Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Beat the Devil (1953) - John Huston

The film opens with the camera looking down on a hot plaza in a coastal Italian village. Police lead four disheveled prisoners to the military beat of the town band: Peterson (Robert Morely), O'Hara (Peter Lorre), and two companions to an uncertain fate. Humphrey Bogart's voice explains that this is the inglorious end of the seedy characters. From there, the story is told in flashback. We soon learn that Bogart was in league with these men (international criminals intent on swindling their way to riches), to secure uranium rich land in Africa. They are a motley crew, not nearly as clever they think themselves to be, but ruthless. Bogart plays Billy Dannreuther, a sort of advance man. He doesn't particularly like or trust his associates, who have killed a British official back in London, and they return the favor, suspecting he is merely out for himself. Dannreuther is married to Maria (Gina Lollobrigida). While awaiting for the steamer to leave they meet another couple on vacation, the Chelms (Edward Underdown and Jennifer Jones), who soon complicate matters, Harry by being insufferably British (he travels with his hot water bottle), and Gwendolen by seemingly falling in love with Dannreuther.

Who's playing who?
If a slightly odd film, it is also a fun one. Legend has it that director John Huston and cast somewhat flew by the seat of their pants, sometimes relying on ad libs and daily re-writes. At times it appears they are all on vacation. In any case, it was a fine formula for producing a superb tongue-in-cheek spoof of the caper genre. From the outset, you know the scheme will go a cropper somewhere along the way. The fun is watching how. Huston, with writer Truman Capote's help, created an intriguing cast of characters. None are particularly steeped in morals, though Bogart comes closest. Looking all his 53 years, he is alternating charming and devious. One can't quite tell if he is serious about leaving his wife for Mrs. Chelm, or just playing her along. As for Mrs. Chelm, her motives are similarly hard to decipher. She appears a little ditsy. At one point Bogart says she relies more on her imagination than her memory.  

Jennifer Jones and Gina Lollobrigida on the beach.
There are some quite funny scenes, one with Bogart and Morley chasing a runaway cab down a mountain road, neither man fit for the effort, and another on the beach in Africa when Morely and his companions scramble to hide their passports in the sand, in hopes of keeping their identity secret. When later questioned, they profess to be vacuum cleaner salesmen. There is also a nice sequence with Lorre and Bogart, old co-stars in several films who always played well of each other. There is a nostalgia about the scene. As O'Hara, Lorre is sent to divert Billy with idle conversation while Peterson tries to find out if the Chelms are onto the uranium deal. Lorre beats around the bush, going on and on about trust and confidence, not coming to any point. Sneaking a peek out the window, he notices that Peterson is finished and abruptly stands up, starts to back out through the door, turns and scurries down the hallway without finishing what he was saying.   

And there is some clever dialog. Lorre has the best line: "Time. Time. What is time? Swiss manufacture it. French hoard it. Italians squander it. Americans say it is money. Hindus say it does not exist. Do you know what I say? I say time is a crook."

Jones doesn't like Peterson and his crew, warning her husband to be wary:

Gwendolyn Chelm: "Harry, we must beware of these men. They are desperate characters."
Harry Chelm: "What makes you say that?"
Gwendolyn Chelm: "Not one of them looked at my legs!"

Jennifer Jones is lovely as a blond and gives a terrific comedic performance. She was just 34 at the time. And it is easy to understand why Lollobrigida was considered such an international sex symbol. This is a 1950s bombshell. All of the characters are a little shallow; still, it stretches belief that someone with her beauty would be with Bogart's character. Currently down on his luck, Billy once owned a large villa in the town and employed a chauffeur; he apparently is a man who wins and loses large sums of money. Mostly, he keeps his wife comfortably in money, but surely any number of men would do the same. 

It is essentially a film in two parts, the first taking place in the port town and the second on board the steamer and in Africa where they encounter an Arab leader and his army. Lollobrigida steps out of a raft and walks up the beach in high heels (they have evacuated the steamer thinking it was about to sink). The first half is the better portion.    

