acknowledgments of this past, but Fields' death has a very specific purpose, to point out the amorality of Bond's treatment of women. Bond's charm and ease with the ladies is one of the few facets of his persona that is retained in these new 007 films, and even this aspect of his legend gets interrogated and cast in a new light.

The reinvention of Bond's personality, imbuing him with a complex personality and a dark past, is the most obvious change in the 007 reboot, but the hyperactive action scenes, using the Bourne series as the model, are equally important to changing the franchise's character. Director Marc Forster came to the film with no background in action of this sort, quite unlike Casino Royale director Martin Campbell, an old hand who had even helmed a Bond film (Goldeneye) before. Forster's handling of the action scenes is inconsistent as a result, sometimes resulting in the muddled incoherence that the worst Bourne-style editing is often accused of, but at other times turning out some crisp, satisfying thrills. The whole opening stretch of the film is a fantastic example of the latter, with a viscerally exciting car chase as Bond escapes while bringing in the shadowy Mr. White (Jesper Christensen), who he captured at the end of the previous film. This sequence leads into a beautifully executed building-to-building chase that pays direct homage to the rooftop chase sequence from The Bourne Ultimatum. The editing is fast and frenetic, the action chopped up into bite-sized pieces, but it's always clear exactly what's happening at every moment. There's a precise geometry and economy to this sequence, a sense that the architecture and geography of the chase and fight is perfectly calibrated and choreographed. Bond's final dispatch of a would-be assassin is well-earned, resulting from the flawless timing of every element in the scene: a rope and pulley system, a pair of guns, a multi-level building under construction.

Forster surprises by pulling this scene off so well, avoiding the trap of too many tight close-ups and the confusion between the protagonist and his adversary that has plagued other Bourne imitators. Forster has a good eye for chopping up and condensing these scenes without losing sight of the whole, which is perhaps why he shows a predilection for including periodic overhead shots, bird's eye inserts that step above the fray and take in the entirety of the geography. Even so, several scenes in the latter half of the film don't have quite the same clarity and coherence. He does a nice job with Bond's clever scheme to listen in on Greene's plans when the businessman meets his partners in plain sight at an opera house, but the subsequent firefight is sloppily handled. Forster cross-cuts back and forth between the battle and the action of the opera, which takes place on a bizarre set with a tremendous eyeball that opens up to reveal what looks to be a chorus of Catholic bishops inside. The surreality of the opera's staging is a nice touch, but the clarity of the action is sacrificed as a result. The film's explosive climax, at a rapidly burning hotel in the middle of the desert, is equally incoherent at times — it's not always clear why Bond seems to be running along the hotel's rooftop at one moment and through its corridors the next, or even what's causing all those explosions in the first place. And unless my theater managed to cut out something from Bond's final encounter with Greene in the middle of the desert, there seems to be a big chunk of action or dialogue or even a convincing transition in there somewhere.

Despite the sometimes shaky action sequences, Quantum of Solace is a strangely satisfying second installment in the new adventures of James Bond, one that definitively establishes Craig's version of the character. By the end of the film, he has completed his transition from fun-loving ladies' man to complicated killer, and he has achieved some closure if not quite vengeance. The film isn't perfect, but it's exciting and has more than enough visceral thrills to make up for any weak stretches. It's a post-Bourne action movie that in many respects is even better than any of the Bourne films, perhaps because its hero is so ingrained in the popular consciousness and thus more moving in his new, emotionally wounded incarnation.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Encounters at the End of the World

Werner Herzog's Encounters at the End of the World is a conscious sequel of sorts to his previous film, The Wild Blue Yonder, utilizing the footage of composer and underwater photographer Henry Kaiser, whose images from Antarctica appear in both films. The film is also a very Herzogian nature documentary, an attempt to find in an unfamiliar natural landscape the themes and ideas that animate all of the filmmaker's best work: the hostility of nature to man, the fatalist heroism of exploration, the religious and apocalyptic overtones that Herzog can find in seemingly any subject. He explicitly contrasts his effort against fluffy feel-good nature documentaries like March of the Penguins: he does not want merely pretty or cute images, but images that reflect his own insights into the natural world, with its cruelty, harshness, and a beauty that is not comfortable but overpowering, awe-inspiring. Even when he does come across some of the little waddling, adorable birds, leave it to Herzog to locate, and focus in on, an "insane" penguin. Herzog questions a reclusive penguin researcher, a man who seems more comfortable with birds than people, about the incidence of homosexuality, unusual sexual behavior, and dementia among the species he observes. The researcher responds with laconic anecdotes about the penguin equivalent of prostitution, and explains that for these birds the only analog to insanity might be their occasional tendency to grow disoriented and go where they are not supposed to go. There is obvious poetry in this. For birds whose lives consist entirely of a narrow track between the ocean and the nesting grounds, the ultimate insanity is the individualist drive to set off in a different direction. Herzog finds one of these nonconformist birds and isolates him in a large expanse of white, vacillating between the two accepted destinations before finally setting off in a third direction, towards a distant mountain range and almost certain death. His quest is quixotic, comic, and doomed to fail, but it is also in its odd, waddling way a noble venture. He is the penguin version of the archetypal Herzog hero: the penguin Fitzcarraldo, the penguin Aguirre.

This suicidally heroic penguin is not the only Herzogian character who seems to have cropped up in real life down at the south pole. In fact, one of the film's primary themes is the way that this extreme place seems to attract extreme characters of all kinds, all of whom suggest different metaphors for why so many unusual, solitary people have gravitated to a single location. Over the course of the film, Herzog meets and conducts interviews with a staggering variety of people. There's the compulsive world traveler who endured military coups, malaria and rampaging elephants in a trip across Africa, and who now enacts, in Antarctica, bizarre performance art pieces where she stuffs herself into a suitcase. There's a plumber and builder who's proud of his multifaceted heritage and displays like a badge the unusual configuration of his fingers, which he has learned marks him as a descendant of the Aztec royal families. There's a worker who's introduced with the immortal tag, "philosopher, forklift driver." There's a physicist whose study of neutrinos has led him to a quasi-spiritualist view of the universe: these invisible particles, which are everywhere and can be measured in abstract ways but never apprehended, are like harbingers of "the spirit world" for him, which makes his work the process of quantifying God. His scientific instruments are decorated with ritual inscriptions and art, signifying this unexpected overlap between religion and science. Under Herzog's inquisitive gaze, Antarctica becomes a transitory colony populated exclusively with exactly the kinds of people who might be expected to populate a Herzog film. Antarctica is transformed in the same way as the Sahara Desert was in the hallucinatory Fata Morgana, a film that is subtly referenced with an early shot of a plane descending on McMurdo base in Antarctica.

