Monday, February 20, 2012

Favorite Films of the 1960s

The 1960s were my formative years and my introduction to movies. Here are some of my favorites from the decade--I tried but can't cut it to ten. Some on the list may not be the decade's best, but they're ones I revisit often, ones that I can't resist watching when I come upon them surfing the TV,  from whatever point in the film.

A transitional decade for American film, by the end the old Studio system was kaput; and mirroring the changing society, films became progressively more permissive and violent. Most Classic film-lovers undoubtedly lament the change. Ever since, most actors seem less discerning in their choice of roles, and more producers more interested in capturing box office than putting out quality work. This may not be so, but it seems like it. In any case, 1960s cinema is a fine place to take a journey in nostalgia.

I never list these things in order, most to least favorite. It's impossible. Instead, I'll go with chronological order.

The Apartment - 1960

Shirley MacLaine's best role as a cute elevator girl unlucky in love. Jack Lemmon is the schmuck who loans out his apartment to office execs for hanky-panky. Whoever thought Steve Douglas a cad? (That's Fred MacMurry for those of you unfamiliar with the 1960s sitcom, My Three Sons). Favorite scene is the Christmas party when C.C. Baxter looks at Miss Kubelic's broken compact mirror, and realizes that she's the girl the boss is taking to his apartment. It's Wilder's best -- humor wise.

Psycho - 1960

Hitchcock took it up a notch with this creepy suspense thriller, paving the way for countless imitators to follow. Two iconic death scenes and Anthony Perkins' best performance. Favorite scene is the dinner conversation between Marion Crane and a disturbed Norman, who'd never hurt a fly. Stuffed animals never looked innocent again.     

To Kill a Mockingbird - 1962

Robert Mulligan's beautiful take on Harper Lee's timeless Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about growing up in the South. Gregory Peck's sensitive performance of courage in the face of racial prejudice is the best of his career, but it's Mary Badham's innocent Scout that is most memorable for me. Elmer Bernstein's haunting theme song, the old preacher telling Scout to stand because her father is passing, Boo Radley, and Atticus and Scout on the porch swing--it all adds up to a beloved film. Favorite scene is Scout on the courthouse steps, shaming the mob.     

Hatari - 1962

A sentimental favorite, perhaps the first drive-in feature I ever saw. Animal rights activists surely deride the film today, but it's still exciting and a great blend of adventure and humor. One of the last times John Wayne gets the girl--this time the lovely Elsa Martinelli. I love the Mancini score and still jump during the dangerous rhino chase.

The Great Escape - 1963

So what if John Sturges stuck Americans into Stalag Luft III on the eve of the war's largest prisoner escape? Authenticity aside, it's still the best of its kind. It solidified Steve McQueen's status as a superstar and showed the Allies putting one over on the Gestapo, albeit momentarily. A great all-star cast of the decade's top action heroes, and another memorable score by Elmer Bernstein. The night they go is nail-biting stuff. Favorite scene is McQueen's (stuntman Bud Ekins) motorcycle jump.

Charade - 1963

Cary Grant's last terrific film. Audrey Hepburn still looks great in Givenchy. Mancini's memorable theme. A nice twisting plot and the closest you can get to Hitchcock without the man. Everyone looks like they're having fun in Stanley Donen's delightful farce. Favorite scene is the romantic boat ride down the Seine at night and the stars' first kiss.

Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte - 1964

Southern Gothic was never more fun than in the hands of Robert Aldrich. Bette Davis is perfect as a woman who thinks she is coming unglued. A Classic film-lover's treasure with Davis, Joseph Cotton, Mary Astor, Agnes Morehead, Cecil Kelloway, and Olivia de Havilland, all nearing the end of their careers. A great theme song, though I wish Aldrich had included Patti Paige's vocal. Favorite moment is Davis' cutting remark to cousin Miriam: "What do you think I asked you here for? COMPANY?"

Seven Days in May - 1964

A not-so-far fetched political thriller about a planned military coup during the height of the Cold War. Fredric March's last great performance. Director John Frankenheimer was on a roll, sandwiching this between The Manchurian Candidate and The Train. Favorite scene is March's "tunnel of tyranny" speech at the end as President Jordan Lyman.

The Spy Who Came in From the Cold - 1965

Richard Burton's best performance as a seemingly burnt-out spy, Alec Leamas. From John Le Carre's terrific thriller, no film exposed the dirty underbelly of the spy game better. Burton's speech about men who devote their lives to espionage is his finest moment: "Seedy, squalid bastards like me: little men, drunkards, queers, hen-pecked husbands, civil servants playing cowboys and Indians to brighten their rotten little lives."