What Makes Beat the Devil Special:

Besides the enjoyable script, the mood of the film is one of its best features. You are never certain who is double-crossing who. The four criminals are a ridiculous looking band: one tall and fat, one short and wiry, one pencil thin, and one short and round. They are never in control of things, and while they stumble confused through the story, their secret conversations would lead you to believe they are highly competent intriguers. Morely, the group's leader, has a wonderful doughy face and his occasional looks of incredulity are perfect.     

Inside Story:

This is the fifth and last film that paired Bogart with Lorre. The other four were, The Maltese Falcon (1941), All Through the Night (1941), Casablanca (1942), and Passage to Marseilles (1944). 

Prints of the film have not aged particularly well, which is a shame. The main location, Ravello, Italy, would look enchanting. The cinematographer was Oswald Morris, whose other credits include Fiddler on the Roof (1971), for which he won an Oscar, Oliver (1968), for which he was nominated, and Huston's own Moby Dick (1956) and Heaven Knows Mr. Allison (1957).   

Monday, December 20, 2010

In a Lonely Place (1950) - Nicholas Ray

Dixon Steele (Humphrey Bogart) is in as lonely a place as a man can be. A bitter and cynical Hollywood screenwriter, his only friends are his long-suffering agent and a has-been alcoholic actor. Steele has a problem with drinking himself. All but spurned by the industry and without a hit in years, he gets the chance to convert a recent romance bestseller into a movie script. When the hatcheck girl he invites to his apartment to fill him in on the plot later turns up dead, Steele becomes the prime murder suspect. He's the last known person to see the victim alive and has a history of violence. Laura Gray (Gloria Grahame), a new tenant in the same apartment building, becomes his alibi. She lies to the police, saying she saw the girl leave Steele's apartment. The two become lovers, but when the police continue to hound him he starts to crack under the pressure, acting suspiciously and becoming increasingly unstable, Gray starts to wonder if indeed he is a killer.  
Director Nicholas Ray fashioned a tense noir from Dorothy Hughes' pulp novel. The requisite atmospheric lighting and dark shadows are here, along with melodramatic music and as flawed a protagonist as ever trod the genre.  
Dixton Steele: "I was born when she kissed me. I died when she left me. I lived a few weeks while she loved me."
Laura Gray starts to have doubts.
Bogart plays paranoia wonderfully well, exploring a dark corner of Steele's soul. Beset by inner demons, the writer risks ruining the best thing he ever had. He sees it happening and that makes his inability to control it that much more affecting. Fifty at the time of filming, Bogart looks like a man with a dark past. His lined and worried face shows confusion, self-loathing,  and helplessness.
In one scene his short, violent temper suddenly rears up as he clips another car while driving too fast. The other driver stops to argue. Steele attacks, leaving the man unconscious and bloodied. Gray intervenes to stop him from crushing the man's skull with a rock. His tension released, Steele experiences a quick mood swing like a psychopath. But Steele is a contradiction. Later, feeling remorse, he sends the man $300; and when he slaps his agent, he immediately feels contrite, like a boy who disobeyed his mother. 
Grahame was never better. In Lonely Place she gets considerably more screen time than her usual noirs. And her character is more complicated than the sultry dame type that typified her career. She often played a bad girl with a good side. Here she is all good, a sympathetic woman trying to save the man she loves. You and she wonder if he's worth it, or if he will ultimately let her. You get the sense she's been down this road before. 
Cinematographer Burnett Guffey's black and white camerawork helps sets the tone. A two-time Oscar winner (for Bonnie and Clyde and for From Here to Eternity), with another three nominations, Guffey knew how to frame actors.  He'd work with Bogart on the actor's last film six years later, The Harder They Fall.  In one scene Steele talks with a friend about the murder after dinner, grisly describing how the killer might have strangled his victim. It's a chilling moment and in mid-scene Burnett changes the shadows on Bogart's face, giving him a sinister, evil look, as if he's enjoying the effect he's having on his listeners. It's an easy jump to believe he is reliving the actual deed and an affecting technique Burnett uses again in the climactic scene.
Watching Steele unravel is unnerving. Did he commit the murder? That it doesn't really matter says a lot about Ray's ability to get the audience to focus on the relationship of the two main characters.