In addition to profiling these odd and intriguing characters, Herzog brings to Antarctica the apocalyptic view of the natural world that has been woven through virtually his entire filmography. There is perhaps a streak of masochistic glee in this director, who has forged his career around visiting and documenting the harshest, most unwelcoming frontiers in the world, and who then, naturally enough, finds that they confirm his essential opinion of the world as a cruel, uncompromising place. Herzog is the ultimate documenter of natural selection at work, whether it is the fate of jungle explorers going beyond human boundaries (Aguirre: the Wrath of God), the level of superhuman achievement where athleticism becomes life-endangering (The Great Ecstasy of Woodcarver Steiner), or the borderline where admirable determination shades into maniacal obsession (Fitzcarraldo). He is fascinated by things humans are not meant to do, and places where humans are not supposed to go, much as the "insane" penguin is not supposed to head for the mountains.

He also sees in this harsh terrain the closest approximation to true religious experience that humans can reach on Earth, although he never traffics in any hackneyed "beauty of God's creation" nonsense. For Herzog, underwater shots beneath the Antarctic ice floes have the atmosphere of "cathedrals," with their hanging ice stalactites and bizarre, translucent inhabitants. He accompanies these images with stirring choral music, though the spirituality he imparts into these hidden landscapes is indivisible from the science that documents them. Herzog knows that it is possible to understand the foundations of life, to study one-celled organisms for their DNA structures, and to still possess a mystical, spiritual appreciation for the wonders of the world. Kaiser's images have a spectral, unbelievable quality, imbued with rich shades of light and color. Even when, on occasion, the images have a creepy horror movie vibe — a series of haunting shots of tentacled creatures that look like alien monsters, photographed in a small circle of light amidst the blackness — they are still beautiful and moving.

Ultimately, Herzog's union of religious and scientific experience results in an apocalyptic vision that holds a dim view of humanity's chances for survival. He points to the extinction of the dinosaurs and says, "we seem to be next." This is a continuing theme for Herzog, who has now made at least two films (Fata Morgana and Lessons of Darkness) in which a future alien species arrives on a decimated planet and attempts to understand the remains of its strange culture. He raises the question again here, wondering what these hypothetical aliens would think of Earth if they took Antarctica as an example of the planet's culture: they'd find little but a frozen sturgeon and a handful of fake flowers surrounded by a ring of popcorn, cheesy relics frozen beneath the ice.

At several points, Herzog's apocalyptic fervor even takes a detour into earnest environmentalism, although always through the voices of other characters rather than from Herzog's own narration. Several of his interviewees take the opportunity to speak about global warming, green living, and the importance of taking these issues seriously. They look into the camera, with grave sincerity, and impart stern warnings that the world is on the brink of devastation. It's uncertain whether Herzog shares their cause, mainly because he seems to think that nothing can be done, and that humanity is doomed no matter what. Herzog can hardly be called an environmentalist, and as usual he completely ignores the political implications of his film's subject. When he brushes up against these environmental issues — as when he speaks with an ice researcher who talks about humongous melting icebergs and the rising oceans that result — he seems more interested in capturing the man's enthusiastic love of ice than in the actual substance of what he's saying. Herzog is stringently apolitical, and almost always has been, even when dealing with subjects that seem to demand a political point of view. As a filmmaker, he is simply not interested. His concerns are broader, both more universal and more personal. Indeed, his agenda might be described as the union of the universal and the personal. The philosophizing forklift operator explains it in the perfect way. He gets the final words of the film, taking over as the Herzogian narrator with words that might as well be coming from the director himself: "through our eyes, the universe is perceiving itself, and through our ears the universe is listening to its cosmic harmonies, and we are the witness through which the universe becomes conscious of its glory."

Wednesday, November 26, 2008


So much has been said about Casablanca, which is widely regarded as one of the greatest films ever made, that it's difficult to know just where to start. It's easy to see why the film has become so ensconced in popular culture. It unites Humphrey Bogart, one of the finest tough-guy leads of the classic Hollywood era, with the gorgeous vulnerability of Ingrid Bergman, and gives them a tragic romantic backstory that charges every glance passed between them. The film is also blessed with a compulsively quotable script, strewn with lines that have passed into common usage even for those who have no idea where they originated: most people can quote from the film without realizing they're doing so. The dialogue has a sharpness and hard-edged wit that marks it as a close relative to the noir tradition, even if its sweeping romanticism and the crisp beauty of its big-budget images distances it from the cruder B pictures that shared its verbal sensibility.

The most famous lines — "Here's looking at you, kid" and Bogey's epic final speech to Bergman ("maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow...") — have a timeless quality to them, a lyrical beauty that's only enhanced by Bogart's laidback delivery. The script is knowingly artificial, meticulously crafted, and Bogart handles its cadences perfectly, letting his voice gather momentum as he charges through the lengthy and often convoluted blocks of text he's given. He can dash off lines where it sounds like he's losing his breath rushing through the words, and still sound natural, relaxed, and most importantly cool. These words wouldn't sound nearly as good — or be nearly as famous — if anyone else had said them. Not everything in the film is as frequently quoted as those few most famous moments, but nearly everything Bogey says in the film seems like it's ready to be quoted, like it was written and said with the knowledge that it would reverberate forever. There's no such thing as small talk for Bogart: he's always on, always ready with a clever quip or a quietly sarcastic rejoinder or a coolly romantic speech.

Bogart is of course Rick, the owner of a nightclub in Casablanca during World War II, inhabiting an uneasy neutral ground between the "unoccupied French" and the fascist forces ravaging Europe. His club is a way-station for all the various illegal and semi-legal activity in the city, which is a key stopping point for all those who seek refuge from Europe and a flight to America. This being a wartime film, there's of course no way that Rick's neutrality can last, and the intrusion of a particularly nasty Gestapo officer (Conrad Veidt) ensures that he will have to take sides sooner or later. But the film's real focus is the love triangle between Rick, his former love Ilsa (Bergman) and her husband Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid), who happens to be one of the most infamous figures in the anti-fascist resistance, and who is thus fiercely hunted when he arrives in Morocco seeking a route to the United States. Ilsa and Rick have a past together, a passionate affair that ended when the Germans invaded Paris and Ilsa didn't show up for a rendezvous to leave town together. This intimate connection is obvious from the moment they first appear on screen together, and the soulful looks that pass between them practically ignite the celluloid. The couple has an intuitive chemistry that Bogart would only match when playing opposite his real-life wife Lauren Bacall, who presented a very different kind of love interest from the mushy, wet-eyed Bergman. Where Bacall always met Bogey on her own terms on screen, Ilsa tells Rick to do her thinking for her, and her swooning fall into his arms has an air of innocence and surrender that one would never see in the proto-feminist Bacall.

