Monday, August 27, 2012

The Sun Also Rises (1957) -- Henry King

"What's the use?" That's the central question on the minds of a group of expatriates living in Paris after World War I. Besides the millions of dead left on the battlefields, the war created a "lost generation" of damaged young adults who allowed the conflict to infuse them with a sort of malaise. Disillusioned and decadent, they can't find true happiness and generally see life as empty and meaningless. To compensate they drink their way around Europe. The main protagonist is Jake Barnes (Tyrone Power), whose problem stems from a war injury that left him impotent. As a result, Brett (Ava Gardner), who loves him, frequently finds solace in the arms of other men, making both miserable.

An annual vacation to Pamplona, Spain for Jake, Brett, her fiance Mike (Errol Flynn), and a friend Bill (Eddie Albert), gets spoiled when she foolishly beds another of Jake's acquaintances, Robert Cohn (Mel Ferrer). Cohn is different. He's Jewish, didn't serve in the war, and behaves as an ass. Acting like a jealous schoolboy, his infatuation with the beautiful woman drives him to tag along.

Based on Ernest Hemingway's wonderful novel, one of the best of the Twentieth Century, director Henry King and his cast capture the spirit of frustration and loss the author portrayed in his characters, if not their full personalities. The biggest problem is the age of the performers. The novel takes place in the mid 1920's, so the American ex-servicemen (Jake, Bill, and Mike) should be in their early 30s, certainly no more than 35. Unfortunately, Power was 43 and Flynn 48. Heavy drinkers and smokers in real life, both look at least ten years older. Power was a matinee idol, dashingly handsome when younger. Imagine him as he looked in 1946's The Razor's Edge, and you get a picture of how the character should have looked here. As it is, he seems far too old and burnt out. Albert was 52. Ferrer at 40 and Gardner at 35 fare much better.

Power as the unfulfilled Jake Barnes. 

Power and Gardner have fine chemistry though, and each gives a solid performance. Power often looks appropriately anguished, reasonable given his disgust with Brett's promiscuity. A lot of what he is feeling goes unsaid, but in one unguarded moment he reveals his discontentment and pain, saying: "Don't try to tell me how to live with myself! I know all about that. It's just living with other people that gets to be tough once in a while."

Gardner looks lovely in a colorful, period wardrobe. If not quite as glamorous as when she burst on the scene ten years earlier, she's nicely believable in the part, though hardly British as in the novel. Still, she coveys shame and remorse for her actions to Jake, and in hindsight, the perfect actress to embody the new sexual freedom that many women sought in the 1920s.

Gardner as Lady Brett Ashley, the object of everyone's attentions.

The surprise performance in the film is Flynn's. No doubt, the boozing role of Mike mirrored his own existence by this time (he'd be dead in two years), but Flynn nails the role of a bankrupt, insecure man who resorts to passive/aggressive bullying of a rival to express resentment, at times being mean, full of self-pity, and always reliant on alcohol. One of the best scenes in the film takes place when, after a night of drinking and an altercation with Cohn, Jake visits Mike in his room the next morning. Brett has dumped him and Mike is hungover and sad. He asks Jake to make sure he comes to dinner that night, saying: "It seems as if about six people have disappeared."

Director King wisely stuck to the novel's dialog much of the time. Hemingway's prose is distinctively terse, a characteristic of his writing that fans admire. Still, the script can't compare. For one thing, it makes Jake's injury more obvious than is necessary. Hemingway made it plain enough but let the reader figure it out. The rougher language has been sanitized, and the characters made less sharp. Cohn Jewishness is ignored for one, and he is far more obnoxious in the book. Overall, scenes from the film lack the novel's underlying tension that exists between the characters, and in comparison, fails to adequately convey that Jake's injury is an emotional one as well as a physical one. 

The highlight of both film and novel are the bullfighting action in Pamplona, including the famous running of the beasts through the narrow streets. Mike and Bill, fortified with lots of wine, take part, a humorous scene not in the novel. This gives Mike another reason to taunt Cohn for being weak and unwelcome. Mike, clearly an alcoholic, knows about Brett's liaison with this pest, frequently telling him to get lost as no one wants him around. Brett's interest by now has shifted to the handsome young matador, Pedro Romero. All the while, Jake suffers.