What Makes Lonely Place Special:
An untimely phone call.

Bogart and Grahame both give great performances. Bogart may have become a star in the 1940's but he did his best work in the 1950's. This is his most frightening role.

You get the impression that the characters played by both actors most closely mirror their own troubled lives. Bogart dealt with demons, alcoholism and three failed marriages before he met Lauren Bacall, and Graham never found true love though she tried four times, all the marriages ending in divorce.

Like most film noirs, you know it won't end happily. The final scene is emotional and gripping as Steele confronts Gray in her apartment, believing she has betrayed him. Bogart sags as a broken man, and you can't help for feel sorry for him. He came so close.   

It is simply one of the best films of its genre.
Inside Story:

At the time of filming Grahame was married to director Ray. But their marriage was on the rocks, and shortly after they divorced. Grahame would later marry her step son, Ray's son by another marriage.
The film premiered three months ahead of Sunset Boulevard, another scathing attack on the Hollywood culture.  Unlike that film, which garnered 11 Academy Award nominations, In a Lonely Place was inexplicably ignored. 

Major Awards:
  •   National Registry in 2007
Other Films by Nicholas Ray:
  •   They Live by Night 1949
  •   On Dangerous Gorund 1952
  •   Johny Guitar 1954
  •   Rebel Without a Cause
Other Noir Films by Gloria Grahame:
  •   Crossfire 1947
  •   Sudden Fear 1952
  •   The Big Heat 1953

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Charade (1963) -- Stanley Donen

The film opens with a murder. Someone has thrown Charles Lampert from a speeding train, and his wife, Reggie (Audrey Hepburn), who at the time was on a skiing holiday, finds herself embroiled in a mystery. She knows virtually nothing about her husband, his past, where he gets his money, his relatives, or even his occupation. Returning to Paris she finds their expansive apartment empty. A French police inspector arrives to inform her of her husband's murder and to tell her that before Charles left Paris, he sold all their furniture and possessions at auction for the sum of $250,000. No-one knows where that money is. At the funeral the next day, three strange men show up to examine the body. One holds a small mirror up to the mouth to see if Charles is breathing, another jabs him with a pin. Part of Reggie's confusion is cleared up when next she is contacted by a CIA representative, Hamilton Bartholomew (Walter Matthau). He tells her that during WWII Charles and four other soldiers stole that sum in gold from the U.S. Government, burying it with the intent to return after the war to retrieve the cache. Charles double-crossed his partners by secretly getting there first, alone. Now, the U.S. Government wants its money back. So do Charles' partners, who begin to pressure Reggie, believing she must know where he hid the money.

Audrey Hepburn in Charade. 
From there, Director Donen unrolls an elaborate charade, where Reggie isn't sure who to believe, including Peter Joshua (Cary Grant), a debonair man she met on holiday who just happens to arrive in Paris to offer her assistance. He keeps changing his name, leaving her suspicious of his motives. When the partners start to turn up dead, Joshua becomes a prime suspect.

This is a fun film, a sophisticated thriller, more about the romance between the two stars than the intrigue. Donen made a smart decision not to let it get too serious, interjecting moments of droll humor. There is a silly game at a nightclub involving fruit; Grant takes a shower while wearing his suit; and Matthau displays wonderful pauses in conversations with Hepburn, a perplexed look frozen on his face.  Even with the light tone there are plenty of tense moments, including a rooftop encounter at night between Grant and George Kennedy, one of the men intimidating Hepburn. All the actors give fine performances.

James Coburn as Tex, inspecting the body of Charles Lampert.
James Coburn, Kennedy, and Ned Glass play the three partners with menace and desperation. You wouldn't want to meet the first two in a dark alley. Kennedy in particular is threatening. He wears a hook for a lost hand. And one forgets that before he excelled at comedy, Matthau was a good dramatic actor.