Bergman's demeanor is perfectly in keeping with the tone of Casablanca as a whole. This is an unapologetically romantic film, in every sense of the word. It is lush, with a visual sensibility that can only be called pristine. Director Michael Curtiz is unshowy with his camera, but he makes up for it with his expressive lighting, which nods to the high-contrast shadowy look of contemporary noirs but goes for a more balanced grayscale that makes the spotted areas of deep black even more eye-popping. Bergman especially benefits from Curtiz's aesthetic, which occasionally goes in for the usual goopy soft-focus actress closeups, but more often sculpts and shapes her beauty with shadows and artfully placed lights, giving her real grandeur and dignity rather than the usual cheap Hollywood glamour.

So there's certainly a reason this film is such a classic; in fact there are many, many reasons. Seldom has there been such a perfect union of stars, aesthetic atmosphere, and plotting — the narrative has just enough suspense and action to inject some tension, but not so much that it overwhelms the characters. It's this emphasis on character that is really the film's core, and the romance of Rick and Ilsa is one of the great movie romances precisely because there's so much depth to them as individuals. The long flashback montage of the couple's original Parisian affair is perhaps the film's least interesting sequence, if only because it shows explicitly what was already so succinctly suggested. This is, if anything, even more of a testament to the performances of Bergman and Bogart, who establish with pointed glances and body language the depth of their relationship, and made irrelevant any attempts to make what's between them explicit. This unspoken love, coupled with Bogart's timeless attempts to speak it, makes Casablanca a romantic masterpiece.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

The Talk of the Town

The Talk of the Town is a truly preposterous film, a bloated epic that isn't sure if it's a legal thriller, a screwball comedy, or a love triangle romance. Director George Stevens does his best to juggle a whole lot of balls here, some of which are pretty hard to keep in the air — starting with the ridiculous premise, in which the anti-capitalist radical Leopold Dilg (Cary Grant) is framed for arson and murder, escapes from jail, and winds up hiding out with spunky schoolteacher Nora Shelley (Jean Arthur) and future Supreme Court justice Michael Lightcap (Ronald Colman). Nothing is said outright, but it's heavily suggested that Leopold is some kind of pseudo-socialist agitator, rousing up the people of the town against corrupt factory boss Andrew Holmes (Charles Dingle). Holmes, in turn, pins the burning of his factory on Leopold, a convenient scapegoat to cover up his own insurance scams. The outlines of this intrigue are made apparent right from the start, and despite a very effective Wellesian suspense sequence in which Leopold makes his escape through a rainy bog, accompanied by exclamation-laden newspaper headlines, the film's emphasis is not on its thriller aspects.

Rather, the film's core lies in the contrast that develops between two opposing outlooks on the law: Leopold's practical, common sense variety, seen from the perspective of an innocent man wrongly accused; and the iron, unshakable faith in justice possessed by Lightcap, a scholar who never considers the practical applications of the law but only its "principles." Grant plays his side of it well, and his character is in some ways very similar to his part in George Cukor's great Holiday: a common sense kind of guy, with little patience for ceremony or tradition, who wants to make his own way. It's often forgotten that Grant, despite his well-earned reputation as a suave Hollywood leading man, was just as good at playing earnest, rugged proles. His dark stare and expressive face are perfectly suited to Leopold, who can be fierce and passionate in an argument and yet curiously relaxed when facing down his own impending death. He increasingly settles in around Lightcap's house, posing as a gardener and engaging the law professor in legal argumentation while gulping down prodigious quantities of food. It's all faintly absurd, and would barely hold together if not for Grant's typically game, laidback performance.

Even so, the film's greatest asset is unarguably Jean Arthur, who provides most of the laughs as the high-strung schoolteacher who becomes entangled with both Leopold and Lightcap, desperately trying to hide the escapee's secret from the professor as they all live uneasily under the same roof. Arthur is a total riot, and her performance goes a long way towards making the film bearable even in its dullest stretches. She's always active with some small bit of business, enlivening the film with her rubbery command over her face. She's always flitting about, bird-like, her carriage thrust forward, chirping and smiling broadly, her body propelled by uncontainable nervous energy. In a scene where Leopold sneaks around the house in search of food, Nora gapes in shock and horror at the convict tip-toeing through the kitchen right behind the professor's back, but she keeps taking dictation the whole time, without letting her pen pause. Her increasingly outlandish attempts to hide Leopold and then, when he's relatively out in the open as the gardener, to keep his secret, inspire some great comic lunacy, like the scene where she squeals and hurls an egg onto a newspaper photo of Leopold's face, letting the yolk come to rest neatly right beneath the escapee's hat. Even when there are no plot contrivances necessitating these kinds of gymnastics, Arthur is a blast. One of the film's best scenes is an utterly extraneous throwaway where Nora poses coquettishly in front of a mirror, pulling a stray curl of hair under her nose like a mustache and telling herself how pretty she is.

As funny and lively as Arthur is, neither her whirling dervish performance nor the able sparring of Grant and Colman can entirely save a film that is basically flawed right from conception. The cast does a fine job with what they're given, but the plot is just too much of a meandering mess and the shifting genres and moods are sloppily handled. One hardly knows what to make of a bizarre scene where Lightcap shaves off the beard he's long worn, a symbol of his isolation and containment in an ivory tower. At this moment, Stevens cuts away to a poignant, vaseline-lensed closeup of Lightcap's black valet (Rex Ingram), who grows bleary-eyed and actually begins to cry at the sight. It's hilarious, if only because its intent is so puzzling and its execution so strange. Can this maudlin moment really be meant in earnest? It's hard to believe that Stevens would invest so much of the film's melodrama into the shaving of a beard, but there's little enough to indicate it's a joke either — and if it is, it's probably a somewhat mean one on the sentimental black servant.

This odd scene is indicative of the ambivalent effect of the film as a whole. Stevens can often be technically effective in isolated scenes, and he has an especially good hand for crowded comedy. An early scene where Nora frantically tries to clear out the house only to have more and more people unexpectedly arrive is particularly sharp in its sense of comic timing and its handling of the increasingly cramped space in front of the camera. But no matter how good individual scenes can be, the whole thing holds together awkwardly, particularly in the slapdash and seemingly never-ending finale, which finally shambles to an unsatisfying resolution after way too many half-realized false endings. The film is a sporadically interesting and even entertaining mess, but it's a failure nonetheless.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Bell, Book and Candle

Bell, Book and Candle is a fanciful, charming, lightweight love story, a low-key comedy about magic and love, and whether there's really any difference at all between the two. The witch Gillian (Kim Novak, sporting the most ridiculous painted-on eyebrows in cinematic history) is growing bored with her life and wants something different, which for her means hanging out with ordinary mortals for a change. Naturally, she takes a liking to her new upstairs neighbor, the publisher Shep Henderson (Jimmy Stewart), and she becomes determined to make him hers when she discovers that he's engaged to marry her college rival Merle (Janice Rule). The set-up is an obvious one for a romantic comedy — what are the odds that Gillian falls in love with the guy she's only using for revenge and cheap thrills? — and the only real wrinkle is a light dusting of magic, which is used sparingly and with not much flash or impact.

