Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Emerging from the Darkness

The Letter (1940) is one of Warner Brothers' finest melodramas of that decade, a subtle study of deceit, murder and self-revelation that is supremely acted by the entire cast, eloquently written, beautifully photographed and effortlessly and stylishly directed by William Wyler. It is a film that deserves to be better known.

Set in a rubber plantation in Maylasia, the film immediately grabs the viewer with the opening image of a full moon lighting up the night. Wyler shows us a lovely image of sap slowly dripping from a rubber tree and then cuts to show us the workers in their outdoors living quarters playing checkers or musical instruments or sleeping. As he pans off these people, we see the house of the film's main couple, Leslie and Robert Crosbie (Bette Davis and Herbert Marshall). Suddenly we see a man emerge from the front door and stumble down the porch stairs, as Leslie is in the act of shooting him at point-blank range; she even empties the gun's chamber of the final few bullets as the man is already dead, laying on the ground.

The story quickly unfolds after that as Leslie tells her husband and her lawyer Howard Joyce (James Stephenson) why she shot this man, Mr. Hammond. Leslie explains that he suddenly appeared at her door, asking to come in and talk and as she knew him for some time, agreed to have him come into the house. According to her version, they had an argument, he had too many drinks and then threatened her; her murder was self-defense in her eyes.

The others are satisfied, even proud of her courage, but it soon emerges that a letter that Leslie had written to Hammond has been located by his widow. The letter was written on the same day of their encounter and detailed Leslie's desire to have Hammond visit her. These details of course, place doubt on the truth of Leslie's original story, so her lawyer must make plans as to the best way of convincing a jury that she is not guilty of murder.

He is told by his assistant Ong (Victor Sen Young) that Mrs. Hammond (Gale Sondergaard) is willing to sell the letter to Leslie and him for the sum of $10,000; in exchange, the widow will keep her silence. Against his better judgment, Howard goes along with this plan. The trial is held, Leslie is acquitted and we are then given the final act of Leslie and her husband trying to work out the rest of their lives. The film ends on a somber note, which I will not go into for those readers who have not seen the film.

All througout the film, Wyler emphasizes the theme of emerging from the darkness. Much of this is done visually, and much credit must go to the superb black and white photography of Tony Gaudio, who captures the murky mood of this story superbly. We see several images of the moon being hidden by the clouds and then reemerging, as darkness and light are interchangeable in only a few moments. This is initially seen in the first sequence as the plantation workers, awakened by the gunshots, are seen with the moon's light on their faces; a few seconds later as the moon hides behind the clouds, their faces are covered in darkness.

Wyler continues this visual metaphor later on in the scene in a prison office when Leslie tells Howard her plan to buy the letter. He agrees to do so and tells her that he will do everything he can to save her life. As he says this, he becomes the dominant figure in the scene, as he moves in front of Leslie, obscuring her face from the light entering the room's windows. It's a subtle visual touch and a nice way of showing the darkness into which Leslie must descend to be acquitted.

The major characters must also materialize from the darkness as well. Leslie must admit to her lawyer and then her husband that she lied about the reason she shot Hammond. She must also reveal her love for the dead man, not only to her husband Robert but also to herself. Her husband must figuratively see the light of her deception and Howard must reconcile the dark nature of his decision to buy the letter, even though this is in contract with his moral code. The way that each character's decision affects the others' is a strong underlying theme of this story.

Wyler also works with the theme of frailty, especially with Leslie's character, who is shown on several occasions knitting lace. The delicate nature of lace is in keeping with the emotional fragility of Leslie, while the needle she uses is sharp, just as the knife she will encounter in the final scene. Her needle is a source of creation, while the knife will represent destruction.

Wyler films most of this in long takes; editing and closeups are kept to a minimum. It's a treat to see a master director at work, as his camera setups and compositions serve the story beautifully. But his direction of actors is just as impressive. Herbert Marshall as Davis's husband is first-rate, as he keeps a stiff upper lip, even after learning of his wife's betrayal; it's a thoughtful, charismatic performance. Stephenson received an Oscar nomination for his role as the lawyer; it's a challenging role, one in which his character is not even afforded the luxury of a smile and he delivers brilliantly. Also worth noting is the small gem of a performance by Victor Sen Young as Howard's assistant. All of these roles are underplayed; clearly Wyler wanted this effect as the details of the plot were startling enough on their own.