One of the best scenes involves Grant and Hepburn sharing a barge down the river. Donen knows how to create a romantic mood, and demonstrates here that he was also adept at pacing. Temporarily free of the goons after the money, the two stars find themselves falling in love. It is night, lights reflect off the water, and the unique Paris architecture looms up as a crew member shines a spotlight on couples kissing on the banks. If not an actual custom in Paris in the early 60's, it is nice to think so, and one of those scenes movie-goers like to imagine they might experience some day.        

Grant and Hepburn stroll alone the Seine.
There is some clever dialog between the characters. Reggie is immediately attracted to Grant's character. At their first meeting she playfully chides him:

Reggie: "I already know an awful lot of people and until one of them dies I couldn't possibly meet anyone else."
Peter Joshua: Well, if anyone goes on the critical list, let me know." (He turns to leave.)
Reggie: "Quitter. You give up awfully easy don't you?"

When they first kiss on the boat:

Peter Joshua: "Wow, when you come on, you come on, don't you?"
Reggie: "Well, come on!"

And when Reggie's suspicions are aroused:

Peter Joshua: "What do I have to do to satisfy you? Become the next victim?"
Reggie: "That's a start anyway."

Peter Stone wrote the screenplay. He'd work with both Grant (Father Goose) and Matthau (The Taking of Pelham One Two Three) again.

What Makes Charade Special

There is great chemistry between Grant and Hepburn. How could there not be? Even with a 25-year age difference, you can believe that Reggie would be attracted to Joshua. After all, these are two beautiful people. Hepburn, always gorgeous, looks stunning in bright colorful Givenchy. The outfits keep changing even though she arrives at her apartment with just two small suitcases; all the rest of her clothes have been sold.

It is an engaging mystery. We know that Charles hid the money somewhere, but it takes a sharp viewer to figure out where before Donen reveals the clever solution. And though one can hardly suspect that Cary Grant could be a killer, the story keeps you wondering until the end. Grant would only make two more films. He'd been making films for 30 years, and had been a star for 25. It's wonderful that he was still going strong.     

The great Henry Mancini wrote the score. If not up to his best, it is still Mancini. The theme is catchy, and the chase scenes accented with a nice, cool basa nova beat.

Maurice Binder designed the memorable title sequence, a rotating color wheel, which works great with Mancini's theme. Binder was also the man behind the first James Bond film, Dr. No, as well as several of the sequels.
Inside Story:
CIA man Walter Matthau.
Donen to rewrite the script to have Hepburn's character pursue him. The approach worked to perfection, making the story considerably more credible.  

This was the second of three films Hepburn made for Donen. The first was Funny Face and the last Two for the Road. It was great collaboration which always showed the actress at her most beautiful.     

Major Awards:
  • Nominated for Best Score and Original Song (Mancini and Mercer).
  • Hepburn won a BAFTA Actress award and Grant was nominated.
Other Films by Donen:
  • Singing in the Rain 1952
  • Seven Brides for Seven Brothers 1954
  • Funny Face 1957
  • Damn Yankees 1958
  • Two for the Road 1967

