Wednesday, January 18, 2017

The Sound of Music (1965) 

The Sound of Music was the last of the Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals to hit the big screen; it was undoubtedly the biggest, raking in over 100 million at the BO, and was, in my own humble opinion, the best. Hell, it’s probably one the best musicals of all time for that matter. And really, who could argue?

Oh, so I’m not entirely unbiased in my appraisal. The Sound of Music was the second musical I ever acted in (you knew there’d be a story, didn’t you?), playing Kurt in a local community theater way back in 1983. Looking back, I’m amazed at how vast the undertaking was – it required several sets and background scenes (including the Austrian alps), multiple costumes (including the Von Trap playclothes, meant to look like reused drapes); many complex songs, several sung in harmony; loads of dialogue; multiple dance scenes; a large ensemble and an lnger-than-average running time, even for a musical. Of course, I was only Kurt, the younger of the two boys, and so I was oblivious to much of the frantic goings-on that occupied actors of greater stage-time and the creative talents that worked their butts off 24/7 during most of that sweltering summer.

And now, looking at the movie again after all these years, I can now fully appreciate what a mammoth undertaking that must have been. By 1965, Fox had four Rodgers and Hammerstein smashes under their belt; it was certainly a no-brainer to bring the duo’s last collaboration, and Broadway hit, to the big screen. Reams could be written about its long journey from page to Panavision, but suffice to say it wasn’t easy, and it didn’t help matters much that its genre, the epic musical, was a bit passé by the mad-sixties.

But perhaps the most surprising thing about Sound is that fit right in to this new era quite nicely. It was hardly a cinema verite feature, but under the lens of director Robert Wise it looked different from the showstoppers of the 50s. Just as in South Pacific, the movie features actual locales, not soundtages, and acting that feels more “realistic,” as opposed to the booming, hammy-theatrical styles which characterized most Hollywood performances from the 50s and ere.  And that ubiquitous score that always seemed to underlie every scene in those old movies was now gone, replaced by – gasp – birds and trees and cars in the background. What a concept!

Yet, ironically, it still received a critical pummeling, most notoriously from Pauline Kael, whose pan famously got her fired from McCall’s magazine. Despite its WWII-eve setting and occasional dark moments, particularly in the third act, it still got characterized as a hopelessly-happy, sappy bit of sentiment – sort of a sequel to the previous year’s Mary Poppins, also starring Julie Andrews. Only time has cured such errors; in the years since its Spring opening, The Sound of Music has been generally acknowledged a bona fide classic. Even those naysayers or anti-musical folk among us have embraced it as a camp classic, with usual high attendances at Sound of Music sing-a-longs and countless references in modern pop culture.

The story begins in Saltsburg, Austria, during “the last golden days of the 30s.” but things aren’t so golden for Maria, a novitiate nun. Her free-spirited, music-loving ways just don’t seem to gel with the abbey’s acetic MO, and she’s called onto the carpet, where the Mother Abbess suggest she take a leave of absence. She goes to become the governess for seven children – the Von Trapps – the widowed father of whom runs the household like the naval captain that he is. It’s not a family that keeps governesses, and Maria learns why: the kids are free-spirits themselves, and resentful of their dad’s mostly absentee authority. The would-be nun is a perfect fit, teaching the children how to climb trees, swim and play, but mostly how to sing, al of it much to the consternation of Captain Von Trapp, in whose eyes merriment is a grim reminder of happier times.

Enter two players – Herr Detweiller, a talent agent and producer who takes immediate notice of the Von Trapp’s recently unlocked talents, and the Baroness Schraeder, a formal, elegant woman from Vienna and the Captain’s love interst. Also in love – Lisel, the eldest daughter, with Rowlf, a messenger – but the Nazi annexation of Austria, the Aunchlauss, is looming, and people are changing. The Captain is keenly aware of the growing threat and adamantly opposes it; Detweiller isn’t necessarily a sympathizer but harbors a que sera attitude. And all the while the Captain and Maria fall in love, but she, wracked with guilt by the feelings, particularly after he announces his engagement to the Baroness, retreats back to the abbey in emotional confusion. After the Mother Abbess proclaims that human love can be just as sacred as divine love, Maria returns to her workplace, embraced by her new family, made official with her marriage to the Captain.

