Friday, October 21, 2016

The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)

This was one of my dad’s favorite movies. When conversation turned to the flicks he grew up with – the ones which really made an impression – Day always got a mention, and his eyes would light up with fondness and excitement. When we got cable in the 80s, I noticed that the Disney channel had it on their schedule, so I recorded it with our brand-new VCR. I showed it to him - the first time he had seen it since he was twelve – and he got that same look in his eyes.

I can see why he loved it; The Day the Earth Stood Still was one of the first alien-encounter films released by a major studio. But perhaps more importantly, it was also one of the first to use its topic matter metaphorically: it used its robots and flying saucers to comment on our own destructive, xenophobic tendencies, the same tendencies that have sustained a several-thousand year history of global carnage and destruction. (Its proximity in release to the end of WII also likely added to the sense of urgency and apocalyptic fear.) The critical and commercial success of Day begat other classics like War of the Worlds, Forbidden Planet and Invasion of the Body Snatchers, helping to ensure the 50s legacy as the Golden Age of serious science fiction.

Michael Rennie plays the alien Klaatu, who, along with his steely, voiceless robot buddy Gort, lands on earth in the middle of the Washington, D.C. mall. An unfortunate locale, as it turns out, for he is greeted not with open American arms but immense suspicion, and a shot by an army rifle when he flicks open a medical device. He is detained and questioned; his request for a meeting of the world leaders so he can explain is purpose cannot be granted. And so Klaatu, using an alias of Carpenter, escapes so he can mix and mingle among the common folk, hoping to ascertain exactly why this odd species has such difficulty working together.

He rents a room at a boarding house, befriending a widow named Helen (Partricia Neal), and taking her young son Bobby under his wing. Through the boy’s innocence, Klaatu gets the basics on earth, and learns why its inhabitants are so distrusting. But determined to get his warning across that the planet will destroy itself if allowed to continue on its current path, he succeeds in convincing an esteemed scientist to call together a group of colleagues for an audience. After getting shot again, ostensibly fatally (he us healed by Gort on the mother ship), he manages to deliver one final, scathing admonishment to the doomed earthling before heading back home. Oh well, he tried.

Day dates surprisingly well, perhaps because its sci-fi subject preserves its content in cheese, allowing for a disarming, kitchy sense of enjoyment. Or perhaps just having an earnest, clearly-told story holds up exceedingly well in a hyped-up era of cinematic excess. Whatever the reason, it’s a barrel of fun, and yes, it did make me think about the hostile, natavistic way our government, and its people, operates, even in a modern day setting (or maybe especially in a modern day setting). Sure, Klaatu does engage in a bit of Billy Jack-esque hypocrisy when he implores Earth to lay down its arms and be more peaceful, or else he may have to obliterate the entire planet, but such inconsistencies can be overlooked, even enjoyed, in the context of its Saturday-afternoon matinee spirit of fun pulp.

This, of course, was the career role for star Michael Rennie; despite over fifty years of experience in film and TV, it is the role of Klaatu for which he will be best remembered. Patricia Neal as Helen never looked more luminous – although it does seem as though most of her performance consists of looking upwards, in wide-eyed shock, at any given source of supernatutre. And once again we have Fox-contracted Hugh Marlowe as Helen’s fiancé and Klaatu’s betrayer – I’ve started now to appreciate the contract system, seeing a series of films from one studio and noticing the consistency in talent. Sure makes perfect sense for an actor – for the studio, you know they’re good, for the actor, steady work.

This one still deserves its classic status. Dad, you had good taste in movies, even at twelve.

                            Rating:  ****

Monday, October 17, 2016

All About Eve (1950)

For me, All About Eve was always a “Good for You” movie – critically, academically significant, haloed in that film-worshipping ether and untouchable to anyone who darest say ay nay about its indisputable merits. Sort of like Shakespeare. For that reason, I generally avoided the film until I saw it for a class at NYU, at which point I genuflected, purely out of obligation to my cred, but could hardly say I enjoyed it. I went back to my dorm room, watched Blue Velvet again on my VCR, and said to myself, “Now there’s a real movie.”

