Tuesday, July 5, 2011

City Lights (1931) - Charlie Chaplin

A poor tramp in familiar baggy pants, tight coat, and hat becomes smitten when he meets a flower girl. She is beautiful, but blind and just slightly less destitute than he. He gives her his last coin for a flower for his lapel. She is charmed and mistakes him for a wealthy man. Touched, the tramp keeps up the pretense and begins to look for ways to earn enough money for an operation to restore her sight. He tried his hand at street cleaning and as a boxer--both efforts end miserably, but his fortune changes through a chance encounter with an alcoholic millionaire, intent on suicide. When the tramp saves the man from jumping into the river, he is befriended. From that point onward, through several different meetings, so long as the millionaire is inebriated, he opens his wallet to his new friend.

Generally considered his masterpiece, City Lights stars Chaplin as his iconic Tramp character. He is certainly at the height of his immense talent. Exercising complete creative control, Chaplin also directed the film, wrote the screenplay, produced it, did the editing, and composed the effective score. Essentially a love story, Chaplin unfolds the tale with some of the most hilarious comedy sequences ever filmed.

Audiences today have little appreciation for the genius of Chaplin. It's on view here in his unparallelled comedic timing and inventive physicality, and through his uncanny ability to evoke deep feelings from the viewer without dialog. Chaplin made this film four years after talkies revolutionized the film industry and altered what audiences came to expect from films.  His two great contemporaries, Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd, had already abandoned silent films, and for all intense and purposes retired with the advent of sound.

It was a big risk. After all, the nation was in the midst of the Depression and understandably, audiences were increasingly discerning as to how they spent entertainment dollars. But Chaplin was an immensely confident man. He believed in his ability as an artist able to transcend the age. The result is evident in every scene.

We are introduced to the Tramp in the opening sequence. A mayor is giving a speech before a civic crowd. Chaplin uses a series of unintelligible high-pitched squeaks and sounds to represent the typical bloated political speech. It sounds reminiscent of the noises used for adult speech in 1960's Charlie Brown Peanuts television specials. Someone pulls the cord to lower the canvas cover to unveil a hidden monument. The Tramp is asleep in the arms of one of the figures. The crowd hollers for him to remove himself, and when he tries, his pants get stuck on the sword of another, reclining figure. As the band strikes up the National Anthem, the vagrant removes his hat and places it on his heart.

Several other sight gags will likely draw a chuckle from the viewer: the Tramp stops to admire the figure of a naked woman in a window, stepping on and off a freight elevator in the sidewalk as it alternatively rises and falls to gain better perspective; most of several bottles of champagne end up in his pants; and at a party, he mistakes a man's bald head for a plate of food. One of the best takes place during a sequence with the drunken millionaire as the two friends share dinner at a nightclub. While eating a plate of spaghetti, a curly streamer from the ceiling falls onto Charlie's plate and winds up in his mouth. He chews and chews but can't seem to come to the end of this "noodle."

A long noodle. 
Charlie borrows the millionaire's car and gives the blind girl a ride home, reinforcing her mistaken impression that he is rich. He visits her often in her modest apartment, and on one occasion, presents her a newspaper article about a miracle cure for blindness. At the same time, her landlord is threatening to evict her for failure to pay the rent. Charlie promises to give her the money the next morning.

What follows is one of Chaplin's best set pieces, the boxing match. The winner will earn $50. It is choreographed to perfection, with Charlie using the referee as a shield, bouncing in a funny shuffle to keep the man between himself and his opponent. The music Chaplin overlays to the scene works beautifully. Charlie lands several punches, gets the bell cord stuck around his neck, and even vaults off the ropes a few times to catapult himself into the stomach of his foe, but eventually he is knocked unconscious and loses the fight.  

Like all great silent films, there is much in a closeup. Chaplin and the other actors amuse the audience with some wonderful expressions of fear, false courage, and disdain. Hank Mann plays the Tramp's ring opponent. Nearly always listed as "uncredited," Mann would have a long film career. Here he is wonderfully dour.
The famous fight scene.
Fortune finds the depressed tramp again as he encounters the drunken millionaire a third time. He gives Charlie enough money for the girl's operation, but confusion over a robbery soon lands Charlie in jail, but not before he completes his mission and passes the money to the girl.

