american film

Tense and Almost Brilliant – A Hitchcock Near-Miss

Rope Film Poster - Alfred Hitchcock

Rope is a film I hadn’t heard of.  Among the Hitchcock classics, it is apparently a cult piece as opposed to one for the general fans.  Rear Window, or The Birds are much more well known today.

It’s one of Hitchcock’s more experimental films in a couple of senses.  The first being that the action takes place entirely within three rooms of an apartment.  Secondly, it begins with a murder on camera, which means that the audience knows from the very first moment whodunnit, wheredunnit, whydunnit and with whatdunnit (the last one is the rope of the title).  Finally, the action takes place in, apparently, real time: the running time of the film supposedly coincides with the time that passes while it takes place.  This last one requires a little bit of suspension of disbelief, but it can be accepted if necessary.

james-stewart--alfred-hitchcock--farley-granger-and-john-dall-in-rope-1948--album

Unlike most experimental films, which fail because they were experimental.  I would say that 95% of this movie is absolutely brilliant, and that the experimental bits are firmly in the background.  The tension ramps up from the very first moment until it becomes nearly unbearable, and the philosophical underpinnings interesting, if extreme.

Then, at the very end, it all unravels.  The character playing “detective” (he’s not a real detective, just an intelligent observer, and one that should have been morally ambiguous, at the very least, flips over like a roadhouse flapjack and realizes that conventional morality is correct after all.

I assume this unfortunate turn of events was caused by the strictures placed upon filmmakers by the Hays Code, but it’s hard to swallow after such a masterly buildup.

This one is interesting, but ultimately deserves its status as a forgotten film.  I would recommend it to lovers of the art more than to those seeking a satisfying thriller.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer whose thriller Timeless has not been constrained by the Hays Code, by the bounds of good taste or even by common sense.  You can check it out here.

A Western that Managed to Make my Wife Forget She Hates Westerns

I watch the 1001 movies list with my long-suffering wife.  She normally enjoys the good ones (some of them more than I do) and sits through the strange, foreign or noir ones with long-practiced stoicism.  Mainly, she is an enthusiastic participant in the project and often asks for a film if we’re not too tired when our day ends.

But there is one exception: westerns.  She hates them and usually falls asleep in the middle, with clear instructions that I should watch the thing myself and not bug her.  She even abandoned My Darling Clementine halfway through.

John Wayne in Red River

Red River, however, was another story entirely.  After a couple of false starts we watched the entire movie until the end, even though I wanted to go to sleep and finish it the following day.

Why?

I think the answer lies in the unrelenting tension and the huge number of actual cows onscreen… and those two things are related.  Let me explain.

The tension is, to a certain degree, driven by the plot.  You have some guys trying to drive a herd a long way against all odds in an unforgiving land where both the elements and groups of bandits and indians are out to get them.  Then, in the middle of it, one of the main characters abandons the group in order to follow them and try to get revenge by killing he group’s leader.

I think what makes the whole thing seem real, though is that the cows are on screen a good chunk of the time.  There are lots of them, and they are really there.  They’re big, they’re constantly moving and, somehow, they make everything seem real.  There’s a stampede scene which is probably the most memorable scene in the film.

Red River Film Poster

The acting is superb and, of course, John Wayne is the ultimate tough guy who hides his deepest feelings from outside scrutiny.  It works spectacularly well, and there’s little question as to why the film was beloved from the word go.  It is most definitely the opposite of a chick flick, and all the stronger for it.

Of course, if you’re the kind of person who is offended by either John Wayne or the attitudes prevalent in the 1940s, this one will shock you to the core – Westerns of this era are not for the socially sensitive.  The rest of you should go out and find this film as soon as you can.

And enjoy what might just be The Duke’s best performance in a film so good even my wife approves.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer who has never written a western.  However he has recently launched a collection of short SF and Fantasy stories which you can check out here.

We’re All Mad Here

If I were to tell you that I watched a film about a woman’s struggle with mental illness, I think most of you would yawn and write it off as another opportunity for Hollywood to show off its capacity for melodrama and cheap emotional body shots.

