Saturday, July 26, 2014

N.Y.P.D. 1968

Two films from 1968 - Madigan, directed by Don Siegel and The Detective, directed by Gordon Douglas - are Hollywood offerings that paint a city in decay, one in which the police department must mete out their special kind of justice. Their work is difficult, both mentally and morally and if they aren't exactly on the up and up, well, that's a by-product of living among the filth.

Today and for the past decade or so, New York City has enjoyed a positive public relations message - the city is vibrant, dynamic and beautiful. We know this wasn't always the case. Having never lived in New York City, I'm not someone who can tell anyone about the situation of the Big Apple back in the 1960s. My opinion was formed by newspaper articles, television reports and yes, films of that day. It wasn't a pretty picture.

Now of course, these films were meant to entertain, so the bad guys aren't just criminals, they're rather warped. In fact, most of the city dwellers in these films are a bit off kilter. Madigan tells a lieutenant that the criminal he is after "has peculiar sexual habits, to put it mildly." "Well so has half the population," notes the lieutenant. Speaking about a teenage girl who's a drug addict, Detective Joe Leland (Frank Sinatra) in The Detective tells his superior, "The whole town is crawling with kids just like her. Same age, all going the same route. Part of the great society."

Naturally these kids that Leland refers to aren't growing up in a paradise. Both films depict urban decay with streets cluttered with dingy tenement buildings, the insides of which are dominated by tiny apartments and dimly lit corridors. The police headquarters aren't much better; the offices are highlighted by dull green walls, often with peeling paint, while the oak desks and drab filing cabinets add little to brighten the atmosphere.

Interestingly, the rare instances of handsome living and working quarters are places where the ordinary city dweller is not seen. The opening sequence of The Detective happens in a posh apartment, complete with numerous art treasures, of a homosexual who has been beaten to death. In Madigan, the look of the police commissioner's office with its plush carpeting and expensive wood paneling is in stark contrast to the depressing nature of the working environment of the detectives.

But much in the way that the upscale apartment in The Detective is the scene of a variant lifestyle - and a brutal murder - so too the office of commissioner Anthony Russell (Henry Fonda) in Madigan is often the site for conduct unbecoming. Investigations of wire taps and slush funds are discussed here, away from the detectives. The deals that are made here, many of which are not by the book, are further signs of how the police do their job in the big city.

Is it any wonder then that the personal lives of these officers are screwed up? In The Detective, Leland meets Karen (Lee Remick), a beautiful woman who is at home at the theater as she is at a football game. Initially, their relationship is something out of a fairy tale, but it soon disintregates, as Karen starts to see other men. Likewise in Madigan, the title character has less than a storybook relationship, as he rarely sees his wife Julia (Inger Stevens), who endlessly complains about this to her husband. Later in the film, she herself will become passionate with one of her husband's colleagues as he's off chasing a criminal. Even commissioner Russell is not the upscale citizen he seems; he is carrying on an affair with a married woman.

Time spent at home for the policemen is very brief, as generally, it's to have a cocktail, sex or a nap (rarely do they have time to get several hours of sleep). In Madigan, there is one brief scene where we view Madigan and his partner Rocco Bonaro (Harry Guardino) use the cots installed in a small room upstairs from their offices. The police are constantly on edge here, as there is a new crime every day, so rest from their daily chores must be brief. Not surprisingly, the one good night's sleep that Madigan gets in this film is at the apartment of a lounge singer he accompanies home. Although he doesn't have sex with her, no doubt his sleep is peaceful, as he doesn't have to argue with his wife, at least for one evening.

Given this restless lifestyle, the detectives have little patience for the varied criminals they encounter. During a scene in a bar, Madigan accuses a man who looks like the criminal his partner and he are after. He looks a bit like him, but when Madigan realizes his mistake, he apologizes. The man is outraged and shouts at the detective, who immediately thrusts the man back into his seat. Watching this, you have to imagine that lack of sleep or not, Madigan has done something similar countless times. No one winds up getting hurt - except for their sense of pride - so in the end, Madigan and his colleagues can do what they want.

In The Detective, Leland does have the moral standards to question some of the police behavior, as in a scene where he tells another detective who is pushing around a suspect who is a homosexual to take it easy, saying, "these people are not murderers." In another scene, Leland tells a fellow detective to stop his interrogation of a suspect who has been forced to remove his clothes at the police department. "You son of a bitch. What kind of department do you think we're running here?" His attitude is at odds with his fellow lawmen, giving him the identity of a loner. Solving three homicides in one week, as is detailed in this story, may earn him a promotion, but his sense of trying to do the right thing drives a wedge between his colleagues and him.