I'm glad the film omits the more graphic violence of the sport. Still, even without the gore and blood, you get a good sense of how cruel bullfighting is. Just watching the long cape sequence designed to tire the animal out is disturbing. How a culture and people can still enjoy this sport in the 21st Century is beyond any reasonable person's understanding. In the film, the crowd eats it up, of course, cheering wildly when Romero inflicts the coup de gras off camera.

The end finds Jake and Brett sharing a cab, lamenting their circumstances and talking about what might have been. 

Brett: “Oh, Jake, “we could have had such a damned good time together.”
Jake: "Yes. Isn't it pretty to think so?"

Those lines are straight from the novel; but as filmed, King lost much of the poignancy by leaving out one of literature's most famous symbolic gestures: "... a mounted policeman in khaki directing traffic. He raised his baton." Jake's response is one of resignation, knowing that any dream of a life with Brett is impossible. His sad existence will continue, each day after the next.

Though not immediately apparent upon reading the novel or seeing this film, Hemingway said he wanted to show that despite their damage, the "lost generation" was resilient. Maybe so, but for Jake Barnes, that idea seems a stretch. Given his unhappiness and inner torture, it's easier to think he'd soon sink into a drunken stupor, a victim of cirrhosis of the liver or suicide.

Flynn as Mike and Ferrer as Cohn.

For my money, Hemingway justifiably deserves being considered one of the giants of American literature. His work is not easily transferred to screen, especially this one, which is subtle and too talkie to suit the taste of some readers. Henry King did an admirable job, despite the flaws.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Zorba the Greek (1964) - Mihalis Kakogiannis

I can't imagine the people of Crete thought too highly of Nikos Kazantzakis' popular novel or the film version of the story of a robust Greek named Zorba who takes under his wing a repressed, extraordinarily uptight Englishman and teaches the younger man about life. With the exception of the title character (Anthony Quinn) and a few others, Cretans come across as backward barbarians, whose reprehensible actions seem right out of the middle ages rather than the 20th Century.
Quinn as the exuberant Zorba.
Basil (Alan Bates), apparently long suffering from writer's block, has come to a Greek island to re-open a closed mineral mine, inherited from his father. If successful, he will provide a needed economic boost to the depressed area, and perhaps, recapture enthusiasm for his craft. He meets and befriends Zorba on a boat in passage, and begins a journey that is more about how to live unencumbered by modern expectations and demands than how to operate a mine in a foreign country.

Zorba takes life as it comes. He is in no hurry. Remarkably present, he is loud, full of zest, and in sharp contrast to Basil, whose timidity and fear of the unknown makes life empty and dull. Zorba loves to dance and laugh, and enjoy the company of women. At one point, he tells Basil that "Life is trouble. To be alive is to undo your belt and look for trouble."

This is certainly Quinn's most memorable performance. Nominated for a Best Actor Oscar, he lost to Rex Harrison for My Fair Lady, a result that reflects Academy conservative conventions rather than a pure assessment of the two actor's work in their respective films. Quinn is great and his distinctive laugh wonderfully appropriate for the character. A Mexican by birth, Quinn was terrific at playing other ethnicities. His face, especially with some beard growth, seems nearly universal.

Irene Papas, an exotic beauty, is a widow who attracts the attention of all the men in town, especially a boy whose unrequited passion leads to suicide after he learns that she opened her bedroom to the newcomer, Basil. It is a small part, but she is the film's most sympathetic character. (That it takes Basil most of the movie to act on the obvious overture from the attractive widow is the most exasperating aspect of that man's character). Tragic consequences follow as the entire town holds her responsible. Most readers of the book and viewers of the film surely find their savage response crazy and not anathema to any civilized society. It is difficult to know if the author, Kazantzakis, meant it as some sort of allegory, or as a striking means to contrast their character with that of Zorba, but the scene is quite shocking and unexpected. Only Zorba tries to come to her aid. Basil's tepid reaction is inexplicable and disgusting in light of the couple's recent consummation. After this failure in manhood and decency, it is impossible to like the man.

Irene Papas

The townspeople close in.

A subplot involves Zorba's relationship with an older French woman who runs the hotel, Madame Hortense (Lila Kedova). A lonely woman, well aware that her better days are long behind her, she finds solace and comfort in the arms of the passionate Zorba. For his part, Zorba cares little for monogamy, at one point telling Basil he has known the "full catastrophe: wife, children, and home." Still, for her sake, he makes the old girl happy by participating in an informal wedding shortly before her death. Here we have the second disturbing scene as the raving townspeople loot her residence ahead of the taxman with her body lying on the bed. Sure they are dirt poor, but their timing is outrageously disrespectful.

