Sunday, August 28, 2011

Key Largo (1948) - John Huston

Frank McCloud (Humphrey Bogart), a World War II vet, comes to Key Largo to visit the family of one of the men he commanded who was killed in action during the invasion of Italy. The dead soldier's wheelchair-bound father, James Temple (Lionel Barrymore), runs a hotel, assisted by his daughter-in-law Nora (Lauren Bacall). It is the height of summer heat and humidity. The hotel is closed, the only guests a shady group of characters claiming to be from Chicago on a fishing trip. McCloud suspects otherwise and soon learns they are gangsters, led by the notorious Rocco (Edward G. Robinson), a deportee who has snuck back into the country from Cuba with a suitcase full of counterfeit money that he plans to sell to some old crime partners. McCloud must contend with two threats, a fast-approaching hurricane and the increasingly nervous mobsters.

Edward G. Robinson as Johnny Rocco. 

The final of four parings for Bogart and Bacall (the others being: To Have and Have Not, The Big Sleep and Dark Passage), this may be the least satisfying as far as their characters' interaction. Bacall has little to do. The focus here is on the give and take between Bogart and Robinson, which is terrifically charged and exciting. But Key Largo is really Robinson's film, and his portrayal of Johnny Rocco, a mean hood whose tough guy behavior compensates for self-doubt, is great. Reminiscent of his breakthrough role as Rico in Little Caesar 17 years earlier, one can imagine that had Rico lived, he might have turned out as Rocco, his blood lust tempered by experience, but his thirst for being a player never satisfied.

When first introduced he is sitting in a bath, trying to keep cool in front of a vacillating fan. He holds a drink in one hand, a newspaper in the other. A fat cigar hangs from his mouth. Right away you know this ugly little man is dangerous.

Rocco's temperament is all over the place as the story unfolds. Initially he is loud and outwardly confident, a typical bully, humiliating his old girlfriend and threatening the Temples. Later, when the hurricane approaches with all its terrifying force, he cowers in fear, wondering if the roof is about to be torn off. Temple fuels his concern with tales of devastation and death from prior storms. By the end of the film, Rocco shows his true colors in a confrontation with McCloud where his tough guy facade cracks to reveal a coward.

Along the way, a revealing exchange between McCloud and Rocco captures the essence of the gangster's character. He has no great motive to act as he does; he's just mean because he wants to be.

Rocco: There's only one Johnny Rocco.
Temple: How do you account for it?
McCloud: He knows what he wants. Don't you, Rocco?
Rocco: Sure.
Temple: What's that?
McCloud: Tell him, Rocco.
Rocco: Well, I want uh ...
McCloud: He wants more, don't you, Rocco?
Rocco: Yeah. That's it. More. That's right! I want more!
Temple: Will you ever get enough?
McCloud:Will you, Rocco?
Rocco: Well, I never have. No, I guess I won't. You, do you know what you want?
McCloud: Yes, I had hopes once, but I gave them up.
Rocco: Hopes for what?
McCloud: world in which there's no place for Johnny Rocco.

Rocco wants to recapture the glory days, before his deportation. He acts as if he can still rise to the top of the mob. He and his henchman constantly talk bout Prohibition, and what went wrong. It'll come back, they believe, and this time they say, the mob families won't fight. It's a pipe dream, and shows that the man can't change with the times.

The film's best scene has Rocco forcing Gaye Dawn (Claire Trevor), to sing for a drink. Once lovers, alcoholism has taken its toll on the moll since Rocco fled the country. She now disgusts him and he ignores her for the most part. When she begs for a drink he tells her she must first sing. Trevor's sad rendition of "Moanin' Low" is a big reason she won that year's Oscar for Best Supporting Actress. A cappella and pathetic, Rocco winces as he listens, wondering how he ever found her attractive. He reneges on his promise of a drink saying, "you were rotten."

By 1948 Trevor was well-established as a femme fetale. The previous year she had starred in Born to Kill as a conniving figure about as amoral as Johnny Rocco. And before that, she tried to manipulate Dick Powell in Murder My Sweet. Here, she does a 180, helping the hero by slipping him a gun, but still, you wonder if she'll find happiness afterwards. Hers is a much meatier role than Bacall's and she performs brilliantly.