Alfie - 1966

Michael Caine breaks the fourth wall as an unrepentant ladies' man who likes his "birds." Hard to believe Caine was ever this thin and handsome. The film does a terrific job at capturing societal mores of the decade. Caine makes a cad charming and funny, at least up to a point. Favorite scene is Shelley Winters' giving him a taste of his own medicine. What's it all about, indeed.

The Good The Bad The Ugly - 1967

No one made a Western more fun to watch than Sergio Leone in this third "man with no name" feature. Three treasure hunters vie for buried gold in the middle of the Civil War. A terrific Morricone score and plenty of memorable sequences in Leone's signature style, highlighted by Eli Wallach's fabulous Tuco. Favorite scene is the last one: the shootout at the cemetery with Blondie leaving Tuco atop the shaky cross.

Bullitt - 1968

Steve McQueen at his coolest. As tight a police story as you will see with the best car chase of the decade. It provides a perfect snapshot of late 60s' fashion and culture. Favorite moment is the bad guys losing McQueen in the hills of San Francisco, only to see him appear in their rear-view mirror.

Planet of the Apes - 1968

What other film better captures the folly of the nuclear age? Perhaps the decade's best ending, even if you suspect the big reveal earlier.Totally mesmerizing in its day. It's still hard to picture Stella (Kim Hunter) in that makeup. Favorite moment is Charlton Heston's "Take your stinking paws off me you damn dirty ape!"

Friday, February 17, 2012

The Alamo (1960) - John Wayne

The defense of the Alamo mission in 1836 by a small band of Texians against superior forces under Mexican General Santa Anna has been brought to the scene numerous times, but none so famous as John Wayne's 1960 directorial debut. The battle was a pivotal moment in the Texas Revolution, one that over time evolved into one of America's greatest myths. Wayne, at the time America's biggest star, was the perfect man to take on the role of the myth's biggest hero, Davy Crockett. He did so, only after financial backers insisted the popular star assume one of the major roles.

Though it has faults, the final film is exciting and a rousing tale, one that captures the spirit of the times, the heroic nature of the men, and the ideals that Wayne embraced in this very personal project. All in all, he had ample reason to be proud of the film, particularly considering the number of hats he was wearing: producer, director, actor, and financial backer.

Wayne kept the story's basic structure, with three equally-stressed leads. Besides his own Crockett, Richard Widmark appears as Jim Bowie, and Lawrence Harvey as Colonel Travis. Thanks in part to the script, Wayne comes off best. As Crockett he gets the best speeches, the first with Travis in a cantina. Harvey's right for his role of a martinet. He always strikes me as somewhat unpleasant, bordering on obnoxious, a little full of himself and self-righteous. The character of Travis comes off similarly, so it works. Travis wonders if Crockett and his men will join the fight to free Texas. Crockett explains his motives:

Crockett: Republic. I like the sound of the word. It means people can live free, talk free, go or come, buy or sell, be drunk or sober, however they choose. Some words give you a feeling. Republic is one of those words that makes me tight in the throat - the same tightness a man gets when his baby takes his first step or his first baby shaves and makes his first sound as a man. Some words can give you a feeling that makes your heart warm. Republic is one of those words.

Widmark as Bowie and Harvey as Travis.

Later, there's a beautiful scene with Crockett and Flaca (Linda Cristal), a native Mexican woman from San Antonio. They talk beside a small stream beneath a majestic tree. Crockett expands on his reasons for coming to the territory.
Crockett: It was like I was empty. Well, I'm not empty anymore. That's what's important, to feel useful in this old world, to hit a lick against what's wrong for what's right even though you get walloped for saying that word. Now I may sound like a Bible beater yelling up a revival at a river crossing camp meeting, but that don't change the truth none. There's right and there's wrong. You got to do one or the other. You do the one and you're living. You do the other and you may be walking around, but you're dead as a beaver hat.
Wayne as Crockett and Linda Crystal as Flaca. 
Cristal, who doesn't have much to do except look beautiful, is only in a few scenes before the action takes off. Her character could have been excised from the film for pacing purposes, but I'm glad Wayne left her in. The only other time I've seen her is in the 1960's television Western The High Chapparral. She's lovely.

Sometimes Widmark's performance seems slightly strained. In the film, as in real life, Bowie severely injures his leg before the final battle. Bowie also suffered from consumption. Perhaps Widmark tried too hard to infuse his character with what he perceived must have been the man's sour mood. Either that, or Widmark felt slighted knowing he was playing third fiddle in the film.

He does get my favorite line in the film though. The Mexicans have arrived and Santa Anna sends out an officer under a flag of truce to suggest the defenders capitulate. As the man reads the message, Travis gives his answer by touching the end of his cigar to ignite the fuse of a cannon. It fires, interrupting the man's speech. Bowie, who up to this point has found nothing to like in the arrogant Travis, turns to Crockett: "I'd hate to say anything good about that long-winded jackanapes, but he does know the short way to start a war."