Of course, that was nearly 30 years ago, and I like to think I’ve matured since then. In fact, I know I’ve matured since then, and my proof is the fact that I now see how wrong I was about Eve – it’s a deserved classic – not a shiny icon on the mantle but a wonderfully entertaining, vibrant work of cinematic drama that not only contains stellar performances by its six lead actors but also a top-notch screenplay, a work that deserves to be considered as great literature. If at times it creaks a bit, reminding us of its early-50s time period, so be it – a film need not be saturated in postmodern irony or post-Brndo acting styles for it to matter. All the themes in Eve are timeless, and its characters grapple with same kinds of frailties and insecurities as we do.

As we begin, Eve Harrington has just accepted a major theatrical award, and we get a series of voice overs, by the other main characters, flashing us back and explaining what brought us here. Eve was a shy, adoring fan of the legendary Margot Channing (Bette Davis)m but she gets a chance to meet her idol through Karen, wife of the show’s playwright, Lloyd Richards. Eve proceeds to wait on Margot hand and foot, gushing over her with praise and curiousity over her path to success. We learn a bit about Eve too: she had come to New York after a tedious life, working at a brewery, and the recent tragedy of her husband’s death in the war.

But slowly, gradually, Eve edges in on Margot’s turf. The girl seems to more than a little flirtatious with Margot’s fiancé, film and theater director Bill Sampson, and she also steals the ear of influential critic Addison DeWitt (George Sanders), who helps her land rave reviews and facilitate her ascension up the theater world ladder. After becoming Margot’s understudy, even Karen can’t help but be starstruck by the rising star – while on vacation with Margot and Bill she siphon’s out the gas tank, leaving them stranded so Eve can take over the show (a move she instantly regrets). But Lloyd has no regrets about allowing Eve to star in his new show; for him, it’s a feeling of liberation to have a role realized on stage exactly as he wrote it.

But Eve is perhaps the unspoiled flower she had heretofore passed herself off as. Contrite and earnest in public, behind closed doors she is Machievellian, tricking Lyold to coming over at 3 in the morning, and blackmailing Karen into giving her Margot’s big role. Only Addison is onto her, fully aware of her deceptions and invented histories (she had actually been given 500 dollars to leave her hometown). We come back to the present now, with Eve thanking her small circle of friends, all cleary guilt-wracked over their role in helping her. An Addison is still pulling he strings, upset that she’ll miss the after-party but encouraged by the prospect of future roles, further manipulations. When Eve repairs to her apartment she gets a visit from a stranger, Phoebe, who turns out to be just as fawning as she had been with Margot at the beginning of our tale. Eve, meet the new Eve; what comes around, goes around.

This film is so complex, so multifaced, so thematically profound that I’ll just stick to my salient observations, lest we be here all day. The thing I’ll always remember about Eve is how teasing it is – Eve starts out as so pure so fresh, so innocent, that her turn toward the dark side is a complete surprise. So gradual is the revelation that you keep thinking it’s not really happening – she’s still good, isn’t she? But alas, she isn’t; the beauty of the brilliant screenplay is that we’re fooled by her ruse just as much as the other characters. When they squirm out of stupefied guilt at the end during her acceptance speech, so do we.

And that’s the other brilliant element of the film: the conscious role the lead characters play as Eve’s accessories. She, as the grand, subtle manipulator, could almost qualify as the greatest movie villain ever for the way she tricks everybody into helping her. And their complicity gives the film an existentialist subtext – where is the right, where is the wrong when you, yourself think it is right? Even Eve herself, in the film’s coda, is a victim of her own machinations, and so ultimately the film’s truism becomes that greed and deceit are corruptive, ultimately omni-destructive traits, best left to be untouched, untampered with.

And I’ll focus my review of the writing by praising the speeches – oh, those wonderful speeches – starting with Bill’s (Gary Merrill’s) glorious ode to he theater existing anywhere and everywhere, to Davis’s classic bad-party forewarning (“Fasten your seat belts…), to Sander’s’ stinging rebuke to a house-of-cards-toppled Eve. Joe
Mankiewicz’s pen must’ve been on a fever pitch scrawling this stuff – it’s the twentieth century’s version of Shakespeare, tragic-hero fall and everything. Only this time, the villain is not at all whom we think it is.