With the Aunchlauss official, all Austrian military officers are enlisted to serve for the Third Reich, and the Captain is no exception. Seeing this as no option whatsoever, but fully aware that refusal would be disastrous for himself and his family, he makes plans for a quiet departure to Switzerland. The zealous Herr Zeller stymies their getaway, forcing the family to perform at a heavily attended folk competition, under watch by Nazi officials. The singing septet actually wins the contest, but has already hightailed it outta there before the award can be bestowed. They take refuge at the abbey, and are nearly caught when now-Nazi Rowlf betrays them, but manage to elude the Germans long enough to exit their homeland afoot, crossing the alps into Switzerland with only backpacks… and the Sound of Music in their hearts.

There’s so much to say about this one. Historically, it could easily be classified as the last great musical, existing, anachronistically, at a time when the form was in its waning days, when New Hollywood was poised to take over and drive out the megabudgets and glossy production values. But if it is indeed the musical’s Lat Hurrah, then what a way to go out. The Sound of Music has so much going for it. It’s full of epic splendor, yes, and a towering score and an “important” setting ad theme, but In the ebd it’s just a very enjoyable film. At nearly three hours, it just seems to float right on by, with very few slow spots or bathroom breaks. Is it because I’m already familiar with the show? I don’t think so; the film’s continued popularity among young people may very well attest to that.

And the reason? I think there are several, not the least of which is the music. Not only is it good, but it’s frequent: I don’t think ten minutes elapse in this film without a song. It seems kike an obvious thing, but you’d be surprised how many musicals ignore this rule, letting full stretches of narrative go on and on without a note of music to break or liven it up. And of course, these are songs that stand the test of time, from the infectious “Do Re Me” to the sprightly “My Favorite Things.” Perhaps my favorite of them all is “Edelweiss”: it’s a charmer when the Captain croons it at home with his guitar but it’s positively tear-inducing when he croaks it out just before their Austrian egress, a symbol not only of his love for homeland but also a rueful farewell to it. It was Rodgers and Hammerstein’s last song, fittingly from their best show.

I was also surprised at how good the romance is too. Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer (as the Captain) have extraordinary chemistry; their love is not rushed, but evolves quite naturally from initial animosity to mutual respect to finally infatuation. It, of course, follows the classic R&H formula (See South Pacific): a man and a woman, coming from two different worlds, meet and fall and love. But their previous worlds always come back to haunt them, either breaking them up (sad ending) or strengthening their resolve (happy ending). Oh yes, and then there’s a subplot of a younger couple, almost always ill-fated. (Yes, Rowlf and Lisel do part ways, but it’s all for the best, given his ultimate allegiance.) Maria and the Captain’s scene on the terrace, when he finally confesses his love, is a beautiful example of buildup and payoff, but never at the expense of character. He is allowed his firmness, while she keeps her emotional insecurities – they both have their checks and balances which make the whole thing work.

And, as I hinted at earlier, director Robert Wise should not be undervalued – he truly opened up the play and turned it into something cinematically sensational. Knowing how much mileage he could get from the setting, he availed himself of all opportunity to do so, from the now-famous opening show in which we zoom in on a singling Andrews in a mountain-enclosed field, to the “Do RE Me” number, spanning every known Salzburg landmark and no doubt increasing the city’s tourism profit multifold. But of course, he never overdoes it, being mindful to keep musical numbers fully intact (wisely excising the Detweiller/Baroness number “No Way to Stop It”), and never intruding on quiet, personal moments. Like masters like David Lean, Richard Atttenborough and Cecil B DeMille, he knows how to stage a spectacle, while realizing that small human actions are the greatest spectacles of them all.

Just odds and ends now. I love how suspenseful the final abbey scene is – Wise knows how to turn the screws on a mere flashlight beam, inches away from a trembling child. And I was surprised at how I sympathized more with the Baroness, despite her heartless “boarding school” line (that utterance alone makes you root against her). I dunno, maybe I find her more attractive now than I used to. Her portrayer, Eleanor Parker, is quite the looker, even more so than the matronly Julie Andrews, but that’s another story.

‘Nuff said for now. If you haven’t seen it, what in Sam Hill are you waiting for? Head for the Alps, pronto!