In the end, Basil's attempt to make the mine a going concern fails miserably. Zorba's complicated plan to bring timber down the mountain to shore up the mine shaft goes haywire. This helps convince Basil that he is out of his element and must return home. It hasn't been a total waste, however; a little of Zorba has rubbed off. Basil asks his mentor to teach him to dance and the film ends with a wonderful scene: the camera starts in a medium shot and slowly pulls back to a high overhead one showing the two men, arm in arm, prancing on the beach.

The crisp black and white photography makes the stark countryside look inhospitable, just like the people. Mostly a rocky island and poor town, it is nothing spectacular to look at. The familiar score creates a perfectly Mediterranean mood.

The film was nominated for 7 Oscars, including Best Film, Actor, and Director.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

From Here to Eternity (1953) - Fred Zinnemann

The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor is just around the corner -- two hours into the film, actually -- in this terrific story of Army soldiers stationed at Schofield Barracks. The main protagonist is prideful, hard-headed private Robert E. Lee Prewitt (Montgomery Clift). He's recently transferred into a new outfit, G Company, upset over being replaced as first bugler at his old regiment. A skilled boxer, Prewitt has given up the sweet science because of an unfortunate accident in the ring -- he blinded an opponent. That doesn't sit well with his new captain, Dana Holmes, desperate to win the regimental boxing title. Prewitt soon finds himself the target of the "treatment," harassment from the boxing squad, a bunch of muscular non-coms intent on changing his mind.

Montgomery Clift as Robert E. Lee Prewitt.

Holmes is a sorry officer, who relies on his efficient staff sergeant, Sergeant Warden (Burt Lancaster), to keep the company running smoothly while he focuses his efforts on securing an undeserved promotion. A classic case of the Peter Principle, Holmes has risen above his ability. We learn early that he cheats on his wife, neglecting her as he chases other women and drinks at the officers' club.

The film is based on James Jones' bestselling novel, and director Zinnemann wisely focused on three relationships in transferring the story from page to screen. The most interesting involves Warden's affair with Holmes' wife, Karen (Deborah Kerr). Warden also serves as somewhat of a mentor to Prewitt, giving the stubborn private advice and keeping him off report when he goes AWOL. A second, parallel love affair involves Prewitt and Lorene (Donna Reed), a girl-next-door type he meets at a social club. To appease censors, film-makers changed Lorene's occupation from the novel, where it's clear she's a prostitute. And Zinnemann dropped a subplot from the novel that concerned soldiers and gay locals who frequented the bars, as well as a long section that had Prewitt in the stockade. The final relationship involves Prewitt and Maggio's (Frank Sinatra) friendship. Maggio's short temper and wise-cracking gets him in trouble.

Admirers of the film praise Clift's performance, which is terrific; but for me, the best part of the film are the scenes with Lancaster and Kerr. Both  seem credible and natural, especially Kerr as the adulterous wife, vulnerable and hurt and troubled by rumor and gossip. Their first scene is innocent enough and takes place as Kerr comes to the office looking for her husband. Warden tells Karen he's out, but there's an undercurrent of sexual attraction between the two. Later, he comes to her house in a rain storm under the pretext of official business.  

Warden brings papers to Holmes' house for his signature, knowing that only his wife would be there]
Karen: Are these really important?
Sergeant Warden: Yes, but not important they get signed today. Tomorrow's okay.
[She rips them up]
Warden: I have copies at the office, so it won't be much work to fix 'em up.
Karen: That's what I like about you, Sergeant: you have confidence. It's also what I dislike about you.
Warden: It's not confidence, ma'am; it's honesty. I just hate to see a beautiful woman going all to waste.
Karen: Waste, did you say? There's a subject I might tell you something about. I know several kinds of waste, Sergeant. You're probably not even remotely aware of some of them. Would you like to hear? For instance, what about the house without a child? There's one sort for you. Then there's another... You're doing fine, Sergeant. My husband's off somewhere, and it's raining outside, and we're both drinking now. You've probably only got one thing wrong. The lady herself. The lady's not what she seems. She's a... washout, if you know what I mean... and I'm sure you know what I mean!
Warden: You going to cry?
Karen: Not if I can help it. What are you doing?
Warden: I'm leaving. Isn't that what you want?
Karen: I don't know, Sergeant. I don't know.
[He kisses her]

It's a beautifully acted scene. Kerr captures a complex mix of emotions with nervous glances and body language. This virile man excites her, but we suspect she's been burnt before by men who have used her; she's scared and unsure of herself. Most of all she is achingly lonely and unhappy in her loveless  marriage. Presumably, this encounter leads to their first tryst.