Claire Trevor as Gaye Dawn

In another characteristic scene, Rocco whispers lechery into Nora's ear. You don't hear what he says but it's obviously offensive and suggestive. Nora scratches and spits in his face, the only action involving Bacall in the whole film.

Bogart plays a reluctant hero. McCloud only rises to the occasion when forced to; he'd just as soon see Rocco complete his mission and leave. Still, he can only take so much and knows scum when he sees it. After witnessing Rocco's crude behaviour, he risks needling the gangster: "You don't like it, do you Rocco, the storm? Show it your gun, why don't you? If it doesn't stop, shoot it." When Rocco's boat captain disappears under cover of the storm, Rocco calls on the veteran to steer them back to Cuba.

Bogart as McCloud starts to get under Rocco's skin.

If the film has a failing, it's the end. The final resolution seems less satisfying than one might hope. You assume throughout that Rocco will get his comeuppance, but there is little danger in the last ten minutes. It's too easy for Bogart.

Director John Huston had worked with Bogart three times before, most recently in a film that same year which over-shadowed this one, The Treasure of Sierra Madre. Nominated for Best Film and Best Director, Treasure is more acclaimed, and rightfully so. Still, Key Largo is a fine followup.

For the era, Huston does a good enough job with special effects to mimic a hurricane. Windows shatter, trees are uprooted, and stock footage of real storms show the surge of seawater up the shore.

It's fitting that like fellow actor and gangster alum James Cagney, Robinson would score big later in his career with a return to the genre that started it all, recapturing the menace he first exhibited in Little Caesar in 1931. Depression audiences lapped up the diversionary gangster films, for that same year saw Cagney's first attention-getting role in The Public Enemy. If both men had since mainly moved onto other types of roles, they knew a good role when they saw one; Robinson beating his friend to the punch as Cagney's return to crime came one year later in a tour de force performance in White Heat.

Inexplicably, Robinson never received an Oscar nomination. His performance here seems particularly slighted. A shame, since it turned out to be his last real chance for such recognition.

The Best of Edward G. Robinson:
  • Little Caesar (1931)
  • The Amazing Dr. Clitterhouse (1938)
  • The Sea Wolf (1941)
  • Double Indemnity (1944)
  • The Woman in the Window (1944)
  • Scarlet Street (1945)
  • The Stranger (1946)
  • Key Largo (1948)
  • The Cincinnati Kid (1965)
  • Soylent Green (1973)

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

The French Connection (1971) -- William Friedkin

Hard drugs have become scarce on the street when two tough New York City narcotics cops get wind of a large drug shipment coming in from France. Over the course of several days Popeye Doyle (Gene Hackman) and Buddy "Cloudy" Russo (Roy Scheider) match wits with the mastermind, suave Alain Charnier (Fernando Rey), a big international heroin dealer. After long, tedious hours of surveillance, they move to effect what they hope will be a major drug bust.

Based on real events a decade before but set in 1971, The French Connection is one of those rare films that seems to perfectly capture the period and setting of its story. New York has never seemed as gritty and dangerous, and the life of a big city cop never so tedious and frustrating. It's a gripping tale of what it's like for police in the uphill battle against the scourge of drugs. There is a somewhat documentary feel to the action, and with a script laced with crude street language and populated with junkies, small-time and big-time crooks, and red-eyed cops, director William Friedkin and his actors achieve remarkable authenticity. (Hackman and Scheider shadowed real cops Eddie Egan and Sonny Grosso for a month to get a feel for the job). Hackman gives one of his best performances as the obsessed, manic protagonist.

Gene Hackman as Popeye Doyle.
The pacing of the film is superb. Friedkin begins by unveiling the smuggling plan with action in Marseilles, then shifts to New York to introduce Popeye, dressed as Santa Claus, and his partner Cloudy in a highly effective set piece. The two cops are on a routine drug case, looking for a particular dealer. When their suspect takes flight, they follow on foot, huffing and puffing until they corner him in a rubble-strewn yard. Popeye plays bad cop, Cloudy, good cop as they work the fellow over.