Rating:  ****

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Zorba the Greek (1964)

After all the pomp and pageantry of the previous entry in the Fox 75th Anniversary Collection, Cleopatra, it’s refreshing to get back to a more indie-styled offering with Zorba the Greek, a wildly successful yet simple film about the unlikely friendship between a shy Briton and a lustful Greek. Yet for all its verite look and chick black and white photography, Zorba is really just a classic tale, a modern superego/id story that also manages a subtext about village intolerance and old-world prejudice.

We’re getting into some lengthy films now (the last few clocked in at well over 2 ½ hours), and this one is no exception. But we’re in the 60s now, and that was getting to be the norm. Also fashionable was Zorba’s setting – along with films like Never On Sunday, Topkapi, and the works of Fellini and Goddard, moviegoing America loved all things Mediterranean in the early 60s. With the Paramount antitrust act of 1949, along with the Miracle Supreme Court decision allowing First Amendment rights to cover movies, foreign films and indies seeped into theatres and art houses throughout the 50s, whetting the collective American appetite for the cinematic export. By 1964, people were ready, and Zorba’s deft, delicate touch, along with its memorable score and arty look, entranced filmgoers of al stripe, and to the tune of 23 million, a grand success back in the day.

We begin by meeting Basil, a transplanted Englushman, the recent inheritor of a lignite mine on Crete. Hoping to repair and reuse it, he accepts the offer of a scruffy transient to help – a Greek named Zorba – and from there the duo take a steamer to the beautiful island with the hopes of great success and profit. But almost immediately, differences emerge. Zorba is intrigued by an eccentric older woman, Madame Hortense, who has a heart of gold, a buried past and a bundle of insecurities. The two carouse until late at night, with Basil astonished by the antics f his new friend yet too reserved to partake. Zorba implores him to come out of his shell, even coaxing him into soliciting the attentions of “the widow,” a beautiful woman chastised by the village for not remarrying. (They tease her when she loses her goat; only Zorba offers help.) But Basil, a true, repressed Briton at heart, prefers his life of quiet desperation.

Meanwhile, Zorba inspects the mine and sees that it is dangerously dilapidated. The solution, he declares, is to bring timber down from the mountains to bolster it back up, but one problem exists: the mountains are owned by local monks. Zorba, in his usual, ingratiating way, moseys on up to the brothrrs, proceeds to get them drunk, and manages to seal the deal, unofficially at least. The next problem, how to get the timber down, is solved by Zorba’s half-cocked contraption – a long set of wires with a carriage to allow the logs to sail down to the mine via the force of gravity. Skeptical Basil is quietly optimistic; any doubts he might still harbor seem to be put to rest with Zorba’s dancing – a fiery passionate spectacle which Basil privately tries to emulate.

But Zorba’s passion can overextend. When he goes to town for supplies, he spends his money carelessly on women and wine, inciting Basil’s anger, especially after he is forced to lie to the Madame in order to cover up Zorba’s debauchery. But Basil himself has trouble too; he finally gets the nerve to “be” with the widow, but the word spreads throughout the village, and is laid intentionally upon the ears of a young admirer, who subsequently commits suicide. The widow is blamed, and when she tries to attend the boy’s funeral, her throat is slashed by the boy’s father. Basil regrets being powerless to save her, but his grief is allayed, just a bit, when Zorba agrees to marry the Madame, knowing she will die the next day of pneumonia. She does, after their “I do’s,” and he offers her comfort as she dies, after seeing how the vulterous village women are all set to ransack her house. All that’s left now is Zorba’s ambitious lumber machine, but it too has a sad end, collapsing after only three logs are sent down. Basil and Zorba’s response? Eating… and dancing. They will go their separate ways, forever, but each life enriched immeasurably by the experience.