The final moments are special, and rank with the great emotional endings in all of film. Chaplin demonstrates that he was more than a mere director of film, he was a poet, able to weave pathos and humor together to produce magic. It is several months later. Released from jail, the tramp encounters the girl; with sight restored, she is now the owner of a prosperous flower shop. She takes pity on the strange vagrant and offers him a coin and a flower. Their hands touch, she recognizes the feel of his, and it suddenly dawns on her who is standing before her, her mysterious benefactor, not a rich man but a homeless one.

Virginia Cherill plays the blind flower girl. She is lovely and later married Cary Grant.

Films competing with City Lights that year for audiences included two horror classics: Dracula and Frankenstein; two classic gangster movies: The Public Enemy and Little Caesar; and that year's Best Oscar-winning film and epic Western, Cimarron. Still, City Lights impressively was the fourth highest grossing film.
City Lights was named to the National Film Registry in 1971, the third induction class. It should have been in the inaugural group.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Favorite Films of the 1940s

It's silly to try to pick a top ten favorites from the 1940s, as more top quality films were produced that decade than any other. You certainly cannot pick a definitive list, as it is more than likely to change depending on your mood. One could easily name five each from just Hitchcock and John Ford and you'd have an outstanding selection. Or five each from Humphrey Bogart and Edgar G. Robinson. Or ten film noirs, a genre that came into its own during the decade. In any case, no-one can deny that for classic film lovers, it is a phenomenal period. Here are ten of mine, listed in chronological order. A few actors have multiple appearances: Claude Rains, Dana Andrews, Ingrid Bergman, Teresa Wright, and Joseph Cotten. And noirs do comprise five or six of my favorites, depending on how you define the term.

1. Casablanca - 1942

Michael Curtiz's masterpiece has one of the most quotable scripts and outstanding casts of all time. Bogart plays the cynical Rick, still in love with Ilsa, played by a beautiful Ingrid Bergman. She and husband, an important Czech freedom fighter, are in the North African city looking to escape the Nazi's. Claude Rains, Sidney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre - what could be better. "Round up the usual suspects."

2. Shadow of a Doubt - 1943

Joseph Cotten best career performance as Teresa Wright's uncle Charlie, the Merry Widow Murderer. He's on the run from police and looking for cover. He gives a chilling speech at dinner about "silly, useless wives," that waste money and are "horrible, faded, fat, greedy women." One of Hitchcock's best, it shows that evil can raise its ugly head anywhere, even in quaint, quiet towns like Santa Rosa.

3. Double Indemnity - 1944

Insurance agent Fred MacMurray is ensnared by Barbara Stanwyck, whose Phyllis Dietrichson is sexy and conniving and spots a sap when she sees one. She wants her husband dead and Walter Neff's just the man to do it. A clever script based on a Raymond Chandler novel, the film deserved its 7 Oscar nominations. Neff provides the voice-over. "Yes, I killed him. I killed him for money - and a woman - and I didn't get the money and I didn't get the woman. Pretty, isn't it?" One of Billy Wilder's best.

4. Laura - 1946

Someone killed Laura Hunt and police detective Dana Andrews heads the investigation in one of director Otto Preminger's best. Along the way he falls in love with the dead woman's portrait. Clifton Webb plays a newspaper columnist and the girl's acerbic mentor, Waldo Lydecker. He received a well-deserved Oscar nomination for supporting actor. One of his best lines: "I don't use a pen. I write with a goose quill dipped in venom."

5. Notorious - 1946

Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman team up as U.S. agents in Buenos Aires to spy on a group Nazis. The plot involves uranium, but that's not important in this Hitchcock story of intrigue. One of Cary Grant's first serious roles, his performance is outstanding as a man who ignore his heart for his duty. In love with Ingrid, he nevertheless sends her into harms way. Claude Rains plays a seemingly respectable businessman, caught unawares by the woman he too, loves. It relies less on action than on the emotional and mental anguish the stars undergo. A brilliant film.     

6. Great Expectations - 1946

Pip, a poor orphan, has a mysterious benefactor who enables him to journey to London to become a gentleman. David Lean is known for directing some of the world's most successful epics: Bridge on the River Kwai, Lawrence of Arabia, Doctor Zhivago, etc. But it is his smaller, more intimate films from the 1940s that are my favorites. This film is the finest film adaptation of a Dickens' novel. Lean and his actors bring to life the book's memorable characters: the convict Magwich, the attorney Mr. Jaggers, and an old woman stuck in the past, Miss Havisham.