The actual battle is well directed, though depicted in full daylight instead of pre-dawn darkness as actually happened. The physical layout of the Alamo complex helps. You get a real sense of its weakness as a defensive position. Clearly, Wayne strove for authenticity here, having built a close replica, purportedly from surviving blueprints. It begins with martial music punctuated by drummers as long lines of infantry and cavalry take their positions. There's plenty of courage from both sides. Cannon and gunsmoke and the sounds of battle work to enhance the viewers' feel of desperation for the heavily out-numbered defenders, and several impressive stunt sequences include riders and horses falling, and exploding adobe walls that send defenders flying through the air.

This is the best part of the film, demonstrating that, as director, Wayne was more adept at action than the buildup.

The most valid knock against the film is its length, evidence that Wayne as a director had difficulty exercising restraint when it came to editing. It takes nearly 80 minutes before the Mexican army arrives on scene. Wayne mimics his mentor John Ford and includes a few moments of forced humor--supporting actor Chill Wills doesn't help matters--and there is a long sequence that precedes the battle where Crockett and some of his men tussle with a local merchant who's trying to manipulate Flaca into marriage. It's not needed, other than to show that the Texas population included both supporters and opponents of Santa Anna.

And the film has its historical inaccuracies, one of the most glaring being the timing of the death of Jim Bowie's wife--it happened well before the events shown in the film. Wayne placed it during the siege and has Bowie read the news in a letter, one of the film's most dramatic moments. It's also Widmark's finest moment.

Still, Wayne wanted to make a film about ideas--that it takes courage to fight against all odds for something you believe in--and in that he succeeded wonderfully.

More importantly, he gets one of the most essential facts right. If not prominently displayed, Wayne doesn't shy away from the fact that Sam Houston, Travis, Bowie and men of their ilk were rebels, seeking through violence to break away from what they perceived was a despotic leader. And when Wayne includes the fabricated sequence of Crockett composing a letter, supposedly from Santa Anna, to trick his men into joining the Alamo defenders, he calls the Tennesseans "interlopers," arguing this isn't their fight. It is an accurate description.     

The film earned 7 Oscar nominations, including Best Picture. The music by 16-time Oscar nominee Dimitri Tiomkin is one of his best scores.

Cinematographer William Clothier, best known for Westerns, did spectacular work in certain scenes: the men from Tennessee riding through the tall grass, the lone sentinel atop the church at dusk, the grand scale of the final attack. There's also some nice scenes of the Mexican army's march through the harsh countryside. It includes thousands of extras, looking resplendent in their colorful uniforms.

A beautiful composition by cameraman William Clothier.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

The Asphalt Jungle (1950) - John Huston

Doc is fresh out of the pen with a foolproof plan to knock off a jewelry store, one last big score before he retires to chase pretty girls in Mexico. He recruits a small group of low-life criminals to help with the job: Gus as driver; Louis to crack the safe; and Dix for muscle. With "the goods" secured, Doc and Dix make their rendezvous with Mr. Emmerich, the financier and fence, whose attempt to double-cross the thieves sends things spiraling out of control.

Director John Huston carved a sub-genre in noir with this stylistic and moody heist film. Often copied, no one has equaled it for its brilliant character development and ability to suck the viewer into the lives of bottom-rung criminals living on the dirty edge of post-war society. The film also exemplifies wonderfully well why black & white cinematography captured the mood of the genre in ways that color photography never could. The dark and shadowy scenes perfectly match the souls of the amoral characters here, and are analogous to the blanket of desperation that grips their lives.

We meet Dix (Sterling Hayden) first, slinking along in the early morning. The cops are looking for him, suspecting him of a nearby hold-up. Dix makes his way to Gus' diner (James Whitmore). Gus hides Dix' revolver in the cash register just before the officers arrive to take him in for questioning. We'll soon learn that Dix likes to play the horses--not well--as he'll return to Gus' to hit his friend up for a loan. At the station, Dix stands in a line-up. He has a long rap sheet. (Look for the middle suspect--a young, skinny Strother Martin in his first screen role.) Dix is released after a victim refuses to finger him as the perpetrator.

Dix hides to elude the police.
Next, we meet Doc Riedenschneider (Sam Jaffe), just out of seven years in prison. He comes to Cobby (Marc Lawrence), a smarmy bookie who has connections. Doc asks him to arrange a meeting with Mr. Emmerich, an attorney who'll finance Doc's caper. Dix arrives to place a bet, and while there, takes offense at something Coffy says and storms out; but in the process, leaves Doc impressed that here might be a man he can count on in a pinch. Later that night, Cobby and Doc visit Emmerich (Louis Calhern). They don't know it, but Emmerich is broke. Unable to support his lavish life style, he sees Doc's plan as a way to get out from under. Emmerich agrees to put up $50,000 so Doc can hire help. He also offers to fence the stolen goods, thereby increasing the overall take for all of them, estimated at upwards of $1 million.