Zorba is by far not a perfect film. As I mentioned, f follows nearly by rote the formula of the introverted vs. outgoing personalities, and puts them “on the road” (perhaps the beginning of that subgenre, a la Scarecrow and Planes, Trains and Automobiles). And again, we have the outgoing one usually overcompensating for something – in this case, a troubling past that includes a deceased child and some pretty harrowing war experiences. Basil, as played by Alan Bates (before he became a shaggy weirdo), is the introverted one, but he’s a bit too mannered, too wide-eyed and reticently amazed. I was constantly aware of the performance, and I wasn’t particularly intrigued by the character, even if it is the film’s entry point. For that matter, there are too many scenes of gaping onlookers, be it in a boat or village center, as if it’s the director’s method of building suspense. Ultimately, it does all build up to the film’s climax, the Widow’s murder (too telegraphed, by the way), but it’s such a tragic event it’s hard to come down from it, sort of the same problem Dead Poet’s Society ran into – a horrible death! Ah, well, seize the day, mourn quickly and live your own life to the fullest.

But most of this is fairly easily overlooked by one thing: Anthony Quinn as Zorba. He encapsulates the role as only a handful of actors have been able to do in the history of American film. From his clingy, invasive entrance on the boat, nattering away to Basil with quips and quotes, to his final, somber dance on the beach with his newfound friend, he embodies this thing called life like no other actor either dared or successfully accomplished. Put him up there on the list of other memorably infectious free spirits – Holly Golightly, Rande McMurphy, Arthur Bach, etc.. – he’s earned it.

And in the end he’s the real reason Zorba has remained such a magical work – a little touch of joie de vivre, the European spirit of taking time to enjoy life. It’s that theme that transcends all else in the film, and a theme most desperately needed as the 60s rolled on, into the most tumultuous and chaotic era of recent times.

Rating:  ***1/2

Monday, January 2, 2017

Cleopatra (1963)

Of course, we come to one of he most notoriously colossal films of all time – renowned for several reasons, not the least of which being that it marked the beginning of the end of the classical Hollywood system, with all its pageantry and grandeur, but also its excesses an indulgences. With a whopping 30-million dollar budget, unheard of for its time, it put a chink in Fox’s armor as the studio lost a boatload and didn’t recover economically until its release of The Sound of Music two years later. It also sidetracked he career of legendary director Joseph L. Mankiewicz, who didn’t return to form again until 1972’s Sleuth, a two-character mystery that couldn’t any different from Cleo’s cast of thousands.

And yet, judging the film entirely on its own merits, it isn’t half bad. It certainly isn’t a great film, but it is indeed a very good one. Theres something breathtaking about a scene like the one in which Cleopatra enters Rome after wedding Caesar – filled with costumed soldiers hailing her procession, dancers filling every inch of space from here to the horizon, a fantastic chariot-float inching across toward the Roman arcade, to the strains of a thundering orchestra… a Cleo herself, Elizabeth Taylor, in costume change #27, peering across the mis-en-secene with bold, blue eyes and a thousand watt dose of pure tar power. That’s what the movies were back then, and will never be again.

But in 1963, the year the film was released, that sort of spectacle was already  anachronistic. For all its splendor, Cleopatra must have seemed to the avid moviegoer a relic from ten years ere. It features, despite classically trained actors Richard Burton and Rex Harrison, the same sort of overripe, theatrical acting styles popularized by the Bible epics from the 50s, and those ubiquitous quasi-British accents everyone used in historical dramas no matter the time period or place. It all seems especially dated coming so close after the previous Fox collection entry The Longest Day, which features all characters speaking in their respective native languages (using subtitles).

But the good thing about those epics, dated or not, is their fidelity to history – there’s no scarcity of historical information here, and Cleopatra does put the viewer to work in its education. Our story begins as Julius Caesar (Harrison) is engaged in a great battle against rival Roman general Pompey, a man who flees to Egypt for safety, only to be beheaded that country’s current ruler, Ptolemy XIII, a member of Alexander the Great’s Macedonian dynasty, thinking it would please the great toga-togged one (it doesn’t). Caesar, in fact, would much rather have Ptolemy’s sister, Cleopatra, installed as head honcho, so he ges after her with his legions and sets her up in court, while at the same time falling in love with her and fathering her child, Caesarius. With the union of two empire’s monarchs, it looks like the Mediterranean Sea just got that much smaller – what could go wrong? Ceasar’s assassination, that’s what, spurred, in no small part, by his self-proclaimed dictatorship and fatherhood of a so out of Roman-recognized wedlock.