Friday, December 17, 2010

Sunset Boulevard (1950) - Billy Wilder

Fifty-year old Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) is an obscure silent movie star living in a big, empty Sunset Boulevard mansion that one character describes as being "stricken with a kind of creeping paralysisout of beat with the rest of the world, crumbling apart in slow motion." A lot like Norma herself. But when struggling writer Joe Gillis (William Holden) stumbles onto the place, her dreams of a comeback suddenly seem possible. Gillis, looking to escape creditors, agrees to help polish Norma's script, and becomes her reluctant lover. He is twenty years her junior.  
Director Wilder, a 15-year Hollywood veteran when he made Sunset Boulevard, had by then developed a good case of cynicism for the industry. In a damning portrait, he shows us that the Dream Factory is not all it seems. Norma is having trouble accepting that her heyday is long since past. She populates her mansion with old publicity photos and keeps entertained by watching her own silent films. It's a sorry existence. Her only companions are a pet chimp and Max (Erich Von Stroheim), her dutiful butler/chauffeur, former husband, and enabler. Max secretly sends her fan mail to boost her ego. When Gillis first meets Norma he says, "You're Norma Desmond. You used to be in silent pictures. You used to be big." Her retort is famous: "I am big. It's the pictures that got small." If Norma's sanity is uncertain, Gillis is cursed with ambition. Desperate for a break and nearly broke, he allows himself to become kept, accepting lavish gifts and ultimately her bed.
Wilder wastes no time dispelling the notion of Hollywood as all glitter and glamour.  The film opens with a memorable sequence. SUNSET BOULEVARD is stenciled on a curb. Dead leaves, scraps of paper, and cigarette butts lie in the gutter like so many broken dreams. Suddenly, police motor cycles and cars careen toward us to a murder scene, their sirens screaming. A body floats in a swimming pool. Shot from beneath the surface of the water looking up, we see a corpse with its eyes wide open. The unmistakable voiceover of Holden narrates the action. Already you know you are in for something different. 
The film is full of wonderful moments like this. The odd lovers watch old films in the dark,  Norma sits enthralled and clutches Joe's arm; Norma's awkward visit to Paramount Studio; Gillis' face as he finally realizes he's going to sleep with Norma; the bridge game with the Wax works; and Swanson's iconic stair descent. It is all beautifully shot and lit, and the sets evoke a claustrophobic and gothic look, appropriate for Norma's delusional state of mind.
A bizarre relationship develops between Norma and Joe.
Both leads give magnificent performances. Holden infuses his with self-loathing as he willing prostitutes himself. When asked if he hates himself, he flippantly but honestly responds, "Constantly." And in a role that must have hit close to home, Swanson has moments of true desperation and pathos as she bravely portrays a pathetic figure.  

All the film's components work together to complement Wilder's tight direction. Franz Waxman won an Oscar for his atmospheric, heavily-stringed score, and Edith Head designed the costumes. Wilder and Charles Brackett collaborated on the biting script, highlighted by Gillis' sarcastic self-effacing shots at himself and the film industry.

Nancy Olson gives a fine supporting performance as Gillis' other love interest, Betty.

What Makes Sunset Boulevard Special:

All right, Mr. DeMille, I'm ready for my close-up.
Sunset is in the handful of the greatest film noirs. Unlike most of the genre it's not populated with low-lifes or criminals out to hurt someone for their own gain, usually financial. No such base motives exist here. Rather, it gives the genre a twist by featuring two essentially decent people. Norma merely wants to recapture her glory days. If she sometimes unwittingly humiliates Joe, she also desperately needs and genuinely loves him. For his part, Joe, if happy to live off Norma's handouts while secretly working with and longing for Betty Schaefer, has enough affection and sympathy for Norma, that he rushes to her side on learning of her attempted suicide. The only violence that occurs is not malicious.           

And any film that so openly and skillfully attacks any pompous megalith industry like the film industry is worth your while. That Wilder, a member of that same industry, had the temerity to attack his own, is remarkable. 
Inside Story:

The Wax works bridge players were old stars of Hollywood's silent era: comic legend Buster Keaton, H.B. Warner (Mr. Gower the druggist in It's a Wonderful Life), and Anna Q. Nilsson, once named the most beautiful actress in the world. Famed director Cecil B. DeMille and gossip columnist Hedda Hopper also played themselves in the film.

Montgomery Clift, already an Oscar-nominated actor, and coming off two recent hits (Red River and The Heiress), was scheduled to play the role of Gillis but backed out at the last minute.

Wilder received six dual-Oscar nominations as director and writer for a film during his long career, this being one. He won both in 1946 (The Lost Weekend) and in 1961 (The Apartment). For Sunset, he won the Writing award only. Swanson lost the Oscar to Judy Holliday (Born Yesterday) and Holden lost to Jose Ferrer (Cyrano De Bergerac).