But what if I told you I enjoyed the hell out of it?

Let me explain.  The first data point you need to know is that the film is from 1948.  The more knowledgeable among you will be nodding at this point.  Hollywood was a little less banal back then.

The second thing that made this one good was a truly spectacular performance from Olivia de Havilland.  Again, the knowledgeable are nodding along.  Those who know about planes because Olivia was the daughter of the magnate of Mosquito fame, and those who know about classic film because you already know I’m talking about The Snake Pit.

The Snake Pit Film Poster

de Havilland, who is still alive and more than a hundred years old, navigates the film in a fog of confusion and uncertainty, and we never know her ultimate fate until a few moments before the end.

The madness on screen is understated, avoiding the grotesque and the exaggerated in favor of a lighter touch which is, in the end, much more effective.  Even the asylum politics aren’t harped upon but left for the viewers to understand on their own terms.

Once more, it begs the question: were viewers in 1948 more sophisticated than those in 2019?  Or was it simply a case of filmmakers creating for intellectually superior portion of their audiences?  In a world saturated by least common denominator communication in every sphere, where literature and film seem more intent on teaching the consumer their political and moral ideas in bite-sized, easily digestible oversimplifications of a complex reality, old movies (and old books) are a breath of fresh air.

The Snake Pit Crowd Scene

They take people as they are.  Heroines are flawed, they are imperfect, and many of their troubles are self-inflicted, they DON’T overcome their failings over the course of the piece–they are still as imperfect at the end as at the beginning–and yet they are still sympathetic characters.

Best of all, these films show us the world as it really was, not the way the political activists who want to rewrite history think it should be portrayed.  The bits that make modern audiences uncomfortable are still there.  Hooray!

All in all, it makes for an entertaining film as opposed to one designed to be suffered through for your own good.

A final note on de Havilland’s performance.  She was nominated for the Best Actress Oscar that year, but didn’t win…

If you need me, I’ll be on Google investigating who did win that year.  It must have been a performance for the ages.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose book Love & Death is a collection of linked lives in paper (and electronic) form.  You can check it out here.

Neither Fish nor Fowl

Force of Evil Film Poster

Force of Evil, a noir film from 1948 was greeted with mixed reviews upon release and, seventy years later, it’s pretty easy to see why.  While the noir plot–an indictment of the numbers racket–is pretty standard, there are a couple of elements that derail its enjoyment as a pure exponent of the breed.

In the first place, it seems like the director (or the producer or the cinematographer or someone) decided that noir sensibilities weren’t quite good enough for them, and the film attempts to transcend the genre, with mixed results.  So the characters have redeeming qualities and unexpected psychological depths, while the film itself was shot with a dreamlike quality which reinforces the fact that nothing is quite as hard-edged as it seems.  The ending is left open.

But none of that makes the film better.  The noir genre is defined by its contrasts of light and shadow.  Even when the good guy is ambiguous, he s certainly good in his context.  The stark difference between the truly dark and the kind of grey is filmed with sharp definition which reinforces the sense.  This film loses its way on those counts.

John Garfield on the Phone in Force of Evil

On the plus side, it’s a 1940’s crime film, so it can’t be all bad, and it has certain action scenes and an interesting pairing of noir femmes, one oh-so-light (yet undeniably self-destructive) and one deeply dark (who is out to destroy everything), which give it a strong push in the genre direction.

I find it interesting that this one was selected for the National Film Registry’s preservation program, as well as being listed in the 1001 Films list.  Why, I ask myself is it there?

I suppose it’s because modern critics appreciate its attempt to transcend its genre and become a more valuable piece of art.

I see this kind of misguided attempt in many forms of art, but perhaps the place where it has done most damage (and this is just my opinion, your mileage may vary) is in science fiction and fantasy literature.  What was once an escapist genre that people could relate to has become a minefield.  A book with a gorgeous, evocative image on the front might hide a literary experiment or a political manifesto between the covers.