Control of all Roman provinces passes to the triumvirate: Octavian, Lepidus and Marc Anthony, the latter given control of the middle east, including Egypt. But Antony, too, is beguiled by Cleo’s charm and ravishing beauty, and he confesses his envy, not of Caesar’s leadership skills or military holdings but of his total love for her, a requited love that this time may unify the two cultures. Octavian, though, has different designs -  he forces Antony to marry his sister, Octavian, to help unify the empire, but Cleo is enraged, receiving a heartbroken and resource-deprived Antony only under conditions that she seize one-third the Roma Empire. Octavia rejects the deal and forces sea war upon Antony, who abandons his losing troops to chase after Cleo, returning to Alexandria. He is enraged at her for abandoning him, and at himself for abandoning his follow soldiers – a pale shadow of a man, living only for a woman also hating life these days. Knowing Octavian warns them alive to parade them, they commit suicide, he with his own sword and she with the bite of an asp.

And I could have written ever more, truthfully; at a decidedly immodest 4-hour-running time, Cleopatra is nothing if not comprehensive. Part of the reason for its TRT is that it aims to cover both phases of Cleo’s rule in equal, lengthy measure: her relationship with Caesar and that with Antony. (I sort of see it as a two-part miniseries in this regard.) And this, of course, was made at a time when writing was king – the special effects for the day were dialogue and story structure. Mankiewicz’s screenplay deftly navigates between thick, info-heavy passages and the more emotional, conversation-based notes, typically between Cleo and her beaus, that added a human factor to the astutely histrionic proceedings. (A balance Warren Beauty utilized so well his his historical romance Reds).

This practice is abetted particularly well by our retroactive knowledge of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton’s offscreen romance, and enlivens Cleo’s second act, at exactly the time when it needs it most. I particularly remember their first squabble, full of power maneuvering and spiteful harangues, and I can still clearly recall their first big rift – when Antony marries Octavia – and the oh, so icy shoulder Cleo gives him in the aftermath; you can practically imagine the real life couple similar posturings, sans toga and gold robe. And then there’s Burton’s phenomal confessional; after a half-hour or so of stony, self-pitying silence, he finally launches into a explanation for his breakdown, and how “love” is nothing that should be fought for. Taylor, herself, has a similarly shattering moment, when she muses, near death, on how her heretofore life felt like a dream, am she feels strangely wide awake. Again, fantastic writing, and its epic length seems to  add to the exhausting exhilaration of it all.

And there’s another thing that I must applaud the film for: having actual scenes. Those who regularly read this blog are aware of my habitual griping about today’s film/television, and its ignorance of actual narrative structural devices, like pause-filled lines, spatial clarity, sensible editing and, ah yeas. the art of the scene, who should necessarily have a beginning, middle an ending (and transition). Nowadays scenes bleed into each other without any demarcations, and narrative integrity becomes a shambles – a relic, almost, of the days when directors were trained with the basics. We are witnessing a generation of directors brought up on camcorders, and soon they’ll be the children of imovie and youtube. Storyboarding? Screenwriting? A thing of the past, who needs it. Well, I’ll take a bloated, 4-hour epic with classic writing over a sound-bite-friendly digital quickie full of pixels and light, signifying nothing.

Not much left to go over here, except how daring some of it is – particularly one first-act scene in which Cleo’s getting a face-down rubdown, with only a narrow towel covering her backside. (By ’63 the Hays Code was loosening up just a bit.) Later, she barely wraps herself in a towel and we get a good eyeful of Elizabeth Taylor’s (ahem) upper portions, as well as her finely fleshy legs. I’ve never thought of Eizibeth Taylor as particularly pretty (I know, I;m the minority), but she did have a fantastic body, particularly here, in her mid-thirties, when she was mature and svelte. Add to that an acting style that was not exactly Meryl Streep, let’s be honest, but had enough of a personality drive to make her eminently watchable. A fine performance.

A long haul, but worth it in the end. While not all consistently riveting, there are some good parts here, some very good parts. No problem awarding this...