Sergeant Warden and Karen Holmes share a last meeting.

When they later meet on a park bench, she again acts awkwardly. Anxious, she's arrived early and scolds him for having made her wait, though he is on time. She's having a hard time believing this man might love her. She wonders aloud if he thinks he's made a mistake and says she'll go home. But Warden, already smitten, tells her of course he cares for her and that he risks prison dating the wife of a superior officer. Happy, they leave for the famous beach scene and one of the most iconic images in all of film.

The famous kiss.

Here, Warden acts somewhat cruelly, almost taunting her about her past, having heard salacious lies about her being with several other men. She shares her sad story, about her philandering husband, her lost child, and her inability to have another.

There's another scene later in a secluded night club, where they sit quietly together as a band plays tropical music. Karen isn't really listening, just gazing at this wonderful man who promises her a new life, one with love and caring. Zinnemann uses one of the rare closeups in the film to track to Kerr's face. Watch her eyes. She kisses his wrist and buries her face in Lancaster's neck. But the illicit romance is ill-fated, as circumstances are against them. (To emphasize the impermanence of it all, the only time Karen uses the sergeant's given name is in their last meeting.)

A six-time nominee for Best Actress, Kerr never won. Timing has a lot to do with it as each time she was up against some tough competition, but 1953 may have been her best chance. She lost to lovely Audrey Hepburn for Roman Holiday. I'd of voted for Kerr.

Interestingly, Joan Crawford was to play the role until a dispute over who would serve as cameraman got her sent packing. She and Lancaster would have smoldered. But director Zinnemann went with Kerr in an inspired bit of casting against type. Perhaps to enhance the effect, he had her gorgeous red hair dyed blond. She gives a passionate performance and looks great, even in black and white, but here's a photo of her as Karen in color:

This is Lancaster's first big role and he's perfect. One man describes Warden as the best soldier he's ever seen and in early scene Lancaster appears shirtless. Age 39 at time of filming, Lancaster was cut, with a physique any athlete would envy. He'd been acting successfully for seven years, but never had had such a meaty role. Ernest Borgnine is great as "Fatso" Judson, a dangerous sergeant who runs the stockade and dishes out punishment with his fists. He's more sadistic in the novel, but Borgnine makes the character plenty scary in the film. Maggio gets on his wrong side and suffers the consequences. Judson also carries a switch blade, which he is only too happy to unleash. The most exciting scene in the film has him threatening Maggio in an altercation in a bar. Warden breaks it up by smashing a beer bottle and jumping between the two combatants. Maggio isn't so lucky later when he finds himself in the stockade.

O.K. Fatso, if it's killin' ya want, come on.

As good as parts are, the film has problems. The story loses steam any time it returns to Prewitt and Lorene. This is likely the fault of the script and the source novel, which gives the couple a less compelling story. And the actual Japanese attack is not impressive. Viewers expecting lots of explosions and action will be disappointed. There are a few token stock footage shots of the harbor attack on the Naval ships, including the explosion on the battleship Arizona, but most involves just the strafing of Schofield Barracks and Lancaster and crew attempting a feeble return fire. 

Overall, the film received 13 Oscar nominations, and won 8, including Best Film and Best Director. Besides Kerr, Lancaster and Clift were both nominated for Best Actor. They likely cancelled each other out and the award went to William Holden for Stalag 17. Both Sinatra and Reed took home supporting statues, but neither are that impressive. Sinatra in particular did far better work elsewhere. The dramatic role by the singer likely was so unexpected that Academy voters gave him the award. Reed's best scene takes place at the end. She and Karen happen to be on the same ship, headed back to the states. (No one here gets a happy ending except Warden, a career military man who's likely content that the expectant war has finally started.)

Lorene fabricates a story about Prewitt to impress Karen, and as a way to handle her grief -- he's been shot trying to get back to his troop following the bombing. She says he was a pilot, killed while trying to take off during the attack, but Karen knows different, having heard about the private from Warden.  Karen tosses two leis into the water, saying if they float back to shore, you will return to Hawaii some day, and if out to sea, you will never be back. Lorene says she'll never come back, but we are left wondering what will become of Karen. She's opted to remain with Holmes after concluding she and Warden are too different, but it's hard to think her decision as final. After the war, who knows...?