Still, despite its obviousness there's a lot to like here. Novak and Stewart worked together on two films in 1958 (the other probably doesn't need to be named), and their chemistry is obvious. There's something inherently appealing about throwing together Stewart at his most "aw-shucks" with the icy, glib Novak, a perfect Hitchcock blonde if ever there was one. Sparks fly just putting the two of them together, and there's something urgent and believable about their kisses, an uneasy passion that Hitchcock would channel into something sinister and gripping in Vertigo, and which here director Richard Quine uses to much more prosaic effect. It's a good thing that the stars are so good together, because in some ways they're the film's primary pleasure. The script lacks the crackle and punch of the best romantic comedies, and there's little enough truly engaging patter — a stray quip here and there elicits a smile, but the film is more amusing than actually funny. Jack Lemmon, as Gillian's brother Nicky, gets most of his laughs from physical comedy. You'll rarely find a more natural comedian than Lemmon, but he doesn't get many choice lines; he's hilarious anyway at times, and it's hard not to enjoy his introduction, looking stoned out of his mind as he bangs on a pair of bongos at a nightclub. His goofy smile and rolling eyes define a character who otherwise doesn't have much to do.

Even Stewart does his best work with his face rather than with the rather generic dialogue. He gets a lot out of pure nervous energy: a self-conscious stammer, manic pacing and arm motions, eyes popped so wide they look they're going to fall out of his head. On anyone else it'd look like hammy mugging, but Stewart manages to make this kind of over-the-top awkwardness seem natural to the character. Stewart's characters in this mold — which is to say, when he's not working with Hitchcock or Mann, two directors who tended to roughen up the actor's edges — are charming and kind of naïve, genuine nice guys who have a real down-home appeal even in their darkest moments. This certainly describes Shep, who is sympathetic even when he's dumping his fiancée for Gillian, a woman he met only yesterday. He tells Merle that he's "a cad," and smiles politely as she slaps him. That's a Jimmy Stewart nice guy, alright.

In addition to Stewart and Lemmon, the film is graced with several fine comedic bit turns: Ernie Kovacs as a perpetually disheveled, alcoholic writer drawn to New York by one of Gillian's spells, in order to write a book for Shep; Elsa Lanchester, the Bride of Frankenstein herself, as Gillian's lovably dotty old aunt; Hermione Gingold as a powerful rival witch. But again, the writing doesn't seem to be on par with the quality of the cast, and most of the fun arises from seeing these great comic actors inject bits of physical humor and small visual touches into their performances. Gingold doesn't have much to say or do, but she's fun to watch, all done up in thrift-store rags and almost constantly lit from above by a diffuse green light, puttering around her old haunted house, mixing occult ingredients with a bemused smile on her face.

Quine also graces the film with a light touch behind the camera, an unobtrusive but nevertheless strong perspective as a director. The credits sequence, in which the camera moves around Gillian's antique shop from one relic to another, pausing for a few moments on each, foreshadows a technique that Quine will employ several times throughout the film. He likes to move the camera gently within a scene in order to shift from one point of interest to another. A shot outside Gillian's store, as her things are packed away into a truck outside, slowly tracks in, edging around the truck, so that Gillian and Nicky can be seen through the store's front window. In other scenes, Quine's playful sense of framing elicits eccentric effects: Kovacs, Lemmon and Stewart outside Gingold's house, clustered on her steps like ersatz Christmas carolers; a long shot of Gillian and her aunt walking through a beautifully artificial snowy city set; a shot of Stewart distorted through the lens of a crystal ball. There is nothing, though, that can quite match the startling, haunting closeup of Gillian as she casts her love spell on Shep, holding her cat familiar Pyewacket under her nose, her deep blue eyes and the cat's both staring into the camera, her face lit with an otherworldly glow. It's the film's most exciting image, and the only one that truly probes the magical, mystical quality that is really at the story's core. This is the only moment where it feels like anything magical is happening, in either cinematic or narrative terms. It's a masterful shot. The curve of the cat's black ears mask the lower half of Novak's face, letting her eyes shine intensely in isolation, mirrored in the lower half of the frame by the cat's own blue eyes.

The rest of the film doesn't have anything quite as tingly or evocative as this sequence, but even by itself it's almost enough to elevate this otherwise rather middling romantic comedy to something of a higher level. As it is, this is an intermittently enjoyable and amusing fantasy, a cute picture but with just enough substance to prevent it from being completely disposable. It's about the magic of love, how falling in love is so inexplicable, so mysterious and resistant to logic, that it might as well really be magic.

Films I Love #8: Naked (Mike Leigh, 1993)

Johnny (David Thewlis), the homeless, wandering central character in Mike Leigh's Naked, issues a profound challenge to audience identification right from his first appearance on screen: in the opening minutes of the film, he violently rapes a girl against an alley wall, fleeing afterward through shadowy streets until he stumbles upon an unattended car he can steal. He is, to say the least, not an especially likable protagonist, but Leigh nevertheless trains his camera on him, sticking with him and the other downtrodden characters he encounters on his rambling adventures. Johnny doesn't necessarily get any more likable, but he does become more sympathetic, more complex, even in some strange ways taking on the voice of the film's moral compass. In an urban wasteland that offers few opportunities — and none that the restless, angry Johnny would want to consider — Johnny's half-crazed rants about political exploitation, homelessness, and the fulfillment of apocalyptic biblical prophesies in the form of the bar code begin to sound, if not reasonable, then at least understandable, a natural extension of this landscape. The film is anchored by Thewlis' fearless performance, investing tremendous energy into the unhinged Johnny, drawing out both his undirected universal anger and his surprising (if often short-lived) moments of warmth and tenderness towards his fellow down-and-outs. Leigh's camera lingers on Thewlis and the other actors for revealing close-ups that capture this expressive troupe of born character actors (Karin Cartlidge, Lesley Sharp) at their most unveiled and even transcendent. The film's probing, mordantly funny social critique of working class London is by turns sharp — a wonderful sequence with a bored night watchman (Peter Wight) who refuses to believe that he has no future — and utterly brutal, a hammer to the head — the creepy, sexually sadistic landlord (Greg Cruttwell) whose profound sense of smug upper-class privilege makes him a much more dangerous evil than Johnny's more diffuse outbursts of misdirected violence.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

The Leopard Man

The Leopard Man is the most conventional horror film of the three movies that director Jacques Tourneur made with producer Val Lewton. This third film, following on the eerie Cat People and I Walked With a Zombie, uses many of the same aesthetic techniques as the two earlier efforts — shadowy atmosphere, slow build-up, and the suggestion of violence rather than its direct portrayal — but hews much closer than either of the others to a true horror plot. The result is the creepiest and scariest film to come out of the fruitful Tourneur/Lewton collaboration, but not necessarily the best.