 Rating:  ***1/2

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

The Longest Day (1962)

Fox founder Daryl Zanuck never tired of producing, and even at the ripe old age of 60 he once again took up the task to spearhead the most ambitious WWII to date. He bought the rights to Cornelius Ryan’s celebrated novel about D-Day, The Longest Day, and brought it to vivid, B&W life in the fall of 1962. A WWI soldier himself, he no doubt felt this film needed to be made, and the honorific tone permeates every scene of this grand, three-hour epic. It’s got John Wayne, Robert Mitchum, brave American soldiers dying for their country; we’re only missing the National Anthem to complete the picture.

Yet, in many ways this departed from he usual patriotic fare of the era. Zanuck made a concerted effort not to emulate glory-filled paeans of the past. Day, with its gritty black and white cinematography, more closely resembles the stark newsreel footage of the war movie audiences had been watching for decade. Apart from the occasional Beethoven’s Fifth and a few kettle-drum booms, there is no score to speak of. In the interest of verisimilitude, all foreigners speak their own, respective languages (mainly French and German), with subtitles as translation. And battlefield speeches, a staple of the war movie genre, are kept to a minimum – most of the dialogue s information-based, and most of it historically accurate, according to researchers. The result? A hit, both critically and commercially; audiences, by the 1960s, no doubt felt it was time for a more realistic look at a war they had spent the 50s trying to put past themselves.

It’s June 5th, as he film opens, and across Europe the questions buzzes: when will the Allies made an amphibious landing in France, potentially liberating the country and marching Eastward to defeat Germany, effective ending the war in Europe? German high command keeps ts codebreakers busy with the query, and the French resistance keeps their ears to the radio for cryptic poetry which might afford the answer. The Americans and Brits are ready, itching to go, in fact, as the scheduled landing has already been postponed due to the weather several times. But U.S. generals Eisenhower and Bradley know that one more postpone would set hem back to July, and so Ike himself makes he official decision: Allied forces will land on the French beaches at Normandy at daybreak on June 6th, 1994: D-Day.

It defies logic, he Germans believe, and so they ignore the possibility. When the likelihood increases, they are afraid to awaken their temperamental Fuhrer, and so entire reserves of potentially lifesaving Panzier divisions are left idle. The paratroopers arrive first, well beyond the bulkheads, in the countryside, primarily to serve as diversionary tactics, particularly with their use of dummy models. Then the warships start shelling the beaches, until finally the infantry arrives – thousands of them – to the defending Germans’ shock. Storming up the Omaha and Utah beaches, they overcome several unexpected obstacles: Henry Fonda, as Teddy Roosevelt Jr., discovers his unit missed the landing point by about ten miles some of the paratroopers miss their mark and wind up, tied up (literally), on trees and church steeples; John Wayne suffers a fractured foot and must conduct his operations infirm, and Robert Mitchum leads his boys up a cliff to take over a strategic German turret, never mind the extensive casualties that might otherwise prohibit such an undertaking.

And of course, we all know the outcome, but even the finale is muted – again demonstrating the grit audiences were ready for. (We close with a shot of an overturned helmet on the beach, and drums rolling as the credits do also.) But at he same time, it’s hard to fathom that the film had mass appeal; I’d presume that much of its audience were veterans themselves, as well as their kith and kin. We go back and forth between so many locations and shuttle between so many characters that I daresay if you’re not a WWII aficionado, you’re bound to be a bit confused. Still, I wasn’t so much asea that I couldn’t get the gist of it, and perhaps I’d even applaud the work for painting such a vast canvas. After all, it was a vast operation, and such a narrative structure was used again in two other films I admired: The Thin Blue Line and Gettysburg. 

I mentioned grit as one of Day’s attributes, and of course I’m placing it in a historical perspective with the praise. Since then, the war film has changed immensely, and in many ways Day actually pretty quant compared with modern offerings, especially those which depict the Vietnam War. But even Saving Private Ryan, whose first 30 minutes depicted the same event as Day, upped the ante with its graphic realism and unrelenting intensity.

Of course, that is the film that will inevitable be compared to Day the most, and it probably should be. I think both films are great, and so I’ll refrain from making any qualitative judgments, but it’s interesting to note the differences in their approaches. Steven Spielberg, with Ryan, clearly wanted to show the horror of WWII, something you couldn’t do in 1962 without being perceived as unpatriotic, and so he depicted the landing Allies as ducks in a shooting gallery, picked off wholesale before even stepping on the sand. Day shows this at a distance, but takes care to show just as many charging forward, and underplays their helplessness by showing the preemptive Naval shelling and paratrooper landing.