Popeye Doyle: "All right! You put a shiv in my partner. You know what that means? Goddammit! All winter long I got to listen to him gripe about his bowling scores. Now I'm gonna bust your ass for those three bags and I'm gonna nail you for picking your feet in Poughkeepsie."
 And later:
Doyle:   "You dumb guinea."
Cloudy: "How the hell was I supposed to know he had a knife."
Doyle:    "Never trust a nigger."
Cloudy: "He could have been white."
Doyle: "Never trust anyone!"
You understand immediately that Popeye Doyle is not someone to mess with. Rough and difficult for his superiors to control, he is a seriously angry man, used to dealing with street scum. He has a drinking problem too, but after seeing the world these policemen live in, you can hardly blame him. That they operate in an environment that is more often than not unrewarding is bad enough. Worse, they must endure hours of mind-nubbing boredom interspersed with intense moments of action. It takes a toll. It's as if a middle-aged, pot-bellied marathon runner were required at gunpoint to sprint a hundred yards every half mile.     

In an emotional sense, Popeye is isolated. Like many cops in his situation, except for his partner, he is alone, figuratively and literally. He is a lonely man who must immerse himself in his work to have a purpose, and who compensates for his isolation by acting tough and aggressive. Friedkin crafted a great scene where Popeye and Cloudy shake down a group of dealers and users in a dingy bar. They are outnumbered, maybe twenty to two. Popeye yells and curses, shoves them against the wall, slaps a few, and acts fearless. Pill boxes litter the floor and are taped to the underside of the bar, quickly discarded by the patrons upon the cops' appearance. They are used to the routine. Popeye concocts a disgusting looking cocktail out the mess, dumping it on the bar as he leaves. "I'll be back," he warns. It's a wonderfully claustrophobic setting in one of the biggest cities in the world.

There is plenty of action. The now famous chase comes about halfway through the film. Charnier sends a sniper to take out Doyle, who's getting too close for comfort and is being a nuisance. The hit fails and Popeye takes off after the shooter, setting off the memorable car chase sequence, a wonderful bit of stunt driving. Hackman (mostly stunt coordinator Bill Hickman) careens down the crowded street like a mad man, beneath the elevated tracks of a West End subway line as the hit man races above in a high-jacked train. He weaves through pedestrians and vehicle traffic, nearly hitting a woman pushing a baby carriage and is side-swiped into an abutment doing the pursuit, a real accident that Friedkin kept in the film. Deservedly considered one of the best of its type ever filmed, it is a thrilling ride for the viewer and surely was an adrenalin-sapping one for the film crew.

Doyle and the sniper have a deadly encounter.
Friedkin used hidden cameras in a scene that takes place earlier at the Times Square/Grand Central subway station. Doyle and Charnier play cat and mouse, jumping in and out of cars, trying to act nonchalant, until the smuggler makes his get-away. It is superbly edited, and considering that none of the other riders knew a movie was being made, as close to realism as you can get.

Catching crooks is tedious business, of course. No film shows this better, and the frustration policemen deal with: red tape; long, boring nights of surveillance; and worse of all, justice denied. The story takes place in winter and in one such scene, Doyle watches Charnier eat a fancy dinner in a restaurant while he nibbles on a donut and drinks old coffee from a Styrofoam cup on the street outside.

Two cops on a stakeout.

When Doyle finally learns how the drugs are being smuggled into the country, he arranges a bust, knowing the exchange is about to made at an abandoned warehouse. The shootout finale goes quick, but Charnier ducks into a decrepit building with Doyle hot on his heals. Some viewers don't like the ending, but I found it appropriate.

Not surprisingly the film was one of the most decorated and critically acclaimed of the decade, garnering eight Oscar nominations and winning five awards, including Hackman as Best Actor, Friedkin as Best Director, Best Picture, and Best Editing.  Don Ellis wrote the jazzy score, which adds wonderfully to the mood, ominous and edgy.

Of course, Friedkin has embellished the story quite a bit. In real life the famous chase scene never happened--Popeye certainly never shot a man in the back--and the depicted bust was made at the homes of the American drug partners, not in the dramatic fashion depicted. 