‘Nuff analyzing, eh? Go out and rent this masterpiece. Or better yet, buy the Fox collection I’m blogging about. You’ll have your faith in the beauty, the wonder, the majesty of film reaffirmed in no time at all. Well, at leat the time it takes to watch all these gems.

                          Rating:  ****

Friday, October 7, 2016

Twelve O’Clock High (1949)

No, Twelve O’Clock High is not, as I’d always thought until now, a high-school version High Noon. It is actually a woefully overlooked (by modern audiences at least) WWII film about American bomber pilots in England, and the particular kind of battle fatigue that afflicts them when they are pushed to their absolute limit. Catch 22, of course, would explore this topic years later with postmodern irony and surrealism, but High does so more conventionally, just as profoundly.

Through flashback by a man revisiting one of the airfields, we are introduced to the men of the men of the 984th Airborne Division – a weary lot, getting wearier by the second thanks to several documented cases of shock and the mental inability to go up again on the next mission. The military brass, needing the crew more than ever now that they’ve implemented daytime bombings at lower altitudes, blames Col. Keith Davenport, the C.O., and reassigns him on the grounds that he’d been getting too close to his officers – not enough of a authority figure. They send in General Savage (Gregory Peck), a calm, sensible man with air combat experience, but when he takes over the division – look out! He whips the outfit into shape with an iron fist, and informs the boys to toughen up in the missions. “Do you fear death?” he scolds. “Don’t. Consider yourself already dead.”

The rhetoric, understandably, does not go over well with the men, already missing Davenport’s friendlier rapport and proving it by requesting transfers – all of them – to another unit. But Savage gets the company clerk, Major Stovall, to delay the transfers long enough for morale to hopefully improve. Not so at first; Savage is still met with more suspicion than welcome, but after their first mission together camaraderie tightens and a sense of purpose returns to the group. And after one mission, ending with a successful bombing of a German munitions factory but the loss of one plane, Savage feels like is one of the flyboys himself. Perhaps too much like one –the general himself succumbs to the paralyzing shell shock that required his presence there in the first place, and the film ends with his infirmity, eased only by the fact that his last-minute replacements all returned home safe after yet another successful mission.

When High was first released, it boasted of using authentic aerial combat footage from the war (only four years old at that point), but, truth be told, it’s not seamlessly used, looking more faded and battered than the more studio-polished stock it surrounds. And in actuality, the battle footage as a whole, which occupies most of the final act of High, is rather dull. We’ve seen it before. What we haven’t seen is the sharp, authentic-sounding dialogue that comprises most of the story – almost play-like given its claustrophobic setting. It’s a fine-tuned drama that never really shows its hand: at first we think Davenport’s the hero, the well-meaning everyman, and then Savage comes along, and we suspect the theme will turn patriotic, that an “ends justifies the means” message will take over. And ultimately, it becomes clear that the primary polemic has to do with the stress and emotional ravages of air-combat, regardless of politics or patriotism or anything like that. And that, ultimately, is what makes Twelve O’Clock High a level-headed, important film about any war, not just WWII.

And the lynchpin of the whole thing – the true dynamic character that imparts the film with its driving force – is the performance of Gregory Peck as Gen. Savage. It’s a career work, no doubt about it, as he showcases a true spectrum of emotions, latent and otherwise, in a man who knows turret gunning and problem solving, but faces his greatest challenge with a new kind of warfare, a new kind of problem. Peck conveys the kind of class you only got with movies from this era, but he also commands the screen, not simply with his dialogue but with his attitude. And oddly, it’s the same kind of class he carried with him as Phillip Green from his previous film, Gentleman’s Agreement, worlds apart in nearly every aspect except quality.

But High is not an antiwar film- it forces us to confront the less-glorious aspects of battle, yet accedes that battle must still be fought, if necessary. It will be interesting to compare/contrast future Fox war movies like M*A*S*H, most decidedly antiwar, for a look at changing mores, changing wars, changing times.

Flashback bookends are effective too, reminding me of the same technique in Saving Private Ryan. The way the drones of the warplanes is used as a transition device is clever, and a bit haunting.

Ok, not a high school film - no teenagers (or at least 18 and under), but a riveting drama, and the fact that it’s a war film makes no difference. Fine characters, serving a deliberately told but solidly entertaining, affecting story.