The film's premise is simple: a trained leopard escapes in a New Mexico town after the show biz promoter Jerry (Dennis O'Keefe) tries to pull a publicity stunt for his girlfriend and top talent Kiki (Jean Brooks). Soon enough, dead girls start showing up on the streets of the town, mauled to pieces in vicious attacks, and a few small clues lead Jerry to wonder if the cat is really to blame, or if a more human predator is on the loose. The film is loosely structured with a continually varied perspective. Though Jerry and Kiki are the film's ostensible protagonists, the point of view often shifts off of them to the town's residents, briefly taking up other people's tales. The camera will often unexpectedly begin following someone who seemed to be an ancillary character in a scene, picking up their story and seeing where it leads rather than following the track of the main plot. This democratic structure refuses to privilege the young couple who would be the unquestioned heroes in any other horror film. The killer's victims are not treated as disposable pieces of flesh who are just there to scream and die. In just over an hour of film, Tourneur still finds time to draw out the stories of all his characters, giving respect and attention to the eventual victims before their final moments.

The first victim is a young girl (Margaret Landry) who's afraid of the dark but is forced to go out late at night anyway, to get corn meal for her father's supper. Her nighttime walk to the grocer's is a moody, haunting trek through the shadowy town and its empty outskirts, with a midpoint pause at a railroad bridge where the girl is terrified by the shadows underneath the crossing. Tourneur isolates her in the cold, dark night, pulling back for a long shot of this crucial junction, her lonely figure standing just outside the deep black under the bridge, as though foreshadowing her end. But before it comes, she gets a wonderful little scene in the grocery store, admiring the birds chirping in a cage. It's apparent that this is something she often does, delaying her walk back through the darkness by a few minutes, and it triggers a crisp but evocative exchange with the grocer, who says she can pay him next time she comes: "The poor don't cheat one another. We're all poor together." This quietly spoken line, freighted with melancholy, suggests a long history between the grocer and the girl's family, and evokes the conditions of poverty for families scraping by in this village. The film's barely hidden subtext is its insistent probing of class and money, which comes up again and again in small asides and brief scenes. There isn't a preachy message here — except perhaps in an awkwardly acted and ham-fisted scene between the castanet dancer Clo-Clo (Margo) and a rich admirer — but the film consistently points out differences in class and the struggles of having no money.

The second victim is of a different class, a wealthy young woman (Tula Parma), and Tourneur again takes great pains to delve into the substance of her life rather than simply throwing her into the middle of danger. The film is able to invest a great deal into these characters with a few broad strokes: a lovely scene where her family awakens her for her birthday, clustered around her bed with flowers and singing; her pining for her boyfriend, who she keeps secret from her parents for some reason; her conspiratorial relationship with the maid who helps her arrange her trysts. These details are strictly extraneous to the plot, but establish the character and give her a life beyond what we see on the screen. Lewton and Tourneur were always known for doing a lot with a little, suggesting what is not seen, in their suspense and horror scenes, and in this film the principle is extended to the lives of the characters. These brief vignettes suggest that we are only seeing part of a life, that there is much beyond the surface of all these people who we meet for such a short time. Even the cemetery watchman, who doesn't have much to do otherwise, gets a great, creepy little throwaway moment when he tells Jerry and Kiki, "I have many friends, but they don't bother me with talk," gesturing through the cemetery gates as he says it.

The film takes the concept of "local color" as its defining aesthetic, so much so that Jerry and Kiki themselves are increasingly marginalized. They come across a bit like a team-up of Nancy Drew and a Hardy Boy, clean-shaven kids trailing around the edges of the story while the murder victims get most of the really juicy screentime. This is fortunate, because this duo isn't particularly interesting in and of themselves, and the movie falters whenever it tries to drum up some interest in their tepid romance or their conflicts of conscience over having started this whole thing. O'Keefe seemingly wandered off the set of one of the noirs he's best known for directly into the midst of this stalker tale, just for a change of pace — though it doesn't seem to have changed his tough guy demeanor any. Clo-Clo is much more interesting; Margo can barely act, but she winds her sinewy way through the film right from its first shot, which frames her curvy, dancing form in a doorway, contoured into an S-shape by her snake-like motion. The click of her castanets, insistent and eerie, also flows through the film, its coldly rhythmic sound echoing through the town's deserted streets at night, a music like the clacking of bones, one against the other.

The Leopard Man is at its best when it concentrates on small details like this, building its unsettling atmosphere through the accumulation of sounds, shadows, and slowly building tension. It's a film without a center, economical in its storytelling and yet giving the impression that it has time for plenty of detours into the lives of its characters, even the least "important" ones. This meandering quality to the plotting is the film's greatest strength, and it's inevitable that as the structure begins to tighten up in its final act, the film loses some of its charm. Despite a vaguely unsatisfying resolution, this is a fine low-key horror production from Lewton and Tourneur.

The Day the Earth Stood Still

Filmed and released at the height of the Cold War, The Day the Earth Stood Still presented a bold call to look beyond national borders and quest for peace and unity rather than war. In particular, the film was an anti-nuclear parable, a grave warning that the consequences of nuclear warfare could be global or even cosmic, a far cry from even the greatest devastation resulting from conventional war. This message is delivered to the people of Earth by the very human-like alien Klaatu (Michael Rennie), who arrives in a spaceship accompanied by a tremendous, indestructible robot named Gort (played by real-life giant Lock Martin beneath a clumsy costume). The film's anti-war and anti-nuclear agenda was controversial in its day, just as its special effects were state of the art. Seen today, the message is utopian and obvious, while the effects look rudimentary, but the film stands up surprisingly well as a classic of its genre.

Partly, the film's enduring status as a sci-fi masterpiece, rather than a historical curiosity, can be attributed to the great use that is made of relatively modest effects. Director Robert Wise, coming to the film from a background in noir and horror, knows how to get the most from a minimalist aesthetic, and he slathers these sets in artfully applied shadows that give a realistic feel to the cardboard-like backdrops. Klaatu's ship, draped in shadows, has an unearthly ambiance as the alien walks around its circular inner chamber, turning on lights one at a time by waving his hand over rows of strange buttons. The lighting often keeps the alien himself shrouded from view, keeping him mysterious and aloof. Though he looks human and, for most of the film, attempts to blend in with humans, he is often kept at a remove, his thoughts and goals hidden from understanding.