Which way will the leis float? 

The New York Times loved the film, saying: "As a job of editing, emending, re-arranging and purifying a volume bristling with brutality and obscenities, "From Here to Eternity" stands as a shining example of truly professional moviemaking."

Sunday, August 12, 2012

In the Heat of the Night (1968) -- Norman Jewison

It is the late Sixties, with Blacks still severely oppressed in the deep South. On a typically hot, sticky night someone murders a wealthy white man who's planned to build an important factory in the town. The crime brings out the worst in the racially backward town of Sparta, Mississippi, as its chief of Police, Gillespie (Rod Steiger), must reluctantly accept the help of a traveling black police officer from Philadelphia, Virgil Tibbs (Sidney Poitier), to find the killer.

Rod Steiger as the stubborn chief of police. 
Winner of the 1968 Oscar for Best Film, In the Heat of the Night still feels current. If race relations in the United States have taken a giant leap forward since the turbulent 60's, there's still plenty of hatred and prejudice going around to make one believe you could read this story in today's newspapers. And thanks to Jewison's terrific direction and its fine cast, the film seems just as exciting and balanced as it must have when released. Balanced because it depicts racism from both sides of the black and white divide: the ignorant redneck crackers who populate Sparta and hope to wrap a chain or tire iron about the uppity black Yankee; and Tibbs himself, who's convinced that the town's most important white landowner, Mr. Endicott, is behind the murder. The film's most famous moment occurs between these two.

[upon the suggestion that he may have murdered Colbert, Endicott slaps Tibbs across the face. Tibbs promptly slaps him back. Endicott is positively shocked.]
Endicott: Gillespie?
Gillespie: Yeah.
Endicott: You saw it.
Gillespie: I saw it.
Endicott: Well, what are you gonna do about it?
Gillespie: I don't know.
Endicott: I'll remember that.
[to Tibbs]
Endicott: There was a time when I could've had you shot.

Stieger is terrific as the conflicted Southern officer. He has his pride, and like many white Southerners, is distrustful of anyone from the North, let alone a black man. But he's miles ahead of the hooligans in town when it comes to judging a man by his character rather than his skin. His motives are not entirely grounded on a more advanced social consciousness; however, he's quick to realize that Tibbs is a lot smarter than he. His job is on the line because the victim's wife is threatening to pull the investment into the factory out unless her husband's killer is caught. Gillespie needs Tibbs. You can see him reassessing the strange out-of-towner Tibbs as the investigation unfolds and wondering about long-held beliefs as he works his grey matter as hard as his omnipresent wad of gum.

Stieger won that year's Oscar for Best Actor against some tough competition: Warren Beatty for Bonnie and Clyde, Dustin Hoffman for The Graduate, Paul Newman for Cool Hand Luke, and Spencer Tracy for Guess Who's Coming to Dinner.  I think the Academy made the right choice.

Tibbs examines the hands of an early suspect. 
The script gives his character a nice telling scene with Tibbs, late one night in his house, where he admits that no one has been there before. He is a lonely man, whose job doesn't even offer much satisfaction. When Tibbs makes a comment that he takes for pity, Gillespie ends the conversation. Poitier had a busy year in 1967. Besides this film, he made Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, and To Sir, With Love. Each was a big hit.    

Warren Oates is officer Sam Wood, who comes under suspicion, and Lee Grant is the grieving widow. Both do their usual solid work. The part of Woods plays a bigger role in the novel by John Ball, as the story is told from his perspective. Composer Quincy Jones and the great Ray Charles collaborated on the bluesy theme, which opens the film with a wonderful shot of a train pulling into the station in the middle of the night. Though shot mostly in Illinois, the whole film captures the feel and look of the deep South. (Filming did include a quick trip to some cotton fields in Tennessee to add authenticity).

The actual mystery is not complicated but well hidden until the end. And there are enough red herrings to keep up the viewers' interest. Like chief Gillespie, we wonder where Tibbs is taking his investigation. But the film isn't really about the murder anyway. Rather, it is a sharp, well-produced statement on the state of racial relations, and why it's important for all of us to examine our own belief system from time to time.

I don't suppose the people of Mississippi remember the film too fondly. They aren't presented in a favorable light. Hopefully, they've shown considerable progress in the last 45 years in their attitudes toward blacks.

A deadly confrontation.