Readers, of course, flock away from that sort of thing, and the genre, while slightly de-ghetto-ized is not as popular as it was in the late nineties (especially fantasy).  And now the political questions are reaching Hollywood science fiction and fantasy (even Star Wars, argh), so we can expect a decline in popularity there as well in the short term.

If anything, Force of Evil is evidence that none of this is new, so when you’re scratching your head about the heavy-handed political statements or sudden intrusion of the art film mentality into what you expected to be a fun way to spend a couple of hours, you can take comfort in the fact that popular entertainment will never learn from its mistakes–it will just let a future generation of critics turn the pig’s ear into a silk purse…

But when you actually watch the film, all that porcinity is still evident.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose work spans several genres.  His most recent novel is a thriller / horror crossover into which literary pretensions have not intruded.  It’s called Ice Station Death, and you can check it out here.

The Shadow of Rebecca

Secret Beyond the Door Film Poster

It’s not often that we encounter minor movies while watching the 1001 films you need to see before you die, but it does happen sometimes.  Today’s subject, Secret Beyond the Door, is a case in point.

Don’t get me wrong, this is an entertaining thriller that directors other than Fritz Lang would have killed to have in their oeuvre.  But for the man who filmed Metropolis, it’s a second-division effort.

Nevertheless, it’s worth looking at, if only because it pays homage to Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca, and to Hitchcock’s film of the novel, both of which are classics of their respective fields.  The book, as I’ve so often said, holds my favorite opening line ever.

The parallels are both inescapable and obvious: a young woman meets a man with a mysterious past, marries him and moves to his mansion, where the deceased former wife is nearly a physical presence.  Both end with the house in flames.

Joan Bennet in Secret Beyond the Door

The major difference, and Secret Beyond the Door‘s major point of interest is that the gothic horror comes from the husband himself, and the question of whether he is or isn’t planning to murder the young woman drives the film forward relentlessly.

Regardless of parallels, this one is an enjoyable thriller which should supply a couple of surprises and keep you on edge until the end.

As a surreal side note, I’ll add a Gilligan’s Island link: actress Natalie Schafer, who played Lovely Howell, is in this one as the young bride’s friend and traveling companion.

And, with the reflection that I never thought I’d be writing about Gilligan’s Island here, we can go on to the next film… soon.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose thriller Timeless is not based on Rebecca.  You can have a look here.

An Unexpected Melodrama

In my mind–and I may be completely wrong–melodrama in film has two golden ages.  The first was when Lillian Gish was Hollywood’s biggest star, and the second began when producers realized that you could fill theater seats by slowly killing someone of cancer over the course fo a two-hour feature film.

I always considered the late forties to be the province of late noir and uplifting films about how life can be awesome if you just let it.  There are few important melodramas in the mix.

Joan Fontaine and Louis Jourdan in Letter from an Unknown Woman

Letter from an Unknown Woman is a significant exception to the rule.  A film with a narrative frame using one story to tell another, and then tying them together is a brilliant piece of filmmaking that, in showing a crisis for one character distracts you from knowing about another’s impending problems (don’t want to give spoilers here).

It’s a story of tainted love that isn’t anyone’s fault, of misplaced ideals and of lost innocence… but it catches you by surprise.

In those illness films from the seventies, the masochistic audience always knows that they’re supposed to be suffering.  You watch the character you’ve come to care about die (or lose their love, or lose their child to something horrible) with the same numb sense of stupefaction as a cow being led to slaughter.

Letter from an Unknown Woman

Letter is a very different kettle of fish.  Unless you already know the plot, the film itself never leads you to think that it’s anything but a period play, possibly an exciting one.  By the time you understand that you’ve been lured into the world of melodrama and that the supposed main character (who actually isn’t) has been changed into an honorable man by the events of the film… the credits are rolling.

It’s an amazing transformation, and I’m glad I’d never heard of this one before watching it.  Yes, the hammer blow at the end falls… but the memory of the film will not be the unfortunate ending but the magical lead-up.  This film deserves its place on the 1001 movies list – Max Ophüls was a genius, and his vision of Vienna in 1900 is a visual feast, even though much of the film takes place at night.

Recommended, but only if you haven’t read the review above (oops).