Calhern is perfect as a man who hides behind a facade of wealth. Ostensibly calm, he is a practiced liar, devious, and as desperate as the thieves. In one scene, he confesses his plight to an associate, wringing his hands across his face in anguish. Emmerich has the film's best line. Talking with his bed-ridden wife, he calms her fears about the awful people he comes in contact with. "Oh, there's nothing so different about them," he says. "After all, crime is only... a left-handed form of human endeavor."

As the other two men leave, Emmerich steps into the adjoining room and we discover the cause for the man's financial straights. He leans over his mistress, Angela (Marilyn Monroe), dosing on the couch. A girl like that costs a lot of money to keep happy. Monroe, just 24 here, had appeared on screen before, but this surely was the start of her rocketing to fame as a sex-symbol. She looks like a girl used to getting what she wants, and knowing how to string along a sugar daddy. She only gets two scenes in the film, but they do the trick. Alluring and sensual, she is surprisingly thin and quite lovely. She'll look even better later in an off-the-shoulder black number. Emmerich's expression says it all. All he can do is utter "some sweet kid."

Dix receives a visitor at his simple apartment, Doll, played by Jean Hagen. Hagen gives a fine performance, the best in the film. Doll needs a place to stay for a few days; because the cops raided her place of employment, a clip joint, she's missed payday. Dix and Doll's relationship is the most interesting in the film. We can infer from their conversations they have a history. Perhaps once lovers, they at least seem kindred spirits, similarly downtrodden and unable to catch a break. Like all the characters in this dark story, they clearly haven't made the best choices in life. Still, you sort of feel sorry for both.

Dix either isn't able to express his feelings or doesn't want to. When she asks to spend the night, he says sure, "just don't get any ideas." Still, a smile creased his lips when he saw who'd come to call, and her face lights up expectantly later when he calls her on the stairs as she's leaving the next day. By her gaze, you know she has feelings for him. Like the men in the story, she seems scarred by life, trapped in a dead-end existence. The way she watches him finish his drink, you wonder if she's also an alcoholic.

Hayden as Dix and Hagen as Doll.

By now all the principals have been introduced, and we already know everything we need about the men in a few short scenes. Huston and collaborator Ben Maddow knew how flesh out their characters with little dialog. The script is highly entertaining, filled with clever slang and the nomenclature of the criminal underworld. Doc calls a safe cracker, a "boxman," and when Cobby insults Dix, Dix reacts angrily: "Don't bone me!"

In the asphalt jungle, no one is clean. A corrupt police lieutenant, Ditrich, who's earlier been read the riot act by the police commissioner for losing tract of Doc after his release from prison, interrupts Doc and Cobby in Cobby's office. He's obviously taking money under the table from Cobby. When he realizes who's sitting there, he leaves without speaking.

Doc: That copper, he recognized me.
Cobby: How'd you know he was a copper?
Doc: I can smell one a block off.
Cobby: Oh, don't worry about Ditrich. He's on my payroll. Practically a partner. Me and him, we're like that. [Cobby holds up his index and middle finger]
Doc: Experience has taught me never to trust a policeman. Just when you think one's all right, he turns legit.

A heavy sense of dread permeates the film, the end preordained. Capers like this never end well. The script portends the unrealized hopes for two of the gang. Besides Doc's wish to make Mexico afterwards, Dix laments to Doll about the loss of his family's horse farm, an incident from his youth that has left him deeply scarred. One big score will enable him to buy it back, and the first thing he'll do is "jump in the creek and wash off the dirt of the city." Louis echos the thought that urban life in the post-war city is filthy. Upset that his new son is sick because his wife takes him out in the morning for fresh air, he says it's too cold and barks, "there's no fresh air in this city!"

Doc goes over the plan with his men.
In a wise decision, director Huston doesn't linger on the actual robbery--it's not really the point of the film. It starts off like clockwork, but soon begins to unravel. A night watchman enters the scene. Dix wrestles the man, who drops his weapon. It goes off and Louis is fatally wounded in the stomach. With loot in hand, the robbers disperse. Doc and Dix meet Emmerich to make the exchange, but the shady lawyer doesn't have the promised cash. Doc rejects his offer to stash the jewels there, a decision that doesn't sit well with Emmerich's hired thug.

The end comes as expected, with all the bad guys paying a price for their crime. Cobby proves to be the gang's weak link, confessing under police pressure. As the cops close in, Emmerich isn't man enough to face the music. He at least lets Angela off the hook. His alibi, he tells her to "just tell the truth, baby." The old sap actually loves her.