Even Gort, who in the broad light of day risks looking kind of silly rather than threatening, is mostly filmed in ways that enhance his intimidating aura rather than exposing the awkward artifice of his costuming. The robot's cold, silent acts of destruction, mostly presented in inscrutable closeups on his blank face, are terrifying in their slow, deliberate inevitability. Wise manages to make this robot seem all-powerful and unstoppable with only a few unconvincing laser bursts and amorphous glowing effects. The film also achieves a great deal with its score, a minimal drone mostly played with a pair of theremins, and composed by the great Bernard Hermann. This score functions much like the sets, creating tension and suspense from a surprisingly ascetic foundation. From the very opening strains, over the credits sequence's static painted images of outer space, the music's whining pulsations create an uneasy mood, a sense of impending doom. The score, the sets, the lighting, the effects: all are unified in creating believable sci-fi from the most minimal starting point. The individual elements might be cheesy and makeshift, but the total effect is brilliant.

More importantly, the film succeeds because its emphasis is not on the whiz-bang bravura of its technical effects, but on the dramas triggered by the alien's arrival. The bulk of the film takes place on a very human scale, with Gort and the spaceship offscreen as Klaatu attempts to blend in with the people of Earth so that he can learn about them and understand their capacity for violence. When he arrives on the planet, bringing his message of peace, he is shot in the arm immediately by a skittish soldier who mistakes the gift he offers for a weapon. He soon escapes the military's custody and takes a room at a small boarding house, where he befriends the young widow Helen Benson (Patricia Neal) and her son Bobby (Billy Gray). Klaatu seeks to understand this race of people who react so instinctively with violence and fear, and if the film's overall message of peace is overly pat — giving up violence is hard to argue with and harder still to achieve — its insight into the global politics of fear is more acute. The film portrays a planet wracked with fear, suspicious and all too ready to believe the worst about others. It takes an alien outsider to question why this planet is so consumed by "us versus them" politics rather than taking a global view to preserve the integrity and survival of the planet as a whole.

Klaatu's interactions with Helen and Bobby provide him with a positive counterpoint to his experiences elsewhere on Earth, though Helen's boyfriend Tom (Hugh Marlowe) is just another suspicious jerk who's certainly not thinking globally: he's only out for himself. The film implicitly draws the connection between Tom's personal selfishness and the larger selfishness of nationalism. Whether it's one person putting personal gain above all else, or entire countries and governments valuing their own aims over the possibility of international cooperation, Klaatu simply doesn't understand this kind of short-sightedness. His tour of Washington with Bobby — taking in both the rows of graves at Arlington and the words of Abraham Lincoln at the Lincoln Memorial — encompasses both horror and hope for the potential of this planet's societies. For its subtle atmosphere and its overriding humanistic touch, The Day the Earth Stood Still remains one of the great achievements of the science fiction genre.

Twentieth Century

Howard Hawks' Twentieth Century is a hilarious story about people who "are only real in between curtains," who only exist as actors playing roles rather than people with real lives. When the egomaniacal Broadway director Oscar Jaffe (John Barrymore) first meets his new starlet (Carole Lombard), he dispenses with her old name and gives her a new, more glamorous one, Lily Garland, then immediately tells her that's she no longer Lily Garland, but should instead inhabit her role in the play completely. Within the space of a few minutes in Jaffe's company, she has become two layers removed from her original self, an actor playing an actor playing a part. "You are no longer Lily Garland," he howls to her, waving his hands dramatically, as though she had already become too invested in a name he'd given her only minutes before. It's a prophetic moment, because before too long the young girl — previously a lingerie model with no acting experience — is the biggest star on Broadway, as well as Jaffe's lover and his meal ticket, driving his plays to mammoth success. But the film is not a love story, at least not in any ordinary sense, despite the romance between the director and his greatest star. Instead, Hawks treats the story like a tongue-in-cheek melodrama, a melodrama that realizes its own essential mawkishness and silliness, and amps up the ham accordingly.

Indeed, ham is hardly an adequate word to describe what Barrymore and Lombard do with these performances. They're playing characters who are always acting, who think of ordinary encounters as "scenes" to be played, and the people around them as extras in the grand epic of their own lives. They treat emotions like notes to be hit and held, pulling out a bit of anger here, a touch of suicidal angst there, screams and cries and moans like melodies to be wrung from their throats. They write their own speeches as they talk to one another. There's no such thing in this film as a simple conversation: everything is an oration, the two sparring lovers trading monologues and orchestrating curtain-calls even when there's no audience except one another. In an odd, masochistic way, it's obvious that they're perfect for each other, though Jaffe drives Lily away with his dictatorial nature; the last straw is when he hires a private detective to spy on her. So Lily heads off to Hollywood to become an even bigger star, while Jaffe flounders, his plays failing miserably in her absence. It's hard to blame Lily for leaving this blowhard, though the great irony — Jaffe might say "the final irony," as he does at several points — is that before she leaves he succeeds in making her just like him. The result is that she's not happy unless she's performing, and she's dissatisfied with men who lack a sense of drama: she is infuriated when her new beau (Ralph Forbes) has the temerity to walk out on her before she finishes her great speech telling him to leave.

Hawks has the perfect sensibility for this florid material, realizing that there's a very fine line between melodrama and comedy, a line that can be easily erased when it needs to be. This isn't the camp humor that sometimes arises from particularly pungent melodrama, but a comedic sensibility that is completely immersed in the story and the characters. These characters are just inherently funny, and Hawks is perfectly attuned to the rhythms that accentuate this humor. He knows to linger on Jaffe's melodramatic exits long enough to catch the trailing of the director's hand along the door on the way out, a conscious gesture meant to draw attention to its tortured grip on the doorjamb. Hawks also knows when to pull in for closeups, to catch Barrymore's arched eyebrows and the facial contortions that indicate Jaffe's hammy acting. Barrymore has a tricky part. He can't just be a ham, but has to play a character who's a ham. As a consequence, there's a self-consciousness in his performance that adds a meta-layer to the film: it's perfectly possible to laugh at Jaffe's absurd histrionics and still realize that Jaffe himself takes all of this seriously.

For her part, Lombard keys her performance to match and exceed Barrymore's wherever possible. In the best of their scenes together, it's like watching a duel to see who can be more ridiculous, more melodramatic: the first actor to give in and let a genuine, believable emotion show is the loser. This is the nature of the relationship between Jaffe and Lily. There's a core of love there somewhere, and certainly mutual respect for one another as artists, but there's also a competitive spirit, a sense that they're performing for one another, trying to outdo one another, to craft the grandest, most showstopping performance, the piece of acting genius that will silence the other with awe. Again, these scenes also function on the meta-layer, where Lombard and Barrymore are engaged in a similar duel of acting prowess, their voices overlapping in Hawksian style, fighting with one another for control of the scene. They're hilarious and irresistible together, and only Hawks could make such a pair of shrill, overacting brawlers so compulsively entertaining.