Major Awards:
  • Nominated for eleven Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor and Best Actress.
  • Won three Oscars: for Best Art Direction, Best Writing, and Music.
  • Selected by the National Film Registry in 1989 as one of 25 landmark films.
  • AFI's 16th greatest American film.
Other films by Billy Wilder:
  • Double Indemnity 1944
  • Stalag 17 1953
  • Witness for the Prosecution 1957
  • The Apartment 1960
  • One, Two, Three 1961

Thursday, December 16, 2010

The Wild Bunch (1969) -- Sam Peckinpah

The wild west is dying fast. Automobiles will soon replace horses and there is no place for the Wild Bunch, a group of aging outlaws led by Pike Bishop (William Holden), as tired looking a man as you're likely to see. Pike and the gang target a bank with its supposed railroad payroll, but former gang member Deke Thornton (Robert Ryan) is onto the scheme. Thornton heads an amateur posse of bounty hunters and has arranged an ambush. The threat of a return to Yuma prison hangs over his head unless he can stop the Wild Bunch.

Part of the Opening Credit Sequence.
Director Peckinpah produced a landmark film. His West is brutally violent. When a man is shot here, he doesn't just drop to the ground; instead, multiple wounds send blood and pieces of flesh exploding in the air as the victim does a slow motion balletic pirouette. From the freeze framed introduction of the actors in the opening credits to the two chaotic and bloody shootouts that bookend the film, it is a spectacular Western.

As the outlaws arrive, the camera pans to a group of dirty Mexican children torturing a scorpion, trapping it with a horde of hungry ants. A few minutes later the bandits ride by in desperate flight, and the scorpion is being burned alive. The symbolism is obvious; you can expect a similar ugly end for the Wild Bunch. The assault goes horribly wrong but the Wild Bunch escapes empty-handed, a few of their members killed, and the posse hot on its trail. Later, they high-jack an arms shipment in a well-executed train robbery with plans to sell the rifles to Mexican regulars under General Mapache. They escape Thornton again when Pike dynamites the bridge over the Rio Grande. In a great achievement of stunt work, Thornton's men drop into the river.

Mapache is not to be trusted. He pays for the guns, but aware that gang member Angel diverted one crate of rifles for the peasant villagers that his troops routinely terrorize, Mapache holds him for torture. For a man like Pike, who values a man's word and comradeship more than anything, the way is clear. He could get away scot-free, rich, but he knows Thornton is out there; he is tired of being hunted. He and the gang come to Aqua Verde to rescue Angel.     

Peckinpah helped write the terrific scrip. He clearly defines the characters without slowing down the action. He's drawn Pike as an anti-hero who holds the group together, at one point saying, "When you side with a man you stay with him. If you can't do that you're like some animal. You're finished! We're finished! All of us!" As he attempts to mount his horse, the stirrup breaks and he falls. It's a poignant moment, one that shows a man past his prime, yet trying desperately to hold onto the only thing he knows. At another point he tries to kid himself, telling Dutch (Ernest Borgnine) he'd like to make one more good score and back off, Dutch scoffs, "Back off to what?" Against Pike is Thornton, who hates pursuing his old friend. At one point, disgusted with his undisciplined posse, he exclaims that he wishes he were still riding with men. 
Deke Thorton's rag-tag outfit.

All aspects of the film work together. The film editing of the two shootouts is superbly quick, jarring,  and effective. At the time, nothing like it had ever been done. Peckinpah uses multiple cuts, often focusing on an actor's face to capture reactions, and he juxtaposes a temperance parade in the midst of the opening battle.

The full orchestral score by Jerry Fielding works wonderfully with a generous use of drums and trumpets to give it a military flare in the action sequences  and quiet strings in periods of lament. The set design, particularly Mapache's headquarters, the ruins of the old Spanish church yard, seems perfect, and renowned cinematographer, Lucien Ballard, produced one of his most magnificent visual films. Ballard knew how to make Westerns look gorgeous. Some of his other films include Ride the High Country, True Grit, and Will Penny.   

What Makes The Wild Bunch Special:

William Holden gives one of the best performances of his career. His is the perfect weathered face for the role. You feel his tiredness, and ultimately his sad acceptance that life as he knows it is over. Holden can convey more emotion with a simple look than most actors. He conveys deep loneliness in a look at a prostitute near the end. You know his life is empty. 
The long walk to save Angel (Johnson, Oats, Holden, and Borgnine.)
Another great moment takes place between Holden and his band just before the final four-minute massacre. The crisis appears to be averted; they can safely walk away. They all glance at one another and smile. One of them laughs. The scene erupts in gunfire.