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer who doesn’t really do melodrama.  He does do thrillers, though, and his novel Timeless is a good example.  You can check it out here.

 

And We Are All Mortal

Thirteen Days Film Still

Marya Kazakova as the Soviet Woman waiting outside Robert Kennedy’s office while Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin attempts to postpone World War Three, tentatively scheduled for the following morning.

 

Our series of posts reviewing movies that deal with JFK’s presidency continues today with Stacy Danielle Stephens’ review of Thirteen Days.  For the previous posts in the series, see here, here and here.

Other than two contemporaneous documentaries, there aren’t any noteworthy films about the 1960 US presidential election, at least as far as google cares.  Likewise, in cinematic terms, The Bay of Pigs has been frequently referenced but rarely depicted.  So with the exception of November 1963, only thirteen days of October 1962 define the Kennedy presidency in film, and only twice have those thirteen days been presented to audiences in a substantial production.

Ironically, 2000’s Thirteen Days isn’t based on Robert Kennedy’s book; it just uses the title to great advantage; an advantage that 1974’s made-for-TV docudrama, The Missiles of October, which was based on Robert Kennedy’s book, gave up in alluding to another book, Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August.  If you’re confused, just imagine how Robert MacNamara felt.  As the Kennedy administration’s Secretary of Defense, he’d personally experienced every moment of those thirteen days at their most immediate and intense, and when he was told Kevin Costner was starring as the main character–well he surely envisioned himself as that character, and must have been immeasurably flattered.  But he had to ask, just to be sure, and when producer Peter Almond, who had arranged a private screening for MacNamara, said, “Kenny O’Donnell,” MacNamara immediately refused, adamantly, to watch the movie, because in reality, O’Donnell was among those least aware of what happened during the crisis; he was a personal appointment secretary, and his job was nothing more than tracking and choreographing politically beneficial occasions, and keeping the President punctual.  Something like the guy on the carrier deck holding the paddles.  Undeniably an important position, but of a necessarily limited importance, particularly when contrasted with someone at the highest levels of command.

Robert MacNamara failed to understand the phenomenal value of a well-placed fictive device, at least until he later relented and viewed Thirteen Days, which he then described it as “absolutely fascinating … a very constructive and responsible portrayal…”  That fascination, which is sadly absent from The Missiles of October, doesn’t arise from the responsible presentation of factual details, which both films do well, but from placing those details in personal perspectives; most frequently by allowing Kevin Costner to portray Kenny O’Donnell responding to these moments, or acting upon those events, as they are revealed to him, and in turn to the viewer, through the fabrication of O’Donnell as a character who is essentially fictional in spite of being a real person who was also a close friend of Robert Kennedy.

As with any illusion, the effectiveness of it is established through a deft sleight of hand.  The opening credits present themselves on a backdrop of short clips evoking the zeitgeist of the conflict through the confluence of the two concurrent international contests–the space race and the arms race.  And as the last of the credits fades out along with these images, we find ourselves at the O’Donnell family’s breakfast table.

The O'Donnel Dinner table from Thirteen Days

The implicit cliche goes unsaid, but remains clear; all the more so for being tacitly inferred; the first of these thirteen days begins like any other day.  A detail made all the more effective for its triviality is Kevin’s report card, which he tries to slip past his dad by saying it’s a permission slip.

Kevin O'Donnel's report card from Thirteen Days

Of course, dad notices just a heartbeat before putting pen to paper, and this image retains a recurring resonance each time the elder O’Donnell rebukes or reproves either Jack or Bobby, or when he reminds everyone that press secretary Pierre Salinger had to be kept in the dark throughout the crisis, or when he spells out to a journalist the consequences of reporting rumors the White House is unwilling to confirm.  And true to form, the film concludes with the last of the thirteen days ending like any other day, with Bobby standing beside Jack, and saying, “We’re out here, Kenny.”

You Have the Whole God Damn Thing

Parkland Image

Abraham Zapruder viewing for the first time his home movie of the JFK assassination, portrayed by Paul Giamatti in Parkland.