The absurdity of the melodrama is also accentuated by a pair of pitch-perfect straight men, Jaffe's loyal assistants Webb (Walter Connolly) and O'Malley (Roscoe Karns). These two play off of their boss brilliantly, rolling with his punches and setting up his craziest moments with their own straight-laced reasonableness. The scenes between them are masterpieces of balance and subtlety, with Hawks capturing Jaffe's manic over-emoting and his lackeys' exasperated stoicism in the same frame. In one scene, Jaffe paces back and forth frantically, orating about his plans for his next great scheme, while O'Malley sits off to the right side of the frame, a bemused smirk on his face, furtively nipping at his ever-present bottle to steel himself against his boss' megalomania. In another scene, Jaffe has fired Webb (one of many times he does so) and then completely forgotten about it as he goes on directing the play. Webb comes storming back in a few minutes later to return the combination to the safe, and Jaffe, almost without even looking at him, asks why he's bothering him with such trivialities during rehearsals. Hawks stages the scene as a two-shot, with Jaffe facing the camera and Webb just behind him, flustered and nonplussed by his boss' volatility. Jaffe's melodramatic flailing is foregrounded, while Webb provides a subtle background element, a quiet comedic counterpoint to the shot's main focus. The film works so well because, in small ways like this, Hawks makes himself complicit in Jaffe and Lily's egocentric worldviews: he makes them the grand players they demand to be, and celebrates their ridiculousness and humor in every moment of the film.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes

Today, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is most fondly remembered for a single musical number which is pretty much the iconic Marilyn Monroe scene: her vampy, bubbly performance of "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend." It's one of Monroe's most memorable scenes, as she coos and dances while delivering the lyrics that would come to personify, if not her true self, then at least the most true representation of her public persona. She's a cheerful, unabashed gold-digger here, surrounded by men who adore and lust after her, rejecting all their declarations of love as fickle, fleeting, and more often than not two-faced. It's easy to mock or dismiss Monroe's showgirl Lorelei Lee, who admits with a smile on her face that she's in love with money and wouldn't dream of marrying a man who wasn't rich. But underneath her brash forthrightness, barely concealed, are her fears, especially the fear of getting old, of losing her charms and her ability to make men fall in love. The "Diamonds" number, as upbeat as it is, is actually about a woman's insecurity in a world where she is judged for her physical beauty while a man is judged by his monetary success: Lorelei realizes that while women's assets are momentary at best, money and power doesn't dissipate with age. She believes that wealth is the only security against a woman's sad fate, of being cast aside for younger and prettier girls down the road. "Don't you know that a man being rich is like a girl being pretty?" she murmurs, so charmingly that it's hard to argue the point. "You wouldn't marry a girl just because she's pretty, but my goodness, doesn't it help?"

Sure, and it also helps when she's clever and self-aware and delightfully fun, all adjectives that apply perfectly to Monroe, perhaps more here than anywhere else. What comes through in this film is a sly, winking quality in Monroe's performance, a sense that she knows very well — as her character knows — the effect she can have on men, and that she's perfectly willing to conform, at least outwardly, to stereotypes if it'll get her what she wants. This seems to apply at least as well to the real Marilyn as it does to the bubbly, bouncy blonde Lorelei, and one suspects there's some truth to the rumor that Monroe herself suggested Lorelei's coy admission that "I can be smart when it's important, but most men don't like it." If a film as light and airy as this one can be said to have a theme, it's that women, living in a world with rules set by men, must erect elaborate facades over their true selves in order to exist comfortably.

Lorelei's best friend Dorothy (Jane Russell) doesn't see things the same way though, and where Lorelei loves only diamonds, Dorothy loves the company of men and the fun to be had on long nights with plenty of drinks and dancing. This duo of bombshells are opposites in almost every way — blonde and brunette, giggly and serious-minded, a whispery-soft murmur and a brassy tough-gal voice, a wide smile and a side-of-the-mouth smirk — but their friendship is nevertheless rock-solid. Russell and Monroe play off of each other beautifully, and it's a delight to watch them together, whether they're singing and dancing or trading fast-paced patter. They trade roles admirably in the comic scenes, taking turns playing the straight woman for one another. Sometimes Monroe's wide-eyed silliness sets up Russell for her deadpan one-liners, while at other times Russell simply stands back and lets her friend fire away.

With two such dazzling actresses at center stage, the plot doesn't have to do much besides stay out of their way, and for the most part it does. Lorelei's pending engagement to the goofy but sincere young millionaire Gus Esmond (Tommy Noonan) is threatened by Esmond's father (Taylor Holmes), who disapproves of his son marrying a showgirl. As a result, Lorelei and Dorothy head off to Europe together on a cruise, while Esmond's father hires the private detective Malone (Elliott Reid) to spy on Lorelei and gather incriminating evidence against her to halt the impending marriage. There's not a guy here who belongs in the same frame with these two, much less who can match wits with them as equals, and if the film has one weakness it's the necessity of believing that the tough Dorothy, who'd fit right in as a noir femme fatale, could fall for a wet blanket like Malone. Still, all these narrative detours are mainly an excuse to get Lorelei into hilariously improbable but incriminating circumstances, like the moment where an over-eager big-game hunter (Charles Coburn) demonstrates to Lorelei how a python kills a goat by strangulation. How would that be incriminating, you ask? "Well," Lorelei explains, "he was the python... and I was the goat!"

If the plot is largely decorative, so too are the many musical numbers, which are primarily designed as showcases for the girls and their ample charms. The "Diamonds" performance is undeniably director Howard Hawks' best musical piece, a gaudy delight of costume design and choreography: Monroe in a pink strapless dress that seems to be just barely clinging to her bosom, twirling and singing amidst crowds of valentine-toting tuxedo-ed men and ballerinas with black gauze masks drawn across their faces, all of it against a cartoony red backdrop that sets off the deep blacks of the tuxes. The opening number, "Two Little Girls From Little Rock," is similarly opulent, setting the girls' bright red dresses off against a similarly bold blue curtain. The film's palette favors primary colors, including the ever-present bright red of the girls' lips, while the wardrobes mostly cycles through a series of radiant green, blue, and red hues. As a result, even the less showy musical pieces, like "When Love Goes Wrong" and "Bye, Bye, Baby," have an impromptu charm that's hard to resist: they seem like pick-up songs casually performed with whatever passersby happen to be around, gathering performers from among the bystanders for a bit of song and dance.

