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:  ****

Thursday, December 1, 2016

The Diary of Anne Frank (1959)


I’m not all surprised that Fox rounded out the first part of its 75th Anniversary set with this classic from 1959 – a notorious commercial flop but widely hailed by critics and certainly now considered a landmark film, an immortal work that lives up to the powerful legacy of its source material. The Diary of Anne Frank is indeed a film for the ages.

But yet, I hadn’t seen it in a long time, and, gasp – dare I say it – I maybe I hadn’t really seen the whole thing at all. Sure, I read and acted out the play in 8th grade, as part of a special Holocaust unit (and back in ’84 that was a very novel concept), but I never really got into it. I revered it, I respected it, I honored it.. and then I put it up on the shelf where other “special” things were kept.

But now, seeing the movie, I can appreciate it now as a living, breathing, vital piece of both history and art. Director George Stevens honors the play upon which his movie is based by doing little with it literarily. The dialogue is mostly intact, and he resists the urge to “open it up,” realizing that to do so would ruin the essential claustrophobia that is needed to impart the Frank family’s feeling of frustration and fear, and also love and solidarity. In a way, the film plays as a microcosm of an entire family’s life, compressed in time to two years, as well as a microcosm of their friends and neighbors, given the addition of the Van Daams and Mr. Dussel. As such, at times, this is an enjoyable film, far more about life than the death for which the Holocaust is associated. But perhaps, that is why the film is so much about life.

We all know the story. Otto Frank, realizing the Nazis are moving beyond persecution and deporting Jews to their deaths in concentration camps, arranges to have his family – himself, his wife and two daughters Margot and Anne – move in to an annex upstairs of a business run by former associates Mr. Kraler and Miep. Also staying with them are Mr. and Mrs. Van Daam, and their son, Peter (and his cat), and then later, a dentist named Mr. Dussel. Kraler promises to provide food for them via his ration tickets, but the new (and cramped) habitation proves to be most difficult for all. Socially active Anne feels it worst, until her dad bestows upon her a most welcome ift: a diary, within which she can scribe her most innermost secrets and thoughts about this new and often cruel world she now finds herself in.

Throughout two long years, we discover much about the Frank family. Anne is far closer to her father, able to confide in him thoughts she’d be loathe to share with her aloof mom, and sister Margot also seems to be disconnected. Anne is, of course, interested in Peter, given her hormonal changes, and she even sets up a “date” with him, once she is able to break the ice with a boy completely unfamiliar with the opposite sex. Hanukah is celebrated, and Anne turns out to be the only one with a gift for everyone, and as each season rolls around, Anne is able to appreciate the natural beauty outside through a sky window.

With a radio, everyone an hear the latest war developments; they excite over news of the D-Day landing, but locally, things do not look so good when a burglar attempts to rob a downstairs safe, and clearly detects their presence upstairs after someone trips and makes some telltale noise. Things come to a head when Mr Van Daan is caught stealing food, and Mrs. Frank orders his eviction, but outside forces grow more threatening, revealing the pettiness of their squabbles. Ultimately, Nazis break into the building, ad into their hiding place. It is revealed, through return flashback, that the thief had informed on them. Otto survived the camps, his family did not, but he now has retrieved his daughter’s precious diary. His response after reading each and every achingly inspiring word: “She puts me to shame."

So, a few thoughts after my revisitation of this treasured work. First, I’m surprised at already how many WWII-based films we’ve gotten so far. Starting with Twelve O’Clock High and moving up to South Pacific and now this, the war was clearly a major influence on films of this era, either directly or tangentially – and we’ve certainly not seen the last of it. Of course, Diary is unique in that it focuses on the Holocaust, perhaps the first to have done so, and it likely signaled a greater awareness of the horror – not simply an act of war but a separate, horrific event that requires study in its own right.

And, artistically, it’s quite amazing. Director George Stevens, who had a brief but spectacular run primarily in the 50s, closes out the decade with a film that holds up remarkably well in the modern hyperkinetic media world of mass, instant consumption. Credit that to his skill not just with director actors and dialogue but also with the innate instinct of where to place his camera for maximum effect, no easy task when dealing with essentially only one room. He knows the value of a good, solid closeup, and he knows when to peel saway to outside action to alleviate our own tedium. Ironically, we want to be back inside, though, and that’s just where he takes us. At nearly three hours, Diary could easily have been an unendurable vitamin – food for you, but…. Instead, it’s captivating from beginning to end, emotionally, spiritually, thematically, dramatically…

And then there’s the stark but poetic B&W photography, How else could one capture such a sobering event? In 1959, it wasn’t uncommon (not until the mid-60s did it disappear complexly) but still it must’ve been a tough sell for Fox, the studio that brought full-color Cinemascope to the masses and was trying to compete with TV, which was all B&W. (And it’s three hour TRT didn’t help either.) But in the end, folks didn’t exactly line up for it, and Stevens had to revert back to an epic – 1965’s  The Greatest Story Ever Told, which would wind up being his final film.

Perhaps just one small quibble (if you’ll allow): the all-too dramatically obvious choice to actualize Anne and Peter’s love with a kiss, to swelling orchestral strains, just at the moment Nazis barge into their building. This moment is pure Hollywood: the archetypal moments when two lovebirds realize their mutual fate and decide to avow their love for each other with their first real smooch. Pure Hollywood, sure, but this picture aims to be more serious than that, and such a crescendo feels entirely wrongheaded.

But that’s really it. And if I could go back in time, I’d tell my 8th grade teacher how much I love this play, having seen the movie, and how wrong I was for reading my part with all the interest and fervor of a 411 operator.

Fox keeping up its reputation for churning out movies with conscience, even if they weren’t always huge hits. Bravo, Daryl – ya done good, buddy. Can’t wait to see what’s next. 

Rating:  ****

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...