Doc and Dix split up. Doc looks on his way to safety with the jewels sewn inside his coat, but is waylaid as he stops at a diner where he sits enchanted as a young girl jitterbugs to a juke box. Huston pushes the censor envelope with Jaffe's lecherous look. The best camera shot in the film occurs here, the lens following the girl as she moves to the window, slapping hands and twisting hips. She moves away and we glimpse two cops in the shadows, standing outside looking in.

Doc's vice.

Capturing the mastermind.

The film ends as it began, with Dix. He and Doll escape toward Kentucky. Shot in the side from his encounter at Emmerich's, he's hallucinating from loss of blood and barely conscious. Doll stops at a doctor who proclaims that he won't get far: "He hasn't got enough blood left in him to keep a chicken alive." Somehow they manage to cross the Ohio River and arrive at the old family farm. Dix staggers into the field of bluegrass and collapses as a colt comes to nuzzle his face. Home at last.

Dix makes it home.

The story is based on a novel by W.R. Burnett, who also authored Little Caesar (1931) and High Sierra (1941), two other crime dramas brought successfully to the screen. He also wrote the screenplay for The Great Escape (1963).  Harold Rossen handled the cinematography, so central to the mood of the film. He received an Oscar nomination for his efforts. For his career, Rossen was a five-time nominee.

Monday, February 6, 2012

The Birds (1963) - Alfred Hitchcock

Hitchcock camps it up in a publicity photo.
Something weird is happening in Bodega Bay. Intrigued by handsome lawyer Mitch Brenner, rich San Francisco socialite Melanie Daniels drives up the coast to the quaint little town, hoping perhaps to kindle a romance. Upon her arrival, she is attacked by a sea gull. The odd avian behavior is not an isolated incident however; and as she and Mitch begin to fall for one another, gatherings of birds grow larger and more aggressive.

Leave it to Alfred Hitchcock to take an innocent creature like a bird and make it evil. He was at the height of his power in 1963. Following the immensely successful Psycho and his popular long-running television series, his choice of projects was unlimited. For inspiration he went to a short story by Daphne Du Maurier. (Of course, he had gone to Du Maurier twice before, in 1939 for Jamaica Inn and in 1940 with Rebecca, which won that year's Oscar for Best Film.) Seeing his new film, you would never look at crows in the quite the same way as before.

The Birds may not be among his best overall efforts, but it is still fun, a fright for younger viewers, and it contains one terrific action sequence, and outside of Psycho's shower scene, perhaps the most iconic image in all of Hitchcock's canon. If it fails to excite some adult viewers and fans, it may be because evil seems less menacing when perpetrated by nature rather than by the hand of man, Hitchcock's usual approach. 

One of the stronger attributes to the film is its pacing. Hitchcock builds the suspense beautifully. The title hints that you should expect something odd with our flying friends, and he tantalizes us with a slow buildup. The main characters are introduced in a San Francisco pet shop, where Melanie (Tippi Hedren) meets Mitch (Rod Taylor), who has come to purchase a pair of love birds for his younger sister, Kathy, for her birthday. Melanie's reputation as a spoiled party girl, fueled by gossip columns, precedes her and allows Mitch to recognize her. A humorous sequence ensures where Mitch plays a joke on the girl, pretending to think she works in the store. This encounter sets up the reason for Melanie to follow him to Bodega Bay, where she brings the gift to Kathy.

Hitchcock displays a goofy sense of humor on the drive up the coastal highway. As Melanie's convertible negotiates the twists in the roadway, the two birds, perched in their cage, lean into the turns. The birds are green, and Melanie wears a similarly colored dress throughout the film.

Melanie enquires at the post office where Mitch lives, and after securing a motor boat, putters across the bay to secretly deposit the love birds at the Brenner home. Returning by water, a single gull suddenly swoops down and strikes her forehead. Mitch, who has discovered the birds and noticed her in the boat, arrives to tend to the minor wound.

Two other characters are introduced at this stage: Mitch's mother, Lydia (Jessica Tandy), who's overly protective of her son and likely an expert in passive/aggressive behavior to discourage any romance in his life; and Annie (Suzanne Pleshette), the local school teacher. One of Mitch's former girlfriends, she still has feelings for him.

At Mitch's urging, Melanie decides to spend the night. Awkwardly, she does so at Annie's. Pleshette has a nice scene where she sits listening to a phone call between Mitch and Melanie. He asks her to attend Kathy's birthday party the next day. Annie stares vacantly, thinking of an earlier day, and you know she wishes Mitch's attentions were on her instead of Melanie.