Above all, this is a fun and light-hearted film, driven by the comedic performances from both stars. Howard Hawks seems to have ceded the film to Monroe and Russell, and there's very little sign of the auteur's signature concerns or style, except perhaps in the staging of the musical numbers, which seem at times like crowd scenes with an infectious sense of rhythm. The film as a whole has this same underlying rhythm, a propulsive beat that drives the songs and the comedic bits alike. It's the pulse, perhaps, of the men who come into contact with Monroe and Russell: hearts pounding like mad, dizzy smiles plastered across their faces.

The best books about Warner Brothers animation?

This is a call to all my readers to give me your recommendations for books that cover Warner Brothers animation from the 30s to the 60s. Ideally, I'm looking for one big, comprehensive book with a historical and biographical focus, one that will cover the foundation of the studio, the development of its characters and animation styles over time, and profiles of individual creators (directors, animators, writers, music, etc.). Some analytical and critical perspective on individual cartoons would be a nice bonus. I'm itching to read something that will put the studio's output into context and provide the stories that went on behind the 'toons. I'm not sure if any such book actually exists, so if not I'd also obviously love any more specific tomes, like ones profiling the most famous directors to come out of Termite Terrace.

Below are some of the books I'm considering already, so any comments on the quality (or lack thereof) of these choices is also welcome.

Most likely candidates:

Chuck Jones:

Tex Avery:

General Animation history:

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Ball of Fire

Ball of Fire is a delightful romantic comedy in the "opposites attract" tradition, throwing together the stuffy, intellectual professor Bertram Potts (Gary Cooper) and the smart-mouthed burlesque girl and gangster's moll Sugarpuss O'Shea (Barbara Stanwyck). Potts is part of a group of eight professors putting together an encyclopedia, but the project stalls when they reach the entry for "slang" and Potts realizes that using out-of-date reference books just doesn't cut it: he needs first-hand knowledge of "the living language." To this end, he enlists Sugarpuss to give him some linguistic tutelage after witnessing her va-va-voom nightclub act. Sugarpuss agrees for her own reasons: her gangster boyfriend Joe Lilac (Dana Andrews) is under pressure from the cops and needs Sugarpuss to go into hiding because she could be forced to testify against him. The professors' research institute is naturally the last place anyone would look for her, and so Sugarpuss settles in, shaking things up with her vivacious manner and colorful language.

Director Howard Hawks makes interesting use of his two stars, casting them not exactly against type, but in notable variations on their types. Certainly, Cooper is not the most obvious choice for a stuffy intellectual with no knowledge of worldly matters, but his taciturn, stone-faced chilliness turns out to be perfectly suited to a man who suppresses any hint of emotional excitement in himself. It's a matter of context: when Cooper's playing a Western hero, his stoicism is seen as courage and determination, but here he employs essentially the same demeanor, the same basic set of expressions and body language, to indicate his dopey, nerdy cluelessness. It's a clever bit of counter-intuitive casting. Likewise, Stanwyck's world-wise, tough gangland babe is familiar territory for her, but with a softer, cheerier edge to it. She isn't a femme fatale or a hard frontier woman here, though there are touches of both in her character. She's too fun-loving, too exuberant and lively, for the darker corners of her personality to define her completely. In one scene, she teaches the professors how to dance, leading them in a conga line, bumping her hips and swaying her fists in time with the music, a wide and toothy smile spread appealingly across her face.

Stanwyck's introduction is one of the film's finest scenes, demonstrating Hawks' intuitive grasp of her strengths. When Potts first arrives at the nightclub to see Sugarpuss perform, she comes on singing and dancing as part of a loose jazz number. Stanwyck looks out of her element here, playing the leggy chorus girl in a sequined, barely-there outfit; she's not cut out for this kind of glamour. Her sexiness is too casual, too intimate, to come across on stage, and she only winds up looking uncomfortable, unsure of what to do with her hands or how to move. She looks at her most relaxed during the instrumental break, when she lounges sedately on the stage, her legs uncrossed and sticking defiantly out of her flimsy little dress, leaning her head back and smiling while she listens to the band play. It's obvious that Hawks recognizes that intimacy and relaxation bring out the best in his star, and the next scene is a typical Hawks moment that requires a huge crowd to gather around Stanwyck and listen to the music. She calls everyone in around a single table, where her drummer casts aside his sticks and picks up a pair of matches instead. Together, they deliver a hushed performance, the scrape and tick of the matches keeping the rhythm while Stanwyck leads the crowd in whispered chants of the chorus, "drum boogie." Hawks loves these kinds of communal music scenes, which are more often clustered around a piano or a guitar in his films, though a matchbox suffices just as well. The image switches back and forth throughout the scene between a Hawksian crowded frame with the whole audience peering in at the performance from behind, and a shot of the black, polished table, with the matchsticks tapping out their rhythm while Stanwyck's smiling face is reflected, blurred, in the table's surface.

This brief scene is the film's most obvious visual touch from cinematographer Gregg Toland, who nevertheless peppers the film with moments of grace and elegance to offset its often farcical tone. Toland's moody, shadow-strewn images — like a lushly romantic kiss between the leads, shown only with black profiles in a darkened room — crop up periodically and do a lot of heavy lifting for the love story, which is otherwise a bit briskly developed amidst all the humor. Visually, though, Hawks' imprint comes through much more clearly, perhaps because he's blessed with a central cast of ten characters all living in the same house. Hawks' love of crowded compositions is especially apparent in the antics of the seven professors besides Cooper, who all warm up to Sugarpuss much more quickly than he does.

There's a shot of the old men all leaning eagerly over a railing to look down at the girl's arrival, their heads poking over the top like a row of wrinkled cabbages, that perfectly captures the boyish spirit of these old bachelors. The film's obvious starting point is Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, a reference that comes up explicitly just once in the dialogue, but which is tipped off much earlier, in the opening scene of the old professors marching in tight rows of two through a park. They might as well be humming, "heigh ho, heigh ho..." Hawks gets a lot of comic mileage out of this group, clustering their expressive faces around Stanwyck and Cooper and giving them plenty of choice lines. Fittingly for a bunch of dwarfs, they're like children in old men's bodies, turning into unruly schoolboys once Sugarpuss arrives on the scene.

This is a fun, vibrant film that unites the talents of Hawks, Toland, and even Billy Wilder, who co-wrote the amusing, pun-laden script, which comes up with an at times dizzying array of post-Code workarounds for joking about sex without ever really talking about it directly. The film is breezily paced, and shifts nimbly between silly comedy, romance, and even a violent gangster yarn without ever seeming schizophrenic. It handles all these modes with a light touch and a game cast who are just consistently fun to watch.