Other Films by William Friedkin

  • The Exorcist - 1973
  • Sorcerer - 1977
  • To Live and Die in L.A. - 1985
Other Films by Gene Hackman
  • Bonnie and Clyde - 1967
  • The Poseidon Adventure - 1972
  • The Conversation - 1974
  • Hoosiers - 1986
  • Mississippi Burning - 1988
  • Unforgiven - 1992

Monday, August 1, 2011

The Naked Spur (1953) - Anthony Mann

Bounty hunter Howard Kemp (Jimmy Stewart) is on the trail of a murderer, Ben Vandergroat (Robert Ryan), and the $5,000 reward on his head. Kemp wants the money to repurchase land he once owned, but lost to a conniving wife while he was away in the war. Kemp joins forces with an old prospector, whom he offers $20 to help, and a discharged Union soldier of questionable repute. Vandergroat is traveling with a woman, (Janet Leigh). When the three pursuers finally catch up with their prey, he immediately sizes up their greedy natures and begins to sow doubt and distrust, hoping they'll turn against one another and allow his escape.
Jimmy Stewart as bounty hunter Howard Kemp.
This is the third of five exciting Westerns that Stewart made with director Anthony Mann in the 1950's. In each, Stewart portrays a rougher character type than he had built his career on up to that time. Stewart, as much as anyone in the history of Hollywood, grew as an actor, developing an entirely different screen persona over time. His work with Mann seems to mark the change. Whether it was his age--42--or a natural outgrowth of his experience as a bomber pilot in World War II, Stewart undergoes a remarkable transformation, aided by Mann's ability to tap into something previously kept hidden from audiences. Where once he mostly played genial, content characters, he began to take on more complicated, dark roles, cynical men with repressed anger. Starting with Winchester '73 in 1950; and followed by Bend in the River in 1952; The Naked Spur in 1953; The Far Country in 1954; and finally The Man From Laramie in 1955, Stewart and Mann fashioned a not so likable hero. By the time he made Vertigo with Hitchcock in 1958, and Anatomy of a Murder with Preminger in 1959, Stewart's characters can exhibit a disturbing lack of composure or grasp on accepted behavior.

As Mann's Western hero, Stewart is typically flawed, a loner, a man with a hidden past or with something that gnaws at his character. He possesses an obsessive quality to his personality and can be downright mean if he has to. As Howard Kemp, Stewart effectively conveys a wide range of emotions, from raging anger to quiet resignation. Still, deep down, the character retains a moral compass and understands right from wrong.  It's a sold performance, enhanced by an interesting script.

Mann packs the film with plenty of action, including the terrific climactic shootout at some raging rapids which required some niffy stunt work. There is also a quick battle with Indians. But the psychological game that Vandergroat is playing on his captives is as fun to watch as these set pieces. He tries to manipulate the men to his advantage, and cares for the girl only so long as she serves a purpose. The script, by Sam Rolfe and Harold Jack Bloom, received an Oscar nomination, a rarity for a Western.

The Rocky Mountains provide a beautiful Technicolor backdrop, a hallmark of any Mann/Stewart Western. William Mellor served as cinematographer on this one. Two years earlier he had won the Oscar for splendid work on A Place in the Sun. If Mann had no favorite cameraman, he at least knew how to pick good ones. He used four different cameramen for the five films with Stewart. Between them they had 26 Oscar nominations and 4 wins. 

Robert Ryan waits in ambush
Robert Ryan has seldom been better. He needs a shave and is dirty and his rugged looks are perfect for the part of the devious outlaw. He's really the star of the film, laughing at his captors to get them off guard. With the exception of Kemp, they are easy touches. Ralph Meeker plays the soldier, a man you are never too sure whose side he is on, and Millard Mitchell the grizzled prospector, almost unrecognizable behind a full beard were it not for his distinctive voice. (Millard, who also appeared as Stewart's sidekick in the Winchester '73, was fresh off his performance as a movie mogul in the musical Singing in the Rain ). Both are fine, though Mitchell needed to work on being a credible copse; he clearly can be seen breathing after Ryan shoots him dead. Janet Leigh is lovely in her short cropped blond hair.

Some viewers may think the ending is too abrupt, but it is within character. Kemp is a man who needs a new beginning. To make one, and to severe himself from the past that drives him, he makes the right decision.

Robert Ryan tries to outwit his captors.

Named to National Film Registry in 1997.

Other Films by Anthony Mann
  • The Furies - 1950
  • Winchester '73 - 1950
  • Bend in the River - 1952
  • The Far Country - 1954
  • The Man from Laramie - 1955
  • The Tin Star - 1957
  • Man of the West - 1958
  • Spartacus - 1960 (Fired by Kirk Douglas and replaced by Stanley Kubrick. The salt mine scene is the only remaining contribution by Mann).
  • El Cid - 1961
  • The Fall of the Roman Empire - 1964