At the end of The Detective, Leland has quit the police force, stating to his captain that "there are things worth fighting for and I can't fight them here." The last scene of Madigan has commissioner Russell and chief inspector Charles Kane (James Whitmore) discussing tomorrow's problems just minutes after the death of one of their detectives. Two conclusions that are different, but in reality, the message is the same - individuals will come and go through the ranks of the police department, but the questionable code that defines this body will remain intact. "If you bust me," Detective Curran (Ralph Meeker) tells Leland, "you'll have to bust half the department for being on the take." In this urban jungle that was New York City in 1968, the beat goes on.

Friday, July 4, 2014

An Early Capra Success

Before Frank Capra enjoyed great critical and popular acclaim with such films as It Happened One Night (1934), You Can't Take it With You (1938) and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), he had directed more than twenty feature films of various subject matter, from documentary-like studies to romances to comedies. One of his best early films, one of three he directed in 1931, was The Miracle Woman, starring one of his favorites leading ladies, Barbara Stanwyck.

With a screenplay by Jo Swerling (he would later write some additional dialogue for Capra's 1946 classic It's a Wonderful Life), adapted from the play "Bless You Sister" written by John Meehan, the film is about a female evangelist, loosely based on Aimee Semple McPherson, the famed celebrity preacher of the 1920s and '30s.

As the film opens, the title character, named Florence Fallon (portrayed with typical gusto by Stanwyck), steps up to the pulpit to deliver her minister father's last sermon before an overflow crowd at church. Her father has been ill for some time and is too weak to deliver his message of love and understanding.

However, Fallon has sad news to tell the church goers - her father passed away in her arms just a few minutes earlier. She then turns on them assembled, telling them they did not take the advice of her father - or God - and lead Christian lives. In a scene that most assuredly inspired John Huston and Tennessee Williams for the opening of their film The Night of the Iguana (1964), Fallon calls out the worshipers, threatening to name the adulterers among the group. The flock rush out of the church, stunned at what they are hearing.

A shady businessman named Bob Hornsby (Sam Hardy) approaches Fallon after this, telling her that with her knowledge of the Bible, she can have a career as a preacher, "as there is money in religion." Alone and uncertain of her future, Fallon agrees to work for him; soon she is preaching her sermons on nationwide radio.

We then meet the other main character in this story, a young blind man named John Carson (David Manners), who lost his sight in the war. He has now turned to writing music, but despondent over being rejected time and time again, he decides to commit suicide. Capra nicely depicts this scene, as when he opens his window to jump out, he hears a radio broadcast of Fallon, speaking about how man has a backbone and can make his own decisions, unlike the simplest creatures. Carson is inspired by this message and decides not to end his life.

Carson knows he must meet this woman who saved his life, so he attends one of her revival meetings. Fallon at one point walks into a cage filled with lions and asks the congregation if one of them will show their faith and enter in the cage with her. Carson is the one individual who does so; Fallon, who has never seen this man before, is impressed, especially as he is blind, yet she thinks nothing more than that, as she believes this will be the only encounter between them.

Thus the two main characters are brought together; both need someone in their lives, so they turn to each other. Fallon is especially touched when she learns that Carson chose not to end his life because of her words; knowing this, she starts to doubt herself, as she feels guilty about misleading the public who view her "miracles" on cripples, who in reality are nothing more than a trained band of actors hired by Hornsby.

Carson and Fallon start to see each other more often; during one scene in his apartment, he shows her his dummy named Al. Carson is a fine ventriloquist with a very funny act and Fallon loves his routine, which only endears him more to her. I love this interplay in the film, not only for its lighthearted nature, but also the deeper message of a man who cannot see needing an alter ego to talk for him. This is also a nice counterpart to the theme of a woman who speaks to the masses, yet in reality, talks to no one.

This leads to a lovely scene later in the film at Carson's apartment when he wants to profess his love for Fallon. He tells her that Al has something to say to her. But just after Al starts to speak Carson's heartfelt words, he stops. Fallon gets up from the table and Carson follows her; this is done in total silence, with no music and with a static camera. Capra filmed this as simply as he could, so the emotions when they embrace are devastatingly emotional. It's one of the most tender moments realized in any Capra film.

The film ends with a crowd scene that would be repeated to some degree in Capra's 1941 film Meet John Doe (interestingly enough, that film also deals with an individual who must pass himself off as someone he's not and starts to doubt his purpose in life). The truth and decency of humanity so often communicated in Capra's work are once again the redeeming qualities of the two main characters in this story. As the film ends, Fallon does not enjoy the fame she embraced for a short time, but she has done the proper thing and has found true happiness and redemption.