 

Our series of posts reviewing movies that deal with the JFK assassination continues today with Stacy Danielle Stephens’ review of Parkland.  For the previous posts in the series, see here and here.

 

In his poem, Musée des Beaux Arts, W. H. Auden says the Old Masters were never wrong about human suffering, “they understood its human position; how it takes place…” which is while everyone is going about their daily lives, whether they are treating injuries at a hospital, managing brick production, or making a home movie of the Presidential motorcade.

Parkland begins on the morning of November 22, 1963, with hospital staff watching news reports of the President’s arrival in Fort Worth the night before, and his two speeches thus far that day. Then it shifts to Abraham Zapruder at his office, beginning to tell a joke, and then informing his staff they’re having an early lunch, so everyone can see the president. It’s almost like the first song in Lemony Snicket’s Series of Unfortunate Events. It seems like it’s going to be a lovely, lovely day, and if you didn’t know which day it was, you wouldn’t guess how unfortunate an event Zapruder is about to witness as he climbs a short column in the plaza to get a clear view above the crowd filling the ninety feet between him and the motorcade route. Not until the president’s car speeds away, with Jackie kneeling over the trunk, does Zapruder suddenly realize what he saw, what is contained on that reel of film. “Oh, my God, they killed him! They killed him! Oh, my God!”

CUT TO a nurse talking on the phone when she hears “601 Code 3!” As she’s hanging up the phone, she has to ask another nurse what a 601 is. VIP transport. The president’s in town. But it’s not until blood-splattered Secret Service men arrive that either nurse begins to understand.

And that blood probably has more time on camera than any of the actors, although it isn’t listed in the credits. The Secret Service men have it splashed over their shirts, with globs of it soaked into their jackets from their contact with the president as they carried him; the doctors and nurses have it up to their elbows; and Jackie is nearly bathed in it. The president’s blood plays a huge role in this film, and yet, the camera never shows the fatal head injury. What we see graphically is not the injury, but the effect of that injury. While this approach is the strength of Parkland, it is also, to a great extent, Parkland’s undoing. Even after fifty years, when any handful of middle school students could easily make a JFK assassination movie on their smart phones–the details are that well known and the conspiracy theories that widely discussed–there are still people, roughly half of all US movie viewers, who want to see the magic bullet again. But Parkland isn’t concerned with how long it might have taken Oswald to run down the stairs, or whether he fired the bullet, or where it came from. What Parkland delves into and serves as the god damn whole is the true impact of that bullet on the people surrounding the president, and on the people surrounding Lee Harvey Oswald.

Lonely Are the Eighteen Material Witnesses

Stacy Danielle Stephens, author and editor and frequent Classically Educated contributor returns this week with a second review of a film dealing with the JFK assassination (for last week’s review of JFK, see here).  

Executive Action (1973) Film Poster

When the DVD sleeve liner says, “written for the screen by Dalton Trumbo,” you’re hoping for something like Spartacus, or at least Exodus, but when you watch Executive Action, you’ll remember that most of Trumbo’s screenwriting was done for the sort of studio Termite Terrace parodied by having Porky Pig crank a sausage grinder in place of a camera. This is not to say Executive Action is a bad movie, only that it is the sort of movie most people watched for the first time on television, after the local news, in the days before cable. It can hold your interest, although you might check out pro wresting at the commercial break. It’s the sort of movie you’d expect to find in a four-movie TCM collection featuring Burt Lancaster.

David Miller had directed popular hits like Captain Newman, M. D. and Flying Tigers, and following on the heels of The Day of the Jackal, Executive Action, the first cinematic treatment of the JFK assassination as a conspiracy, should have been a blockbuster, and even more so for being not only controversial, but introducing that very controversy to the American movie audience. Yet somehow, Miller and Trumbo went very wrong in how they presented what they presented.