7. The Best Years of Our Lives - 1946

Belongs among the handful of greatest American films ever produced. William Wyler's masterpiece, it is as near a perfect film as you can get. Superior script, acting, and direction. No other "coming home" comes close to its realism and ability to affect the viewer as we follow three likable men home from WWII.  Several scenes stick with you: the emotional meeting between Dana Andrews and Best Actor winner, Fredric March, in Butch's Bar as March tells Andrews to leave his daughter alone (Teresa Wright); Andrews' father reading his son's medal citation; March coming home to surprise his wife (Myrna Loy); Andrews in the cockpit of an abandoned bomber. Wyler's other best of the decade were The Heiress and The Letter.

8. Black Narcissus - 1947

A group of nuns arrive at a convent high in the Himalayas, where the rarefied air does something to westerners. Deborah Kerr stars and her performance as Sister Clodah is terrific. She has her hands full with her own crisis of faith, and the odd behavior of her nuns, especially Sister Ruth, played chillingly by Kathleen Byron. One of directors Powell and Pressburger's impressive output in the decade, which included The Red Shoes, A Matter of Life and Death, I Know Where I'm Going, and Life and Death of Colonel Blimp. P&P films have luscious cinematography and highly interesting stories.

9. Out of the Past - 1947

Perhaps the definitive film noir. All the requisite components of the genre are here: lots of shadows and lighting; a story that you know will have a dark end for someone; a cynical hero in Robert Mitchum, an amoral detective who gets in way over his head; and a gorgeous femme fatale in Jane Greer, the woman who plays Mitchum like a sap. He knows it too, saying in one voice over, "How big a chump can you be? I was finding out." Kirk Douglas in an early role provides support.

10. The Third Man - 1949

Director Carol Reed's marvelous look at intrigue in post-war Vienna. Joseph Cotten is a down-and-out writer of pulp Westerns named Holly Martins. He's looking to land a job with his old friend, Harry Lime, but arrives too late, learning that Lime is dead, recently struck down by a hit-and-run driver. When accounts of the death don't quite agree, Martins gets suspicious and starts poking around, attracted in large part by Alida Valli, Lime's lover, Anna Schmidt. Vienna is not what it seems. The black market flourishes in the bombed-out streets and Lime's old friends, odd and mysterious, seem to be keeping a secret. This is one of the most atmospheric films ever made, infused with a bizarre zither music and some of the best black and white cinematography ever recorded. It contains one of film's most shocking appearances and a spectacular chase through the city's old sewers.

Just Missing:

The Treasure of Sierra Madre - 1948

She Wore a Yellow Ribbon - 1949

The Ox Bow Incident - 1943

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp - 1943

Late Spring - 1949

Key Largo - 1948

Friday, July 1, 2011

The Sand Pebbles (1966) - Robert Wise

A seaman looks across the gangplank at a U.S. gunboat, the San Pablo. Commissioned during the Spanish-American war, it has seen better days. The Navy vessel patrols the Yangtze River in China. It is 1926. A machinist mate first class, the man is a transfer, having been seen as a hard case and maverick by his previous skipper. He wants just one thing--to be left alone. When he enters the engine room after boarding he looks around, smiles, and places a hand on the machinery. "Hello, Engine;" he says. "I'm Jake Holman." Holman is played by Steve McQueen, who gives the most sensitive performance of his career, showing considerably more range than he's usually credited for. He is a quiet man, hard to get to know, and someone you immediately sense carries old hurts inside. He is more comfortable with machinery than people.

Jake Holman reports to the San Pablo.

The crew members call themselves sand pebbles. For the most part they are a sorry bunch, often relying on paid help from Chinese coolies to do their work. And the work is pure drudgery, hot and unrewarding. They spend their days in boredom, and their nights drinking and whoring in the saloons, all the while looking with disdain on the local populace. They are like a lot of men who live in close quarters with little to do and with scant prospects for the future; they are just doing their time and growing ever more slack in their duties, long past the time they felt any pride in wearing a uniform. Holman is destined to stir things up, and amidst the volatile political climate of the country, which is rapidly shaking off its feudal heritage and imperialistic chains, he and the crew will find themselves swept up by something they have little control over. Communist forces start to gain power and threaten to oust all foreigners from the country, and the ship is sent to collect a group of missionaries at the China Light Mission from anti-foreign mobs. Naive and blind to the historic revolution brewing, the missionaries believe god and reason will protect them.