                            Rating:  ****


Monday, October 3, 2016

Gentleman’s Agreement (1947)

In the late 30s and early 40s, Fox was the vanguard studio in confronting socially relevant topics like labor reform (in The Grapes of Wrath and How Green Was My Valley), and now in 1947, its founder, Daryl Zanuck, turned his lens toward another pressing matter: prejudice. He produced Gentleman’s Agreement, the first major Hollywood product to deal with anti-Semitism, and the risk was worth the reward: three Oscars, including Best Picture, Director and Screenplay, and heaps of praise. And, in my estimation, it earns all of it – I’ve only a few minor quibbles that I’ll arrive at later on.

Skylar “Phillip” Green (Gregory Peck) has just accepted an offer as a NY magazine writer; he’s made at home most readily by his new boss’s generous accommodations, including the affections of his niece, Kathy (Dorothy McGuire), who takes to Green immediately. But the newly relocated writer now has a tough beat –to pen an article on anti-Semitism – and he’s ripping his hair out to find the right angle. He finds inspiration in a tactic; he’ll pretend to be Jewish for a few weeks, using an assumed name (Greenberg) and telling no one of his secret so as to avoid disclosure. But the ruse takes its toll on his ailing mother; his young son, Tommy, who gets assaulted in school for his minority identity; and even for now-fiancé Kathy, who does not outwardly protest but doesn’t rally to his defense either, preferring a policy of under-rug-sweeping, especially at her family’s engagement party. His Jewish G.I. buddy, Dave, seems to be his one true ally, and he makes Kathy realize that her acceptance of bigotry has the same effect as condoning it. Phillip goes back to her, just after Dave announces his move to NY.

When I look back on Agreement, I’ll always remember one thing: dialogue. This was Hollywood’s Golden Age of sharp, finely crafted wordsmithing, and it’s perfectly apropos as the primary device in conveying the film’s message of racism and stereotyping. On a more focused level, it looks takes aim at passivity – the act of condoning racism simply by accepting it (which turns out to be Kathy’s great sin) – and in so doing offers up a more targeted, and thusly more effective, rebuke. But all of it comes out in dialogue scenes, with director Elia Kazan keeping up a good pace to keep all that talk flowing along.

The dialogue is so thick with polemic, in fact, that at times it gets a little to abstract, particularly in the film’s final act. Too often we get grandstanding speeches about race and bravery and feelings and who knows what, when action would far better drive the intended point across. The film’s best scene – in which Green wants to get a hotel room under his Jewish alias and is refused – succeeds because it combines hot, crisp lines with the drama of conflict, and perhaps a few more scenes along these lies could offer the film a stronger narrative drive. But it feels wrong to carp too much – particularly when you remember how daring it was to use confront such a topic on any level back in 1947.

Of course, the film would be a crushing bore if there weren’t also a strong personal story. And Agreement’s got one, in the form of a truly engaging relationship between Green and Kathy, two ordinary, insecure adults who enter their union without a true understanding of each other’s nuts and bolts. And Gregory Peck and Dorothy McGuire’s chemistry is as dynamic as it is homey – we know these people, and yet their big-screen presences provide just enough awe to remind us we’re watching a major-studio picture. It sure does pass the rudimentary test for all screen couples: do we want them to get back together in the end; I mean, really want them? Yes, yes we do.

There’s just one small complaint I have about the clarity of the picture. Early on, we get the strong impression that Skylar Green is Jewish (after all, it is a common Jewish surname). and that his decision to take on the undercover gig is based largely on that. Then he tells the he’s not, but I thought it’s because he’s hiding his Judiasm. Then he confides in his secretary that he is, but is he being honest or just playing the ruse? Do you see what I men – the frontloaded ambiguity of Green’s ethnicity causes great confusion later on. Looking it up confirmed that Green is, in fact, a gentile, but let’s make that crystal clear from the get go, and, quite frankly, the revelation that he could be a Jew would be better utilized if saved until at the end, when the audience discovers that he wasn’t really pretending about his identity after all.

But overall, fine work. A significant entry, not simply for its artistry but also its social relevance. Still important. Still, still.