Executive Action 1973 Robert Ryan Burt Lancaster

Anyone who has seen JFK will recognize several scenes in Executive Action, particularly scenes involving Oswald. This apparent plagiarism is permissible because these depicted events are documented occurrences, with only some of the speeches in each film being invented by an author. It is in these scenes that both the failure and the reason for it become clear. James MacColl, impersonating Oswald, isn’t convincing to anyone but the used car dealer, target shooter, and gunsmith he’s been hired to deceive in order to frame Oswald as the patsy. Ironically, MacColl, who is technically playing himself rather than Oswald, gives the only impassioned performances of the film, other than the car dealer and target shooter whom he angers. Theirs are the only convincing performances, but even their dialogue is not compelling. They convey feeling, but cannot effectively draw anyone into that feeling.

So why would anyone give up ninety-one minutes to watch a failed effort which became Late Show fodder and ended as an also ran in a lesser collection of alleged classics? Well, throughout the history of television, there have been beer commercials, and a recurring trope in these is the empty glass being filled with beer. Anyone who enjoys beer will visualize just how refreshing the brand being advertised really is. And that is the main reason for watching Executive Action; it reveals how well Oliver Stone filled the aching emptiness of November 22, 1963.

Because Reading the Warren Commission Report Is Like Drowning

Our star contributor Stacy Danielle Stephens is back.  Today, she brings us her look at Oliver Stone’s JFK.  As always, her eye for history and analysis brings the subject to life.

JFK Assassination

On November 22nd, 1963, that bright shining moment which was Camelot abruptly faded to black.  In an amazingly similar way, when we look back at December 20th, 1991, we see that this big blue ball we know as the earth, after several centuries of spinning and moving just as Galileo insisted it did, began to go flat.  With the release of Oliver Stone’s JFK, an adroit concatenation of details became more convincing than a rational evaluation of what those details added up to, because it succeeded where David Miller’s Executive Action (1973) failed.  As Roger Ebert concluded, in JFK, Oliver Stone was able to “marshal the anger… gnawing away on some dark shelf of the national psyche.”

It should be noted in passing that contrary to what has been said for more than fifty years, more than one hunter using the same model rifle and same ammunition attributed to Oswald has managed to replicate the allegedly impossible, putting three shots, and not just two, into a moving target at the same angle and distance; experienced crime scene investigators using precise laser measurements have digitally reconstructed the details of Dealey Plaza and recreated the events of that historic day; without resorting to magic, ballistics experts using a bullet identical to the one found on the gurney have replicated its assumed performance in simulated human bodies placed in the position of the president and Governor Connally; and experienced forensic pathologists have evaluated the skull fragments, concluding that those grisly moments revealed in the Zapruder film are the consequences of two bullets, both fired from behind, with the first shattering the skull in a manner familiar to pathologists who conduct examinations of fatal gunshots to the human head.  None of this, or even all of it taken together, gives any indication of any shooter other than Oswald, but of course, it doesn’t prove that Oswald was the shooter, or that one shooter acted alone.  If one believes there was a conspiracy, one cannot be convinced by the available evidence that there was no conspiracy, yet if one wishes to dismiss any possibility of a conspiracy, one is hard pressed to ignore the myriad coincidences surrounding this assassination.  And this is the strength of Oliver Stone’s JFK.

JFK movie poster 1992

Stone does not fail to marshal facts, but he uses them for emotional impact rather than for their factual value, just as one collecting bricks need not build a wall with them, but might choose instead to hurl them for impact.  “The film hurtles,” (Ebert again) “for 188 minutes through a sea of information and conjecture, and never falters…”  This is not to say his collection of facts is complete, or that the facts themselves have all been, or even could be, verified beyond question.  Stone himself conceded, perhaps disingenuously, that JFK was an “alternative myth”.

The impact of his impeccably crafted myth is all the greater for its cast of mythic proportions.  Donald Sutherland, Edward Asner, Jack Lemmon, Walter Matthau, Kevin Bacon, and John Candy are all cast in minor roles.  Joe Pesci is cast in one of his best supporting roles, and Tommy Lee Jones, as Clay Shaw, plays one of his most unusual roles impeccably well, effectively giving the devil his understated due as a foil to Costner’s equally impeccable presentation of a District Attorney caught up in something surely beyond his jurisdiction, and yet falling somehow squarely within it.