The scene highlights the biggest problem with the film--Annie is a more interesting character than the lead, and Pleshette a much better actress. Hitchcock took a risk casting the unknown Hedren. She looks the part, icy and, her hair tightly coiffed, but her performance is merely adequate. It's hard to develop much feeling for her character. One wonders how much more interesting the film would have been had the roles been reversed.

At the party the next day, the children are attacked by birds. No one is seriously hurt, but the incident is ominous. The next morning Lydia visits a neighbor and makes a grisly discovery. Birds have broken through his bedroom window. He is dead, his eyes plucked out, leaving gaping black holes. The scene, shown in rapid closeup cuts, is considerable more graphic than anything Hitchcock had previously presented an audience. The director was changing with the times, and by the time of Frenzy nine years later, he would embrace overt violence in flim, though one suspects, reluctantly.  

Apparently Lydia isn't the only one angry about spoiled bird seed.

Lydia, shaken, asks Melanie to retrieve Kathy from school, setting up the film's most memorable sequence. With school in session, Melanie sits on a bench outside, impatient and nervous. The children sing an irritating song in the background. Unseen by Melanie, large blackbirds begin to accumulate on a jungle gym behind her. At first we see a single bird alight on the bars. The camera cuts back to Melanie, growing increasingly restive. Back to the gym, where four birds now sit. Back to Melanie. Back to the gym, now with five birds. Back to Melanie. Finally, she spots a bird in the sky and follows its flight downward. A cut to the gym reveals hundreds of animals. It's a wonderfully edited piece by longtime Hitchcock collaborator George Tomasini.

The film's most famous image.
Melanie and Annie hustle the children out and they all make a mad dash downhill to the center of town under a frenzied bird attack. Today, it looks obviously fake--most birds are superimposed over the action--but in its day it was highly effective. For the most part the children do a good job of looking terrified, some swatting at stuffed birds attached to their head, and one little girl takes a nasty fall and breaks her glasses. Watching the scene as a child for the first time was unsettling.

Now is a good time to talk about the score. There is none. The only "music" is electronic noises designed to represent screeching birds when they attack. It's an effective technique, especially here where it serves to enhance the mood of panic. Still, I miss Bernard Herrmann. His contribution to previous Hitchcock films were an integral reason they were so memorable. Without Herrmann's score on Psycho, North by Northwest, and Vertigo, those films would have had a very different feel. In any case, the lack of score here seems a missed opportunity. So does the fact that none of the outside attacks occur at night or dusk. Rather, they happen in bright sunlight. Things are scarier if you can't see them.

The magnificent diner sequence follows. With fine contributions by an ensemble cast, Hitchcock gets to the heart of the film: how people react in times of crisis and confusion. The star is Ethel Griffies as Mrs. Bundy, a knowledgeable ornithologist. Film noir veteran Charles McGraw appears is a grizzled fisherman and Joe Mantel (Ernest Borgnine's buddy in Marty) is a traveling salesman. Familiar faces to TV viewers of the period include Doreen Lang as an hysterical mother, Karl Swenson as a drunk who thinks it's the end of the world, and Lonny Chapman, the diner owner.

Mrs. Bundy dispenses her knowledge at the diner.
"I have never known birds of different species to flock together. The very concept is unimaginable. Why, if that happened, we wouldn't stand a chance! How could we possibly hope to fight them?"

The fourteen minute scene starts with Melanie on the phone to her father, explaining about the attack at the school. She's upset, and the others in the diner overhear the conversation. Naturally, some begin to ask questions. Mrs. Bundy explains that the brain pan of a bird is too small to enable it to develop sufficient intelligence to plan an attack. The characters are wonderfully natural here, interrupting one another as in real speech, and displaying expressions of skepticism. I particularly love how Mrs. Brudy responds to Melanie's question of what she thinks is behind the attacks. Instead of offering an explanation, Bundy throws it back at her. "What do you think ..."

As they debate the school attack, the birds return with a vengeance, knocking a man over who is fueling his car at a gas pump. The hose falls out and the gasoline begins to spill into the street, across the road to a parking lot., Another man pulls in and lights a cigarette. The diner patrons shout a warning but he drops the match when it burns his finger, igniting a terrific explosion.

Dammit! I'm out of change.
The scene includes an oddity: Hitchcock uses four quick stop-action shots of Hedron staring through the diner window, her mouth agape as the gasoline fire races back toward the gas pumps. It's distracting and an unnecessary flourish. Melanie inexplicably runs outside and becomes trapped in a phone booth. In an imaginative decision, Hitchcock shows the chaos of the attack from her perspective here, which includes one poor victim trying desparately to enter, his face ripped and bloody.   

In several scenes in the film Hitchcock used matte paintings to flesh out the background. An effective technique, it work well here. As the bird attack abates, the camera cuts to a distant high perspective. A few birds fly by into the immediate foreground, and far below we see the full carnage, the smoke billowing upward.