                     Rating:  ***1/2

Friday, September 30, 2016

Miracle on 34th Street (1947)

And now we come to an entry in the collection that I’d expect most people have already seen, due to its perennial yuletide airings on TV. Miracle on 34th Street, of course, is the beloved tale about an elderly man who claims he’s Santa Claus, and even upon its 1947 release, it enjoyed immense popularity and praise (unlike other holiday classics like It’s a Wonderful Life and A Christmas Story, which took years of cult-gestation to attain their veneration). I’ll just say right off the bat that it not only earns those stripes, but still holds up remarkable well for a pre-postmodern entertainment, owing primarily to a sharp-witted script (they were good at those back then) and a beguiling central conceit that will never age so long as children of all ages believe in jolly ol’ St. Nick.

Edmund Gwen is the elder gent here, enlisted to play Santa for the Macy’s parade when he notices that their Santa is drunk. The parade manager, Doris Walker, takes credit for the replacement, and also gets high praise for the new Santa’s goodwill policy of directing customers to other stores to get what they really want for Christmas. But when the man claims to be the real Kris Kringle, she begins to doubt his sanity, suspicions exacerbated even more by the store’s nefarious “quack” psychiatrist who has it out for the red-bearded one.

Meanwhile, Doris’s home life is turned upside-down too; Kringle seems to be warming up to her 10-year-old daughter, Susan (Natalie Wood), whose inherited cynicism of all things fantastic and imagined may be melting under the consideration that perhaps the old man may just be the real Santa Claus. A single lawyer who already believes, Fred Gailey, sees this perfectly healthy for the child, ad perhaps good for Mom too, whom he secretly has romantic feelings for.

But when Kringle “assaults” the psychiatrist (he just taps him on his head with a cane), he’s committed to an institution, now requiring Gailey’s legal council to get out and prove his sanity. A widely-publicized trial ensues – and the presiding judge is at loggerheads when faced with the trial’s two key questions: does Santa exist, and is this guy really him? It’s also a tough poser for Gailey, who ultimately avails himself of the testimony of a child to prove the former, and thousands of U.S. postal-service-carried letters, delivered directly to the defendant, to prove the latter. And, on a more personal level, Doris finally concedes that the man is Santa, with Susan the final convert after her ultimate wish-list item fulfilled: a house in the ‘burbs, with a new daddy attached.

Not a lot of in-depth analysis here; it’s just a shining example of fine, vintage-era Hollywood product, with a tight Oscar-winning screenplay by George Seaton, who had already penned Fox’s The Song of Bernadette (also in this collection). In both films he explores the reason and faith, and how, ultimately, they’re not opposites at all but symbiotic elements, both of which are essential to the human psyche. It’s amazing how in both cases, he manages to convince even the most jaded cynics in the audience (like myself), that the unprovable or unseeable must exist, on some level, when it is perceived as true by so many.

Edmund Gwen won an Oscar, too, with his avuncular depiction as Santa, and in a way his performance was the first in what I like to call the “Is he or isn’t he?” genre. You know: take a character who claims to be a fantasy figure or that something fantastical is true and spend the movie trying to determine if  he is or just delusional. Other films of this ilk include K-Pax, Don Juan DeMarco, and Take Shelter, and they all end the same way: they’re not crazy. I’ve actually seen variations of Miracle, on TV for example, in which “Santa” is crazy, but that what matters is the joy he spreads, and the faith he inspires in others.

And then there’s Natalie. As young Susan. she nearly steals the film with her furrowed-browed cynicism – but yet, she makes the transition to believer truly believable. I think that’s due to her marked intelligence – we see her cerebral wheels turning beyond those innocent eyes – an intelligence that would make her such huge movie star in the postwar 50s, counterculture 60s and feminist 70s. It’s hard to imagine a more auspicious movie debut for a juvenile actress.

And now, having heaped praise upon the film itself, I’d like to take Twentieth Century Fox to task now for the most misguided decision I’ve yet seen on this collection. They used the colorized version. I’m not going to get into why I’m against it; hopefully if you’re reading this you agree with me. But for Fox to assume that the likely purchaser of such a mammoth set – a serious student or at least fan of quality film – wouldn’t want the B&W version is a most egregious miscalculation of their target demographic. And beyond that, it’s just wrong. For shame, Fox. What would Zanuck say?

But the film itself is a chestnut.

                          Rating:  ****

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...