But, though Day might seem to be the more conventional of the two, it’s also a lot softer on the enemy. With roughly half of the opening devoted to the German side, it actually humanizes them, and paints them more as helpless stewards to a fanatical madman. And – here’s the big thing – the word “Nazi” is never mentioned. In the decades since, at least in the movies, the Germans have become far more vilified, partially due to greater Holocaust awareness and revelations of the true depth of their evil. “Nazi” is sure mentioned in Ryan, and we barely get any kind of depiction of them, certainly not a humanizing one. In essence, Days examination of the war is more a cerebral, stylistic one, certainly not a moral one. It just wasn’t time yet.

And, in being so cerebral, and covering such a vast swath, it keeps you arm’s length from the characters. Day has much to say about its dramatis personae, but little of it is actually dramatic. We’re introduced to a soldier early on who had just won a windfall in poker, and we expect to follow him throughout the invasion, but we don’t really. Loads of grunts and generals are paraded through Day’s first act, only to get lost in the shuffle. Only stars truly stand out. Henry Fonda, as Teddy’s son, is a marvelous depiction of privilege taking a back seat to patriotism, and John Wayne’s officer is all growly gruff, standing out in a scene where he demands that dead, hanging paratroopers be cut down to preserve their dignity. But both stars have pre-packaged personalities; it’s not in the writing, which Ryan just lifted from his novel, or the direction (there were several, one for each nationality).

But Day doesn’t want to be a character study; it wants to be a comprehensive, authentic historical epic. And it is. If it aims to make the viewer think more closely about America’s greatest military event, it succeeded, at least with me. There were times when the film felt like the longest movie (sorry, had to throw that in), but it’s a case where the length justifies the end result, because even if I didn’t enjoy watching every second, I enjoyed reflecting on those seconds. Even the gunplay in the third act, when it turns into Sgt. Rock time.

Random observations: only one title graphic, all credits come at the end (the second time in this collection).

Keep your eyes peeled for the famous scene of Red Buttons hanging from the church steeple by his parachute. He survives! (He doesn’t The Poseidon Adventure).

And look fast for Sean Connery of the Scottish brigade, his last film role before James Bond.

All told, an important film – see it for history, entertainment, and the history of entertainment.

Rating:  ***1/2

Thursday, December 15, 2016

The Hustler (1961) 

(Back to "Normal" font; felt like the large was too large. We'll see how it goes.)

At last, we come to a film that presages the New Hollywood movement that shook up the system starting in the mid-sixties, and continuing all the way up to the early 80s. This is my era – these were the types of movies that made me love the movies – films about important ideas, mature themes, characters that jumped off the screen with gritty, earthy honesty, and stylistics that transcended the usual picture-perfect look that characterized the vintage age. The New Hollywood movement broke all the rules, and forever shattered the studio system that tried vainly to keep them.

I could say a zillion things about The Hustler, and I probably will soon enough, but I’ll start by admiring just how dateless it feels. Yes, it was filmed in B&W (the majority of films still were in the early 60s), but it has a raw edge that gives it an independent film feel. It begins with freeze-frame opening credits over stark shots of a pool game, and with an avant-garde jazz score. Paul Newman as the now-legendary Eddie Felson enters the picture, and he possesses a Brando-esque nonchalance throughout the first third of the film- smoking, drinking, shooting – spouting spare but poetic dialogue with the ordinary tenor of daily life. I just mentioned Brando, and it occurred to me just how much his acting approach changed the movies, and not just technically. Unlikeable characters like Eddie could now inhabit the screen, and the only thing that really mattered was that they were real.

But Eddie, of course, is a fabulous pool player – the best there is – and he travels town-to-town as a hustler, betting on games for money (the opening game with a couple of oblivious victims shows precisely how he does this, and it’s mesmerizing). But at a tournament he meets Minnesota Fats, a pool legend, and Eddie is bound and determined to beat the man. The cigarettes burn, the whiskey flows, and after hours and hours of marathon playing, Eddie admits defeat, at a loss of $12,000. Penniless and demoralized, he wanders the city alone, and finds another lost soul in the form of Sarah (Piper Laurie), a doe-eyed, plain but pretty young woman – and an alcoholic. And so their relationship – comprised mainly of drinking and lovemaking (which she pathetically calls a “contract of depravity”) – begins.