There is a lot in this film to admire: McQueen's acting; the stunning cinematography of Joseph MacDonald, which captures both the exquisite beauty of China and the squalor of its cities; Jerry Goldsmith's lush score; and several fine action sequences. Director Wise was fresh off two enormous successes: West Side Story and The Sound of Music. This was a big departure from those. That he managed to distill a complex story as well as he did is quite an achievement. The source novel by Richard McKenna, his only novel, appeared in 1962. At nearly 600 pages it goes into greater detail about the turmoil affecting the country as nationalism grows. Still, the film is a good half-hour too long. One wonders if Wise was trying to produce an "epic" along the lines of David Lean with Lawrence of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago.

Wise retained the most important parts of the novel, including the budding love affair between Jake and Shirley Eckert (pretty Candice Bergen, just twenty years old at the time). Shirley is a young missionary who manages to touch Jake's heart, cracking his tough exterior. There are a couple of nice scenes between the two as they get to know one another, floating on a serene inlet in a row boat, and Jake trying to toss a stone onto a statue of an elephant. Good luck is said to follow those who succeed. He does, but happiness will prove to be elusive. Both actors convey innocence. McQueen is particularly unassuming here and likable, far different than his typical macho persona.

Holman is an immensely likable character, one that most male viewers could relate to. At the core, he is a traditional American--a loner you can trust to do his job, unobtrusive up to a point; but when incited will give you his all, even if it means sacrificing his own safety for a bigger cause. That he will do this without fully understanding why, makes him that much more attractive and admirable. Wise and McQueen capture these traits beautifully in the last scene, with Holman wounded and under attack. "What happened? he asks himself.

Another love affair drags the movie down, that between Jake's friend Frenchie (Richard Attenbourgh) and Maily, a girl forced into prostitution. Although sensitively done, Wise would have been better off to jettison it.

The action sequences include a thrilling attack on a Chinese river blockade by the San Pablo, its crew finally showing some pride, and the chase and murder of Jake's other friend, Po-han (Mako). Po-han is a lovable character, who Jake takes under his wing as his assistant. Po-han struggles with the English language but wants to learn. His lessons are quite funny. His death, at the hands of Chinese rebels, is the most shocking scene in the film, savage and bloody. Jake watches from the deck of the San Pablo as the insurgents capture his friend and string him up on a pole, where the leader commences to slice his chest and stomach with a large knife. The captain, unwilling to incite an international  incident over a coolie, refuses to interfere. McQueen plays the scene perfectly, furious and full of anguish.
The river blockade battle.

There is another tense scene, a violent boxing match involving Po-han and a racist crew mate of Jake's that looks all too real. The sailor is played by Simon Oakland, who towers over the smaller man and out-weights him by a hundred pounds. Wise stages it expertly. The cigarette smoke hangs in the air, the audience drinks and noisily exhorts their betting favorite on, and the fighters exhaust themselves in blood and sweat.

McQueen earned his only Oscar nomination for the film (losing to Paul Scofield in A Man for All Seasons), and the film eight nominations in all. It won none, perhaps indicating that the day of big road-show movies had passed. Both the film and the director were nominated, Wise for the third time. He'd already won two.

Richard Crenna plays the gunboat's captain, a man trying hard to maintain his dignity and the ship's discipline. His confidence is low and at one point he contemplates suicide. He is excellent. His character is the real dramatic center of the film as far as history goes--he represents the tradition of the U.S. Navy, far from home and trying to maintain a foothold in a rapidly changing nation, one that violently resents the Navy's presence. Internal forces are about to explode as the march of history brings American imperialism in China to an end.

Richard Crenna as Captain Collins.
Other Films by Robert Wise:
  • Born to Kill 1947
  • Run Silent Run Deep 1958
  • West Side Story 1961
  • The Haunting 1963
  • The Sound of Music 1965
Other Films by Steve McQueen:   

  • The Great Escape 1963
  • Love and the Proper Stranger 1963
  • The Cincinnati Kid 1965
  • Bullitt 1968
  • Papillon 1973