The rest of the cast is one of the finest ensemble of supporting actors ever assembled. Warren Oates and Ben Johnson are members of the Bunch, along with a grizzled Edmund O'Brien, and Strother Martin and L.Q. Jones are psychotic bounty hunters. Albert Decker is the railroad boss. Peckinpah gives each his moment to shine in this wistful but violent film.  

It is also one of the last fine performances by Ryan, an actor who never got his due. He died just five years after the film was released. Starting with Crossfire in 1947, for which he received an Oscar nomination, Ryan always brought a certain weight to a film, often as a character of barely controlled menace, but vulnerable and stoic. Here he is a man trapped. He'd rather be riding with the Wild Bunch than chasing them, and you sense that he holds affection for Pike, or at least deep admiration. He understands that the way of the outlaw is past, and that his old friend, Pike, is not going to accept it. Ryan captures his character's dilemma in a gritty performance.
The script has plenty of memorable lines, always delivered perfectly in character. Here are just a few, which if heard or thought of later, will immediately bring to mind the respective scenes:

                 Pike: "If they move, kill 'em."

                 Sikes: "Ain't like it used to be, but it'll do."

                 Coffer: "It's covered, you two-bit redneck peckerwood."
Inside Story:

The film has a high body count. Critic Pauline Kael noted, "Pouring new wine into the bottle of the Western, Peckinpah explodes the bottle." He would forever after be known as "Bloody Sam." Peckinpah lived his life to the fullest, prompting actor James Coburn to eulogize him as a man "who pushed me over the abyss and then jumped in after me. He took me on some great adventures." Peckinpah first explored the theme of the mythologized West in another great film: Ride the High Country, seven years earlier. It features Western star Randolph Scott in his final screen performance.

Major Awards:
  • Nominated for Best Original Score (Jerry Fielding)
  • Nominated for Best Writing (Peckinpah and Walon Green). 
Other Films by Peckinpah:
  • Ride the High Country 1962
  • Major Dundee 1965
  • The Ballad of Cable Hogue 1970
  • Straw Dogs 1971
  • The Getaway 1972
  • Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid 1973
  • Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia 1974 

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Casablanca (1942) -- Michael Curtiz

A brooding Rick asks pianist Sam to play As Time Goes By.
It is December 1941 and the German tentacles of domination have reached North Africa. Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart), an exiled American and former freedom fighter, owns the most popular nightclub in Casablanca. On the surface Rick is as cynical as they come, saying he sticks his neck out for nobody, but at heart he is idealistic. The Moroccan city is governed by the Vichy French and is a jumping off point for refugees looking to flee Europe. The black market flourishes. Rick comes into possession of two letters of transit, tickets to America that many would die for. When Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid), an important Czech Resistance leader arrives with his wife Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman), Rick must confront painful memories—he and Elsa were once lovers. She broke his heart in Paris with no explanation. Major Strasser (Conrad Veidt), a high-ranking Gestapo official who hopes to detain Laszlo, orders the local police to keep the man under observation, but Captain Renault (Claude Rains), an unscrupulous police captain and friend of Rick's, will go where the wind blows.

Director Curtiz fashioned a memorable and tightly plotted film. Working with brothers Julius and Philip Epstein's wonderful script, as good an ensemble cast ever gathered, and a top-notch cameraman, it's no wonder the film works so well. Each scene propels the action forward and is packed with crackling dialog. Famous quotable lines include: "Here's looking at you kid," "I think this is be the beginning of a beautiful friendship," "We'll always have Paris," and "I came to Casablanca for the waters."           