Then of course, there is the performance of Ms. Davis herself. This was Bette Davis at her finest; in other words, this was Bette Davis, the actress and not Bette Davis, the Star. This was clearly a vehicle for the actress, as her name appears before the title, but thankfully, Davis decided to put her histrionics on hold for this performance and the film is all the better for that. She acts in this film instead of emoting, something which we've all seen from time to time. Davis also gave a wonderful performance the following year in The Little Foxes, also directed by Wyler; apparently he knew as well as anyone how to get the finest work from this iconic actress.

Howard Koch, who would go on to co-write Casablanca at Warners a few years later, adapted this story from W. Somerset Maugham's play of 1927; his screenplay is beautifully structured and a model of efficiency. His words sound natural and are never forced. I loved this particular exchange between Davis and Stephenson, when he asks her about her knitting:

Davis: I find it soothing.
Stephenson: Does that mean it takes your mind off other things?
Davis: Is that a legal question?

Additional credit must go to Orry-Kelly for his costume design (especially Davis' and Sondergaard's outfits), the layered art direction of Carl Jules Weyl and the impressive score of Max Steiner. The composer, who could be a bit intrusive at times with his cues, adds emotional depth to the story with his subdued themes.

The Letter is a story with a sensational theme that was handled with great finesse and style by William Wyler and his collaborators. This is a film that should be mandatory study for today's filmmakers who could learn a lot about film language and the elegance of telling a story in a cinematic way.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

John Huston's "Badge" Under Fire

John Huston's version of The Red Badge of Courage (1951), based upon the famous Civil War novella of Stephen Crane, is one of the director's most visually inventive films. At times, it's also one of his most gripping. But as for being one of his finest all-around works, the jury is out, as we'll never see the director's intended opus.

In his engaging 1980 memoir, An Open Book, Huston tells the story of how this film was first turned down at MGM, then later approved and finally edited by the studio after a poor initial reaction by the public (this despite very good critical acceptance). During post-production, Huston had to begin filming The African Queen, so he was not present while the studio executives decided to add narration as well as trim the film down to a mere 70 minutes. (Huston does not mention how long his version was, but we can imagine that at least 20-30 minutes were dropped for the final cut.) Years later after a reappraisal by English critics, the studio asked Huston for his copy of the film, as they wanted to rerelease the original version as the director had intended. But as Huston points out, he didn't have a print, as it didn't exist. Because of this, Huston would stipulate in his future contracts with studios that he receive a 16-mm print of the first cut of any film he made.

Yet despite the studio interference, this is a strong film. Given that the screenplay is rather sparse and the action focuses on only a few sequences, Huston's direction is the principal reason why this work is so memorable. His visuals are quite striking, especially in several shots where he has one character in the foreground of the frame - usually at the extreme left or right - with another in the background. This shot is used more than once with the two main characters, Henry Fleming, also known as The Youth (portrayed by World War ll hero Audie Murphy) and Wilson, also known as The Loud Soldier, portrayed by war correspondent and editorial cartoonist, Bill Mauldin.

Bill Mauldin (l.) and Audie Murphy

Some of these shots are the two of them sitting and talking, as during the morning of the final battle, where each confesses to the other their fears as well as excitement over the upcoming attack. In one shot however, Huston places The Youth in the extreme right foreground and has The Loud Soldier walk from rear left to front left, stopping a few feet away from his friend, as both faces fill the screen in closeup. Huston ends the scene with Mauldin walking back to the rear left of the frame, away from the camera and from Murphy. He never moves his camera and it's all done in one continuous, economical shot.

Huston films this work primarily as a series of closeups, as we identify with the various Union soldiers who march before our eyes. He wants us to see the fear and nervousness of these individuals in circumstances none of them have ever faced; they clearly have no idea what lies ahead. For the most part, Huston does not give us wide panoramas of battles or shots with long lenses to compress the view of two opposing sides in a skirmish. We rarely see the Rebs in this film, with the one exception being a few shots of captured Confederate soldiers talking to their counterparts after the film's final battle. This is an achingly simple scene, as one soldier on each side asks the other his name and what state they are from - the soldiers fight for their cause, but they share the same emotions.

This is one of the quietest war films ever made; battles are few, while the forced marches from one location to the other are the focus - again, so we can learn of the soldier's fears and hopes. There is a beautiful overhead crane shot of the Union troops asleep at night in camp; the camera pans from one soldier to another and composer Bronislau Kaper adds a remarkable cue, at first slow and solemn and then jarring, as he writes a short outburst of brass that communicates the nightmare one commanding officer has during his sleep. This is a haunting and eleoquent scene that tells us the uneasiness of the lives of these individuals.