As their cohabitation continues, Sarah’s love for Eddie grows, but it’s frustratingly unrequited. Things aren’t helped much by the arrival of Bert Gordon, a manager who sees potential in Eddie, but he knows the wunderkind’s desperation, not to mention debilitating character flaws, so he extracts a crippling 75% from all winnings. Bert spots a potential windfall from a heavy-betting Southerner, and Sarah coaxes Eddie into taking her with him to Kentucky, despite her profound lovesickness. The game is all money – no joy – and when Eddie returns to the hotel room, he discovers Sarah’s suicide, spurred by her guilt over sleeping with Bert. Conditions are not ideal for a return match with Fats, but it happens, and this time Eddie is ready, beating the master handily and confidently. But his real victory turns out to be unrelated to pool: standing up to Bert and refusing to hand over his cut, effectively retiring from professional hustling completely.

I mentioned before the synopsis that The Hustler trod new ground in the realm of mature content, and that must indeed have been a salient element upon its release back in 1961. For the first time, at least in this collection, it’s clear that two adults have had premarital sex. (Beforehand, the studio made sure that at the end of a date or dinner, the man or woman drove home). It’s nonchalant and unromanticized too, more an act of wastrels longing for each other’s carnality to escape a cold world. For me, this doomed union, a romance that never would be, or could be, is the best part of the film, reminding me a bit of Cassavette’s later work (Faces, in particular). (Unusual, too, for a sports movie, a genre where the love story is always the weakest part, and the girl is usually confined to the cheering section, or the role which has to get the protagonist to “look inside himself” if he has any chance at victory.) But The Hustler is no ordinary sorts movie, and one could even make the case that the love story is paramount with the pool story secondary in importance.

And it’s impossible to praise the love story without mentioning Piper Laurie’s performance. She is nothing less than phenomenal. She was nominated for Best Actress that year; she should’ve won. She depicts a psychologically fragile yet emotionally hungry woman with such precision, such profundity, that I knew it could only come fro a stage-trained actress – another hallmark of the Brando-begun movement that paved the way for the new guard. It’s a performance that reminded me of Shirley MacLaine’s similarly-wounded, suicidal character in the previous year’s The Apartment. Although each have different outcomes, they are both women you just want to reach into the screen and save from the outside world – to nurture and love. And it’s also what makes Newman’s guilt-ridden breakdown in the final scene so poignant. He wishes he could’ve saved her with his love. But he couldn’t.

I’d also like to applaud the film’s screenplay. Again, it’s probably the first film in the Fox collection that doesn’t feel dated, and part of that relates to the writing. This is nt to say that a film like Gentleman’s Agreement wasn’t well-written, but The Hustler’s lines crackle with immediacy. They’re not overly literary, or overly theatrical. They approximate the speech of real life, while at the same time conveying the messages and meanings necessary for quality art. The picnic scene is the perfect example; Eddie and Sarah seem to have things together (he had just gotten his thumbs broken) and engage in a romantic, outdoor interlude. But she says, “I love you,” and he responds, “Do you need the words?” “I do,” she whispers, “and if you say them, I’ll never let you take them back.” And then dead silence.

That’s sublime writing. And, truth be told, it’s even underrated. The Hustler’s screenplay isn’t up there with the pantheon of Citizen Kane, All About Eve, Chinatown or The Godfather. But it should be.

Some bits and pieces: George C, Scott, in an early role, perfectly straddles the line between mentor and bully, and the “Great One,” Jackie Gleason, is excellent in the way he underplays his role. I’ll never forget their first match, and the way he just stares at an alcohol-addled Newman, realizing the upstart’s heavy insecurities but not judging. That look alone speaks volumes about his character, and it reveals the full breadth of Gleason’s histrionic intelligence.

Guess I’ve said enough. Sorry I never really saw this brilliant film earlier. And if you’ve already seen it, see it again. It will be better than you remembered it.

Rating:  ****

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