Bogart as the embittered Rick Blaine
Bogart's transformation from the thug he often played in 1930 gangster films to the cool cynic persona he's best known for today, and first displayed two years earlier in The Maltese Falcon, is complete in the character of Rick, looking great in a white tux or trench coat and fedora. It's a marvelous performance. He holds the film together. No-one ever delivered bitterness and hurt better. Ilsa's arrival opens old wounds; he says "Tell me, who was it you left me for? Was it Lazlo, or were there others in between or... aren't you the kind that tells?" The character is easy for anyone to relate to who has loved and lost. And that's part of the film's charm too; it sews a love story into the fabric of an adventure thriller, where a common looking man can win the beautiful girl, even if it's for but a brief period.    
[about Rick] Strasser: You give him credit for too much cleverness. My impression was that he's just another blundering American.
Renault: We mustn't underestimate "American blundering". I was with them when they "blundered" into Berlin in 1918.
Rick's club is the site for most of the action, a perfect setting for intrigue, but the best scene occurs at the end at the airport, shrouded in heavy fog. The five main characters converge and it is not until the final moment that Curtiz lets the audience find out how it will turn out, and what kind of men Rick and Renault really are. Great moments at Rick's include the rousing rendition of  La Marseillaise to drown out  the German anthem, the rigged Roulette game, Renault's gambling payoff, Rick's drunken brooding, and Dooley Wilson's piano.
Bergman, convincingly conflicted, is stunningly lit in black and white, while Veidt is coldly reptilian and condescending. Rarely do you want a villain to get his just deserts more. 

The supporting  actors are all terrific, starting with Claude Rains as the shifty and amusing Renault, Rick's brother in arms. They both despise the Nazis. Always a solid performer, Rains nearly steals the show with some of the best lines. Portly Sidney Greenstreet owns the Blue Parrott, Rick's competition, and Peter Lorre is sufficiently sleazy as the parasitic Ugarte, who preys on desperate people trying to escape the city.

And it has that most romantic song, penned by Herman Hupfeld in 1931.

What Makes Casablanca Special:

At its core the film has a theme to rally around: the good guys against the evil oppressor. The Nazis, personified by the menacing Major Strasser, must be stopped, or in this case, out-foxed. This is patriotism without it being in-your-face. When Rick tells Elsa that the problems of three little people don't amount to a hill of beans, we understand and like to think that we too, possess such a noble character. It makes us feel good about ourselves and our country. That the message is delivered by such charismatic and memorable actors, is icing on the cake.      

Bogart and Bergman embrace after Ilsa tried to force him to give her the letters of transit.
There are certainly films technically superior to Casablanca, more ground-breaking, or with better acting or cinematography; but for pure entertainment, nothing tops the film. And that's what most people want out of a movie, escapism and enjoyment. On that level, it's one of the best film ever made. 

Inside Story:
Conrad Veidt was a staunch anti-Nazi who fled Germany in 1933 after Hitler came to power. He became a British citizen in 1939 and donated a portion of his film earnings to the British war effort. He died one year after making Casablanca, just fifty years old. 

Arthur Edison excelled at black and white cinematography. He handled the cameras on two other classic films, 1930's All Quiet on the Western Front, for which he received an Oscar nomination, and The Maltese Falcon.  

Round up the usual suspects.

Curtiz'sCasablanca was Yankee Doodle Dandy, another that garnered Oscar nominations for Picture, Director, and Actor. Bogart lost but James Cagney won.

The film opened in November 1942, less than a year after the United States' entrance into WWII. The timing was right. By then, Nazis were justifiably vilified everywhere outside the Axis, and any film that demonized them had a good chance of success. The New York Times was impressed. It said the film "makes the spine tingle and the heart take a leap." As Time Goes By first appeared in a 1932 Broadway show, Everybody's Welcome.

Major Awards:
  • Nominated for eight Academy Awards, it won for Best Picture, Best Director, and screenplay.
  • Bogart and Rains were nominated for acting, Arthur Edison for cinematography, and Max Stiener for music.
  • Selected by the National Registry in 1989 as one of 25 landmark films.
Other films by Curtiz:
  • The Sea Wolf 1947
  • Yankee Doodle Dandy 1942
  • Passage to Marseille 1945
  • Mildred Pierce 1945
  • White Christmas 1954