One can only wonder how good The Red Badge of Courage might have been, had the studio not gotten in the way. Yet Huston gave us a stirring, wonderfully humanistic look at soldiers under pressure in this film that even non-approved editing could not eliminate. This is a film that does not take sides nor does it condone or condemn war. It is simply, an important film about the quiet struggles soldiers face in war. The fact that we identify with these subjects is a sign of the clarity and beauty of John Huston's direction.


I promised Adam Zanzie at IceBox Movies, who is hosting a John Huston blogathon, that I would share my encounter with the director, so here goes - Adam, I hope you love it!

I was flying back home from Ireland in late September 1985 and had just settled into my seat, when John Huston boarded two rows directly in front of me. I immediately recognized him, given his height and that wonderful white beard he sported for so many years. Accompanying Huston was a female assistant who took care of his needs, which included an oxygen tank that he was hooked up to - at this stage in his life, he was suffering from emphysema. But if his health was causing him any agony, he certainly didn't show it this particular day, as I soon discovered.

About 30 minutes into the flight, the lead flight attendant, standing only a few feet from Huston, announced on the intercom that the movie that day was Prizzi's Honor. I couldn't believe my ears, as here was Huston's latest film - it had been released only a few months earlier - and I was going to watch it with the director as part of the audience.

When the flight attendant finished her remarks, Huston, who was in fine voice, barked at the woman, "Stewardess! Who books the movies on these flights?" The poor woman, obviously flustered at the demands of this man whom she did not know, said sheepishly, "I'm not sure, sir. But I can find out for you."

Huston smiled and then addressed her. "Well, you tell them, this is the worst movie I've ever seen!" All she could do was try and be helpful.. "Yes, sir. Sorry, sir. I'll let them know."

I was doubled over in laughter in my seat, but looking around, no one else seemed to get the joke. It didn't matter, as Huston, even in his advancing years, hadn't lost his sense of humor.

Although I didn't get the chance to speak with Huston given his condition, I'll never forget the spark he displayed that day. No wonder so many great actors wanted to work with him. How could you not love someone who enjoyed that type of mischievous fun?

Monday, August 2, 2010

John Huston's War Documentaries

Still from Let There Be Light

In early 1942, just as John Huston was wrapping up principal photography of Across the Pacific, he was given a commission as a Lieutenant in the Army Signal Corps and assigned to a meaningless job in Washington. After a short while, he managed to get himself transferred to the Aleutian Islands and once there, made the first of three documentaries for the Army. Seen together, they represent very different views of the war and the effects combat had on the soldiers. They are fascinating chapters in the director's register.

This 43-minute film, shot in color, was narrated from start to finish by Huston himself. The opening shot is of a map showing the viewer exactly where the Aleutian Islands were, west of Alaska, with one island, Adak, located only 250 miles from Japanese-held territory.

Huston's film details the primitive airstrips and missions taken by the young pilots, many of whom were far too inexperienced in the air. Worse yet, they had to deal with flimsy planes with no radar, often battling rain and fog. Many planes did not come back and even for the ones that did, crashes on the airstrip were a routine occurrence.

Huston shows us the faces of these young men as well as the isolation of their surroundings. The missions were the emphasis here and the director was on several of those, along with a team of five or six other cameramen, capturing some remarkable images. One of the most striking is an over-the-shoulder shot behind the pilot as their plane flies head on into a rainstorm. Other images of the bombs being dropped have a eerie beauty to them.

Huston's job was to make a propaganda film, of course, and at one point, the narration has him saying, "The Japs were dug in like so many moles." However, these emotions were kept to a minimum, the result being a well-made, if straightforward record of the bravery of these isolated men. Few recall this part of World War ll, so we have Huston to thank for these memories.

This 33 minute film is one of the most beautifully realized works in Huston's canon. Detailing a particularly fierce battle for a small strip of land near the town of San Pietro in southwestern Italy (population 1412, as Huston proclaims in his narration), this is a gripping, visually rewarding film that retains its power today and was no doubt, an inspiration to filmmakers who made war films in Hollywood several decades later (Steven Spielberg for Saving Private Ryan, for one).

Shot in black and white, Huston opens the film with a brief speech by a nameless commanding officer who describes the importance of the Allies gaining hold of this small territory known as the Liri Valley, some 60 miles northwest of Naples and 40 miles southeast of Rome. This is a nice touch and reinforces Huston's belief in the bravery of these men; names are not important, only deeds.