A storyboard version of the attack.
Once Mitch and Melanie collect Kathy and retire to the Brenner house, the story loses much of its steam. There's another hectic bird assault, and Melanie makes another dumb decision that puts her in danger. To the disappointment of some, the film ends ambiguously and we are left to imagine the fate of the main characters.

Hitchcock admittedly was in the business of entertaining his audience, not producing message films. Still, it can be fun to dissect his work to project deeper meaning. For some, The Birds may beg the question of mans' inability to control nature, and what that portends. Alternatively, a highly imaginative sort may see it as an allegory to the Cold War. For most, it is likely a fun trip back into nostalgia, when films could still scared you.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Bullitt (1968) - Peter Yates

Frank Bullitt (Steve McQueen), a San Francisco police lieutenant, is given a seemingly routine assignment: protect a key witness and mob informer in an upcoming US Senate hearing on organized crime. Bullitt has been picked by Walter Chalmers (Robert Vaughn), an ambitious politician who sees the hearings as his ticket to higher office. When the witness is targeted by professional hitmen, Chalmers holds Bullitt responsible. With his career on the line, Bullitt suspects something else is at play and digs deeper into the case.

McQueen's mustang speeds over the streets of San Francisco.

It may not seem like it today, but Bullitt was a ground-breaking film, widely popular for its exciting chase scene. It was the film that solidified McQueen's status as perhaps Hollywood's biggest superstar. Unfortunately, after this he seemed to lose some interest in acting, turning his attentions to other pursuits. He'd make some fine films later, but there were fewer of them. It may not be his best performance, for that I'd go with The Sand Pebbles. But with Bullitt, he reached the peak of his coolness.

Like its lead actor, a cool title sequence starts the action, backed by a terrific jazz score infused with moody bass, sax, and trumpet. Four men are reflected in a metal light fixture, standing outside the glass windows of an office. Their faces are lit from below, colorless and looking grim. A man is hiding inside; he tosses a smoke grenade and escapes as the men smash through the glass, shooting. We don't know it yet, but this is Johnny Ross, who's stolen $2 million from the Chicago mob and is now on the run. We soon understand that he has agreed to appear before a Senate subcommittee on organized crime.

The film likely seems tame by today's standards for police action films, but that is one of its attractions. Director Yates and McQueen's aim for authenticity included moments of routine police procedures as they conduct the investigation, including a key moment when the main characters wait expectantly for a clunky telecopier to send them important information, ancient technology today. There's not a lot of dialog, characteristic of most McQueen films, but plenty of reactive shots of McQueen and his famous blue eyes, listening and thinking. Like Bullitt, the audience will discover that the story is not as simple as it first appears, another aspect that lifts the film above most cop films of the period and since. It takes a while to understand that there is a case of mistaken identity, orchestrated by Ross to throw the mob and the cops off his trail.

Having arrived in San Francisco, Chalmers sequesters his star witness over the weekend in a seedy hotel, under protective custody of Bullitt and his men. That night, gunmen burst in after the man unlatches the door--a seemingly inexplicable action that raises Bullitt's curiosity. Like Bullitt, the viewer's initial assumption is that the mob's behind the hit, but we can't be certain. In any case, the young cop on duty is wounded before the gunmen turn their attention on the startled witness, who is sent flying through the air from a blast in the chest from a pump-action shotgun. It's bloody and violent. Yates gives the audience a hint that something is amiss when the witness cowers backward and says "Now, wait...he told me..."just before he's shot. Bullitt arrives on the scene as an ambulance rushes both victims to the hospital. One of the hit men will try to finish the job at the hospital, which leads to a breif chase. The scene serves to introduce Bullitt to the killers.

McQueen was a keenly subtle actor. A good example is a confrontation between Bullitt and Chalmers at the hospital. The star witness' life hangs in the balance. He and Bullitt watch the medical staff work feverishly from a nearby room. Chalmers makes it clear that he's holding Bullitt responsible, saying Bullitt "blew it." The detective munches a sandwich, nonchalant and avoiding eye contact until he asks, "Who else knew where he was?" The implication is that Chalmers let someone know where Ross was sequestered because the hit men knew where to look and they used Chalmers' name to get into the room. (We never find out who divulged this information. Yates leaves that to our speculation.)

It's a wonderfully tense moment. It's clear these two characters do not like one another. It also demonstrates that the two men are of different worlds, Bullitt a blue-collar, no-nonsense cop; Chalmers smooth and used to the trappings of wealth and influence. He has friends in high places and knows how to pull strings. Bullitt says, "Look, you work your side of the street, and I'll work mine."

"Who else knew where he was?"

Vaughn, usually a limited actor, oozes slime. He's perfect as a politician lacking integrity. He'll use anyone to get ahead, including the San Francisco police department. Later, he confronts Bullitt's boss, Captain Bennett (Simon Oakland), interrupting the family on their way to church. Oakland fits his role nicely, just who you'd want in an experienced police captain: big, rough, and able to take care of himself. Bullitt has a rebellish streak about him, but Bennett is more used to politics and thus more tolerant of men like Chalmers. Still, he's loyal to his own men, and partially as a result of this confrontation the captain gives Bullitt a long leash to solve the case. When later, the victim dies and Bennett learns that Bullitt has stolen the body to prevent Chalmers from closing down the case, he protects his subordinate.

The seminal chase scene is the film's most memorable sequence. At more than nine minutes, it seems shorter. For shear excitement, it was surpassed just three years later by The French Connection, but at the time, it was as thrilling a chase as had ever been filmed, particularly given the hilly terrain of San Francisco. The editing is magnificent and, more than any other sequence, likely secured Frank Keller the film's only Oscar.

Bullitt, driving a green Ford Mustang, notices he is being tailed by two men in a Dodge Charger. Figuring they are ones who struck at the hotel--they don't know their target is dead and hope that Bullitt leads them to the man--he drives normally into a residential section of the city. Anyone familiar with San Francisco will notice certain landmarks, such as Coit Tower, but the ensuing chase takes place in more than one area. The best moment in the film occurs here: the hit men, having lost sight of Bullitt, drive slowly over a hill, looking up side streets as they head down the other side. When the driver glances to his rear-view mirror, Bullitt's car comes over the hill behind--the hunter has become the hunted. The Charger stops at an intersection and the camera cuts to the driver's waist; he buckles his seat belt and you know he's about to put the pedal to metal.

Squealing and smoking his tires, he takes off with Bullitt in hot pursuit. Suddenly, both cars are soaring over hills, catching air with all four tires, sliding dangerously through intersections, and laying rubber around the turns. Here Yates made a great decision to dispense with any musical score. The sounds of the revving engines and the cars flying at speeds in excess of 100 miles an hour provide more than enough drama. Yates also uses plenty of closeups to show the tension on the face of the drivers. If there are no near misses quite as close as The French Connection and the baby carriage, there is still some fine stunt driving involved where the two cars narrowly dodge around oncoming traffic. The significance of the sequence is that it showed film-makers it was possible to stage such a high-speed race in the middle of a city. McQueen reportedly did most of his own driving.

Eventually the two cars hit the highway; they careen and swerve into one another at excessive speed; Bullitt dodges a few shotgun blasts; and the bad guys lose control of their vehicle and crash into a roadside gas station to ignite a thoroughly satisfying fireball. The chase caught the attention of the male audience of the day. Chargers and Mustangs were now the car to own.

Jacqueline Bisset has a few scenes as Bullitt's girlfriend to give the detective a human side. She fears his work will desensitize him and strip him of emotion. If her presence isn't necessary for the film, it doesn't detract from it. Besides, she's extremely attractive. There's also an interesting moment when Bullitt stops into a small grocery and grabs six TV dinners. I like these little throw-away scenes, which help give the character depth.

Bullitt consoles his girlfriend after she sees a murder victim.

After some dogged detective work, Bullitt figures out that Ross hired an impostor to pose as himself -- the man killed in the hotel attack. A search of that man's luggage reveals that airline tickets to Rome are missing. Bullitt hurries to the airport to confront the real Ross. There's another confrontation with Chalmers, who still wants Ross to testify. He condescendingly says to Bullitt, "Come on, now. Don't be naive, Lieutenant. We both know how careers are made. Integrity is something you sell the public." Bullitt responds with disgust: "You sell whatever you want, but don't sell it here tonight." Chalmers urges him to compromise. Bullitt, angry that Ross was responsible for getting his man shot, utters the film's signature line: "Bullshit."

Yates and McQueen stage a suspenseful foot chase, where McQueen runs beneath jet liners as they taxi down the runway. It looks dangerous and the camera makes sure that you know it's really McQueen. There's a brief gun battle as Ross tries to escape, and Bullitt finally gets his man.

Far superior to the Dirty Harry franchise, which started just three years later, Bullitt reflects Peter Yates' considerable talent to bring realism to film. Frank Bullitt is a real cop, dedicated but not infallible. Harry Callahan is almost a superman. Yates would direct another realistic crime film, the terrific The Friends of Eddie Coyle, in 1973. Not as well known as Bullitt, it contains Robert Mitchum's finest late career performance. Told from the perspective of Mitchum's character, a man who gets in over his head, it is a gritty and uncompromising portrayal of the desperate life of a small time hood. No complaints, as Mitchum is great, but I would have loved to have seen McQueen in the role.