Huston goes to painstaking detail to explain the various stages of the battle with intricate maps, showing where various regiments would be stationed and what their exact orders were. Seeing these plans acted out bring special impact to the film, especially seeing soldiers advance through the terraced groves of olive trees.

The hand-held camera work, much of it done by Huston himself, is thrilling and at the same time distrurbing to watch. As we see two or three soldiers advance amidst the dirt being tossed up by nearby grenades, Huston pans to the right as we watch a soldier being felled by enemy fire; this is still a bit shocking to watch. But even more disturbing are the brief images of the faces of a few soldiers being put into body bags; Huston does not show their entire face, but only a part, which gives these images a haunting quality.

Haunting and beautiful are the shots of the townspeople emerging from their hiding places once the Allies have secured victory. There are several lovely shots of children's faces with their innocent smiles as well as visuals of women washing clothes and men digging out from under the rubble. One of the best shots is of a local woman, balancing on her head, not a basket of clothes or food, but a casket.

This is a no-nonsense film that depicted the brutality of war as well as the simple beauty of the emotions of the local residents, grateful for their final plight. Huston recalls in his wonderful autobiography, An Open Book (1980), that at a premiere of this work for Army brass in Washington, several generals walked out on the film. Later, it was explained to Huston by an Army official that the film was to be shelved as it was "anti-war." He told the Army that if he ever made a pro-war film, "someone should take me out and shoot me." Thankfully, Gen. George Marshall, aware of the film's reception, asked to see the film and declared it as worthy of the heroism of the American soldier.

This is a must see film for anyone interested in John Huston's work.

This is clearly the most controversial of the three Huston documentaries. The subject matter - the study of what was then called psychoneuroses on soldiers returning from the battlefront - guaranteed that, but it is the intensity of Huston's direction that makes this 58-minute film so troublesome to deal with for so many people.

Huston and his cinematographer Stanley Cortez (The Magnificent Ambersons) filmed soldiers at the Mason General Army Hospital on Long Island, focusing on a few specific cases, ranging from one soldier upset at the loss of his girlfriend to another who could not walk due to neuroses. The cure is often hypnosis as well as a shot of sodium amathal; a drug that is referred to a having a "shortcut to the mind" by removing symptoms that could impede the patient's recovery.

Narrated by Huston's father Walter, the director focuses on the behavior of these troops who dream of the "torments of fear, uncertainty and loneliness." Some patients have mild problems, others are more serious cases. The most talked about scene in the film is that of a fragile soldier who can barely speak, as he can only manage to say a few words, often stuttering. We are told that the man is not a chronic stutterer, but someone who is suffering from battle fatigue. After he lays down on a cot and is given medicine, he suddenly recovers, saying in a voice that becomes louder and louder, "I can talk! I can talk! Oh god, listen I can talk!" The doctor then slowly converses with him about the specifics that caused this situation and soon the soldier is cured.

The film continues with Q and A sessions between a group of soldiers and a doctor; as a group, they are in fine shape after their treatment. We then see shots of them playing softball and enjoying life, presumably for the first time in years.

All in all, while this does have a few marvelous sequences, the film lacks the dramatic punch one would expect. It is watchable and informative, but this is not the end-all study of war illness it could have been. This makes the Army decision to ban this film puzzling, as the end result of the film is seeing the expertise of the Army doctors who have cured the patients. These soldiers walked in with frazzled nerves, but the leave as relatively normal human beings, free of neuroses (for the most part).

The film was finally given a public showing in 1981 and is available on the internet (as are the other two films mentioned above). Huston wrote in his book that he believed the decision to ban this film was the Army's way of maintaining the "warrior myth" of the American soldier. The Army has said that the filmed interviews were invasions of privacy of the specific soldiers, but Huston writes that he had each individual sign a release, allowing him to film them, so Huston's explanation that he showed the troops at less than zealous heroism, is probably as good as any.

One final note: many reviewers of this film have written that Huston staged much of the film, especially so Cortez could get the proper camera angle and lighting setup. This may have happened - who's to say for sure - but I believe Huston when he wrote that:

"the cameras ran continuously, one on the patient and one on the doctor. We shot thousands of feet of film... just to be sure of getting the extraordinary and completely unpredictable exchanges that sometimes occurred... As the men began to recover, they accepted the cameras as an integral part of their treatment."

While I wanted an even more detailed look at these soldiers, this is a fine film and recommended not only as a historical document, but also as a look at the unglamorous side of combat, a side too often forgotten by filmmakers.